Episode 17: Thinking about the Trinity (1)
We begin a new series in which we explore the deep questions around the relationship between God and Jesus, the Son of God. In this episode Josh Dean and Paul Davenport look at how Unitarians and Trinitarians both look at the same scriptural ‘raw materials’ but come to different conclusions. Why is that? How should we evaluate whether one view is more appropriate than the other? Are they both truly Christian perspectives?
We begin a new series, Thinking about the Trinity, in which we explore the deep questions around the relationship between God and Jesus, the Son of God. The Trinity is widely seen as the only true Christian perspective but as Biblical Unitarians, we want to think this through in a little more detail and as fairly as possible. So, in this episode Josh Dean and Paul Davenport look at how Unitarians and Trinitarians both look at the same scriptural ‘raw materials’ but come to different conclusions. Why is that? How should we evaluate whether one view is more appropriate than the other? Are they both truly Christian perspectives?
We’d love to hear your point of view on the questions raised here. Let’s help each other understand the Bible better!
As Biblical Unitarians, we understand God the Father as one God, and Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus was a man created by God at a point in time, by the power of God (or by his Spirit). This was part of God’s plan, so that through his Son Jesus, God manifested himself to the world.
This understanding is different from the doctrine that is core to the vast majority of Christian confessions of faith called the Trinity. In the Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three persons in the same substance, co-eternal and co-equal.
A complicated history
As you might expect, how to understand the nature of God is a complex topic. There has been much discussion, debate and even violence through the years as people have been wrestling to understand the Divine. Josh and Paul talk about how they hope to open the conversation and provide this opportunity for those of different views to better understand each other and correct misconceptions (which are bound to exist).
They point out that the word ‘Trinity’ never appears in the Bible, but acknowledge that this in itself is not a good argument against it. Instead, they agree that it’s important to look at the evidence and direction that the biblical writers provide.
The Old Testament evidence
In the Old Testament we see evidence for belief that seems very much teaching one God with the Hebrew Bible making some clear statements about the oneness of God. Here are some examples:
The Lord our God is one LordDeuteronomy 6:4
I am the LORD and there is no other, besides me there is no God.Isaiah 45:5
But with these and others we need to remember they are in the context of denying the gods or idols of other nations. Their primary importance was not to answer the question of the relationship between God, The Holy Spirit and Jesus.
Although emphasising the one God, the Hebrew Bible is far from simplistic in its presentation. God is portrayed with multiple perspectives which are sometimes hard to reconcile, but reconciling them does not seem to be an issue that is ever given any importance.
Josh and Paul describe two of these aspects that may seem contradictory; God’s transcendence and his immanence. Transcendence is how God goes way beyond normal human limits. For example in Genesis 1 God speaks the world into being and creates plants and animals. Furthermore, in Exodus 33:20 we are told that people cannot see God and live, emphasising how ‘other-worldy’ God is.
Immanence, on the other hand, is how God is present in reality, in time and space. In Genesis 2 God is described as walking in a garden with humans. God is also close to people through their devotion, such as in Psalm 145:18, “The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.”
These two attributes may seem very different, but the Old Testament doesn’t present that as a problem that needs resolving. God is able to be both while being one God.
The New Testament evidence
Paul and Josh continue thinking about the nature of God by moving into the New Testament. Here, Jesus and apostles very much carry on the Jewish ideas and in doing so present God with the same qualities. We read how God “alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.” (1 Timothy 6:16), but on the other hand we read about a God who intimately knows his creation, knowing even the number of hairs on our head. (Matthew 10:29-30).
Again, this doesn’t cause any concern to the authors of the New Testament writings. Crucially, we do not see the New Testament authors spending time reconciling these two qualities by describing God in ways that reflect the later doctrine of the trinity.
So where does the Trinity come from?
Paul and Josh look at some independent viewpoints that address this:
Nowhere does the Bible explicitly teach this combination of assertions. It may, nevertheless, be claimed that the doctrine of the Trinity is a profoundly appropriate interpretation of the biblical witness to God in the light of the ministry, death and resurrection-exaltation of Jesus—the ‘Christ event’.New Bible Dictionary, p.1209
Though “trinity” is a second-century term found nowhere in the Bible, and the Scriptures present no finished trinitarian statement, the New Testament does contain most of the building materials for later doctrine.The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4, p.914
So it seems generally recognised that the doctrine of the Trinity is post-Biblical, but is seen as an “appropriate interpretation” of the raw materials, i.e. the ideas contained in the Scriptures. Paul and Josh consider the possibility that the Unitarian viewpoint is an alternative “appropriate interpretation” which uses the same raw materials.
Three key questions
Josh and Paul identify three key questions that early Christianity grappled with as part of formulating the post-Biblical concept of the Trinity. These are each discussed alongside a Unitarian perspective on the questions.
- Did Jesus exist before his birth?
- Did Jesus perform creation?
- Is Jesus called God and given Divine attributes?
In each case, Paul and Josh look at the key scriptural references involved (John 1:1, Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:1-8). They consider how the Trinitarian and Unitarian viewpoints might be derived from each passage. In particular they note the historical situation of Christians living in a world steeped in Greek philosophy which assumed that a distant, transcendent God could not also interact directly with his material creation. The challenge is posed: did Christianity try to use Scripture to answer a Greek philosophical question which actually didn’t need answering? Was it because early Christians sought to defend their position using concepts from Greek philosophy that paved the way for post-Biblical Trinitarian formulas?
We recognise that this is only the beginning of a broader discussion and we hope this episode lays the groundwork for future conversations thinking about the Trinity and how we see the Biblical Unitarian position as a valid part of the history of theology and Christianity.