A Thumb in the Eye of the Son and other Mistakes about the Trinity
Once in a while, members of my church bring up theological questions set off by personal encounters with friends or acquaintances with views contrary to Christian doctrine. Here's one such case: "G" has been speaking with a couple of friends who deny that Jesus should be understood and worshiped as God. This is her representation of their view and my response.
Alright...I have been chewing on, reading about and in general, bothered by a question that was posed to me this past summer by a Christian couple that I have never distrusted their answers and wisdom in thing things of God and the bible.
We were debating/discussing the reality of God being made up of 3 persons (Father, Son and Spirit) - or if it was a widely accepted idea that "the church" has taught us to be true.
They think that Jesus was really only the SON of God (who had been given power) and not also fully God. And they don't necessarily think that Jesus was with God since the beginning of time. They said these ideas are something we read into the Old (or New) Testament. They also said that they think the Spirit is not a separate entity or part of the Trinity, but that everywhere it speaks of the Spirit of God, that is exactly what it is - God's Spirit (and not this 3rd separate God-thing).
I made my arguments on why I believe in a Trinity (all pretty much based on the same stuff we teach at The Journey). But there were a couple points they made that really threw me for a loop and I have frankly been struggling with.
I've done some research, re-read the sections from the Gospel Class book on the Trinity and the scriptures we use to back this idea up. But I still haven't been satisfied with my researching on a few points they brought up:
1) We both agreed that the bible clearly teaches there is only ONE God. But as they pointed out, Jesus never had the power to do anything on his own, but always was given to him from God. And Jesus always pointed out that there was ONE God, his Father, and that Jesus only worshiped God (not himself) and his life pointed people to God. This couple thinks it's almost blasphemous when people worship Jesus - because as the bible teaches, there is only One God who we should be worshiping, and that is the Creator Himself. And yes, without Jesus' sacrifice we couldn't have direct access to God, but if there is only One God and Jesus was very specific and intentional to not make himself equal with God, then what's going on here?
2) (this is the one that really messed me up)... They said if we believe in Jesus being fully God, then God must have died when Jesus died. How do we explain that?!?! In some of my research it explained this by stating that just b/c Jesus died physically, his spirit was still there and still with God. But the bible states that God left him completely (he can't have any part in sin). I don't see how God and Jesus' spirits still could have been together when it says that Jesus gave up his spirit after he breathed his last.
After all the concept of "3-in-1" is so HUGE, why are there only hints in the bible of this idea? It never says 3-in-1 anywhere in scripture. So why on earth do we even use a man-made word "the Trinity" to describe this?
The objections to the Trinity aren't new, but you can be relieved to know that they were answered about 1700 years ago (and since). Hence, you have many resources at your disposal to help you out.
Well, if the concept of the Trinity originated with the Westminster Catechism or Luther, you might have a point there. But it is much older than that, going back to the Church Fathers (the generation of church leaders following the Apostles). Understand that the word "Trinity" is a term that was fashioned to describe the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit because of what Christians had already believed about God, not an idea that evolved over time. It is very important to make that distinction, otherwise you'll be getting history backwards, as seems to be the case with the couple you're talking about.
Let's call it what it really is: any objection to the Trinity as it relates to Jesus is simply an assault on His deity. It is a denial that Jesus is God, so I'll just deal with this rather than talk about all of the Trinity in detail.
When I was in high school, I had a good friend who was a Jehovah's Witness, and I spent oodles of time researching JW teaching about Jesus and how to combat it. Back then, my approach was to pull out every verse in Scripture that demonstrates Jesus' deity. I got really good at spotting relevant verses, but I still missed the bigger picture because my knowledge of Bible and church history was severely lacking. The single biggest disadvantage we have today when it comes to reading the Bible is that we do not know how to read it in its historical context. Fact: we are NOT the Scriptures' primary audience (spiritually, yes we are; historically, no). Our troubles begin when we forget that the NT, in particular, was written in the context of 1st century Palestine for primarily Jewish and Greek audiences. So, we must read it like a 1st century Jew (preferably) if we are to get the full impact of the words on the page.
Ironically, the deity of Jesus is the best example of what I'm talking about. Your question includes the phrase "Jesus was very specific and intentional to not make himself equal with God." If we take a 1st century mindset and look at the ministry of Jesus, we would come to a very different conclusion.
(some are notes I cut and pasted from my prep on the cancelled DYD Forum on the Resurrection) Let’s examine some things Jesus said and did in the Gospels.
1. "I say to you”/”I tell you” statements – Jesus often used these phrases to assert authority to change a concept of Jewish law or tradition by either contradicting it or correcting its present interpretation. For example, on divorce, Jesus assumes authority over Moses and contradicts Mosaic tradition (Matt. 19:8-9). And again, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). The impact of this was not lost on those who heard Him, for in so doing, Jesus was putting Himself in authority above them, above the Prophets, and above God’s Law as Judge and Revealer of God’s truth. William Lane Craig says in his book, Reasonable Faith, “Jesus’ sense of personal authority to correct the Torah and contradict Jewish tradition goes down hard for faithful Jews.” To His audience, Jesus put Himself in the very place of God, making the pronouncements that only God has a right to make. This is true even today. Jacob Neusner, the well-known Jewish scholar, wrote the book, A Rabbi Talks With Jesus, in which he objects to Jesus on the same grounds a Jews in the 1st cent. Neusner is offended at Jesus’ presumption to subject the Torah to His word and says of the book of Matt, “No one can encounter Matthew’s Jesus without concurring that before us in the evangelist’s mind is God incarnate.” In effect, Neusner is asking, “Who do you think you are, Jesus—God?”
2. Many times, Jesus orients Himself to God the Father differently than He orients His disciples to God the Father. In John 20:17, He says to Mary, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' " He doesn’t say “our Father.” (The famous Lord’s Prayer is actually a misnomer, because Jesus never prayed that prayer; it is a prayer for His disciples to pray.) Jesus always establishes a unity and intimacy between Himself and God the Father that He doesn’t ascribe to anyone else.
3. Liberal theologians also deny any historical references to Jesus' divinity, yet there is one parable of Jesus that is universally seen as authentic to Him, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matt. 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12): in this parable, Jesus clearly puts Himself in the story as the son the tenants plot to kill for his inheritance. The Pharisees' reaction to this parable is telling, for they seek His immediate arrest--for what? Jesus put Himself in direct authority above THEM with special relation to God and spoke judgment against THEM (remember, the Pharisees were the religious elite who were closer to God than anyone else; anyone having more authority than they would HAVE to be God Himself).
4. One of the titles Jesus often used for Himself was "Son of Man" with direct reference to Daniel 7:13. My intent is not to get into a Bible verse-joust, so I will quote Darell Bock in his Breaking the Da Vinci Code. When you read how Jesus portays Himself to His immediate audience in the Gospels, you can't help but recognize that "Jesus is a divine figure worthy to sit in God's presence because He is capable of sharing God's unique glory." The Gospels needed to make distinct exactly what their position was on Jesus: that Jesus was either a blasphemous pretender or one worthy to share in God's glory. Their choice is the latter. Jesus is a fully human person who also bears the unique signs of God's deity and deserving of that status, a view held by Christians long before Nicea.
That anyone would ask for more explicit claims for Jesus' deity really betrays a modern blindness to the way things were (anachronistic imposition of post-Enlightenment thinking, if you will). They are committing the first mistake I talked about, which is to want Jesus to get up in the middle of the Beatitudes and shout, "Yes! I am God! Worship Me now!" Such a proclamation would have been unecessary and would have given the wrong idea to Jesus' listeners. To say that would have meant that Jesus was the Father, (or a contemporary mistake which is to say that Jesus is the Trinity) which would make no sense whatsoever to the Jewish mind.
As I noted above, the challenge to the deity of Jesus Christ is and old one, and an answered one at that. But history doesn't seem to make a difference in the minds of modern-day deniers, so here we go again and again. Anyway, Conversation 2 is coming up.