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Sunday, June 28, 2009

One God in Three?

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THE Trinity—you undoubtedly know of it, for this doctrine is taught throughout Christendom. How important is it to the teaching of the churches? More significantly, what does God’s Word, the Bible, reveal about there being one god in three persons?

“The Trinity is the term employed to signify the central doctrine of the Christian religion—the truth that in the unity of the Godhead there are Three Persons. . . . Thus, in the words of the Athanasian Creed: ‘the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God.’ . . . This, the Church teaches, is the revelation regarding God’s nature which Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came upon earth to deliver to the world: and which she proposes to man as the foundation of her whole dogmatic system.”—The Catholic Encyclopedia.

Not only is the Trinity dogma “the foundation” of the “whole dogmatic system” of the Roman Catholic Church but it also figures prominently in the basis for membership of the World Council of Churches. Truly, the Trinity can be termed “the central doctrine” of Christendom’s religions—Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. But is this doctrine “the truth,” as The Catholic Encyclopedia claims?

Theology, Not Scripture

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In its article “Trinity,” a Protestant work (The Illustrated Bible Dictionary) states: “The word Trinity is not found in the Bible . . . It did not find a place formally in the theology of the church till the 4th century . . . Although Scripture does not give us a formulated doctrine of the Trinity, it contains all the elements out of which theology has constructed the doctrine.”

Who were the first theologians to coin the word “trinity” as they “constructed the doctrine”? The Catholic Encyclopedia informs us: “In Scripture there is as yet no single term by which the Three Divine Persons are denoted together. The word trias (of which the Latin trinitas is a translation) is first found in Theophilus of Antioch about A. D. 180. . . . Shortly afterwards it appears in its Latin form of trinitas in Tertullian.” However, Theophilus’ triad was made up of “God, and His Word, and His wisdom”—hardly Christendom’s Trinity! As to Tertullian, the encyclopedia admits that “his Trinitarian teaching is inconsistent,” among other things because he held that “there was a time when there was no Son.” So the least that can be said is that these two men had in mind something quite different from Christendom’s coeternal Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

But the word “trinity” stuck, and later theologians gradually “constructed the doctrine” as we know it today. Did they, however, build it on the foundation of Scripture? No, but on theology or philosophy. The Encyclopædia Britannica states: “Christian theology took the Neoplatonic metaphysics [philosophy] of substance as well as its doctrine of hypostases [essence, or nature] as the departure point for interpreting the relationship of the ‘Father’ to the ‘Son.’” Their problem was to make “God the Father,” “God the Son” and “God the Holy Spirit” not three Gods but one. For years, they quarreled over whether the persons of the Trinity were of similar substance (Greek, homoiousia) or of the same substance (homoousia). This controversy was settled in favor of homoousia at the Councils of Nicaea in 325 C.E. and Constantinople in 381 C.E.

The Britannica adds: “From the outset, the controversy between both parties [at Nicaea] took place upon the common basis of the Neoplatonic concept of substance, which was foreign to the New Testament itself. It is no wonder that the continuation of the dispute on the basis of the metaphysics of substance likewise led to concepts that have no foundation in the New Testament.” Thus, the very concept of a God in three persons of one substance is founded on theology or philosophy, but not on the Scriptures.

You can see evidence of this by examining the two sections of the Bible commonly called the Old and New Testaments.

No Trinity in the “Old Testament”

The 15-volume Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique declares: “It seems unquestionable that the revelation of the mystery of the Trinity was not made to the Jews.” Similarly The Illustrated Bible Dictionary states: “It must be remembered that the O[ld] T[estament] was written before the revelation of the doctrine of the Trinity was clearly given.” How ridiculous, though, to maintain that true worshipers of pre-Christian times were in fundamental ignorance of the true God and worshiped only one third of the so-called Godhead! Can you believe that? Hardly. They knew whom they were worshiping.—Psalm 95:6, 7.

Some Trinitarians still try to use the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, to support their concept of a three-in-one God. One of their arguments is that the Hebrew word translated “God” is often in the plural form (’Elo‧him′). They seem to ignore that this word is used in the same way for individual pagan divinities, such as Dagon (1 Samuel 5:7) and Marduk (Daniel 1:2), who were not triune gods. Commenting on this, Oxford scholar R. B. Girdlestone writes in his Synonyms of the Old Testament: “Many critics, however, of unimpeachable [Trinitarian] orthodoxy, think it wiser to rest where such divines as Cajetan [a theologian] in the Church of Rome and Calvin among Protestants were content to stand, and to take the plural form as a plural of majesty.” Such Trinitarian theologians doubtless realized that if they took ‘Elo‧him′ as a numerical plural (gods), they would become polytheists!

Two other arguments that some Trinitarians draw from the Hebrew Scriptures are (1) that Christ is prophetically called Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14 and (2) that “Mighty God” is one of the names applied to him in Isaiah 9:6.

The name Immanuel means “with us is God,” but this does not mean that Christ is God, any more than Elihu was God simply because his name means “God is he.” (Job 32:1, 2) As to Christ’s being called “Mighty God,” if puny human judges can be called “gods” in the Scriptures (Psalm 82:1-7), is it not appropriate that God’s Son should be called “Mighty God” (Hebrew, ‘El Gib‧bohr′)? Notice, however, that he is not called “God Almighty” (Hebrew, ‘El Shad‧dai′), a term used exclusively for Jehovah. Referring to these two arguments, The Catholic Encyclopedia admits: “Even these exalted titles did not lead the Jews to recognize that the Saviour to come was to be none other than God Himself.” Neither do they lead us to do so. Summing up on so-called Old Testament proofs of the Trinity, the Protestant Cyclopædia by M’Clintock and Strong states: “Thus it appears that none of the passages cited from the Old Test[ament] in proof of the Trinity are conclusive . . . We do not find in the Old Test[ament] clear or decided proof upon this subject.”

What About the “New Testament”?

We have already seen that a Greek philosophical concept permitted theologians to ‘construct’ the doctrine of a God in three persons of one substance, but the Swiss Vocabulaire Biblique says: “No New Testament writings supply explicit assurance of a triune God.” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology also admits: “The N[ew] T[estament] does not contain the developed doctrine of the Trinity.” This being the case, Trinitarians have been obliged to resort to strained reasonings to give a few verses in the Christian Greek Scriptures a Trinitarian twist. Let us examine a few.

They can be grouped into two categories: (1) Texts in which God, his Son and the holy spirit are mentioned in the same verse or verses and (2) texts in which any two of them are mentioned.

The first group includes the texts that are supposed to contain the so-called triadic formula. These are Matthew 28:19 (Father, Son, holy spirit), 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 (spirit, Lord, God), 2 Corinthians 13:14 ([13 in some Bibles] Christ, God, holy spirit), Galatians 4:4-6 (God, Son, spirit of his Son), Ephesians 4:4-6 (spirit, Lord, God) and 1 Peter 1:2 (God, spirit, Jesus Christ).

Does the fact that God, his Son and the holy spirit are mentioned together prove that they share divinity, eternity and equality, as the Trinity dogma claims? If so, then it might equally be asserted that the Trinitarian “Godhead” is made up of God, Christ and the angels! (See Mark 13:32; 1 Timothy 5:21.) Even the M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia concedes, with regard to the so-called Trinitarian baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19: “The connection of these three subjects does not prove their personality or equality.” Neither this text nor any of the other so-called triadic-formula texts are proof of the Trinity doctrine. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states plainly: “The N[ew] T[estament] does not actually speak of triunity. We seek this in vain in the triadic formulae of the NT.”

“Two-in-One-God” Texts

The second category of passages adduced by Trinitarians to bolster up their dogma might be termed two-in-one-God texts. Why? Because, at the most, they would indicate that God and Christ are one, nothing being said of the spirit. Viewed more objectively, though, these scriptures simply do not support the concept of a God in three persons of one substance. Nevertheless, let us consider two of those quoted in theological works.

Surprisingly, Christendom’s theologians do not appear to rank John 1:1 among the strongest proofs of the Trinity. To start with, they are disappointed that, to quote the Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, “the Holy Spirit is not mentioned in this prologue [John 1:1-18].” That leaves them with a two-person “Trinity,” which is absurd. Further, the Trinitarian translation “the Word was God” gives the reader the impression that the Word was one and the same person with God. But this is impossible, because the same verse says “the Word was with God,” and “this preposition [“with,” literally “toward”] implies intercourse and therefore separate personality.” So professor B. F. Westcott hastens to state that the phrase rendered “the Word was God” describes “the nature of the Word and does not identify His Person.” Well and good. But this true meaning of the original Greek is certainly not the thought conveyed by most Bibles. Still, some scholars, less supportive of Trinitarian ideas, have translated it “the Word was a divine being” or “the Word was divine.” In the Journal of Biblical Literature (Volume 92, 1973), Philip P. Harner writes: “Perhaps the clause could be translated, ‘the Word had the same nature as God.’” Hence, far from proving that there is a three-in-one God, John 1:1 does not even prove that there is a two-in-one God!

The text that A Catholic Dictionary calls “the strongest statement of Christ’s divinity in St. Paul, and, indeed, in the N[ew] T[estament]” is Romans 9:5. In The Jerusalem Bible, this verse reads, in part: “Christ who is above all, God for ever blessed! Amen.” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology acknowledges that even if a Trinitarian rendering of the Greek were accurate, “Christ would not be equated absolutely with God, but only described as a being of divine nature, for the word theos [God] has no article. But this ascription of majesty does not occur anywhere else in Paul. The much more probable explanation is that the statement is a doxology [praise] directed to God.” Even A Catholic Dictionary admits: “There is no reason in grammar or in the context which forbids us to translate ‘God, who is over all, be blessed for ever, Amen.’” So much for “the strongest statement of Christ’s divinity”!—Compare Romans 9:5 in the Catholic New American Bible and the Protestant New English Bible.

One God or Three?

There are other scriptures quoted by Trinitarians in their efforts to back up the so-called “central doctrine of the Christian religion.” After having examined several of these, Professor Johannes Schneider concludes his article on “God” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology by stating: “All this underlines the point that primitive Christianity did not have an explicit doctrine of the Trinity such as was subsequently elaborated in the creeds of the early church.”

One God or three? For the early Christians, the answer was plain. It was clearly stated by the apostle Paul:

“We know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even though there are those who are called ‘gods,’ whether in heaven or on earth, just as there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords,’ there is actually to us one God the Father, out of whom all things are, and we for him; and there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things are, and we through him.”—1 Corinthians 8:4-6.

The Bible speaks of “the Father,” “the Son” and also “the holy spirit.” But it does not present them as a triune God. Just what the “one God and Father of all persons,” the “one Lord,” and the “one spirit” are, according to the Bible, will be examined in our next issue.—Ephesians 4:4-6.

The Expositor’s Greek Testament, edited by W. Robertson Nicoll, 1967 reprint, Volume 1, page 684.

Published by the WTB&TS, 1984