Seek first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness.Matthew 6:33 (NKJV)
At this point, I hope that the question you are asking is not “So what?” In light of the inconsistencies and clear difficulties with the Trinity, I hope you are not content to simply accept it and move on. For one thing, I hope you would agree that extra-Biblical frameworks like the Trinity cannot be legitimately exalted to the level of essential doctrine in the first place. Furthermore, essential or not, I hope you are beginning to see how the Trinity has the potential to both impede our understanding of Scripture as well as distort our presentation of the Gospel to others. And so in spite of the Church’s emphatic insistence that the Trinity is our only option, I hope that you are asking “So what’s the answer?” instead.
Admittedly, I’m not sure there is an “answer” per se, at least not in the sense that anyone is able to offer a definitive exposition of “Father, Son, and Spirit” that is beyond reproach. To declare this level of certainty would be both misguided and presumptuous, because any doctrinal framework that purports to illuminate Scripture is inherently subject to the same limitations and pitfalls that should have precluded the Trinity from being wielded as dogma in the first place. In other words, any doctrine of God’s “threeness” – Trinity or otherwise – should necessarily be regarded as a possible explanation rather than the “final answer” for all of the reasons that I have already labored to this point.
Thus I do not presume to offer “the answer” to God’s tripartite designation; rather, I am simply presenting an alternative which I believe is truer to Scripture. That being said, I am keenly aware that this puts me on potentially thin ice, since virtually every other option over the past 2,000 years has fallen drastically short of the mark! Still, given the shortcomings, discrepancies, and checkered pedigree of the Trinity I am persuaded that there is indeed a better “answer,” so to speak.
Ironically, not only do I believe that the “answer” has been there all along, but also that we can see pieces of it strewn throughout the various heresies that have confronted the church throughout the centuries. This fact should neither alarm nor surprise us, since the most effective tactic of the enemy has always been to take a grain of truth and spin it into something deceptive and false:
Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command His angels concerning You’;
‘On their hands they will bear You up,
So that You will not strike Your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
This passage demonstrates how easily God’s Word can be twisted to suggest something that was never intended. Satan warps the meaning intentionally in this case, but inadvertent manipulation is no less problematic. To be clear, the issue is not that Scripture is contradicting itself or that parts are untrue, the problem is context: whenever we take verses in isolation and try to interpret or apply them apart from the entirety of God’s Word, error inevitably creeps in. Put differently, the best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture.
And so the task before us is a simple one – albeit not an easy one – we must strive to let Scripture speak for itself. We need to hear what Scripture actually says about “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” even if it conflicts with what we believe or what we’ve been taught. Towards that end, the question that we need to keep in the forefront of our minds is not “Does this violate the Trinity?” but rather “Does this violate Scripture?” Like Martin Luther and the Reformers, sola Scriptura – Scripture alone – must be our guiding principle.
Hidden in Plain Sight
There are many factors which impede our ability to hear Scripture clearly, but probably none are more daunting than the inherent difficulty which attends any attempt by our finite minds to grasp the Infinite. It’s simply not possible for us to comprehend God in an exhaustive sense; however, it is also unlikely that God would have given us His Word if we were wholly incapable of understanding it. On the contrary, He gave us His self-revelation precisely because there are things about Him that He absolutely wants us to know.
Thus apart from the sheer magnitude of the task itself, the biggest barriers to our apprehension of Scripture are undoubtedly our own biases and pre-conceived notions. They are the “lenses” through which we interpret what we read, and to the extent that a given “lens” is distorted or flawed, our perception of Scripture will likewise be off the mark. Practically speaking, this means that in order to hear what God wants to tell us – versus what we think we hear or often what we want to hear – the first step is “forgetting” some of the things that we think we know.
For our purposes, this means setting aside the whole notion of a “triune God.” This is undoubtedly a tall order, but since both the idea of a “Godhead” as well as the supposed plurality within that Godhead are extra-Biblical concepts (i.e. not grounded directly in Scripture) I contend that recognizing these biases and setting them to the side is absolutely necessary. To illustrate the difficulties that can result if we don’t, consider this hypothetical murder mystery:
Police are dispatched to a well-to-do suburban home to follow-up on a potential missing person report, only to discover signs of an apparent break-in. They enter the home and find a woman's lifeless body lying in a pool of dried blood on the kitchen floor, presumably killed by her assailant with a missing butcher knife. Given the empty jewelry armoire and missing purse, they assume it is a robbery gone awry…until they check the woman's cell phone. "I just can't do this anymore…" is the last message sent on the night of her death, and the reply from her estranged husband reads, "You already know my answer. I promise you'll regret it!" Digging a little deeper, the lead detective finds that she has been separated for several months from her husband, whose dependence on pain killers had finally cost him his job. Friends and family members further testify to his escalating fits of rage and alcohol abuse as the cause of the separation; moreover, witnesses place him at their home on the afternoon of the murder. The detective also discovers that not only had the woman recently been consulting with a divorce attorney, but that her husband now stands to collect on over three million dollars in life insurance as well as their substantial assets. When pressed for an alibi, the husband freely acknowledges seeing his wife on the day of the crime but insists that he was there by her invitation. According to him, she had tried to persuade him that the separation was complicating matters rather than helping them, and had begged him to come back home so they could work through his addiction together. While he wanted desperately to accept her offer, he also told her that in spite of her faith in him, he didn't quite trust himself. The last thing he wanted to do was take a chance of hurting her, thus his text message was simply reiterating that until he got his addictions under control, moving back home would be a mistake. He further admits to falling into one of his drunken binges later that night after replying to her text message, and as such can't account for his actions or his whereabouts. So although his phone's location history places him in his downtown apartment all night long, the lead detective is convinced that this is all part of a clever ruse designed to throw police off of his trail. The apparent robbery is subsequently deemed to be nothing but a diversion, and they arrest him as the prime suspect. Things move quickly to trial in spite of the missing murder weapon and the husband's repeated pleas that he is innocent, because the District Attorney is confident he can get a conviction: the husband has substantial motive, there was an admitted pattern of anger issues, he has no alibi for the night of the murder, and his text message strongly suggests intent. A guilty verdict appears to be virtually a foregone conclusion…until a bartender comes forward after recognizing the husband from coverage of the trial. She testifies that he stumbled into her bar on the night in question and continued drinking himself into an incoherent stupor. Not only that, but she had called for a taxi to take him home since he didn't have his own phone. This unexpected alibi, when coupled with the lack of physical evidence, makes the husband a free man and you are left wondering if he just got away with murder. In the wake of his acquittal, though, the husband appears to be a completely broken man who is struggling to rebuild his life after months in rehab. Because in spite of the verdict, he is shunned by former friends, colleagues, and even some family members who nonetheless suspect him of foul play and conspiracy. And just like the detective who is still bitter and watching for the husband to "slip up," you are anxiously hoping that the man will finally show his true colors and be brought to justice. Yet time passes, the detective's obsession with the case ruins his career, and you are left with the nagging suspicion that this truly diabolical man has conceived, plotted, and executed the perfect crime. Then the action shifts to a seemingly unrelated case three states away, where police have arrested another man for breaking and entering. He is a drifter and a career thief whose modus operandi is targeting affluent women who live alone…just like our victim. And as the final scene fades to the credits, you see it among the evidence about to be put into storage: the cheap, gold-plated bracelet that a high-school senior gave to his sweetheart, engraved with the names of the husband and wife.
So what is the point of this story? In a nutshell, it demonstrates the problem with a mystery: the truth was there all along, it’s just that people couldn’t see it. For as they put the pieces of the puzzle together which seemed to fit, they began to visualize what the entire picture looked like. This presumed picture of the husband’s guilt then set the tone for the entire investigation…in spite of the other pieces of the puzzle that revealed a potentially different picture.
Indeed, things are not always as they seem at first, and when we make the mistake of assuming we have all of the pieces we need and rush to judgment, we can miss the mark because we fail to realize that the next piece is the crucial one that will bring everything together. Moreover, even when the evidence refutes your assumptions – similar to the bartender’s surprise alibi – there can nevertheless be a reluctance to let go of the original conclusion – just like the husband’s guilt. Thus in light of these pitfalls, consider the parallels to the mystery of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” vis-à-vis the doctrine of the Trinity:
- Even though the evidence appeared to clearly incriminate the husband, all it took was one key witness to invalidate a conclusion that seemed to be obvious. In similar fashion, regardless of the many verses which appear to substantiate the “three-personness” of God, even a single verse that doesn’t fit should force us to reconsider the evidence in a new light. For unlike the questionable trustworthiness of a murder suspect, the testimony of Scripture is beyond reproach.
- Think about the evidence that was ignored or misinterpreted due to the presumption of the husband’s guilt: the break-in and the robbery were dismissed as “theater,” and the text messages on the night of the woman’s murder were falsely perceived as evidence of intent. The truth of the exchange was completely lost because it was viewed from the perspective of the wife’s intention to file for divorce rather than the husband’s claim of reconciliation, and as a result the texts became a tool for the prosecution rather than the defense.
The problem is that once the other details started to paint a picture of the husband’s guilt, anything that didn’t quite fit was reinterpreted to fit the narrative. So too with the Trinity, as soon as we have determined that the “tri-personness” of God must be true, it’s hard to see verses of Scripture in any other light and to let them speak for themselves.
- Once someone becomes convinced that an idea is true – whether it is a verdict or a doctrine – it can be extremely difficult to relinquish that belief even in the face of evidence to the contrary. So in spite of the fact that the husband was exonerated by the testimony of an unexpected witness, the characters in the story shunned him because they had become invested in the explanation that gave them closure. In short, sometimes people value having an answer over having the answer…even if it’s the wrong answer.
These caveats are particularly relevant when it comes to objectively assessing the Trinity, since we have already considered a number of passages that don’t quite “fit” with various aspects of the doctrine. Furthermore, although proponents of the Trinity will protest that there are a multitude of verses that support it, I submit that most of the supposed evidence has been misconstrued a la the clues from the murder mystery. Just as the foregone conclusion of the husband’s guilt distorted the evidence and biased the entire investigation, so too has the presumption of the Trinity led to a misinterpretation of Scripture.
Hence in lieu of a confession (i.e. direct Scriptural support) our only option is to assemble the clues about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from other passages of Scripture and develop a coherent framework. While this is exactly what the early church tried to do when developing the Trinity, the trick is figuring out how to ensure that all of the pieces fit together…without forcing them. Moreover, as we strive to apprehend the Word of God, we need to be vigilant to avoid spurious appeals to concepts and ideas where Scripture is utterly silent. Not an easy task, to be sure, but one that I believe is possible once we realize how to use the Map.
Wrong Weapons, Wrong Battle
To help ensure that we don’t repeat the same mistakes which plagued the development of the Trinity, it is important to remind ourselves of what prompted the church to formulate it in the first place. Because aside from the inherent dangers of relying on extra-Biblical notions to illuminate God’s Word, perhaps the bigger problem is that the early Church felt compelled to develop the doctrine at all. In other words, the Church’s efforts to understand “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” were doomed from the start because they were chasing an answer to the wrong question.
Quite simply, the church got caught up in trying to address the question of “how” God could become a man. The main issue was not the notion of a superhuman being per se – i.e. a “godlike-man” or a demigod – rather, the problem was the idea that the one, true, perfect God would taint Himself by taking on flesh by becoming one with man – God “in” man. For although people were probably able to grasp “what” the Incarnation meant in theory, what most couldn’t comprehend was “how” it was possible in practice.
Interestingly, this dilemma does not appear to stem from a “Jewish” objection, since the authors of the New Testament had every opportunity to address this question and yet spent no time trying to explain the mechanics of the union between Father and Son. The Gospels simply declare who Jesus is, and the rest of the New Testament is dedicated to showing what that means to us as His disciples. Indeed, the main problem that “Jews” seemed to have with the Gospel was not the proposition that “Jesus is Lord,” but that the rituals and trappings of historic Judaism had been set aside in light of who Christ is and what He has done.
Thus the difficulty with the Incarnation comes not from any “Jewish” misgivings, but primarily from the “Greek” presupposition that matter was inherently flawed or evil. The “Greek” mindset simply could not envision the union of a Perfect Spiritual Being with anything in the material world, and in lieu of actual Scripture (and the apostles) to settle the debate, the church fathers looked for other ways to articulate this inexplicable union. This brought the notions of a Godhead, multiple persons, and God’s “substance” into the discussion, as people looked to philosophy as the way to help them reconcile the tension between two essential, yet paradoxical precepts:
- The monotheistic belief that there is only one God
- The legitimacy of worshiping and honoring of Christ as Lord
And so the doctrine of the Trinity was born. Constructed from a synthesis of Christian doctrine and Greek philosophy, it wrestled with the concept of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as three persons within a singular Godhead by attempting to explain how they relate to each other. Unfortunately, though, in the Church’s tacit adoption of a Godhead and “substance” as a way to conceptualize of Jesus’ relationship to the Father, they inadvertently opened the door to one heresy after another.
Frankly, perhaps the main reason that the history of this doctrine is so volatile and contentious is because it owes more to the writings of Aristotle than the Apostles. This probably sounds outrageous, but throughout the four centuries that shaped the development of the Trinity, Jesus’ ousia – His “essence” or “substance” – versus the ousia of the Father was the central issue. Were they the same? Merely similar? Or were they altogether different?
You will recall that Aristotle’s conception of a “Prime Mover” was the one “substance” that was pure actuality. It was immaterial, changeless, and eternal, and as later thinkers extended this concept to God Himself, they concluded that God’s “substance” or “essence,” whatever that meant in practical terms, was utterly unlike the “substance” of every other thing in the universe. So ultimately, the debate surrounding the Trinity effectively revolved around how to properly apply Aristotle’s theory of substances to Father and Son.
Again, consider the fact that the controversy in Nicaea centered upon the question of whether Jesus was the “same substance” or “similar substance” as the Father. In Greek, it comes down to choosing a single word: homoousios, which means “same substance,” or homoiousios which means “similar substance.” Look closely at the two words and you’ll notice that they differ by a single letter – “i” – the Greek letter “iota.” This being the case, it’s not hard to understand Constantine’s initial presumption that the issue was nothing more than a pedantic, obscure point of doctrine: two sides that differed by “a single iota.”
Furthermore, it is worth noting that the root word ousia is not used in the New Testament in reference to God, Jesus, or any other person. In fact, the word ousia is used only twice in the entire New Testament, both times in the parable of the prodigal son where he demands his share of the father’s estate, the ousia or “substance” of his father. This meaning is a far cry from how ousia came to be used during the church’s first few centuries, which instead echoed concepts borrowed from Greek philosophy.
Here’s the critical question, though: if the details of Jesus’ relationship to the Father were so vital for us to understand, don’t you think God would have spelled it out? But He didn’t. He simply said: “This is My Son. Hear Him.” We don’t get – nor would we probably even be able to comprehend – the details, because we don’t need them. It’s not that the questions are trivial or unimportant, God simply doesn’t give us the answers. If He had, then we would be able to point directly to Scripture and Nicaea would have been a formality; but since He didn’t, the council basically argued over the finer points of Aristotle’s theory of substances.
Hence the early Church fathers not only got embroiled in a battle that they shouldn’t have been fighting, but they erroneously picked up the weapons of the enemy and tried to fight him on his own terms. Rather than relying on the simple stones that God had given them, “This is My Son. Hear Him,” they donned Saul’s armor every time they confronted a new Goliath, unwittingly fighting error with error. In the process, although they appeared to emerge victorious time and time again, they nonetheless incurred a mortal wound. Because by virtue of adopting homoousios as the way to win the battle, the church not only relied upon extra-Biblical philosophy and terminology to settle debate over a question where Scripture is essentially silent, they officially absorbed it into the orthodoxy of the Church.
In fact, I would argue that the primary error of the early church when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity stems from precisely this point: instead of properly acknowledging “mystery” for questions where there is no clear explanation given in Scripture, they engaged in philosophical posturing and speculation as a means to “fill in the blanks.” Consequently, these misguided…albeit earnest…attempts to understand aspects of God that go beyond His own self-revelation unwittingly set the Church on a course which ultimately led to needless dissension, confusion, and bloodshed.
Maybe that’s why the Trinity is so hard to understand. And maybe that’s why the Trinity doesn’t fit so well with Scripture…
A Kingdom Perspective
Even if the Church had chosen to relegate the inner workings of the Incarnation to the realm of mystery – those things which God tells us to be true but does not explain – there would still be the question of what “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is trying to tell us. Put differently, we need to remind ourselves that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is not the Trinity; rather, the Trinity is an extra-Biblical theory predicated upon concepts borrowed from Greek philosophy which purports to illuminate the meaning of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Fortunately, though, there is a better way to interpret God’s threefold designation that doesn’t rely upon Aristotle, Plato, or any other “wisdom of man.”
Instead of viewing Scripture through the lens of Greek philosophy, the import of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” can be best understood by placing it squarely within the context of the Bible’s overarching story of redemption. For although the Bible was written by forty different authors over a period of roughly 1,600 years, it’s sixty-six books are really telling a single story. Every commandment, narrative, and prophecy represents a different thread in a larger tapestry: the realization of God’s Kingdom on the earth. And – no surprise – the hero of the story is none other than God’s own Son. Hence it should also come as no surprise that God’s Kingdom was the central theme of Jesus’ ministry:
Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Seek first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness.
Matthew 6:33 (NKJV)
And He was saying, “The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil…”
But He said to them, “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose.”
But the crowds were aware of this and followed Him; and welcoming them, He began speaking to them about the kingdom of God and curing those who had need of healing.
Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.
To be clear, we need to remember that although we speak in terms of the future establishment of God’s Kingdom here on earth, it’s not as if our world is somehow currently exempt from the sphere of God’s control. On the contrary, we know without a doubt that even though God’s Kingdom has not yet been made manifest on the earth, He is still in charge:
So Pilate said to Him, “You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above.”
Thus when we speak about the “Kingdom of God” we are not merely talking about a place where God reigns supreme – since He is sovereign over everything that happens – rather, we are referring to a Kingdom that is untainted by sin and rebellion because His reign is gladly accepted, honored, and embraced by all. In a word, the hallmark of God’s Kingdom is the complete and willing obedience of His subjects. Not the kind of deference that is offered grudgingly or due to forced compliance, but the grateful, heartfelt submission that naturally flows out of the devotion and love that we have for the first part of God’s three-fold doxology: our heavenly Father.