Tag Archives: Trinity

If it’s Saturday, it must be Arians [Trinity Misconceptions]

This is a post in a series about the Trinity. The introduction is here, and part two is here.

It’s a Saturday morning. Two well dressed guests knock on your door. They introduce themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and ask if they can show you what the Bible really teaches. They deny that Christ is the second person of a Trinity, and say instead that He is the first of God’s creation, who created everything else.

Although the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a very recent development, the Preacher in Ecclesiastes got it right: There is nothing new under the sun. The teachings of the Witnesses about Jesus are an ancient heresy known as Arianism.

The History

Early in the history of the Christian Church, a young man named Arius was studying in Alexandria. From the work of earlier teachers (perhaps Paul of Samosata) he concluded that the Son was created; that is, there was a time when the Son, the Logos in John, did not exist. The teaching of Arius was very popular among the Alexandrian schools, and his theology spread fast.

Proponents of orthodoxy initially won out, led by Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria. The Emperor Constantine, a catechumen in the church at the time, called a council at Nicaea in 324 A.D. and all but two of the bishops there agreed that the Scriptures taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit are “consubstantial” (i.e. they share the same substance, or essence, or being). They composed the Nicene Creed, to put into a succinct statement of faith what the Scriptures teach.

Many have criticized the political power with which Constantine upheld orthodoxy. Often there are myths such as “Constantine determined the canon of Scripture at Nicaea,” or other such silliness. Those improper understandings of the council aside, Constantine did use his power inappropriately (in my estimation) when he ordered the destruction of Arian documents and the death penalty for those who did not volunteer Arian documents in their possession.

Ironically, Constantine later exiled Athanasius, the hero of orthodoxy, in an attempt at conciliating Arian sympathizers. At any rate, when Constantine’s son, Constantius II, assumed power, he used it to spread Arian doctrine throughout the Roman Empire by force. The point being, political force was used inappropriately on both sides of this issue. What we must look at, then, is the doctrines themselves.

The Theology

For a good starting point in discussion with any Jehovah’s Witnesses you may meet, I don’t suggest John 1:1. In their New World Translation of Scripture, they twist this verse to read “and the Word was a god.” Unless you speak Greek fluently, and are able to teach them Greek fluently, it won’t be much use to tell them that their translation is wrong. They simply won’t believe you.

Rather, I’d suggest jumping over to John 1:3. Even in the NWT it reads “[a]ll things came into existence through him, and apart from him not even one thing came into existence.” When I read this with them, I’ll change the “all” to “some” and “not even one thing” to “almost nothing.” So I will (mis)read “some things came into existence through him, and apart from him almost nothing came into existence.”

When I misread it, they will usually correct me. When the answer comes from their own mind, instead of being supplied by someone with whom they disagree, it is much more effective at communicating the point.

That point is that, according to the grammar of John 1:3, Jesus cannot have come into existence. Why? Because all things that came into existence came through him. Can a man be his own father? His own cause of being (in other words, his own efficient cause)? Of course not. So also, if not even one thing came into existence apart from the Word (that’s Jesus, remember? see Jn. 1:14) then Jesus can’t have come into existence, because then at least one thing came into existence apart from Jesus.

If you’re more of a visual learner, you’ll appreciate this very helpful blog post by Greg Koukl. It is essentially no different to what I outlined here, but he has a visual aid that make the point very clear.

Like I mentioned before, I’ll only be posting on Thursdays for a while during my summer intensive at school. I hope to get back to a regular Monday post soon, but I may edit the schedule further to allow for all of my obligations. God’s blessings on your week!

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Trinity Misconception: Modalism.

Last week I wrote up a brief introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity. Over the next several Thursdays I’ll tackle some of the different misconceptions and myths about the Trinity. Up first: Modalism.

One of the ways that people talk (incorrectly) about God is to say that just as one man can be a father, a son, and a husband, for instance, God also reveals Himself as Father, Son, and Spirit. The result of this analogy is Modalism: The belief that there is one God who reveals Himself in three different modes. It is as if God plays three different roles; in Modalism, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all the same person.

Modalism is also known as Sabellianism, as Sabellius espoused the doctrine in the third century. In fact, it found its origin in earlier teachers, such as Praxeas [see especially Tertullian, Adversus Praxeas, ch. 1]; Sabellius simply popularized it.

In contrast to Arianism, which also taught that there was only one God but denied that Jesus was divine, Modalism does teach that Jesus Christ is fully divine. What Modalism denies is that there are distinct divine Persons. Modalism is also sometimes referred to as Patripassianism (the belief that the Father was crucified in the Son) because Modalists deny that the Father and Son are co-existent persons; thus they teach that the Father is incarnate in the mode of the Son and suffers on the Cross.

The closest modern expression of modalism is found in the Oneness Pentecostal movement. There are some significant differences, but they both deny the persons of the Trinity.

The Athanasian Creed (the best explanation of the Trinity, bar none) shows us the two errors one may fall into regarding the Trinity: “[W]e worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.” All Trinitarian heresies have their root in one of these two errors. In the case of Modalism, the Persons are confounded – they are not seen as distinct from each other.

To refute Modalism, all that must be demonstrated from Apostolic teaching is that the three Persons of the Trinity are co-existent; that is, that the Father, Son, and Spirit exist side by side at the same time. This is done simply: At the Baptism of Jesus, the Father speaks from heaven with approval of the Son, who is standing in the water, and the Spirit descends in the form of a dove (Matthew 3:13ff; Luke 3:21-22). Thus all three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, are present (i.e. they exist) at the same time. The alternative, if Modalist doctrine is upheld, is that Christ was throwing His voice to speak from heaven!

You may not run into Modalism tomorrow (unless you’re reading the Book of Mormon), but it certainly functions as a good example of bad teaching. It’s still useful to us because it helps us to dig into Scripture and see what God reveals about Himself.

Next week I tackle Arianism. If you haven’t subscribed yet, please do! Also, check out the blog on Facebook or follow me on Twitter for updates. 

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The Holy Trinity: A brief introduction.

I was young when The Shack came out. I got it from the library, and I honestly didn’t get all that much out of it. But I do remember thinking how weird it was that God the Father was portrayed as a woman.

Now that I’m older, and more theologically inclined, I see more of the problems with The Shack‘s theology in a clearer light. Since the movie is coming out in less than a year, I thought it might be wise to take a look at the doctrine of the Trinity.

Before we go much further, click here and take the Trinity quiz that Tim Challies offers. How’d you do? 

The word Trinity is not found in your bible. It is an ecclesiastical, or church, word used to describe God’s revealed nature. A simple definition of the Trinity might look something like this: There is only one God, who exists as three distinct and co-eternal persons. The best definition of the Trinity is found in the Athanasian Creed.

I’m sure you’ve heard an analogy for the Trinity before. Throw it out, because it’s probably useless. I’ll let Donall and Conall explain:

Yes, I know: The rest of the post is going to be boring after that.

So where in the bible do we find this Trinitarian doctrine? I submit that the bible teaches that (1) there is only one God, (2) the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are distinct persons, and (3) the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are each fully God. If all three of these premises are true, then the Trinitarian concept of God is also true.

Premise 1: There is only one God.

This is, ostensibly, the easiest premise to prove from scripture. We know from a host of verses that God is the only God (Deut. 6:4; 4:35; 32:39; Is. 43:10; 44:6; 45:5; 45:18; 46:5-9, just to name a few). Two of my favorites are Isaiah 44:8 and Psalm 18:31. Both put polytheism to rest so succinctly.

Isaiah 44:8 says “Do not tremble and do not be afraid; Have I not long since announced it to you and declared it? And you are My witnesses. Is there any God besides Me, Or is there any other Rock? I know of none.” In Isaiah 43-49, God goes on an epic rant against those false gods and false saviors of other nations. He repeatedly makes the point that there are no other gods and no other saviors. And here He hammers it home: “I know of none!”

Psalm 18:31-32 says “For who is God, but the LORD? And who is a rock, except our God, the God who girds me with strength and makes my way blameless?” Again, the only acceptable answer to this rhetorical question is “No one!” God alone is God.

Premise 2: The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are distinct persons.

This premise is also easy to demonstrate from the Scriptures. In Matthew 3, at Jesus’ baptism, we see all three separate and distinct persons of the Trinity simultaneously. “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”” (vs. 16-17). This poses a serious challenge to modalists (people who believe that God is not three co-eternal persons, but one person playing the different roles of Father, Son, and Spirit at different times): Was Jesus just throwing His voice to speak from Heaven as the Father?

Another passage, which plays nicely in our next premise as well, is John 1:1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  So as far back as you can go, the Word – whom John identifies as Jesus (Jn. 1:14) – was already there as a distinct person from God (the Father). This “face-to-face” relationship can only take place between distinct persons – not one person playing two different parts.

Premise 3: The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are each fully God.

This premise may be demonstrated in two different ways. The first way is that each of the Persons of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit – are certainly called God in Scripture. The second is that each of them is attributed with titles and qualities reserved only for God in Scripture.

As John 1:1 showed that the two persons, Father and Son, are unique, so also it demonstrates that “the Word was God.” Another appropriate translation of that verse is “what God was, the Word was.” Everything that God is by nature, the Word is also by nature.  Distinct persons, but one substance – exactly as the Athanasian Creed puts it.

The Spirit, also, is called God. In Acts 5:3-4 Peter says

“Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.”

Notice in the first sentence, Peter says that they lied to the Holy Spirit; in the last line Peter says they’ve lied to God. So the title of God is applied to the Holy Spirit.

The attributes of God are applied to each of the Persons of the Trinity equally as well. I won’t reinvent the wheel here: Check out this chart of scripture verses.

trinity-chart

Conclusion: The Trinity must be true.

Since the three premises are supported by even this cursory examination of the scriptures, we must conclude that the Trinity is true. It is mysterious, and beyond our understanding by reason alone, true, but God has revealed Himself in this manner. It is our privilege to know and worship the true and Triune God.

 

Got questions about the Trinity? Comment below! Or share your favorite bad analogy (or a good one, if you can find it!), myth, misunderstanding, or other Trinitarian related topics. If you want to hear more then subscribe via email or WordPress, and like the blog on Facebook. See you next week for Trinity Myths and Misunderstandings!

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