Friday, June 01, 2007

A Post for Trinity Sunday

Since Sunday is Trinity Sunday, I'm reworking an old post and running it here:
The New Testament & the Trinity
Michael Barber © 2007

Clearly the full articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity found in Nicea is not found in Scripture: nowhere does one read that God is three persons or one divine substance. Moreover, since the word Trinity comes from Latin, one would certainly not expect to find it in the New Testament, which was written in Greek. Nonetheless, that does not mean the doctrine is unbiblical. A careful reading offers a clear indication that the belief that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one Lord with the Father was not merely invented later on. Moreover, as we shall see, 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 origins of later Nicean formulation.

I do want to qualify this post by saying up front that what follows is not an exhaustive study by any means. There are many related issues--philosophical, hermeneutical, methodological, epistemological, grammatical, textual critical, etc.--that I cannot even touch upon. Here I merely offer an introduction to some of the important areas of the discussion. I hope it is helpful. __________________________________________

The Divinity of Jesus
Let us begin with one of the most important texts--John 1. 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. John, 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.” Reading these passages within their Jewish context and the backdrop of the Old Testament one can see the clear implications for the divinity of Jesus.

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.

Some might say that Jesus' identity as "Son of God" indicates something less than equality with God. Such a view though is problematic. In John 5, the Jewish leaders protest Jesus’ Sabbath healing of the lame man at Bethzatha. We read why they opposed him: “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). Although others in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition were given the title "son of God," Jesus was clearly claiming something for himself.[1]

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).

In fact, Paul's letters--which give us a clear window into primitive Christianity--contains a number of clear indications of Jesus' pre-existence and divnity. In Philipians 2 we read the famous Christ hymn, which tells us:
"though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:6-8).
In fact, Paul seems to assume that his readers known about Christ's pre-existence. In 2 Corinthians we read this clear allusion to the belief: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich" (2 Cor 8:9). The stunning matter-of-fact way Paul mentions this is remarkable.

Turning from John and Paul let us now look at the Synoptic Gospels. Some insist that while "high Christology"--including the affirmation of Jesus' divinity--may be found elsewhere in the New Testament, the Synoptics give us a less exalted picture of Jesus. However, that doesn't hold up to close scrutiny. In Matthew 4:10, Jesus cites Deuteronomy 6:13, stating, “You shall worship the Lord your God, him only shall you serve.” Moreover, continue reading that Gospel and it is clear that Matthew goes on to describe others worshipping Jesus (Matt 2:11; 14:33). There are other ways which the Synoptic 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]

Mark is considered by many to be the most "primitive" Gospel? It is said to contain the "lowest" view of Jesus. Yet, from the very beginning of the Gospel it seems Jesus' divinity is not only alluded to but underscored. Jesus’ identity as divine the whole point of one of the first controversies recorded in Mark's Gospel. In chapter 2, Jesus tells a paralytic, "your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2:5). The Pharisees protest: “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. It is hard not to see the implications here--Jesus is demonstrating his divinity.

Even more striking is Jesus' statement later concerning his authority on the Sabbath. When criticized by the Pharisees for allegedly breaking the Sabbath rest Jesus responds: "the Son of man is lord even of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Such an affirmation puts Christ on par with Yahweh, whom the first century Jews would have undoubtedly recognized as the "Lord of the Sabbath."

Now, some people might dismiss these passages as later Christian inventions. Here I do not have the space to comment on methodological issues relevant in Jesus research (see this series for more on that). What I will point out is this: in both of these instances Jesus describes himself as the "Son of Man". Unlike "son of God" or "Christ," this is not a term that was used by later Christians. Because of this it is especially hard to deny the authenticity of these statements. Having pointed that out, these passages make it hard to easily dismiss other passages where Jesus claims divinity on the grounds that Jesus did not speak in such a way.

Other passages in Mark also point to Jesus' divinity. In Mark 9, Jesus implies that the greatest good to be lived for is--not merely the Torah, not Yahweh--but himself:"For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it" (Mark 8:35). In the episode of Jesus' miracle of walking on water, he tells the disciples, “Take heart, I AM (Grk.: ego eimi)” (Mark 6:50), alluding to the divine name revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3:14). In Mark 10 Jesus is approached by someone who calls him "Good Teacher" and responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18).

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). It should be mentioned that 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. So let me add a few words about the Spirit here. The "impersonal force" view of the Spirit 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.


Anonymous said...
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Sister Mary Agnes said...

Thank you for your beautiful meditation on the on the scriptural basis of the Trinity. So often I have heard and read about the mystery and the doctrine of the Trinity without an emphasis on scripture.

Stuart said...

Charles Gieschen once pointed out something similar to your last point about the great commission: the name, singular, shared by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit alike, is of course none other than THE Name with a capital N, the Tetragrammaton itself.