Course: A Guide to Christian Theology
This is the 9th lecture in the online series of lectures on a Guide to Christian Theology by Dr Breshears. Recommended Reading includes: Biblical References from the Course and Study Guides 1 – 39.
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I. God is One
Well, we continue with the idea of who is God. Moses’ question is really our question. The idea of trinity, that God is in some sense an interrelational person. The basic idea of the trinity, first for us, there is one God but in understanding this, there are some theological formulations. Somehow in the very essence of God there is a relational conversation going on within that essence. It was there from the beginning and is shown all the way through Scripture, but never explained which leaves us with a lot of mystery around it. So the basic idea of the trinity, within the one God there is some sort of personal relationship going on within that oneness. This is impossible to understand at first.
II. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – The Trinity
In Matthew 28 at the end of the chapter where he gives his followers that great commission: ‘go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ So we have threesome shown in this verse: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The word ‘name’ in this verse is singular. It is one name and then the traditional term we use here is three persons. So the one name is hoshim from the Old Testament. So within the hoshim there are three beings, persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is such powerful theology that even some evangelicals say that this was added later because the theology is so rich, it was even too rich for Jesus! But for anyone who is not committed to the inspiration of the Scripture, it is just too high a theology. So again, the basic idea is that we have the name (singular) and three persons that make up that name. In Matthew chapter 3, there is another place where this happens in the baptism of Jesus. He went down into the water and then came out. So we obviously have the presence of Jesus but at that moment, heaven was open and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove. So now the Spirit is added to the mix and a voice from heaven said, ‘this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’ So we now have the Father speaking. So we have the three again: Jesus, the Spirit and then the Father; an obvious picture of the Threeness of God, but somehow they are all the same God. So there is one God with in some senses, there are three persons and we saw in Matthew 3:16-17, they were talking. John 17 tells of the three being with each other and relating to one another, all divine.
A. Genesis 1, 3, 11
So where does the idea of the trinity begin? What about Genesis 1 it starts off with, ‘in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirt of God was hovering over the face of the waters.’ So in Spirit another way of saying God or is that another person. The next verse says, ‘and God said.’ Now in the ancient rabbinic Targum’s, this was a loose translation of the Bible into Aramaic of which, a part of Daniel was written in. Instead of ‘and God said,’ they show: ‘and the Word said.’ This also shows up in John 1. In verse 26, ‘then God said, let us make man is our image, after our likeness.’ The word God here is Elohim, singular; but note that Elohim is plural in form, it is still talking about one God. So it changes, using plural pronouns ‘us’ and ‘our’. Some people say that this is just the plural of majesty. If you listen to Queen Elizabeth speak as the queen, she will use plural pronouns to refer to herself. She will talk about we, us and our and herself as Queen. As Queen she represents all the people and so many say that the same thing is happening in these verses. How often in the Bible does God refer to himself as I or my? It is many times. How often does he refer to himself in the plural? This happens four times only, all being theological significant passages. Here in Genesis 1, Genesis 3 when he says to put them away from the Tree of Life. And then again in Genesis 11, let us go down and then Isaiah 6, ‘who will go for us?’ So it is only four times that he uses the plural pronoun. So could this be God and the angels of the heavenly court? But the problem here is that angels don’t create. We are in the image of God, not of angels. So I think that this is referring to the plurality of God and the complexity of God. But I believe that it is significant that God refers to himself as plural in chapter 1 of the Bible, showing some kind of rich relationality within God.
B. Genesis 18
God Appears to Abraham: In Genesis 18, a well-known challenging story where it talks about the LORD appearing to Abraham. Verse 2 says, ‘he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him.’ Verse 3, Abraham called them Lord, a divine response. In verse 9 again the plural pronoun is used, ‘they said to him.’ Were they all speaking in unison? So we have God to show up and there are three guys. Is it God and two angels? Well, in verse 16, the men have this conversation going and then in chapter 19, one goes back to heaven and two go to Sodom, two angels. In 19:2 Lot refers to them as my Lords, a non-divine reference. This is a bizarre story of evil and wicked people wanting to have fun with them. The two told Lot in verse 12 to leave because we are going to destroy this place. ‘The outcry of the Lord is so great against this place that he has sent us to destroy it.’ In verse 18, Lot refers to them in the plural, my lords’ and in the Hebrew, it is referring to them as ‘divine’ as God! In verse 24, ‘then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven.’ The two LORD’s here refer to Yahweh in both instances. So one Yahweh is in heaven and one is talking to Lot. All of these make perfect sense in terms of the trinity. The eastern churches have always read this story in this sense. This is one of their trinity icons.
C. Zechariah 3 and Isaiah 61
Let’s turn to Zechariah 3:1 where there is a vision of Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD. This is where Satan is standing around to accuse him but the LORD rebukes Satan. We have these two Yahweh’s again in this verse, ‘the LORD rebukes you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebukes you!’ It doesn’t say, I rebuke you but instead the LORD rebukes you. I think one of these is the Father and the other is the pre-incarnate Christ. There are a number of these places in Scripture where you end up with a kind of Threeness. Another place is in Isaiah 61. Jesus also quotes this in the New Testament. In verse 1, we have the Spirit and then the sovereign LORD is upon me, to bring good news to the poor. Jesus clearly shows that this chapter is referring to him. In the very first phrase, you have three persons; the Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me. So we see that the roots of the trinity are firmly in the Old Testament and there is some indication that the Jewish community, at least parts of the Jewish community understood this.
III. Definition of God
So a standard definition would be the unity of God’s essence which is the Shamah, ‘hear O Israel the Lord your God, the Lord is one’ from Deuteronomy 6:4. In the unity of God presence, there exist three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. So that is one essence with three persons, a standard way of saying it; who are consubstantial (having the same substance) and co-eternal. They are the same nature and they are all three eternal, none have a beginning or ending. Now many off shoots of Christianity would like to say that Jesus is a created being. They get this from older translation of John that refers to Jesus as the only begotten Son. The begotten here refers to having a child as in creating a child. The theologians of the 4th and 5th century used these terms to talk about the Father generating the Son in an attempt to explain that the Son is begotten not made or created. There are all kinds of language around this. Most evangelicals would agree that these terms are not helpful in explaining the trinity because the term begotten indicates a beginning which doesn’t apply to God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Begotten here, refers to what God did in the miraculous birth with Mary to bring the physical Jesus into the world. This is not the idea of God having sex with Mary, of course. This is the Holy Spirit coming upon her so that Jesus was conceived in her womb and so the begotten refers to that.
The heart of the trinity is that there is one God, Deuteronomy 6:4 but there are three persons to this one God. I think along with many others that God is eternally relational. So God is love that has meaning because within the being of God there are three persons that actually love each other. It is not like me loving myself which is a kind of bizarre, but this is different when I say I love my wife. It is different when we say the Father loves the Son who loves the Spirit and they all three love each other. And it seems to me that all three are other oriented and we as humans are best fulfilled when we are other oriented in that self-giving relationship that we find in the trinity. I think this is a pattern for all of life, that of being relational, other centered and self-giving and it is right in the heart of the trinity referring to God eternally as gracious and loving and faithful, because the persons of the trinity do that to each other. This is the foundation of our theology and right at the heart of our picture of God; it is this trinity which isn’t a theological formulation but it is eternally related within God and wasn’t a new thing when he created the World.