Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Biblical Basis for the Doctrine of the Trnity


I recently discovered a wonderful blog by a fellow Apocalypse enthusiast, Alan S. Bandy, called Cafe Apocalypsis. Today he discusses his encounter with a couple of Jehovah Witnesses who challenged him on the doctrine of the Trinity. He is, of course, a budding scholar himself and is quite knowlegeable about the matter. After relating a little bit of what he told them he then goes on to encourage others to chime in with their own arguments. This is my response...

The Biblical Basis for the Doctrine of the Trinity
Michael Barber © 2006

The doctrine of the Trinity is not found by mere proof-texting, but through reading the New Testament in light of the Old. By reading the biblical books in light of one another we can see the foundations for the Christian dogma that God is three in One.

The Divinity of Jesus
In Isaiah 44:24 the Lord asks, “I am the Lord who made all things, who stretched out the heavens alone. Who was with me?” The implication here is that the Yahweh was by himself at creation. The New Testament, however, identifies Jesus as the Word, of whom John says, “He was in the beginning with God and all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3; cf. John 17:5). Something similar is found in Acts 3:15, in which Peter addresses those who put Jesus to death, telling them that they have killed, “the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.”

In Isaiah 44:6 the Lord is described as the “fist and… the last.” This imagery is picked up in the Apocalypse. In Revelation 1:8, we read, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” At the end of the book, Jesus speaks of himself using the same terms: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (22:13). Thus when John falls down to worship an angel, he is told, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brethren the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (22:9). However, Jesus allows John to do the exact same thing to Him (1:17; compare language of 22:8 and 1:17).

Aside from John 1, there are other clear references to the divinity of Jesus in the Gospel of John. In chapter eight, Jesus uses the divine name in reference to himself, insisting, “Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (8:58). The Jews clearly understood what Jesus meant—he was identifying himself as the God of Israel (cf. Exod 1:14). When they took up stones to stone him for it, Jesus makes no attempt to clarify his statement—“I didn’t mean to say I myself am Yahweh!” Jesus’ statement in 10:30 needs to be understood within this context: “I and the Father are one.” Again, the Jews pick up stones to throw at him because his meaning was clear—he was either uttering blasphemy or he was revealing the greatest truth about who he was, there is no middle ground.

The description of Jesus as God’s Son in no way means that He is not equal with the Father. This is seen in John 5, where the Jewish leaders protest Jesus’ Sabbath healing of the lame man at Bethzatha. We read, “This is why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God (John 5:18).[1]

Turning from John we see the something similar in the synoptic Gospels. In Matthew 4:10, Jesus cites Deuteronomy 6:13, stating, “You shall worship the Lord your God, him only shall you serve.” However, Matthew goes on to describe others worshipping Jesus (Matt 2:11; 14:33).

At the Last Supper, Philip asks Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied” (John 14:8). Jesus responds, “He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?” (John 14:9-10). This is similar to Colossians 2:19, “For in [Christ] the fullness of deity dwells bodily” (cf. also 1 Tim 2:15-16).

There are other ways which the Gospel writers imply Christ is God. Certainly this is hinted at in the beginning of Matthew where Jesus is described as “God with us” (Matt 1:23).[2] Jesus’ divinity is also the whole point of the controversy described at the beginning of Mark. The Pharisees protest Jesus’ claim to have the authority to forgive sins: “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). Jesus responds to their complaint by healing the paralytic, so that that would know that he had such authority—read, so that they will know that he is divine.

However, we have yet to mention two of the clearest statements regarding the deity of Jesus. In John 21:28, Thomas addresses the resurrected Lord as “My Lord and My God” (John 22:28). Notwithstanding the Jehovah Witnesses’ claim that this is simply a spontaneous prayer uttered by Thomas, the only natural way to read this is to see that Thomas calls Jesus Lord and God.

We can also look to Hebrews 1, in which we read not only that the angels are to worship Christ (1:6), but where we also see the Son addressed as “God”: “But of the Son he says, ‘Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever’” (Heb 1:8). In fact, the language at the beginning of the chapter is quite similar to the language we find in John 1:1-3: “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power” (Heb 1:3). In fact, we know from Qumran that at least one strand in Jewish thought described the coming Messiah in terms used of God in the Old Testament (cf. 11QMel).

One last item that we should consider as we consider biblical Christology is the use of Psalm 110 by the New Testament writers. In explaining who Jesus was, the New Testament writers turned to Psalm 110 more than any other Old Testament text.[3] In fact, all three synoptic Gospels trace the Christian usage of the psalm back to Jesus himself, who employed it to describe his identity.[4] Furthermore, Psalm 110 forms the basis for a traditional Christian creedal assertion, often made within the Church's liturgical context: “He is seated at the right hand of the Father…”[5]

Martin Hengel has detected Psalm 110 traditions in the book of Revelation. Particularly, Hengel turns Revelation 3:21 which describes Jesus as sitting on the Father’s throne. In connection with this, Hengel examines Hebrews 8:1 and 12:2, and argues that these texts describe Christ as taking his position on the same throne on which Yahweh sits. Hengel argues that these texts should be understood within the larger context of a rabbinic debate regarding whether or not the messiah would sit on a throne to the right of God, or whether he would sit on the right side of the throne with Yahweh. Psalm 110:1 for many in Jesus’ day came to mean, “sit down at my right side on my throne.” By insisting that Jesus sits on the same throne as Yahweh, Hengel argues that the author of Revelation made a bold statement about Jesus’ divinity.[6]

The Divinity of the Spirit
Many who deny the doctrine of the Trinity argue that the Spirit is simply to be understood as the Lord’s impersonal force. This, however, is not supported by the evidence in the New Testament. Throughout John 16 Jesus speaks of the Spirit as a “he” who will be “another advocate” (John 14:16), who will be sent to the apostles after he himself has gone to the Father. He will “teach” them (14:26), “testify” to them (15:26), “reprove” them (16:8-11) and “guide” them (John 16:12). Other passages likewise speak of the Spirit in personal terms: he can be “grieved” (Eph 4:30); he “wills” (1 Cor 12:11); he “desires” (Gal 5:17); he “loves” (Rom 15:30); he “calls” (Acts 13:2). The Spirit can also be blasphemed against (Mark 3:29).

Looking at the New Testament in light of the Old we can also make some important observations about the Spirit. The Spirit, like the Word, was there from the beginning and helped in the work of creation (Ps 104:30, Job 33:4). Also, the Spirit is spoken of as having attributes associated with God alone—he is “everlasting” (Heb 9:14); the Israelites put him to the test in the wilderness (Heb 3:9; cf. Exod 17:2); he puts God’s law into our hearts (Heb 10:16; cf. Jer 31:33).

In the book of Acts, Peter tells Ananias that by lying to the Holy Spirit, “You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:3-4). Moreover, while Paul tells us that there is only one Lord (Eph 4:5), the Spirit is also given the title (2 Cor 3:17; 1 Cor 8:5-6). How can there be only one Lord and yet the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all said to be him?

Finally, I think the most significant passage for understanding the Trinity is found at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus tells the disciples to baptize, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). We have seen that Jesus is clearly described as being equal to the Father, sharing his divinity. The same can be said of the Spirit. Here Jesus mentions the Spirit with the Father and himself. Significantly, Jesus tells the disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—not in the names.[7]

[1] Much, much more could be said about the meaning of Son of God, especially as it relates to Jesus’ Davidic identity.
[2] Of course, this is only a hint—it was probably originally understood as a reference to Hezekiah. However, I think it was clear that Hezekiah only partially fulfilled the Isaianic vision of the Emmanual prophecy—which implies partial non-fulfillment.
[3] David M. Hay, Glory at the Right Hand: Psalm 110 in Early Christianity (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1973), 15; C. Hassel Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms: A Literary and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 182-83; Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms (Ben Lomond, Ca.: Conciliar Press, 2000), 217; Barry C. Davis, “Is Psalm 110 a Messianic psalm?” in Bibliotheca Sarca 157 (200): 172.
[4] Mt 22:44; Mt 26:64. For a list of occurrences and analysis see Hay, Glory at the Right Hand, 45, 163-66.
[5] For a full discussion of the use of this Psalm in the creedal affirmations of the New Testament and early church, see Martin Hengel, Studies in Early Christology (Repr.: London: T&T Clark, 2004), 119-226.
[6] Hengel, Studies, 119-226.
[7] For more analysis on this passage see, Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody: Hendricksen, 1994), 839-42; Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999), 717 n 343.

2 comments:

Alan S. Bandy said...

Now that's a response!

"The doctrine of the Trinity is not found by mere proof-texting, but through reading the New Testament in light of the Old. By reading the biblical books in light of one another we can see the foundations for the Christian dogma that God is three in One."

Well said!

SteveJ said...

1. To quote an Old Testament text that refers to Yahweh, then a New Testament text that says something similar about Jesus, really doesn't prove the point. Jesus was the visible representative and image of the invisible God. But that doesn't mean that Jesus was the very God that he imaged among us.

2. The authority to forgive sins was an authority that Jesus received from the Father. Jesus later transfers this authority to his apostles.

3. "He who has seen me has seen the Father." Doesn't this with equal force prove that Jesus is the Father? (Few believe such a thing.)

4. The common christology syllogisms don't work. I can argue the following absurdity using the same method: a) We must serve only God (Matt. 4:10), b) we are called to serve one another, c) therefore, we must all be divine.