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Jesus and the Trinity

by Mark M. Mattison

Contents
Introduction

Jesus the Christ

Angel Christology

Spirit-flesh Christology

Word-flesh Christology

Modalistic Monarchianism

Economic Trinitarianism

Dynamic Monarchianism

Arianism

Athanasian Trinitarianism

Conclusion

Appendix: Cults?

Partial Bibliography

Introduction

The figure of Jesus Christ is the most powerful in all of human history.
He stands at the center, literally, dividing all of history into two epochs:
"Before Christ" and "The Year of Our Lord." Images of Christ have
inspired, provoked, comforted, and sustained faithful people for nearly
two millennia.

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Who is this person named Jesus? A cynic? A sage? A rebel? A healer?
A prophet? He is all these things, to be sure. But Christians affirm more
of him than this. Jesus is the Son of God who saves us from our sins.

Apart from this basic affirmation, however, there remains considerable


diversity in the Church about the exact relationship of Jesus to the
heavenly Father. Dialogue about these differing views is complicated
by the assertion of many people that theirs is the only valid Christian
view. Hence it is sometimes difficult to find an objective description of
each position.

The purpose of this article and its sequel is to explain objectively what
the different views are and why. The first article lays the historical and
theological foundations of the debate, and the second describes the
practical and Scriptural grounds. Identifying the historical basis for
each position (Part 1) helps us to understand the theological landscape
today, and looking at each position's "proof texts" and "difficult texts"
(Part 2) helps us to appreciate one another and where we are coming
from. So let us begin our study at the beginning with Jesus himself.

Jesus the Christ

Throughout much of his ministry Jesus' true identity, and the meaning
of that identity, were pretty much obscured. Jesus referred to himself
most often with the cryptic term "Son of man" (cf. John 12:34), a term
probably taken from Daniel chapter 7 (cp. Dan. 7:13 with Mark 14:62).
The apocalyptic figure "like a son of man" in Daniel's prophecy
receives a kingdom, but only after much tribulation (7:21,22; 25-27).
The "son of man" is vindicated and glorified through suffering. Similarly,
Jesus, the Son of Man, had to suffer and die (Mark 8:31) before
returning in glory with the angels (v. 38). Jesus also saw his own
ministry in terms of Isaiah's suffering servant, who dies for many (Mark
10:43-45).

More than a prophet or a teacher or an exorcist, Jesus was the chosen


Messiah of God, the Christ (John 1:41). Yet the idea of "Messiahship"
had strong political overtones, as Acts 17:7 illustrates. Knowing that his
mission could be jeopardized and that he could be killed "before his
hour," Jesus generally avoided the provocative term "Christ" (cf. Mark
8:29,30). Nevertheless he was acutely aware of his unique relationship
to God, whom he addressed intimately as Abba, "Father."

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The men and women who gathered around Jesus were profoundly
changed by the experience. They found forgiveness, love, meaning,
and salvation. When Jesus rose from the dead, they also found the
power of the Holy Spirit, given freely by the risen Lord Christ (Acts
2:32,33). This is the uniquely Christian experience shared by all who
have chosen to identify themselves with Jesus Christ and to follow him
in discipleship. New Testament Christians nurture a deep and abiding
sense of solidarity with the risen Jesus, about whose earthly ministry
we read in the Gospels.

More than just a man, this Jesus who invites our worship inspires and
challenges us. Here is a man who lived a sinless life, intertwined with
the very character of God. Naturally his followers have tried to come to
grips in many ways with his unique nature. Many different models have
been proposed through the years to explain the uniqueness of Jesus
Christ.

Angel Christology

The power of the New Testament's christology lies in the fact that this
Jesus who was uniquely "from God" was at the same time fully human,
one of us. However, apart from affirming Jesus' divine origins yet
unqualified humanity, the New Testament Scriptures tell us little more,
leaving room for considerable reflection. Jesus is Christ, Lord, Son of
God. What do those things mean for us?

One early response was that Jesus may have been an angel from
heaven. After all, the Son of Man is a celestial figure who comes on the
clouds of heaven surrounded by angels. The Greek text of Isaiah 9:6
describes the Messiah as "the angel of great counsel." Perhaps Jesus
was himself a powerful angel, or even an archangel. Traces of this
christology can be found in a first- or second-century Christian book
named The Shepherd of Hermas. One passage, Sim. 8.3., virtually
identifies Jesus with Michael the archangel.

However, this view did not leave a lasting impression on the church.
Later theologians, like Justin (Trypho 59) and Tertullian (De carne
Christi 14), were willing to use the term "angel" to describe Jesus in a
descriptive way as one sent from God, but not as a way to describe his
nature. For most Christians, this is not a sufficiently exalted way to
think of Christ. Others do find it satisfying. Jehovah's Witnesses, for
example, note the close association between Jesus' return and the
voice of the archangel in 1 Thessalonians 4:16. On this basis they too

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identify Jesus with Michael. (For an additional note on Jehovah's
Witnesses, see the Appendix to this article.)

Spirit-flesh Christology

Another way to explain the divinity and humanity of Christ rests on the
distinction between "flesh" and "spirit." For example, the earliest
surviving Christian sermon, an early second-century book known as 2
Clement, tells us that "we ought so to think of Jesus Christ, as of God,
as of the Judge of quick and dead....If Christ the Lord who saved us,
being first spirit, then became flesh, and so called us, in like manner
also shall we in this flesh receive our reward" (1.1; 9.5).

Similarly, The Shepherd of Hermas describes "the Holy Spirit that


spake with you in the form of the Church...for that Spirit is the Son of
God" (Sim. 9.1). This view is spelled out in more detail earlier in the
book. As will be seen below, parts of this description seem to combine
ideas that later would be identified as "binitarian" and "adoptionist."

The holy, pre-existent Spirit, that created every creature,


God made to dwell in flesh, which He chose. This flesh,
accordingly, in which the Holy Spirit dwelt, was nobly
subject to that Spirit, walking religiously and chastely, in no
respect defiling the Spirit; and accordingly, after living
excellently and purely, and after labouring and co-
operating with the Spirit, and having in everything acted
vigorously and courageously along with the Holy Spirit, He
assumed it as a partner with it. For this conduct of the flesh
pleased Him, because it was not defiled on the earth while
having the Holy Spirit. He took, therefore, as fellow-
councillors His Son and the glorious angels, in order that
this flesh, which had been subject to the body without a
fault, might have some place of tabernacle, and that it
might not appear that the reward [of its servitude had been
lost], for the flesh that has been found without spot or
defilement, in which the Holy Spirit dwelt, [will receive a
reward] (Sim. 6.5).

The view that Jesus first existed as a spirit or the Holy Spirit, then
"became flesh," was one way to think of his divine origin and his
human existence. However, this way of thinking was not very technical
and did not satisfy many Christians, who continued to ask questions
about how Jesus could be both human and divine.

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Word-flesh Christology

By the middle of the second century A.D., Christianity was under attack
from all fronts. Christian doctrines had to be restated in Greek
language that the educated philosopher or pagan could understand.
Christian doctrines were thus, for the first time, systematically treated
in a sophisticated way. The writers who accomplished this are called
the Apologists.

The Apologists sought to explain the relationship between God and


Christ by appealing to the imagery of the Word or Rational Principle,
particularly as understood by the Stoic philosophers. With the Stoics,
the Apologists distinguished between the immanent Word (logos
endiathetos) and the expressed Word (logos prophorikos). With this
distinction in mind, they could neatly differentiate between two stages
in the existence of the Word: first as residing within God (immanent)
and then as a distinct person who had been begotten (not created) by
God (expressed). Theophilus of Antioch writes, for example, that "God,
then, having His own Word internal within His own bowels, begat him,
emitting him along with His own wisdom before all things" (Autol. 2.10)
and also of "the Word that always exists, residing within the heart of
God. For before anything came into being He had him as a counsellor,
being His own mind and thought. But when God wished to make all
that He determined on, He begat His Word, uttered, the first-born of all
creation, not Himself being emptied of the Word, but having begotten
Reason, and always conversing with His Reason (Autol. 2.22. Cf. Also
Athenagoras, Supplic. 10).

These concepts afforded the Apologists a more precise way of


conceiving Christ's divinity. At this point the unformulated "spirit-flesh
Christology" of an earlier stage began to give way to a more developed
"Word-flesh" Christology. Justin Martyr seems to have believed that the
Word took the place of the rational soul in the man Jesus (2 Apol. 10).

Justin was certainly the most prominent and influential Apologist and
played a significant role in the articulation of Christological doctrine.

He too began with the popular Stoic doctrine of the "germinal word."
He believed that the Word or Reason is what gave men knowledge of
God. Even before the coming of Christ, men had seeds of that Reason
within them; therefore, fragments of the truth could be reached by even
pagans. The philosopher Socrates, Justin claimed, was a Christian (I

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Apology 46). He even went so far as to say that the Greek
philosophers copied ideas from the books of Moses.

The Word of God was more fully revealed, however, in the person of
Jesus. The mediatorial role of the Word was absolutely necessary in
Justin's philosophical theology as he believed, like the Middle
Platonists of his day, that God was completely transcendent, beyond
comprehension.

Justin advanced three arguments for the divine Word as a being


distinct from the Father. First, while the Old Testament constantly
described God as appearing to men such as Abraham, it was
incredible that the "Master and Father of all things should have
abandoned all supercelestial affairs and made Himself visible in a
minute corner of the world"; therefore, "below the Creator of all things,
there is Another Who is, and is called, God and Lord" (Trypho, 60.2,
56.4). Second, texts such as Genesis 1:26 ("Let us make man in our
own image") imply that God talked with a fellow being (62:2). Third,
Justin compared the Word to the Wisdom figure, an agent of creation
who was distinct from God (so it was understood). His description of
the Word is well put in the Dialogue with Trypho:

God begat before all creatures a Beginning, [who was] a


certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself, who is
called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now
the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and
then Lord and Logos [Word].... For He can be called by all
these names, since He ministers to the Father's will, and
since He was begotten of the Father by an act of will; just
as we see happening among ourselves: for when we give
out some word, we beget the word; yet not by abscission,
so as to lessen the word [which remains] in us, when we
give it out; and just as we see happening in the case of a
fire, which is not lessened when it has kindled [another],
but remains the same; and that which has been kindled by
it likewise appears to exist by itself, not diminishing that
from which it was kindled (ch. 61).

The Apologist Melito significantly contributed to later Christological


thought by conceiving the divine and human natures of Christ as
operating independently of each other. Writing of Christ's two natures,
he was the first to use the philosophical term ousia, "nature" (Frag. 7).
This term became more critical later on.

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Modalistic Monarchianism

Throughout this period Christian writers were so occupied with thinking


about the Son that they did not give much thought to the exact role of
the Spirit, or to the interrelationships between the Father, Son, and
Spirit. To be sure, references to the three were common (cf. Matt.
28:10; Did. 7; 1 Clem. 46.6; 58.2; Ignatius, Eph. 9.1; Justin Martyr, 1
Apol. 13,65). Theophilus first used the word "trinity" (or possibly "triad")
when he wrote "of the trinity [triados], of God, and His Word, and His
wisdom" (Autol. 2.15). However, the first Apologist to wrestle with the
idea of a Trinity (not just a triad) was the uninfluential Athenagoras
(Supplic. 10).

Many Christians during this time, however, were growing concerned


about preserving traditional monotheism, the absolute oneness of God.
In the second and third centuries, these Christians were known as
Monarchians because they wanted to defend the divine "monarchy" of
the one God. Today they are frequently called "modalistic
Monarchians" as distinct from "dynamic Monarchians" (cf. below). The
modalistic Monarchians denied any division within God: Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit are but different "modes" of the one God's operation.

Put differently, God is seen as filling certain roles, just as a man may
be an employee, a husband, and a father, all at the same time. God is
then one person, indivisible, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Another term for this is "Sabellianism," named after the third-century


teacher Sabellius. It is also known as "Patripassianism," a term which
implies that the Father suffered on the cross.

Modern-day modalists are found most frequently in Pentecostal


groups, like the United Pentecostal Church International and the
Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. They rely heavily on Isaiah 9:6,
which calls the Messiah not only "Mighty God" but also "Everlasting
Father," and on John 10:30, in which Jesus said "I and the Father are
one."

Economic Trinitarianism

The second- and third-century African theologian Tertullian took


exception to this widespread doctrine. Like his predecessors, the
Apologists, he drew arguments and language from the Bible, Judaism,
Stoicism, and other sources, but he introduced anew source for

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discussing Christology: Latin legal terminology. Tertullian argued that
though God is one substance [unitas substantiae], He exists in three
distinct persons [personae]. He was also the first author to use the
Latin term trinitas (trinity).

Tertullian's book Against Praxeas contains his arguments against the


modalistic Monarchians. He wrote, for example, that:

The simple, indeed, (I will not call them unwise and


unlearned,) who always constitute the majority of
believers, are startled at the dispensation (of the Three in
One), on the ground that their very rule of faith withdraws
them from the world's plurality of gods to the one only true
God; not understanding that, although He is the one only
God, He must yet be believed in with His own
dispensation. The numerical order and distribution of the
Trinity they assume to be a division of the Unity (Adv. Pra
x. 3).

Tertullian was also the first Christian to deal specifically with the
relation of the two natures in Christ. How, he asked, could the divine
Word "become" flesh (Adv. Prax. 27)? Not, he asserted, by
transforming himself into flesh, because then he would no longer be
divine. Rather, he put on flesh; thus, the divine "substance" and the
human "substance" both constitute the one "person" of Christ.

Like the Apologists, Tertullian posited a two-stage existence in the


Word: First as immanent within the Father, then as expressed at the
Son's generation:

There are some who allege that even Genesis opens thus
in Hebrew: "In the beginning God made for Himself a Son."
As there is no ground for this, I am led to other arguments
derived from God's own dispensation, in which He existed
before the creation of the world, up to the generation of the
Son. For before all things God was alone - being in Himself
and for Himself universe, and space, and all things.
Moreover, He was alone, because there was nothing
external to Him but Himself. Yet even not then was H e
alone; for He had with Him that which He possessed in
Himself, that is to say, His own Reason. For God is
rational, and Reason was first in Him; and so all things
were from Himself. This Reason is His own Thought (or
Consciousness) which the Greeks call logos, by which
term we also designate Word or Discourse and therefore it

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is now usual with our people, owing to the mere simple
interpretation of the term, to say that the Word was in the
beginning with God; although it would be more suita ble to
regard Reason as the more ancient; because God had not
Word from the beginning, but He had Reason even before
the beginning; because also Word itself consists of
Reason, which it thus proves to have been the prior
existence as being its own substan ce.... He became also
the Son of God, and was begotten when He proceeded
forth from Him (from chs. 5,7).

For Tertullian, the Word became the Son of God when it was begotten
of the Father prior to creation. The Son, though God by nature, thus
occupies a subordinate role within the divine economy. Similarly, the
Holy Spirit occupies a status of third rank:

Everything which proceeds from something else must


needs be second to that from which it proceeds, without
being on that account separated. Where, however, there is
a second, there must be two; and where there is a third,
there must be three. Now the Spirit indeed is third from
God and the Son; just as the fruit of the tree is third from
the root, or as the stream out of the river is third from the
fountain, or as the apex of the ray is third from the sun.
Nothing, however, is alien from that original source whence
it derives its own properties. In like manner the Trinity,
flowing down from the Father through intertwined and
connected steps, does not at all disturb the Monarchy,
whilst at the same time guards the state of the Economy
(ch. 9).

As can be seen in this description of the divine economy, the Son and
the Spirit are not divine in a static way but in a dynamic way; they
proceed from the one substance as they have separate tasks to fulfill.
They are three in order and distinction, but one in substance.

The Father is not the same as the Son, since they differ
one from another in the mode of their being. For the Father
is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and
portion of the whole, as He Himself acknowledges: "My
Father is greater than I" [John 14:28]. In the Psalm His
inferiority is described as being "a little lower than the
angels" [Psa. 8:5]. Thus the Father is distinct from the Son,
being greater than the Son, inasmuch as He who begets is
one, and He who is begotten is another;...the Son is also

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distinct from the Father; so that He showed a third degree
in the Paraclete, as we believe the second degree is in the
Son, by reason of the order observed in the Economy (ch.
9).

Considering this language it is easy to see why this is frequently called


"the economic Trinity." Irenaeus of Lyons and Hippolytus of Rome,
other second- and third-century theologians, also thought about the
Trinity in this way.

This changed significantly with the third-century Origen. Although


Origen's Trinity was also hierarchical, the Son and the Spirit being
subordinate to the Father, Origen conceived of the Trinity as God's
eternal mode of being, not as an economy. In sharp contrast to the
Apologists and Tertullian, Origen refused to postulate two stages in the
existence of the Word. Rather, he held that the Word is eternally being
generated by the Father (De princ. 1.2.2).

The idea of subordination within the Trinity has cropped up


occasionally in the history of the Church. It surfaced again, for
example, among early Arminians in Europe. However, most Christians
are not satisfied with assigning the Son and the Spirit subordinate
positions, and many evangelical scholars today prefer to talk about
economic modes within the Trinity as only one aspect of the Trinity.
The Son is described, for example, as voluntarily subordinating himself
to the Father in the incarnation.

The economic Trinity of Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus may not


have been considered fully adequate by the Trinitarian standards of the
fourth century and later, but it was successful in creating an alternative
to the popular modalistic Monarchianism. However, modalism was not
the only Monarchian position in the early Church.

Dynamic Monarchianism

If the modalistic Monarchians sought to defend the absolute unity of


God by denying any distinctions between the three Persons, the
dynamic Monarchians sought to do it by heading in the opposite
direction. Whereas the modalists described the threePersons as
merely different "modes" of the one God, the dynamic Monarchians
described the Father as wholly separate. Dynamic Monarchianism is
also known as "adoptionism," a term which properly designates the
eighth-century Spanish doctrine that Christ's human nature was

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"adopted" by the divine Word. The term is frequently used in a more
broad sense, however, to describe any view of Christ which traces his
Sonship to his resurrection, transfiguration, baptism, or birth.

Dynamic Monarchianism is generally traced to a man named


Theodotus who taught in Rome late in the second century. The best
known dynamic Monarchian is Paul of Samosata, the bishop of Antioch
from 260 to 272. For Paul, the Word was not a Person but an attribute
of God which indwelt the man Jesus. As the synod of Antioch in 268
put it, Paul was "unwilling to acknowledge that the Son of God has
come down from heaven" (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., 7.30.11).

Photinus, the bishop of Sirmium in the mid-fourth century, also taught


that the Word was not a Person. As Chrysostom put it, Photinus
believed "that the Word is an energy, and that it was this energy that
dwelt in Him who was of the seed of David, and not a personal
substance" (Homily VI). According to Sozomen, Photinus
"acknowledged that there was one God Almighty, by whose own word
all things were created, but would not admit that the generation and
existence of the Son was before all ages; on the contrary, he alleged
that Christ derived His existence from Mary" (Eccl. Hist. 4.6).

To support the doctrine that Christ did not preexist his birth, the
Photinians cited 1 Corinthians 15:45 to the effect that Christ was
preceded by Adam. Scriptural texts which may seem to teach Christ's
heavenly origin, the Photinians explained, in reality refer to the
heavenly origin of Christ's teaching and power. They also cited Isaiah
44:6 in defense of their strict monotheism: "This is what the LORD
says - Israel's King and Redeemer, the LORD almighty: I am the first
and the last; apart from me there is no God" (NIV).

This type of Monarchianism was reflected among the Spanish


Bonosians through the seventh century and reappeared in sixteenth-
century Poland among the Socinians. This view of Christ, along with
the next view (Arianism), is known historically as the Unitarian view as
opposed to the Trinitarian view. Modern-day dynamic Monarchians,
who sometimes identify themselves as "Biblical Unitarians" (in contrast
to liberal Unitarian Universalists), include some Adventist churches like
the Church of God General Conference (Morrow, GA), as well as the
Christadelphians, the Way International, and various ministries that
have grown out of the Way, like Christian Educational Services in
Indianapolis, Indiana.

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Arianism

Named for Arius of Alexandria, the Arians taught that the Word was not
eternal. Arius did not believe that the Son is God, but an intermediate
divine being, both in creation and redemption.

The debate broke out between Arius and his bishop Alexander early in
the fourth century and became the subject of the first Ecumenical
Council at Nicaea in A.D. 325, where Arius and his views were
condemned. Athanasius, a deacon to Alexander, continued to oppose
Arius and his views throughout the fourth century. Some of Arius'
teachings have been preserved in Athanasius' polemical works. In the
following passage, Athanasius cites several statements from Arius'
Thalia:

'God was not always a Father;' but 'once God was alone,
and not yet a Father, but afterwards He became a Father.'
'The Son was not always;' for, whereas all things were
made out of nothing, and all existing creatures and works
were made, so the Word of God Himself was 'made out of
nothing,' and 'once He was not,' and 'He was not before
His origination,' but He as others 'had an origin of creation.'
'For God,' he says, 'was alone, and the Word as yet was
not, nor the Wisdom. Then, wishing to form us , thereupon
He made a certain one, and named Him Word and
Wisdom and Son, that He might form us by means of
Him'....Moreover he has dared to say, that 'the Word is not
the very God;' 'though He is called God, yet He is not very
God,' but 'by participation of grace, He, as others, is God
only in name.' And, whereas all beings are foreign and
different from God in essence, so too is 'the Word alien
and unlike in all things to the Father's essence and
propriety,' but belongs to things originated and created,
and is one of these (C. Ar. I.2.5,6).

For Arius, as for the Middle Platonists and the Apologists before him,
the mediatorial activity of the subordinate Word helped to explain how
a transcendent God could relate to the material creation. Arius'
innovation was to argue that the Word was created ex nihilo, "out of
nothing." And though he rejected Origen's view of the eternal
generation of the Son, Arius used other parts of Origen's theology,
particularly his subordinationism, in articulating his own position. For
the Arians, the experiences attributed to Jesus in the Gospels - hunger,
emotion, death - could not have been predicated of the Word had he
been fully divine.

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Arianism has been one of the most common forms of non-
Trinitarianism in Church history. Its spread can be traced through
Europe and into the Reformation period. It has claimed many
distinguished adherents, including John Locke, John Milton, and many
Unitarians. Several Adventist groups today, including Jehovah's
Witnesses, hold to an Arian view of Christ. (For an additional note on
Jehovah's Witnesses, see the Appendix to this article.)

Athanasian Trinitarianism

The controversy over Arius' views prompted Emperor Constantine to


arrange the first Ecumenical Council early in the fourth century. So in
325, over 300 bishops gathered at Nicaea to address the Arian issue
and agree upon a creed.

As we have seen, Arius maintained that the Son was of a different


(heteros) substance from the Father, but Athanasius maintained that
the Son was of the same substance (homoousia). A compromise
suggested by Eusebius of Caesarea, that the Son be considered "of
similar substance" (homoiosia), was in the end rejected. The council's
final creed (which differs from the revised creed of 381) reads as
follows:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all


things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the
substance (ousias) of the Father, God of God, Light of
Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of
one substance (homoousian) with the Father. By whom all
things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth.
Who for us men and our salvation came down [from
heaven] and was incarnate and was made man. He
suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended
into heaven. And he shall come again to judge the quick
and the dead. And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost. And
whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of
God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not,
or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of
a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that
he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion - all
that say so, the Catholic and Apostolic Church
anathematizes them.

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It was on this foundation that Athanasius argued against every form of
subordinationism. Later the Cappadocian Fathers extended the
homoousia concept to the Holy Spirit, completing the doctrine. From
this point on, the dominant viewpoint in the Church by far has been
Athanasian Trinitarianism: One God existing in three distinct Persons,
co-equal, co-eternal, consubstantial.

As spelled out in Athanasius' book The Incarnation of the Word of God,


the primary concern of Trinitarian doctrine is soteriological in nature: In
order for humankind to be saved, God Himself had to become man
and die on the cross. Only then, Athanasius taught, could the gap
between God and humankind be bridged. For Trinitarians, the Son is
the Word of God who was God (John 1:1) yet became flesh (1:14).

Conclusion

During the first four centuries of the Church's history, Christians


speculated, reasoned, argued, fought, and agonized over the doctrine
of Christ. Although the Ecumenical Creeds formally recognized
Athanasian Trinitarianism, each of the Christological options described
above have persisted in the Church. And Christians today study and
debate the doctrine of Christ just as zealously as our early
counterparts.

Angel Christology, modalistic Monarchianism, economic Trinitarianism,


dynamic Monarchianism, Arianism, and Athanasian Trinitarianism all
attempt to grapple with the issue of what Jesus Christ means to us.
Each position has merit, though some admittedly are more meaningful
than others. The important thing to realize is that none of these
theologies in and of themselves constitute the totality of Christian faith,
as some argue. Rather, they are each attempts to understand Jesus
better. As such, each position contains some nugget of truth. The
Jesus who said "I am the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6,
NIV), who is "the First and the Last" (Rev. 1:17), who sustains "all
things by his powerful word" (Heb. 1:3), cannot ultimately be reduced
to a formula or a creed. He is more real than a theology. Whoever
wishes to know Jesus must finally meet him at the foot of the cross,
where Jesus can be recognized as the righteous Son of God who
gives his life for many (Mark 15:39; 10:45). This is all that God requires
we understand (cf. 1 Cor. 2:2; 15:1-3). Beyond that, there is room for
doctrinal diversity in our interpretations.

14
But if each of the views described above is acceptable, how are we to
understand Paul's warnings about another Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 11:4)? The
article Heresy and Unity deals with this critical question.

One may also ask how Christians with different theologies can claim
equal trust in the same Scriptures, or how we can fellowship and work
together when so many Christians have divided and fought over these
very issues through the centuries. The answer to this question will be
illustrated in the next article, Jesus and the Trinity (2). Also, the article,
The Basis for Christian Fellowship addresses these questions.

Appendix: Cults?

It is difficult to discuss the theology of Jehovah's Witnesses without


also asking whether their organization, the Watchtower, is a religious
cult as most Christians maintain. Many evangelical Protestants, like the
late Walter Martin, define a "cult" as any group that holds to a different
theology. Frequently a version of the Trinity is the watershed issue.
This definition, however, is subjective and prone to abuse. It is easy to
define ourselves as being "correct" and everyone who disagrees as
being "wrong."

I propose a much healthier approach. Rather than focus on creeds and


labels, we would do far better to consider more practical spiritual
matters. Is any given church legalistic, authoritarian, divisive? That's
the issue. Such churches and groups are capable of inflicting deep
psychological damage. In the case of the Watchtower, my problem is
not so much with their theology as with their authoritarianism. Any
member who begins to develop an opinion contrary to the organization
is excluded and ignored. Good Christian Jehovah's Witnesses are
denied their relationships with family and friends. If a Jehovah's
Witness' life is invested in the organization - if everything and everyone
she knows and holds dear is bound up with the group - then exclusion
can be a very terrible experience indeed. This bondage is a far cry
from the liberating truth represented by Jesus, who loves us
unconditionally whether we get our theology right or not.

Partial Bibliography

Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries. Grand Rapids, MI:


Zondervan Publishing House, 1954, reprint 1978.

15
Grillmeier, A. Christ in Christian Tradition, Vol. 1: From the Apostolic
Age to Chalcedon (451). 2nd ed. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975.

Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines. San Francisco: Harper & Row,
Publishers, 1978.

Lampe, G.W.H. "Christian Theology in the Patristic Period." A History


of Christian Doctrine. Ed. By H. Cunliffe-Jones. Philadelphia: Fortress
Press, 1978.

Citation of 2 Clement from J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, eds., The
Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House), 1891,
reprint 1984. All other citations are from Alexander Roberts and James
Donaldson, editors, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), and Philip Schaff and Henry
Wace, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, Michigan:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.).

Jesus and the Trinity (2)


by Mark M. Mattison

Whereas Jesus and the Trinity (1) was primarily historical and
theological, this article is primarily practical and Scriptural. Some Bible
students may be more interested in the different positions, or
concerned to determine the most accurate view, or uncertain how
Christians of the various theological positions can get along. All of
these questions will be addressed in the form of a fictional short story
based on my own personal experiences.

The characters and their beliefs represent very different movements,


and are entirely plausible. The main character is Sam the Seeker, who
has called together four of his friends to question them about their
beliefs. The friends are Thomas the Trinitarian, an Evangelical; Annie
the Arian, an Adventist; David the dynamic Monarchian, who describes
himself as a Biblical Unitarian; and Michelle the modalist, a
charismatic. The setting is a table in a bowling alley, and the characters
are sharing cheese and nachos between games.

"That's what I said," Sam chuckled as he reached for another cheese-


laden nacho. "Really, I've been reading up on the topic but I still don't
know what to believe. And I don't see how each of you can get along
so well despite your radically different ideas about who Jesus is."

16
"I don't know that our views are that radically different," Thomas said. "I
understand where you're coming from, though. There was a time when
I believed that only Trinitarians could be saved. It wasn't until I got to
know Michelle that I realized that other interpretations were possible.
She still loves Jesus, even if she does speak in tongues." With a wink
he playfully jabbed her shoulder, and she responded with a sardonic
grin.

"Tom had a hard time understanding my view at first," Michelle


interjected. "But after we discussed it for a few hours he began to see
where I was coming from."

"Where are you coming from?" Sam asked. "What's your position?"

"Well," she said, "My position is really very simple: 'Hear, O Israel: The
Lord our God is one Lord.' Deuteronomy 6:4. That's it right there. God
is one, not three or three-in-one. And Jesus is God, right? That means
that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — they're all the same.
There's no difference between Jesus and the Father. In fact Jesus said
it himself: 'I and my Father are one.'"

"How do you understand that?" Sam asked Tom.

"Well she's quoting John chapter 10 verse 30. If you were to look at the
original Greek in that verse, you'd see that the word for 'one' is neuter,
not masculine. To me that says not that Jesus and the Father are one
Person, but rather that they are one in substance. They're distinct
Persons, but they're both equally God."

"Another way to look at that," said Annie, putting down her soft drink,
"is that Jesus and the Father are of the same mind. They're perfectly
united in will. Seven chapters later, in John 17:21-23, Jesus prayed
that we, too, would be 'one,' just as he and his Father are 'one.' That
tells me that the 'oneness' represents unity."

"Well whatever the 'oneness' there is," Tom said, "what really got me
about Michelle's position is that she does have some other very good
verses. Like Isaiah 9:6. I know how I interpret it, but I can definitely see
how it could support her view."

"What does that verse say?" Sam asked.

"That's where Isaiah prophesies that Jesus will be called 'Wonderful,


Counselor, The mighty God, The Everlasting Father," said Michelle.
"That means that not only is Jesus God; he's the Father, literally."

17
"How do you understand that?" Sam asked Tom as he reached for
another nacho.

"Well," Tom said, "Obviously I agree that Jesus is God. But is he


literally the Father? To me that wouldn't seem consistent with the rest
of the Bible, which implies a distinction. Perhaps the phrase
'Everlasting Father' is a way of saying that Jesus will be like the 'father'
of the restored earth. One ancient Greek translation of Isaiah 9:6
renders it that way. It says that he will be called 'Father of the age to
come."

"That's the way I look at it, too," David said.

Sam turned next to Annie. "You've said that you don't think Jesus is
really God. How then do you explain the fact that Isaiah 9:6 says he
will be called 'Mighty God'? Doesn't that settle the issue?"

"Well the word 'god' is used in a secondary sense of important people


and of God's representatives," Annie answered. "As Jesus pointed out,
for example, Psalm 82:6 calls Israel's judges 'gods.' Now the Hebrew
word for 'god' in Isaiah 9:6 is also used to describe king
Nebuchadnezzar in Ezekiel 31:11. And the word for 'mighty' in that
verse is used in Ezekiel 32:12 to describe Nebuchadnezzar's armies.
So the term 'mighty god' there doesn't have to mean that Jesus is
literally Jehovah. I've seen some translators render that phrase 'mighty
hero.' I think that catches the meaning of what Isaiah is saying: Jesus,
the Messiah, is mighty.

"Besides that," she went on, stopping for a moment to sip her soft
drink, "Jesus is the Word and Wisdom of God, right? And what does
Proverbs 8:22 say?" She pulled out her New International Version
pocket New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs, and flipped through
the pages to Proverbs 8:22. "Wisdom says, 'The LORD brought me
forth as the first of his works.' Jesus was the first created being of God.
Then look at verse 30, describing the creation: 'Then I was the
craftsman at his side.' After God created Jesus, Jesus was involved in
creating the earth. Notice that there are two of them there."

"Two of them?" asked Sam with a frown. "Isn't that like polytheism −
two different Gods?"

"Not if only one of them is God, and the other one is his Son," she
replied.

18
"There is another way to look at Proverbs 8," said David, himself
reaching for a nacho. He held it in front of him as he talked. "Keep in
mind that we're dealing with poetical literature. I think that 'Wisdom'
there is a figure of speech, a personification of one of God's attributes.
It's not Jesus. After all, 'Wisdom' is a woman, whereas Jesus is a man.
And look at verse 12," he said, glancing over at Annie's open pocket
Bible. "'I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence.' If 'Wisdom' is Jesus,
who's 'Prudence'?"

Tom smiled. "Good point."

"Well," continued Annie, there's Colossians 1:15." She flipped through


her tiny pocket Bible's pages and produced the passage. "'He is the
image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all
things were created.' If Jesus was the 'firstborn of all creation,' doesn't
that mean he was the first created being? And doesn't it go on to say
that he created the earth, Dave?"

"Well," David began, having consumed his nacho, "to begin with, I
don't think the point of this passage is the pre-existence of Christ. I
think we can all agree that the point of the passage is the pre-
eminence of Christ. Seen in that light, I think the term 'firstborn' is more
a way of describing the fact that Jesus, like the firstborn son in Hebrew
tradition, inherits certain privileges — in this case preeminence. I also
think it's a reference to his resurrection, like in verse 18, 'the firstborn
from among the dead.'"

"How do you explain verse 16, which says that Christ created the
world?" Sam asked.

"I'm not so sure it's translated correctly, for one thing," he replied. The
word here translated 'by' is actually the word for 'in.' I've always
preferred the translation of the New Revised Standard Version. It says,
'for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created....all things
have been created through him and for him." God created everything
with Jesus in mind − but the Bible never actually says that the world
was created by Jesus. Isaiah 44:24 says that God alone created the
earth."

"But that seems like an unnatural way to interpret that preposition


'through,'" Tom interrupted. "If God created the earth 'through' Christ,
doesn't that mean that he was an agent?"

"Well, I'll admit that, grammatically speaking, that's the most natural
way to understand the word 'through.' But again, there are other

19
verses, like Isaiah 44:24, that settle the issue for me. Having said that,
there is yet another way to understand that verse. You'll notice it talks
about the creation of thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers; all
spiritual realities. It doesn't talk about rocks and trees and lakes. It's
very possible this could be talking about Jesus as the creator of the
new creation too."

"Well, Tom," said Sam, "I haven't really asked you to state your position
yet. In a positive way, how would you describe your view that Christ,
being fully God, yet came to the earth and became human?"

"May I borrow your New Testament?" Tom asked Annie. She slid it
across the table to him. He flipped it open to the first part of
Philippians. "In Philippians 2:6 and 7, Paul writes about Jesus, 'Who,
being in very nature God, did not consider equalitywith God something
to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a
servant, being made in human likeness.' To me that says it all. Jesus
shared the very nature or substance of God, but he gave up his
heavenly glory, coming down to earth to become human."

"How do you interpret that?" Sam asked David.

"Well again, I'd have to question the translation," David said as Tom
smiled. "Does the Greek word in verse 6 mean 'nature,' as the NIV has
it, or 'form,' as the New American Standard Version has it? If the latter,
then what does it mean to say that Jesus was in the 'form' of God, but
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped? I think
there's a comparison being made with Adam, who was created in the
image of God but who sinned in Eden, grasping at equality with God.
By contrast, Jesus, who like Adam was created in the image or form of
God, chose not to grasp at equality with God, but chose rather to
humble himself, subjecting himself to our lowly estate and going to the
cross for our sins."

"Well it's true that Jesus humbled himself," Tom said, "But it's also true
that Jesus was the Word who was God in the beginning. And that Word
became flesh. That's in John chapter 1."

"What do you think of that, Annie?" Sam asked.

"Seeing as there's no article for the word 'god' in the Greek," she
replied, "I think it should be translated, 'The Word was a god.'"

"I don't think that's a likely translation," said Tom.

20
"How about you, Dave?" Sam asked. "What do you think about John
chapter 1?"

"I agree with Tom that it shouldn't read 'The Word was a god,' David
said. "But as with Wisdom in Proverbs 8, I have doubts about whether
it's talking about the Person of Jesus or about a personification, about
God's expression. After all, God did create the heavens and the earth
by 'his word'; he said 'Let there be light' and the rest of it. And that
Word became flesh in Jesus."

"How about you, Michelle?" Sam asked. "How do you interpret this
chapter of the Bible? Isn't the Word distinguished from God?"

"I agree with Dave's interpretation of that chapter," she said. "As you
know, for Dave and Annie the Father is the only God, and Jesus is
separate. But I believe that in reality there is no separation, as Jesus is
the Father. As the Father, Jesus always existed and alone created the
earth — like Isaiah 44:24 says. When we talk about Jesus as the
Father, we're talking about his deity. When we talk about him as the
Son, we're talking about his humanity. Jesus was both God and man,
both Father and Son. But if his Sonship is his humanity, then it isn't
proper to talk about the Son existing in the beginning, as if there were
two Creators. So the Word through which God created the world — I
don't believe the Word was actually a separate Person, but God's
expression, a way of talking about his divine plan. This plan became
flesh when the Father — that is, Jesus — was incarnated as the Son."

Sam toyed with that thought as he played with another nacho. Then,
breaking the silence, turned to Annie. "I'm getting the idea about how
each of you interpret the main chapters — Isaiah 9, Proverbs 8,
Colossians 1, Philippians 2, John 1 — but let me try to see the forest
and not just the trees. Annie, you've made it clear that you do think
Jesus personally existed with God in the beginning, but you don't
believe he is literally God. What's the underlying principle behind that
doctrine?"

Annie retrieved her pocket NIV from Tom and flipped it open to 1
Timothy 2. "For me it's all spelled out in 1 Timothy 2:5. There Paul
writes, 'For there is one God and one mediator between God and men,
the man Christ Jesus.' Now let's illustrate this point with my soda and
your nachos. If I were to say, there's only one soda pop, and one plate
of nachos, and — " she interposed a pepper shaker between the two
— "one pepper dispenser between the soda and the chips — then
would I be able to say that the pepper is the pop? For God to reach a

21
sinful race, there needs to be a mediator. And a mediator is a go-
between. Jesus isn't God but the mediator for God."

"So you're saying that your Christology has a soteriological basis," Tom
said.

"I think so — what does 'soteriological' mean again?" Annie asked.

"Having to do with salvation," Tom answered. "My Christology also has


a soteriological basis. I believe the only way for God to bridge the gap
is to combine deity and humanity into one. That's why I believe Jesus
is God and man. God is the only being whose death can have saving
value. That's why Jesus, the God-man, died on the cross."

"God died on the cross — I can agree with that," Michelle said.

"Well," said Dave, "I understand your point. But what I see in the New
Testament is a little bit different. I don't see anything that says God has
to die in order for salvation to be wrought. Rather, what I see is that a
sinless human person needed to die to fulfill God's covenant
requirements. Hebrews chapter 2, for example, says that Jesus had to
be a man in order to die an effective death — it doesn't say he had to
be God. Now why is that? If we consider Paul's comparison of Christ
with Adam in Philippians 2, Romans 5, and 1 Corinthians 15, I think the
picture begins to emerge. Sin entered the world through a real man;
hence it had to be conquered through a real man. That's how I
understand it."

Sam put down his last nacho with a sigh. "Okay, I'm starting to go into
'information overload.' All this talk about the Greek and the Hebrew and
translations and interpretations — and so many different opinions —
you guys have been studying this for years. I just feel frustrated. Who's
correct?"

Sam's friends pondered in silence. Tom finally broke the silence. "If you
feel that you need to figure all of this out, then by all means keep
studying. But remember that when all is said and done, it's Jesus who
saves you, not your ability to figure him out. That's why, for example, I
believe Michelle and Annie and Dave can all be saved, even though in
my opinion they haven't understood the doctrine correctly."

"I agree," said Michelle. "I believe I'm right in what I believe, but these
others haven't come to the same conclusion. I believe they're sincere
and that they've studied hard, and that Jesus is pleased with them.

22
After all, all of us are wrong about something. And who knows? Maybe
I'm the one who hasn't interpreted all the verses correctly."

"The fact is that we all have tons of Scripture to back up what we


believe," David said. "And we're all trying to be biblical. That's one of
the reasons we have such good fellowship. We pray together and for
each other on a regular basis. And when our churches have combined
services, we really enjoy worshipping together."

"And talking a lot," said Annie. "See? We've lost our lane. Someone
else has moved in there."

"As long as we don't miss the real point," Tom added, "which is the fact
that Jesus loves us, whether or not we get all our theology figured out."

"I like the sound of what you're saying," Sam said, "but how would you
respond to the idea that each of you has a 'different Jesus'? After all
your views are so different."

David thought about that a moment. "I don't think we each believe in a
'different' Jesus. We just don't understand everything about him in
exactly the same way. Sure, we can't all be right about the details, but
we all have a very good idea of who he i s — the revelation of the
loving Father, the chosen Messiah and Son of God."

Sam looked thoughtful but didn't reply, so David continued.

"Think of it this way. You know Frank the mailman?"

"Oh sure," Sam said.

"You know where he's from?"

"Well he has that accent. And considering the spelling of his last name
— I'd say Germany."

"Wrong," David said. "He's from Switzerland."

"So what's the point?" Sam asked.

"My point is that we both know Frank. We had different ideas about the
exact identification of his origin, but it's still the same Frank. I wouldn't
ever think about telling you that you know 'another Frank' because you
didn't understand everything about him. So it is with Jesus. Each of us
here has a relationship with Jesus, even though we may not
completely agree on, or even understand, everything about him. But

23
we do know the basics: We know that he is truly God's Son, and that
he died on the cross to save us from our sins, however that works."

24