Roads to Nowhere - Studying the Trinity With Your Head in the Sand

Read the series so far.

You Must Care About the Trinity

If you’re a Christian, you should want to know as much about your God as possible. He is the God who decided to save you before the world even began. He knows who you are. He knows every sin you have committed, are committing right now, and will ever commit in the future.

If you are a Christian, then He still specifically chose and elected you for eternal life. He sent His only Son, who lived the perfect, righteous, holy and sinless life you cannot ever live, and who died the sacrificial and substitutionary death you deserve to die—and He did it for you, in your place, as your substitute. And, at a particular moment in time, He sent the Holy Spirit to remove the veil of darkness from your heart and mind which blotted out the gospel light, so that you would repent and believe the gospel.

Don’t you want to know more about this God you serve? The activities I just mentioned are Trinitarian; each Divine Person plays a very specific and unique role in a believer’s life. So, basically, understanding the Trinity matters. If this isn’t important to you, then God isn’t important to you. This is not a doctrine only for ivory-tower academics in smoking jackets who puff cigars, cradle brandy snifters and discuss the latest trends in Koine Greek verbal aspect theory.1 No, the Trinity is a doctrine for you, and it can be understood.

Here is our working definition of the Trinity once again, along with the five facts we must always keep in mind:

Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three co-equal and co-eternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. 2 

  1. Each Person is fully and completely divine3
  2. Each Person has always been co-equal,4
  3. Each Person has been around forever,5
  4. Each Person is, in some way, distinct from the others, and yet
  5. Each Person is, in some way, one with the others6

Roads to Nowhere

While seeking to understand the Bible’s teachings about God, there are several ways people have run aground throughout the centuries.7 Here are some of them:

  • Adoptionism. This includes several variations on the idea that Jesus was a normal man who was “adopted” by the Spirit of God at a point in time and used for His purposes. You see incipient traces of this heresy in, for example, the Apostle John’s warnings against the proto-gnostics in 1 John. He warned, “every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist,” (1 John 4:3).
  • Modalism. There are different shades of modalism,8 but the general idea is that Father, Son and Spirit are the same Person. They have not each existed eternally as distinct, Divine Persons within the One Being that is God. Instead, it is the same Person playing different roles at different times, just as a man is a father to his children, a lowly employee at work, and a husband who lovingly rules his own household at home—one person playing three distinct roles and manifesting Himself in different ways in different contexts. The most prominent modalists in the United States today are so-called “Oneness” or “Jesus-only” Pentecostals, otherwise known as the United Pentecostal Church International. We will see more from them shortly.
  • Arianism. The idea that Jesus is a created being—the highest created being under the sun. As Arius himself said, “We are persecuted, because we say that the Son has a beginning, but that God is without beginning. This is the cause of our persecution, and likewise, because we say that He is of the non-existent. And this we say, because He is neither part of God, nor of any essential being.”9 The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society are the most common proponents of this Christology today.

Now, each of these theories is much more complex than I just presented them to be. But, the point is that none of these Christologies square with all the Biblical facts. Each heresy takes the idea of God being one (Deut 6:4-5) very, very seriously—and that means they struggle to figure out how to add all the other data about Jesus and the Holy Spirit to that mix.

Bad Detective Work

Those who believe these damnable heresies do not act like good Biblical detectives. Instead, they cling onto one precious truth with a death-grip, while downplaying what the rest of Scripture says about Jesus and the Holy Spirit to make everything still fit. See, for example, this brief excerpt from a conservative Unitarian, Sir Anthony Buzzard (be a trooper and watch it—it’s only four minutes!):10

I hope you noticed that Sir Anthony continually referenced Deuteronomy 6:4-5. He always will. It’s all he has to go on. It’s his overriding assumption; God is one, so Jesus cannot be a distinct, divine Person. This is a fork in the road—what to do with Jesus Christ, then? Sir Anthony chose to side with the Arians and make Him a creation of God.

Other folks go the other route, collapse the distinctions between Jesus, the Father and the Spirit into one, and deny each has ever eternally existed as a distinct Divine Person. But, don’t take my word for it! Watch a representative from the UPCI explain:11 

As an investigator, I’m negligent if I don’t look at all the evidence. I vividly recall a case from my military days. A woman contacted Security Forces with a sad and horrifying tale of woe. Her husband was an alcoholic. He came home late that Friday, drunk and seeking “companionship.” She resisted. He hit her and tried to force himself upon her. She fled. I was on duty, and was called in.

Her story was reasonable, and she had obviously been assaulted that evening. The husband admitted striking her, but denied everything else. His wife was “crazy,” he said. “You don’t understand her,” he told us. I believed her … until I searched their house and realized that she’d chased him throughout the home with a butcher knife. He’d barricaded himself into their bedroom while she stabbed the door 20 times. He escaped from the upstairs bedroom window by tying bedsheets together. She impaled the knife into his pillow, like something out of a bad horror film, and left to report a fake story to Security Forces to get him arrested. I could have ignored all this evidence, but I didn’t. I gathered the facts and let them lead me to the inevitable conclusion - she actually was crazy!

These unbelievers are not being good detectives because they’re ignoring some of the evidence. The New Testament gives us additional revelation to complement (not contradict) what we already knew about God. These heretics deliberately ignore or downplay that evidence, rather than fairly deal with it.

We didn’t have explicit revelation of Jesus Christ as a co-eternal, co-equal, distinct Divine Person before the New Testament. We weren’t told that God planned creation, but Christ actually created it (Heb 1:1-3; Col 1:15-17). We didn’t have revelation about the details of the incarnation and the hypostatic union before the New Testament (Phil 2:6-11). In the Old Covenant, we were not told specific details about the New Jerusalem, Jesus as the literal light of the world, the total absence of night, and the re-appearance of the Tree of Life. I could go on. James White has a good analogy to explain progressive revelation and the Trinity:

God’s revelation has always been progressive and cumulative. It builds and elaborates on what came before. It reveals. It augments. It is finished and complete in the 66 books of the Old and New Testament. Heresies about Christ exist because people refuse to account for progressive revelation.

If you’re a Christian, you’re responsible for knowing and seeking to understand these books. You have the Holy Spirit. You have the Bible. You have the Pastors in your local church. You also have the fellowship of the saints of God in your local church. You can understand this doctrine. You must understand it. If you don’t, then you’re plotting a course for a Christological dead end. You’re prey for antichrists who seek to deceive you. Commit to study your Bible and know who your Lord is, and isn’t. 

Notes

1 For more on verbal aspect theory and other nifty Greek stuff, see Constantine Campbell, Advances in the Study of Greek: New Insights for Reading the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015). However, I cannot say whether Campbell has a smoking jacket, enjoys cigars, collects brandy snifters or owns an ivory tower. Sorry.

2 This definition is from James White, The Forgotten Trinity (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1998), 26. 

3 Athanasian Creed, clause 15.

4 Ibid, clause 26.

5 Ibid, clauses 8, 21-23. 

6 Ibid, clauses 3-6. 

7 For a detailed treatment on Trinitarian and Christological controversies, see especially Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007). 

8 See a brief survey of modalism in the early church from J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, revised ed. (New York, NY: Harper One, 1978), 121-123.

9 Theodoret of Cyrus, Ecclesiastical History 1.3.4., NPNF2, 3:41.

10 Anthony Buzzard retired after 24 years on faculty at the Atlanta Bible College, and is one of the best known and scholarly Unitarians active today. I hasten to add once again that he is a conservative Unitarian. If you happen to have a “Unitarian Universalist Congregation” in your neighborhood, then know that he is not that kind of Unitarian! You can visit his YouTube page for more videos from him, peruse his own original translation of the New Testament from Koine Greek, read his book against Trinitarian theology, and especially see the debate he had in 2011 with Dr(s). Michael L. Brown and James White. I cannot recommend this debate highly enough.  

11 This excerpt is from a nearly three-hour television program from The John Ankerberg Show, entitled “The Trinity or ‘Jesus-Only?’ What Do the Scriptures Teach?” This program is probably the best opportunity to see scholarly modalists give their best attempt in a public format. The program is from 1985, but it is still excellent. You can purchase the whole program digitally for a measly $12.00. This excerpt is used with written permission from The John Ankerberg Show.

3405 reads

There are 8 Comments

TylerR's picture

Editor

Hey ya'll . . . let me know if the videos of the Unitarians and Oneness Pentecostals are actually helpful. I'll be including more of them as I begin to look at the Gospel of Mark itself in the coming weeks.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

The first video concentrates on one verse to the detriment of others, to be sure, but it strikes me as well that Deuteronomy 6:4 simply does not say what he says it does.  The second phrase, "YHWH echad", translates simply as "The Lord is One", but that leaves plenty of room for a Trinitarian explanation--"the Lord is one God", just without noting "in three Persons".  So he's really trying to pull a fast one there in my view.

Don't have time now, but it would be interesting to learn how he deals with Jesus praying.  To me that's huge in Trinitarian terms, as modalism is a dead end (at least if you want to avoid blaspheming Christ), and to deny Christ's Deity introduces huge problems with John 1:1, Psalm 110:1, and a lot of other passages.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I'll post videos from him when we get to the appropriate texts from Mark. But, basically, his overriding presupposition is that Deut 6:4-5 automatically precludes Divine Persons within the Godhead. To him, Deut 6:4-5 means unitarian monotheism. Period. His favorite passage to attack is Ps 110:1, and Jesus' quotation of it.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ed Vasicek's picture

Although I did not take time to listen to the video clips linked, I did think the approach was creative.  A well done article.  I think a lot of Christians are confused that God is one BEING but 3 Persons.  Many who embrace the Trinity conceive of God as 3 Beings.

Do you believe there is any difference at all between saying "The One God is Three Persons" and "The One God Has Three Personalities?"   When we are talking about persons without bodies (God and angels), are we not really talking about personalities?  In the case of angels, though, each personality is connected to one being.  In the case of the Trinity (if the idea of persona as personality hits the mark), Three Persons are connected to One Being.

When I have put this before others, it doesn't sit right with them, but they cannot tell me which parameter of the Trinity it violates.  Any thoughts?

"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture

Editor

Off the cuff, I don't think "personality" comes close to capturing Jesus as the distinct, Divine Person the Gospels present Him to be. I think you can say that personality is an attribute of personhood, but a person is much more than a personality. A person has an identifiable character, will, emotion, high intelligence, is self-aware, can be offended, can show love, etc. - in short, a "person" has all those attributes and characteristics which reflect God's image.

We reflect this image badly, but we recognize all these attributes in ourselves - because we're made in His image. Father, Son and Spirit each perfectly display these attributes of Personhood, and this can be seen in the unique and distinct way each is revealed in the New Testament.

When I have opportunity to re-do these articles, I'll include a bit about what makes a "person" a person. Or, I may shoehorn it in sometime during the articles on Mark 1.  

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

Tyler, I'm looking forward to it, but somehow I'm expecting to be disappointed in what he says.  Hopefully I'm being fair to him and not just coming in with my own preconceptions.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Let me spare you the suspense - you'll be disappointed in his arguments.  

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

.....is that something in his arguments, or my general pigheadedness?  :^)

 

(survey says....)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.