The Trinity: Bible Teaching or Church Tradition?
THIS is an article about the God of the Bible, the one unique God. Why is it needed? Because, as Christadelphians see it, there has for many hundreds of years been a serious misunderstanding about the relationship between God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. It is a fact of history that between 300 and 500 years after the death of Jesus Christ, the Christian Church developed ideas about God which centred around a ‘Trinity’. These traditions were eventually written down in what the Church called its ‘creeds’ (credo in Latin means ‘I believe’). We must leave the detailed history of the creeds until later, but the following extract from the Athanasian Creed (around AD 500) will set the scene:
“Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith … That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity … For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost [Spirit]. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal … So the Father is God, the Son is God: and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods: but one God … Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost … Amen.”
For more than 1,500 years, the Trinity has formed an essential part of the beliefs of mainstream Christian churches. In formal church services ministers regularly recite the words of this ‘doxology’, addressed to the ‘Triune God’: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.” Walking around a British city, you may well notice ‘Trinity Church’, ‘Trinity Street’, or ‘Trinity College’. Church members are not always aware of the origins of the Trinity, but they are taught to accept it as an essential part of their faith. And as far as most churches are concerned, if you do not believe in the Trinity, you are not a Christian.
We humbly submit another view, based wholly on the Bible. We ask our readers patiently to consider the evidence we now put forward. Before we start, we ought to make two things very clear: first, Christadelphians believe absolutely in the God of the Bible; and, second, they have total faith in the Bible itself, that collection of sixty-six books which we sometimes call ‘The Holy Scriptures’.
We shall be looking at both the Old Testament and New Testament sections of the Bible as our ultimate authority. We cannot accept the writings of the ‘Church Fathers’, or the pronouncements of Church Councils or theologians, as inspired by God. Sometimes we may quote from non-Biblical writers because they can shed light on the subject, but the final authority on Christian doctrine must be the Bible.
Sadly, we live in an age which rejects authority and casts doubt on the Scriptures. For many, it has become acceptable to believe that the doctrines of Christianity continued to evolve after the time of Jesus Christ and his apostles. But we believe that the Bible is God’s book and that it is the last word as far as the Christian faith is concerned.
We hope that you will keep an open mind while we set out our evidence that the Trinity is an erroneous view of God that emerged after the First Century, in conflict with the Bible.
The Old Testament and the New
Some who claim to be Christian argue that the New Testament (the sayings of Jesus and the writings of his followers) has replaced the Old Testament (the Law of Moses and the writings of the prophets of Israel). We insist that the Christian message does not make sense without the Old Testament. All the essentials of the Christian faith have their foundation in the Old Testament. As Jesus once said to two sad disciples: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27). Thus for a full understanding of Jesus Christ and of the faith he founded, we need all the Scriptures – the whole Bible, Old Testament as well as New.
Jesus grew up with the Hebrew Bible; as a child he was taught about the faithful men and women of the Old Testament; he learned about God and His purpose; he was familiar with the prophecies of the Messiah (the coming King) and of the Kingdom. He endorsed all this: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Matthew 5:17). By dying on the cross as a sacrifice for sin, Jesus did away with the need for the rituals of the Law of Moses. But the great principles of the Old Testament remained, including the nature of God and the nature of the Messiah. So, as we approach the awesome subject of the nature of God, we must, like Jesus himself, begin with the Old Testament Scriptures.
In the very first verse of Genesis we are introduced to God and the Spirit of God: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said …” (Genesis 1:1-3). From the outset, the Bible speaks of God as one person. There is no suggestion here that the “Spirit of God” or the “Holy Spirit” is a separate person. It is God’s power, the infinite energy by which He was able to create the universe.
Trinitarians sometimes point to verse 26 of the same chapter, claiming that this hints at the Trinity because of the word “us”: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’” The Hebrew word for “God” here is ‘elohim’ which literally means ‘mighty ones’. It is often used for the angels, God’s messengers (see Psalm 8:5, and its quotation in Hebrews 2:7). It is reasonable to conclude that the “us” here means God and His angels. God executed the work of creation with His angels. There is no hint of three persons. The idea of God being more than one person would never have occurred to those who first read Genesis.
“The Lord our God, the Lord is one”
For God’s chosen people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God was One. A key verse, regularly recited by faithful Jews down to the present day, is: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). When Jesus was asked which commandment in the Law of Moses was the most important, he answered by quoting this verse (Mark 12:29). The Lord Jesus Christ therefore endorsed this as a foundation statement of his teaching. The people of Israel were surrounded by polytheistic (worshipping more than one god) nations. Time after time God had to remind them that He was the one universal God, and there could be no other: “I am the LORD, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself … I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens … I am the LORD, and there is no other” (Isaiah 44:24; 45:12,18; see also Hosea 13:4 and Joel 2:27).
Those who believe in the Trinity consider that Jesus existed long before his birth as the second person of the Trinity. This leads them to claim that he was present at creation, and actively involved in the creation. But in the above verse from Isaiah 44 there is no suggestion that Jesus was involved in creation. It was the LORD (the capital letters indicate God’s Hebrew name ‘Yahweh’), with His angels, who did the work.
Some readers may question our quotation of Jewish views about God when we are considering the relationship between God and Jesus. Did not most Jews reject Jesus’ claim to be their Messiah? Did not the Jewish leaders plot with the Romans to have Jesus crucified? Indeed they did, and most Jews still reject Christ as their Saviour. So modern Jewish views about Jesus are not going to help us. However, the question we are asking at this stage is simply, ‘What was the Jewish understanding of God in Old Testament times, before Jesus was born?’ The answer to this question is definitely relevant for us. As we have seen already, what the Old Testament taught about God was endorsed by Jesus himself. It therefore continues to be true.
On this basis, even Jewish writings of our own day can be helpful where they comment on the God of the Old Testament. Here, for example, is an extract from a book about the religion of the Jews. In a chapter on ‘Jewish Teaching about God’, we have the following interesting statement:
“Having affirmed the existence of God, Judaism really lays down only one basic idea about Him which is a recognised dogma – the Unity of God. ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.’ This is immediately a negation of the polytheism of the ancient world … It is also a clear denial of the idea of a trinity – three gods in one which is the established doctrine of Christianity. For Judaism there can be absolutely no compromise at all in this fundamental concept of the Only One God …” (C. Pearl & R. Brookes, A Guide to Jewish Knowledge, pages 96,97).
Jesus would have agreed with this, and if Jesus believed, without compromise, in Only One God, then we can confidently believe the same.
What does the Old Testament say about Jesus Christ?
Through the centuries before Jesus was born, the prophets of Israel were inspired to write about the coming Messiah. ‘Messiah’ in Hebrew means ‘anointed one’. This points to the fact that Jesus would be anointed as God’s king and priest. The Jewish people were excitedly looking forward to Messiah’s appearance. When he came, faithful Jews recognised Jesus as the Messiah, because he fulfilled all those prophecies. Here is a small selection from the dozens of prophecies that Jesus fulfilled – the first predicted his virgin birth; the second where he would be born; the third foretold the grim details of his crucifixion:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2)
“They have pierced my hands and feet – I can count all my bones – they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (Psalm 22:16-18)
Besides such obvious prophecies, there were more subtle predictions of the roles that God intended for the Messiah. He was to be “a prophet like Moses” (Deuteronomy 18:15; John 1:45). He was to die as a sacrifice for the sins of his people, which is why he was called “the Lamb of God” (Isaiah 53:7; John 1:29). Though he had to die, he would be raised from the dead (Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:27). He would be a king, descended from Israel’s King David (2 Samuel 7:12, 13; Luke 1:32). In fact the Old Testament is full of details of Jesus as Messiah and King. In that sense, as Micah prophesied, “his origin is from old, from ancient times”. He did not literally exist before his birth, but God had foreordained that, in due time, he should appear as the Saviour of the world. As Peter puts it:
“He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake.” (1 Peter 1:20)
At this stage, we must stop to ask whether any of these predictions about Jesus suggest he would be in some sense God. The quotation from Isaiah 7 talks about “Immanuel”, which means ‘God with us’. Does that suggest Jesus was God? Not really. It suggests no more than the fact that, in Jesus, people could see a representative, a manifestation of God, his Father. To the Jew, your representative acted for you and carried your authority. One of Jesus’ apostles, Philip, once asked him: “Lord, show us the Father”! Jesus replied: “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:8-10).
Jesus is simply telling Philip that the Father could be seen in him. He showed us what God was like, just as any ordinary son may have the features of his Dad. Jesus had the qualities of his Father – but that did not make him God.
The birth of Jesus
The ‘Christmas story’ is familiar to most people and we shall not go into great detail about it here. But it is vital to our search for truth to remind ourselves of what happened – as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
An angel appeared to Mary, a virgin betrothed to Joseph, and said: “Do not be afraid, Mary … you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David … of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33). The angel then explained to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God” (verse 35).
In due time, the child was born in Bethlehem, and an angel said to the shepherds: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Later, wise men from the east came to worship him (Matthew 2:1-12). The baby was taken to the temple in Jerusalem, where he was presented to Simeon and Anna, two faithful servants of God. So began the life of Jesus, son of Mary and Son of God.
If you read carefully through the chapters from which we have just quoted, there is no suggestion that the baby born to Mary was actually God in some form. Jesus was born to a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit (that is, by God’s miraculous intervention), but essentially he came into the world just like us. Here are two more statements about the nature of Jesus: “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God” (Hebrews 2:17). “God sent forth his Son, born of woman” (Galatians 4:4).
Jesus as his disciples saw him
At about the age of thirty, Jesus began his mission to preach the Gospel of the kingdom of God. The four Gospels offer many first-hand impressions of Jesus. In the opening chapter of John’s Gospel, we have the reactions of four people when they were first introduced to him:
John the Baptist: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world … this is the Son of God” (1:29-34).
Andrew: “We have found the Messiah” (1:41).
Philip: “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (1:45).
Nathanael: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (1:49).
These men saw different aspects of Jesus – Lamb of God, Son of God, Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, Rabbi (teacher), and King of Israel. They certainly did not think of Jesus as a pre-existing person of the Godhead (as defined in the Church creeds). Nor does it seem that their understanding altered as they came to know the Lord better. When Jesus, not long before his crucifixion, asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter unhesitatingly answered: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
There is one reaction to which Trinitarians regularly point in support of their view that Jesus is God – that of Thomas. Thomas was absent when the risen Lord appeared to his friends after his resurrection. He insisted he would not believe Jesus was alive unless he first showed him the wounds from the crucifixion. Eight days later, Jesus came again and said to Thomas: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas then blurted out: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:27,28). Was that an acknowledgement that, for Thomas, Christ was God?
Thomas, having overcome his doubt, used the strongest expression he could find to acknowledge the exalted role of Jesus. Possibly he was thinking of the passage in the book of Isaiah that listed the glorious titles of the coming Messiah: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Perhaps Thomas also had Zechariah 13:6,9 in mind: this is a prophecy of the people of Israel viewing the wounds in Jesus’ hands, and they too exclaim “the Lord is my God”. “My God” was a valid title for one who, as God’s Son, reflected the character and authority of God.
What Jesus himself said
Jesus often referred to himself as the “Son of Man”, recognising the human nature he inherited from Mary. He also claimed to be “Son of God” (acknowledging that God was his Father). But being Son of God did not make him God; he performed miracles not because he was God, but because God gave him miraculous powers:
“‘… But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ – he then said to the paralytic – ‘Rise, pick up your bed and go home.’ And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” (Matthew 9:6-8)
Jesus relied totally on his Father, who gave him authority to speak and judge on His behalf:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing … And he has given him authority to execute judgement, because he is the Son of Man.” (John 5:19-27)
“The Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28)
Reading the four Gospels, we notice how often Jesus prays to his Father. It is hard to conceive of one part of the godhead praying to another part of the godhead. Yet Jesus constantly prayed to his Father. Just before his death he offered a very special prayer recorded in John’s Gospel. The following is a short quotation from that prayer:
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do …” (John 17:1-4)
The sentence in italics is significant. Jesus is saying that for those who seek eternal life, it is important to believe in the only true God and in Jesus Christ. If Jesus is God, or part of a Trinity, there would surely be no need to distinguish God and Jesus Christ in this verse.
The testimony of the apostles
Before his death, resurrection, and ascension to God’s right hand, Jesus commissioned the apostles to take the Gospel (the Good News) into all the world. If it was necessary for their converts to know about the Trinity in order to be saved, surely he would have made sure that the preachers of the Gospel were able to explain it. Such a vital element of the Christian faith would have to have been written down in the Gospels. But it is obvious they knew nothing of a Trinity, which was not going to be formulated for another 300 years.
Reading the Acts of the Apostles, and particularly the speeches of Peter and Paul, we notice how clearly they speak about God and His purpose through Jesus. When, for example, believers in Jerusalem started to speak in other languages as a result of the Holy Spirit gifts, Peter explained:
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him … this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men … This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing … Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:22-36)
The phrases in italics reinforce the truth that the apostles saw God and His Son as distinct persons, and the Holy Spirit not as a separate person but as God’s power.
Son of God, not God the Son
Although the phrase “God the Son” does not occur as such in the Church Creeds, it does appear in the Church of England Prayer Book. For example, as part of the Litany, we find the following prayer: “O God the Son, Redeemer of the world: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.” But in the Bible there is no such term as “God the Son”. Time and again Jesus is referred to as “the Son of God”, and nowhere as “God the Son”.
Trinitarians sometimes answer this by saying that Jesus, during his life on earth, saw himself as “Son of God”, separate from the Father; but when he ascended to heaven, after his resurrection from the dead, he resumed his place as “God the Son”. All we can say is that this is not taught in the Bible. The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus is always distinct from his Father, not just during his life on earth 2,000 years ago, but for eternity.
Stephen, who died as a martyr for his faith, had a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven. Just before he was dragged off to be stoned to death, we are told this:
“[Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and … said ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’” (Acts 7:55,56)
Clearly, after his ascension to heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ is “standing at the right hand of God”, still separate from God. He can still be called “the Son of Man”. He has not become God or “God the Son”.
When John received the Revelation (the last book of the Bible), Jesus was in heaven; the message to John is a message Jesus received from God, and Jesus is still speaking of God as his Father:
“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place … The one who conquers … I will confess his name before my Father.” (Revelation 1:1; 3:5).
Jesus foretold the day when he would return to the earth from heaven and he still refers to himself as the Son of Man:
“In those days, after that tribulation … they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” (Mark 13:24-26)
Even in the promised kingdom of God and the eternal ages to come, Jesus is still called “the Son” and God is still “the Father”:
“Then comes the end, when he [Jesus Christ] delivers the kingdom to God the Father … When all things are subjected to him [Christ], then the Son himself will also be subjected to him [God] who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15:24-28)
At the end of time, Jesus is subject to God. That firmly contradicts the Trinity, which has him equal to God.
What do the New Testament letters teach?
In the letters of the apostles, written after Jesus had ascended to his Father, we find a deepening appreciation of the work of God in His Son. But there is no change in how the writers understand the relationship between God and Christ. The opening greeting in many of the letters tells us straight away what these Christian leaders believed. The Father and the Son are distinct, separate beings. For example:
Paul: “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; etc.).
James: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1).
Peter: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Peter 1:3).
John: “Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love” (2 John 3).
Consider these categorical statements:
“For us [Christians] there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Corinthians 8:6)
“There is one body and one Spirit … one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)
“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 2:5)
What we have tried to do, so far, is to let the Bible speak for itself. We have reviewed evidence from the Old Testament and the New. We have checked through the Gospels, the Epistles and Revelation – the words of Jesus and his followers. A very consistent picture emerges of the nature of God and of His Son. God is the eternal Creator, and the Holy Spirit is His power. God is the Father of Jesus, and Jesus is the Son of God, born to Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The history of the Trinity
Now we have to ask: How did belief in a Trinity come about? When Jesus ascended to heaven, his apostles went out to preach the same Gospel their Master had been preaching. Nothing had changed – except that the Gospel now included the facts of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension to heaven.
The message of Christianity should have remained unaltered. Sadly, it did not. As Paul warned when he said farewell to the elders of Ephesus: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29,30). This is strong language. Those who heard Paul speak probably couldn’t believe that the clear teaching of Jesus and his followers could ever be “twisted”, but tragically it happened.
We can best follow the introduction of the new ideas by examining the creeds which the Christian community wrote down to summarise their faith.
THE APOSTLES’ CREED
Almost the earliest creed ever to have been recorded was the Apostles’ Creed. It is worth quoting in full:
“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost [Spirit], born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell [the grave]; the third day he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick [living] and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholick [universal] church; the communion of saints [believers]; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”
This is an excellent summary of the original Christian faith (the words in brackets have been added, where their meanings have changed).
Three to four hundred years after the Ascension, some Church leaders introduced new concepts to define the relationship between God and Christ. The original Hebrew (Biblical) ideas about God were gradually being replaced by Greek philosophy. This led to heated arguments. Two main factions emerged, one based in Alexandria (Egypt) and the other in Antioch (Syria). Those from Antioch largely kept to a belief in the one God. But the group from Alexandria introduced the idea of the pre-existence of Christ, and taught that Jesus was God dwelling in a human body.
Constantine was Roman Emperor at this time, and he had become a champion of Christianity. But he could see that this dispute about the nature of God threatened the stability of his empire. It had to be resolved. In AD 325 he called together a Church Council at Nicea in north-west Turkey, and forced through a minority decision favouring the view that Jesus was coequal and coeternal with God. Those who tried to uphold Bible teaching were overruled.
Constantine’s part in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity has been described as follows:
“It was Constantine who by official edict brought Christianity to belief in the formal division of the Godhead into two – God the Father and God the Son. It remained the task of a later generation to bring Christianity to belief in the Triune God.” (A. F. Buzzard & C. F. Hunting, The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity’s Self-Inflicted Wound, 1988, page 147)
THE NICENE CREED
From the Council of Nicea came the Nicene Creed – a much more complex formulation than the Apostles’ Creed. But it didn’t stop there. In AD 381 there was a Second General Council at Constantinople. The initial Nicene Creed had defined Christ as equal to God, but it was now revised to state that the Holy Spirit was also to be worshipped as God. From the Creed of AD 381 we quote those parts which relate to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit:
“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made: who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the virgin Mary, and was made man: who for us, too, was crucified … And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father (and the Son ): who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified …”
THE ATHANASIAN CREED
At this stage, the word “Trinity” had not yet appeared in a creed, but Athanasius of Alexandria pushed the matter further. Around AD 500, the very elaborate Athanasian Creed was accepted by the Church. It was very much longer, it introduces the word “Trinity”, and most of it is concerned with defining the Trinity. A short extract is reproduced at the beginning. All the creeds mentioned above form part of both the Anglican and the Roman Catholic ‘liturgy’ (formal worship), and are accepted by most non-conformist churches too.
But not everyone has accepted these creeds. Down the centuries there have always been a few here and there who rejected the Trinity, and were often persecuted for their beliefs. In 1553 Michael Servetus, a Spaniard, was burned at the stake for holding what the Church considered to be heretical views on the nature of God. English anti-trinitarians have included the poet John Milton and the scientist Sir Isaac Newton. Today, there are still dissenters: Christadelphians are not the only ones who distance themselves from ‘official’ Church doctrine.
Belief in a Trinity led to distorted views, not only of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit, but also of Mary the mother of Jesus. In some churches she came to be seen as ‘the mother of God’ – an idea quite foreign to the Bible. Christianity also became corrupted with the Greek idea that man has an immortal soul which goes to heaven at death. In the time of Origen, Christ’s plain teaching of his return to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth was changed to view the Kingdom as the present-day dominion of the Church in the world. The place of Israel in God’s purpose was neglected or rejected; and it became acceptable to fight for one’s country, even though the Lord Jesus had taught non-violence. Surely the Church today needs to return to the simplicity of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles!
Some controversial passages
Nowhere in the Bible have we found an unambiguous statement of the so-called ‘Trinity’. But there are a number of passages which Trinitarians often quote to support their view. We shall examine a selection of these. Several appear in the Gospel of John. We start in chapter 1:
“IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD …”
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1-3,14)
Some people read this passage as if it is saying that (1) Jesus is the Word; (2) the Word was in the beginning; (3) the Word was God, and therefore (4) Jesus was God. Incidentally, if this were so, it would still account for only two persons, not a Trinity. But we would argue – and many Trinitarians now accept – that John is not trying to prove that Jesus was God. It is at the end of this Gospel that we discover what John was really trying to achieve in his account of the life of Christ: “These [signs] are written”, he says, “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God …” (20:31). John wanted to prove that Jesus was the “Son of God”. It is significant that in John’s Gospel, far more than in Matthew, Mark or Luke, God is referred to as “Father”. John nowhere says that Jesus is God.
What, then, does John actually mean by the “Word” and why is it referred to as “he” in John 1? The above quotation is from the English Standard Version. However, this is not the only way in which this verse can be translated. William Tyndale translated and printed an English version of the New Testament in 1525. He was determined that the Scriptures should be available to ordinary people in their own language. His translation of John 1 spells “word” without a capital letter. It also refers to “the word” in verses 2 and 3, not as “he”, but as “it”. “It” is entirely consistent with the original Greek. In later translations, including the Authorised (King James) Version, a capital letter was added, and “it” was changed to “he”, so that the “Word” was made to sound like a person. To us, this seems very much like doctrinal bias on the part of the translators.
The “word” is the word of God. It is the expression of God’s divine plan and purpose. It was there in the beginning. John’s mind goes back to the creation account in Genesis 1, when “God said …” (verses 3,6,9,11, etc.). God spoke out loud. His creative word went forth. As the Psalmist wrote later: “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made …” (Psalm 33:6). That word of God represented His divine purpose and His great plan. Now, says John, in Jesus Christ “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The word of God came to men in the past through His prophets. But now it comes to us through Jesus, not just as spoken words, but as a living example of what God wants to teach us. Acted out in his own life, we have the message that God wants us to heed and follow. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1).
“NO ONE HAS EVER SEEN GOD”
John 1:18 reads (in the ESV): “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known”. The fact that the ESV itself (in notes at the foot of the page) offers two more translations of “the only God” and “at the Father’s side” tells us that the translators have had difficulty deciding the best rendering. This is confirmed by the fact that modern Bible versions differ considerably in how they approach this verse. The Authorised (King James) Version simply says: “The only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him”. The Trinity cannot be proved from this verse.
“I HAVE COME DOWN FROM HEAVEN”
Further on in John’s Gospel, we have several statements by the Lord Jesus which some have interpreted as proof that he pre-existed in heaven before his birth:
“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man [some manuscripts add: who is in heaven].” (John 3:13)
“I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me … What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (John 6:38,62)
“Before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58)
“… he had come from God and was going back to God.” (John 13:3; 16:28)
“And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” (John 17:5)
If these statements are read in isolation, they could suggest the pre-existence of Christ. But faced with so many other clear Bible statements about the nature of God and the birth of Jesus to Mary, we have to look for an alternative explanation. These verses simply tell us that God had Jesus in His divine plan from the very beginning. The Old Testament is full of the part the Messiah would play in God’s plan. In that sense, Jesus “came down from heaven”. In that sense he was “before Abraham”. In that sense “he had come from God”, and had glory with God “before the world existed”.
“I AND THE FATHER ARE ONE”
Another statement found in John’s Gospel, often quoted as evidence that Jesus is God, is this one from John 10:30, “I and the Father are one”. Is this a claim by Jesus to be God? Some of the Jews who heard him thought this was blasphemy – they “picked up stones again to stone him”. But Jesus reminds them that in the Law (the Old Testament) their rulers were called gods, so that what he said was not blasphemy. What, then, did Jesus really mean when he said “I and the Father are one”? He meant nothing more than that he and his Father were of one mind: in a very real sense they were one in outlook and purpose. In a similar way, in his prayer to God in John 17:11, he wants all his followers to be one.
“FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT”
Before his ascension to heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ gave his closest followers this instruction:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:18,19)
Trinitarians argue that because the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are here mentioned together, and have one name, this is a clear reference to the Trinity. There is, however, no suggestion that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal; no suggestion that they are ‘three in one’; no suggestion that the Holy Spirit is a person. The “name” into which believers are baptized is the name of the Father, which was manifested by Jesus (see John 17:6: Philippians 2:9). Incidentally, there are several examples in Acts where converts are baptized simply “in the name of Jesus Christ” (2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5). It is all too easy, for someone who already believes in the Trinity, to ‘read into’ a verse like Matthew 28:19 (or 2 Corinthians 13:14 which has similarities) an idea which is not actually there.
From the Gospels we turn to the Epistles (the Letters of Paul in particular) and Revelation, where other ‘proofs’ of the Trinity are said to be found. For example:
“IN THE FORM OF GOD”
In Philippians 2, Paul is teaching the lesson of humility. What better example of humility could he have but the Lord Jesus Christ himself?
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11)
Does the phrase “in the form of God” prove that Jesus was indeed God? Not at all. Adam and Eve were also made in the form of God (see Genesis 1:27). In fact Paul here is contrasting Adam with Jesus. Adam did count equality with God “a thing to be grasped”. The serpent said if they ate the forbidden fruit they could be like the gods (elohim). For his disobedience Adam earned the punishment of death. For his obedience, on the other hand, Jesus has been exalted to God’s right hand. He did not already have “the name that is above every name”. God bestowed it on him as a reward. The idea of Jesus being God was not remotely in Paul’s mind when he wrote his Letters.
“THE WHOLE FULLNESS OF DEITY”
“For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). This is yet another statement that in His Son Jesus we see the characteristics of God. Verse 10 uses the same Greek word when it says that fullness also dwells in believers. In the same chapter, verse 12 makes a clear distinction between God and His Son, emphasising that it was by “the powerful working of God” that Jesus was raised from the dead. God’s character could be seen in Jesus, but he needed God to raise him from the dead. He was not himself God.
“THE THREE WITNESSES”
In the Authorised (King James) Version of John’s First Epistle, there is a verse which was once quoted as a proof of the Trinity: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost [Spirit]: and these three are one” (1 John 5:7). It is now agreed that these words are not original and appear only in very late Greek manuscripts. One of these sources was, however, used by the translators of the King James and also the more recent New King James Version (with an explanation in the margin).
“THE ALPHA AND THE OMEGA”
In the Old Testament, God was called “the first and the last” (Isaiah 44:6; 48:12). In Revelation 1:8, God says: “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet). But then in verse 17, Jesus speaking to John says: “Fear not, I am the first and the last” and in the last chapter of Revelation it is again Christ who says: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (22:13). The risen Lord Jesus Christ takes on a title which was previously God’s. There is a similarity here with Philippians 2:9, where Christ is said to have been given “the name which is above every name”. It was the Father’s will that His Son should bear His names, as His representative. This is what Jesus said in the prayer recorded in John 17: “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world … Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (verses 6-11).
Questions and challenges
Some readers may say: “Does it really matter precisely how we think of God or Jesus Christ? Should we not recognise that the nature of God is a mystery, and leave such matters to the theologians?” Christadelphians believe that these things (though awesome) are not a mystery, and every believer should be able to understand them. Paul said to the men of Athens: “[God] made … mankind …that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way towards him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26,27). We can all find our way to God. It is true that for centuries, English believers were prevented by the Church from reading the Bible. But today it is available to all, and it is our responsibility to discover what it says.
This leads us to an important point: The nature of God is not an isolated element or doctrine of the Christian faith; it interlocks with other major doctrines. Consider these points:
- If Jesus was God, then he was not really like those he came to save. He could not have been tempted in the same way that we are. So he did not need to fight against sin and overcome it. The Trinity has implications for our understanding of salvation.
- If Jesus was God, then we struggle to understand how he died. It is also hard to comprehend in what form he will return to the earth at the Second Coming.
- If Jesus was (and is) God, it is difficult to see how he can be a high priest, a mediator, the intercessor between man and God – as the New Testament teaches.
These are some of the challenges we present to those who believe in a Trinity. We see Jesus as the Son of God, yet, being born of the virgin Mary, a man who suffered and was tempted like us, but who overcame his trials and conquered sin. His victory over sin and death was real, and he leaves us a great example to follow.
We hope these pages will stimulate those who sincerely believe in the Trinity to reflect on their understanding of the nature of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. What we have discussed is more than a theological technicality. Our belief in God and His beloved Son, our love for the Lord Jesus Christ, our service to him and to God, can only be meaningful if we have first understood what the Bible teaches on this profound subject.
We conclude with two quotations. The first lays down the basic truth that the Christian faith was given “once for all” – that what the Bible records is indeed the last word:
“I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)
The second reference, from the book of Revelation, is a reminder of the warning the Lord himself gave to any who would add to or take away from that book – a warning that must surely apply to all Scripture:
“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Revelation 22:18,19)