Why be a Trinitarian?
Why should we conclude that God is a Trinity of persons? What compelling evidence is there to conclude that there are three eternal relationships within God's essence as Trinitarians claim? Most people who believe in a Trinity believe such because they go to the Scripture and find many distinctions between Father and Son, and to a lesser degree the Holy Spirit. If God's oneness is a numerical oneness of person (meaning He is uni-personal), these distinctions become very perplexing, if not meaningless. After all, how is it that Jesus prays to the Father, and speaks of the Father as though the Father is another person distinct from Him if Jesus' deity is the deity of the Father? It would be the same personal deity in both cases, and thus there would seem to be no reason to make any distinction between Father and Son.
While I believe such distinctions can be explained in light of the incarnation, I can also see the weight of the dilemma facing readers of Scripture when they encounter such phenomena. How can God be one and at yet at the same time the Scripture speak of the Father, Son, and Spirit as distinct and as God?
It would be very easy to conclude that Father, Son, and Spirit are three personal deities within one divine essence. Such a conclusion can account for both the real distinctions we encounter between Father, Son, and Spirit, and maintain the existence of only one God. Of course "one" has to be redefined away from a numerical oneness to the notion of a "unity" to make this view work. While I sympathize with the Trinitarian solution to the perplexing data in Scripture, it is the redefining of "one" that makes the Trinitarian view untenable. See my articles titled "Trinitarianism: Modified Tritheism."
There is no doubt that we find distinctions in reference to Father, Son, and Spirit in the Scripture, but the mere existence of distinctions does not warrant a Trinitarian concept of God. The doctrine of the Trinity is only a model of God formulated by the church fathers through which the oneness passages could be reconciled with the distinction passages. I do not believe this model is the best of all possible models, because it fails to account for a significant portion of the data.
The data that must be considered when developing our theology of God is as follows:
1. While we find distinctions between Father, Son, and Spirit, they do not appear until the NT.
2. The vast majority of distinctions in the NT are between Father and Son, not Father, Son, and Spirit.
3. The appellations "Father" and "Son" do not appear in the OT as designations for God. God is only called "Father" or likened to a "Father" about a dozen times, and in each case it describes God's relationship to His creation (as creator, or covenant-maker), not His relationship to another divine person (Son). Rather than being referred to as "Father" in the OT, God is referred to as "YHWH."
4. While the OT speaks of the Spirit, there is never any indication that the Spirit is a distinct person within God's essence. The Spirit is most often said to belong to YHWH, not to be a distinct person from Him.
5. Not only do we find Jesus being distinguished from the Father, but we also find Him being distinguished from God altogether.
What are the implications of this data? What is the best model of God that we can formulate to adequately account for all of the Biblical data? Is it the Trinitarian or Oneness model?
The Nature of the Distinctions
Based particularly on the NT data Trinitarians conclude that God is three persons in one essence. Why should we conclude such? Is it because we see distinctions between Father, Son, and Spirit in the NT? To conclude that God is tri-personal based simply on the fact that we find distinctions in the Bible is a hasty conclusion that does not account for all the data. To determine how Jesus is distinguished from the Father we must examine the nature of those distinctions. What we find is that Jesus is not only distinguished from the Father, but at times Jesus is distinguished from God altogether (Matthew 27:46; Luke 2:52; John 8:40; 14:1; 20:17b; Acts 2:22; 4:10; 7:55; 10:38; Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 1:3; Hebrews 1:9; 1 Peter 1:3; Revelation 1:1, 5b-6). Jesus spoke of the Father calling Him "My God." If Jesus has a God, then who is Jesus? If we assume that this is the second person speaking, does God the Son have a God? In Trinitarian theology God the Son is God, He does not have a God. Paul said, "To us there is but one God, the Father; and one Lord Jesus Christ." There is God, and then there is Jesus. Here again Jesus is distinguished from God Himself.1
Should we conclude from the above passages that Jesus is just a man, and not God? Of course not! But if we are going to look merely at the distinctions between Father and Son, and conclude from the very existence of those distinctions that God must be more than one person (a triune being), then we must with those same distinctions further conclude that Jesus is not God at all. We realize this would be a false deduction because there are Scriptures that clearly declare Jesus to be God. This demonstrates that the mere existence of distinctions between Father and Son does not give us warrant in itself to understand those distinctions as eternal and personal distinctions within God's very essence. We must seek to understand how it is that the Son is distinct from the Father, and distinct from God altogether.
Why is the Son Distinct from the Father?
Is the distinction between the Father and Son due to the existence of three eternal persons in one God, or is it due to the addition of humanity to God's one eternal person? Is the distinction between eternal persons, or is the distinction between the one uni-personal God's incarnate existence as a man, and the same uni-personal God's existence continued existence beyond the incarnation as the unlimited Spirit?
If the distinction is between eternal persons in the Godhead, why do we not read of the second person until the incarnation? Why would God fail to reveal Himself as eternal Son until the NT, if the Son is an eternally divine person in YHWH's eternal and essential being?
Also, why, if God is eternally Father, is He never called "God the Father" until the NT? While God was called "Father" occasionally before the incarnation (e.g. Malachi 3:10), "Father" begins to be used for God in an unparalleled way after the incarnation. In the OT "Father" was employed to describe the relationship between God and His creation, not between God and God (as in Trinitarian thought). God's fatherhood to Jesus Christ, however, was of a different nature than God's fatherhood spoken of in the OT. God was Jesus' Father because it was God who fathered Jesus' human existence. This might explain why it is that God becomes known as "Father" in the NT, rather than "YHWH" as He was known in the OT.
And why do we not hear of the "Son" before the NT? If God is eternally Father and eternally Son, it seems strange that we never read of "Father" and "Son" until the NT when God actually fathered a son. If we do not find the Father and Son in the OT, but start seeing such terminology and distinctions in the NT, all sane individuals ought to ask why that is so. What changed between the testaments? The answer to that question just might be a clue as to why we suddenly start reading about the "Son," and start hearing God referred to as "Father" so frequently. Is the dramatic change just a coincidence, or is there a logical reason for this?
The appellations "Father" and "Son" describe a specific kind of relationship: a filial relationship [parent/child]. Do we find such a relationship between the Father and Son in the NT? Yes we do. Is this relationship centered around the incarnation? Yes it is. God overshadowed Mary and she conceived of the Holy Spirit, making that which was born of her the Son of God, and God His father. With such an event should we be shocked that Jesus calls God His Father (in a way very distinct from the way Father was used by other Jews, as the Jews clearly recognized-John 5:18), and that God calls Jesus His Son? No. Yes there is a relationship, and it could be between two persons (whether those are two divine persons, or one divine person and one human person could not be determined simply from this evidence alone. Other information would need to be sought to determine the nature of the two persons), or it could be due to something else. His sonship could be entirely filial and temporal, beginning at the incarnation. That is the normal meaning of son, is it not? Jesus became the Son of God at the incarnation. If we never read about the Son prior to the incarnation, and yet we know that God actually fathered a human son in the incarnation, and then we start hearing about the son, which is more logical to conclude: 1. The Son is eternal and a distinct divine person from the Father, or; 2. The Son refers to the human child fathered by God, making God the Father, and the child the Son?
The time at which the appellations begin to be used may tell us something as to whether or not they are referring to two persons or something else. If the appellations start being used at the incarnation to describe the relationship between God and the human child He fathered, then we would have no reason to believe that the Father and Son are two eternally distinct divine persons. If however, they are used prior to the incarnation to describe God's relationship with another eternally divine person, then we would have reason to believe that the Father and Son are two eternally distinct divine persons, and that such is unrelated to the incarnation. But when the distinctions are found after the incarnation, as well as the Father/Son terminology, it does not favor the Trinitarian notion of an eternal distinction of persons, but rather a temporal distinction grounded in the incarnation (human existence).
A Trinitarian can always fall back on the argument that the Son was not revealed until the NT because it was not time for Him to be revealed until then. While this is possible, why should we believe it to be likely? The real issue is If God is eternally three persons, and the activities of those three persons are both diverse and interconnected, why would we not see the distinct personhood of someone called the Son and Spirit in the OT? It surely could not have been because they were inactive. To say that it just was not time for the Son to be revealed is logical according to the Trinitarian theory, but it simply follows on the heels of what Trinitarian theory would require. Trinitarians reason that since God is a Trinity, the Son must have been there even though we do not read of Him, and we do not read of Him apparently because it was not His time to be revealed to us.
This line of argumentation reminds me of evolutionists who speak of all the missing links in the fossil record that they have not found yet. I ask, "Who says they are missing? Maybe they are not there to begin with, and thus will never be found. After all, one cannot find what does not exist." It is the evolutionary theory that requires the existence of missing links, not the evidence itself. The evidence simply shows fully formed, distinct species. The theory causes them to both look for missing links, and to offer explanations as to why they are missing. Maybe evolutionists are asking the wrong questions, and are working from a flawed model, which is causing them to search for something that is really not there, and come up with very logical explanations as to why they have not found them yet. They are having difficulty finding the missing links that are required by their theory because those missing links simply do not exist. While evolutionists reason, "Well we just have not found them yet," Trinitarians seem to be saying "The Son is not found in the OT because it was not His time to be revealed." Maybe it was not His time to be revealed because He did not exist, because the Son is God's human manner of existence, not a distinct divine person in a tri-personal Godhead. That is not an unlikely possibility, especially when we have a very good reason to understand the dramatic shift we see from the OT to the NT: the incarnation. In the NT God fathered a son, and now we read about the Father and Son all the time. Since the Son is a human being who came into being at a certain point in time, it would make sense for us to not hear anything about Him prior to the NT.
The fact that such terminology is mysteriously missing from the OT makes sense when it is recognized that "Father" and "Son" are relational terms used in the context of begetting a child. Did God beget a child? Yes, at the time of the incarnation. Would this account for the lack of such terms as "Father" and "Son" in the OT, and the virtual exclusive use of such terms for God in the NT? Yes it would. Is it not better, then, to understand "Father" and "Son" to be incarnationally-bound appellations rather than eternal relationships within the Godhead? After all, it is not until the NT that we find any distinctions in reference to God, and the existence of the Father-Son terminology.2
The incarnation created a distinction between God's existence as an incarnate man (genuine humanity and deity united in one theandric3 existence) and the same God's continued existence beyond the incarnation (exclusive Spirit, or theistic existence). The Father is exclusive deity while the Son, being God incarnate, is deity and humanity metaphysically united in one existence. The distinction between the Father and Son does not lie in the identity of Jesus' deity (as some distinct person in the eternal Godhead), but in the fact that the Son is a genuine human being. The distinctions between Father and Son are exclusively bound up in the incarnation, not in God's essential being.
Because of the addition of a genuine human nature to God's eternal person, there arose a real relationship between Father and Son. This relationship was a temporal relationship arising due to God's existence as a genuine human being with a genuine human consciousness, not an eternal relationship between two distinct divine persons. Jesus is a real man with a genuine human existence. Because of His human nature, Jesus possesses human rationality, consciousness, spirit, soul, body, and will, giving Him the capacity for, and need for relationships as all men have need, even a relationship with God.
What about the Holy Spirit? While the distinction between the Father and Son can be explained by the incarnation, when it comes to the Father and the Spirit there is no incarnational distinction. How is it that the Spirit is distinct from the Father? Is the Holy Spirit a reference to a distinct person within God, or is it a reference for a particular aspect of God's one person just like our spirit is a reference to a particular aspect of our one person (1 Corinthians 2:11)? If the former, why did the OT not make this explicit, and why is the NT data so lacking for such a conclusion? The NT often makes a distinction between the Father and Son, but rarely makes a distinction between Father, Son, and Spirit.
While the OT speaks of the Spirit of4 God, there is never any indication that the Spirit is a distinct person within God's essence. The Spirit is most often said to belong to YHWH, not to be a distinct person from Him. If YHWH is the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit), and the Spirit is a person in the Trinity, then we must conclude that the Spirit is YHWH. If the Spirit is YHWH, how can the Spirit be said to belong to YHWH? Does the Spirit belong to Himself? It would be senseless to say that one can belong to themselves. They either are themselves, or they belong to another. If YHWH is the Trinity, and the Spirit is said to belong to YHWH, and yet one cannot belong to themselves, then we would have to conclude that the Spirit is not YHWH. Such cannot be true even in Trinitarian thought, and thus we have no logical reason to assume that the Spirit is a distinct person from YHWH. The only way to curtail such a logical conclusion would be to argue that in some references "YHWH" is referring only to the Father, and the Spirit is being said to belong to the person of the Father in YHWH. Such an explanation, however, is inconsistent and falls prey to splitting up the Trinity. Either YHWH is the Trinity of eternal persons, or YHWH refers to only one person in the Trinity. It cannot be both ways.
God is holy, and God is a Spirit, so it is no surprise that God is referred to as "Holy Spirit," or that we read about the "Spirit of [being used as a possessive meaning "belonging to"] God." God's Holy Spirit is the innermost essence of His being. The references to God's Holy Spirit also speak of God in activity. The term serves to signify a certain aspect of God's self-revelation to man. In the OT the Spirit is clearly understood to be a reference to YHWH, referring to His nature as Spirit.
We must still ask how it is that the Spirit is distinguished from the YHWH in the OT, or the Father and Son in the NT. We can make as much distinction between God and His Spirit as we can between a man and his spirit. Paul seemed to make this point when he said concerning the deep things of God: "But God has revealed them to us by His Spirit: for the Spirit searches all things, yes, even the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man, except the spirit of man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God" (1 Corinthians 2:12-13). I can distinguish my spirit from my body, and speak of my spirit as distinct from me, but my spirit is not a distinct person within me. I am one person, a unified whole, being both body and spirit. God's Spirit is no more distinct from Him than my spirit is from me.
When we understand the NT distinctions to be incarnationally-grounded, it explains the reason Trinitarians find so few passages that would argue for a distinct person of the Spirit, while they find so many that seem to argue for the distinct person-hood of the Son.
Trinitarians believe that Jesus' communication with the Father, namely His prayers, compels us to conclude that the deity of the Father and the deity of the Son are distinct persons in the Godhead. It is reasoned that if the deity of the Son and the deity of the Father are the same personal deity, then Jesus' communication to the Father was simply God talking to Himself. The simple fact that Jesus communicates with the Father and has a relationship with the Father does not de facto indicate that God is a Trinity of persons. We have to understand why Jesus communicates with the Father. While it could be due to the fact that God is tri-personal, is there compelling evidence to conclude so? There are several reasons why Jesus' communication with the Father should not be understood to indicate that God is a Trinity. We need to ask a few questions about the Biblical data before we can conclude why Jesus communicated with the Father.
First, why do we not read of any communication between the Father and Son until after the incarnation?5 If God is eternally Father and eternally Son we would expect to find the Father and Son communicating with one another prior to the incarnation. Interestingly, however, we only find such communication after the incarnation. If the communication between Father and Son is a major reason why Trinitarians feel compelled to conclude that the Father and Son are two distinct and eternal persons, and yet the communication only begins after the incarnation when God became man, what compelling evidence is there to conclude that God is eternally Father and eternally Son? If the communication began at a certain point in time, maybe the Son is not an eternal person in the Godhead. Maybe there is another explanation for the Father-Son distinction, and another explanation for the Son's communication with the Father.
Secondly, why is it that Jesus never communicated with any person of the Trinity besides the Father? Why did He not communicate with the Holy Spirit or with God the Son?6 It seems kind of odd that Jesus would only communicate with one person in the Trinity. Are we more justified in believing that the Son simply chose not to communicate with any person besides the Father, or are we more justified in believing that Jesus only communicated with the Father because there is only one person in the Godhead to communicate with in the first place? The lack of communication to the other two persons of the Triune God may just indicate that there are no 'two other persons.'
Maybe Jesus only communicated with the Father because "Father" is the one uni-personal God's existence as the unlimited Spirit apart from the incarnation. Maybe we do not find any communication between Father and Son prior to the incarnation because the Son did not exist before the incarnation, because the Son is the uni-personal God's existence as man. Maybe the communication and relationship between the Son and Father is due to the fact that God assumed a real limited human consciousness in the incarnation, and with such a consciousness Jesus had need of a relationship with God as does any other human being. Jesus' prayers do not support Trinitarian theology.
Foundational Problems with Trinitarianism
If we are going to confess a Trinity we must ask why we do not find this triunity of God until the NT. We have to wonder why we never read about the second person in the OT. Why was the existence of a second person not revealed until the incarnation? Why is it that God has only spoken through the Son in these last days (Hebrews 1:1-3) if the Son has eternally existed alongside the Father? Does it make more sense to conclude that the Son is an eternally distinct person in the Godhead that God failed to mention until the NT, or is it more reasonable to conclude that "Son" has to do with the one uni-personal God's existence as a man, which existence did not come to be until the incarnation?
If there was no distinct person from the Father in the OT, what would we expect to find in the OT concerning the Son? Nothing. What do we find? Nothing. So why conclude that the Son of God is an eternal person in the Godhead, and reject the idea that "Son" pertains to God's incarnate existence, if we read nothing about the Son until the incarnation? Frankly, there is no good reason to do so. Trinitarians must account for the lack of evidence upon which they have concluded that the Son is eternal. They must account for the fact that God never disclosed His threeness until the NT, offer a viable explanation for such disclosure, and offer compelling evidence that would substantiate the belief that there ever was an eternal Son to be disclosed in the first place.
While both Trinitarian and Oneness theologies must account for the new revelation of God in the incarnation, there is a difference between saying the same person who revealed Himself to Moses in the OT became man in the NT (Oneness theology), and saying the second person in the Godhead no one knew existed became man in the NT (Trinitarian theology). While Oneness believers may be shocked to discover that God become man, Trinitarians would be shocked to see who showed up! In Oneness theology the person who shows up is the same person revealed the OT, not a different person in the Godhead we never knew about before. Trinitarian theology has to admit that a whole other person in the Godhead showed up on the scene in flesh, who is personally distinct from the personal God revealed in the OT. In Oneness theology we do not find a part of God that we have never known before; we find the same familiar God, but manifest in flesh.
Also, why is it that God is called "YHWH" before the incarnation, and only "Father" and "Son" after the incarnation? The Father-Son terminology only arises after the incarnation when God actually became a man. It is no surprise, then that we find a distinction between Father and Son starting in the NT (not the OT). Maybe we do not find such terminology in the OT because God was never "Father" (in the NT sense of the word describing the relationship between Father and Son) before He fathered a son in the incarnation. (See my article titled "Eternal Father, Eternal Son?") It is much more reasonable to conclude that the distinctions between Father and Son are temporal distinctions arising in the incarnation, not eternal distinctions within God's essential being.
What model of God, then, can most adequately account for all of the Biblical data? What model best explains the Biblical insistence on monotheism, the lack of any distinction in God's person in the OT, the emergence of Father-Son terminology only after the incarnation, and the fact that most of the Biblical distinctions are in reference to the Father and Son, to the exclusion of the Spirit? Is it the Trinitarian or Oneness model?
While the Trinitarian model can account for the distinctions in the NT, it cannot account for the lack of such in the OT, nor the failure of the OT to mention "God the Son" (other than in prophetic passages), nor the absence of Father-Son terminology before the incarnation. While it can account for the distinction passages, it does so only at the expense of redefining "one" to mean "unity," and thus bringing the church to the borders of Tritheism. Why should we adopt the Trinitarian model of God when the model fails to answer so much of the Biblical data?
I argue that a Oneness theology best accounts for such a phenomenon, insisting that God is an absolute monad, the Spirit being His very nature and an aspect of His one person, and the Son being none other than His one person incarnated as a man, but distinguished from His continued existence beyond the incarnation due to the hypostatic union of His deity and humanity in one theandric existence. Oneness theology best accounts for the rise of distinction-terminology in the NT, and the emergence of the appellations "Father/Son," because it was not until the NT that God fathered a son, and it was not until the hypostatic union when God incorporated a human identity into His person that there arose such a need to make any distinctions in reference to God. The distinction, however, is never said to be between eternal persons in the Godhead. Such distinctions are only necessary in light of the incarnation and God's acquisition of a genuine human consciousness when He assumed a genuine human existence.
1. Jesus, the Son of God, is fully God, but God is not identified with Jesus, as being identically the same. This demonstrates that God was not centralized in the person of Christ, so that God no longer existed apart from the incarnation. The Scripture presents Jesus both as being God, and in contradistinction to God, offering us a paradoxical, bilateral view of His person. Jesus thought of the Father as being someone other than He Himself, though He also realized that the deity of the Father was in Him (John 10:38; 14:10-11, 20), and that He preexisted the incarnation as YHWH (John 8:56-59).
2. While the absence of the Son in the OT, and the absence of the Father-Son language in the OT does not disprove Trinitarian dogma, it does throw serious question on it as the best explanation of the data. There is no question that it is possible for an eternal Son to not be mentioned in the OT and yet still truly exist. The possibility of such is not being disputed; what is being disputed is the likelihood of such.
3. Coming from the Greek theos (God) and anthropos (man).
4. In the Hebrew grammar "of" is being used as a possessive meaning "belonging to."
5. In certain OT passages YHWH does speak to or of the Son (Psalm 2:7; 45:6; 110:1), but a few things should be noted. First, it is never said that the "Father" spoke to the Son. It only speaks of "YHWH" or "God," never suggesting a Father-Son relationship prior to the incarnation. Secondly, these OT passages are clearly prophetic, speaking of the Messiah, and thus cannot be divorced from the incarnation which was yet future. The communication between YHWH and the Messiah (Son), then, was not a present transaction, but a future even.
6. While it may be argued that Jesus would not communicate with God the Son (as he exists apart from the incarnation) because Jesus was God the Son incarnate, and for Jesus to communicate to God the Son would be for Jesus to communicate to Himself, this assumes that Jesus' communication to the Father arose out of His divine consciousness, rather than a genuine human consciousness. Such a view of Christ denies Christ a true human consciousness and psyche, being Docetic and Apollinarian in nature. Trinitarians must confess a genuine human consciousness for Christ. If His consciousness was human, then His prayers were also human, and could not be construed to be one divine person praying to another divine person, but a genuine human being praying to God. In such case it would not matter if Jesus (God the Son incarnate) prayed to God the Son transcendent because Jesus' prayers arose out of His human consciousness, not God the Son's divine consciousness.
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