Thursday, September 4, 2008

Question and Answer: The Trinity

About two months ago, before my trip to Jerusalem, a BU student sent me a few questions via email. He was curious about the Trinity. I promised to answer him "soon" but one thing led to another and before I knew it, the whole thing slipped my mind. I was reminded recently of the student's email and the following is my answer to him and, since I think some of his questions are quite common, I'm publishing my answer here for you too:


I am so sorry that it has taken me so long to answer your questions. There is no excuse apart from my forgetfulness. I have indented and italicized your questions and my answers are in plain text.
I believe Jesus is the Christ, but I'm unsure what "Christ" or "Messiah" actually means. If it means "Son of God", how can Jesus be both the Son of God and God? Wouldn't He have been just talking to Himself in prayer?”

There seem to be two questions here: 1. What do the words “Christ” and “Messiah” mean? 2. How can Jesus be both the Son of God and God?

First, the words Christ and Messiah, both point not to Jesus' divine nature, but to his human nature and mission. The word “Christ” (Greek Christos) means “anointed one” and is used to translate the word “messiah” in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint).

Both terms, in a Jewish context, refer to the long promised king who the prophets foretold would come to rescue Israel and extend the kingdom of God throughout the world. The expectation, before Jesus was born, was that the messiah would be a military leader and divinely commissioned conqueror. He was not expected to be divine.

Christians believe that Jesus is both fully human and fully God. We believe that he is God not only because he claimed to be God (example: his "I am" statement in Mark 14:61-63 and his acceptance of worship in Luke 24:52 and elsewhere), but because this claim was vindicated and validated historically when he was raised from the dead.

Here is the logic behind that statement

  1. Only God can raise the dead.

  2. Jesus made many claims about himself including the claim to be God

  3. On the third day after his death, he rose bodily from the dead and was seen, touched, and spoken with by many eyewitnesses.

  4. Therefore, God raised Jesus from the dead.

When God raised Jesus from the dead, he publicly confirmed Jesus' message. On the basis of the resurrection, we can say that all Jesus claims about himself are true including his claim to be divine.

“I find also that most of scripture says "the Father and Jesus Christ" which implies that they are separate and not the same. How can they be one if Jesus makes a distinction between them?”

Good question. The bible teaches these truths about the Father and the Son:

  1. The Father is God

  2. The Son is God

  3. The Father is not the Son

  4. The Son is not the Father.

  5. God is One

At first glance it seems like a contradiction. But let's look at a few texts just to establish that those four points are accurate biblically.

Turn first to John 1:1. I'll quote it here:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Notice the tense of that first verb: In the beginning “was” the Word. The Word, whatever the Word is, “was” or “existed” prior to “the beginning.”

“the Beginning” refers not simply to the creation of the earth, but to the creation of the universe. It is the same phrase used in Genesis 1: “In the beginning...” In Genesis, however, that phrase is followed by the word “God”. In the beginning “God”. God, in Genesis 1:1, also exists prior to “the beginning”, prior to the Created order.

John affirms this. Not only did the Word exist prior to “the beginning” of the universe, the Word was “with”God. Now, it is vital to see here that there are now two distinct entities. A singularity cannot be “with” itself. The word “with” necessarily involves more than one “thing”. In this case, the “Word” is present “with” God.

It is the next phrase that is, perhaps, the most profound. The distinct and separate entities are not only two. They are also one. The Word “was God”.

So the Word is both God and “with” God.

But who is this Word? John answers that question in the very same chapter:

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16 And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:14-16)

The Word, who is God, became “flesh” or incarnate, in Jesus Christ. From now on we can refer to the Word interchangeably with the Son, since, as you point out, Jesus uses that word to refer to himself.

So John says that God is both One and he is Two.

Before going on we should note here that elsewhere in scripture (examples: Genesis 1:1-3; 1st Corinthians 2:10-13), we find clear affirmation that the Holy Spirit is also God.

So here is the witness of Scripture so far: The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, at the same time, are not singularities but pluralities. Not only the witness of John 1 testifies to this truth, but the gospels contain a number of accounts involving all three entities: the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit: interacting with one another at the same time in the same place (the Baptism of Jesus, for example, in Mark 1).

So on the basis of these we can safely say that according to the scriptures, tThe Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. The Spirit is not the Son and the Son is not the Spirit etc.

And yet, at the same time, the consistent witness of scripture is that God is One (example: Deuteronomy 6:4)

So, according to scripture, the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. They are not the same Person. They are distinct. And yet God is One.

How is this possible?

Well the answer to that question is something that took many many years for the Church to fully understand but because the bible teaches it so clearly, we must affirm it.

One way to resolve this problem is to think about other things that may be both One in one way and Three (or multiple) in another. Take three pieces of typing paper for example. In terms of substance, they are made of the same stuff—they are of One substance: paper. And yet, they are three distinct pieces of that one substance. Three and yet One.

That is not a great analogy, no analogy works perfectly. St. Patrick used a clover. The three leaves of the clover are distinct and yet they are all distinct leaves within one Clover.

Both analogies are flawed. One of the more accurate ways to think about the Trinity is to think of One “what” and three “Whos".

God is One in his nature or substance but within the Godhead there are Three “whos" or "Persons" co-equal, co-eternal, and yet eternally distinct.

You write:

“Even now He sits at the right hand of God and intercedes to God on our behalf which means that the two are not one. I'm confused on how this fits together.”

I hope it is becoming clearer now. One of the Persons, one “who” within the Godhead, the Son, took on flesh, took on human nature, in Jesus of Nazareth without ceasing to be God or changing the essential nature of Jesus' humanity. For that reason, scripture describes Jesus as both human and divine. He is God the Son and Jesus of Nazareth, two natures in one person.

At the ascension, Jesus, the God Man, ascended to Heaven, where as both God and Man, he lives with his Father interceding on our behalf.

You write:

“1 John 5:20 caught my attention where it reads, "...we are in him who is true- even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life." Why did the writer add on "even in his Son Jesus Christ" if not to imply they are not the same? In the second sentence does "He" refer to the Father or to Jesus? If it refers to Jesus then I'm all set, but I'm not sure.”

It is a difficult sentence to parse. Most commenters would say that the “He” in the second sentence refers back to Christ and I agree. But even if it refers back to God the Father, there is no real problem. As we saw above, both the Father and the Son are Persons within the Godhead.

You write:

“Concerning the Holy Spirit, if He is the Spirit of God and God is a spiritual being, wouldn't that mean they are the same?”

Yes. They are of the same Divine substance and nature. And yet the Father and the Spirit, as 1st Corinthians 2:10-13 makes clear, are distinct Personal entities.

“Why then does Jesus say in John 14:16 that the Father will give us the Counselor, the Spirit of truth if He's just sending himself?”

He's not sending himself. The Son is sending the Spirit. They are, again, two distinct entities in the One Being of God.

“I somewhat understand God as 1, with 3 different names/roles so that God becomes our Father in heaven, our Savior who came in the flesh, and also the Holy Spirit who is always with us.”

This is not quite correct. In fact, it is very close to an errant teaching the ancient Church identified as “modalism”--the idea that God plays different roles or acts in different “modes” depending on the circumstances.

The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are eternally distinct. They do not rotate roles. God does not put on a Son mask and then a Spirit mask and then a Father mask. He is always and eternally Father Son and Holy Spirit. Remember, they relate to one another at one time and in one place in the gospels—a feat that would be impossible were God simply playing three parts.

“However, I'm also tempted to think of there being 1 God (Father) and 2 supporting roles (Jesus and Holy Spirit).”

Well, there is one God and three eternally distinct, co-equal, co-eternal Persons. There are no “supporting roles”. When God the Son became incarnate, he willingly took on the role of an obedient servant in Jesus of Nazareth even through by nature he was God. This is what Paul points too in Philippians 2:5-7:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Philippians 2:5-7)

So, by nature, the Son is equal to the Father, but in the incarnation he willingly took, in his humanity, the position of “a servant” or “a human being”

You write:

“Therefore, I get confused on how or to whom I'm really praying. Are we not to pray to the Father, in the name of Jesus, and through the Holy Spirit?”

That is a great way to pray. But you can also pray to any of the three Persons since all are God. Remember, Jesus accepted worship on earth (example: John 9:35-38) and he is worshiped in Heaven (Revelation 4-5) where he continues to intercede for us before the Father (Hebrews 7-10).

The form of the words are not as important as is the intent of your heart. I tend to follow the model you articulated and pray to the Father, in the name of the Son and through the Spirit. I am able to have access to the Father through the Person and Work of the Son and I am only able to pray by the power of the Holy Spirit.

“Essentially does this mean the Father is the actual God to whom I'm talking while Jesus is strictly the Son who opened the way for me and the Spirit the helper who guides me? would seem that God becomes only the Father while Jesus and the Holy Spirit, although important and from God, may not be God. ”

Well, they are all three fully God and all three share equal power. Praying in the way you do does not deny the divinity of the Son or the Spirit at all, nor does it imply a sort of lower status for them. It simply means you are directing your prayers to the one Person, the Father, within the Godhead to whom Jesus directed his prayers. You are following the model Christ provided.

“1 Corinthians 8:6 also caught my attention saying, "...there is but one God, the Father...and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ..." Once again, I believe in Jesus as the Christ and the Messiah, that He is from God, and is God. I'm just having a hard time making sense of it and seeing the trinity as more than a human concept. The footnotes for 1 John 5:7-8 also contributed to my confusion: "not found in any Greek manuscript before the sixteenth century".

As for the last part of your question, we do not possess the original manuscripts written by the apostles or prophets. We do have tens of thousands of copies that enable us to reconstruct with exacting precision those originals. Your text note is simply letting the reader know that oldest of the thousands of copies do not contain that section of the text and there is, therefore, reason to doubt whether it was included in the original manuscripts.

1 Cor 8:6 is an interesting text that uses the very same language to describe the Father and the Son with the exception of the use of the word “Lord” in reference to Christ and “God” in reference to the Father. The word “Lord” is most likely Paul's way of pointing to the cosmic sovereignty of Christ while not taking away from his divinity. New Testament scholar NT Wright suggests that the parallel construction of the sentence--ie. the language Paul uses to describe God mirrors the language he uses to describe Jesus--shows that Paul, a Jew, did not hesitate to set Jesus within the context of divinity.

The concept of the Trinity, I hope you have seen, is entirely biblical. The word “Trinity” is not found in the bible and you can take it or leave it, but the truth it describes is shot through the entire text: God is Three Persons in One Being.

“Thanks again for your time. This turned out longer than I expected and I would appreciate any wisdom you have to share. I hope to have a better understanding of Jesus.”

Thank you and me too.

In Christ,



Anonymous said...

Hi Matt - nice explanation. Also, perhaps, there is a small typo - would not want to have any distractions in this good essay..

But you can also pray to any of the tree Persons.

Three, right? ;-)

Good Shepherd Weekly said...

Heh, yes, thank you

Milton said...

Praying to the "tree Persons" is likely as much as most TEC bishops can stomach of the Trinity. Watch for such prayers at GC09!

Perpetua said...

As I read this it occurred to me that the three persons of the Trinity are never in conflict and never contradict each other. This is different than a religion with multiple gods. In multiple god religions, the various gods often are deceiving each other or in fights, competition, etc.

Good Shepherd Weekly said...

Good point Perpetua, the Persons are one ontologically and as a matter of will. While we cannot let the Oneness of God blind us to the Personal distinctions within the godhead, nor can we allow those distinctions to obscure God's oneness.

Adam Pastor said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Zoomdaddy said...

Actually, I can think of some episco-wiccan priests who would be all for praying to tree persons!

Perpetua said...

Oakwyse at Llynhyd Grove worships tree people, I think.