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."
"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."
"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.
"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 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.
"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 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. 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 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."
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