Christians are supposed to believe that God is a trinity right?
Well we can start by noting that the Bible nowhere speaks of a trinity, and it is widely acknowledged that the doctrine was introduced into Christianity after the death of the first century apostles.
That being said we need to tread carefully in examining this subject. By definition God is transcendent and it would be foolish to think that we can easily comprehend his full nature. So we shouldn’t necessarily be put off by a doctrine which seems mysterious to us. Once we come to terms with both the late introduction of the trinity and the idea that God is transcendent, we are free to explore for ourselves what the Bible has to say on the matter. We are neither bound by a human definition like “trinity” nor do we need to distance ourselves from its concepts if they fit with scripture.
Books upon books have been written both defending and attacking the trinity. We are not going to be able to address the matter completely with an article such as this, but we will highlight a few scriptures that can help us reason on the matter.
Recognize in advance that this is a potentially divisive topic, but only if we allow it to be. There are outspoken Christians such as Dr. James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries who claim that anyone not believing in the trinity (as they define it) are heretics. On the other hand there are whole religious denominations such as Jehovah’s Witnesses who distance their theology as far as possible from the trinity, claiming that Jesus is an angel and that there is not a grain of truth to the trinity doctrine. As we will see, both positions are problematic in the light of God’s Word. But on the matter of division we can choose to take an absolutist position as in the examples I’ve given (it is my understanding that Dr. White would not have any Christian fellowship with me unless I accept the trinity wholesale, and I could not join the Jehovah’s Witness faith unless I reject it entirely), or we can keep an open mind and humbly accept that we all have much to learn about God’s nature.
Rather than attempting to find answers about the nature of God in defined human constructs, let’s examine the issue solely from scripture.
We need to firstly keep in mind that the scriptures that were written before Jesus Christ (the Old Testament as it’s usually referred to) reflect the belief of the Jewish people. They had an accurate although incomplete belief in God.
Let’s break that down. We know it’s accurate because God himself inspired the scriptures (2 Tim 3:16). He revealed himself to his chosen people, and did so in a completely truthful way.
At the same time something can be truthful and yet incomplete. At one point in his ministry Jesus told his closest friends “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (John 16:12) It’s easy enough to understand why you might take your time to give someone a full picture. If someone were dehydrated you wouldn’t place a fire-hose in their mouth to order to deliver the needed water as fast as possible. Instead you’d administer what they need at the pace that will be in their best interests.
God knows exactly the right way to reveal himself to humanity over time. And what we find in his Word is a progressive revelation. Therefore everything the Old Testament has to say about God is accurate. He was known to the Jews by the personal name sometimes translated in English as “Yahweh”[ref]For more information on the Divine Name as found in the OT see The Divine Name of God[/ref]. And this has immense meaning for Christians today also. Yet at the same time the picture of God provided in the Old Testament is incomplete. It’s hardly surprising to find this when we appreciate that words themselves are always going to be limited. No matter how well the scriptures were written they could never in themselves reveal the person of an infinite being. The true revelation of God came about through the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (Hebrews 1:3)
With that background in mind let’s return to the focus of this article. Here therefore are the points we must reconcile:
- The Jews were monotheists, meaning that they knew and taught that there was only one true God. (Deut 4:35; 6:4; 2 Sam 7:22; Isa 45:5)
- Writers of the New Testament were Jews who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the anticipated Messiah, and was the Son of God. (Matt 16:16; John 1:18; 1 John 1:3; 5:20)
- Writers of the NT clearly see Jesus as one person and his Father as another. (John 14:28; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 5:19; Phil 2:9)
- Writers of the NT appear to have had no problem in applying Old Testament passages that refer to God to Jesus Christ. (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13 | Isaiah 44:6; Rev 1:8, 17 | Zech 12:10; Rev 1:7)
- In some scriptures Jesus is either directly or indirectly called God. (Isa 9:6; John 1:1; 20:28; 1 John 5:20)
- At the same time Jesus himself referred to his Father as “my God and your God” when speaking to his disciples. (John 20:17; Rev 3:2)
On the face of it some of these points seem to be potentially contradictory. If Jesus can be called a God in some contexts, and yet there is only one true God, then how do we end up with two persons (the Father of Jesus, and Jesus himself) both being apparently seen as God in some way by the Christian writers.
Now you may notice that quite a few of the cited scriptures [ref]These lists are by no means comprehensive. In fact they barely scrape the surface for those that could be applied to these points.[/ref] come from the writings of the Apostle John. That’s very valuable to us for a couple of reasons. It’s easy to prove that in one way or another John would have been in agreement with every point on our list, either by virtue of him having written it, or by knowing that he believed the Old Testament prophecies. It is widely believed that John was the last of the apostles, and the last to write his letters and books that form part of our Bible canan. As well as having inspiration from God, and receiving a Revelation directly by Jesus, John could also have a knowledge of how what he wrote related to everything that had been accepted by Jews and Christians up to that point. Therefore if we can understand things the way that the Apostle John understood them then it should be possible to reconcile any apparent contradiction in ideas.
At this stage rather than try to impose a theology on the reader, I’d prefer to leave it for you to study this further and reach a conclusion as to the nature of God. There are a lot of resources available to you online. The principle one as always should be the Bible.
Some people will try to make out that there is a simple answer that is easily supported by every scripture. My advice to you is to be wary if someone tries to teach you that. At the very least a Christian should acknowledge that any firm position a person might take on this subject will mean that certain passages of scripture present challenges.
If we believe in the inspiration and truth of the Bible then we can trust that there is a position that is not directly at odds with any scripture. Yet there is a difference between recognizing that, and being certain that you have a clear understanding yourself of the correct position. As mentioned in the introduction to this article, we are trying to understand the nature of a transcendent God, and the one whom he calls his Son. We should not be afraid to admit it’s a tough subject that we can only comprehend to whatever degree God chooses to make known to us. The Word of God is so brilliantly crafted by him that it gives us exactly what we need to know, but recognizing that “what we need to know” is not the same as “everything” helps us to stay humble.
[This article is still in progress, and will be added to in due course]