A Mighty Fortress *for* Our God

You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God.

Matthew 22:29

In the pages of the New Testament, one group that comes off especially poorly is the Pharisees. Jesus routinely criticizes them for their superficial displays of piety, in spite of the fact that their singular obsession was practicing devotion to the Torah in all aspects of Jewish life.  A noble aspiration to be sure, but since the Torah could not conceivably address every possible situation, it was not always clear how the Law applied to a given set of circumstances.  Hence the Pharisees took it upon themselves to bridge the gap between the Mosaic Law and the everyday experiences of the people.

Unfortunately, though, in their zeal to uphold the Law they piled on so many layers of extraneous rules and regulations that they lost sight of the very thing they were ostensibly trying to honor.  Over time, their interpretations of the Law gradually came to carry as much weight as the Commandments themselves, thus resulting in a manmade, artificial standard by which righteousness and orthodoxy were measured.  And while the Pharisees were apparently held in high regard by the average Jew, Jesus was none too pleased with the false piety and sense of self-righteousness that their semblance of Judaism fostered: 

Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold?

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
Matthew 23:16-17, 23-24

The problem was that the Pharisee’s misguided attempts to safeguard the path of righteousness ended up masking and distorting the very truths they believed they were defending!  Ironically, they had missed the proverbial forest for the trees; however, the more insidious problem was the authority with which they imposed their erroneous views upon everyone else. Because not only had the Pharisees missed the forest themselves, but they had also established themselves as gatekeepers to the forest and become barriers to understanding rather than guides:

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.
Matthew 23:13

Accordingly, just as Jesus exposed the errant dogma of the Pharisees by testing it against God’s Word, we are faced with a similar task when it comes to assessing the Trinity.  Our goal is not to find passages that support it (or appear to support it) since the Pharisees had plenty of alleged Scriptural support for their teachings as well; rather, our task is to see how well the Trinity aligns with and fits with the entirety of God’s Word.  For as with any notion that has been extrapolated from Scripture, even though there may be 100 verses that presumably substantiate your conclusion, all it takes is one to render it null and void.

A House of Cards

As it turns out, it’s not all that difficult to find passages that are inherently problematic for the Trinity.  For example, the following verses would appear to clash with the Trinity’s “co-equality” and “no hierarchy within the Godhead” mandates:

Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.”
John 5:19

“I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.”
John 5:30

So Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me.”
John 8:28

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me.”
John 8:42

For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak.
John 12:49

After all, if the Son only does what He is commanded to do, and if He has been sent to carry out the will of the Father exclusively, doesn’t that imply that He is under the authority of the Father?  One thing’s for sure, it doesn’t sound all that “co-equal” to me!  Furthermore, not only does the Son appear to be getting His marching orders from the Father, but the Son’s authority is likewise something that has been received from the Father, rather than something that is intrinsically possessed as a full participant in the Godhead:

For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.

For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man.
John 5:22-23,26-27

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.
Luke 1:32

The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand.
John 3:35

He who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations; and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces, as I also have received authority from My Father.
Revelation 2:26-27

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.”
Matthew 28:18

These verses and others like them would certainly seem to indicate that the Father is the one who is “in charge,” hence they would also appear to defy the Trinity’s unequivocal insistence that all members of the Godhead are co-equals in every way.  It’s simply not possible to take these verses at face value and simultaneously reconcile them against the Trinity, since every time Jesus makes a deferential statement about Himself, He is implicitly bringing the “second person” into the mix:

Figure 8 – The Trinity and its relationship to humanity

The reason this is such a big deal is because the Trinity is an “all or nothing” proposition.  In other words, when you try to apply the doctrine to a given passage of Scripture, you don’t have the ability to pick and choose the parts of the doctrine that fit and ignore the ones that don’t.  Due to the fact that the entire doctrine is a layered, logical argument, if any part of the Trinity is contradicted or refuted by even a single passage of Scripture, it consequently invalidates the entire doctrine!  Thus every assertion of the Trinity has to hold true…or none of it does.

Perhaps this is a fact about the Trinity that you’ve never considered before, which in turn is probably why the problems with the doctrine have not been apparent to you previously.  But let’s look closer at this issue of “co-equality.”  If, as per the verses just cited, the Son is in any way subordinate to or dependent upon the Father, you’ve got big problems.  Because if the Son is in any way “less than” the Father…no matter how slightly…you’ve basically declared that the Son is deficient in some respect with regards to the Father.  And since the Trinity also affirms that all three members of the Godhead are in fact God, if there is something lacking in the Son then you’ve effectively just professed that there is something lacking within God Himself.  And if that’s true, then whoever or whatever this Godhead is, it’s clearly not talking about the God of the Bible…therefore neither is the Trinity.

Indeed, it doesn’t matter if you are talking about co-equality, co-existence, co-eternality, or any other stipulation of the Trinity.  If you can find even a single verse of Scripture that unambiguously refutes even one of these implications of its fundamental precepts – not to mention the foundational premises themselves – the whole thing collapses.  Because due to the logical construction of the doctrine, if the Trinity is wrong on one point, it’s wrong on every point.  Just like a house of cards, remove one and the whole thing comes crashing down. 

Thus in light of the number of verses which collectively testify against the co-equality of Father and Son, you might be wondering how the Trinity has not only managed to stand the test of time, but also risen to become the litmus test of orthodoxy!  After all, since the Trinity can’t even point to a single verse of Scripture that establishes the validity of multiple persons within a Godhead, and since we have merely sampled the dozens of verses which cast doubt upon the veracity of one of its stipulations, why are we still talking about this doctrine? 

Because quite frankly, there’s more to the story.

Bolstering the Defenses

Imagine that you are a medieval peasant who desires to get the King’s ruling on a matter of particular importance.  As you approach the King’s castle, you aren’t free to just walk through the gate and into his presence; to the contrary, first you have to get past the armed guards who ask you to state your business.  If they don’t like your answer, they might simply turn you away and tell you not to bother the King with your problems; alternatively, if they perceive an actual threat, they might imprison you on the spot.

In similar fashion, the church fathers essentially erected a doctrinal wall around the Trinity to protect it from passages that would threaten to undermine or refute it; moreover, access to the “King” is controlled by gatekeepers who patrol the gate at all times.  So imagine seeking an audience with the Trinity to get its ruling on one of the prior verses which appear to indicate that the Son is under the authority of the Father.  Even though any of the passages above would prove to be fatal to the “King” if they actually got through the gate, fortunately for you the guards feel equipped to handle your question apart from more drastic measures.  They simply invoke the “Division of Labor” defense and tell you to move on.

Basically, the idea is that even though the members of the Godhead are indeed co-equal, they have nevertheless agreed amongst themselves to assume differing roles when it comes to redeeming mankind.  That being the case, when it comes to the role of the Father, His just happens to include “calling the shots,” so to speak.  Thus any apparent hierarchy within the Godhead or deference of the Son to His “superior,” similar to the verses we have just considered, is one of Divine choice rather than an indication of rank.  Problem solved, full equality preserved.  Now don’t bother the King with this again…

Incidentally, this assumption is yet another aspect of the Trinity that cannot be found explicitly in Scripture, which is not surprising since Scripture never mentions anything about a Godhead!  Nevertheless, since it seems reasonable on the basis of Jesus’ own words (not to mention other passages from the New Testament) and since the very image of “Father” and “Son” naturally implies a level of obeisance in any case, it’s not all that difficult to accept this argument as the way to resolve the tension.  Until you get to statements like these:

All things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.
1 Corinthians 3:22-23

Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.
1 Corinthians 11:3

“Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come.”
Revelation 12:10

But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.
Matthew 24:36

The Father is greater than I.
John 14:28

Appealing to the notion of different roles doesn’t really help you here, because these verses aren’t talking about relative authority or job descriptions, they testify to the Father being superior to or even owning the Son!  Indeed, even if you accept the notion that the Son willingly acquiesces to the Father for purposes of enacting redemption, how can there possibly be things the Father knows that the Son does not?  Does the Son suddenly get “amnesia”?  And how can the Father and Son be complete equals if the Father is also greater than the Son? 

Although the “Division of Labor” clause doesn’t really address the questions raised by these additional verses, many petitioners are willing to simply force-fit these verses into that mold and move on.  Those that protest, however, quickly find themselves face-to-face with reinforcements in the form of the “Human Nature” disclaimer.  Simply put, whenever you find passages like these that can’t be explained by appealing to the notion of voluntarily assumed roles, the caveat is always that Jesus must be referring to His human nature to the exclusion of His divine nature.  Thus in any given passage, if a “divine” interpretation of Son fits then that is the meaning that is assumed; if not, then the inference is that only Jesus’ humanity must be in view.

Once again, not only does this distinction seem logical at first glance, but it certainly harmonizes with the manner in which we refer to Jesus as being both the Son of God and the Son of Man.  That being said, the problem with this caveat is that the reader gets to make the call as to the right interpretation.  In other words, whenever the plain meaning of a passage threatens to refute the Trinity, we effectively make Scripture say what we need it to say by equivocating on the interpretation of “Son”…thereby preserving the integrity of the doctrine and preventing it from imploding.

I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as utterly disingenuous and completely backwards.  It’s a Scriptural sleight of hand that exists for the Trinity’s benefit more so than Scripture’s; nevertheless, it is almost impossible to refute, and as such has become something of a fait accompli in cases where the Trinity provides no logical or reasonable explanation for a difficult passage.  In all honesty, though, selectively appealing to Jesus’ humanity whenever it suits your purpose doesn’t explain Scripture, it effectively dodges it!  And so every time I hear someone triumphantly invoke this over-used exception it feels a lot like the mighty Wizard of Oz urging his guests to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. 

Indeed, any passage about the Son that regards Him as answerable and accountable to the Father puts the gatekeepers on alert, and the answer invariably comes down to the notion that only Jesus’ human nature is subordinate to God…not the divine Son.  Yet even if you assume that this distinction offers a plausible way to reconcile the Trinity with Scripture, why does it have to be used so frequently?  There are so many exceptions that you have to wonder if Jesus actually means what He appears to say…or if Jesus means what the Trinity says that He is saying.

In any case, if the relationship between Father and Son weren’t complicated enough, things really start to get muddy when you consider what Scripture says about Jesus’ relationship to the “third member” of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit.  Because unlike the previous examples, whereby one or two sentries have to get involved, the next issue is likely to bring out the captain of the guard…

The Last Line of Defense

Up to this point, we have been testing the Trinity against passages which merely challenge its implications.  And as we have seen, the Trinity regularly has to resort to qualifying and redefining many passages just to keep from collapsing under its own weight.  As concerning as this may be, though, the bigger problem is that one of the Trinity’s core premises doesn’t really stand up under scrutiny, either.  Because whereas the Trinity insists that each member of the Godhead is a distinct person from the others, Scripture apparently violates this assumption on several occasions.  For instance:

At once the Spirit sent [Jesus] out into the desert.
Mark 1:12

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.
Luke 4:14

At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth.”
Luke 10:21

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert.
Luke 4:1

These verses may not immediately strike you as an outright repudiation of the Trinity, but if they were coming from anywhere other than Scripture, they would likely be viewed as borderline heretical in light of the Trinity’s mandate that the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct, individual persons who in no way overlap or mix. This principle of separation is non-negotiable from the perspective of the Trinity, thus the problem is that since Jesus is the incarnation of the “second person” – God the Son – the logic of the Trinity necessarily precludes Him from being filled with either the “first” or “third” person by definition

Accordingly, when you try to reconcile these passages with Jesus’ identity as the incarnation of the Son you encounter several difficulties:

  • Why is the “Spirit” sending the “Son” into the wilderness?  Similar to Jesus’ submission to the “Father,” it seems a little odd that Jesus, as the Incarnation of the “second person of the Trinity,” would need to be sent by the “third person.” 
  • As the incarnation of the Son, why would Jesus go anywhere in the power of the Spirit?  Wouldn’t the power of the Son – since all the members of the Godhead are co-equal and separate – be sufficient? 
  • And finally, since orthodoxy affirms that Jesus is the Son, the logic of the Trinity actually precludes Him from being filled with the Spirit due to its inviolable assumption that the “Son is not the Holy Spirit.” 

While the first two questions are puzzling to say the least, they tend to be dispatched by the same defenses that discount the differences between Father and Son.  It’s the last one which presents the greatest challenge to the Trinitarian formula, because if Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit even for a time – as Scripture plainly states – what happened to Jesus’ union with the Son?  Again, since the members of the Godhead must always remain distinct, then the logic of the Trinity would necessarily conclude that this scenario can never happen.  And yet, there it is.

This brings us to an impasse that the Trinity is completely incapable of resolving, and so to maintain its integrity it either has to deny Scripture, come up with yet another caveat (since invoking Jesus’ human nature doesn’t help in this case) or simply ignore the contradiction and move on.  As such, those who try to press the issue immediately find themselves face-to-face with the third gatekeeper, “Heresy!”

In a bygone era, anyone who had the misfortune of confronting this gatekeeper usually ended up paying for it with their life.  Martin Luther is a notable exception, but only because his allies rescued him from certain death.  Indeed, this gatekeeper has been involved in all kinds of theological disputes over the course of church history, although today this gatekeeper’s bark is far worse than his bite.  His primary function has been reduced to discrediting rather than silencing; hence, when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity, the harder an idea is for the Trinity to counter, the louder he yells…

With that being said, the reason that these verses present such a threat is because they directly challenge the Trinity’s most fundamental premise while simultaneously suggesting an alternative hypothesis: what if the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit aren’t so separate after all?  It’s the one option that the Trinity cannot accept, and yet this isn’t the only place where we find it:

Do not worry about how or what you are to say; for it will be given you in that hour what you are to say.  For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.
Matthew 10:20

But say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit.
Mark 13:11

For the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.
Luke 12:12

Here we see Matthew invoking the “first person” of the Godhead while Mark and Luke refer to the “third.”  Granted, you could argue that these verses are merely referring to similar actions taken by two different members of the Godhead under different circumstances, but then Luke even takes things a step further:

So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute.
Luke 21:15

Keep in mind that not only do all of these assurances come directly from Jesus, but the context of each passage is identical: do not be afraid when you are arrested and taken before rulers and authorities.  So is Jesus teaching that each member of the Godhead may participate in the same role depending upon the situation?  Possibly.  Is He confused?  I hesitate to even pose that question!  Or is Jesus communicating a truth about the level of integration between Father, Son, and Spirit that is literally kryptonite to the Trinity?

Since there isn’t a single verse of Scripture that explicitly and unambiguously attests to God’s “three-person nature,” I would submit that even one verse to the contrary would be enough to invalidate this notion.  But in case you need more evidence, consider the following passages that treat Father, Son, and Spirit more like synonyms than different persons within a Godhead:

They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.
Acts 16:6-7

Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”
Galatians 4:6

Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is accursed”; and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
1 Corinthians 12:3

And last but not least, Paul utterly conflates all three members of the “Godhead” in Romans 8.  He invokes the members of the Godhead synonymously and interchangeably, apparently unaware of the Trinity’s insistence that Father, Son, and Spirit must remain separate and distinct persons at all times and in every circumstance.  What’s more, Paul clearly speaks of both Father and Son assuming roles in the lives of believers that are presumably the “job description” of the Holy Spirit, thus calling into question the legitimacy of the Trinity’s “Division of Labor” defense!

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit.  Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit.

You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.) And Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God. The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you.
Romans 8:3-5,9-11 (NLT)

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children.
Romans 8:14-16 (NLT)

In fact, I would contend that the Trinity is completely refuted by Romans 8 alone, since there is no way to read it through the lens of the Trinity and make any sense of the passage.  As such, either the Trinity is right and Paul is wrong…or the other way around.  I know which one I’m placing my bet on.

A Clean Slate

If nothing else, our picture of the Trinity has definitely gotten more substantial as a result of the various defenses which the Trinity depends upon just to survive.  Indeed, they are as integral to the doctrine as its core premises, because without them the Trinity becomes hopelessly exposed and fragile:

Figure 9 – Extended view of the Trinity

Regardless of its frailties, though, whenever the guardians of the Trinity begin shouting “heresy!” it’s important to remember that they may actually be correct.  That was certainly the case with Marcion and Arius, and it’s equally true today of Mormonism and a host of other pseudo-Christian cults.  On the other hand, sometimes the cry of “heresy!” simply means they don’t have an answer.  Put differently, sometimes “heresy!” amounts to little more than a smokescreen, a shorthand way of saying: “we know the Trinity can’t answer your question, so stop asking!”  With that in mind, the only way to tell the difference between actual heresy and mere accusation is to test everything against Scripture as we strive to rightly divide the Word of Truth.

Accordingly, these verses we’ve just considered should be more than enough to prompt an honest debate about the validity of the Trinity.  Jesus had no patience for the Pharisees when they placed their interpretations of Scripture above Scripture itself…and neither should we.  Nevertheless, I am willing to bet that most are still unconvinced at this point.  We have been taught to be suspicious of any teaching that does not adhere to core doctrine, and that’s actually a good thing!  It is entirely prudent to be skeptical of claims that appear to contradict the essence of our faith, because compromising on the wrong things will leave us with something other than Christianity.

That being said, we would also be wise to remember the lessons from Martin Luther’s stand over the issue of justification: if a doctrine doesn’t stand up under the scrutiny of the Word of God, even if it has been proclaimed for centuries, it is false doctrine nonetheless.  So in spite of the abundance of passages that seemingly harmonize quite well with the Trinity, that is a necessary but not sufficient condition.  Because once again, if the Trinity is wrong on even a single point, then it’s wrong on every point and therefore irrelevant. 

This leaves us with quite a dilemma, since the collective testimony of the New Testament appears to indicate something much different about “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” than the “three persons” dogma which the Trinity insists upon.  Indeed, I would contend that we’re back to square one since it’s simply not possible to salvage the doctrine, given that its central assertion of “three persons in a Godhead” is almost surely invalid.  Thus our best hope of uncovering the meaning of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is to start with a clean slate that puts all notions of a “tri-unity” aside. 

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