OUR TRIUNE GOD
A Biblical Portrayal of the Trinity
by Peter Toon
BridgePoint, 1996; Regent College Publishing, 2002
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, 8 1946, 1952, 1971, 1973. Other quotations are from the Authorized (King James) Version (KJV).
Preface (through Chapter 6 this page below)
PART ONE: BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT
1. Who Is God?
2. God in Relation to Us
3. Theology – Methods and Approaches
PART TWO: THE WITNESS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
4. YHWH –The One and Only God
5. YHWH – Plurality in Unity
6. Mutation in Monotheism
PART THREE: THE WITNESS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
7. The Father (Chapter 7 through end)
8. The Son
9. The Holy Spirit
PART FOUR: JOYFUL AND INFORMED ORTHODOXY
10. Disclosures of the Holy Trinity
11. From the Father . . . to the Father
12. Confessing the Trinity Today
Notes (moved to ends of chapters)
Select Name and Subject Index (omitted for web)
Scripture Index (omitted for web)
What greater joy can a theologian have than to contemplate the glory of God the Father in the face of Jesus Christ, his Son, by the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit! What greater privilege can a theologian have than to seek to expound the doctrine of the Mystery of the Blessed, Holy, and Undivided Trinity – God blessed forever and unto the ages of ages. Is not the chief end of man to enjoy and glorify God forever?
In the summer of 1994, it was my pleasure to go to Grand Rapids, Michigan at the invitation of the Institute of Theological Studies. In its studio I recorded twenty-four lectures on the origins and development of the church doctrine (dogma) of the Holy Trinity. Together with the printed booklets I also wrote, these tapes are now being used in thirty or so seminaries for extramural credit in their Master of Divinity programs. The idea of writing the book followed the making of the tapes.
This study is intended to set forth the biblical doctrine of the Holy Trinity. I may express this purpose more accurately by stating that I seek to discover and present the implicit trinitarianism of the New Testament – the apostolic vision of the Trinity.
The book, however, is not written in the way that I would normally expect a modern biblical scholar to write such a book. The truth of the matter is that (from a technical point of view) I am not a biblical scholar. If I am anything – rather than “a jack of all trades and master of none” – I am a theologian, who is committed to the Faith expressed in the Nicene Creed from the fourth century. I approach and expound the Scriptures within this credal and doctrinal framework. Yet in doing this I do not reject the modern historical-critical method of studying the Bible, but make use of it in all kinds of ways.
Having taught college and seminary courses in theology and doctrine for many years, I have tried to maintain an academic and intellectual level which is neither too easy nor too demanding for the average student. Further, I have written in such a way that Christians who are used to serious reading, but who do not have seminary training in divinity, can follow the presentation. Also, I have provided a helpful list of books for further reading at the end of each chapter.
There is another matter on which I must make a brief comment. I have deliberately made no concessions in this book to modern feminist ideology and political correctness in terms of either the naming and addressing God or the naming and addressing of human beings, who are created by God in his image and after his likeness. My refusal to accommodate inclusive language is not because I am an obdurate hard-liner and right-winger, who lives in the “androcentric” terminology and ideas of the past. It is because (as I hope will become clear to my reader by chapter 12) the biblical and credal portrayal of the Holy Trinity requires that we do not use inclusive language of Yahweh-Elohim, who is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For this reason I have used the older RSV as my primary translation.
In the history of the church the most famous book on the doctrine of the Trinity is De Trinitate by St. Augustine of Hippo. I shall refer to this book at various points in the chapters which follow. Here I would like to identify myself with Augustine in the request he made to his readers.
Let me ask of my reader, wherever, alike with myself, he is certain, there to go with me; wherever, alike with me, he hesitates, there to join with me in inquiring; wherever he recognizes himself to be in error, there to return to me; wherever he recognizes me to be so, there to call me back; so that we may enter together upon the path of charity, and advance towards Him of whom it is said, “Seek His face evermore.” And I would make this pious and safe agreement, in the presence of our Lord God, with ail who read my writings ... which inquire into the unity of the Trinity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; because in no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.1
1Augustine, On the Holy Trinity, vol. 3 of A Select Library of Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 1.3.5.
I ask my readers to reflect upon the last three points made by Augustine – the danger of error, the heavy intellectual demands, and the profit of knowing the truth.
In gratitude for his friendship and kindness to my family, I dedicate this book to the Rev. Dr. Charles Caldwell, who has just retired as a professor of pastoral theology at Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary in Wisconsin. In a variety of ways and in our own minimal way, the two of us have sought to keep alive a joyful Trinitarian Orthodoxy in Anglicanism. May he, with his family, always experience and faithfully proclaim “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”
In the providence of God I actually completed the writing of this book on the Blessed, Holy, and Undivided Trinity on the day when the Western Church calls the faithful to celebrate their Trinitarian Faith – Trinity Sunday, June 11, 1995. On this day it was my privilege to preach twice on the Holy Trinity at St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church, Elm Grove, outside of Milwaukee; then, in the afternoon I attended the graduation of my daughter, Deborah, from Oconomowoc High School, Wisconsin.
Blessed by YHWH (Yahweh-Elohim)! And thus: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and always even unto ages of ages. Amen.”
The Feast of the Holy Trinity,
Part One: Background and Context
1 – Who Is God?
Apparently most people who attend church services today have never heard a sermon expounding the doctrine of the Blessed, Holy, and Undivided Trinity – the transcendent, living God, Yahweh-Elohim, worshiped by Christians through the centuries. Further, they have had either little or no instruction in the importance, or the actual content, of this doctrine of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity. In fact, many seem to think that the Holy Trinity is a mathematical problem belonging to the realm “above” and therefore has little or no practical importance.
GOD OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE
From the perspective of orthodox Christianity, the hearing of no sermon could perhaps be said to be good, in the sense that the doctrine of the Blessed, Holy, and Undivided Trinity is so basic to all hymnody, prayer, and preaching that a sermon on the Trinity is not necessary. It is assumed the Trinity is proclaimed implicitly and explicitly in all that is said and sung. We can imagine that this situation could exist in a church which has a learned and godly pastor and keeps close to Protestant orthodoxy, or a parish which uses an ancient or classic liturgy – for example, the essentially patristic Greek liturgy of St. Chrysostom or the English liturgy of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1662). A study of these written forms of worship shows that structurally they relate the church to the Holy and Transcendent Father, through the Incarnate Son and in/by the Holy Spirit in worship and for salvation. Of course, the presence of carefully expressed Trinitarianism in a liturgy does not automatically guarantee living faith in the Blessed, Holy, and Undivided Trinity in the hearts of those who use the liturgy. What it does, however, is to ensure always the possibility of the church being genuinely orthodox in mind and heart.
On the other hand, where there is no formal, orthodox liturgy, the absence of teaching on the living God as a Unity in Trinity and a Trinity in Unity could perhaps be said to be bad, in the sense that the absence of the doctrine means exactly what it appears to mean. The pastor and congregation seem to get on quite well without any regular, explicit reference in song or sermon to the Blessed, Holy, and Undivided Trinity. While they obviously believe in one, personal God, they do not appear to believe in, or to place any obvious importance upon, the eternal Trinity of Persons, the Holy Triad. Possibly they believe in one personal God, who has three names (“Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” or “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier”), with whom all are encouraged to have a “personal relationship.” Or possibly they believe that the Father is God and that Jesus Christ is also God (in some lesser way), but the Spirit is simply and only God active in the world in an invisible way.
In fact, what seems to be widely held in the West in both conservative and liberal Christianity concerning the “Godness of God” is that God as God, or God in his Godhead, is unreachable, unknowable, and beyond all appropriate description. God is Mystery. Therefore, to speak to, or describe, such a God we must use the best names, images, phrases, and metaphors available to us. If we are conservative, we take our forms of address and description from Scripture and holy tradition – the experience of yesterday; and, if we are liberal, we take them from contemporary human experience and such experience of the past as resonates with our present needs. In the former case, we find it natural to speak of God as “the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” as well as of “the Lord” and “the King”; in the latter case, we see it as a duty – in being politically correct – to speak of God[dess] as “Father-Mother,” “Friend,” and “Parent,” as well as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.”
If we take a look back over what Western thought has intended by the word “God” (which is normally masculine in grammatical gender in Western European languages), we find that the prominent meaning is that of monotheism – there is one and one only true and living God, Creator of the universe. However, there have been other meanings, some of which are becoming prominent today. Various Europeans have been intellectually committed, for example, to pantheism (the world is God and God is the world), panentheism (the world is contained within God), and deism (God is wholly beyond the world and takes no interest in it). Further, for those (the majority) who do not feel the need for, or are incapable of arriving at, any intellectual clarity, and who do not follow Christian orthodoxy, the word “God” has stood for “something” or “someone,” which/who is supernatural and invisible, and which/who is known through feelings, in religious experience or by intuition. This undeveloped sense, conviction, or idea of God is probably nearer to pantheism today than to classical monotheism.
Further, when it is said today from many parts of the major Christian denominations that God is Mystery and unknowable and that we are to choose the most appropriate names and images from our experience by which to speak of “him/her,” it is not to be assumed that we are into monotheism – let alone Trinitarian monotheism! More likely we are into panentheism or pantheism.
The late C. S. Lewis’ Miracles devotes chapter 11 to pantheism as popular religion. “So far from being the final religious refinement,” he wrote, “Pantheism is in fact the permanent natural bent of the human mind; the permanent, ordinary level below which man sometimes sinks, under the influence of priestcraft and superstition, but above which his own unaided efforts can never raise him for very long.” Lewis also wrote:
We who defend Christianity find ourselves constantly opposed not by the irreligion of our hearers but by their real religion. Speak about beauty, truth and goodness, or about a God who is simply the indwelling principles of these three, speak about a great spiritual force pervading all things, a common mind of which we are all parts, a pool of generalized spirituality to which we can all flow, and you will command friendly interest. But the temperature drops as soon as you mention a God who has purposes and performs particular actions, who does one thing and not another, a concrete, choosing, commanding, prohibiting God with a determinate character. People become embarrassed or angry.2
Not a few committed Christians who are self-consciously Trinitarian have experienced what Lewis describes, even in supposedly “orthodox” congregations and denominations.
A century or so before Lewis began to write his books, a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, visited and studied American society. Then he wrote what has become a famous book, Democracy in America. It is still much read in America – especially in college courses. One of the chapters concerns religion in a democracy, and it is of importance to us because of the ties which de Tocqueville saw between the grand experiment of democracy in the new world and the seductive power of pantheism within the American nation.
In his brief chapter 7, “What Causes Democratic Nations to Incline toward Pantheism,” de Tocqueville comments on the increase of pantheism in Europe ─ within philosophy in Germany and within literature in France. Then, with America in mind he wrote:
When the conditions of society are becoming more equal and each individual man becomes more like all the rest, more weak and insignificant, a habit grows up of ceasing to notice the citizens and considering only the people, of overlooking individuals to think only of their kind. At such times the human mind seeks to embrace a multitude of different objects at once, and it constantly strives to connect a variety of consequences with a single cause. The idea of unity so possesses man and is sought by him so generally that if he thinks he has found it, he readily yields himself to repose in that belief. Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator, he is still embarrassed by this primary division of things and seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.3
When people were seen as belonging to tribes and families and when their personhood was defined in relation to others, they were not seen atomistically and not regarded as “individuals.” Rather, they were seen as persons in relations as part of a grand ordered universe. But democracy ultimately rests upon seeing human beings not in tribes and families but as “individuals” – and this creates the problem for the human mind. So de Tocqueville continues:
If there is a philosophical system which teaches that all things material and immaterial, visible and invisible, which the world contains are to be considered only as the several parts of an immense Being, who alone remains eternal amidst the continual change and ceaseless transformation of all that constitutes him, we may readily infer that such a system, although it destroy the individuality of man, or rather because it destroys that individuality, will have secret charms for men living in democracies. All their habits of thought prepare them to conceive it and predispose them to adopt it. It naturally attracts and fixes their imagination; it fosters the pride while it soothes the indolence of their minds.
Among the different systems by whose aid philosophy endeavors to explain the universe, I believe pantheism to be one of those most fitted to seduce the human mind in democratic times. Against it all who abide in their attachment to the true greatness of man should combine and struggle.4
Since the publication of this book, others have observed that the tendency of the American soul, raised in the excessive culture of individual rights, is toward pantheism. A recent study of rock music, The Triumph of Vulgarity5 by Robert Pattison, traces this music to nineteenth-century British pantheism. The beat in the music is the heartbeat of mother earth!
The insights of Lewis and de Tocqueville raise the possibility that the external rite (i.e., the words, symbolism, music, dramatic action, and ceremonial of the worship service) can be objectively orthodox (in terms of holy tradition), while the mind-set of some, if not all, participants can be pantheistic. Further, it is also entirely possible that even where there is a vocal commitment to the inerrancy, inspiration, and authority of Holy Scripture, pantheism and natural religion can be present in hearts and attitudes. This is because in this case the attitude to the Bible can be at the level of commitment to an ideology rather than as an expression of living, personal faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – the Blessed, Holy, and Undivided Trinity.
Perhaps it is appropriate to add that pantheism or panentheism is the belief we would expect and indeed find in modern people, who feel the need to believe in “God” and who live in a culture where the general belief in development, progress, and evolution is taken for granted. Here God is the Zeitgeist or the animating Spirit or the Mind or the Life-Force of the evolving culture and universe. In this kind of general environment it is possible to speak quite sincerely in the manner of a trinitarian theist and really be a pantheist.
This can best be illustrated by referring to the presence today of “Modalism,” which is an ancient but ever-present heresy. What Modalism teaches is very simple. It asserts that there is one and only one God; at different times in human history God is known in different ways and by different names. His chief names for Christians have been “the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The use of these prominent names does not mean he is truly a Trinity; it means only that he is like a triangle with three “sides” – sometimes God is fatherly, sometimes he is universal Spirit, and sometimes he is best looked for in Jesus. Where Modalism is accompanied by an emphasis on the majesty and transcendence of God then it is really a form of Unitarianism. But where it is held in the context of experiencing the nearness, availability, and immanence of God, it is often nothing more than a form of pantheism – pantheism using Christian vocabulary. I fear that the union of modalism and pantheism is more common in North American religion than most of us would care to admit.
So we see that the received doctrine of the Holy Trinity, passed down in ecumenical creeds and local confessions of faith, is under silent attack from within. It is being eroded by the inbred and incipient pantheism within the individualized soul of Western man, particularly in North America. Further, the teaching that God is Three in One is under attack from without. It is being set aside or revised by feminist theologians (who, in terms of their sex, are both female and male).
Feminist theologians are supported by people within the leadership of denominations as well as in seminaries and colleges – people who often have not thought through what they are being asked to believe. This attack upon “the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” is a crucial part of the larger attempt to dismantle the received linguistic structure of Christianity. Of the latter, Robert W. Jenson has offered this intriguing observation.
One may fear that the current crisis, where it is in progress, is equaled in the previous history of the Faith only by the gnostic crisis of the second and third centuries, and by the crisis of vulgar Enlightenment at the hinge of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If one historical event could fully repeat another, one might even say that the “inclusivist” crisis is a simultaneous rerun of the two, joined into one by recapitulation also of the causal relation between them.6
Further, this current crisis generates great energy. This is because those who wage the war for the new ways are able not only to appeal to the mind and ethos of modern culture for support, but are also able to use in battle weapons forged in earlier times both by orthodox and liberal theologians.
What is the nature of the attack upon the linguistic structure of classic, dynamic, biblical, orthodox trinitarian theism? As far as I can see, the strategy involves creating an ethos and mind-set in which new ways of describing and addressing God are deemed both appropriate and necessary. This is achieved through a combination of the following: (1) by making use of what is known as apophatic theology; (2) by emphasizing the importance of modern secular and religious experience for the knowledge and naming of God; (3) by the use of “metaphorical” theology; (4) by accepting feminist teaching on the wickedness of patriarchy, androcentricism, and sexism; (5) by following the more extreme form of the historical-critical method in the reading and interpretation of the Christian Bible; and (6) by adopting a concept of God from the insights and principles of process theology and/or panentheism.
Underlying all these is the deliberate confusion of sexuality with gender. That is, the word gender is used where sexuality is required. For example, “The church is to be free of racial and gender [i.e., sexual] bias.” In the study of a language we refer to the gender of nouns and pronouns. Grammatical gender has nothing whatsoever in principle to do with sexuality, which is the reality of being physically a male or a female. Yet, by constantly speaking of gender instead of sexuality, femininist theologians give the impression that sexuality in human beings is only as important as gender in grammar. The French say “La table” (feminine gender) because that is how they have always spoken. Yet the gender could have been masculine or neuter and then they would now say “Le table”; but they don’t because the gender for unknown reasons is female.
We now turn to the sixfold strategy of the feminist theologians:
(1) Apophatic theology. There is a long tradition both within certain forms of Platonic philosophy and in Greek Orthodox theology of assuming and claiming that God as God, or God in his essential deity, is unknowable, inexpressible, incomprehensible, and ineffable. In Orthodoxy this apophaticism consists in negating that which God is not – for example, he is not any part of the visible or invisible created order, not goodness, love, and wisdom, and not even being itself. “He has made darkness his abode” (Ps. 18:11). Yet this negative way is balanced by the positive way. The claim of cataphatic theology (which always accompanies apophatic theology) is that God has revealed himself definitively in Jesus Christ. This self-revealing God is the God to whom the believer says “Thou.” Thus God in his ineffable essence is beyond all knowledge – he is supra-essential and supra-celestial. However, God in his energies is knowable for he actually unveils himself and reveals himself. He tells us his name(s). Examples of the apophatic and cataphatic style abound in the Divine Liturgy of St. Chrysostom and that of St. Basil.
Feminist theology makes much of the apophatic dimension and divorces it from the cataphatic. So God is said to be Mystery, which we are to name. That is, if God is beyond knowledge and description, and if this God who is Mystery has not given any definitive self-revelation, then human beings are left to search for God and to name, to address, and to describe God according to their own lights and experiences. Thus God has had and will have many names. Feminists name God out of their own feminine experience.
(2) Religious experience. Ever since the Enlightenment and the influential writings of Friedrich Schleiermacher at the beginning of the nineteenth century, theologians in the liberal tradition have seen the raw material of theology as the religious experience of Jews and Christians. Thus they have used the Bible not as an account of divine revelation to be received by the church as authoritative, but as a collection of accounts of a variety of religious experiences to be received critically by the church for reflection and guidance. Then to this recorded experience of Jews and Christians theologians have added the further experience of the church through space and time, including their own space and time.
Feminists now also insist that the general and religious experience of women as women must be taken fully into account within the “raw material” upon which the theologian reflects. This major dimension (involving the experience of half of “humankind”) has been absent from theological reflection until the present, they say, and therefore the theology of the past cannot be wholly trusted for it has been biased in favor of men.
(3) Metaphorical theology. If ultimate Mystery (that is God or God[dess]) has not revealed his/her true name and nature, then human beings will do (and have done) their best or their worst to describe and address God[dess] from within their specific experience of the divine and from within their own cultural horizons. As there can be no literal descriptions of the ineffable God[dess], all forms of address must be either in simile (e.g., “God is like a mother hen”) or metaphor (e.g., God is a “Rock,” “Father/ Mother,” and “Divine Friend,”). And these similes and metaphors (sometimes called “models”) will change from place to place, culture to culture, and time to time. Those used by the Israelites, Jews, and early Christians belong to their own context and times and do not necessarily have any value or worth for today.
Feminists call for the development of metaphors and models for deity which reflect the experience of God[dess] by women. These will include, but will not necessarily be only, feminine images such as “Mother.” Such expressions as “Great Lover” and “God of many names” will also have a place, as also will “Life-creating Wisdom” and “Name Unnamed.”
(4) Feminist ideology. Here the key words and concepts are “patriarchalism,” “androcentricism,” and “sexism.” It is assumed that the culture and society presumed in both the Old and New Testaments as well as throughout European Christian history expressed in greater or lesser degree these evils. Men were in charge and everything existed primarily for the good of men. So it is not surprising, say feminists, that in Scripture, as well as in synagogue and church, God was always “He” and conceived via male images such as Lord, King, and Master. And the Trinity was “the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.” Thus androcentric religion has buttressed male domination (and vice versa) since, in the oft-quoted words of Mary Daly, “If God is male then the male is God.” 7
Living now in times of liberation, the church has a solemn duty to elevate the status of women, claim feminists, and as a sign of this duty to begin to name and address God with non-masculine or feminine metaphors. Obviously many metaphors and models can be used and God as a Trinity (if God[dess] is experienced in the world as Threefold) could be “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier,” or “God, Christ, Spirit” or “Mother, Lover, and Friend,” or any other set of three names.
(5) Historical-critical method. It is obvious that to use the Scriptures as they do, the feminist theologians have drunk deeply of the modern historical-critical method in its more agnostic forms. That is, they treat the books of the Bible as ordinary, ancient, religious books and seek to explain them in terms of the times and contexts and concerns in which they were originally written. In this explanation they do not allow for any unique or even special “inspiration and illumination of the Holy Spirit.” They treat the Scriptures as unique simply because they are the first in line, belonging to the foundational period of Christianity, not because they are authoritative in any stronger sense.
(6) Pantheism/panentheism. Because they reject classical, trinitarian theism with all its supposed masculine features, because they wish to emphasize the immanence rather than the transcendence of God, and because they desire to name God[dess] in feminine ways, feminist theologians find themselves by design or default embracing views of God which link God’s being intimately with the cosmos. Many have been influenced by process theology and speak of the world as “God’s body.” They claim that while God is not strictly identical with the world, the world is nevertheless within God. Some feminists, however, do claim to experience God in a threefold way and so from within their panentheism there is still talk of God as some kind of Trinity (as there is also in non-feminist panentheism, particularly in the philosophy of Hegel and those who follow him). However, the purpose of this Trinity is usually stated as being that of providing a model of community for humanity – a model which does not foster patriarchalism!
STUDYING THE BIBLE
In response to this feminist campaign and teaching, which has deeply influenced Western Christianity in both its conservative and liberal expressions, there are two basic ways of doing a study of the biblical teaching on the Trinity. One is to ignore the underlying pantheism, the linguistic crisis, and the feminist attack and allow the Bible to speak for itself on its own terms, believing that the Holy Spirit will convince people of the truth of the biblical doctrine, if the evidence is fairly stated. Such a work would conceivably look like Lockyer’s All the Divine Names and Titles in the Bible: A Unique Classification of All Scripture Designations of the Three Persons of the Trinity.8
The other is to set forth the biblical evidence for belief in the Holy Trinity and, in doing this, face some of the challenges and questions raised not only by the latest feminist theology but also by pantheism and liberal theology. Some of the writers in the symposium Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism have attempted to do this in short essays.9
What I shall attempt to do in this book fits somewhere between these two approaches, but is certainly more of the latter than the former. We are all affected by the call to become “politically correct” in our use of language; thus, in some way or another, we all face this modern, feminist challenge when we think theologically or address God in prayer. Regrettably, in my opinion, modern translations of the Bible (e.g., the NRSVB, NEB, and NJB) have moved toward the general use of inclusive language, and the tendency in biblical translation and in the editing of Christian books for publication seems to be toward the way of accommodation with politically correct language.
Since this is primarily an exercise in biblical doctrine (i.e., what is specifically assumed and taught by the writers of the sacred books of the Bible), it is necessary for me briefly to state how I view the canon of Scripture. The New Testament is an authoritative collection of inspired, authoritative books. The author (and editor where there was one) of each book was/were inspired by the Holy Spirit in what he/they wrote so that the content of what is written reflects the will of God, the Father. So each book is authoritative, pointing to Christ, the Lord. However, the early Christian church during the first four centuries decided which books were actually to be within the canon or collection called the New Testament. Now certainly the pastors of the church in the first four centuries were led by the Holy Spirit in this process of sifting and choosing which books to include, but we must allow that the church (through pastors and synods) was actually an authority (under Jesus Christ the Lord by the Holy Spirit) in the creation of the canon of the New and in the accepting of the canon of the Old Testaments.
And if we allow that the early church was an authority under Jesus Christ in terms of the creation of the canon, then it is reasonable to grant that the doctrinal understanding of the same church in terms of such great themes as the identity of God the Father, of Jesus Christ his Son, and the Holy Spirit ought to be received by us with the utmost respect. In other words, along with the New Testament we received from the same church and at the same time as the agreed canon of the New Testament a creed, or rather, two creeds, First, the Creed of the Council of Nicea (325) and then, secondly, the longer Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed approved by the Council of Constantinople (381) with their teaching on the Persons and the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The latter creed is normally called “the Nicene Creed” today (and we shall have more to say about it in the next chapter).
Over the centuries Christian teachers have held that they are to hear and read the Bible with minds which have accepted and appropriated this authoritative statement of the identity of the Persons and work of the Holy Trinity. In fact, once the church had clarified and put into careful statement the central themes of the sacred Scriptures, then the Bible was read from this particular point of view within worship. Thus, the very teaching which the Bible had yielded (and continued to yield) to patient and prayerful study, then became the doctrinal basis upon which the church actually read the Scriptures in its Liturgy and Daily Offices over the centuries.
Thus it seems that all a Christian is doing when he writes a book on the biblical basis for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is looking in Scripture for that which as an orthodox Christian he already believes. Actually it is probably true to say that in his own study and experience he is doing personally and quickly what the church did corporately in the first four centuries. Of course, he knows what the church decided and that is his faith. So he is looking at the Scriptures while facing the challenges raised and the questions asked in his own time (e.g., through the use of the historical-critical method and by the critical estimate of the Bible in feminist theology). He studies to see whether in the light of such criticisms the Scriptures still yield to the prayerful student the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. And because of the experience of the church in twenty centuries, he will be very surprised not to be encountered by the Holy Trinity.
THE HOLY TRINITY AND BIBLICAL INSPIRATION
Since we are considering the testimony of the Scriptures, perhaps the best way to introduce the “biblical” doctrine of the Holy Trinity is to consider briefly the implications of what is said of the Scriptures by the Scriptures in terms of their relation to God.
It is well known that Jesus himself, as well as his apostles and disciples, believed that the authors of the books of what we now call the Old Testament were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, declared that “the Lord God of Israel” is the God who “spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (Luke 1:68, 70). The Apostle Peter insisted that “no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21). Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, explained that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Further, in several places, Paul speaks of the Old Testament as a whole and in terms of being like a thinking, rational, omniscient subject and person: thus the Jewish Bible is “God’s oracles [utterances],” in and from which God is heard to speak (Rom. 3:2; 9:17; 10:11).
When asked, “What is the primary message spoken by the divine oracles?” the answer of Jesus and his apostles was “the Messiah.” On the road to Emmaus, the resurrected Jesus spoke of his own suffering and crucifixion to the two disciples. “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then, “beginning with Moses [i.e., the Five Books of Moses] and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25–27).
Peter told the churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia the following:
The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look (1 Peter 1:10–12).
The prophets not only spoke the word of the Lord to their contemporaries but they also spoke of the future Messiah, even though they did not understand all of the word they proclaimed.
As we reflect upon what the writers of the New Testament have to say about the inspiration of the Old Testament, we get an insight into the way in which Yahweh-Elohim, the Lord God of Israel, related to and acted toward his covenant people. Obviously Moses and the later prophets are prophets of Yahweh-Elohim, the God of Abraham, Moses, and David. At the same time they are inspired, even indwelt, by the Spirit of the Lord God (also “the Spirit of Christ”), who actually speaks God’s words through them; further as they speak and write they point to Jesus, the suffering and glorified Messiah, who is in himself as a Person the Word of God, and who as such speaks God’s words. Thus we see (even if “in a mirror dimly,” 1 Cor. 13:12) the Three, whom the resurrected Lord Jesus named “the Father ... the Son, and ... the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19), revealed in the origin, content, and purpose of the Holy Scriptures.
Our task in the rest of this book is to look for both the “raw material” and the implicit and explicit statements of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the Bible. This work will cause us not only to look at the Bible itself, but also at what various writers have said about the doctrinal themes and contents of the Bible.
FOR FURTHER READING
Baker, D. L. Two Testaments: One Bible. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1976.
Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1988.
Lewis, C. S. Miracles. London: Collins, 1965.
Lockyer, Herbert. All the Divine Names and Titles in the Bible: A Unique Classification of All Scripture Designations of the Three Persons of the Trinity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975.
Metzger, Bruce. The Canon of the New Testament. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence, ed. J.P. Mayer. New York: Doubleday, 1969.
Specifically on feminist theology:
Hitchcock, Helen Hull, ed. The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1992.
Hook, Donald D., and Alvin F. Kimel. “The Pronouns of Deity.” The Scottish Journal of Theology 46 (1993): 297–323.
Kimel, Alvin F., ed. Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.
Martin, Francis. The Feminist Question: Feminist Theology in the Light of the Christian Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1994.
Toon, Peter. The End of Liberal Theology: Contemporary Challenges to Evangelical Orthodoxy. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1995.
1. C. S. Lewis, Miracles (London: Collins, 1965), 101.
2. Ibid., 99.
3. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Doubleday, 1969), 241.
4. Ibid., 242.
5. Robert Pattison, The Triumph of Vulgarity (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991).
6. Robert W. Jenson, “The Father, He...,” in Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism, ed. Alvin F. Kimel, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 96.
7. Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father (Boston: Beacon, 1973), 19.
8. Herbert Lockyer, All the Divine Names and Titles in the Bible: A Unique Classification of All Scripture Designations of the Three Persons of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975).
9. Alvin F. Kimel, Jr., ed., Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992).
2 – God in Relation to Us
In this chapter we shall first examine briefly three simple yet profound descriptions of God – a task which will introduce us to the biblical vision of the Holy Trinity and prepare us for the biblical study in chapters 4 to 11. Then, so that we shall not be reading and studying the Bible in a vacuum, we shall turn to examine the origins of the ecclesial doctrine/dogma of the Holy Trinity as this was developed in the early and medieval church and recorded later in the confessions of faith of the Protestant churches of the Reformation. To know the ecclesial dogma will help us both to appreciate the biblical vision of the Holy Trinity and the concept of the development of doctrine.
The three simple yet profound statements concerning God all appear in the Johannine writings of the New Testament and, upon examination, yield a lively conception of God as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
GOD IS SPIRIT
John, the evangelist, reports that in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well Jesus said, “God is Spirit” (John 4:24). Too often this has been taken out of context and made to mean such things as “God is a Spirit – one among several” or “God is invisibly present everywhere and can be approached anywhere at any time howsoever we will.” It has also been seen as a slogan for pantheism. Yet, it appears in a context where we read that “those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (4:24).
If we inquire concerning the identity of the God who is Spirit, then the answer provided by the text of the same conversation is, “the Father,” whose “only Son” is Jesus. “The hour is coming, and now is,” said Jesus, “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him” (4:23).
Some people of a philosophical disposition have supposed that the statement “God is Spirit” is a metaphysical and ontological definition of the eternal nature of the invisible deity. Though God (according to philosophical theism) is eternal, uncreated Spirit, the meaning here has less to do with eternity and more to do with space and time. “God is Spirit” is the same general kind of statement as two others found in 1 John, which we shall examine below. They are “God is light” (1:5) and “God is love” (4:8). In all three statements it is God in relation to us, God acting with respect to us, which is being affirmed. John is telling us how the Father really is, or truly acts, toward us in history and on a Person-to-person basis.
Jesus is not attempting to speak of God-as-God-is-in-himself in his eternity. His message is of God as God-is-toward-and-for-us; the Father is the One who gives the Spirit (John 14:16), and it is in and by the Spirit that the Father relates to human beings as his creatures. Therefore, “God [the Father] is Spirit” in the sense that, as the invisible God, he makes himself known through the medium of the Spirit, whom he actually sends into the world.
True worship also is in the sphere of “Spirit.” Human beings who worship their Creator and Lord must worship “in spirit [Spirit],” as those who are reborn by water and the Spirit (John 3:5) and who have been baptized with that baptism in the Spirit of which John the Baptist spoke (John 1:33). It is necessary that they worship in this way, for no other approach is acceptable to the Father. Genuine worship must be prompted, energized, and brought to fulfillment by the presence and sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit worship by human beings remains merely a human activity which has no guarantee of reaching the Father.
And there is a further necessary component! True worship is also “in truth.” John’s Gospel makes it very clear that the Spirit and the Word (the Son) exist and work in perfect harmony in God’s economy of grace. Jesus as the Word (1:1) is also the Truth (14:6), who reveals the very reality of God (8:45; 18:37). In fact, the Spirit is “the Spirit of truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13) in his relation to the Word made flesh, Jesus, the Son. And Jesus is the Truth, who reveals the Father, who does the will of the Father, and who makes access to the Father possible for sinners by his sacrificial death as the Lamb of God. He is the Son of the Father who becomes the man of flesh and blood. Further, as Jesus told the Samaritan woman (4:26), he is the “I am” without any predicate – the “I am,” Ego eimi = Yahweh of Exodus 3:14ff, and of Isaiah 41:4 and 43:10 (see further John 6:20; 8, particularly vv. 24, 28, 58; 13:19; 18:5–8). Thus true worship must be offered to the Father through (i.e., according to the Truth which is) Jesus and by/in the Spirit, who is given by the Father and who rests upon and takes from the Son.
It would be false to conclude from John 4:23–24 that worship must only be spiritual, confined to the heart, and without any outward expression of form or ceremony. The apostolic church worshiped through the ministry of Word and Sacrament; and it is highly probable that John 6:53–58 refers to the Eucharist as a primary means of worship. To worship in Spirit and in Truth is to worship the Trinity by the Trinity. Those who believe on the name of the Son, and who are born from above by the Spirit, worship the Father through the Son and in the Spirit. And they do so because the Father, through the Son and by the Spirit, has not only created them but also revealed himself to them, as the God who gives eternal life because of his Son=s perfect obedience unto death.
GOD IS LIGHT
The contrast of light and darkness is found in many religions. This is entirely what we would expect for they are such obviously contrasting symbols of the good and the evil. In terms of Christianity, the advent of the Logos, the only Son of the Father, was the coming of light into the world (John 1:4–9; cf. Matt. 4:16; Luke 2:32) – the light shining in darkness. Jesus is “the light of the world” while God, the Father, is “light.”
This is the message we have heard from him [Jesus Christ] and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:5–7).
Obviously the Lord our God as the true and only God is of necessity and always light both in himself as the transcendent God and in his relations with the world as its Creator and Redeemer. It is the latter which is in view here. The whole context of 1 John makes it clear that “God as Light” is not a philosophical, speculative statement about the being and nature of deity but is a declaration of God’s relation to the world as Revealer and Savior.
In the Old Testament light is used to symbolize truth in contrast to error, and righteousness in contrast to wickedness (see Ps. 36:9; 119:130; Isa. 5:20; Micah 7:8). Thus in Hebrew terms to say that “God is light” is to confess that he is absolute in his glory, in his truth, and in his holiness.
The Father is light, the incarnate Son is the light, and believers are called to live and walk in the light and have fellowship one with another and with the Father through his only Son. But, we ask, how is this walking and fellowship possible? John answers, “You have been anointed by the Holy One” (1 John 2:20; cf. v. 27); that is, you have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. For one to see the light, to have the light shine in his heart, and to walk in the light, he needs the illumination of the Holy Spirit of light. In other words, light shines upon and within him from the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit. Therefore, what the psalmist prayed (36:9) – “In thy light do we see light” B is wonderfully fulfilled.
GOD IS LOVE
The word love is often on the lips of modern people. Yet rarely does it have that meaning communicated by the Greek word agapEQ \O(e,-), or even the word philia (the loving feeling of friendship). When we read that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) it is the word agapEQ \O(e,-) which describes God. God is love in that he wills that which is the best for his creatures and he commits himself wholly to achieving this end. Further, it is not only that God is the source of love but that all of his intentions and activity are loving. We read in 1 John 4:7–12:
Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
In this paragraph the verb (agapeo) and the noun (agapē) occur fifteen times. The logic of love is very obvious. God, who is the Father, is love in that he sent his only Son into the world to be the propitiation/expiation for human sins. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Yet, God’s love is not merely a past determination to do good which was completed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God is still love in that his Son, Jesus Christ, was raised from the dead and is alive forevermore willing the good of mankind, believers in particular. Further, God is still love in that he abides in those who believe. “By this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us” (1 John 3:24). The Holy Spirit dwells in the souls of the faithful, and it is by his inspiration and power that love is perfected in them and believers are enabled to love one another, thus fulfilling the command of Christ.
The Father loves the Son; the Son loves the Father; and the Spirit is the presence and expression of the love of the Father and the love of the Son. The Father loves the world and sent his only Son into the world; the Son also loves the world and gave himself as a propitiatory and expiatory sacrifice for the sins of the world; the Spirit brings the love of the Father and the Son into the hearts of those who believe, so that they may love God and one another.
Reflecting upon this theme of “God is love,” Paul K. Jewett writes:
Beyond the love of John 3:16 is the eternal love that God is in himself. Before all worlds [ages] he is the Father who loves the Son (John 3:35) and the Son who loves the Father – in the Spirit. God, then, from all eternity, is the One-who-is-for-Others in himself; that is, he is a Trinity of holy love. And as such he reveals himself. In creation he becomes the One-who-is-for-others-outside-himself, namely, his creatures. In redemption he becomes the One-who-is-for-sinful-others, namely, his people whom he restores to fellowship with himself. Thus the eternal fellowship of the divine, trinitarian life grounds God’s fellowship with us to whom he gives himself in love as our Maker and Redeemer.1
So it is that the church has never been able to divorce what is called the ontological or immanent Trinity from the economic Trinity for God in himself is holy love and God turned outward from himself toward us is also holy love.
CONSIDERATION AND REFLECTION
From the evidence provided by the examination of these Johannine texts, we can make certain preliminary judgments concerning the identity of God, who is known, worshiped, and served by Christians.
First of all, God (theos) has a name and that name is “the Father.” In the Gospel and letters of John, it can be claimed that “God” means “the Father” on virtually every occasion where it occurs in the text. One exception is perhaps the exclamation of Thomas the Twin addressed to the resurrected Jesus: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
If God is “the Father” then the question arises, “Of whom is he the Father?” The answer is clear. The Father has an “only Son,” who has been with him “from the beginning” as the Word, who became man, Jesus of Nazareth. The Son reveals the Father and his will. To see the Son is to see the Father. In order to know the Father and to receive his gift of eternal life, one must believe in the Son. The Son is both the Revealer of the Father and the Way to the Father. He comes from the Father, and he returns to the Father for “us and for our salvation” (Nicene Creed).
In John’s Gospel (chaps. 14–16), the Holy Spirit, who is sent into the world by the Father for the sake of the Son, is described in personal terms (as he who dwells within the disciples, teaches them, and bears witness to and glorifies Jesus). In these chapters, together with chapter 17 wherein is the high priestly prayer of Jesus, we are given a wondrous revelation of the identities and relations of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In summary we may say that to speak of God is to speak of “the Father.” To speak of God is also to speak of “the Father and his only Son.” Further, to speak of God is to speak of “the Father, his only Son, and his Spirit, who is also the Spirit of his Son.”
There is a movement of grace (creation, revelation, salvation) from God toward the world – from the Father through the Son and in/by the Spirit; and there is a movement of grace (faith, love, obedience) from the world to God – to the Father through the Son and in/by the Holy Spirit.
What, of course, is not decided, by the inspired presentation of God in relation to us as the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit in the Johannine texts, is whether the Son and the Holy Spirit just as equally possess divinity as does the Father. Obviously in what we may call the divine economies of creation, revelation, and redemption the Father is first in order and the Son and the Holy Spirit are subordinate – that is they are second and third in order. Since the Father sends the Son and also sends the Holy Spirit there is a natural and logical priority of the Father. The authoritative answering of the question as to the precise, metaphysical or ontological relation of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit to each other had to wait several centuries for the deliberations of the ecumenical councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381).
THE DOGMA OF THE TRINITY
The full exposition of the ecclesial, ontological doctrine of the Trinity did not occur overnight. It took a long time and developed in contrasting but essentially complementary ways in the East and West after the production of the creeds of the councils of Nicea and Constantinople. The major difference between East and West is the addition to the commonly held Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (381) of the filioque in the West in the early Middle Ages. This is the teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds both from the Father and from the Son, as from one principle. In contrast, the East insisted that the Holy Spirit proceeded not merely from the Father, but from the Father alone. However, the East allowed the explanation that the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father through the Son” both within the eternal, essential, and immanent Trinity (God as God is in himself) and in the divine work of creation, revelation, redemption, and deification (God as God is toward us – the economic Trinity).
Let us begin our reflections on the development of the ecclesial doctrine of the Holy Trinity with the notion of God as the Pantokrator. This is the word which appears in the first sentence of the Nicene Creed and which we translate as “the Almighty.” It is a dynamic word meaning “God the Pantokrator does everything”: that is, the one Lord God is the supreme, universal actively ruling Power over all things. The reference is to an actuality of power and to the fact that the divine action is universal in its scope, extending over the whole world of nature, and including under its dominion all processes whatsoever, cosmic or historical. So God, the Father, is for Christians the Pantokrator as he is also the Creator of heaven and earth.
In the pre-Nicene period of the early church it was customary to refer to God as the Pantokrator in terms of “the Monarchy.” This was because in the hellenistic religions to teach the divine Monarchy amounted to defending the logically unimpeachable proposition that only One can be the Almighty. So the early Christians saw an opportunity in the language of their time to proclaim important truths concerning both the identity of God and the relation of God to the cosmos. Yet, in so doing, they raised a major question. Is the Monarch the Godhead (the divine nature) or the Father, or the One (Jesus the Christ) who is called “the Lord”?
Following the lead of the New Testament, the answer given in the second and third centuries was that the Monarch is truly “the Father” and, more specifically, “the Father within the Trinity.” Certainly the Father has absolute, divine authority over creation (as the Nicene Creed was to declare), but logically prior to this rule and within eternity the Father is the Monarch in relation to the Word and the Holy Spirit. The eternal Son and the eternal Spirit, distinct from each other and distinct from the Father, are nevertheless both within the divine eternity and also in their external missions into the cosmos “subjects” of the Monarch, the Father. However, the early fathers also insisted that this doctrine does not imply the inferiority of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Rather it points to “holy order” within the eternal Godhead.
Such talk, however, could easily lose its way and thus run the risk of encouraging the idea that the Son and the Holy Spirit were in some sense less divine than is the Father. In fact, as is well known, Arius propagated such an idea in Alexandria and this eventually led to the calling of the Council of Nicea (325) by Constantine the Great. The major concern of this first ecumenical council of the church was to make it as plain as possible that Jesus of Nazareth, while being personally distinct from the Father, possesses the Godhead (is truly God) in the fullest sense. That is, he is fully God by derivation and in the possession of communicated deity, but truly divine and equal to the Father with a derived equality. Or, put another way, God because he is homoousios (of identical essence or substance) with the Father and God because he is eternally begotten of the Father.
The council rejected the attractive possibility offered by Arianism of a simple monotheism with the doctrine that Jesus was the highest of creatures and the uniquely adopted Son of the God, the Father. The bishops present at Nicea knew that the testimony of the Gospels and the experience of the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in his church led them to one conclusion only – Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, and consubstantial with the Father.”
It is important for us to note that the homoousion was neither a new truth nor a new revelation from God. What this teaching did and does is to reduce the multiplicity of scriptural truths concerning who Jesus is into the unity of a single affirmation: that the Son is consubstantial with the Father is the sense of everything that the Scriptures declare concerning the Son. However, to use such language is to state the truth of the Scriptures in a new mode of understanding. There has been a transition from a mode of understanding that is primarily descriptive, relational, historical-existential, and interpersonal (i.e., what Christ is to us) to a mode that is definitive, explanatory, absolute, and ontological (i.e., what Christ is in himself).
The full, ontological doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and with the Son had to wait until the Nicene teaching of Jesus Christ had been appropriated by the church during the fourth century, and for the theological clarity of the teaching of the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) concerning the Person of the Holy Spirit to be received. So the Creed of the Council of Constantinople (381) declares that the Holy Spirit is to be worshiped and glorified with both the Father and with the Son.
We recall that what the early church had to avoid at all costs were two deviations from the doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. One was modalism which maintained the unity of God at the cost of denying the reality of the Three Persons in the One Godhead. That is, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were/are merely three modes of the one God’s self-revelation. The other deviation was tritheism, the teaching that the Three Persons do not share one Godhead but are Three related but different Gods. The Father is the superior divinity and the Son and the Holy Spirit are lesser divinities. Certain forms of Arianism were in essence forms of tritheism. Authentic trinitarianism may be seen as a delicate balancing act between modalism and tritheism.
THE CHRISTIAN EAST
In the East the formula which most clearly conveyed the doctrine of the Trinity was “three divine hypostaseis in one ousia.” The origins of this go back to the use of the word homoousios (of identical substance) in the Nicene Creed (325). The ousia in this Nicene formula is the substance (deity, godhead) of the Father and the Son. It is what philosophers call the deutera ousia, the specific essence, not different but identical in two individuals of the same species. After the Council of Nicea, it was a relatively straightforward move (though complicated by historical circumstances) to confess that the Holy Spirit is also homoousios with the Father and with the Son. Thus the Trinity is Three Persons each of whom possesses in entirety the one Godhead, the identical ousia.
In its literal sense the word hypostasis is “understanding”; in its active sense it means “that which gives support” and in its passive sense it means “that which lies beneath.” As used in both Christology (see the definition of the Council of Chalcedon of 451 on the Person of Christ) and in Trinitarianism, the active sense is the one being used. So there are three hypostaseis but only one ousia (where ousia is being used in the passive sense as the one essence shared by the Three).
In order to clarify the distinctions between the Three Persons and at the same time affirm that there is one God, the Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century spoke of the internal relations within God as God-is-in-and-unto-himself. What differentiates the Three is their mutual interordination, expressed by the three particularities of agennēsia, gennēsis, and ekpempis (ingeneration, generation, and promission). Further, they applied to each of the Three the phrase tropos hyparxeos, meaning “mode of existence.” Thus the whole Godhead is in its concrete totality instantiated in each of the Persons, paternally in the Father, filially in the Son, and pneumatically in the Holy Spirit.
“Mode of existence” was applied to the particularities that distinguish the Three Persons, in order to express the conviction that in the three hypostaseis one and the same divine being/essence is presented in objective and permanent expressions, though with no variation in divine content. Therefore, the emphasis from the Cappadocians is on the triplicity of objective presentation rather than on the unity of essential being, even though the latter is never denied. (In modern times Karl Barth has used the expression tropos hyparxeos [usually translated in his works as “mode of being”] to speak of each of the Three because he believed that the modern meaning of the word “Person” had moved too far from its original meaning. It is, however, difficult in prayer to address a “mode of being”! Further, Barth speaks of God as being “One Person” in Three “Modes of Being.”2)
To clarify what the Cappadocians had taught concerning the relations of the Persons within the Trinity, an anonymous theologian made use of the word perichoresis (coinherence). It served to describe the mutual interpenetration and embracement of the Three Persons through the possession by each, in his own proper way, of the totality of the one, divine ousia. Soon it became part of the language of orthodoxy.
The developed Eastern doctrine of the Trinity, making use of these technical terms, is found in the eighth-century book, On the Orthodox Faith by John of Damascus (d. 749) and has passed into the divine worship of the Orthodox Churches. Anyone who wishes to seek to understand the Orthodox doctrine of the Blessed, Holy, and Undivided Trinity is advised to go to the latter source and carefully read the Liturgies of St. Chyrsostom and St. Basil.
THE CHRISTIAN WEST
In the West the significant expositions are associated with the names of Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas, and the statement of orthodoxy is “three divine personae in one substantia.” Here substantia (philosophically substantia secunda) is the equivalent of ousia, for it is substance considered in abstraction from its determination to the individual: this is, strictly speaking, what is also called natura and essentia. Then, also, persona (meaning the concrete presentation of an individual) is the equivalent of hypostasis.
A further key word, whose meaning was developed by Augustine, is relatio (relation). In Aristotelian logic relatio is “accidental,” but Augustine lifted it out of the subclass of accidents to make relatio to occupy the same level as substantia.
So Augustine taught that the Three Persons are identical in terms of their substance and distinct from each other through the different relations in which they stand to their substance. Everything that belongs to one Person belongs to the other Two (wisdom, truth, goodness, etc.), but what differentiates them is their relations – paternity in the Father, filiality in the Son, and procession in the Holy Spirit.
The relations of the Three Persons to the one divine ousia are themselves expressed in terms of their relations to one another – paternity, filiation, spiration; and the different ways in which each of the Persons is actually God arise solely from the processions within God – from the generation of the Son and from the spiration of the Holy Spirit. Put another way, Godhead can exist only paternally, filially, or by spiration; Godhead is to be found nowhere but in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae supplied further clarification of God-as-God-is-in-himself. He showed that there are in God two processions – the generation of the Son and the double procession of the Spirit (from the Father and the Son). Then there are four relations – paternity, of the Father to the Son; filiation, of the Son to the Father; spiration, of the Father and the Son, as one principle, to the Holy Spirit; and procession, of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son. Further there are five notions (“proper ideas for knowing a divine Person”) – unbegottenness (innascibilitas) and paternity for the Father; common spiration for the Father and for the Son; and procession for the Spirit.
TRINITY IN UNITY: UNITY IN TRINITY
In both the East and West there is the clear statement of Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity within the Godhead. In the East the Unity is expressed by the coinherence of the Three Persons in each other, while in the West it is expressed through the real identity of the divine nature with the Three Persons.
In terms of God-as-God-is-toward-us, the Father is made known through the Son, and the Son is made known by the Holy Spirit. However, there is no fourth divine Person to make the Holy Spirit known. This is because he is the locus, as the Son is the agent (not the object), of revelation. The divine movement is from the Father through the Son and in the Spirit and the creatures’ response is to the Father through the Son and in the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is experienced by creatures like the air they breathe, that is by his effects, rather than like a visible external object.
So the traditional Western structure of liturgical prayer is offered to the Pantokrator, the transcendent Father “through Jesus Christ our Lord, thy Son, who livest and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever, Amen.” In contrast, but not in disagreement, the classic Eastern liturgical prayer ends with the words: “For unto thee are due all glory, honor and worship, to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”
Obviously the words hypostasis and persona are technical terms and do not carry modern notions of either an individual morally responsible decision-maker or such a person viewed as having a personality. So when it is said today that God is personal or when a claim such as “God may be more than personal, as we know personality, but he cannot be less” is made, the reference is not to the technical word “person” and thus to the Persons of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; rather it is to a divine attribute, which is an aspect of the one, divine nature and is therefore common to all Three Persons. The use of the word Person (hypostasis, persona) in the technical sense within classical theology is not to characterize what the Three Persons have in common; it is to establish and to emphasize their different modes of possessing the common, divine ousia/substantia.
One of my teachers during the early 1960s, the distinguished theologian, the late Dr. Eric Mascall, delighted to teach the classic, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and wrote:
The Trinity is not primarily a doctrine, any more than the Incarnation is primarily a doctrine. There is a doctrine about the Trinity, as there are doctrines about many other facts of existence, but, if Christianity is true, the Trinity is not a doctrine; the Trinity is God. And the fact that God is Trinity – that in a profound and mysterious way there are three divine Persons eternally united in one life of complete perfection and beatitude – is not a piece of gratuitous mystification, thrust by dictatorial clergymen down the throats of an unwilling but helpless laity, and therefore to be accepted, if at all, with reluctance and discontent. It is the secret of God’s most intimate life and being, into which, in his infinite love and generosity, he has admitted us; and it is therefore to be accepted with amazed and exultant gratitude.3
So the church has looked to the Trinity, saying, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
Regrettably, however, there have been long periods in the history of the church when the doctrine of the Trinity has been taught in the universities and seminaries in such a way as to divorce it from worship, piety, and practical theology. Especially was this so within the Roman Catholic Church during the period when theology followed the Scholastic method of the Middle Ages and seminarians were apparently taught that the doctrine of the Trinity is only the doctrine of the ontological or immanent Trinity. It seemed to be merely speculation concerning God-as-God-is-in-himself with little reference to God-as-God-is-toward-us!
Further, as Karl Rahner has pointed out in his influential book, The Trinity (1970), the decision made by Thomas Aquinas and those who followed him (e.g., Roman Catholic as well as Protestant scholastics from the seventeenth century) to discuss first the Unity of God (De Deo uno) and then, having established this to deal with God as Trinity (De Deo triuno), had a big impact upon the way the doctrine of the Trinity was received within the church. It came generally to be held that the numerical unity of God was the primary assertion concerning God and thus the doctrine of the Holy Trinity took second place. Thus a “Unitarian” mind-set was developed by the way the doctrine of God was studied in the universities and seminaries in the West. Further, theologians tended to discuss the unity of God, next the attributes of God, and only then God as Trinity. So even the attributes came to be thought of as attributes of the divine nature rather than of the Three Persons.
If we ask what role the doctrine of the Trinity had in theological systems in modern times (i.e., from 1800 when the Enlightenment began to affect Protestant theology to 1930 when neo-orthodoxy became a vital force), we find that there were three fundamental possibilities. In traditional theological circles, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, the traditional doctrine was seen and presented in textbooks on systematic theology as the direct deliverance of an authoritative Bible (or an authoritative Bible and holy Tradition). It was taken for granted that the doctrine was there in sacred Scripture in a full yet (philosophically) imprecise form and thus there was need for a clarification of it by the Fathers at the Council of Nicea and Constantinople, in later medieval councils, and by scholastic theologians.
In liberal theology, beginning with Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl, the traditional, scholastic doctrine was regarded as not essential to the expression of the Christian Faith, although it might perhaps be useful. So it was not often mentioned; alternatively the doctrine in some form was treated in an appendix to systematic theology, as in Schleiermacher’s famous book on theology, The Christian Faith.
Finally, in the refined atmosphere of philosophical theology, influenced by Hegel, the doctrine of threefold Reality was released from its biblical roots and expounded as a metaphysical truth, more or less independently of the Christian revelation.
However, since the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, gave great prominence to the doctrine of the Trinity in his monumental Church Dogmatics (published in German at Zurich as Kirchliche Dogmatik from 1932 to 1967), study of this subject by theologians has much increased, but not usually by the methods used in the nineteenth century. Within the renewal of interest in this doctrine as central to Christian Faith, two types of approach may be discerned from the 1930s through to the 1960s.
The first treats the doctrine as a necessary “synthesis” of several fundamental elements of the record of Revelation in the Bible and of Christian experience of God. These include the received monotheism of the Old Testament, the belief in Jesus as Incarnate God, the worship of Jesus Christ in the churches, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in human souls. Here the doctrine of the Trinity is the completion of the doctrinal system, the ultimate doctrine of faith, and the necessary safeguard of the truth of Christianity. An example of this approach is Leonard Hodgson, The Doctrine of the Trinity (1944).
The second (and here we place Barth himself) treats the doctrine not as the completion but as the first item of Christian theology. That is, the concept of God as Trinity is an immediate implication of the Revelation to which Scripture witnesses and points. It is, therefore, the first principle of all Christian faith and thought and life. In God’s self-revelation (and here is intended God as Creator, Revealer, Redeemer, and Judge) there is made known to the eyes of faith the Three – God, the Revealer; God, the Revelation; and God, the Revealedness. God, who is the Lord, makes himself known as the One who is the Father (Revealer), the Son (Revelation), and the Holy Spirit (Revealedness). So Barth expounds this doctrine of the Trinity in the Prolegomena to his Church Dogmatics.
When we examine books published since the second World War, in the wake of Barth’s decisive description of God as Holy Trinity in Self-Revelation, we notice that the vast majority belong, as we would expect, to what is usually called historical, dogmatic, and systematic theology. These studies certainly usually notice the biblical evidence and often reflect upon it, but they are not primarily exercises in what in academia is normally called biblical theology. Rather, their aim is to formulate or investigate the way the church has believed, taught, and confessed the Blessed, Holy, and Undivided Trinity, or to propose new or revised ways of so doing. For example, a recent book, entitled God in Three Persons (1995), written by the evangelical Baptist theologian, Millard J. Erickson, fits into this general category. So also does another recent book, The Triune God: A Biblical, Historical and Theological Study (1994), by an Irish Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Marsh.
For Roman Catholic writers such as Marsh it is not Barth as such but Barth via Rahner, with Rahner’s own particular questions and insights, which determine the treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity. The thesis which Rahner proposed, and which has been much discussed as a protest against the scholastic tendency of the textbooks for Catholic seminarians to equate the doctrine of the Trinity with only the immanent or ontological Trinity (thereby neglecting the economic Trinity), is: the “economic” Trinity is the “immanent” Trinity and the “immanent” Trinity is the “economic” Trinity. If this means that we can say nothing of “God-as-God-is-in-himself-as-Holy Trinity” then, as we shall see, the thesis is overstated. Further, if it means that God as the One God became in eternity a Trinity of Persons for the purpose of becoming the Creator of the world, then it is false. However, if it means that the Lord God, whom we know through his self-revelation as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is identical with the God who is eternally in himself the Holy Trinity, then it is an acceptable thesis.
When we inquire as to books on this topic, which are strictly within the area of biblical studies, we find that there are very few books dealing specifically with the doctrine of the Trinity as this is actually presented in, or implied and suggested by, sacred Scripture. Perhaps the best known of these is Arthur W. Wainwright, The Trinity in the New Testament (1962), which we shall examine, along with several other approaches, in the next chapter.
FOR FURTHER READING
Erickson, Millard J., God in Three Persons. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995.
Fortman, Edmund J., The Triune God: A Historical Study of the Doctrine of the Trinity. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972.
Hapgood, Isabel F., comp. and trans. Service Book of the Holy Orthodox‑Catholic Apostolic Church. Englewood, N.J.: Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, 1983.
Jewett, Paul K. God, Creation & Revelation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.
Kelly, J. N. D. The Athanasian Creed. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1964.
____. Early Christian Creeds. 3rd ed. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1972.
____. Early Christian Doctrine. 5th ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978.
Marsh, Thomas. The Triune God: A Biblical, Historical and Theological Study. Mystic, Conn.: Twenty-Third, 1994.
De Margerie, Bertrand. The Christian Trinity in History. Still River, Mass.: St. Bede’s, 1982.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vols. 1–3. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972–1978.
Prestige, G. L. God in Patristic Thought. London: William Heinemann, 1936.
Rahner, Karl. The Trinity. New York: Herder & Herder, 1970.
Toon, Peter. Yesterday, Today and Forever: Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity in the Teaching of the Seven Eucmenical Councils. Swedesboro, N.J.: Preservation, 1995.
1. Paul K. Jewett, God, Creation & Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 299.
2. Ibid., 297.
3. Eric Mascall, Whatever Happened to the Human Mind? (London: SPCK, 1980), 117–18.
3 – Theology – Methods and Approaches
A variety of influences since the 1950s has led to the investigation of the New Testament documents to discover in what sense, if at all, their content may be described implicitly or explicitly as “Trinitarian.” The claims of Karl Barth concerning the Holy Trinity as the immediate implication of revelation initially fueled this search. Other factors such as the charismatic movement, which raised the question of the precise identity of the Holy Spirit, the biblical theology movement (allied to the historical-critical method) within the Roman Catholic Church, and the modern emphasis upon supposed “community” within the Godhead (to foster and justify community action on earth and to counter “individualism”) have added further momentum.
In this chapter we shall notice five approaches to the question of the relation of the church doctrine/dogma of the Trinity, which was explained in the last chapter, to the content of the New Testament.
A. W. WAINWRIGHT
Perhaps the most-used textbook in the 1960s and 1970s on the biblical basis of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was The Trinity in the New Testament (1962) by the Englishman, Arthur W. Wainwright. Its purpose was to trace “the emergence of the problem of the Trinity” in New Testament times. So chapter 1 is devoted to explaining “the problem of the Trinity.” The problem concerns (1) how the Father and Son could both be God and yet God still be truly one, and (2) whether or not the Spirit is a Person and, if so, then whether God is in some sense threefold rather than twofold. “It is our task,” he wrote, “to investigate whether the New Testament writers themselves were aware of the problem, either in the form of the relationship between Father and Son, or in that of the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit.”1
Wainwright argues that the problem of the Trinity was in the minds of certain writers of the New Testament and that they made an attempt to answer it. However, none of their writings was written specifically to deal with it, and the evidence or signs that a writer has faced it are incidental. Since, in Wainwright’s judgment, there is no systematic answer to the problem aimed at producing a distinct doctrine, he preferred the word “problem” to “doctrine” when speaking of the theological content of the New Testament. He fully acknowledges that in the second, and even more so in the third, centuries the problem was fully faced and a doctrine was created (e.g., by Tertullian) – a doctrine which was itself subject to development as further thought was given to it.
So Wainwright makes the comment: “Naturally a problem must be clarified before it can be answered. In the New Testament it is easier to see the first attempts to clarify the problem than the first attempts to answer it. But an answer begins to emerge and it would be misleading to say that trinitarian theology is entirely post-biblical.”2
This beginnings of an answer or doctrine within the New Testament to the “problem” of the relations of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is found, however, not in philosophical, metaphysical discussions of the nature of God, but in declarations and expositions of the creating, saving, and sanctifying work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Wainwright insists that the biblical authors were more interested in the activity than the nature of God. Thus, for example, since they held that Christ shared in the divine activities of creator, savior, and judge, they could not wholly avoid thinking about his relation to the Father.
Further, “the problem of the Trinity” cannot be faced without noting the way and content of worship in the apostolic churches. Clearly all the evidence points to the Father being worshiped through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, or, the Son being worshiped in and by the Holy Spirit. Wainwright is well aware of the mutual influence of worship upon the development of doctrine and of doctrine upon (and thus influencing the content of) worship both in the period of the New Testament and afterward.
The book is divided into four parts. In the first part Wainwright briefly looks at the Old Testament and of “plurality in unity” with respect to God. The second part is the longest and deals with the evidence for the divinity of Christ. In the third brief part the evidence for the divinity of the Holy Spirit is collected. Finally, in part four the rise of the trinitarian problem is presented.
At the end of the book, Wainwright summarizes his conclusions.
The problem of the Trinity was being raised and answered in the New Testament. It arose because of the development of Christian experience, worship, and thought. It was rooted in experience, for men were conscious of the power of the Spirit and the presence and Lordship of the risen Christ. It was rooted in worship, because men worshipped in the Spirit, offered their prayers to God the Father through Christ, and sometimes worshipped Christ himself. It was rooted in thought, because the writers tackled first the Christological problem, and then, at any rate in the Fourth Gospel, the threefold problem. The whole matter was based on the life and resurrection of Jesus himself, who received the Spirit during his earthly life and imparted the Spirit to others after his resurrection.3
He believes that his investigations show that a biblical doctrine of God can begin with an account of the names and titles of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit along with their divine functions and mutual relations. However, he recognizes that such an account of the Three in One or the Three as One cannot be summarized in any pithy formula. Thus, whatever doctrine of the Trinity there is in the Scripture, it is neither complete nor definitive but it is nevertheless present and real. This means that the later, developed church doctrine of the Holy Trinity can be seen as a continuation of that search for precision in the doctrine of God, which began in the New Testament.
So for Wainwright, the ecclesiastical doctrine of the Trinity is more the completion of rather than the first principle of the theological system.
G. W. H. LAMPE
Dr. Lampe, once Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, and the final editor of the Patristic Greek Lexicon, concludes his book God as Spirit (1977) with these words:
I believe in the Divinity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in the sense that the one God, the Creator and Savior Spirit, revealed himself and acted decisively for us in Jesus. I believe in the Divinity of the Holy Ghost, in the sense that the same one God, the Creator and Savior Spirit, is here and now not far from every one of us; for in him we live and move, in him we have our being, in us, if we consent to know and trust him, he will create the Christlike harvest: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self control.4
This sounds attractive. However, in terms of the classic orthodoxy of the patristic period, Lampe must be judged as a unitarian and an adoptionist. First of all, he believes that God is one Person, not three, and that the Spirit is simply the unipersonal God. That is, the Father is the Spirit and the Spirit is the Father in his activity toward, and within, the world. In the second place, he believes that Jesus is simply a man in whom God as Spirit was uniquely and incomparably active. Thus he denies that Jesus was preexistent before his human birth and insists that talk of incarnation is just mythology.
Lampe is able to come to this conclusion because of the way he interprets the New Testament. He does not deny that there is evidence within the documents that the early Christians believed in the personal preexistence of Jesus as well as in his continued “post-existence” as the resurrected and ascended Lord, who will come again. However, he follows the extreme wing of form criticism in modern biblical scholarship and attributes this belief and related ones to mistaken judgments made within the early church concerning the real identity of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, Lampe uses his great scholarship to show the part that the concepts of preexistence and post-existence played in the attempts by the church in its earliest days to give expression to its memories and experience of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, he concludes that these attempts were all based on a colossal, initial error!
What the early church ought to have realized and taught, he suggests, was that God is Spirit and that everything that is vital and good in Christianity can be adequately understood and experienced within this belief. “I believe,” writes Lampe, “that the Trinitarian model is in the end less satisfactory for the articulation of our basic Christian experience than the unifying concept of God as Spirit.”5
So for Lampe the doctrine of the Trinity is not essential to the Christian Faith, and what he attractively presents is a modern expression of the old liberal theology of the nineteenth century.
C. F. D. MOULE
Dr. C. F. D. Moule was the Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University and a colleague of Dr. Lampe. His views on whether or not the New Testament contains a doctrine of plurality within the unity of God are found in his book, The Holy Spirit (1978), and in an article, “The New Testament and the Doctrine of the Trinity,” published in The Expository Times.
As is clear in his important study, The Origin of Christology (1977), Moule has a very high estimate of Jesus Christ. In fact, as the two studies mentioned above demonstrate, he holds that the New Testament points to a relation between God (the Father) and Christ such as suggests that (in later Nicene terms) the homoousios rightly reflects the implications of New Testament experience.
Moule brings our attention to what he considers to be the two primary and impressive “pointers” to the deity of Jesus Christ. “The first is the fact that, in the greetings of the Pauline epistles, God and Christ are brought into a single formula,” and he adds that, “It requires an effort of imagination to grasp the enormity that this must have seemed to a non-Christian Jew.” In these greetings formulae, God and Christ together are actually the origin of divine blessings to Christians.
The second is “the fact that Paul seems to experience Christ as any theist reckons to understand God – that is, as personal but as more than an individual: as more than a person.”7 Moule has in mind the incorporative formulae – “in Christ” and “in the Lord” –which point to this “more than a person” and “more than an individual” dimension, and thus to preexistence and to the deity of the Son before space and time.
Because of these “pointers” and other evidence, Moule is ready to state that there is “a conception of God as differentiated unity, as unity in plurality – unity in at least duality.” He has no doubt that as a minimum there is a binitarian conception of God in the New Testament. However, he is unable to take the further step and claim that there is a trinitarian conception of God in the New Testament. “What is not clear,” he writes, “is that the Spirit is distinguishable from God [the Father] in the way in which Christ is distinguishable from both God and the Spirit.”8 He accepts that the New Testament furnishes evidence that Christians described their experience of God in “triple terms,” but he doubts whether these statements actually point to “an eternal threefold differentiation within the Deity” in the same way as the experience of Christ points to an eternal, binitarian dialogue therein.
At the end of chapter 4 of The Holy Spirit, Moule writes: “When Spirit is the mode of God’s presence in the hearts and minds of his people, then there is a good case for personal language [with respect to the Spirit]. But this still does not force upon us a third eternal ‘Person’ (in the technical sense) within the Unity [of God].” Then in the final lines of the same chapter he wrote:
Christian experience led to the recognition of at least two distinguishable “modes” of God’s presence with men: the “mode,” namely, in which Christ was experienced as Mediator, and Christians incorporated in him; and the “mode” in which the Holy Spirit was found in and among Christians, interpreting Christ and creating his likeness in them. It is thus intelligible that the Church came to speak of God as eternally Father, Son and Spirit. But threefoldness is, perhaps, less vital to a Christian conception of God than the eternal twofoldness of Father and Son.9
For Moule, it is sufficient to say that the Spirit is the presence of the personal God. And like Lampe, he is somewhat impatient of the later ecclesiastical distinctions in the formulation of the dogma of the Holy Trinity.
So Moule does not see the doctrine of the Trinity as either the first principle of, or the completion of the Christian theological system. He belongs to that movement of “modern” biblical theology which interprets the New Testament without reference to the way it was understood in the second, third, and fourth centuries of the Christian era.10
ROYCE G. GRUENLER AND CORNELIUS PLANTINGA, JR.
Royce C. Gruenler (Gordon‑Conwell Theological Seminary) is an evangelical biblical scholar and the author of The Trinity in the Gospel of John (1986). One of his aims is to present what he has discovered in John’s Gospel concerning the living God. He calls this the “social nature” of God, “the divine Community,” “the divine Household,” “the Triune Community,” and the “Triune Society.” However, he admits that, before studying this Gospel afresh, he has been impressed by the emphasis upon the social nature of reality in process philosophy and theology, as well as by the exposition of the social nature of God by Leonard Hodgson in The Doctrine of the Trinity.
With respect to methodology, he admits the influence of Michael Polanyi (see his Personal Knowledge, 1964) and writes:
I have used an exegetical approach that owes a considerable debt to the critical analysis intention of persons, particularly in regard to the disclosures of their intention in speech and action. What I have tried to do is to look and see and listen and try to understand what Jesus is doing and saying in the Gospel of John, and what he is intending to convey to his audience in regard to his relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and with the new community comprised of his followers. This exegetical approach aims to be primarily descriptive of the speech, actions, and intentions of Jesus in the fourth Gospel, with a view to understanding what he is saying about the divine Community and the new community of believers.11
Though he uses the word “community” in virtually every page of his book, Gruenler never defends the choice of this word to describe the Holy Trinity. He simply assumes (along with a growing chorus of modern writers) that it is appropriate and meaningful. Therefore, he proceeds with this explanation:
As a historian and exegete with Christian convictions, I find that noteworthy and distinguishing characteristics of the Triune Community emerge in Jesus’ dialogues, and that an exegesis of the dialogues brings a new understanding of the social nature of God and the way in which New Testament life and ethics are grounded in the nature of the divine Triunity. Reflecting the divine Household, the household of the church is to demonstrate God’s social nature and hospitality and being there at the disposal of others.
And he continues by claiming:
Perhaps most impressive is the discovery that Jesus described how Father, Son and Spirit defer to one another and are at each other’s disposal, and how they are redemptively at the disposal of the new community of disciples. Accordingly, the ultimate grounding of Christian life and behavior is seen to be in the social life and behavior of the persons of the divine Family who are there for one another in essential Triunity.12
In his exegesis of specific passages, Gruenler notes how mutual loving, generosity, glorification, equality, availability, disposability, and deference “characterize the divine Family in the Gospel as a whole.”
Perhaps the most appropriate judgment on this book is to say that it claims too much and is not sufficiently careful in the use of social analogies for God. While the German word, gemeinschaft (meaning either corporate fellowship or community or both) is a word which perhaps may be used of the Holy Trinity, the American word “community” does not have the richness of meaning of the German word. In order not to cause confusion, it is better to use “communion of Persons” when speaking of the Holy Trinity.
Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (Calvin Theological Seminary) is an evangelical systematic theologian, whose doctoral thesis at Princeton in 1982 was on the “social analogy of the Trinity.” An important essay by him, “Social Trinity and Tritheism,” appears in a collection of essays entitled, Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement (1989). As the title suggests, it is a defense of the social analogy of the Trinity against the charge of tritheism.
After considering the New Testament evidence, claims Plantinga, “a person who extrapolated theologically from Hebrews, Paul and John would naturally develop a social theory of the Trinity.” Therefore, he proposes such a theory.
The Holy Trinity is a divine, transcendent society or community of three fully personal and fully divine entities: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit or Paraclete. These three are wonderfully unified by their common divinity, that is, by the possession by each [one of them] of the whole generic divine essence – including, for instance, the properties of everlastingness and of sublimely great knowledge, love and glory. The persons are also unified by their joint redemptive purpose, revelation, and work. Their knowledge and love are directed not only to their creatures, but also primordially and archetypally to each other. The Father loves the Son and the Son [loves] the Father.
And to this he adds the following comment:
Extrapolating beyond explicit New Testament teaching, let us say that the Father and Son love the Spirit and the Spirit [loves] the Father and Son. The Trinity is thus a zestful, wondrous community of divine light, love, joy, mutuality and verve.13
We may also note that Dr. Plantinga uses the word person of each of the Three and tells us that he uses it “in a rich sense,” by which he means that each of the Three is “a distinct center of consciousness.” Yet he vigorously denies that this means belief in three “autonomous persons” or in three “independent persons.”
Though Plantinga is more careful in his use of words and analogies concerning the living God than is Gruenler, he also allows his imagination to be overactive when he speaks of God as “a zestful, wondrous community.” However, both writers are aware of the differences between the Barthian approach and the “Social Analogy” school of such recent writers as Leonard Hodgson and, while adopting the general approach of the latter, are also influenced by the former.
Anthony Kelly is a Roman Catholic who has written The Trinity of Love: A Theology of the Christian God (1989). His method of reading the New Testament for Trinitarian doctrine is found in his chapter, “The Scriptural Foundations,” where he presents four ways in which the books of the New Testament actually provide data for a doctrine of the Trinity, which he recognizes to be (in a full sense) an achievement of the post-apostolic church. We shall notice each of these ways.
The Rhetoric of Trinitarian Expression
By rhetoric Kelly means the creative effort of the writers of the New Testament (and of their fellow Christians in the church) to express in words their experience of God in Christ. “The awareness of momentous events provokes a search for the right words in a kind of verbal celebration of the transformation that has occurred, and to give it enduring public meaning. The wording of the ‘New’ reality that has taken place in Christ is a complex linguistic event.”14
The early Christians were aware not only of believing in Jesus Christ as the Lord but also of being “in Christ” as they “walked in the Spirit.” They looked to him as the resurrected Lord and they experienced life and fellowship in “his Body.” They learned to read the Hebrew Scriptures in terms of this Lord Jesus Christ, who had fulfilled the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms. So they spoke of Jesus in the terms available to them from the Scriptures – he is the Word of God, the Wisdom of God, the Son of God, the Messiah, and so on. Further, they knew that Jesus as Lord is intimately related to Yahweh, the God of Israel, and to the Spirit of Yahweh, who dwells in the church.
The vocabulary of the Hebrew Scriptures was not sufficient to do justice to the full reality of the New Covenant. So the early Christians began to express what we may call a trinitarian consciousness through the use of triadic formulations. In coming into words within the New Testament in a variety of places and forms of the triad of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit was the natural expression of a Faith which could not remain within the terms of the Shema – “the Lord our God is one Lord and you shall love the Lord your God” (Deut. 6:4–5). The most familiar of these triadic expressions is “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ [the Son], and the love of God [the Father] and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14), but this is only one amongst many.
The rhetoric is also to be seen in what Kelly calls “iconic” and “schematic” forms. By “iconic” he means such pictorial incidents as the baptism of Jesus (where the Father speaks, the Holy Spirit descends, and the Son hears and receives – Mark 1:9ff), and the conception of Jesus (where the Father sends the archangel and the Holy Spirit and where the eternal Son descends and unites to himself human nature in the womb of Mary by the Holy Spirit – Luke 1:32–35).
By “schematic” he means the general construction of major sections of Pauline letters (e.g., Rom. and Eph.), where there is the movement of salvation from the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, and where there is the movement of response to the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit. More particularly, he means the content of the Gospel of John, where we read so often of the Father and the Son and of the communion between them; further, we read in the same text of the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father at the request of the Son as the second Paraclete (see particularly John 16:12–16).
The Trinitarian Narrative
Learning from the modern school of theology called “narrative theology,” Kelly asserts that the biblical narrative contains three stories or three versions of one story. Obviously, it is the story of the people of God, the old and new Israel, and of their history and experiences through space and time. It is the story of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Moses, Joshua, Deborah, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Mary, Peter, Paul, and many others.
Yet the “inner criterion for the meaningfulness of this narrative, the whole reason for its telling, is that it deals with the activity and character of the one, true God.”15 The history of God’s people lives from the “biography of God.” And this God is the God who creates the world and then he elects, loves, and cares for his people. To them he sent his only Son, who lived, died, and rose from the dead and ascended into heaven for them. To them he sent his Spirit, who indwells them and guides them and leads them into all truth.
Apart from being a good story, the narrative becomes to those who read it as believers (united in the Holy Spirit to the Lord Jesus) a personal communication. In fact, Christians are wholly involved in this story because they are brought into union with the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. The story, which is ultimately the story of the Holy Trinity, becomes their story. They are involved in the divine autobiography.
Kelly refers to the name of “the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” as being three biblical symbols, which are correlated in a dramatic interplay in the New Testament. He writes:
They exist in a unified symbol-system meant to disclose the identity and saving presence of the One God. The Father/Son symbolism is most clearly correlated. It discloses a communion of life, mutual knowledge, common will and reciprocal revelation as the Son reveals the Father and as the Father acclaims the Son and draws all to him. The Father and the Son, in different but related ways, give the Spirit. And the Spirit inspires new relationships to each of them. In this dynamic interplay of the symbols of God, the one relational and communitarian divine mystery is evoked.16
And he makes the point that this interplay of symbols occurs in the proclamation and embodiment of the reign of God by Jesus Christ. “The God of Jesus, the God who works in him, is intent on the healing and liberation of human beings.”17 So the religious imagination is challenged by the symbolism of a non-patriarchalist Father, by a Son who calls him “Abba,” and by a Holy Spirit who destroys Satan’s power.
Kelly believes that there are three interrelated levels of experience brought to expression in the New Testament – that of the early church, that of the disciples who were the primary witnesses to the Resurrection and, most mysteriously, the experience of Jesus himself.
(1) To expound the experience of the early church, Kelly makes use of the much quoted definition from Clifford Geertz of religious existence, which is:
A system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men, by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.18
So (a) the system of symbols is “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”; (b) the moods and motivations are the cumulative sense of the “new” B the Incarnation, the Gift of the Spirit; (c) the conceptions of existence are the revealed plans of the Father whose will it is to bring all things to their fulfillment in Christ Jesus; and (d) the aura of factuality is the conviction that the Father has been truly revealed by the Son and made known in the Spirit.
The experience of the church within this sense of religious existence is first of all in terms of “Spirit.” There is a profound consciousness of new life and of new relationships – to the Father, to Jesus Christ, to the fellowship of Christians, and so on. Then there is a vital sense of mission inspired and guided by the Spirit – as portrayed in the Book of Acts.
In the second place the experience of the church is being addressed and spoken to “through the Son” (Heb. 1:2). In many various ways Yahweh-Elohim spoke in time past but now, they knew, he spoke in a vitally new way through his Son.
Thirdly, there is the experience of knowing God intimately, yet in reverence, as the Father of Jesus Christ and praying, “Abba.”
Therefore, says Kelly, the early church had the vivid impression of God being with us in the Son, within us in the Spirit, and all-embracingly around and above us as the Father.
(2) To expound the experience of God in Jesus of the first disciples, who were with Jesus before and after his death and resurrection, Kelly makes use of a psychological reconstruction by Sebastian Moore in his book, The Fire and the Rose Are One. Kelly approves Moore’s attempt to indicate an approach “to a grassroots derivation of the Trinity,” and quotes these lines:
For the understanding, the meaning of “God” is shaped by a person’s psychological state. Thus while a person is still in guilt, “God” is to him the jealous, all-dominating one, the threat to man=s fragile existence. For the disciples of Jesus, this “God” dies with the collapse of the Jesus movement. The “God” they next encounter, the next divine affective focus, is Jesus as a power stronger than death. As the meaning of this sinks in, they are able to experience the original God not as jealous or domineering, but as loving, as bringing us into immortal life. Finally, the sense of the sheer vitality of God can burst upon the soul and be named “Holy Spirit.” Thus the matrix of the images of the divine persons in the “infinite connection” as it undergoes the transformation of the encounter with the risen Jesus.19
Kelly holds that though such an interpretation is evocative rather than textually analytical, it does seem a reasonable account of what was going on in and with the disciples.
(3) The experience of Jesus himself is the most difficult of all to identify. However, it seems reasonably clear from the Gospel records that he was conscious of a unique and exclusive communion with the Father, whom he called “my Father.” Further, it also seems clear that he was conscious of being possessed and indwelt, also in an unique and exclusive way, by the Spirit of the Lord. Kelly quotes with approval the words of James D.C. Dunn.
Jesus thought of himself as God’s Son and as anointed by the eschatological Spirit, because in prayer he experienced God as Father, and in ministry, he experienced the power to heal which he could only understand as the power of the end-time and as inspiration to proclaim a message which he could only understand as the gospel of the end-time.20
So the doctrine of the Trinity is “the conceptual unfolding of Jesus= conscious identity and of the mystery enacted through him.”
It is of interest to compare the way Kelly proceeds with the way Roman Catholic theologians proceeded before the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). For example, books on the doctrine of the Trinity by Joseph Pohle (1919) and Felix Klein (1940) see the doctrine delivered in propositional form within the New Testament books. In fact, the doctrine is seen as a part of the immediate deposit of faith. Between Klein and Pohle on the one hand, and Kelly (and modern Catholics) on the other, is the adoption of the historical-critical method by Roman Catholic scholars. Therefore, the New Testament is now most usually interpreted as supplying data for the development of the doctrine by the church after the apostolic period.
SUMMARY AND COMMENT
Each of the positions summarized above is found today in a similar or related form either in the teaching or in the liturgies of the various denominations. The basically conservative position represented by Wainwright, that the New Testament contains the recognition, if not the developed doctrine, of God as Holy Trinity, continues to be held by those who have a high regard for the authority of the New Testament. For example, the Baptist scholar, Ralph P. Martin, writes that “the doctrine of the Trinity is only embryonic in the New Testament literature” and that the New Testament “reflecting Christian experience gained in worship, provides the raw materials for the later dogma.”21 In contrast, Lampe’s presentation of the unitarian doctrine that God is Spirit, together with the rejection of the full authority of the New Testament and the preexistence of Christ, is becoming increasingly common in the large liberal denominations, sometimes expressing itself as modalism or deism or even pantheism/panentheism.
Moule’s view that binitarianism is clearly taught but that trinitarianism is not clearly (if at all) presented in the New Testament, probably is the view of not a few scholarly as well as pious folk. Certainly it is easy to appreciate such a position (which is essentially conservative) if the New Testament is interpreted without reference to the development of doctrine in the early church. In chapter 6 we shall make use of an important study of the origins of binitarianism in the New Testament by Larry W. Hurtado – One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Christian Monotheism (1988).
The doctrine of the social Trinity seems to be gaining acceptance in the liberal Protestant denominations as well as in the Roman Catholic Church. However, it is usually in a less traditional form than presented by Gruenler and Plantinga. Its growing popularity has to do with its usefulness in providing a model for community on earth. Therefore, it can be adapted by feminist, liberationist, political, as well as conservative activists to commend one or another version of human community as based on the way God actually exists as God (or the threefold way God is experienced by people on earth). One attractive presentation of this from a feminist perspective is Catherine M. LaCugna, God for Us (1992).
The position developed by Kelly represents the view of many Roman Catholics who hold to the development of doctrine in the church. In the New Testament are the various seeds and themes which, it is held, will develop under the guidance of the Lord of the church into fully developed doctrines/dogmas. With reference to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the seeds and themes of the New Testament reached their dogmatic expression in the Creeds of the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople and in later conciliar statements.
So we see that among scholars who are prepared to state that they are Trinitarians and that the confession of God as the Unity in Trinity/Trinity in Unity is fundamental to the Christian religion there is no clear agreement as to whether or not there is a formal doctrine of God as the Holy Trinity, that is, a threefold plurality in unity, anywhere in the New Testament. Some claim that there is such a doctrine therein, even though it is undeveloped and embryonic, lacking the intellectual clarity of the later church doctrine of three hypostaseis in one ousia (three persons in one substance). Others are ready to admit that there is an awareness by the apostolic writers of the problem that God is a plurality in unity – be it a binitarian or a trinitarian unity – and that this problem surfaces at specific points (e.g., the baptism of Jesus) and in various ways (e.g., in liturgical formulae). Yet others see no plurality in the unity of God at all: they see only a fuller revelation of the identity and character of the one, true God given through Jesus Christ and in/by the Holy Spirit.
In the light of this situation, it is necessary for me to be clear concerning my use of terminology when I am presenting my own interpretation rather than citing those of others. When I write of the doctrine or the dogma of the Trinity I am thinking specifically of the formal statements by the church of the Fathers: in particular, I am thinking of the teaching within the Creeds – the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (381) and the later Athanasian Creed (Quicunque Vult). In these cases there is formal doctrine, which is precise and which is stated so as to exclude alternative but erroneous possibilities (e.g., that of Arianism).
I do not believe that there is a precise or formal doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament materials. At the same time, I do think that the whole of the New Testament bears witness – mostly implicitly but sometimes explicitly – to the plurality within unity of the one true God, Yahweh-Elohim. So I can say with Arthur Wainwright that the writers of the New Testament were aware of the problem of the Trinity and were moving toward a doctrine of the same; but, the word “problem” does not seem an appropriate term to describe this gracious and uplifting theme in the minds of the writers. I can also comfortably join George Tavard and speak of the “vision of the Trinity” (the title of his book): at least the word “vision” indicates that the writers were aware of more than they were able, ready, or desirous of expressing in words.
My own preference is to speak of the writers of the New Testament as having a “sense” or “conviction” or “consciousness” of a wonderful and mysterious plurality within the unity of God. This spiritual knowledge of God, the Father, through his Son, and in/by his Spirit, surfaces and is expressed in a variety of ways in their writings. This is because it is embedded in their Christian experience and is expressed in their corporate worship and personal piety. However, they did not explore or develop their convictions concerning the plurality within unity in a full, intellectual sense. Their concentration and emphasis were to declare and to explain the Gospel of God (the Father) concerning his Son (Jesus Christ) as they were guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit. So they provide much information about the eternal God, Yahweh-Elohim, as he is turned toward the world in the work of creation, redemption, and sanctification. In particular they speak much of Jesus of Nazareth as the One in whom God is revealed and active. That is, within the statement of this divine activity and energy, they speak of the relations of the Father and the Son, the Son and the Father, the Father and the Spirit, the Son and the Spirit. Yet, while experience of God is the experience of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, there is no formal doctrine of Yahweh-Elohim as a Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity.
The Hebrew Bible (thus also the Septuagint and the Old Testament) bears witness to Yahweh-Elohim, Creator, Redeemer, and Judge. In Part Two it will be our task to pay attention to this witness and to see how the mysterious plurality within the unique unity of this living God is made known to Christian readers. We shall experience the results of believing that “the New is in the Old concealed, the Old is by the New revealed.”
FOR FURTHER READING
Berkhof, Hendrikus. The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Atlanta: John Knox, 1964.
Gruenler, Royce G. The Trinity in the Gospel of John: A Thematic Commentary on the Fourth Gospel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.
Hodgson, Leonard. The Doctrine of the Trinity. New York: Scribner’s, 1944.
Hurtado, Larry W. One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.
Kelly, Anthony. The Trinity of Love: A Theology of the Christian God. Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1989.
Klein, Felix. The Doctrine of the Trinity. New York: Kenedy, 1940.
Lampe, G. W. H. God as Spirit: The Bampton Lectures, 1976. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977.
Moule, C. F. D. “The New Testament and the Doctrine of the Trinity,” The Expository Times 78/1 (October 1976): 16–21.
______ The Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.
Plantinga, Cornelius, Jr. “Social Trinity and Tritheism,” in Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement: Philosophical and Theological Essays. Edited by Ronald J. Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1989.
Pohle, Joseph. The Divine Trinity. St. Louis: Herder, 1919.
Tavard, George H. The Vision of the Trinity. Washington, D.C.: Univ. Press of America, 1981.
Wainwright, A. W. The Trinity in the New Testament. London: S.P.C.K., 1962.
Welch, Claude. In This Name: The Doctrine of the Trinity in Contemporary Theology. New York: Scribner’s, 1952.
1. Arthur W. Wainwright, The Trinity in the New Testament (London: SPCK, 1962), 3.
2. Ibid., 2,
3. Ibid., 266.
4. G. W. H. Lampe, God as Spirit: The Bampton Lectures, 1976 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977), 228.
6. C. F. D. Moule, “The New Testament and the Doctrine of the Trinity,” The Expository Times 78/1 (October 1976): 17.
8. Ibid., 18.
9. C. F. D. Moule, The Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 101.
10. A similar position to that of Moule was taken by Hendrikus Berkhof in his Warfield lectures on “The Spirit.” In The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Atlanta: John Knox, 1964) he argued that we now have just reason to say farewell to the “person-concept in pneumatology@ because modern biblical scholarship has made it clear that “Spirit” simply denotes the work of the exalted Lord Jesus in the world.
11. Royce G. Gruenler, The Trinity in the Gospel of John: A Thematic Commentary on the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 6.
12. Ibid., 8.
13. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., “Social Trinity and Tritheism,” in Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement: Philosophical and Theological Essays, ed. Ronald J. Feenstra & Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 27–28.
14. Anthony Kelly, The Trinity of Love: A Theology of the Christian God (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1989), 37.
15. Ibid., 39.
16. Ibid., 45–46.
17. Ibid., 47.
18. Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, ed. Michael Banton, ASA Mono graphs 3 (New York: Routledge/Tavistock, 1969), quoted in Kelly, Trinity of Love, 49.
19. Sebastian Moore, The Fire and the Rose Are One (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1980), 83-84, quoted in Kelly, Trinity of Love, 53.
20. James D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit (London: SCM, 1975), 67, quoted in Kelly, Trinity of Love, 57.
21. Ralph P. Martin, The Worship of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 210.
Part Two: The Witness of the Old Testament
4 – YHWH B The One And Only God
In this and the next chapter it will be our task to look at the Old Testament and Judaism to see both the clear statement of the unity of God and the hints at the plurality within God. Here we shall begin with a general description of the Jewish monotheism which Jesus and his first disciples received from their parents. This will prepare us to look at the Jewish Scriptures.
Central to the consciousness of Judaism at the time of Jesus was the Shema, the most famous of Jewish prayers and taken from the Torah, “Hear, O Israel: YHWH our God is one YHWH; and you shall love YHWH your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4). Although any general definition of first-century Jewish monotheism must begin from this text/prayer, it will not end with it for it will include reference to YHWH and the cosmos, YHWH and history/providence, and YHWH and the election of Israel.
Jewish monotheism was not henotheism – the belief that there are other gods, but the Jews worship only their own God. For Jews the gods of the nations and of the heathen pantheons were idols. YHWH is not merely above them, but he is the one and only God, who is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Further, he is active in his world. Such dynamic monotheism contrasts with pantheism for YHWH is not the impersonal universal deity which permeates and characterizes all that is (i.e., not the pantheism taught by the Stoics). He has created and upholds all that is, but he is entirely separate from the cosmos. Likewise Jewish monotheism also is not to be confused with any form of Gnosticism which teaches that the physical world was made by a supernatural being (a “god”) distinct from the “supreme God.” In the words of the psalmist: “For great is YHWH, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but YHWH made the heavens” (Ps. 96:4–5).
YHWH is supremely alone outside space and time in his transcendence and wonderfully present within space and time in his immanence.
As the Creator of the heavens and the earth, YHWH is the One who works in and through both natural and supernatural events. He is not remote, far removed from his people in a distant heavenly abode. Further, the Jewish belief in angels, which apparently intensified in the intertestamental period, points not (as some mistakenly suppose) to an absent or detached God, who sends mediators. Rather, it points to the actual involvement of YHWH through heavenly messengers both in his creation and with his people. As the prophet declared: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I am YHWH, who do all these things” (Isa. 45:7).
YHWH is the God who is wholly involved in history as the God of providence.
Jewish monotheism is not only creational and providential, but also covenantal. That is, not only is YHWH the Creator and Preserver of the world who will cleanse and restore his creation, but he will do so through his elect people, Israel. Thus the prayer to YHWH: “Look down from thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless thy people Israel and the ground which thou hast given us, as thou didst swear to our fathers” (Deut. 26:15). And thus the statement: “YHWH has declared ... that you are a people for his own possession, as he has promised you ... that he will set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame and in honor, and that you shall be a people holy to YHWH your God, as he has spoken” (Deut. 26:18–19).
This form of monotheism was strengthened in the heathen world by the stories in the Jewish Scriptures of pagans actually coming to acknowledge YHWH as the one, true God (see 2 Kings 5:15–18 [Naaman]; Zech. 8:22–23; Dan. 2:47; 3:28; 4:2–3, 34–37 [Nebuchadnezzar]) and of YHWH doing battle with pagan gods and defeating them (see 1 Sam. 5:1–5; 17:26, 36, 45–46; Isa. 37:23; 1 Macc. 4:30–33). From the watchtowers of Israel, it was announced, “YHWH has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (Isa. 52:10). The defeat of Babylon is here the cause for rejoicing!
The Jews claimed to be the covenant people of YHWH, the Creator, Sustainer, and Director of the heavens and earth. They held that their God, precisely because he is the Creator and the covenant Lord, would one day, the day of YHWH, act to put the whole cosmos right and place his elect people in a right relation to himself freed from all oppression and tribulation.
What we need to be aware of, as we reflect on the origin of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, is that it is this very Jewish belief and worldview of monotheism, which caused the majority of Jews to reject not only the claims of Christianity but also the claims of Stoicism, Epicureanism, paganism, and Gnosticism as well in the first century. Because Jewish monotheism emphasized so intently the unity and oneness of YHWH, it could not entertain the claim that the man, Jesus Christ, actually is the complete self-revelation of God. So the Jewish rabbis said of Christians that they both know YHWH and at the same time deny him!
Certainly Christianity possessed the same Scriptures as did Judaism and certainly Christianity believed in YHWH, the one God, as did Judaism. However, Christians read the Scriptures as those who believed not only that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah of the Jews, but that he is also the full revelation of God in human flesh. By his resurrection from the dead, he has been vindicated as the Messiah by YHWH, and he has been raised to the right hand of the Father in heaven. In fact, we can state that the Christian claim from the beginning was that YHWH, the Creator of the world, who is the God of Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, has revealed himself uniquely through Jesus in a way which necessarily sets aside both pagan claims concerning the gods and Jewish definitions of the Unity of YHWH.
At this point and before we turn to the Old Testament to look for any indication of YHWH as a Trinity in Unity therein, we need to be aware of the discussion among scholars concerning Jewish teaching about possible intermediaries between God and his covenant people. One major question in debate has been whether Jewish monotheism was compromised by reason of teaching in the intertestamental period concerning: (a) the personification and/or hypostatization of the Word and Wisdom of God; (b) the development of belief in the hierarchy of angels and archangels; and (c) the attributing to great patriarchs of the past (e.g., Enoch and Moses) a present mediating role before God in heaven. Another question in debate has been whether or not the confession of the resurrected Jesus as the exalted Lord and Mediator by the first Christians was basically a continuation of the supposed Jewish doctrine of divine agents as intermediaries.
The position adopted in this book (following Larry Hurtado and N. T. Wright) is that, after the exile in Babylon and under the Greek and Roman Empires, there was certainly an increase in Jewish speculation concerning the Word and Wisdom of God as well as concerning intercessory and mediating roles for patriarchs and angels. However, this absorbing interest does not in any obvious way diminish the transcendence, majesty, and Unity of the One God. Rather, it highlights and underlines the immanence and omnipresence of this One living God in his creation – present through his Spirit, Word, Wisdom, messengers, and intercessors. Further, this speculative teaching serves to illustrate the search for the truth of God, who he really is; and, in doing so, it points to the culmination of that search in the Revelation by God himself through Jesus Christ that he, YHWH, is a Plurality in Unity, the Holy Trinity.
In this chapter our subject matter will necessarily include focusing upon “the angel of the Lord.” And my position will be essentially that of George F. Knight who wrote:
There is no evidence in the OT that the conception of angels is a late one. Some scholars have maintained that in the post-exilic period the God of the Hebrews grew more and more remote from Israel and finally became transcendent alone. The conception of intermediaries between God and man, they maintain, had to be introduced. It is true that a proliferation of angels is a mark of the period of the apocryphal books, and that the hierarchical ranks and even the names of leading angels may have entered Judaism from the east through Persian influence. ... But the conception that God could be represented on earth by an angel is as old as some of the oldest extant literature of the OT that we possess.1
Thus we proceed on the assumption that angels and in particular, the “angel of the Lord,” truly appeared to the patriarchs.
TWO APPROACHES TO THE OLD TESTAMENT
In the last decade of the twentieth century, many Christians are not sure how they should read the Old Testament. Are they to read it on its own terms according to the principles of historical science, or as a kind of preparatory book for the New Testament? To read it on its own terms seems to harmonize with our modern sense of development and progress in history; and virtually all the academic books devoted to the study of the Old Testament appear to point in this direction. From this “scientific” perspective, to read the Old Testament as preparation for the New Testament can seem to be unscientific and irrational as well as overly spiritual or pietistic. However, in the historic churches where an ancient Liturgy is used and the Old Testament is read according to the traditional Lectionary, then the operative principle is that the Old Testament definitely contains a preparation for Jesus Christ, and is rightly understood in this way.
We note then that there are two basic ways of reading those books which Christians call the Old Testament, and we assert that both may be used by those who are willing to make the effort to do so. The simultaneous use of the two ways is perhaps the surest way for Christians today to be “modern” and “Christian.”
The way which is most common in theological education and modern Old Testament scholarship is to read the books according to the historical-critical method. Here the attempt is being made to understand their content solely or primarily in terms of their own times and context. This approach, in one or another of its forms, dominates the reading and study of the Bible in virtually all academic circles in the Western world.
The other is to adopt the approach of the major biblical exegetes of the early church and see the Old Testament as preparation for the New Testament. One way of putting this is to say: “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is by the New revealed.” (Or, “Latent in the Old Testament is the New, patent in the New Testament is the Old.”) Here it is understood that the One and the Same living God revealed himself by word and deed through history; thus what he reveals himself to be in the later revelation he actually was/is in the earlier revelation. Therefore, in the earlier self-disclosure by God one may expect hints of the fuller character and nature of God which are made clear in the later revelation.
There are, of course, clear pointers in the New Testament which lead to the Christian reading of the Old Testament – as we indicated in chapter 1. For example, the inspiration upon the Old Testament prophets is declared to be from the Holy Trinity by one writer:
The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look (1 Peter 1:10–12).
Christ is viewed as being already alive in the prophets, and the Holy Spirit, who brings the Word from heaven, is nothing less than God. The presence of the Father is supplied by the context in which this passage occurs.
So this principle of the New being concealed in the Old obviously applies to the doctrine of God as Holy Trinity – Three Persons, One God. However, if we read the books of the Old Testament in terms of modern biblical criticism – literary, source, form, and redaction criticism – then we should not expect to find anything which points obviously to the One God as a Plurality in Unity. The major textbooks on the theology of the Old Testament have little or nothing to say of God as the Holy and Undivided Trinity. For, as we all know, such a doctrine was only specifically known in the period after the incarnation of the Son of God. Thus what is seen in the Old Testament by this historical-critical method is the gradual recognition by the Israelites that Yahweh-Elohim, the Lord God, is not only the supreme God among the gods of the nations, but the one and only LORD God (1 Kings 8:60).
On the other hand, if we read the Old Testament after having first read and believed the content of the books of the New Testament and adopted the Christian Creed (Apostles’ and Nicene), then we see in the words of the text more meaning than we would see if we were reading it solely in terms of its original, historical context. This richer meaning has been associated historically within the church with what is often called the fourfold sense of Scripture. It is well captured in the medieval distich:
Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, Moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia. (“The letter teaches what took place, the allegory what to believe, the moral what to do, the anagogy what goal to strive for.”)
First of all, in the literal sense, the Scriptures tell us what happened and how God has intervened in human history. Thus the literal and historical sense are interchangeable. Next, the literal reading suggests and the allegorical supplies what to believe. (The word allegory reflects the days when Scripture for the early church meant what we now call the Old Testament. To use allegory then was to go beyond the literal significance of the Old Testament texts to find in them the mysteries revealed in the New Testament. It was also to affirm the unity of the two testaments.) This fullness of belief, sometimes called the mystical sense, is the totality of truths concerning Christ and his church, prefigured in the Old and present in the New Testament. Thirdly, arising from the literal and allegorical meanings, is the moral sense – what you must do as a Christian to love, trust, and obey God. Finally, anagogy points to what goals to strive for as a Christian. The anagogical meaning is also the eschatological meaning.
The best example of the fourfold sense is the word, “Jerusalem.” It is (a) the historical city; (b) the church, a mystical city; (c) the individual soul; and (d) the heavenly Jerusalem, the church above.
To summarize, the historical-critical method seeks to state what was intended and understood by those to whom the Revelation was originally given; in contrast, the patristic and medieval method seeks to state what is veiled but nevertheless present to the eyes of faith and by the design of God within the historically given Revelation. In this chapter, we shall use both methods, applying them specifically to the records of God=s self-disclosure to the patriarchs and to Moses. In terms of the fourfold sense, our interest is primarily with the allegorical since our topic is definitely doctrinal.
Therefore, we shall look at God=s encounter with Moses from two perspectives. In each case we shall first follow the modern historical-critical method and then, secondly, note the way the same texts were read and understood by the Fathers.
YAHWEH-ELOHIM VISITS THE PATRIARCHS
God Speaks to and Meets with Abraham and Jacob
In the Book of Genesis there is a series of accounts of encounters between the God (Elohim), who is later known as YHWH, Yahweh, the Elohim of Israel (Ex. 6:3), and the patriarchs, Abraham and Jacob. Modern scholarship sees these scriptural accounts as the careful and creative weaving together of previously existing oral and written traditions concerning the patriarchs and their God. Our limited task here is only to note the content of the final text. It is not to inquire into the prehistory of the contents of the text.
The call of Abraham (Gen. 12:1–6) contains no visual or visible appearance by God to the patriarch. Abraham is recorded as hearing a word from the invisible Yahweh. It is, however, a remarkable word, taking us from the local to the universal. He is commanded to leave his home, clan, and country and go to another land. There God will richly bless him and make him a blessing to all the families of the earth.
The covenant between Yahweh and Abraham is described in Genesis 15:1–21. The word of God carne to him “in a vision” but no visual perception is recorded. Rather it is Yahweh, the invisible but speaking God, who confronts Abraham. Though the patriarch has no heir, Yahweh promised him that his seed would be as countless as the stars in the heavens. In response, we read that “Abraham had faith on Yahweh, who imputed it to him for righteousness.” Obviously Abraham took God at his word and truly believed the promise made to him. At the same time Yahweh placed Abraham in a relation of communion and friendship (justification in Pauline terms) with himself
In Genesis 18 we find the superb and intriguing account of the visit of the three strangers to Abraham and Sarah by the Oaks of Mamre. As we read what appears at first to be a simple, moving story we begin to see that it is rich and complex. First of all, Abraham addressed only one of the visitors, but offered hospitality to all three. Then all three asked him about Sarah, his wife, but only one of them, who is identified as Yahweh, announced the forthcoming birth of a son to Abraham and Sarah. Hearing this, Sarah, now past the age of child-bearing, laughed. Thus Yahweh spoke again (vv. 13–14) assuring Abraham that Sarah would truly bear him a son.
Abraham accompanied the three men as they left, traveling toward Sodom (v. 16). At this point in the narrative we hear a soliloquy from Yahweh (vv. 17–19) concerning his plans for Abraham, followed by a word (which Abraham was intended to hear?) concerning Sodom and Gomorrah. Then follows the moving intercession by Abraham, addressed to Yahweh, on behalf of Sodom (vv. 20–31). Next we hear of the visit of two angels to Sodom where they meet Lot, enter his house, strike unwelcome visitors with blindness, cause Lot to leave and then execute the judgment of the Lord upon Sodom and Gomorrah (19:1ff).
Yet another engaging story is that of the testing of Abraham=s faith in Genesis 22. The words, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains” (v. 2) have made profound impressions on many souls.
In this visitation we have both the direct word of God and the word of God via an angel heard by Abraham. Further, we have the last-minute provision of a sacrifice in place of Isaac. Abraham has shown that “he fears God.” Such fear, or supreme devotion, is the very essence of true religion for the Old Testament. It is trust in, and love for, the God who is both far and near and who, in this particular episode, conceals his own divine nature in what seems to be hostility toward the man of his choice!
As we meditate upon the accounts of Abraham’s encounter with Yahweh, we recognize that Yahweh is a self-concealing God. In the words of Isaiah: “Verily, thou art a God that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (45:15, KJV). Certainly God speaks and certainly God appears, but at the same time he remains elusive. He cannot be located at any one place or shrine and his full identity is never revealed.
Yahweh, as the self‑concealing God, also revealed himself to Jacob both in the dream of the heavenly stairway (Gen. 28:10–22) and in the wrestling with the stranger by night (Gen. 32:22–32). From Genesis 28 we learn that communion with God is real and that God’s plan is to bless the whole world through the seed of Abraham (Jacob). Further, from Genesis 32 we learn that the stranger with whom Jacob fought was, in an elusive and veiled way, the God of Abraham. Jacob won the fight; however, he remained forever afterward a maimed man, who knew that there is forgiveness with the Lord. In fact, Jacob only became the new man, Israel, when he recognized in his adversary, the presence of God himself. “I have seen Elohim face to face” (v. 30). (The word ’elohim is the standard word for “God.” Although the noun is plural in form it usually takes the singular verb. In contrast, other Semitic languages have retained a singular noun for “God.”)
The Holy Trinity Encounters Abraham and Jacob
When we read the patristic theological interpretation of the revelation of God to the patriarchs, we realize that we are in a different thought world than that of modern commentators on the Pentateuch. The early fathers, as many commentators after them, came to the text as Trinitarians. They believed in God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, and the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father (and the Son). They confessed One God in Trinity and a Trinity in Unity. Nevertheless, as we would expect, they differed as to how far there is a veiled Revelation of the Holy Trinity in the Old Testament. All believed that the “angel of the Lord” was the Second Person, the eternal Word, who was to be, in the fullness of the times, born of the Virgin Mary. Some also believed that here and there God actually revealed himself (howbeit in an indirect manner) to be the Three in One and One in Three.
The late William G. T. Shedd in his editing of the text of Augustine’s classic study, De Trinitate, wrote these words:
The theophanies of the Pentateuch are trinitarian in their implication. They involve distinctions in God – God sending, and God sent; God speaking of God, and God speaking to God. The trinitarianism of the Old Testament has been lost sight of to some extent in the modern [i.e., late 19th century] construction of the doctrine. The patristic, medieval and reformation theologies worked this vein with thoroughness, and the analysis of Augustine in this respect is worthy of careful study.2
We may add that in the modern era (i.e., late twentieth century) the trinitarianism of the Old Testament has been lost sight of to an even greater degree than in 1887 when Shedd wrote these words. The sole use of the historical-critical method serves to hide the Holy Trinity from view.
Shedd’s observation appears as a footnote in the text of De Trinitate where Augustine of Hippo is discussing first the visit of the Lord God (which is also the visit of the three men) to Abraham and Sarah at the Oaks of Mamre and then, secondly, the appearance to Lot (in Gen. 18–19). Augustine was obviously deeply intrigued by the three who speak as One and then later the two who speak as One. Here it was not simply the Second Person accommodating himself to the likeness of man. His thought was that:
Since three men appeared, and no one of them is said to be greater than the rest either in form, or age, or power, why should we not here understand, as visibly intimated by the visible creature, the equality of the Trinity, and one and the same substance in Three Persons?3
With respect to the two who visited Lot, Augustine concluded his thoughts with these words:
But which two Persons do we here understand? – of the Father and of the Son, or of the Father and of the Holy Spirit, or of the Son and of the Holy Spirit? The last, perhaps, is the most suitable; for they said of themselves that they were sent, which is that which we say of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. For we find nowhere in the Scriptures that the Father was sent.4
Some may regard Augustine’s approach as too speculative or fanciful. What is clear, however, to anyone who will carefully read Genesis 18–19, is that the interchange of the singular and plural is most striking and intriguing.
The trinitarian interpretation of this incident is most beautifully presented in pictorial form by the late fourteenth or early fifteenth-century icon by Andrej Rublev, The Holy Trinity, which is in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Rublev was not innovating but drawing on a long iconographic and exegetical tradition, when he undertook to paint the Trinity in terms of three angels at a table on which were the consecrated bread and wine. The Three are at the one table and their communion (circumincession or perichōrēsis) is represented by the one bread and one cup.
Hilary of Poitiers, who wrote his book The Trinity between 356 and 360 (some sixty years before Augustine wrote his), did not speak of a Revelation of the Holy Trinity. He saw one of the three as “the angel of the Lord” and discerned two meanings in this expression – “he himself who is, and he of whom he is.” Thus “he who is God from God is also the angel of God.” Or, “Although Abraham saw him as a man, he adored him as the Lord; that is, he recognized the mystery of the future Incarnation.”5
In the sixteenth century, John Calvin made it clear how he read and thought others should read the references to the “angel of Yahweh” in the “Books of Moses” and in Judges (see e.g., Jud. 6:11–22). In his classic exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, he wrote this of the “angel of the eternal God.”
The orthodox doctors of the Church have rightly and prudently interpreted the chief angel to be God’s Word, who already at that time, as a sort of foretaste, began to fulfill the office of Mediator. For even though he was not yet clothed with flesh, he came down, so to speak, as an intermediary, in order to approach believers more intimately. Therefore this closer intercourse gave him the name of angel. Meanwhile what was his he retained, that as God he might be of ineffable glory. The same thing is meant by Hosea, who, after recounting Jacob’s struggle with the angel, says, “Jehovah, the God of Hosts, Jehovah, his name is a remembrance” (Hos. 12:5, Vulgate). ... Hence, also, that saying of Paul=s that Christ was the leader of the people in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:4), because even though the time of humbling had not yet arrived, that eternal Word nevertheless set forth a figure of the office to which he had been destined.6
Those who know Calvin=s commentaries will be aware that this principle of the “angel” as the “Word,” together with his use of typology (i.e., that the ceremonies enjoined in the Law were “foreshadowings” of the full and clear revelation of the Gospel, in which the ceremonies cease), were very important to him as an exegete of the sacred text.
In his Commentary upon Genesis, however, Calvin does not follow either the Western or Eastern Christian traditions in seeing a Revelation of the Trinity at the Oaks of Mamre and in Sodom (Gen. 18–19). In fact, he referred to this interpretation as “frivolous.” What Calvin saw was the Word (the Second Person), not yet made flesh, appearing with two angels to Abraham and Sarah, and then just the two angels appearing to Lot in Sodom and there executing the judgment of the Lord upon the city. Obviously, Calvin respected traditional exegesis and interpretations, but he also felt free to depart from them when necessary.
THE THEOPHANIES OF YAHWEH-ELOHIM7 AT THE MOUNTAIN
God Appears to and Speaks with Moses
Near to the mountain (called both Horeb and Sinai) Moses was grazing his flock. At first he heard no voice, rather he beheld a wondrous sight. He saw a messenger of Yahweh in a fiery flame in the middle of a bush. Turning to look more closely, Moses was directly addressed by Yahweh who told him that he stood on holy ground and that he who spoke to him was none other than the God of the patriarchs. Appropriately, “Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look upon God” (Ex. 3:6, KJV).
Yahweh addressed Moses giving him a mission and promising to be with him in that mission. He who had escaped from Egypt was to go to Pharaoh to lead God’s people out of Egypt to a good and large land flowing with milk and honey. Yet he would not go alone for Yahweh’s commitment of communion with him was clear: “I will be with thee” (Ex. 3:12, KJV).
The promise of the presence of God encouraged Moses to continue the dialogue and to be bold to ask this God what is his name. This request was made because he had been given a commission and because he wanted to succeed in it. Leading slaves out of Egypt was no simple task.
The answer given to Moses by the God of Abraham and Jacob at the foot of the mountain has been recorded in these words (3:14–15):
And Elohim said to Moses, “’Eheyeh ’asher ’eheyeh.” And he said, “Say to the people of Israel, ’Eleyeh has sent me to you.” Elohim also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘Yahweh, the Elohim of your fathers, the Elohim of Abraham, the Elohim of Isaac, and the Elohim of Jacob has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever, and thus am I to be remembered throughout all generations.”
The divine name is YHWH (Yahweh), which is placed in parallel to ’Eleyeh and which in turn is related to the longer ’Eleyeh ’asher ’eleyeh. The usual translation of the latter three Hebrew words is “I am that I am.” So we are to hold in parallel three statements concerning the name of the God (Elohim) of the patriarchs: “I am that I am,” and “I am” and “Yahweh.” Therefore, the meaning of the name, Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Israel, is related to the verb “to be.” Whether ’Eheyeh is read as present tense, “I am who I am,” or future tense, “I shall be who I shall be,” or even as the causative-factitive, “I cause to be whatever I cause to be” (or even as all three tenses) is a matter of scholarly debate. The majority view is that we have the Hebrew verb in the imperfect tense which translates into the present or future tenses in English. Further, Semitic verbs are inflected for the gender of the subject as well as for person and number; here, as elsewhere, the form of the verb which is God’s name, is masculine! Likewise, in the Hebrew Bible every adjective, every pronoun, and every participle which refers to YHWH is also unmistakably masculine.
The God, Elohim, who is always “I AM” is obviously the God who does not change and who will therefore always be there as the God of Israel. Thus “memorial” is placed in parallel to “name” in order to emphasize hope, that the intentions of Yahweh for Moses and the people of Israel shall surely come to pass.
We know from the contents of Exodus 4 through 18 that the intentions of Yahweh did come to pass. Thus in chapter 19 we find the tribes of Israel camped before the mountain of God. The people of Israel not only witness the solitary figure of Moses going to meet with God, but they also see nature in apparent tumult. They come to see that the Exodus and crossing of the Red Sea, though manifestations of the presence and power of Yahweh, which they had experienced, were only a prelude for the theophany on the mountain.
Yahweh, descending upon the mountain, called to Moses and gave him a message for “the house of Jacob,” addressing the people in the second person plural. AIf you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you will be for me, out of all peoples, a peculiar treasure, for the whole earth is mine@ (Ex. 19:5). Israel is loved in order to become the priestly kingdom of Yahweh in human history. Israel as a whole is before God a holy nation and a royal priesthood.
Yet Israel needs to know the power and the glory of Yahweh. Thus we have the description of the theophany in Exodus 19:16ff. As Yahweh descended there was thunder, lightning, thick cloud, and the sound of a very loud trumpet. The mountain was set on fire and there was much smoke. From within this wondrous tumult of nature, Yahweh spoke to Moses and gave him the content of the covenant.
As the climax of this theophany (Ex. 24:1–11), Moses with the priests, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, together with seventy elders of Israel, “saw the God of Israel” (stated twice, vv. 10 and 11). Under his feet, it seemed, was a pavement of sapphire stone, like heaven in purity. God is not hidden in darkness but by dazzling light! The onlookers are blinded by the power of pure light.
In Exodus 33 we read of Moses in conversation with God before he leaves the area of Horeb-Sinai. Moses made three requests of Yahweh – to know his way in order to know him, to be assured of his continuing presence as they leave Sinai, and to see his glory (the innermost secret of the Godhead). The last request was denied; but, as a divine concession, Moses was allowed to see the goodness and “the back” of Yahweh rather than his “face” (33:23). Here “the back” of God is a way of speaking of the self-revelation of God in the proclamation of his name, Yahweh, and the unfolding of his ways with respect to Israel, in ongoing historical experience.
How God is toward Israel is proclaimed in these words: “Yahweh passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin’” (Ex. 34:6–7). Here God=s relation with Israel and his ways with men is declared.
Common to all the theophanies preserved in the Book of Exodus is the proclamation by God, Elohim, of his name of Yahweh. Not surprisingly the third of the Ten Words (Ten Commandments) is: “Thou shalt not invoke the name of Yahweh thy Elohim in vain.” Yahweh is the sovereign Lord of the universe. He is the Lord of history and thus transcends nature, mankind, and sexuality.
While it is correct exegetically to see in the name of YHWH the embodiment of God’s promise to be actively with and for his covenant people, it is also permissible for us to understand the Name in ontological terms as well. In saying, “I am who I am,” Yahweh is also affirming that he is the Absolutely Existent One to whose Being there is no limit and no restriction. In the Septuagint the rendering is, “I am he who is,” suggesting that the Hebrew mind has been touched by the Greek mind to see the metaphysical significance of the Name.
Returning to the content of Exodus 3, it may be claimed that theologically we are given a threefold revelation – of God=s immanence in history (“I shall be there”); of God’s transcendence to history (“I shall be there as who I am”); and of God’s transparence through history (“As who I am shall I be there”). Yahweh is the God-with-his-people; Yahweh is present in sovereign freedom; Yahweh does not reveal the inner secret of his Being to his people, but they are privileged to know him, as through his mighty works and words he becomes known to them. However, in the end, only God knows who God is. The Name of Yahweh is ineffable.
The Holy Trinity Appears to and Speaks with Moses
Calvin had no doubt but that “the angel of the Lord,” who spoke from the burning bush, was the “eternal Word of God, of one Godhead with the Father.” The Word, said Calvin, assumed the name of “the Angel” on the ground of his future mission. Augustine also favored the identification of the angel with the eternal Son who is called by the Prophet Isaiah, “the Angel of the Great Counsel” (Isa. 9:6).
However, when the question is asked of Augustine, “Which Person descended upon Mount Sinai in cloud and with fire?” we find that he provides – after some discussion – the following answer:
If it is allowable, without rash assertion, to venture upon a modest and hesitating conjecture from this passage [Ex. 19], if it is possible to understand it of one person of the Trinity, why do we not rather understand the Holy Spirit to be spoken of, since the Law itself also, which was given there, is said to have been written upon tables of stone with the “finger of God” [Ex. 21:18], by which name we know the Holy Spirit to be signified in the Gospel [Luke 11:20].8
Again, Augustine may be judged to be speculative, even though what he says does make good sense.
Normally, the early fathers, and especially the Greek fathers, thought of the Father as being the Lord God, the Kyrios-Theos of the Septuagint. However, in thinking of the Father, they did not think of the Father as being alone, for he is always the Father of the eternally begotten Son and the Father from whom the eternal Spirit is spirated. So for them Yahweh/Kyrios meant the Father, or the Three Persons acting as One, or one of the other Persons. Normally, however, Yahweh/Kyrios of the Old Testament is the Father.
What must be made clear is that both the Latin and the Greek fathers denied that in any of these visitations, revelations, and theophanies of the Old Testament was the essential nature or the very substance of God actually seen by the patriarchs or Moses. What was seen by these holy men of God was One of the Persons of the Holy Trinity accommodating himself to the understanding and senses of man through the creative use of both nature and of man himself, God’s creature. The Creator was making use of his creation for his own ends.
Whether or not we, as moderns, are moved by the results of the patristic reading of the Old Testament, we are the inheritors of this approach, even if we are Protestants and not Roman Catholics or Greek Orthodox. Further, we are also the inheritors in Western Christianity of the patristic interpretation of the full identity of the Word, the Wisdom, and the Spirit of God in the old covenant. And it is to there and to related themes, including the revealed name and nature of God, that we turn in the next chapter.
APPENDIX: THE ANGEL OF THE LORD
Since the identification of “the angel of the Lord” with the Second Person of the Holy Trinity is basic to Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation exegesis, those theophanies which include the angel of the Lord are here listed. Virtually all are from the early period of the history of Israel.
(a) Genesis 16:7–14. The angel finds Hagar and addresses her. She recognizes that it is Yahweh who speaks to her.
(b) Genesis 18:1–22. The three visitors are addressed as “My Lord.”
© Genesis 19. The two messengers in Sodom, who are addressed as “My Lord.”
(d) Genesis 21:17–19. The angel, who is identified with God, visits Hagar.
(e) Genesis 22:11–18. The angel summons Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and speaks as God.
(f) Genesis 31:11–13. The angel declares to Jacob that he is God.
(g) Genesis 32:24–30. Jacob wrestles with the angel (God).
(h) Genesis 48:15–16. Jacob blesses his sons and declares that it was an angel who had redeemed him from all evil. Much later Isaiah declared that “Yahweh became their Savior... the angel of his presence saved them” (Isa. 63:8–9).
(i) Exodus 3:2–6. The call of Moses by the angel (Yahweh).
(j) Exodus 14:19–22. The angel of the Lord, who is here distinguished from Yahweh, goes before the camp of Israel. However, in the previous chapter (13:21) it is Yahweh himself who goes before the camp in a pillar of a cloud and a pillar of a fire. Further, in 14:24, Yahweh himself is clearly identified with the cloud and fire (cf., Num. 20:16).
(k) Joshua 5:13–16. Joshua meets a man who is “the captain of the host of Yahweh.” The “man” conveys the presence of Yahweh for he tells Joshua that he stands on holy ground.
(l) Judges 2:1–5. The angel of Yahweh speaks as the One who has brought the Israelite tribes out of Egypt and as the One who will not annul his covenant with them.
(m) Judges 6:11–14. Here Gideon’s heavenly visitor is first of all separate from Yahweh and then becomes Yahweh (cf. vv. 12, 14, and see v. 22).
(n) Judges 13:2–23. Here Manoah’s heavenly visitor, who brings good tidings of the birth of a son, is never as such identified with Yahweh. However, after the visits of the angel, Manoah confesses: “We are doomed to die, because we have seen God (’elohim).”
And from the postexilic period:
(o) Ezekiel 40:1–47:12. While it is the angel who guides Ezekiel on a tour of the new temple, from time to time it is Yahweh himself (as the angel) who speaks to him (e.g., 44:4ff).
(p) Zechariah 1:1–6:8. While it is the angel who speaks often to Zechariah and also addresses Yahweh (1:12–13), it is the same angel who speaks as the mouthpiece of Yahweh (3:6–10).
(Note: The angel as representing or actually being Yahweh may be seen as an example of an “Extension” of Yahweh’s Personality. For discussion of this concept see Aubrey R. Johnson, The One and the Many in the Israelite Conception of God (1961), pp. 28–32. We shall return to the subject of Angelology and Christology in chapter 6. The chapter entitled, “The Trinity and Angelology” (pp. 117–46), in Jean Daniélou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, is a valuable study of angelomorphic language in early Christian texts. Further, the chapter entitled, “Principal Angels” (pp. 71–92), in One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, by Larry W. Hurtado is a fine survey of the place of angels in postexilic Judaism.)
FOR FURTHER READING
Augustine. On the Holy Trinity. Vol. 3 of A Select Library of Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956.
Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Book of Genesis. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981.
Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981.
Daniélou, Jean. The Theology of Jewish Christianity. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964.
Eichrodt, Walther. Theology of the Old Testament, 2 vols. London: SCM, 1967.
Fossum, J. E. The Name of God and the Angel of the Lord: The Origins of Intermediation in Gnosticism. Tubingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1985.
Hurtado, Larry W. One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.
Hilary of Poitiers. The Trinity. Vol. 25 of The Fathers of the Church. New York: Fathers of the Church, 1954.
Johnson, Aubrey R. The One and the Many in the Israelite Conception of God. Cardiff: Univ. of Wales Press, 1961.
Knight, George A. F. A Christian Theology of the Old Testament. Richmond, Va.: John Knox, 1964.
Mettinger, Tryggve N.D. In Search of God: The Meaning and Message of the Everlasting Names. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.
Terrien, Samuel. The Elusive Presence: Towards a New Biblical Theology. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978.
Vriezen, Theodorus. An Outline of Old Testament Theology, rev. ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1970.
Wright, N. T. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.
1. George F. Knight, A Christian Theology of the Old Testament, rev. ed. (Richmond Va.: John Knox, 1964), 74–75.
2. Augustine, On the Holy Trinity, 47, n. 3.
3. Ibid., 2.11.20.
4. Ibid., 2.12.22.
5. Hilary of Poitiers, The Trinity, vo1. 25 of The Fathers of the Church (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1954), 23–30.
6. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.13.10.
7. For a learned discussion of the origin and meaning of the words ’elohim and yahweh see G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, eds., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vols. 1 and 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986).
8. Augustine, On the Holy Trinity, 2.15.26.
5 – YHWH – Plurality in Unity
In the last chapter we noted the appearances of God in the early history of Israel, and we noted the revelation of the Name, YHWH, of the God of Israel. In this chapter we must now continue our study of the Name of Yahweh and also of his Wisdom, Word, and Spirit. With respect to the latter the insightful words of Aubrey Johnson are worth noting:
In Israelite thought, while man was conceived, not in some analytical fashion as “soul” and “body,” but synthetically as a psychical whole and a unit of vital power, this power was found to reach far beyond the contour of the body and to make itself felt through indefinable “extensions” of personality. Now the same idea is quite clearly present in the conception of the Godhead.1
It is present, he claims, in the Spirit, the Word, the Name, and the Angel of Yahweh. We looked at the Angel in the last chapter. Here we shall examine the Name, the Spirit, the Wisdom, and the Word of Yahweh. As we do so, we shall gain insights into the nature of the Godhead of Yahweh and see that He is a marvelous mystery, a plurality in unity, and a unity in plurality.
Three words – LORD, Jehovah, and Yahweh – are used in English to render the tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew consonants, YHWH, which is the unique Name of the God of Israel. As this Name was treated with ever more and more reverence, the Jews ceased to pronounce it during the latter part of the Old Testament period. So we are not completely sure today just how it was originally pronounced.
In the synagogue the Name of YHWH, which was too sacred to utter, was replaced by the word “Adonay,” which means “my Lord,” in the reading of the Hebrew Scriptures. Then, later, (after A.D. 500) to avoid the risk of false readings, Jews vocalized the “YHWH” with the vowels of “Adonay” (and sometimes of “Elohim”) and these are the vowels found in the markings of the Masoretic text.
“Jehovah” came into use in the Middle Ages but it is an artificial form, which bears no relation to how YHWH was originally pronounced. The word, “Yahweh,” represents the generally accepted modern attempt to recover the original pronunciation of the tetragrammaton. This is based upon the available evidence which includes Hebrew theophoric names, Amorite onomastics, Greek transliterations in the magical papyri of the Graeco-Roman period, and testimony of the church fathers, especially Clement of Alexandria.
Though in the Hebrew Bible the Name of YHWH is used from Genesis through to Malachi, it was not known and used by the tribes of Israel before the time of Moses. Naturally, once known, it was not only used in the present but when referring to the past – for YHWH was one and the same God of Abraham and Moses. Thus YHWH appears in the narratives of Genesis as well as Exodus.
In the Book of Exodus are two key passages, both of which associate the Name of YHWH with the time of Moses. Already we have looked at the first of these, 3:14–15, in chapter 4. The second is in 6:2–3 and occurs when Yahweh is addressing Moses in Egypt.
I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as “God Almighty” [El Shaddai], but by my Name “the Lord” [YHWH] I did not make myself known to them.
God had been known by other names than YHWH in the patriarchal age. Only from the theophany and visitation at the burning bush on Sinai did the God of the patriarchs declare himself to be YHWH.
The content of Exodus 3:14, as well as recent scholarly research, indicate that YHWH is to be taken as a form of the verb haya, “to be.” In the light of this it is appropriate to see two meanings arising out of this name. First of all, from Exodus 3:14–15, YHWH as a Name is a positive assurance of God’s acting, aiding, and communing presence. The “I AM” will be always with his covenant people. He who is now will be also. In the second place, and based on the declarations of Deuteronomy 4:39, 1 Kings 8:60, and Isaiah 45:21–22, YHWH is the only God who actually exists and there is no other. YHWH is the one and only deity, who is both above and within his creation; all other gods are but creatures or the projections of human imagination.
In Israel the name of a man was regarded as an exact picture of the one who owned it. So the name summed up all that its owner is: the name is, as it were, the definition of the person. In other words, the name was the person himself in the form of an alter ego, which represented him, exhibited him, and was him. In like manner the Name of God stood for God himself – “the Name of the God of Jacob protect you!” (Ps. 20:1) and “the Name of the LORD is a strong tower” (Prov. 18:10). The place where Yahweh chose to put his Name was “his habitation” (Deut. 12:5, 11; 14:23–24; 16:6; 26:2). Further, the Name of Yahweh was in his angel: “Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him” (Ex. 23:20–21). The “Name” is an important “extension” of Yahweh’s personality, claims Johnson, who also points to the cultic use of the expression “to call upon the Name,” where the Name is Yahweh himself.2
PLURALITY IN UNITY
Probably the most well-known text in Judaism is the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4–5:
Hear, O Israel: Yahweh, our Elohim, Yahweh is One, and thou shalt love Yahweh thy Elohim with all thine heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy might (KJV).
The Hebrew word for “one” here is ehadh, which is derived from a verb form having the meaning of to unify. It is the same word used in the expression, “they become one flesh” in marriage (Gen. 2:24). Obviously the unity of and in marriage is a unity which contains a plurality – that is, a duality. So likewise, as Christians will come to say, the unity of God is not that of a simple monad, but is a oneness which allows for and contains a plurality. (We need to be aware that the other Hebrew word for one where one means unique, the only one of a class, is yahidh. It is used of Isaac “the only son” in the testing of Abraham: “Take your ... only son, Isaac, whom you love” (Gen. 22:2). Both Hebrew words for “one” are found in Zechariah 14:9. “On that day, Yahweh will be ehadh and his name yahidh.”)
The concept of Plurality in Unity is also suggested to Christian readers of the Hebrew Bible by the word ’elohim, God. In grammatical terms, it may be called a quantitative plural or a plural of intensity (cf., such plural words as mayim for water and shamayim for heaven). In view of the emphatic monotheism of the Hebrew Bible, it is (to say the very least) a striking linguistic use. It is only in the quoted speeches of pagans that ’elohim is used as an actual plural word in referring to the God of Israel and/or gods (1 Sam. 4:8, cf. Deut. 5:26; 2 Sam. 7:23; Ps. 58:11).
But we are going ahead too quickly. It is necessary to ponder for a while what the confession in the Shema contains. Here the words of Walter Kasper are helpful in clarifying our thinking.
The singleness and uniqueness of God is qualitative. God is not only one (unus) but also unique (unicus); he is as it were unqualified uniqueness. For by his very nature God is such that there is only one of him. From the nature of God as the reality that determines and includes everything his uniqueness follows with intrinsic necessity. If God is not one, then there is no God. Only one God can be infinite and all inclusive; two Gods would limit one another even if they were somehow interpenetrated. Conversely: as the one God, God is also the only God. The singleness of God is therefore not just one of the attributes of God; rather his singleness is given directly with his very essence. Therefore, too, the oneness and uniqueness of the biblical God is anything but evidence of narrow-mindedness. On the contrary, for precisely as the one and only God, he is the LORD of all peoples and of all history. He is the First and the Last (Isa. 41:4; 43:10f; 44:6; 48:12; Rev. 1:4, 8, 17).3
The commitment to monotheism in contrast to henotheism obviously links Christianity to Judaism, as we have noted above.
However, the further confession of Unity in Trinity by Christianity raises a question. Has Christianity by its confession of the Trinity proved unfaithful to its confession of the One God? Obviously if the statement of the Trinity were as clear in the Hebrew Bible as is the statement of the Unity of Yahweh then such a question would not be asked. Therefore, the Christian claim has been that within the Old Testament there are significant bases and hints concerning the trinitarian nature of God, but that they are of such a nature as only to be so recognized after the revelation of the New Testament is known.
Kasper suggests that one such base is the conviction and clear statement that the God of Israel is the living God. “I am Yahweh, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (Isa. 45:5; 46:9). Yahweh swears by himself, “‘As I live,’ says the LORD” (Isa. 49:18), since he can swear by no one or nothing greater than himself. Yahweh differs radically from creatures in that he possesses his existence in himself, not from another. Therefore, God in his oneness and uniqueness is simultaneously the fullness of life: “As the hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps. 42:1–2); and “My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (84:2).
Jeremiah declared that “Yahweh is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King” (Jer. 10:10). And he bemoaned the fact that Israel had forsaken Yahweh, “the fountain of living water” (17:13).
According to the Book of Daniel, King Darius wrote a letter to all peoples telling them that under his rule
men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God, enduring for ever; his kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion shall be to the end. He delivers and rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, he who has saved Daniel from the power of the lions (Dan. 6:26–27).
As the living God, Yahweh is able to give and save life for he is life, real life, himself!
Because Yahweh is superabundant fullness of life and plenitude of Being he is portrayed as taking counsel with himself and engaging in soliloquy. What has been called the “plural of deliberation” is evident in such passages as these:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26).
Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:22).
And the LORD said “... Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language” (Gen. 11:6–7).
It is of interest to note that it is ’elohim who speaks in Genesis 1:26 but Yahweh in 11:7 – where a plural verb is used with the singular Yahweh. Thus both Yahweh and ’elohim here speak in the plural. (It will be recalled that ’elohim is the standard and normal Hebrew word for the divine Being, that it is plural in form and that usually it takes the singular verb.)
Though these significant texts containing the “let us” are not developed in a trinitarian way in the documents of the New Testament, by the second century such an interpretation had become the norm in the churches. For example, commenting on Genesis 1:26 Irenaeus wrote:
Now man is a mixed organization of soul and flesh, who was formed after the likeness of God [the Father], and molded by his hands, that is, by the Son and the Holy Spirit, to whom also he said, “Let us make man.”4
For with him [the Father] were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom freely and spontaneously, he made all things, to whom also he speaks, saying, “Let us make man after our image and likeness.”5
Here, for Irenaeus, the plurality of deliberation is certainly the Holy Trinity. In contrast, we know that Jewish writers did their best to hide or negate this plurality in order to emphasize the unity of God.6
Another place where there is both the plural of deliberation and the triple recital of “Holy” is the account of the call of Isaiah. First of all, we read of the seraphim declaring the holiness of Yahweh.
Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory (Isa. 6:3).
Then after his cleansing with the burning coal from the altar, Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord saying:
Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? (6:8)
It did not take the church long to interpret the triple recital of “holy” as being addressed by the heavenly host to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – especially when the triple recital also occurs in Revelation 4:8. The Trisagion quickly became a part of the Liturgy of the churches of the East and West and it remains in most Liturgies today. Likewise the singular “I” and the plural “us” were soon read as pointing to the unity and plurality of the Holy Trinity.
Referring to this Christian interpretation of Isaiah 6, Kasper writes: “It has great symbolic importance, for in its own way it shows that in the time of the church fathers the trinitarian confession did not originate in pure theory and abstract speculation but rather had its vital context in the doxology, that is, in the liturgical glorification of God.”7
Another Roman Catholic theologian, Bertrand de Margerie, S.J., commenting in his book, The Christian Trinity in History, upon the plural of deity (in Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; and Isa. 6:8) asks:
Does this Divine “we” evoke a polytheistic age anterior to the Bible? Or a deliberation of God with his angelic court? Or does it not rather indicate the interior richness of the divinity? How does it happen that only in these four passages the plural form of the name Elohim used here has influenced the verb, which is plural only here? And what is more extraordinary is that these plural forms are introduced by formulas in the singular: “Elohim says” or “Yahweh says” (Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:6).8
At least we can say that the plural and singular forms of the verb are intriguing, whether or not we see (in the intention of God who inspired the writing of the text) the Holy Trinity veiled here.
What is also intriguing is the threefold structure of the priestly blessing in Numbers 6:22–26.
Yahweh said to Moses, “Say to Aaron and his sons, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, Yahweh bless you and keep you: Yahweh make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you: Yahweh lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
In view of the enormous significance of the Name in Israelite religion, Yahweh’s emphatic comment on the priestly blessing in verse 27 is significant: “So shall they put my Name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” Since Jesus told his apostles to baptize in the Name (Yahweh) “of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” the early church naturally came to read this threefold blessing as not only pointing to, but also coming from, the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.
It is perhaps also worth noting that there are passages where Yahweh, his Word/Angel of the Presence, and Spirit are named together as co-causes of effects (cf. Ps. 33:6; Isa. 61:1; 63:9–12; Hag. 2:5–6). Naturally such texts were read through Christian eyes as referring to the Holy Trinity.
Finally, the possible connection between the Trinity and the central theological theme of the Old Testament, expressed in the tripartite formula, “I will be your God; you shall be my people, and I will dwell in the midst of you,” also is worthy of notice. This threefold formula is made up of (1) the basic promise of Genesis 17:7–8 and 28:21 where Yahweh establishes his covenant “to be God to you and to your descendants after you”; (2) the additional promise after the Exodus of being not merely God’s people but also of being known as God’s son – “Israel is my firstborn son” (Ex. 4:22); and (3) the further promise by God to dwell in the midst of his covenant people – “I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God” (Ex. 29:45). As a Trinitarian believer the Christian holds that the Father establishes the covenant of grace and sends the Son; the Son is incarnate and is both the new Adam and the new Israel, God=s true Son, so that all who come to the Father come in and through the Son; and the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son to dwell in the people who are the new Israel.
Only Yahweh in whom is plenitude of being could fulfill such a tripartite promise. Only Yahweh who possesses Wisdom, who speaks the living Word, and who acts as Holy Spirit could make and keep such a promise. Thus we move on to look at this plenitude of life of Yahweh, the living God, in the Wisdom, the Word, and the Spirit of God.
THE WISDOM OF GOD
The Hebrew Bible is familiar with wisdom as both a human and a divine attribute, for some men are said to be wise and God is declared always to be wise. However, in Proverbs 1–9, hokmah is not merely an attribute of God, it also appears to become in some sense actually distinct from God, without being other than God. In fact it is in 1:20–23 and especially in 8:22–36 that wisdom seems to have become an elaborate personification – a divine agent.
The relation of Wisdom to Yahweh in the creation of the world is set forth in these words.
The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth; before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men (Prov. 8:22–31).
Here wisdom is what Yahweh, the Creator, reckoned primary and indispensable. Wisdom is both older than the universe and is fundamental to it, for nothing came into existence without it. Thus wisdom is the spring of joy.
Commenting upon this passage, Derek Kidner explains that the context within the Book of Proverbs points not to wisdom as a hypostasis (a heavenly being related to but distinct from God) but as a vivid personification of wisdom. “Not only does the next chapter proceed immediately to a fresh portrait of wisdom, in a new guise (as a great lady [9:1–6] whose rival is certainly no hypostasis),” writes Kidner, “but the present passage makes excellent sense at the level of metaphor: i.e., as a powerful way of saying that if we must do nothing without wisdom, God himself has made and done nothing without it. The wisdom by which the world is rightly ruled is none other than the wisdom by which it exists.”9 However, Kidner does not stop here; he recognizes a wider setting. The New Testament shows by its allusions to this passage (see Col. 1:15–17; 2:3; Rev. 3:14) that the personifying of wisdom, far from overshooting the literal truth, was a preparation for its full statement. That is, the agent of creation was no mere activity or attribute of God but the Son, the eternal Word and Wisdom (see John 1:1–14; 1 Cor. 1:24, 30; Heb. 1:1–14).
In the centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Jews showed great interest in divine wisdom. The evidence of this is to be found, for example, in the amount of material on wisdom in the books of the Apocrypha – e.g., in The Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus (the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach). Here we meet again the personification of wisdom.
For she is a breath of the power of God, And a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness (Wisd. 7:25–26).
Wisdom will praise herself, and will glory in the midst of her people. In the assembly of the Most High she will open her mouth, and in the presence of his host she will glory: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist. I dwelt in high places, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. Alone I have made the circuit of the vault of heaven and have walked in the depths of the abyss” (Ecclus. 24:1–5).
In the early church such passages from the deuterocanonical books (found in the Septuagint), along with passages in Proverbs (e.g., 8:22–36) and in the Psalter (e.g., 85:10–13), were read as pointing to Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God.
Recently, much attention has been focused by the feminist movement upon the fact that the word for wisdom in both Greek (sophia) and in Hebrew (hokmah) is in the feminine gender. It has been claimed that these words refer to a female deity. However, such a claim confuses grammatical gender with physical sexuality! (See chapter 1.) Nevertheless, much has been made of the supposed feminine nature of Wisdom by some feminist theologians. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has popularized the expressions “gracious Sophia-God” for Yahweh of the Old Testament, and the “Sophia-God of Jesus” for “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” of the New Testament. One of her much-repeated statements is: “Divine Sophia is Israel’s God in the language and Gestalt of the Goddess.”10 Apart from confusing grammatical gender with sexuality, this way of thinking gets close to the Gnosticism (in which male and female supernatural beings are paired).
THE WORD OF GOD
According to the Old Testament, Yahweh is certainly the speaking God! From the first chapter of Genesis through to the last words of Malachi, we read of what God has said. The word of the Lord is a mighty and efficacious word which creates the cosmos, establishes the covenant with Israel, and comes to the prophet to be heard by the people through him.
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth. He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle; he put the deeps in storehouses. Let all the earth fear the LORD, let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood forth (Ps. 33:6–9).
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I [Yahweh] purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it (Isa. 55:10–11).
There are examples of the personification of the word of God at various points in the Hebrew Bible. For example:
[The LORD] sent forth his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction (Ps. 107:20).
For ever, O LORD, thy word is firmly fixed in the heavens (119:89).
He sends forth his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly (147:15).
The LORD has sent a word against Jacob, and it will light upon Israel (Isa. 9:8).
However, in the Apocrypha there is a remarkable passage wherein the word of God is more obviously personified.
All things were lying in peace and silence, and night in her swift course was half-spent, when thy all-powerful word leapt from thy royal throne in heaven into the midst of that doomed land like a relentless warrior, bearing the sharp sword of thy inflexible decree; with his head touching the heavens and his feet on earth, he stood and spread death everywhere (Wisd. 18:15–16).
Christians in the early church reading such passages saw them as pointing to the full personification of the Word of God as a hypostasis, which is presented in the prologue of the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God [the Father]; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (1:1–3).
THE SPIRIT OF GOD
The Spirit (lit., the wind and/or the breath) of Yahweh is God present and active upon, around, and within that which Yahweh had made – the world and human beings. In fact, the Spirit was active in the actual creation of the world – “the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2).
The psalmist, addressing Yahweh, said:
When thou sendest forth thy Spirit [breath], they are created; and thou renewest the face of the ground (Ps. 104:30).
There is no place within the created order from where the Spirit of Yahweh and thus Yahweh himself is absent.
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me (139:7–10).
The breath of God causes the rhythms of nature:
The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it (Isa. 40:7).
Apart from the general presence of the Spirit throughout the created order, there is the specific or intensified presence of the Spirit to add to the natural powers of man. Thus Joseph was enabled by the Spirit to interpret Pharaoh=s dream (Gen. 41:38), and Moses and the seventy elders were able to prophesy. “Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to [Moses], and took some of the Spirit that was upon him and put it upon the seventy elders; and when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied” (Num. 11:25). Further, Moses later laid his hands upon Joshua and he was filled with the Spirit of wisdom (Deut. 34:9). At a very practical level, the skill of Bezaleel in constructing the tabernacle occurred because the Spirit came upon him (Ex. 31:3; 35:31). And Zerubbabel found that he could only rebuild the temple after the exile by the Spirit of the Lord: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts” (Zech. 4:6).
Therefore, it is not surprising that the prophets, who spoke as they were moved by the Spirit of Yahweh (Isa. 59:21; Micah 3:8), declared that the Messiah to come would be the servant of God upon whom the Spirit uniquely rested and in whom the Spirit dwelt (Isa. 11:2; 42:1; 61:1). Likewise in the messianic age there would be an outpouring of the prophetic Spirit upon all the people: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my Spirit” (Joel 2:28–29).
There is a further dimension of the presence and work of the Spirit, and this is the corporate and personal area of holiness and communion with God. A typical prayer was:
Teach me to do thy will, for thou art my God! Let thy good spirit lead me on a level path (Ps. 143:10).
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit (Ps. 51:10–12).
There could be no true revival without the Spirit: “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land” (Ezek. 37:14). “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (36:26–27). Isaiah spoke for Yahweh: “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring@ (Isa. 44:3).
So the Spirit of YHWH is present in the created order, in the giving of outstanding gifts to people, in prophecy, and as an essential part of the future hope of the Messiah and the new age. George A. F. Knight has remarked that “since the Spirit of God is no less than God himself acting in accordance with his essential nature, Spirit actually comes to be pictured in a manner that is virtually parallel to the pictorial concept of the angelic activity”11 which we examined in the last chapter. As in the Old Testament, so in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is always present and invisible but usually “anonymous” and thus not mentioned.
Between the Testaments and particularly within Hellenistic or Diaspora Judaism, certain developments concerning the Spirit of Yahweh occurred. First of all, and this was new for the Greek language, pneuma came to cover the broad range of meaning which ruach bears in the Hebrew Bible. This occurred because of the influence of the Septuagint where pneuma was used to translate ruach. Not surprisingly there developed in this context the teaching that not only were the prophets inspired by the Spirit to speak God=s word, but those who wrote the text of the Old Testament were also inspired by the Spirit to write down God=s word.
There also developed in Alexandrian Judaism a linking of God’s pneuma with his sophia. This is seen in the Wisdom of Solomon, where this sophia/pneuma is portrayed as present throughout the universe and distinctively present and operative in “the wise” and “the righteous” (Wisd. 1:4–8; 7:21–30). While this development does not seem to have affected the presentation and development of pneumatology in the New Testament, it certainly affected Christology (e.g., Heb. 1:2–3). Later, however, in the fourth century when the deity of the Spirit was under discussion these Wisdom texts from the Septuagint were used by the fathers in support of orthodoxy.
Reflecting upon the Christian reading of the Old Testament under the illumination of the revelation recorded in the New Testament, B. B. Warfield wrote:
The Old Testament may be likened to a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted; the introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what is in it but was only dimly or even not at all perceived before. The mystery of the Trinity is not revealed in the Old Testament revelation; but the mystery of the Trinity underlies the Old Testament revelation, and here and there almost comes into view. Thus the Old Testament revelation of God is not corrected by the fuller revelation which follows it, but only perfected, extended and enlarged.12
There is an old saying that what becomes patent in the New Testament was latent in the Old Testament. Thus we have seen how the early Christians saw in Yahweh the Triune God whom they worshiped and served. Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, was their God and their God was a Holy Trinity.
This said, we need also to be reminded by Knight that
none of these pictorial concepts [e.g., Word, Spirit] ... acts as a kind of intermediary, a hypostasis, between the life of God and the life of man. God’s assuming a form, whether that of Angel or as his own Holy Spirit, has no meaning apart from God himself. Revelation does not mean that the hidden God is resolved into the revealed God in any form whatever. The Deus Revelatus actually remains the Deus Absconditus throughout the whole OT from the earliest forms of expression to the latest and profoundest writings in the exilic and post-exilic periods.13
In a different vein, but in some ways looking in the same direction as Warfield and Knight, Kasper points out that behind the various hints and indications of pluripersonal fullness of being in Yahweh there is a basic question, “Who is God=s appropriate vis-a-vis?”14 To speak of an I without a Thou (in and for Yahweh) is unthinkable! But is the highest creature, man, a proper vis-a-vis for Yahweh? Of course not! Man is a creature loved by Yahweh with an everlasting love. We conclude that the “Thou” is only revealed in the New Testament – the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
FOR FURTHER READING
Caird, George B. The Language and Imagery of the Bible. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980.
Hurtado, Larry W. One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.
Irenaeus. Against Heresies. Vol. 1 of The Ante Nicene Fathers. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953.
Isaacs, M. E. The Concept of Spirit: A Study in Hellenistic Judaism and Its Bearing on the New Testament. London: Heythrop College, 1976.
Johnson, Aubrey R. The One and the Many in the Israelite Conception of God. Cardiff: Univ. of Wales Press, 1961.
Kidner, Derek. The Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary. London: Tyndale, 1972.
Kasper, Walter. The God of Jesus Christ. New York: Crossroad, 1984.
Knight, George A. F. A Christian Theology of the Old Testament. Richmond, Va.: John Knox, 1959.
De Margene, Bertrand. The Christian Trinity in History. Still River, Mass.: St. Bede’s, 1982.
Mettinger, Tryggve N. D. In Search of God: The Meaning and Message of the Everlasting Names. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.
Montague, George T. The Holy Spirit: Growth of a Biblical Tradition. A Commentary on the Principal Texts of the Old and New Testaments. New York: Paulist, 1976.
Von Rad, G. Old Testament Theology, 2 vols. New York: Harper, 1975.
Schüssler, Elisabeth Fiorenza. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: Crossroad, 1985.
Segal, A. F. Two Powers in Heaven. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978.
Wainwright, Arthur W. The Trinity in the New Testament. London: SPCK, 1969.
Warfield, Benjamin B. “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity.” In Biblical and Theological Studies. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1968.
1. Aubrey Johnson, The One and the Many in the Israelite Conception of God (Cardiff: Univ. of Wales Press, 1961), 15.
2. Ibid., 17.
3. Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ (New York: Crossroad, 1984), 239–40.
4. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 1 of The Ante Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), 4, preface, sec. 4.
5. Ibid., 4.20.1.
6. For the evidence see Wainwnght, Trinity in the New Testament, 24–27.
7. Kasper, God of Jesus Christ, 242.
8. Bertrand de Margerie, S. J., The Christian Trinity in History (Still River, Mass.: St. Bede’s, 1982), 4.
9. Derek Kidner, The Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary (London: Tyndale, 1972), 79.
10. Elisabeth Schüssier Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1985), 132.
11. Knight, Christian Theology of the Old Testament, 85.
12. Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1968), 30.
13. Knight, Christian Theology of the Old Testament, 87,
14. Kasper, God of Jesus Christ, 243.
6 – Mutation in Monotheism
The first Christians, apostles and disciples, were thoroughly committed to the living God, to his unity and his uniqueness. Yet very quickly and without losing their passionate commitment to the unity of YHWH, they began to speak of and worship the resurrected, ascended, and glorified Lord Jesus Christ in such a way as to confess that he is divine as is the Father. This belief and conviction has been called binitarianism by various New Testament scholars. In this chapter we shall follow the attractive presentation of binitarianism by Larry W. Hurtado in his book, One God, One Lord. Also we shall note briefly the criticism of Hurtado’s thesis by James D. G. Dunn in his fascinating book, The Parting of the Ways between Christianity and Judaism. Then we shall suggest, giving reasons, that the consciousness (in contrast to the explicit confession) of the first Christians was not merely binitarian but truly trinitarian, without ceasing to be monotheistic.
However, we begin with the simple task of noticing the clear commitment to monotheism within the New Testament. The tetragram, YHWH, is avoided as in Judaism but the confession of Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord,” is accepted and confirmed by Jesus (Mark 12:29; Matt. 22:37; Luke 10:26) and by his apostles (e.g., Rom. 3:30; 1 Cor. 8:4, 6; Gal. 3:20). A careful reading of the Temptation narratives (Matt. 4:1–10; Luke 4:1–12) reveals that they take the form of a midrash on Deuteronomy 6–8, in which chapters is the clear statement of the unity and uniqueness of God. In fact, the climax of the response of Jesus to his testing is to cite Deuteronomy 6:13, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matt. 4:10). Equally striking is the answer of Jesus to the rich young man, “No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18).
Everywhere in the New Testament the truth of the monotheistic formula is taken for granted – “God is one – eis o theos.” In fact, God is “the only true God” (John 17:3); he is “the only God, our Savior” (Jude 25) and “the only wise God” (Rom. 16:27). So “to the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Tim. 1:17).
A major part of Hurtado’s book, One God, One Lord, is a study of divine agency in postexilic Judaism, especially the intertestamental period. (In contrast, most of the material used in chapters 4 and 5 to illustrate the “Extension of Divine Personality” is taken from the preexilic period of Israel’s history.) It is well-known in academic circles that the texts of Judaism of the postexilie period contain many references to a variety of heavenly figures, who are presented as serving God in his rule over the world and the redemption of the elect. These examples of divine agency may be classified under three general types, according to Hurtado. First, divine attributes and powers (e.g., Wisdom and Logos); secondly exalted patriarchs (e.g., Moses and Enoch); and thirdly, principal angels (e.g., Michael and Yahoel). What they have in common is that they are all pictured as being heavenly in origin or having been exalted to a heavenly position close to God. In fact, they represent God in a unique capacity and are second only to him in the created universe.
After careful study of these types of divine agency in the period immediately before, and contemporaneous with, the birth of Christianity, Hurtado presents what he calls “the Christian mutation.” He means that the earliest Christian devotion was a direct outgrowth from, and indeed a variety of, the ancient Jewish tradition; further, this devotion exhibited at an early stage a sudden and significant difference in character and content from the related Jewish devotion. The place of the exalted Jesus in the religious life, devotion, and piety of the first Christians was strikingly different from the Jewish belief in and attitude toward divine agents. The difference was both in how Jesus is named and in the relation/attitude of Christians to him.
The exalted Jesus was given the devotional attention which was reserved only for God himself in the Jewish tradition. Yet this was done in such a way that there was no competition between Jesus and God for the loyalty and devotion of the first Christians. Hurtado comments:
We are dealing with a redefinition of Jewish monotheistic devotion by a group that has to be seen as a movement within Jewish tradition of the early first century C.E. The binitarian shape of early Christian devotion did not result from a clumsy crossbreeding of Jewish monotheism and pagan polytheism under the influence of gentile Christians too ill‑informed about the Jewish heritage to preserve its [monotheistic] character. Rather in its crucial first stages, we have a significantly new but essentially internal development within the Jewish monotheistic tradition, a mutation within that species of religious devotion.1
In order to demonstrate the new binitarian monotheism of primitive Christianity, Hurtado carefully examines six features of early Christian devotion – hymns, prayer, use of the name of Christ, the Lord’s Supper, confession of faith in Jesus, and prophetic pronouncements of the risen Christ.
According to Hurtado, the result of his examination of these features within the New Testament is twofold:
(a) that early Christian devotion can be accurately described as binitarian in shape, with a prominent place being given to the risen Christ alongside God; and (b) that this binitarian shape is distinctive in the broad and diverse Jewish monotheistic tradition that was the immediate background of the first Christians, among whom these devotional practices [the six features] had their beginnings.2
It is important to recognize, says Hurtado, that the concept of divine agency, and the widespread acceptance of a chief agent position in heaven, provided the early Christians with important conceptual resources for accommodating the exalted Christ within Jewish monotheism. However, Christian binitarianism is not a simple development from Jewish divine agency doctrine, it is a major mutation.
In attempting to explain the causes of this major mutation, Hurtado points to (1) the impact of the ministry of Jesus upon his followers; (2) the conviction that Jesus had been raised from the dead and exalted into heaven as the agent of God’s eschatological salvation; and (3) opposition to the new movement from Judaism, causing Christians to state explicitly the implications of their devotion to the exalted Jesus. Whatever were the conditioning factors and causes, the result of them is clear – Jesus was seen not merely as a divine agent, but as One to whom a loyalty, devotion, and worship, which properly belongs to God, is due.
Hurtado does not go on to examine the whole of the New Testament and so it is not clear whether he thinks that there is a Trinitarianism in say, the Johannine corpus. What in fact he does in his book, and does well, is to present a hypothesis to explain the amazing fact that Jewish monotheists, who were disciples of the resurrected Jesus, came to address and worship Jesus as truly divine.
His study may be judged a necessary one because of two generally held views found in recent New Testament studies. First, it has been widely held (e.g., by Wilhelm Bousset and his disciples) that Judaism had lessened its hold on pure monotheism in the postexilic period because of its belief in divine agency – angelology, for example; and, secondly, it has been assumed that the development of doctrine concerning Jesus as divine occurred not in the original Jewish context of Christianity but within Gentile Christianity.
In facing the question as to whether there is a unitarian, binitarian, or trinitarian expression of Christian Faith in the books of the New Testament, we need to make certain distinctions. First of all, there is a legitimate and necessary task of seeking to trace the actual development of both Christian devotion/worship and of Christian thinking in the early church in the light of the events of the Resurrection and the Descent of the Holy Spirit. Hurtado’s book belongs to this sphere of academic endeavor. Then there is the task of determining what kind of consciousness or mind-set is presupposed by the actual existence and contents of the books of the New Testament. To determine how Christian worship and thinking developed within monotheism is one thing: to ask what is the result of the development or mutation as presupposed by the canon of the New Testament is another.
Further, what appears at an early stage in the self-consciousness of Jewish Christianity to be binitarian in terms of its explicit devotion may well have arisen from within what may be described as a basically trinitarian consciousness and knowledge (where knowledge is the Hebraic knowing a person[s] relationally rather than knowing objective facts). There was no doubt in the mind of the first Christians that Jesus was a real Person, for they had been with him. His Personhood was indelibly written into their memories and experience. In contrast, by the very nature of things, the Holy Spirit, who is not incarnate but invisible Holy Spirit, could not be thought of at first as being a distinct Person or hypostasis in the same way as was the Lord Jesus. However, the dynamic experience of the amazing and awesome Descent of the Spirit at the Feast of Pentecost, and the further evidence of his presence and activity in the early church, was the experience of One, who was God unto them as invisible, and he was known primarily through the effects of his presence.
Now it is wholly possible – indeed probable – that while the explicit confession of the early Christians may be termed binitarian their experiential knowing of God was trinitarian – knowing the Father through the Lord Jesus and in/by the Holy Spirit. In fact, it may be said that underlying the words of the Gospels and the New Testament letters is a basic trinitarian consciousness, and that this consciousness comes to the surface here and there in an explicit way, sometimes in a binitarian and sometimes trinitarian manner, depending upon the context. The fact that it is sometimes binitarian is often simply because the active relation to God is “to the Father through Jesus Christ”; yet here, it may be suggested, the Holy Spirit is present anonymously and invisibly as the One who makes this relation possible and effective.
We now proceed to look at the evidence adduced by Hurtado for what looks like, or is on its way toward, binitarianism.
Hymns to and about Jesus
When the first Christians met together as an assembly, they celebrated God’s presence as they sang hymns as well as exercised charismatic gifts (1 Cor. 14:26). While the singing would certainly have included psalms, especially those which were seen as prophetic of Jesus Christ (e.g., Ps. 110), the hymns that were sung to or about Jesus were essentially new compositions. The believers were making melody to the Lord with all their heart (Eph. 5:19). Examples of such hymns are seen by scholars as embedded in the New Testament at such places as John 1:1–18, Colossians 1:15–20, and Philippians 2:5–11. Fragments of hymns are seen in other places – Ephesians 2:14–16; 5:14; 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:18–22; and Hebrews 1:3.
An examination of all these reveals that they are devoted to the true significance and the saving work of Jesus. “They all celebrate Christ as the supreme agent of God, whether in creation (e.g., Col. 1:15–17; Heb. 1:3; John 1:1–3), earthly obedience (Phil. 2:5–8), redemptive suffering (Rev. 5:9–10), or eschatological triumph (Phil. 2:9–11; Col. 1:20). In short, and most important, they show that the devotional life of early Christianity involved the hymnic celebration of the risen Christ in the corporate worship setting. This is a clear indication of the binitarian shape of early Christian devotion, most likely from the earliest years of the movement.”3
Dunn is not persuaded that Hurtado is wholly right for he writes: “The earliest hymns of those cited (Phil. 2:6–11 and Col. 1:15–20) are hymns about Christ, not hymns to Christ. The earliest clear examples of worship of Christ do not appear until the hymns in the Revelation of John, one of the latest documents in the NT (e.g., Rev. 5:8–10).”4 So what Dunn sees is early Christian devotion to the exalted Christ on the way to full-scale Christian worship of Christ as God.
Prayer to Christ
The early Christians naturally prayed to God, YHWH, whom they called “the Father.” However, from time to time, when the occasion seemed to demand it, they prayed to Jesus as “Lord.” The best known example is the prayer of the martyr Stephen as he died: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). Another occasion, from the personal life of the Apostle Paul, is his beseeching “the Lord” three times concerning his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:8).
There are occasions when prayer is directed both to the Father and to the Lord Jesus: “Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you; and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all men” (1 Thes. 3:11–12). Further, there are many places where “grace and peace” from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are requested for the Christian congregations (e.g., Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3). Finally, prayer to Jesus is reflected in the Jewish Christian and Aramaic expression, maranatha (1 Cor. 16:22), which means “O Lord [our Lord] come.”
“The evidence indicates,” says Hurtado, “that the heavenly Christ was regularly invoked and appealed to in prayer and that this practice began among Jewish Christians in an Aramaic-speaking setting, probably the first stratum of the Christian movement.”5 Prayer to Christ is for Hurtado an indication of binitarian devotion. Again, Dunn has reservations about claiming too much for the early stage, insisting that more typical of Paul’s understanding of prayer is prayer to God the Father through Christ (see e.g., Rom. 1:8; 7:25; 2 Cor. 1:20; Col. 3:17).
Calling upon the Name
The calling “upon the name” of the Lord (Jesus) of which the Book of Acts speaks (9:14, 21; 22:16) is apparently derived from the calling “upon the name” of the LORD, Yahweh (e.g., Pss. 99:6; 105:1; Joel 2:32). It probably had reference to baptism. According to Paul, believers are those who “call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2) and, further, they are washed, sanctified, and justified “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 6:11). In a strict monotheistic tradition, such usage is an innovation! It points clearly to binitarianism, says Hurtado.
The Lord’s Supper
The sacred meal described in 1 Corinthians 11:23–26 which had been in existence before Paul=s conversion is a remarkable phenomenon. Common meals were known in Judaism – for example, in the Jewish sect at Qumran – but this is different. It is “the Lord’s Supper”! It is a meal specifically designed for the purpose of proclaiming Jesus= redemptive death, celebrating his victory, and communing with him as Lord. Within monotheism, this, for Hurtado, means binitarianism!
Here the emphasis is upon the widespread use of the verb, homologeo (to confess) in the New Testament. To confess Jesus was more than to name or refer to him. It was to speak of him as unique in either testimony to others or in affirming one’s faith with others in the assembly of the faithful. To be a Christian was to confess that Jesus is Lord (Rom. 10:9–13). The devotion of the Christian congregation inspired by the Holy Spirit was also to confess Jesus as Lord (1 Cor. 12:1–3). And the solemn duty of the whole creation at the end of the age is also to confess that Jesus, the Christ, is Lord (Phil. 2:9–11).
In contrast, while the Qumran sect referred to a heavenly figure (Michael/Melchizedec), whom they believed would be God=s agent in redemption in the eschaton, they did not “confess” him. Confession of Jesus thus points again to binitarianism, claims Hurtado.
Prophecy from the Exalted Christ
The words of Jesus Christ in the first-person singular are spoken by a Christian “prophet” in Revelation 1:17–3:22. He addresses each of the seven churches saying, “I know your works.” Probably this points to a reasonably common phenomenon in the churches, where a prophet, “in the Spirit,” would address the assembly with a message from the exalted Lord Jesus. For Hurtado such words and such practice point clearly to a binitarian devotion.
In summary, there is much evidence, says Hurtado, which points to the giving of a unique place and devotion to the exalted Lord Jesus alongside God, the Father. Jesus is viewed as being a Person and as also being divine. This is seen very clearly in the statement of Paul. “For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6). However, as Hurtado admits, at this stage the ontological and metaphysical implications of this form of confession are not addressed.
In contrast, Dunn is hesitant to see binitarianism except in the very latest development of Christian devotion and thinking found in the books of the New Testament. That is, only in the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation can there be found evidence of a decisive move outside the possible categories of divine agency in Jewish monotheism to produce a new form of Christian monotheism in which the confession of the one God includes the confession of the deity of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ (and the deity of the Holy Spirit?). All the early devotion to the exalted Jesus can be contained with the divine agency thought of postexilic Judaism, even though the latter is stretched to the limits. For Dunn, in contrast to Hurtado, the new wine has not yet burst out of the old wineskins.
Certainly one great value of Dunn’s book is that he makes very clear that the evidence in the New Testament (within the context of contemporary Judaism) reveals a development of Christology taking place in the early church within the givenness and total acceptance of monotheism. The belief in one and one only YHWH is always foundational to any confession of the exalted Lord Christ and the Holy Spirit.
We now proceed to look for what may be called the expression of a trinitarian consciousness, conviction, and vision which (it is here being suggested) undergirded and/or accompanied the implicit or explicit binitarian confession, which Hurtado and others have noticed – either at any early or a later stage of the period in which the books of the New Testament were written. That is, we search for evidence not only that the apostles and disciples of the exalted Lord Jesus had a trinitarian consciousness, but that they also found that to deal adequately, meaningfully, or even reasonably with the total impact of the LORD God upon them since the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), they had to speak from time to time (out of this deep knowledge in their souls) of the Triad – of the Father, of his Son, and of his Spirit (but not necessarily in this order). To look and search for such evidence of a trinitarian consciousness will not appear foolish or even illogical, if we recognize one simple fact. The Holy Spirit is both invisible and anonymous and thus his elusive presence will not normally be noted, even when it is known that he is present.
Experience of the Spirit
No one has ever seen the Holy Spirit, but his presence is known by what he does. As the wind blows and we know it blows through its effects, so the Holy Spirit (who is the “breath/wind” of the Father) is present and active, and we know this through his effects. The first Christians knew the presence and effects of the Holy Spirit in a dynamic way fifty days after the Resurrection, at the Feast of Pentecost. Acts 2 provides us with the description of the Descent of the Spirit from the Father and from the exalted Lord Jesus, of the signs and wonders caused by his appearance, and of the dramatic effect he had through the preaching of Peter upon the hearers. All this is seen as fulfilling the promise of God made through the Prophet Joel. In the rest of Acts, the presence and power of the same Holy Spirit is presupposed (even though he is not seen), and we hear of this Holy Spirit speaking to the apostles and evangelists (8:29, 39; 10:19; 11:12) as well as specifically guiding them (16:7; 21:4). (We shall return to this theme in chapter 9.)
The deep sensitivity of the early church to the presence of the invisible Spirit of God may be seen in a simple statistic. In the whole of the Hebrew (Masoretic) text of the Bible (O.T.) the word ruach occurs only about 90 times as referring to the Spirit of God, while in the Septuagint pneuma occurs only about 100 times. But in the letters of Paul, which are only a fraction of the size of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Septuagint, pneuma referring to the Holy Spirit occurs about 115 times!
If we then ask what accounts for this tremendous increase in references to the Spirit of God, we find that the answer is that Paul and his converts, the early Christians, were very conscious of his presence and power in and with them – as the letters make clear. In fact, they held that the presence of the Holy Spirit was absolutely necessary in order to place a repentant believing sinner in union with the Lord Jesus and thus with the Father. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). So with an explicit binitarianism went an implicit trinitarianism; for the Lord Jesus is seen not only as inseparable from his Father, but also inseparable from the Spirit of the Father.
The early Christians believed that the Holy Spirit indwelt them and their bodies were the temple of the Spirit; that their fellowship one with another and with the Father through the Son was in and by the Spirit; that the Spirit gave spiritual gifts to the church in order to build up the members in the Faith; that the Spirit sanctified their lives so that they should adorn the Gospel; that the Spirit guided them in daily living in practical ways; that the Spirit gave them joy to rejoice in tribulation and difficult circumstances; that the Spirit gave them boldness to proclaim the Gospel and confess Jesus as Lord in a hostile world; that the Spirit opened the hearts and minds of listeners to the Gospel so that they would repent and believe the Gospel; that the Spirit enabled them to worship and pray in a manner pleasing to God; and that the Spirit kept them in a dynamic relation to Jesus Christ.
However, when the first Christians worshiped the Father through the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and when they preached the Gospel of the Father concerning the Son and his Resurrection, they did not normally speak of the Holy Spirit (even though they knew that they worshiped and prayed in the Spirit and that they proclaimed the Gospel in the power of the Spirit). As they exercised various forms of ministry, using the supernatural gifts of the Spirit given unto them, they did not usually speak of the Spirit who gave and sustained the gifts within them. Instead they spoke of the Lord Jesus and his Father. Thus what has been called binitarianism is normally undergirded by a trinitarian consciousness. And the invisible and anonymous Spirit is doing what the Father sent him to do – to glorify the Son!
The illustration of the iceberg, most of which is under the water and little of which is visible at sea level, helps to make the point concerning the trinitarian consciousness of the apostles and disciples. In the New Testament we encounter here and there formulae or statements concerning the Father, his Son, and his Spirit. Yet we do not have any sense that they are odd, out of place, or wrong, for they seem quite natural. This is because they arise out of a trinitarian consciousness. Further, as we reflect upon the general content of the books of the New Testament we form the impression that everything is from the Father through the Son and in/by the Spirit, and that all returns to the Father through the Son and in/by the Spirit.
Here are some of these threefold statements from Pauline letters.
I appeal to you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God [the Father] on my behalf (Rom. 15:30).
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God [the Father] who inspires them all in every one (1 Cor. 12:4–6).
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God [the Father] and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Cor. 13:14).
When the time had fully come, God [the Father] sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God [the Father] has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:4–6)
For through him [the Lord Jesus Christ] we both [Jew and Gentile] have access in one Spirit to the Father (Eph. 2:18).
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love which you have for all the saints.... Epaphras ... has made known to us your love in the Spirit (Col. 1:3–8).
We are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God [the Father] chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thes. 2:13–14).
When the goodness and loving kindness of God [the Father] our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life (Titus 3:4–7).
If these are joined to others from Paul’s letters as well as those texts in the rest of the New Testament which we have not cited, they point to something more than a binitarian consciousness.
The texts point to a general trinitarian consciousness out of which there arises an implicit trinitarianism. An explicit binitarianism and an implicit trinitarianism can therefore be seen to belong to the same Faith. For only a dogmatic binitarianism denies a trinitarian consciousness and an implicit trinitarianism. An experiential and practical binitarianism is wholly compatible with an experiential implicit trinitarianism, because by the latter the Holy Spirit is known to be present, but present as the anonymous, elusive, and invisible personal Spirit from the Father and from the exalted Christ.
At the end of his little book, Holy Spirit: A Biblical Study, the late Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, expressed what we have been calling an implicit trinitarianism. He explained that the first Christians began with the monotheism of Israel, and without abandoning that monotheism, were led by the impact of Jesus upon them to worship Jesus as divine and did so as they were conscious that the divine Spirit within them enabled both their access to God the Father and their response to Jesus as the Lord. Then he wrote:
Often we have noticed that the Holy Spirit is described as the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. Yet to say only that the Spirit is the impact of God or the impact of Jesus is to do less than justice to the Christian experience, for the Holy Spirit was felt to be one who from within the Christians= own lives makes response to Jesus and to the Father. “Deep answers unto deep. The deep of God above us and around us is inaudible save as it is answered by the deep of God within us.” It is here that the doctrine of the triune God begins to emerge, not only as a mode of the divine activity but as a relationship within the life of deity. In knowing “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14), and in having access through Jesus “in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18), the Christians were encountering not only their own relation to God but the relation of God to God. When the Spirit cries in us, “Abba, Father” and prompts us to say, “Jesus is Lord,” there is God within responding to God beyond. The fourth Gospel takes the further step of suggesting that the divine relationship, known in the historic mission of Jesus and its sequel, reflects the being of God in eternity. Here the key is found in John’s concept of the glory. The glory of the self-giving love in the passion and the mission of the Paraclete is one with the glory of God before the world began.6
“Deep answering unto deep” – this is a thought to ponder as one contemplates the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. “In thy light do we see light” (Ps. 36:9) is true at all levels of communion with the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit.
In later chapters we shall be looking at the Personhood (hypostasis) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in greater detail than we have yet done. Here, in closing this chapter, it may be useful to observe that if the words attributed to the resurrected Jesus at the end of Matthew’s Gospel were truly said by him as the resurrected Lord (and not attributed to him later by a church that had developed an implicit trinitarian doctrine), then the possession of a trinitarian consciousness in his apostles and disciples is a real probability – perhaps a necessity.
Jesus is recorded as saying: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). If such a command constantly rang in their ears from the depth of the memories, then the apostles must have had some kind of a trinitarian consciousness. Probably this was in terms of what was later called the economic Trinity: “from the Father through the exalted Christ and by the Spirit” as the movement from God to man and then “to the Father through the exalted Christ in, by and through the Holy Spirit” from man to God. That is, they would have thought of the one, unique God, Yahweh, as somehow truly a plurality in unity and in their relation to him they spoke of coming to the Father through the Son by the Spirit (see further chapter 11). In this sense it can be said that they spoke of the Trinity – yet not of theos as a Trinity because for them God, theos, was (with a few exceptions, as we shall see in chapter 8) always the Father. We may also recall that the baptism of Jesus himself revealed the presence of the Three – the Father spoke, the Spirit descended, and the Son received (cf. Matt. 3:13–17). So it was not strange that baptism should be in the Name of the Three.
The famous Princeton theologian, B. B. Warfield, made the case for this basic trinitarian consciousness and implicit trinitarianism as strongly as it can be stated when he wrote about eighty years ago these words in his essay, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity”:
The simplicity and assurance with which the New Testament writers speak of God as a Trinity have, however, a further implication. If they betray no sense of novelty in so speaking of him, this is undoubtedly in part because it was no longer a novelty so to speak of him. It is clear, in other words, that, as we read the New Testament, we are not witnessing the birth of a new conception of God. What we meet with in its pages is a firmly established conception of God underlying and giving its tone to the whole fabric. It is not in a text here and there that the New Testament bears its testimony to the doctrine of the Trinity. The whole book is Trinitarian to the core; all its teaching is built on the assumption of the Trinity; and its allusions to the Trinity are frequent, cursory, easy, and confident. It is with a view to the cursoriness of the allusions to it in the New Testament that it has been remarked that “the doctrine of the Trinity is not so much heard as overheard in the statement of Scripture.” It would be more exact to say that it is not so much inculcated as presupposed. The doctrine of the Trinity does not appear in the New Testament in the making, but as already made.7
Warfield does not mean that the ecclesiastical dogma of the Holy Trinity is found in the New Testament. He refers to the doctrine that our creation and salvation is of YHWH who is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Further, the Princeton theologian is deeply impressed by the remarkable fact that this experiential knowledge and implicit confession of the Holy Trinity took its place without struggle and without controversy among accepted Christian truths in the Christian fellowship. So he wrote:
The explanation of this remarkable phenomenon is, however, simple. Our New Testament is not a record of the development of the doctrine or of its assimilation. It everywhere presupposes the doctrine as the fixed possession of the Christian community; and the process by which it became the possession of the Christian community lies behind the New Testament.8
My only comment on this claim that the confession of the Holy Trinity occurred before the writing of the New Testament actually occurred is this. Each of the different writers of the books of the New Testament has his own (inspired) way of speaking of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and thus there is not the kind of uniformity in Scripture which occurred after the ecclesial dogma had been set forth and embraced in the liturgies and doctrines of the church. Further, I would prefer to speak of a vision, or conviction, or a consciousness of the Trinity rather than a doctrine of the Trinity being present as the background of the existence of the New Testament.
What Warfield is right to emphasize, I believe, is that the revelation of the Holy Trinity was made in the first place not in word but in deed. It was made in the Incarnation of the Son of the Father and in the outpouring of the Spirit of the Father. So the revelation of the Trinity was, as he says, incidental to, and the inevitable effect of, the accomplishment of our redemption. Thus “the doctrine of the Trinity is simply the modification wrought in the conception of the one, only God by his complete revelation of himself in the redemptive process. It necessarily waited, therefore, upon the redemptive process for its revelation, and its revelation, as necessarily, lay complete in the redemptive process.”9 Today we would perhaps (as those who are more conditioned by the use of the historical-critical method) want to say that the explicit statement of the implicit trinitarian consciousness took longer than Warfield assumed; and, further, that there is evidence (as Hurtado and Dunn show) of the gradual move from Jewish to Christian monotheism in the pages of the New Testament, but that this move in no way takes away from the basic trinitarian consciousness underlying the New Testament.
FOR FURTHER READING
De Margene, Bertrand. The Christian Trinity in History. Still River, Mass.: St. Bede’s, 1982.
Dunn, James D.C. The Parting of the Ways between Christianity and Judaism, and Their Significance for the Character of Christianity. Philadelphia: Trinity, 1991.
Ramsey, Michael. Holy Spirit: A Biblical Study. London: SPCK, 1977.
Schaberg, J. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit: The Triadic Phrase in Matthew 28:19b. Chico, Calif.: Scholars, 1982.
Wainwright, Arthur W. The Trinity in the New Testament. London: SPCK, 1975.
Warfield, B. B., “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity.” In Biblical and Theological Studies. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1968, 22–59.
1. Lany W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 100.
2. Ibid., 114.
3. Ibid., 104.
4. James D. G. Dunn, The Parting of the Ways between Christianity and Judaism, and their Significance for the Character of Christianity (Philadelphia: Trinity, 1991), 204.
5. Hurtado, One God, One Lord, 107.
6. Michael Ramsey, Holy Spirit: A Biblical Study (London: SPCK, 1977), 119–20.
7. Warfield, “Doctrine of the Trinity,” 30.
8. Ibid., 32.
9. Ibid., 33.
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