I was raised a Trinitarian. God is one. God is three. Period. It was one of those mysteries you just had to believe, like God having no beginning or end, or Jonah surviving three days inside a fish, or Elijah being taken alive into heaven in a fiery chariot.
Pastors and youth leaders tried to help me with the concept of the Trinity, explaining that an egg was one object with three distinct parts, or showing how water was able to exist in three states—solid, liquid and gas. But they were sure to point out that all analogies break down in the transcendent wonder of our incomprehensible God.
You can’t fault atheists for shaking their heads, wondering if there are any sane Christians. When logic breaks down, we just point to our favorite bumper sticker: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
But God didn’t take on flesh and dwell among us just to die for our sins. He wanted us to know him. He interacted with us, revealing his likes and dislikes, giving us some clear teaching about his nature. If Jesus didn’t come, believers would have never developed the concept of a Trinity.
In the Old Testament, God presents himself in isolation. He is adamant that there are no other gods. He insists that he will not share his glory with another. Then Jesus shows up and claims that he is the Creator and Judge, that he is “one” with his Father, and that he shared glory with Yahweh before the world was made (John 17:5). No wonder the Pharisees picked up stones.
I’m sure the Pharisees would resonate with Captain America when he said, “There is one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.”
While Jesus claimed unity with his Father, he also made statements that clearly differentiated the two of them. He claimed to be sent from the Father, and that he would return. He claimed that the Father was his superior, that he knew some things that the Son didn’t know. If the Father and Son were the same, who was Jesus praying to? If they were the same, Jesus would have said, “Myself, myself, why am I forsaking me?”
Jesus left the Church with a mystery. If you’d like to study five hundred years of angst, do some research on the Trinity. It took about three hundred years for the Church to equate the Father and Son, then a couple hundred more to squeeze the Holy Spirit in there. It all got locked down in the Athanasian Creed in the early sixth century, reflecting the progressive reasoning of church leaders against a variety of heresies. Basically the creed presents the familiar formula—one God, three persons—though it adds a little tag, (probably to avoid further angst): Believe this or burn in hell.
A thousand years later, when the Reformers challenged the doctrines of the Catholic Church, they left the Trinity alone. Should they have revived the old debate? Or did those early church leaders really put all the right pieces together?
One could argue that John was a Trinitarian, but Paul was not. Check out Paul’s standard greeting: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve looked over the construction of this phrase in Greek. I even asked my professors. Could Paul mean Blessed be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, something like that? No, Paul is claiming that the Father is the God of Jesus. Can God have a God?
What do we do with I Corinthians 8:6?
We know that there is only one God, the Father, who created everything, and we live for him. And there is only one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom God made everything and through whom we have been given life. NLT
Does Paul really believe that only the Father is God? Is there any Scripture where Paul directly claims that Jesus is God? Or the Spirit? Maybe this distinction between Paul’s titles for the Father and Son has something to do with Jesus living as a resurrected Son of David, the head of the Church, sitting to the side of his Father’s throne. Would Paul claim that Jesus was God before the incarnation, but something less after?
John seemed to believe that Jesus was God. In the prologue to his Gospel he says straight out that the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Back in 1998, when Laurie and I attended a bible school in England, I felt compelled to memorize John 14 – 17. I didn’t understand it completely, but I knew that it was important. As I memorized, I was able to put a few things together, concepts that completely changed my understanding of the Godhead.
Paul the scholar is a much better communicator than John the fisherman. But John’s insights are no less simple. In fact, he seems to know Jesus on a more intimate level than any other New Testament writer, which is probably why he felt compelled to add a fourth Gospel to the canon after Matthew, Mark and Luke had been in circulation for years.
As I memorized, I stopped believing in the Trinity I learned in youth group. I used to think that the Father, Son and Spirit were all the same somehow. One God. But as I read about Jesus’ affection for his Father, and his willful obedience to the Father, I had to admit that John was presenting two distinct persons with two distinct wills. That would make sense of “Not my will, but yours be done.” I also recognized the distinction between the Son and the Spirit. Jesus basically said, “I’m leaving you, but I’m sending another in my place. He will be with you forever.”
Yet in the midst of all this individuality I noticed a connection between these spirit beings that was unlike the human relationships I had experienced. Somehow Jesus had a connection with his Father that allowed him to say, “When you see me you see the Father” (14:9). Somehow, just after Jesus explained that the Holy Spirit would be coming to indwell his disciples, he said, “I will not leave you as orphans, but I will come to you” (14:18).
I think the answer is bound to the quality of their character, a quality that is foreign to our human experience. Think about this statement of Jesus:
The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own initiative, but the Father abiding in me does his works. (14:10b)
What kind of person does not initiate their own words? The Father abides in him? What is this? Science fiction? Think about these other statements of Jesus from the book of John:
The Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does. (5:19)
I can do nothing on my own. I judge as God tells me. Therefore, my judgment is just, because I carry out the will of the one who sent me, not my own will. (5:30)
I do nothing on my own but say only what the Father taught me. (8:28)
I don’t speak on my own authority. The Father who sent me has commanded me what to say and how to say it. (12:49)
Clearly the unity on the Godhead is a relational unity, not some mysterious algebraic formula that only the angels can understand. A careful study of John 14 – 17 shows that the Father indwelt the Son by the Holy Spirit, but Christ had to willfully subject himself to his Father. He did this because he loved the Father and wanted nothing more than to glorify him in the world. This is about love, not slavery.
Think of the temptation of Jesus: “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Think about what Jesus said as he was being taken to his execution. He could have called twelve legions of angels to his disposal, but he didn’t. Why? Because he was obedient to his Father to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Okay, but what about the Holy Spirit? Check out John 16:13. This blew my mind:
There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own initiative but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me. All that belongs to the Father is mine; this is why I said, ‘The Spirit will tell you whatever he receives from me.’
So Jesus receives from the Father, and the Spirit receives from Jesus, and we receive from the Spirit. Each member of the Godhead is eager to lovingly serve and glorify the other. So when we hear from the Spirit, who have we heard from? Jesus? The Father? Yes.
There’s a reason Jesus said “pray to the Father.” The Father is on the throne, Jesus is at the Father’s right hand, and the Holy Spirit is on earth with God’s people. Yet they function as one, a relational unity based in their loving nature.
Paul encourages the people of God to deny themselves as well. He says to walk by the Spirit, not the flesh. Peter says to let our words be as the very words of God (I Peter 4:11). Sound familiar? Basically Jesus came to earth to not only reveal the relational intimacy of the Trinity, but to invite humanity to join it.
I think the Cappadocian Fathers would resonate with this approach, and add some helpful insights. St. Augustine might beg to differ. What do you think? Am I making this too simple? Am I stepping outside of orthodoxy? What approach would you take?