The Nature of God: A Biblical Review
This article is adapted from a study paper, "The Nature of God: A Biblical Review."
The Bible presents us with a problem. It tells us that there is a "Father" who is holy, spirit and God, a "Son" who is holy, spirit and God, and a "Holy Spirit." It also tells us God is "one." In our physical world, we do not often come upon things that are two or three and yet, at the same time, one. So we have a problem.
Men in the third and fourth centuries became acutely aware of this problem, and, through a series of councils and much reflection by scholars, arrived at a formulation that later became known as the "Trinity."
This formulation tells us that God is "three in one" in that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are coequal and coeternal in the Godhead in divine essence-distinct, yet unified. This understanding of the nature of God has remained the dominant teaching in Christendom ever since.
Some sectarian groups, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Unitarians, Christian Scientists and, of course, the Worldwide Church of God before 1993, rejected the Trinity, though in different ways and for different reasons.
My principal focus of study here is the two concepts of the nature of God the WCG has adopted in its history: "God is a Trinity" and "God is a Family." I will try to determine if either of these are scripturally defensible as literal descriptions of the composition and organization of the Godhead.
God as Trinity
The rational basis of the Trinity doctrine is briefly expressed in this simple syllogism:
But, we should ask, what do we mean when we say God is one and the Holy Spirit is God? The next two subsections will attempt to address those premises of the argument relative to Scripture.
It has been explained by WCG leaders that the Greek and Hebrew words translated "one" in the Bible mean, simply, one, as in one apple, one car, one house.
It was noted by the same individuals that Elohim is not always used to refer to pluralities. For instance, it has been pointed out that Exodus 32:4 uses Elohim for Aaron's calf. Likewise 1 Kings 11:5 uses it for the goddess Ashtoreth.
This disabused us of the notion that the use of Elohim in Genesis 1 necessarily indicates plurality when referring to God.
So I wondered if the same type of analysis of the Bible's use of the Greek and Hebrew words translated "one" in regard to God would yield similarly instructive results. I believe it has.
Usage of heis
The Greek word translated "one" in the following New Testament scriptures is heis. It is a numeric word, just like the English one or two. It is used in the passages usually cited to explicate God's oneness:
"I and my Father are heis" (John 10:30).
"Since there is heis God who will justify . . ." (Romans 3:30).
"Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but heis" (1 Corinthians 8:4).
"Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is heis" (Galatians 3:20).
"For there is heis God . . ." (1 Timothy 2:5).
"You believe that there is heis God. You do well. Even the demons believe-and tremble" (James 2:19).
A fact not often recognized, however, is that heis is often used by biblical writers figuratively, not as in "one apple," "one house," and so on. For instance:
"And not for that nation only, but also that He would gather together in heis the children of God who were scattered abroad" (John 11:52).
Here we see the thousands of individual children of God gathered together in heis. This is a clear use of heis in reference to a plurality.
". . . Holy Father, keep through your name those whom you have given me, that they may be heis as we are . . . that they all may be heis, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; they also may be heis in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And the glory which you gave me I have given them, that they may be heis as we are heis" (John 17:11, 21-22).
Oneness of mind
Here humans are capable of the same unity the Father and Son are capable of. Thus we would naturally conclude that the heisness of the Father and Son is really meant to denote a oneness of mind, spirit and will, not oneness of being, which is not possible for individual humans.
"So we, being many, are heis body in Christ, and individually members of heis another" (Romans 12:5).
This clearly sets out a conception of heisness that includes "individuals."
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all heis in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).
The thought that all the thousands of church members worldwide are literally one in being and essence is, of course, absurd. Yet the same language when referring of God, we're told, must be taken with such literalism.
"For He Himself is our peace, who has made both [Jew and Gentile] heis, and has broken down the middle wall of separation . . ." (Ephesians 2:14).
Here are two masses of people, two entirely different racial groups, for the most part living in lands far apart from one another, made heis. In the essence of their being?
"For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of heis, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren . . ." (Hebrews 2:11).
Christians and God are now heis. But certainly we know, if we know anything, the essential separation of ourselves from God. We can often feel close to God, even feel at one with God at times, but we are still in the flesh, and God is not, so we cannot be one with Him essentially. So "heisness" must mean here, as elsewhere, a oneness of attitude, purpose and will.
"I and My Father are heis" (John 10:30).
Notice here a subject and object: "I and My Father." Trinitarians say this is because Jesus was in the flesh and was for that moment speaking as One who was not essentially one with the Father. That's fine, but then we are forced to recognize that heisness does not necessarily indicate essential oneness, but is here, once again, used to convey oneness in spiritual fellowship and purpose between two individuals.
Of course, heis is also used literally in the New Testament, as in John 4:37: "For in this the saying is true: 'One sows and another reaps.' " But what we've seen has proven that heis cannot be assumed to be intended literally in a given passage.
Because of its breadth of meaning and richness of biblical usage, heis cannot tell us anything more certain about the essential oneness of the Godhead than Elohim could about its plurality.
Usage of echad
When beginning this study, I had expected some figurative word usage in the Greek scriptures. But I was not prepared for figurative usage of the word translated "one" in the Hebrew scriptures as well.
In Deuteronomy 6:4, Moses writes, "Hear O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!" (NKJV is used throughout.) The word translated "one" is echad.
Recent scholarship suggests translators have not generally conveyed the sense of this passage faithfully. In A History of God, Karen Armstrong notes that the Hebrew literally reads:
"Listen (shema) Israel! Yahweh is our Elohim, Yahweh alone (echad)! You shall love Yahweh with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength. Let these words I urge upon you today be written on your hearts." About this she notes:
"When they recite the Shema today, Jews give it a monotheistic interpretation: Yahweh our God is One and unique. The Deuteronomist had not yet reached this perspective. "Yahweh echad" did not mean God is One, but that Yahweh was the only deity whom it was permitted to worship. Other gods were still a threat: their cults were attractive and could lure Israelites from Yahweh, who was a jealous God" (Karen Armstrong, A History of God, New York, Knopf, 1994, p. 52, 53).
Indeed, echad is also used in the Old Testament to describe situations clearly speaking of two or more separate entities. For instance, Genesis 2:24 tells us, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become echad flesh."
We know that Adam and Eve did not join together like Siamese twins after marriage. This is speaking figuratively of two people in a spiritual, intellectual and sexual union. If one should die, the other continues living intact as a viable individual, without the other. Adam was not necessary for Eve's existence, thus they weren't essentially one.
So the same word used for God's oneness is used to describe a married couple unified in will, purpose and mutual love.
Furthermore, Genesis 11:6 tells us that all the people of the plain of Shinar were echad, when the Lord said, "Indeed the people are echad, and they all have echad language."
How could all the thousands of individuals of Shinar be echad if echad necessarily means a solitary unit of existence such as we've been told, like "one apple," "one car," and so on?
Finally, Genesis 41 tells us of the time Pharaoh dreamed two dreams on two consecutive nights. Verse 25 has Joseph saying, "The dreams of Pharaoh are echad . . ." Different dreams on two separate nights were literally one? We know this is impossible. Clearly, Joseph is using the term figuratively here, showing that the two dreams communicate to Pharaoh the same basic message.
So then, since heis and echad are not infrequently used in reference to pluralities, it doesn't appear there is any way for us to know in any given scripture whether heis or echad, by itself, indicates essential oneness or not.
If we do so only when the given scripture is speaking of the Godhead, we are interpreting in a circle, because it is precisely the issue of essential oneness of the Godhead we are trying to ascertain.
As we should have learned with Elohim, biblical language relating to the nature of God is ambiguous. Therefore conclusions based upon them are not sufficient for the purposes of literal description.
How, then, is God one?
The preceding word study notwithstanding, the problem that faces Christians is in reconciling the Old Testament concept of God with the New Testament concept of God. It is not a matter of specific words per se. As we've seen, the specific words at issue have a broad usage, even in the Hebrew. The problem lies in the historical fact that YHVH came to be seen by the Hebrews to be a singular being.
Perhaps, as Karen Armstrong suggests, evidence of strict monotheism is not extant in earlier Hebrew writings. But there is little dispute that it eventually became the predominant Hebrew view of God (Isaiah 43:10, 11 and 45:5, 21-note use of "I" and "me").
The two solutions taught by the WCG have been that God is one family and that God is triune. I would suggest that neither of these fully resolve the problem of the Hebrew vs. Christian concepts of God.
As for the family concept, when Isaiah writes in chapter 45 of the superiority of YHVH, he does not do so on the basis that the Hebrew family of Gods is better or more unified than the nations' families of gods. He does so by proclaiming that there is one God-YHVH-and that God is Israel's. This is consistent with the rest of the Old Testament.
Whether it is correct to refer to God as a family is a question we'll take up later. My focus here is that the writers of the Old Testament did not understand God in family terms. No Hebrew would dare have suggested that God was a family of Beings. This would have been considered in that time to be patently polytheistic, and such a notion appears nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures.
But neither is there any indication that the Hebrews imagined God to be triune or biune or whatever; no such statements appear in the Old Testament. Undoubtedly, if one were to travel in time back to the days of the prophets and suggest that God was actually "three persons in one being," they would have looked at you as if you had three heads.
In any case, saying that God is "three in one" (or "two in one," for that matter) doesn't resolve the problem, but merely restates it. Our question is how can God be one and more than one at the same time? The Trinitarian answer is that God is one and more than one at the same time. This is not a solution. It is a proclamation of the problem as a fact.
This is why people who try to reason out the Trinity get frustrated and why the standard response from churchmen over the years has been that the Trinity is fundamentally a mystery. For something that is one and more than one at the same time is logically incoherent to us-which brings us right back to the problem set forth at the beginning of this article.
It isn't my intent at this point in this article to try to determine the truth or falsity of the Trinity; it is only to recognize that the Trinity idea doesn't reflect the view of the Old Testament writers and that in simply restating the one-or-more-than-one scriptural paradox it does nothing to resolve it.
Scripture hopelessly contradictory?
Perhaps we need to face a fact. In 2,000 years it would appear that no one in the Christian world has ever fully harmonized the differences between the strict monotheistic Hebrew conception of God as reflected in the Old Testament and the prima-facie plural Christian conception of God as reflected in the New Testament.
Is Scripture is hopelessly contradictory on this issue? I would like to offer another point of view, from the writer of Hebrews, that I think has direct bearing on this issue.
"God, who at various times and in different ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son . . ." (Hebrews 1:1-2)
The writer launches his epistle from a foundation formed by a single fundamental theological fact: The revelation of God's Son to mankind has given us insight into God that the prophets and other Old Testament writers never imagined. The entire epistle is a testimony to that growth in understanding in and through the advent of the Messiah.
Should we factor this understanding into our discussion of the nature of God? How could we not? Jesus made it clear that He had a "Father" in heaven who was God and that He, the Son, was God (John 5:23; 8:17-19, 51-52, 58; 12:45; 14:9; 20:27-29).
In this, God's self-revelation reached revolutionary proportions, which is one reason the preservers of the old order-who understood and believed the prophets-wanted to kill Him and his followers (John 8:58-59; 19:6-7; Acts 7:55-60).
To Jews schooled in the Hebrew scriptures, these utterances were simple blasphemy. Indeed, their old theological wineskins were simply inadequate to take in the new wine poured out in the advent and person of the Christ.
Clearly, something was afoot in the advent of the Messiah that was withheld from the prophets. They expressed the truth they knew; the writer of Hebrews tells us that important insights remained that only the advent of the Son could reveal.
But here's the puzzle: If the apostles had been as strongly monotheistic before meeting Jesus as were their fellow Jews (and did they have any choice?), why don't we see them wrestling with this issue in the New Testament? Shouldn't they have wanted to reconcile the discrepancy?
One would think so, but the simple fact is that they didn't. The writings of the apostles prove that with a deafening silence on the issue.
Then, how about us? Can we understand the oneness of God spoken of in Scripture in light of the revelation that God includes (at least) two identifiable entities? I believe there are some fundamentals we can keep in mind.
Clearly it is important to recognize, always, the Father's and Son's oneness of purpose, character, values, will, divine prerogative and metaphysical state. There are not two Gods. There is, categorically speaking, one God.
If you were to ask the Father and Son identical questions, you would receive identical answers. They endorse the same plans, objectives and means. Unlike the gods of the Canaanites, there are no disputes over territories or divided responsibilities over the elements of the earth.
Unlike the Greco-Roman gods, they do not compete, disagree, feud or fight among themselves. Certainly this is one reason both the Old and New Testaments affirm the unity of God. For the Israelites, it was a setting forth of a clear distinction between the true God and all the nondeities of that time and place.
For the Christians of the Roman Empire, it was no doubt instructional (not to mention a great relief) to know there was, after all, a single hand and purpose guiding the universe.
The Holy Spirit: In what sense God?
The Holy Spirit is God. Of itself, though, this says little. The question we need to have answered for this discussion is how is the Holy Spirit God? What do we mean when we make this statement?
Do we mean that the Holy Spirit is a center of consciousness distinct from the Father and Son, or that it is the consciousness of the Father and Son?
Is the Holy Spirit God as a "ground of being" or person distinct from the Father and Son? Or is the Holy Spirit God simply because God is holy, and God is spirit, so, when we speak of "Holy Spirit," we're simply using other words for God?
Trinitarians teach the Holy Spirit is a person in its own right, and here are Scriptures cited by them in support of that view. They all deserve comment, though some more than others.
"The Spirit of God has made me . . ." (Job 33:4).
"You send forth your Spirit, they are created . . ." (Psalm 104:30).
These scriptures tell us that God is Creator and that God used His Spirit to create. But we knew this. What we need to know is how is the Holy Spirit God? Does He have a relationship to the Father and Son, or is He the manifest Father and Son? These scriptures do not help us.
"Assuredly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation" (Mark 3:28-29).
First, not only persons can be blasphemed (Titus 2:5). Second, Mark tells us the lesson we should draw from this event, for he comments in verse 30 that "because they said, 'He has an unclean spirit.' "
This event was not seen as a teaching about the Holy Spirit per se, but a teaching about Jesus Christ. He was the One in whom the Spirit worked, and it was blaspheming the Spirit to attribute Jesus' works to that of a demon when in fact it was the very presence of God in Him that did the works (John 14:10).
Third, if we are to take this saying to heart in the sense Trinitarians understand it, this would put the person of the Holy Spirit above the person of Christ and above the Father Himself! No Trinitarian I know of makes this claim.
The animate Spirit
"But Peter said, 'Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit . . . You have not lied to men but to God' " (Acts 5:3-4).
"Then the Spirit said to Philip, 'Go near and overtake this chariot' " (Acts 8:29).
"As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, 'Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them' " (Acts 13:2).
"Now when they had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia" (Acts 16:6).
"And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God . . ." (Ephesians 4:30).
"Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith . . ." (1 Timothy 4:1).
It should be no surprise that the apostles, seeing the unimaginably great things wrought by the Spirit in the early years of the Church, would be well aware of the work of the Spirit and its activity in their ministry. That their references to it should take on animate qualities after they had all witnessed it doing so many amazing things would be expected.
A closer look at Acts 13:2 illustrates this point. The next verse says, "And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away." If the Holy Spirit had "said" (literally) "separate Me Barnabas and Saul," why would they need to fast and pray?
Verse 3 is showing clearly how the Holy Spirit "said" that Barnabas and Saul should be chosen: through fasting and prayer. It is in this sense that the Holy Spirit "said" they were chosen. They did not hear the voice of a person. Clearly, animate qualities of the Spirit are used figuratively.
Indeed, not everything given animate qualities in the New Testament is persons (Galatians 3:8; Hebrews 4:12), for the Bible often teaches through verbal illustrations.
Animate and inanimate imagery
Moreover, it should be no secret to us that, as often as not, the New Testament uses inanimate imagery in reference to the Holy Spirit.
For instance, 1 Thessalonians 5:19 speaks of the Spirit being "quenched," unusual language if you hold to the Trinitarian concept of the Holy Spirit. Equally so 2 Corinthians 1:22, which speaks of the Spirit as an "earnest payment"; Acts 2:38 says it's a "gift"; 2 Timothy 1:6 speaks of it as a thing to "stir up"; Titus 3:5 says it is something to be "renewed"; John 3:34 suggests it is "measured"; and Acts 2:16-19 speaks of the Spirit being "poured out."
Luke also has the Holy Spirit "filling" people (Luke 1:15, 35; 41, 67; 4:1, 14; Acts 2:4, etc.).
Additionally, the Spirit is likened to natural elements like water (John 4:10-14; 7:38-39).
"How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit . . ." (Hebrews 9:1).
God is Spirit, and He is eternal, so it's fair to say His Spirit is eternal.
"Likewise, the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searched the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God" (Romans 8:26-27).
What is being said in this remarkable and somewhat enigmatic scripture is that God's Spirit works in our prayers in ways unbeknown to us, helping us pray in the Spirit as we ought without our actually saying the words we ought to be saying.
As Karl Barth has it in his Shorter Commentary on Romans, God "makes himself our advocate with himself, that he utters for us that ineffable groaning, so that he will surely hear what we ourselves could not have told him, so that he will accept what he himself has to offer."
God searches our hearts and assists us with His Spirit and through His Spirit monitors and communicates through, as it were, our minds. So something is happening on a level we're not conscious of to help us in our prayers, and the agent of that work is the Spirit of God.
Moreover, this work of the Spirit and the work of the interceding Christ are equated here with no distinction made between them. This would argue against a Trinitarian framework, not for it.
The parakletos of John
"And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you . . . But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you" (John 14:16-17, 26).
"But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of me" (John 15:26).
"Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness and of judgment. . ." (John 16:7-8).
John 14-16 contains the longest and most important discourse involving the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, and the preceding verses are its salient passages.
Only John uses parakletos in the New Testament. In its most general sense, it means "helper," as in the NKJV and New American Standard Bible. Translations of the word to the English "Counselor," "Advocate" and "Comforter" are a result of scholars translating from the context to bring out shades of meaning that might apply to the passage at hand.
John uses it four times in his Gospel, as above, but also once in his first letter. He is clear there as to who exactly he thinks the parakletos is:
"My little children, these things I write to you, that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have a parakletos with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 John 2:1).
So the parakletos is Jesus here, although in his Gospel John equates parakletos with the Holy Spirit. Which is it, the Holy Spirit or Christ? Or both? To begin to find an answer, I think we need to read further in John 14:
" 'I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. A little while longer and the world will see me no more, but you will see Me. Because I live, you will live also. At that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in Me, and I in you . . .' Judas (not Iscariot) said to Him, 'Lord, how is it that you will manifest Yourself to us, and not to the world?' Jesus answered and said to him, 'If anyone loves Me, he will keep my word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him' " (John 14:18-20, 22-23).
Jesus begins this section by saying, "I"-clearly speaking of Himself-"will not leave you orphans." How? Verse 19 by itself is not conclusive. But things start coming clear in verse 20: "At that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in Me, and I in you," and verse 23: "We [the Father and Son] will come to him and make Our home with him."
The parakletos, then, is a way of identifying and describing this new phenomenon God will introduce to the world-the active, living, outward expression of God that, for the first time, will make it possible for the Father and Son make Their home in believers.
This explains verse 17: The world "neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you."
"You know him" and "dwells with you" make no sense if the Holy Spirit is a ground of being distinct from the Father and Son, since the apostles will not yet be introduced to Him until Pentecost. But the disciples did know Jesus, and Jesus did dwell with them, and, as verse 23 makes clear, Jesus with the Father does promise to come live in them.
Projection of consciousness
In fact, John 15:26 has Jesus saying, "But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of me." The word translated "proceeds" is used in the New Testament in the sense of words that proceed from a person's mouth (Matthew 4:4), people who proceed from a city (Mark 10:46) and bodies coming out of a grave (John 5:29).
The Helper comes out of-proceeds from-the Father. This suggests that the Holy Spirit is a projection of the consciousness of the Father and is not a center of consciousness distinct from Him.
A friend is a person. A letter from a friend is personal. The Holy Spirit, to many non-Trinitarians, is personal in the sense that it is the vehicle by which a person, God our Father, accomplishes His will; as it issues forth from Him via His Son (John 15:26).
But what of the fact that Jesus calls the Spirit "another" comforter and that the Helper is described as being sent by Jesus and the Father, as if it is a third party? This is not the language one would expect if Jesus were simply referring to Himself.
This is not unique to this situation. In John 17:3 He refers to Himself in the third person: "And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent."
Moreover, Jesus' discourses in John are replete with word pictures from everyday life that describe spiritual realities, like "the bread of life," "rivers of living water" and "the good shepherd." At the end of this discourse, Jesus tells them that is precisely what he has done:
"These things have I spoken to you in figurative language . . . (John 16:25)"
"Helper" or "Comforter" is the word picture, or figurative language, in this discourse. Jesus equated it with the Spirit and Himself simultaneously.
This is not to say that the Holy Spirit is never distinct from Jesus in the Gospels (Luke 1:25; John 3:34), but often there is no distinction. John seems unaware of the problems for the triunity of the Godhead that this discourse is presenting.
Christ and the Spirit in Paul
It isn't just in John's parakletos that we see an equating of Christ and the Spirit. It is also evident in Paul:
"But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you" (Romans 8:9-11).
"Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord" (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
"It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20).
"If we live in the Spirit . . ." (Galatians 5:25).
"And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, 'Abba, Father' " (Galatians 4:6).
"To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you . . ." (Colossians 1:27).
First, let's look at Romans 8:9: "But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His."
Here Paul uses "the Spirit," "the Spirit of God" and "the Spirit of Christ" interchangeably. The Trinity idea is that "the Holy Spirit" needs to be identified in distinction from the Father and Son. But Paul obviously sees no need to make such a distinction.
But let's go further. The end of verse 9, together with verse 10, says: "Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness."
Notice that if you have the Spirit of Christ (the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of Christ being one and the same) you have Christ Himself in you! How can this be so, in the context of the Trinity doctrine?
If Trinitarians really believed their rhetoric, they would admit the obvious: if the Holy Spirit lived in you, you would have the Holy Spirit Himself in you. Else why bother speaking of the Holy Spirit as a distinct ground of being at all?
In 2 Corinthians 3:17 Paul writes: "Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty."
Is this not, like Romans 8, telling us that "the Lord is the Spirit"? If the Lord is the Spirit, is it not correct that the Spirit is the Lord? And if the Holy Spirit is Christ, what business do we have giving it a distinct identity apart from Christ? The same questions apply to the quotations from Galatians and Colossians.
Trinitarians are tempted at this point to resort to the oneness side of their oneness-in-threeness concept and remind us that when one person of the Godhead does something, it's as if all are doing it.
But, when we see the apostles repeatedly making no distinction between Christ and the Holy Spirit, we must conclude that John and Paul were not under the impression that the Holy Spirit is a distinct other person from Christ the way Trinitarians do. (See also Matthew 18:20; 28:20.)
The New Testament's conflation of the Son and the Spirit is a flat contradiction of the Trinitarian claim, because its originators tell us that triunity means "neither dividing the substance nor confounding the persons."
That Jesus and the apostles do in fact often "confound the persons" (and elsewhere "divide the substance") reveals their ignorance of the triunity of the Godhead.
Worshiping the Holy Spirit
Trinitarians first insist that the Holy Spirit is a person distinct from the Father and Son. So, naturally, they get questions like, "Can we then worship the Holy Spirit?"
The honest answer would be (if they really believed their rhetoric), "Of course, the Holy Spirit is a person coequal with the Father and Son, and He is just as worthy of worship." Indeed, some Trinitarians do say this.
But knowing that (for some reason) in the Bible only the Father and Son are said to be worthy of worship (Matthew 6:9, Philippians 2:9-11; Revelation 5:8-14; 7:9-12) and that there is not a single prayer, song or exclamation of praise to or about the Holy Spirit in all of Scripture, the evasion comes back: "To worship God is to worship the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." (Pastor General's Report, Aug. 10, 1993).
So the Holy Spirit is absolutely distinct when Trinitarians want Him to be, but when uncomfortable issues emerge, back He goes, tucked in safely with the Father and Son, suddenly not so distinct anymore.
This kind of duplicity is seen over and over again in Trinitarian apologetics, and it should give us pause to wonder whether their chosen construct is really the best summation of the biblical data.
The Trinitarian proof text
"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . ." (Matthew 28:19).
This is the textus classicus for Trinitarians who attempt to prove the doctrine with Scripture. (Another commonly cited verse is 2 Corinthians 13:14, which we'll examine later.) There are two things to notice about this verse. It lists Father, Son and Holy Spirit together. Second, it does not say They are unified in one being.
This is the difference between a triadic and a triune statement; that is to say, one that mentions the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the same sentence vs. one that claims that those three are essentially one.
The historic WCG, though resolutely anti-Trinitarian, was at the same time resolutely triadic! We always believed there was a Father, Son and Holy Spirit involved in our salvation, and we baptized people thusly.
What was new for us in 1993, and what I am examining here, is whether God is triune. We see this reflected in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14, 2 Corinthians 13:14 and 1 Peter 1:2.
But the Trinity does not claim just that there are three at work in the world and in men, as these scriptures do. It makes the further claim that They are each persons in one being, or triune-and there's nothing here or anywhere in Scripture about that.
What if Trinitarians are right?
For the sake of argument, let's say this instruction from Jesus really was understood by the apostles who heard it as an expression of triunity of the Godhead (whether at the time or after the coming of the "Spirit of truth").
Space did not permit here a review of the historic development of the Trinity. But any history of Christian doctrine will reveal that there are no triune statements in the writings of the apostles' disciples (Polycarp, Ignatius, Clement, etc.) or even the generation following.
In fact, there are no references to anything like a Trinity until the third century and no acceptance of it in its current form until the late fourth century.
Those who developed these ideas never once claimed they were rediscovering a lost doctrine of the apostles. On the contrary, Tertullian, Origen and others were seen by contemporaries as brilliant innovators, and it was their reputation as such that put them on the historical map.
So, if Matthew 28:19 were understood by the apostles to be an expression of triunity, we would have to imagine that, in spite of this clear command from the Master to teach all nations in the context of this doctrine, they refused to do so, wrote nothing to expound on it, penned little else to support it, wrote many other things that seem to contradict it, and kept that truth from the men to whom they were supposed to pass on the faith!
To accomplish this would require a bona-fide conspiracy (not to mention a spirit of rebellion), and for what possible reason?
Our alternative is to recognize that, even with this gospel in wide distribution, the notion of triunity was not currency in the first century, and this utterance by Jesus was understood to mean exactly what it says: that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all involved in man's salvation and should be recognized as such by everyone the apostles taught and baptized.
What about the fact that name (onoma) is singular and usually applies to people? Yes it is singular, but it doesn't always apply to people (see Mark 14:32; Luke 24:13; Revelation 6:8; 8:11).
Again, the critical question is, how did those who personally heard Jesus' (probably Aramaic) words within the context of His entire discourse understand those words?
There is every reason to think Jesus' words were not understood in Trinitarian terms, given the absence of any discussion of triunity in their writings. In fact, we have in the pages of history a paper trail which reveals the Trinity doctrine's development and formulation not until centuries after the death of the apostles.
Clearly, Trinitarians are imagining an anachronism in doctrinal history here. Their refusal to examine this verse in its historical context is an exercise in superficial proof-texting.
Part 2: Scriptural problems for the Trinity
In the first part of this article, we saw that when one starts asking what one means by the statements "God is one" and "The Holy Spirit is God," from the standpoint of Scripture it appears unnecessary to think of them in the sense that Trinitarians do.
Furthermore, the scriptures in which Trinitarians see triunity, or three-in-oneness, really indicate only triadicity, or threeness. This helps their cause not at all, because, as we stated at the outset, few question whether Scripture shows the existence of a Father, Son and Holy (that is, divine) Spirit.
The Trinity, however, expresses that these are triune, which is a whole other issue. In fact, it is the principal point of disagreement between Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians.
It becomes clear by the well-documented development of the Trinity that it is historically inconceivable that the authors of the New Testament held the doctrine of Triunity of the Godhead, since the first inklings of this concept do not appear in any Christian writings until well over a century after the death of the apostles.
This is all reason enough, if Scripture is our only rule of faith and doctrine, to declare the Trinity a belief not expected of Christians. But the difficulty in adopting the Trinity does not end there.
What follows are five broad problem areas relative to the scriptural record that must be successfully dealt with for one to accept the Trinity doctrine:
One being in three hypostases
There are formal and less-formal ways of expressing Trinitarianism. When the Worldwide Church of God introduced the Trinity to its membership, it presented the doctrine in its more technical, ancient expression: "one divine being in three hypostases." To this end The Pastor General's Report of Aug. 24, 1993, quoted Hebrews 1:3, which reads:
"The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word."
The PGR explained that "being" was translated from hypostasis, literally meaning that which "stands under" or makes something what it is or that without which something cannot be. It could be called "the ground of being," it was explained. Then this:
"This is the word we have chosen to use of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is a biblical term, and it does not confuse God's nature with the created order. Our teaching is that God is one Being, existing eternally in three hypostases: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
If read carefully, you will note the writer does not claim that the Bible uses hypostasis for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or that the Bible claims God is one being in three eternally existing hypostases.
He says, quite accurately, "This is the word we have chosen to use." And, just as tellingly, "Our teaching is . . ." He could not accurately claim that the Bible teaches that "God is one being in three eternally existing hypostases," because it says nothing of the kind.
The fact is, the Worldwide Church of God's doctrine on the nature of God is, at its core, a fabrication of men. This starts becoming evident when we look at the four other places in the New Testament hypostasis appears:
"Lest if some Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we [not to mention you!] should be ashamed of this hypostasis [confident] boasting" (2 Corinthians 9:4).
"What I speak, I speak not according to the Lord, but as it were, foolishly, in this hypostasis [confidence] of boasting" (2 Corinthians 11:17).
"For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our hypostasis [confidence] steadfast to the end" (Hebrews 3:14).
"Now faith is the hypostasis [substance] of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).
Far from being the "biblical term" for God's essential nature, in all but one instance--Hebrews 1:3--it is not even used in the context of the Godhead at all. For its part, Hebrews 1:3 isn't telling us anything about God that requires a Trinitarian viewpoint to understand.
Trinitarians respond, "Well, the Bible doesn't exactly say that God is one being in three eternally existing hypostases(or persons) in so many words; that's simply a summation of the teaching that God is one and that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all God."
Fair enough. But we've already seen that the New Testament does not necessarily teach that God is one, or that the Holy Spirit is God, in the sense that Trinitarians believe them to be. So whence the necessity of the doctrine?
What we have now is an idea that is fundamentally nonbiblical but adopted to sum up a body of scriptural teaching that does not provably exist. This is as good a reason as I can think of not to adopt a doctrine.
I could find four visions of heaven and God's throne given to men in the Bible. The record of them is as follows:
"I was watching in the night visions, and behold, one like the Son of Man, coming in the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him . . ." (Daniel 7:13).
"But [Stephen], being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, 'Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God' " (Acts 7:55).
"And I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a scroll written inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals . . . And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain . . . and He came and took the scroll out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne" (Revelation 5:1, 6-7).
"But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple . . . And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb . . ." (Revelation 21:22; 22:1).
Where is the third person of the Godhead? If God is essentially and necessarily three, why do His inspired saints always see two when He gives them visions of His throne? I could see where they might envision one or three. But, if God is really three in one, two would seem to be the least-likely possibility.
I understand these are subjective visions given to limited humans, so they can be symbolic only of the reality of God's throne. Fine, so where's the symbolic Holy Spirit to go with the symbolic Father and Son? Either way, there's a conspicuous absence.
Absence in the Gospels
Then there is Jesus' exclusive relationship with the Father, found in the Gospels:
". . . No one knows the Son, but the Father; neither knows any one the Father, except the Son, and He to whomever the Son will reveal Him" (Matthew 11:27).
"For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself does . . ." (John 5:20).
"I and my Father are one" (John 10:30).
"And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was . . . that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me . . . Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world" (John 17:5, 21, 24).
It is impossible for me to read these statements by Jesus without asking what about the third coessential hypostasis? Is there no place in this relationship for Him?
If the Holy Spirit is a person, why does the New Testament never--in these or any other places--picture the Holy Spirit in a person-to-person relationship with the Father, Son or anyone else?
These are broad statements touching on the Godhead, and the Gospel writers are utterly unconcerned about including the person of the Holy Spirit in any of them.
Absence in Paul's writings
Paul, the great theologian of the church, also shows a curious disinterest in the Holy Spirit as a third person of the Godhead.
Much used to be made of the fact that the Father and Christ are mentioned in nearly every one of the salutations of Paul's letters but never once the Holy Spirit (Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:3; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; Philippians 1:2; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:2; 1 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philemon 3; see also 2 Peter 1:1, 2; 2 John 3).
This is true, and not unimportant. But, as has been noted, too much can be made of this. They were only salutations, after all. But what about other scriptures like these?
"Yet for us there is only one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live" (1 Corinthians 8:6).
"That their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, and attaining to all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ" (Colossians 2:2).
If we as Christians were to attain real knowledge of the mystery of God, would this not include the third coessential hypostasis?
Of course, Paul has much to say about the Holy Spirit in his letters. But the Holy Spirit's absence in scriptures that discuss the Godhead, like the ones above, are normative for Paul.
He discusses the Father and Son in Their relationship often but consistently leaves out mention of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:6, 1 Corinthians 3:23; 8:6; 11:3; 15:24-28; Ephesians 1:17; 3:14; 5:20, 6:23; Philippians 4:20, 21; Colossians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 3:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:16; 1 Timothy 6:13, et al), although He does list the Father, Son and Spirit together in 2 Corinthians 13:14:
"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all."
Here, Paul is choosing some encouraging words to sign off a letter, so we mustn't make much more of it than we do of his salutations. This is not an occasion to broach the topic of the mystery of the composition of the Godhead. He's signing off a letter, after all.
The Godhead, actually, is not even the subject here. The audience is Paul's concern now, and he's saying he wants his readers all to share God's love and experience Christ's grace and participate in the sharing of God's Spirit--an appropriate closing to a letter. It seems that a decision for the Trinity would already need to have been made to lead one to make more of this scripture than that.
But 1 Corinthians 8:6 and Colossians 2:2 are addressing issues regarding the Godhead, and the absence of the third person in those scriptures is significant.
Of course, arguments from silence can never in themselves be conclusive. Even so, if evidence for a doctrine cannot be found in Scripture where it ought to be, isn't that a problem?
Jesus' love for the Father
We know from 1 John 4:8 that "God is love." It is significant that He doesn't just have love; He is love. Love is the very basis of everything He thinks, says and does. As we would expect, then, there are real expressions of love spoken by Jesus to and about His heavenly Father:
"For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself does . . ." (John 5:20).
"But that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father gave Me commandment, so I do . . ." (John 14:31).
"As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you . . ." (John 15:9).
". . . For You loved Me before the foundation of the world" (John 17:24).
What we see in the Gospel of John is a profound I-Thou relationship between Father and Son. Jesus' prayer in chapter 17 is such a personal moment between Him and His Father that one experiences the sensation of eavesdropping when reading it.
But there's more than simply warm feeling here. There's real implication about the issue of God's oneness. The question that occurs to me is that, if the Father and Son do not have individual identities and minds, what meaning has Their love for one another?
Love, properly spoken, can exist only between a subject and an object, a lover and one who is loved. If the Father and Son are not individuals in some real sense, then the love They have for one another, reflected so unmistakably in the Gospel of John and elsewhere, means nothing. It is a charade. It is not the other-directed agapao that Jesus stated in John's Gospel; it is self-love, something quite different.
In other words, to the degree that the Father and Son are individuals, Their love for each other has meaning. The converse is also true; if Their love for one another is to have any meaning for humans, They must be individuals in some real and important sense. If Their love for each other cannot hold meaning for humans, what would be the point of revealing it to us?
The Word became flesh
If God is essentially and necessarily three in one, how could the Word have lived as a Jewish carpenter for 33 years? What happened to the eternal, three-in-one Godhead during that time?
The Trinitarian answer? Nothing happened to the eternal, three-in-one Godhead, because the Word never parted from the Father.
"Jesus was fully human and fully divine. He held all the power and authority of God, but He voluntarily, for our sakes, subjected Himself to the limitations of human existence. And during this period of incarnation, He, the Son, remained one with His Father in heaven" (God Is . . . booklet, published by the Worldwide Church of God, p. 30).
Likewise, material on the nature of God sent to the churches by the WCG's Personal Correspondence Department said:
"It should be noted that God's Word came from heaven to become flesh in the person of Jesus. This does not mean that the Word disappeared from heaven for 33 years."
If it is true that the "Word never left heaven," someone needs to explain these scriptures to me:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . (John 1:1, 14).
Let's note first of all that John tells us two things about the preexistent Word. First, He was someone other than the Father, for He was "with God." Yet He was equal to the Father in the nature of His being, for He "was God." The notion that the Father and Son are two individuals of the same class of being may not be the only way to understand John's words here, but certainly it is compatible with the text.
Second, the word John uses for "became" (also translated "was made") is ginomai. He uses the same word later to describe the water that was "made" wine. We know that there was water in the jars at Cana, then there appeared wine. There were not both water and wine there simultaneously. There was a complete transformation.
We know, in any case, that when something "becomes" something else (in the Word's case, spirit becoming flesh), it doesn't continue being the former thing--or else there was no becoming.
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son . . ." (John 3:16)
The word John uses for "gave" in John 3:16 is didomi, which he later uses for Jesus' request of the Samaritan woman that she "give" Him a cup of water. This is the usual sense of the term in John's Gospel. John is trying to express how much God loves us--so much so that He made this tremendous sacrifice: He gave up His own Son. But, if the Word was with Him all along, pray tell where was the sacrifice?
"Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God . . ." (John 13:3).
The word for "had come" is exerkomai, and John uses it elsewhere in conjunction with people going out of a city (John 4:30) and for Lazarus as he came out of the tomb (John 11:44). Its predominant use by John is in reference to the leaving of one realm and entering another (John 1:43; 4:30; 8:9; 10:39; 11:31; 13:31; 18:29; et al).
The Word, then, is most naturally seen as deserting the heavenly realm when He was made flesh. Thus we read of Jesus saying to His disciples in John 6:62:
"What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before?" and "I came forth from the Father and have come [exerkomai] into the world. Again, I leave the world and go to the Father" (John 16:28).
Then there's the problem of Jesus' personal prayer to His Father in John 17:
"And now O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was" (John 17:5).
What did He mean by the words "the glory I had with you"? If the Word was still with the Father as well as in the man Jesus, exactly what was Jesus praying for? Did He or did He not still have "the glory"?
"Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men . . ." (Philippians 2:5-7).
Christ emptied Himself
Paul unambiguously answers this question for us when he tells us that Christ Jesus "made Himself no reputation." This particular translation (the New King James) doesn't quite tell us what the original conveys. The verb in this phrase is ekenosen, literally "He emptied." A correct translation would be "He emptied Himself."
What did He empty Himself of? As one commentator said: "All orthodox theologians are agreed that it does not mean that He emptied Himself of His divine nature. Rather, it was His heavenly glory--'The glory I had with thee before the world was' (John 17:5)" (Ralph Earle, Word Meanings in the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Baker, 1986, p. 336).
Yes, Christ did not empty Himself of His divine nature, or He wouldn't have been God in the flesh. But this "emptying" must indicate His giving up the glory of heaven to dwell with us on earth as a lowly human; our need to follow Christ's example of humility and sacrifice is unquestionably the sermon point Paul is making here. (See also 2 Corinthians 8:9.)
But the idea that the "Word was still in heaven all along," necessary to the adoption of the Trinity doctrine, renders the sacrifice of Christ Paul speaks of here as impossible as it made the Father's in John 3:16.
Paul's view of the incarnation in Philippians 2:5-7 is complemented by Galatians 4:4:
"But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman . . ."
The word for "sent forth" is exapostello. It is consistently used in the New Testament in cases in which someone is sent from one place to another (see Luke 1:53; 20:10, 11; Acts 12:11; 17:4). It is used only one other time by Paul, two verses later in Galatians 4:6:
"And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts . . ."
The Trinitarian response
Trinitarians ask: If God's Spirit can be "sent forth" without God leaving heaven, why couldn't God's Son? I believe this would indeed be a problem if the Holy Spirit were a person.
Though we might disagree on the details, no one doubts that the Word that became Jesus was indeed a person (John 1:1-4, 10-12). But, in the previous section on the Holy Spirit, it was clear that there is no such unequivocal scriptural evidence for the idea that the Holy Spirit is a person, and there is good reason to believe otherwise.
If the Holy Spirit is indeed God's manifest power and not a center of consciousness distinct from the Father, then it would seem to make perfect sense that it could "proceed" (John 15:26) or, as here, be "sent forth" from the Father without God compromising His heavenly existence--as, say, light from the sun.
But a person, by definition, is a thinking, feeling, identifiably distinct center of consciousness. Persons are not separated from and unified with other persons simultaneously.
What Trinitarians ask us to believe, without a single scriptural hint to suggest it, is that the identifiably distinct center of consciousness known as the Word did not become fully existent in the man Jesus, but was bifurcated in some way between two realms that Jesus described as exclusive of each other (John. 6:62; 16:28).
I think I know what a Trinitarian would say to all this. In fact, it has already been said by the WCG's Personal Correspondence Department in the aforementioned document:
"Remember that God is infinite and, thus, his Word is infinite and is in all locations at once . . . 'Separation' is not a word that has meaning when applied to God. It applies to things that exist in space."
Fine, but the issue that confronts us here is not about space or bodies. First and foremost, we're talking about mental issues. If the Word's mind wasn't part of His incarnation, then what was?
The objection here is not that we don't know how Christ could have existed in both heaven and earth metaphysically. The issue is what does the Trinity idea require us to believe was going on mentally with Him during that experience?
Was the heavenly Word watching Himself while the Word made flesh toiled and suffered? Is there any indication of any of this in the Bible? In what sense could the Father think He had given Him over to us, and in what sense could the Word have divested Himself of heavenly glory, when They were all along locked in their heavenly, glorified, loving embrace?
For all these reasons, the idea that the Word was metaphysically "one" with the Father throughout the incarnation--a necessary corollary of the Trinity doctrine--seems impossible to reconcile with the New Testament.
Above all, a moral issue
We should also not neglect that there is moral issue at stake here if Trinitarians are right. We're talking about a Father who pretended His Son was not still sharing His heavenly existence--giving Himself credit for "sacrificing" Him--when His Son "remained one with His Father in heaven" all along.
We're talking about a Son who pretended He didn't share His Father's glory, when He did--and pretended to ask for it back. We're talking about an apostle who pretended his Messiah made the supreme sacrifice of giving up the prerogatives of Heaven when He really hadn't.
These issues strike at the very character of the God of the Bible, His worthiness of our worship and the veracity of the Christian scriptures.
The temptation is great, of course, for Trinitarians to paper these problems over with statements like: "You're just an earthbound human, so you can't understand."
Again, fine, but why did God inspire these scriptures--written by and for earthbound humans--in the first place? What would their real interpretation be?
Until that question is answered sufficiently, perhaps we can be excused for concluding that, at its best, the Trinity renders some of the most important biblical teachings about the love and sacrifice of God as meaningless confusion.
Where is the Holy Spirit's throne?
The same problems that face Trinitarianism regarding Christ's first advent face it regarding His second, because it is clear that at that time the saved and unsaved alike will deal directly, personally and only with the risen Christ:
"Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11).
"Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matthew 24:30).
"For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God" (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
"He who testifies to these things says, 'Surely I am coming quickly.' Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!" (Revelation 22:20).
Then the church will marry her one husband, the Lamb, Christ:
"Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready" (Revelation 19:7).
And the church will rule personally with Him for 1,000 years:
"Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years" (Revelation 20:6).
Only after all these events will God the Father appear to His perfected people:
"Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God' " (Revelation 21:2-3).
Thereafter the Father and Son remain identifiably distinct individuals:
"But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple" (Revelation 21:22).
There is, of course, no mention of the third person of the Godhead in this eternal framework or any indication that the Father and Son will not be fully manifest as each executes His particular role in and through these events.
As with the incarnation, placing these important passages in a Trinitarian context requires so many qualifications that they cease to convey anything specifically meaningful at all.
If Trinitarians cannot sufficiently respond to these problems, it is clear to me that have a simple choice between believing the New Testament or believing Trinitarianism.
Part 3: The family of God and human destiny in Scripture.
The Worldwide Church of God under Herbert W. Armstrong taught that God is one family currently comprised of two members, the Father and Son. In this view the Holy Spirit is not an identifiable person distinct from the Father and Son, but the power and presence of God as it proceeds from the Father via the Son (John 15:26).
Scripture supports this view, with God often describing Himself in family terms; for example, Father and Son. Other terms are occasionally used in reference to God, but the Father and Son concepts are the dominant ones used in the New Testament.
According to my reckoning, those terms are used in respect to God no fewer than 465 times in the New Testament. Clearly this is a tremendous scriptural witness to God's desire that His people think of Him in terms of family.
What do we mean by family?
What do we mean when we say God is a family? Family is a human word. It literally describes the human activity of a man and a woman entering a committed sexual relationship and producing children.
Does this fit the facts of the activities of God? If not, should we then qualify our language to recognize that? Let's look at the facts of the situation.
First, it is important to note that the statement "God is a family" appears nowhere in Scripture. The closest thing to it is Ephesians 3:14-15:
"For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of my Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named."
The family spoken of in Ephesians 3 includes everyone in the universe, which encompasses angels and the heavenly hosts. But angels, we know, will not have part in God's family (Hebrews 1:13-14).
So it appears, especially in this context, that Paul's intent is not to define God, rather to express the truth that all that is in heaven and earth issues forth from God and belongs to Him (Revelation 4:11).
Furthermore, we need to ask is God a family in the same sense we humans use the term? A human family involves a husband and a wife who unite sexually and bear children.
Since there is a heavenly Father and a heavenly Son, who, then, would be the Father's wife and the Son's heavenly mother? The answer is that such things do not occur in heaven, as Jesus made clear (Mark 12:25).
What is the most accurate expression?
We take linguistic shortcuts every day. We occasionally use family in a figurative sense too. A company we work for might sometimes refer to its work force as a family, for example, and we all know what we mean when we use the word that way.
But, if one is striving for theological precision (i.e., when establishing doctrine), it seems to me a more precise statement would be: God is like a family.
Reference to the God family is correct in this case if it is understood that family is used in a clarifying sense, as in Ephesians 3:15, for the Scriptures indeed teach us that Spirit-led Christians are spiritual children to a spiritual Father. But obviously not all the attributes of a family, as humans normally use the term, are applicable.
To some this might be picking nits and getting needlessly caught up in semantics. But it is a perhaps unfortunate fact that much of theology is semantics, and doing theology right involves getting semantics right.
What I am not suggesting
By suggesting family as an analogy, I do not mean to imply that the relationships described by use of the terms Father and Son are somehow less than real. I believe the terms are used to teach us something about a real relationship that really exists between Father and Son.
Our familial relationships are patterned after the relationships on the God plane--the relationship the Father has with the Son, and the relationship They have with us as God's children. We are made in His likeness, in His image (Genesis 1:26). God's revelation to us is cast in physical terms that we can understand.
The family relationships of our being God's children, the church being our mother, Christ being our brother, and so on, are real and critical for us to understand in the terms in which they are described--that is, family terms.
It is clear that, if one is thinking of the God of the Bible, thinking of that God in terms of family is scripturally sound.
The problem emerges when we try to employ limited human language to describe or formularize this transcendent Being. The word family is a human word, subject to the limitations of any human word. About this I'll have more to say later.
Some have suggested that Mr. Armstrong always spoke and wrote of family as an analogy, as did most ministers.
I believe this is true, but there have been materials written in WCG history, such as The God Family and the Holy Spirit reprint series, that were not so careful, giving Trinitarians opportunity to later caricature the concept.
Given this history, I believe we who understand that God describes Himself first and foremost in family terms have an interest in clarifying the issue and being precise in our expression of the biblical revelation that God is like a family.
What kind of Christianity will we have?
I still remember the phone call I received one afternoon nearly 10 years ago now from the director of admissions of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
I had graduated from Ambassador College the preceding spring, and I wanted to continue learning. Applying to Fuller was, of course, not a popular thing to do in the Worldwide Church of God of 1986, but for me the matter was simple. These were people who knew things I ought to--but didn't--know. Therefore, I could learn from them.
Whether, in the end, I would subscribe to their doctrinal positions was a matter for Scripture to decide, and I had implicit faith in God's willingness and ability to guide me in that. So I applied and, naively perhaps, expected to be accepted, because I was asking to attend only part time.
"We want to let you know, Mr. Fakhoury, that we've had to disallow your admission to the seminary," the man said.
Dumbstruck, all I could think to say was, "Well, why?"
"You said in your application you're a member of the Worldwide Church of God. Is that correct?"
"Yes . . ."
"Well, we only admit Christians to the seminary at this time, and we don't consider your organization a Christian group."
Not a Christian? I thought. Christ had only transformed my whole life! What else did they want?
"Well, why do you say that?" I asked.
"First of all, you don't believe in the Trinity. According to Scripture, the Christian God is triune. So we don't consider groups that deny the Trinity to be Christian."
I tried to assure the man that I wouldn't cause any trouble, wouldn't ask divisive questions, I wanted only to learn, and so on.
"I'm sorry," came the response.
It was only at this point that I realized how serious these folks were about this doctrine.
Thanks to Dr. K.J. Stavrinides' personal guidance years before at AC, I had been able to study the Trinity issue closely. I saw then how tenuous its connection to Scripture was. I couldn't imagine passing judgment on another person's Christianity on such a basis.
Orthodoxy's fraternal handshake
It became clear that the Trinity is in fact the shibboleth of the evangelical world, the fraternal handshake of orthodoxy. You might not gain admission to the party with it, but you sure aren't getting in without it.
One would seem to have as much luck getting into the Rainbow Room without a jacket as receive admission to the realm of the orthodox without the Trinity. This would be just as true of churches as it is of individuals.
I had all but forgotten this incident when the leaders of the Worldwide Church of God announced their adoption of the Trinity, though they couldn't yet bring themselves to say the word.
It had been a decade since I'd studied the Trinity, so I hit the books once again, thinking perhaps that I had missed something, only to find that, alas, the notion of a triune God still hadn't found its way into the Bible. This paper is a record of that study.
So the question before us is this: What kind of Christianity will we have? That this paper was originally titled "The Nature of God: A Biblical Review" is no accident. Men have many ideas, but I wanted to know what does the Bible teach about the nature and composition of the God?
Well, what about it? After reviewing the evidence, can we conclude that the Bible compels belief in a triune God?
Certainly not. There is no positive expression of this doctrine in all the Bible. There is no evidence the apostolic church believed God was triune.
So the question becomes: Did God offer special revelation or inspiration to the scholars and bishops of the third and fourth centuries?
For those who care to answer this in the affirmative, the least they can do for us is resolve the scriptural problems addressed here, since presumably the Spirit would not inspire men in the fourth century to contradict what it inspired men in the first century to believe and write.
But, even if this can be accomplished, the lack of scriptural evidence for the doctrine renders faith in a triune God not a demonstration of one's willingness to follow Scripture, but a demonstration of one's faith in the creeds of Christendom. But here some Trinitarians make an important point:
"[To not] accept the Trinity, after the Church carefully and cautiously developed it in response to attacks on its faith, is to deny that Christ preserved his Church through the ravages of heresy and apostasy, and thereby implicitly to insult Christ (Matthew 16:18; Jude 3-4)" (Robert M. Bowman Jr., Why You Should Believe in the Trinity, Grand Rapids, Baker, 1989, p. 132).
To those who say this I ask: Should we also consider Mariology, the sale of indulgences and prayer to saints--all developed and promoted by the ecclesiastical descendants of the fourth-century church--to be inspired by Christ as well? That Protestant Trinitarians do not believe these things are of God shows that they are using this argument selectively.
Can you prove God cannot be a Trinity?
I should make clear here that I don't imagine I have proven God cannot be a Trinity. One cannot often prove a negative of this sort. Similarly, I also don't believe I could prove God cannot be made of green cheese. After all, the Bible doesn't explicitly say God is not made of green cheese.
But I have no scriptural reason to believe that He is made of green cheese, and I can see that accepting such an idea would produce all kinds of problems resulting from what the Bible does say about God. Thus I do not feel free to believe God is made of green cheese.
Likewise, if God is in fact triune, He has not told us so in Scripture. If we cannot prove it by the Bible alone, two things must result:
In spite of protestations to the contrary, a Trinitarian's faith is based not on sola Scriptura, but Scriptura plus the creeds. Furthermore, if Trinitarians cannot resolve the significant problems the Trinity faces vis a vis Scripture, we must recognize the unpleasant possibility that they are willing to hold a doctrine on the nature of God that may well be anti-Christian.
What, then, of the God-as-family concept? The family concept indeed helps us understand great truths about God's nature; that is, the nature of His character. The concept is helpful, meaningful and scriptural.
It teaches us how God thinks and how the Father and Son relate to each other and us.
But, as a description the family concept has necessary human connotations, some of which apply to God but a number of which do not.
An impasse in defining God
If our desire is to define God, then, it would seem we are at an impasse. Perhaps, then, we should consider the possibility that such an effort might be misguided. Here's what I mean.
A given thing can be accurately described in a number of ways. Let's take, for example, something as simple as water.
If you ask a man of the East what water is, he might respond, "Water is the nectar of the earth," or some such poetic definition. Such a figurative, holistic sense of looking at water would be correct. Water is a necessary principle of earthly life, and it has an important relationship to all living things.
But, if you were to ask a Western scientist what water is, he would likely say, "Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen." This would also be correct. Reduce water to its constituent parts and what you have is, simply, hydrogen and oxygen.
We know that Western man specialized in this kind of reductionist thinking--we call it science--beginning in ancient Greece and continuing to this day.
It occurs to me that the disconnect between what the Bible seeks to teach us about God and what we (Westerners especially) by nature want to try to find out about God directly parallels the difference between these two approaches to truth.
What the Bible really teaches about God
God is generally described in the Bible in human terms, from things we know from our earthly experience. God is the Father, but also King, Judge, Husband, Master and Lord.
These expressions share an attribute: They imply relationship (Father to child, King to subject, Judge to litigant, Husband to wife, Master to slave). Thus the wisest thing I have ever read on this subject is: "The Bible is not interested in telling us what is God, only who is God."
Indeed, the only "God Is . . ." statement in all the Bible is "God is love." Love is not a literal definition. It is an expression of a character trait. I think that should tell us something.
I believe an answer to the question "What is God?" isn't found in the Bible because "What is God?" is an unbiblical kind of question. It is, actually, the kind of question the scientist in all of us seeks. (What is water? Two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. What is God? Three coequal persons--Trinitarians say--in one essential being.)
Biblical writers choose as their starting point a spot well beyond mere literal description of God, in the hope of comprehending greater, spiritual truths concerning God's character--and they use language we can understand to do it.
The Bible writers simply refuse to play the name game from the start. It appears, actually, that it never really occurred to them to try. It is as if we have been looking for an answer to a math equation in a book of short stories.
The upshot of all this is that, when it comes to defining God, human cognitive and linguistic limits and the limitations of the Bible itself should be recognized from the outset.
But we know the end of the story is not yet. Our desire to understand our God completely will be thoroughly satisfied someday, when we are given the joyful privilege of knowing Him as completely as we are known.
Appendix: God's nature and human destiny
On one level, discussions of the composition and organization of God can seem to be something of a parlor game. God is God, His values and basic expectations of us don't change, so why waste our time with all this hair-splitting about things we'll never fully understand and won't know for sure until the resurrection anyway?
It's a fair question, and I think there are two answers. First, as we saw earlier, some conceptions of God impact fundamental theological and spiritual truths of the Bible, like the incarnation and the love of God. These cannot be seen as unimportant.
Second, our conception of God also impacts how we view His intent for mankind. The Bible clearly speaks of an afterlife for Christians in some spiritual form of existence, and this gives our lives meaning.
Naturally we ask what will it be like? Will we be like angels or God or what? What we think God is tends to influence our conclusions.
For instance, the two views the Worldwide Church of God has taken over the years led the church to teach two different things about human destiny. With the family concept, we taught that man's destiny was to become "God as God is God" as a full-fledged member of the God family.
When the church adopted the Trinity--which is generally viewed as an exclusive entity--this issue obviously had to be addressed by the new WCG leadership:
"When the Bible says that God is one, the word one does not refer to a 'God Family,' but to one God . . . In this light, the expression 'children of God' was taken to suggest that one day there would be billions of God beings--all in one God Family! . . . The Bible does not teach that God is a family name, with two God Beings in that family right now, and billions to come later" (Pastor General's Report, Worldwide Church of God, July 27, 1993).
I suggest that while the family idea was, in some circles, unconsciously overliteralized, the belief that we will live eternally in the same metaphysical state as God now lives should have been examined on its own merits, and that was never done by the new WCG leadership.
What we see reflected in comments like the above is nothing more damning for the "God-destiny" belief than guilt by association--and an association with a distortion of our beliefs at that!
Wheat blown with the chaff
Thus the wheat was blown away with the chaff, and in the process something immeasurably precious about the purpose of human life was lost. The writer of Hebrews, for instance, was led to write two chapters to encourage us by cracking open the door of the future to reveal "so great a salvation" for God's people:
"God . . . has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person and upholding all things by the word of His power . . . sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high . . . as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than [the angels]" (Hebrews 1:1-4).
This brief resume of Jesus Christ cites His preexistent, divine creative power, His present "flawless expression of the nature of God" (Phillips) and His power to sustain the universe. We also see that Christ is "heir" to all things that exist (also Hebrews 2:10). But where do we come in?
"For [God] has not put the world to come, of which we speak, in subjection to angels. But one testified in a certain place, saying: 'What is man that you are mindful of Him, or the son of man that You take care of him? You made him a little lower than the angels; You crowned him with glory and honor, and set him over he works of Your hands. You have put all things in subjection under his feet.' For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him" (verses 5-8).
As of now, the entire earth has been put under man's control, as the psalmist and Genesis 1:26 state. But there is something that has not yet been put under our control. For "we do not yet see all things put under [our] subjection." So this "all things" cannot be the earth or things on the earth.
Now, this same "all things" is what Hebrews 1:2 said Jesus inherited, which includes all that is in the universe. How is this possible? Only because the writer insists that Christ is our forerunner, whom we will follow in receiving glory!
"For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the author [arkegos: forerunner, captain] of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one [heis], for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren (Hebrews 2:10-11)."
The totality of this passage of Hebrews, then, pictures Christ as an elder brother who has shared our suffering and will someday share His heavenly glory with us. As Christ's spiritual brothers, we are one in sanctification, one in glory and one in inheritance. Paul described this as a "joint" inheritance with Christ:
"The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, and if children, then heirs--heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together . . . For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren" (Romans 8:16-17, 29).
(Go back and read the previous Pastor General's Report excerpt and just try to reconcile it with this scripture.)
What did Paul mean by being "glorified together" with Christ and "conformed to His image"?
"As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man" (1 Corinthians 15:48-49).
"For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself" (Philippians 3:20-21).
So, as Christ now exists in His heavenly glorified state, so will we someday be re-created! In fact, to Paul this is the very reason for our calling and salvation, because "God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14)."
The apostle John agrees fully with this view:
"Beloved, now we are the children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him . . ." (1 John 3:2).
What, exactly, is a 'glorious body'?
What is the nature of Christ's "glorious body," which Paul says we will be conformed to? What did the writer of Hebrews mean when he wrote that Christ now possesses "the brightness of [God's] glory and the express image of His person"? (Hebrews 1:3).
Here we enter the realm of metaphysics, of course, but the Bible gives us something to help us understand this important issue. God began by giving Daniel a glimpse of our future glory, recorded in Daniel 12:3:
"Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars for ever and ever."
Perhaps Jesus had this in mind when He proclaimed:
"Then the righteous shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" (Matthew 13:43).
Not long afterward, God demonstrated in Jesus something of what He had been talking about:
"Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, brought them up on a high mountain by themselves, and was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, His clothes became as white as the light" (Matthew 17:1-2).
The apostles later came to understand that this transfiguration was a precursor to the second coming of the glorified Christ:
"For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: 'This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased' " (2 Peter 1:16-17).
When Saul found himself suddenly enveloped in this glory, he correctly understood himself to be encountering God (Acts 9:3-5). When the glorified Christ revealed Himself in a vision to John, it was with similar supernatural brightness and glory in which He appeared:
"His head and His hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire . . . and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength" (Revelation 1:14, 16).
Although there is a danger in overliteralizing a revelatory vision, Christ certainly offered it to John to reveal something. What it reveals happens to be entirely consistent with what we find elsewhere about what a "glorified" state is.
If there is any doubt about this in our minds, there was none is Jesus'. He knew exactly what to expect when He returned to His Father:
"And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was" (John 17:5).
The risen Christ now has the glory that the preexistent Word shared with the Father from eternity. This is fully consistent with how the New Testament says He will appear when we see Him next, at His second coming. New Testament references to His return picture an awesome figure of stupendous brilliance and glory who will subdue the world (Matthew 24:30; Colossians 3:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:8).
From all this it is clear that, when Paul tells us we will "bear the image of the heavenly Man" and be "conformed to His glorious body," he is not speaking of the normal-looking body Jesus inhabited in His earthly post-resurrection appearances.
Christ went unnoticed during many of these events, for He appeared as other men (Luke 24:15-16, 36-43; John 20:14, 19-20, 27; 21:4). In no sense was He seen as "glorified" in those appearances, with His scarred and abused but otherwise unexceptional earthly form.
Adding up the promises
Although it is true that nowhere in the above scriptures do we find the exact words "you will someday be God," let's tally up the promises:
I am the brother of Jesus Christ--who is God--and as such I will be heir with Him of His glory and all creation (Hebrews 1-2).
I am the adopted child of God, and thus a coheir with Christ, so I will be glorified in the same way that Christ--who is God--now is, because He is the glorified firstborn of many glorified brethren to come (Romans 8).
At the resurrection, I will bear the very image of the heavenly glorified Christ, who is God (1 Corinthians 15).
I will be transformed into a body like that of the glorified Christ, who is God (Philippians 3).
As God's child, I will be made like God at Christ's return (1 John 3).
There's an Americanism that comes to mind when I think about these scriptures: If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck! Sometimes things really are what they appear.
I think it is only fair to ask those uncomfortable with the idea that we will become like God as Christ is God to tell us exactly how we can fairly view the above scriptures without coming to that conclusion.
What we lose by obscuring this truth
Moreover, our destiny as joint heirs with Christ in godly glory is not merely a far-off imponderable with no present practical result. The Bible's central message is that we are made in God's image (Genesis 1:26; 1 Corinthians 11:7) for the purpose of becoming partakers of His nature (Matthew 5:45, 48; Ephesians 4:12, 13; 2 Peter 1:4; etc.).
When the ultimate purpose of all this spiritual transformation--our final and complete metaphysical transformation into Christ's godly glorified nature--is obscured, ignored or denied, we are robbed of its purpose and end result.
Scripture's call for spiritual transformation appears, then, as an end in itself, disconnected to our future, thus making it appear less eternally relevant than it really is.
"Becoming like our Father in heaven" in such an environment appears as not much more than a platitude. Inasmuch as this is the impression so many have, is it any wonder so few in our world truly reflect the ways of our Father in heaven?
© The Journal: News of the Churches of God