Thursday, December 18, 2008

Errors Concerning the Trinity

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the Trinity is of the devil, and that Jesus is a 'lesser god' than Jehovah God (they also believe that Jesus is Michael the Archangel).

Mormons believe that God the Father is made up of flesh and bone, and is an evolved human being, and that a 'good Mormon' can someday become a god and create their own universe. If you accuse them of polytheism (worshiping many gods), they will deny it and say that they only worship one god, because they only worship the god of THIS universe. But in fact, they actually are taught that there are countless billions of gods. They believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers, and that Jesus was sexually conceived by Jehovah God having sex with one of his many wives. They believe that the Holy Spirit is merely a force.

Modalism

Although cults completely deny the Trinity, or change it into something completely different, many Christians get the Trinity wrong as well, and fall into error. There are various errors concerning the Trinity that Christians fall into. One such example is called Modalism.

Modalism is probably the most common theological error concerning the nature of God. It is a denial of the Trinity which states that God is a single person who, throughout biblical history, has revealed Himself in three modes, or forms. Thus, God is a single person who first manifested himself in the mode of the Father in Old Testament times. At the incarnation, the mode was the Son. After Jesus' ascension, the mode is the Holy Spirit. These modes are consecutive and never simultaneous. In other words, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit never all exist at the same time, only one after another. Modalism denies the distinctiveness of the three persons in the Trinity, even though it retains the divinity of Christ. Present day groups that hold to forms of this error are the United Pentecostal and United Apostolic Churches. They deny the Trinity, teach that the name of God is Jesus, and require baptism for salvation. These modalist churches often accuse Trinitarians of teaching three gods. This is not what the Trinity is. The correct teaching of the Trinity is one God in three eternal coexistent persons: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Did Jesus exist before his human birth? What or who was Jesus before his incarnation? Was he the God of the Old Testament?

In order to understand who Jesus was, we first should understand the basic doctrine of the Trinity. The Bible teaches us that God is one and only one being. This tells us that whoever or whatever Jesus was before his human incarnation, he could not have been a separate God from the Father.

While God is one being, he exists eternally as three coequal and coeternal Persons, whom we know as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In order to understand how the Trinity doctrine describes the nature of God, we must keep in mind the difference between the words "Being" and "Person." This distinction has been put in the following terms: there is but one what of God (that is, his Being) but there are three whos within the one being of God, that is, the three divine Persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Being we call the one God has an eternal relationship within himself of Father to Son. The Father has always been the Father and the Son has always been the Son. And, of course, the Holy Spirit has always been the Holy Spirit. One Person in the Godhead has not preceded the other, and neither is one Person inferior to the other in his essence. All three divine Persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—share the one being of God. The Trinity doctrine explains that Jesus was not created sometime prior to his incarnation, but existed eternally as God.

There are, then, three pillars to the Trinitarian understanding of God’s nature. First, only one true God exists, who is Yahweh (YHWH) of the Old Testament or theos of the New Testament—the Creator of all that exists. The second pillar of this teaching is that God is made up of three divine Persons, who are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father or Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. The third pillar tells us that these three distinct (but not separate) persons equally share the one divine being, God, and that they are eternal, co-equal and co-essential. Thus, God is one in essence and one in being, but exists in three persons. (We must always be careful not to understand the "Persons" of the Godhead like persons in the human sphere, where one person is separate from another.)

It is acknowledged that there is something about God as Trinity that transcends our finite understanding. Scripture does not explain how it is that the one God can exist as the Trinity. It only affirms that this is so.

Granted, how the Father and the Son can be one being seems difficult for us humans to understand. That’s why it’s important to keep in mind the distinction between person and essence, which the doctrine of the Trinity makes. This distinction tells us that there is a difference between the way God is one and the way that he is three. Simply put, God is one in essence and three in persons. If we keep that distinction at the front of our discussion, we will avoid being confounded by the seeming (but not real) contradiction in the biblical truth that God is one being in three Persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

A physical analogy, though an imperfect one, might help us understand. There is but one pure light, and that is white light. But white light can be broken down into three primary colors—red, green and blue. Each of the three primary colors does not exist apart from the other primary colors—they are included within the one light, which is white. There is but one complete light that we call white light, but this light contains three distinct but not separate primary colors.

The above explanation gives us the essential basis of the Trinity, which provides the perspective to understand who or what Jesus was before he became human flesh. Once we understand the relationship that has always existed within the one God, we can proceed to answer the question of who Jesus was before his incarnation and physical birth.

Jesus’ Eternality and Pre-Existence in John’s Gospel

The pre-existence of Christ is clearly stated in John 1:1-4: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life…" It is this Word or Logos in Greek who became incarnate in Jesus. "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us," John tells us (verse 14).

The eternal, uncreated Word who was God, and yet was with God as one of the Persons of the Godhead, became a human being. Note that the Word "was" God but "became" a human being. The Word never came into being, that is, he didn’t "become" the Word. He always was the Word, or God. The Word’s existence is open-ended. He has always existed.

As Donald Macleod points out in The Person of Christ: "He is sent forth as one who already has being, not as one who comes into being by being sent" (page 55). Macleod further states: "In the New Testament, Jesus’ existence as a man is a continuation of his previous or prior existence as a heavenly being. The Word who dwelt among us is the same as the Word who was with God. The Christ who is found in form as a man is the very one who previously existed in the form of God" (page 63). It is the Word or the Son of God who takes flesh, not the Father or the Holy Spirit.

Yahweh

In the Old Testament, the most common name for God is Yahweh, which comes from the Hebrew consonants YHWH (called a tetragrammaton). It was Israel’s national name for God, the ever-living, self-existent Creator. In time, the Jews began to consider the name of God, YHWH, as too sacred to be pronounced. The Hebrew word adonay ("my Lord") or Adonai was substituted. Hence, in English Bibles, we see the word "Lord" used where YHWH appears in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Yahweh is the most common name of God found in the Old Testament, being used over 6800 times in reference to him. Another name for God in the Old Testament is Elohim, which is used over 2500 times, as in the phrase "the Lord God" (YHWH Elohim).

In the New Testament, there are many scriptures where the writers apply to Jesus passages that were written in reference to Yahweh in the Old Testament. The practice of the New Testament writers is so common that its significance may escape us. By using Yahweh scriptures for Jesus, these writers are implying that Jesus was Yahweh, or God, made flesh. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised that the writers make this comparison, because Jesus himself explained that Old Testament passages applied to him (Luke 24:25-27, 44-47; John 5:39-40, 45-46).

John makes a clear connection between Jesus and Yahweh, the name of God in the Old Testament. But John does not equate Jesus with the Father (and neither do the other Gospels). Jesus, for example, prays to the Father (John 17:1-15). John understands that the Son is distinct from the Father—and he also sees that both are distinct from the Holy Spirit (John 14:15, 17, 25; 15:26). Since that is so, John’s identification of Jesus as God, or Yahweh (if we think of his Hebrew, Old Testament name), is a Trinitarian explanation of God’s being.

"I Am"

In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples: "I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am He" (13:19). The phrase "I am He" is translated from the Greek ego eimi. The phrase occurs 24 times in John’s Gospel. At least seven of these are said to be "absolute" in that they are not followed by a predicate, such as in John 6:35, "I am the bread of life." In the seven absolute cases, no predicate follows, and the "I AM" phrase comes at the end of the clause. This indicates that Jesus is using this phrase as a name to identify who he is. The seven places are John 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19; 18:5, 6 and 8.

If we go back to Isaiah 41:4, 43:10 and 46:4, we can see the background for Jesus’ reference to himself in John’s Gospel as ego eimi ("I AM"). In Isaiah 41:4, God or Yahweh says: "I, the Lord…I am he." In Isaiah 43:10 he says "I am he," and later says, "‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the Lord, ‘that I am God’" (verse 12). In 46:4, God (Yahweh) again refers to himself as "I am he."

The Hebrew phrase "I am he" is translated in the Greek version of the Holy Scriptures, the Septuagint (which the apostles used), by the phrase ego eimi in Isaiah 41:4; 43:10; and 46:4. It seems clear that Jesus’ made the "I am he" statements as references to himself because they directly connected to God’s (Yahweh’s) statements about himself in Isaiah. John said, in effect, that Jesus was saying he was God in the flesh (John 1:1, 14, which introduces the Gospel and speaks of the Word’s divinity and incarnation, prepares us for this fact.)

John’s ego eimi ("I Am") identification of Jesus can also be carried back to Exodus 3, in which God identifies himself as the "I Am." Here we read: "God [Hebrew, elohim] said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: "I AM has sent me to you"’" (verse 14).

John repeats Jesus’ identification of himself as the "I AM" of the Old Testament. Since there is but one God, and John would have understood that, then we are left with the proposition that there must be two persons sharing the one nature that is God. With the Holy Spirit, also discussed by John in chapters 14-17, we have the basis of the Trinity.

To put aside all doubt about John’s identification of Jesus with Yahweh, we may quote John 12:37-41, which says:

Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: "Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" For this reason they could not believe, because as Isaiah says elsewhere: "He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them." Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.

The quotes above that John used come from Isaiah 53:1 and 6:10. The prophet originally spoke his words in regards to Yahweh. John says that what Isaiah actually saw was "Jesus’ glory" and that he "spoke of him." For John the apostle, then, Jesus was Yahweh in the flesh; before his human birth he was known as Yahweh.

(Most of the above information is from: http://www.wcg.org/lit/jesus/whowas.htm)

8 comments:

satire and theology said...

'If you accuse them of polytheism (worshiping many gods), they will deny it and say that they only worship one god, because they only worship the god of THIS universe. But in fact, they actually are taught that there are countless billions of gods.'

Yes, henotheism.

'The Trinity doctrine explains that Jesus was not created sometime prior to his incarnation, but existed eternally as God.'

Very good, Jeff.

Russ

Jeff said...

Russ,

Hey, you taught me a new word! Henotheism...I had never heard of that before. (Despite my blog title, Theology, at least as a discipline, is not a subject I have studied in college, in and of itself.)

I was able to guess its meaning by the context you used it in, but I looked it up on Wikipedia to more fully understand it. I am pasting a brief summary here, partially for my own reference, and partially for anyone reading this who may not already know the definition:

"Henotheism (Greek εἷς θεός heis theos "one god") is a term coined by Max Müller, to mean worshiping a single god while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities. Müller made the term central to his criticism of Western theological and religious exceptionalism (relative to Eastern religions), focusing on a cultural dogma which held "monotheism" to be both fundamentally well-defined and inherently superior to differing conceptions of God.

Variations on the term have been "inclusive monotheism" and "monarchical polytheism", designed to differentiate differing forms of the phenomenon. Related terms are monolatrism and kathenotheism, which are typically understood as sub-types of henotheism. The latter term is an extension of "henotheism", from καθ' ἕνα θεόν (kath' hena theon) —"one god at a time". Henotheism is similar but less exclusive than monolatry because a monolator worships only one god, while the henotheist may worship any within the pantheon, depending on circumstances. In some belief systems, the choice of the supreme deity within a henotheistic framework may be determined by cultural, geographical, historical or political reasons."

"Henotheism is closely related to the theistic concept of Monolatry, which is also the worship of one god among many. The primary difference between the two is that Henotheism is the worship of one god, not precluding the existence of others who may also be worthy of praise, while Monolatry is the worship of one god who alone is worthy of worship, though other gods are known to exist. Henotheism thus supposes to know less about divine matters, and Monolatry more."

John H said...

"Mormons believe that God the Father is made up of flesh and bone, and is an evolved human being, and that a 'good Mormon' can someday become a god and create their own universe. If you accuse them of polytheism (worshiping many gods), they will deny it and say that they only worship one god, because they only worship the god of THIS universe. But in fact, they actually are taught that there are countless billions of gods. They believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers, and that Jesus was sexually conceived by Jehovah God having sex with one of his many wives. They believe that the Holy Spirit is merely a force."

I'm sorry to say, but you got mixed up here between what Jehovah's witnesses believe and what Mormons believe. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that it is reasonable, based on the first verse in the book of John, that Jesus existed before the world was, but they have no doctrine concerning it. They call God the Father, Jehovah.

Mormons believe that God the Father, "made" spiritual children. There is no doctrine to indicate that it was a sexual act. It only makes sense that if we are created in the image of God, that, although likely in a far more glorified and finer way, the method of reproducing is likely at least similar. We do believe, however, that we were all created spiritually, i.e. no bodies, such as what the Father has. In my imagination, if sex was used, the children would be born similarly to how they are born here with bodies. To say that God produced us sexually falls outside of established Mormon doctrine.

The real problem with what you wrote comes when you say that Mormons believe the holy spirit is merely a force. That is Jehovah's Witness doctrine. Mormons believe in a type of trinity. We believe that we are all eternal. We may not have always had spirits, or bodies, but we have always existed individually. We do believe that God organized us into spirits. When we say us at this time we do include Jesus and Satan. We were all organized by the Father, therefore we are all brothers and sisters, spiritually. We believe that we wanted to have bodies such as what we saw that God possessed. Therefore, he designed a way for us to get them. Bodies are not by nature easy to deal with, so he knew we would need a saviour. He asked his children which of them would be willing to give his life for the benefit of the rest. Jesus stepped forth and volunteered and wanted all of the glory to go to the Father. Satan also stepped forth but he wanted to ensure that everyone would return with a body at the sacrifice of our freedom of choice and that he would get all of the glory. This was not acceptable, so Satan was mad and took a third of the hosts of heaven and a war in heaven was raged. Satan and his followers were cast off to the world to never receive bodies and now seek to ruin those of us who did not turn away. Jesus thus became the saviour and now dwells on the right hand of God the Father. We know the name of Jesus to have been Jehovah before he was born to Mary. Nothing evil can endure the presence of God the Father, therefore it was necessary that all dealings with man be through someone else, i.e. Jehovah or the Holy Ghost. We believe also that we required extra help to offset the presence of Satan and his followers, the Holy Ghost. To us the Holy Ghost is a spiritual person who put off receiving a body until later, so he could serve the mission of the Holy Comforter. We believe that all truth is brought to our hearts and minds by the power of the Holy Ghost. The prophet, Joseph Smith saw in his first vision, God the Father and to his right Jesus Christ and felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. We know through this experience that although we love Jesus Christ who has attained, or evolved to, Godhood and we love the Holy Spirit for the role he continually plays, we worship and give glory only to God the Father as Jesus desired. We pray to the Father, and we recognize that the only way to return to live with the Father is through his Son, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit leads and guides us to Jesus Christ. They are one God only by the fact that they are all working with the same knowledge and love for us to the same goal. They are definitely co-existent as is evident at Jesus' baptism. Jesus was in the flesh, God the Father spoke from heaven and the Holy Ghost descended as gently as a dove. Also ask yourself, "Why did Jesus need to be resurrected?"

The idea of the trinity is the greatest compromise man has ever invented. The Bible is unclear about the nature of God and therefore a bunch of Bishops had to get together in Nice or Athens to try and resolve the issue. The question was "Is God one person or is there three of them?" The result was the Nicene or Athenatian creed, which are separate creeds but both state basically that "God is both one and three." It also says that God doesn't have body, parts or passions. Again, what's with the resurrection? Why would we want to be resurrected? This is the doctrine we do not embrace and for that we are called non-Christian. The notion is man-made and therefore difficult to understand. God is easy for even children to understand.

I will not give any references and deny you the privilege of doing your own research. I will point you to www.mormon.org though.

I mean no disrespect, but when you blatantly mix up my beliefs with beliefs of others I just have to say something.

Thank you for the clarification between modalism and true trinitarianism. I especially enjoyed the comparison to the three primary colors in the white light (difficult for children to understand, but not bad). I don't have a problem being called a henotheist. It is the same as the commandment to obey our mother and father, we obey our mother and father but accept that there are other mothers and fathers out there. Not Monolatry, though, as it is not possible that any other God could be more worthy.

Jeff said...

John H,

Thank you for the clarification of Mormon beliefs and how they differ from the beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses.

The reason I said "sexually conceived" is because I understand the LDS church to believe that a 'good' Mormon can one day be married to many wives and become a god, and that their children will be the spirit-children who will wait to inhabit the bodies of those born on the planet of whatever universe they rule. But apparently what you are saying is that "sexually conceived" is not specifically stated in Mormon doctrine. In other words, there is no official doctrine that lays out the specific details, in that regard.

It does seem like a contradiction, however. If the God of this universe is flesh and bone like us, and is an evolved man, how could his children, conceived by one of his wives, be 'spirit' children who await a physical body to inhabit when a baby is born on earth? In other words, how could their offspring be spiritual if they themselves are physical?

Also, what do you mean when you say "God organized us into spirits?"

Another question is: if Mormons can potentially become gods and rule their own universes, and if the God of this universe was once a man, meaning that this process has been going on for some time, then where did the first man come from, that evolved into the first god? I'm assuming you believe that God created the universe (though apparently Mormons believe it was through an evolutionary process), so if there was no god before the first god, who created that universe?

As far as why Jesus had to be resurrected, the resurrection validates Jesus' own claims to be God and have the power over death itself. God gave Elijah and Elisha the power to raise people from the dead. Jesus raised people from the dead, and He also gave his disciples the power to do so. It is consistent, then, that He Himself, should also be raised.

His death wasn't deserved. He never sinned, and yet He died a sinner's death on the cross (to pay for other's sins). He had predicted that He would rise again. His resurrection validates prophecies that He made, and that were made about Him, and His resurrection shows that He is God. Jesus proved His word to be trustworthy in this regard, so, it validates His other claims and statements.

It proves He is and was Who He said He was: God the Son. "I am the one and only Son and death cannot hold me - watch - three days in the grave and I shall be raised." It proves the power of God, and it proves that He was and is God.

The Jews of the time were expecting a Messiah who would overthrow their current political regime. Jesus is the Messiah, but, they were looking for the wrong thing. His death and resurrection demonstrate (and fulfill) messianic prophesies from the Old Testament, proving His claim upon the title. His death shattered all hopes of the political victory they were looking for. Instead, the resurrection shows that the Messiah was and is far greater than what the Jews were supposing He would be (i.e., not just a political leader or a victorious military leader, but God Himself).

When pressed for 'a sign,' Jesus said everyone would have only the "sign of Jonah" - the Old Testament prophet who spent three days inside a fish before being spat out.

Jesus spoke of a future resurrection coming to all believers. His own is a foretaste of what is to come. His was the first resurrection, but all believers will be resurrected to eternal life.

The resurrection changes things from simply trying to do one's best to follow the sayings of a dead leader [however great they may have been] to something where the living leader walks alongside to show the way, to aid and support the believer in all that lies ahead. Not only that, but that 'living leader' dwells within [lives inside] every born-again believer.

Jeff said...

Regarding the Trinity and the creeds:

The creeds were formulated in an effort to settle controversies. They needed a standard by which to test heretical opinions. A rule of faith (assuming different forms in different churches, and reached its present form about 750) generally taught that Christ, the Son of God, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, and died, was buried, rose again, and ascended into Heaven for the remission of sins. This rule of faith has come to be called the Apostles’ Creed.

About 318 Arius, an elder of Alexandria, was torn doctrinally between a desire to maintain the monotheist principle of Christianity on the one hand and a wish to preserve Christ as an independent being on the other. So he began to teach that Christ was different in essence from the Father---that the Father created Jesus and that Jesus did not exist prior to that. Athanasius, archdeacon of Alexandrai, rose to meet this challenge, and asserted that Christ and the Father were the same in essence, and that the Son was eternal. (If Christ were a mere creature, faith in him could not bring salvation to humanity. As a man, he could suffer the penalty for another human being, but that substitutionary suffering could not have value for all mankind unless the quality of infinity was linked to humanity in the God-man. In other words, a mere man cannot accomplish the redemption of all mankind. Though a man might pay a penalty for himself or a limited number of others, it took the linkage of the divine with the human in the God-man to make the payment of the penalty effective for an infinite number of human beings.)

A synod at Alexandria deposed Arius in 321, but Arius was able to win over some of the leading churchmen of the East. Finally, Constantine felt obliged to step in and restore harmony. In 325, Constantine called an ecumenical council at Nicea, where over 300 bishops and a number of dignitaries were present. A creed was drawn up declaring that the Son was the same in essence with the Father, the only begotten (not made) of the Father, and very God of very God.

There were actually 6 ecumenical councils, over a period of 128 years, which addressed these issues, and in which a number of creeds were formulated. Some of the controversies had to do with the nature of Christ (i.e., if Christ was both fully divine and fully human, how were the two natures related in one person?), some with the Holy Spirit, and one with the nature of man.

Jeff said...

The word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible, although the concept is there (just as words such as “omnipotent,” “omnipresent” and “omniscient” are not in the Bible, though they are terms we use to describe attributes of God). Biblical scholars merely gave the concept a name so it would be easy to refer to. God is three Persons Who are neither three Gods, nor are they three parts or modes of God. They are, rather, co-equally and co-eternally God, though they fulfill different roles. God exists in dimensions far beyond our limitations of time and space, and His complexity is beyond man’s complete understanding or comprehension---just as an ant cannot ever possibly begin to understand nuclear physics, or even how to operate a computer.

Jesus prayed to the Father in the garden of Gethsemane, but not because the Father was above Jesus. Jesus' purpose while on earth was to assume the role of humanity to become not only a sacrifice for human sin, but also to teach us how to relate to an all-powerful, all-holy God. In order to do this, Jesus gave up His right to exercise His power as ‘God’ while He was on earth (the theological term is ‘kenosis’). Jesus therefore took on humanity with all its attributes (except for the fallen, corrupted sin nature). As a human, He taught us to pray to God and how to relate to God, and also that the will of God is not always our will. He did this for the purpose of teaching us. Jesus also received worship and forgave sin, which only God can do. In addition, He proclaimed His ultimate authority as God (i.e., “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Matt. 28:18). Jesus is a Person of the Godhead from the beginning to the end: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 22:13). John 1 says that Jesus was in the beginning, was with God, and was God; that he made all things, and that to all who receive Him, He gives the right to become children of God. It says that God became flesh. John the Baptist, who was approximately 6 months older than Jesus, said that Jesus existed before he did. Interestingly, Jesus even demonstrates in that chapter that he had some sort of super-vision beyond any mortal man.

The Old Testament shows evidence of the Trinity as well. The Hebrew word used for ‘God’ in Genesis 1:1 is Elohiym, which is plural. In fact, elohiym is frequently used in reference to multiple gods. However, the grammatical context in Gen. 1:1 clearly indicates a single God.

Again, in Gen. 1:26, it says, “Let us make man in our image.” Again, this refers to the plural nature of a single God. The angels cannot be meant here, since man was not made in the image of angels.

Once again, in Exodus 20:2,3, we see a single God in three Persons. "I [singular] am the LORD your God [Elohiym, plural], who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods [elohiym, plural] before me [singular]." Here again, God reveals Himself in language as a single God in essence, comprised of more than one Person; not three different Gods, but one.

Nitewrit said...

Jeff,

Thank you for a very clear explanation of this subject and very lively comments. This was very interesting.

Larry E.

Jeff said...

Nitewrit,

Thank you for a very clear explanation of this subject and very lively comments. This was very interesting.

You're welcome, and thank you for saying so! I'm very glad you found it interesting. And thank you again for your continued comments; much appreciated!