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Feedback archiveFeedback 2012

Trinity: analogies and countering critics

23 September 2012; expanded and updated 1 November 2012

In today’s feedback article, Dr Jonathan Sarfati responds to various readers concerning the doctrine of the Trinity. These include is God made of parts, good analogies versus fallacious ones, the personality of the Holy Spirit, how the early Church including Tertullian realized that the Bible taught the Trinity, what “God is one” means. The original questions were directed at various articles on the web, and this article collates them into one place that is easily searchable.

Trinity analogies: be cautious

Danika T., United Kingdom [Commenting on Has the ‘God particle’ been found?]

Three fundamental particles! Amazing! It’s a great time to be alive. We are fortunate that God has determined to allow us to know more of his majesty.

I also couldn’t help but be reminded that the Creator God is an entity comprised also of three parts!

Thank you for your comments. Just a few notes of caution.

It is not really correct to say that the three Persons of the Trinity are ‘parts’ of God—see also Is God ‘simple’? We see in Colossians 2:9:

For in him [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,

However, Jesus is not the Father or the Holy Spirit—see also the ancient Trinity diagram.

Also, I would be cautious about using triads in nature, such as solid-liquid-gas, three dimensions, past/present/future as any proof of the Trinity (not that you were doing that). After all, if God were a ‘Binity’ there would be plenty of duals in nature to ‘point’ to Binitarianism (space/time, matter/energy, wave-particle duality, positive/negative charge, and particle-antiparticle pair production). Also, if God were a Quadrunity, the Four Gospels are one parallel that would come to mind, as would the four dimensions of Relativistic spacetime, the four fundamental forces of nature, and the four gauge bosons as per the article on the Higgs Boson.

While all analogies are weak in some way, some are counterproductive. One I’ve seen (not from you) is The Trinity is like a man who is simultaneously a father to his children, son to his parents, and husband to his wife. But this is more like modalism, aka the Sabellian heresy (taught by “Oneness” groups today). This says that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are merely different ways that God relates to His creation, not the distinct Persons that the Bible teaches about (see A biblical defence of the Trinity).

I can suggest another analogy with the Trinity, which goes back to the Church Fathers, and is suggested by the book of Hebrews. Christ was not created but is coeternal with God the Father, but the Father is nonetheless the ‘begetter’ of the Son. The book of Hebrews provides some ideas for analogies, although by their nature, no analogies are perfect:

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. … But about the Son he [God] says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom.” (Hebrews 1:3,8).
So some early church leaders gave the analogy:
  1. God the Father ~ the sun (but the sun’s very nature is to emit light—God made the sun precisely as a light-giver to earth), so they are co-eternal Genesis 1:14–19)
  2. God the Son (wisdom/logos/memra) ~ the radiance continuously emanating from the sun. Jesus is the light of the world (John 1:9–10, 8:12, 9:5).
  3. God the Holy Spirit ~ the heat from the sun.

The sun analogy also reflects the true Trinitarian doctrine—ontological equality and functional subordination—rather than a caricature which many anti-Trinitarians paint. The Father is the source of the Son, as the sun is of light. But one eternal attribute of the Father is that He begets the Son (also that the Holy Spirit proceeds from Him), just as there is no point having the sun without light or heat. That is, the Father has always existed, and He has always ‘shone’ with the light of Jesus, and radiated the ‘heat’ of the Spirit. Note that many of purported disproofs by anti-Trinitarians support the functional subordination that we accept.

Also, the Greek word translated exact representation in the Hebrews verse is χαρακτήρ (charakter), and means “the exact expression (the image) of any person or thing, marked likeness, precise reproduction in every respect, i.e facsimile.” In one sense, it is a 2-D projection of the 3-D person, e.g. the image of the Roman Emperor on a coin. A photograph is another example, where light reflected from the (3-D) image is focused and intersects a (2-D) plane. Similarly, a sphere is 3-D, but its projection on 2-D flatland is a circle. The circle has all the fullness of the sphere in the 2-D space. So applied to the Godhead, if the Son is the light (John 8:12, 9:5), then we can say that Jesus in His Incarnation was the projection of this light into the plane of humanity—so all the fullness of God was localized in His human presence (Colossians 2:9).

This analogy is reflected in the classic Nicene Creed of AD 325:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.

Trinity and the early church

Sam W., Kenya [commenting on Who really is the God of Genesis?]:

This is a good read, very informative. It would be good to include who originated the concept of Trinity, Tertullian, and why. The church father wanted to illustrate the unique (and complex) relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each maintaining their individuality but each distinct in function. This would assist the reader further understand this concept. Once more it is a good read.

We are glad you liked the article. We can’t cover everything, but indeed, the originator of the Trinity is usually considered to be Tertullian (AD c. 160 – c. 225).

I testify that the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit are inseparable from each other, and so will you know in what sense this is said. Now, observe, my assertion is that the Father is one, and the Son one, and the Spirit one, and that They are distinct from Each Other.—Tertullian, 2nd century AD.

An instructive work is Creeds, Councils and Christ: Did the early Christians misrepresent Jesus? (updated 2009) by Gerald Bray, professor at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He explains that Tertullian, a lawyer and Christian apologist, realized that the Bible taught that God made a covenant with Israel. And on God’s side, there were actually three signatories: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now in Roman law, the word for party to a legal action was persona. From this, Tertullian summarized the biblical teaching as tres Personae, una Substantia (three Persons, one Substance).

Tertullian explained the Trinity at length using copious biblical passages as proof that there was one God in three distinct Persons in Against Praxeas:

Bear always in mind that this is the rule of faith which I profess; by it I testify that the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit are inseparable from each other, and so will you know in what sense this is said. Now, observe, my assertion is that the Father is one, and the Son one, and the Spirit one, and that They are distinct from Each Other.

Praxeas was a heretic who taught a modalistic view like that of modern ‘Oneness’ groups: that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were all the same Person in different modes. Tertullian convincingly demonstrates the error with Scripture, while Praxeas’ few Scriptures alleged to support that view are shown to do the opposite.

Actually, a little before Tertullian, Theophilus of Antioch (AD 115–181) wrote in an apologetic work to the learned pagan magistrate Autolycus. In a commentary on the fourth day of creation, Theophilus asserted that the previous three days were literal days before the sun, and “types of the Trinity, of God, and His Word, and His wisdom.” (To Autolycus 2:15, AD 181).

There are plenty of other church leaders who affirmed the teachings of the Trinity, especially the Deity of Christ. For example:

  • Clement of Rome (AD c.96) who knew the Apostles
    Moreover, ye were all distinguished by humility, and were in no respect puffed up with pride, but yielded obedience rather than extorted it, and were more willing to give than to receive. Content with the provision which God had made for you, and carefully attending to His words, ye were inwardly filled with His doctrine, and His sufferings were before your eyes. (1 Clement 2)
    The original Greek grammar makes it clear that “His Sufferings” must be referring to God’s.
  • Ignatius (30–107), who knew the Apostles:
    There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Ignatius to the Ephesians 7:2)
    Consequently all magic and every kind of spell were dissolved, the ignorance so characteristic of wickedness vanished, and the ancient kingdom was abolished, when God appeared in human form to bring the newness of eternal life … (Ignatius to the Ephesians 19:2)
    I glorify Jesus Christ, the God who made you so wise, for I observed that you are established in an unshakable faith, having been nailed, as it were, to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ in both body and spirit, and firmly established in love by the blood of Christ … (Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 1:1)
    Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes; impalpable and impassible, yet who became passible on our account; and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes (Ignatius, Letter to Polycarp 3:2)
    I bid you farewell always in our God Jesus Christ; may you remain in him, in the unity and care of God. (Ignatius, Letter to Polycarp 8:3)
  • Polycarp (69–155), a student of the Apostle John:
    If then we entreat the Lord to forgive us, we ought also ourselves to forgive; for we are before the eyes of our Lord and God, and “we must all appear at the judgment-seat of Christ, and must every one give an account of himself.” Let us then serve Him in fear, and with all reverence, even as He Himself has commanded us, and as the apostles who preached the Gospel unto us, and the prophets who proclaimed beforehand the coming of the Lord. (Polycarp to the Philippians, 6)
    Jesus is the one who is called “Lord and God”, while no one else but Jesus receives the title of “Lord” in the epistle.
  • Irenaeus (120–202) a student of Polycarp:
    The Church, though dispersed through the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father. (Against Heresies Book I, Chapter 10, Section 1)
    Here Irenaeus states clearly that Jesus is Lord, God, Savior and King, that the Holy Spirit is personal, and states that the whole church agrees. He would not have done so if he wasn’t sure that there would be no faction in the church that would disagree.
  • Justin Martyr (100–165)
    For they who affirm that the Son is the Father, are proved neither to have become acquainted with the Father, nor to know that the Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God. (First Apology 63:15)
    Justin Martyr says that the Father is not Jesus (so refuting the Oneness doctrine), but that Jesus is God, not “a god” as the Watchtower teaches, but in fact God, which agrees with Trinitarian doctrine. Justin surely would have been living with people who knew the Apostles because he lived in Rome and Ephesus, the same places where the Apostles lived and travelled.
  • Melito, Bishop of Sardis, affirmed Trinitarian Christology in Passover sermon AD ~170 (see Christmas and Genesis).

The Personality of the Holy Spirit

B. L., United States [commenting on Who really is the God of Genesis?]:

If the Holy Spirit is actually a “third” party in the God Family instead of the power emanating from the Father and the Word, then the Holy Spirit is the Father of Jesus Christ. Jesus must have been mistaken in calling God his father!

Also, why does Paul extend greetings of “grace and peace” to the Romans, Corinthians, etc. from the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ but not the Holy Spirit? Paul would be showing contempt for the Holy Spirit by failing to include it in the greeting if it were.

The trinity is just another example of paganism in the Christian religion.

The first statement is false: the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary so she would conceive Jesus (Luke 1:35). As shown in The Incarnation: Why did God become Man?, this meant adding human nature to the divine nature that the Son already possessed from eternity. As Tertullian pointed out in Against Praxeas (see above):

The role of the Holy Spirit is largely to point people to Christ, not to Himself. It is folly to use such arguments and ignore the clear teachings of the personality of the Holy Spirit. For example, ‘the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them,’’ (Acts 13:2), which shows the Holy Spirit referring to Himself in the first person.

Besides, the flesh is not God, so that it could not have been said concerning it, That Holy Thing shall be called the Son of God, but only that Divine Being who was born in the flesh, of whom the psalm also says, Since God became man in the midst of it, and established it by the will of the Father. Now what Divine Person was born in it? The Word, and the Spirit which became incarnate with the Word by the will of the Father. The Word, therefore, is incarnate; and this must be the point of our inquiry: How the Word became flesh—whether it was by having been transfigured, as it were, in the flesh, or by having really clothed Himself in flesh. Certainly it was by a real clothing of Himself in flesh. …

Of them Jesus consists—Man, of the flesh; of the Spirit, God—and the angel designated Him as the Son of God, Luke 1:35 in respect of that nature, in which He was Spirit, reserving for the flesh the appellation Son of Man. In like manner, again, the apostle calls Him the Mediator between God and Men, 1 Timothy 2:5 and so affirmed His participation of both substances.

Your second argument is just an argument from silence. The role of the Holy Spirit is largely to point people to Christ, not to Himself. It is folly to use such arguments and ignore the clear teachings of the personality of the Holy Spirit. For example, “the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them,’” (Acts 13:2), which shows the Holy Spirit referring to Himself in the first person.

Your third argument is the reverse of the truth. The early church was adamant that the true teachings must be derived from the Bible; we can see this copiously demonstrated by Tertullian, for example. And they fought strongly against pagan philosophies. Indeed, as Gerald Bray noted in Creeds, Councils and Christ (see above), “it looks strongly as if Platonism was refashioned to meet the challenge of Christianity, not the other way round.”

The Tri-une nature of God

Wayne T., Australia, [commenting on Who really is the God of Genesis?]:

It is good that you qualified that Genesis ch. 1 does not specifically nominate a Trinity, nor does Scripture refer to the deity as “persons”, except in Job 13:8 where there is a reproof if one is to secretly accept persons. Whenever “person” is used in reference to deity, the Greek renders this word as “Substance”. If God is not a numerical “One”, why is it declared in Isaiah “thus saith the Lord, the Holy One of Israel” or “I am God and there is no God beside me”. If it had been possible to know the Son apart from the Father when Phillip asked Jesus, “Lord show us the Father and it sufficeth us,” Jesus would have done so. On the contrary he reproofed Phillip by stating “Have I been so long time with you,and yet has though not known me.” …

Jonathan Sarfati responds:

Here, as above, I will confine myself mainly to Tertullian’s Against Praxeas and Gerald Bray’s Creeds, Councils, and Christ.

You assert that the oneness of God must be understood in an absolute unity rather than a composite unity (see The Hebrew language and Messianic prophecies). And Tom Wright pointed out, “there is no suggestion that “monotheism” or praying the Shema, had anything to do with the numerical analysis of the inner being of Israel’s god himself,” (more at The Incarnation: Why did God become Man?). In fact, to show that “there is nothing new under the sun”, Tertullian also noted the dogmatism of those who thought that belief in one God entailed belief in one Person in the Godhead:

this heresy, which supposes itself to possess the pure truth, in thinking that one cannot believe in One Only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are the very selfsame Person. As if in this way also one were not All, in that All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. How they are susceptible of number without division, will be shown as our treatise proceeds.

Analogies are always to be used with caution.

Your other claim is based on something lost in the translations between Greek and Latin. Tertullian defined the Trinity as three Personae and one Substantia. As pointed out below, persona in Roman Law was a party to a legal contract. But a hyper-literal translation to Greek results in πρόσωπον prosōpon, which means “mask”. Thus the Greek church misunderstood the Latin usage, and originally thought that the Latin Church taught modalism: that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are merely modes (masks) of God not distinct centres of consciousness.

And the Greek Church formulated the Trinity as three hypostases (singular hypostasis ὑπόστᾰσις) and one oὐσία ousia. But a hyper-literal translation to Latin results in substantia—both sub and hypo mean “below”. Yet this is a misunderstanding, because in Greek theological usage, hypostasis meant a quasi-personification of attributes proper to a deity. Indeed, as you inadvertently note, it was used in the Greek New Testament to mean “person”.

The problem of translation, as Bray notes, was solved in the 4th century. Basil (a noted creationist theologian) realized that what the Greek church meant by hypostasis, the Latin church meant by persona, so they really believed the same thing.

The Trinity and Infinity

In my view, a recent article that might help is Infinity through dark glasses. This points out, among other things, that infinite subsets can be as ‘numerous’ as the superset (and there are degrees of “infinity”), as Cantor showed.

It’s complicated, but Cantor showed that although the set of rational numbers contain many members that the set of natural (counting) numbers does not contain, they can be matched in a one-to-one correspondence. Similarly, the set of even numbers, a subset of the set of natural numbers, can also be matched one-to-one. So all these sets, although one is a subset and the other a superset of natural numbers, are classed as “countable infinity”. This is sometimes assigned the cardinality “aleph-null” (ℵ0); aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet). (Also, the set of real numbers cannot be matched into a one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers, as he showed with his “diagonalization proof”. Thus this has a higher degree of infinity, “uncountable infinity”, which has the higher cardinality 2ℵ0 or “beth-one” (beth ב is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet), identical to “aleph-one” (ℵ1) only if the continuum hypothesis is true).

Analogies are always to be used with caution, including this one. But I think that Cantor’s analysis of the concept of infinity can be useful understanding that Jesus could be an infinite ‘subset’ of God without losing any of His infinite attributes.

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Readers’ comments
Peter M., New Zealand, 23 September 2012

There are several verses that I can’t reconcile with the Trinity, plus others I have not included. Can you help?

Dr Jonathan Sarfati: Indeed I can. Indeed, many of those questions have been addressed on our site.

PM: Colossians 1:15 where our Saviour is mentioned as the 1st born of every creature.

JS: In Jesus Christ our Creator: A biblical defence of the Trinity, I point out:

Some Objections to the Trinity Answered

Jesus is called ‘the firstborn of every creature’ (Colossians 1:15). However, in Jewish imagery, ‘firstborn’ means ‘having the rights and special privileges belonging to the eldest child’. It refers to pre-eminence in rank more than to priority in time. This can be shown in passages where the term ‘firstborn’ is used of the pre-eminent son who was not the eldest, e.g. Psalm 89:27, where David is called ‘firstborn’ although he was actually the youngest son.

‘Firstborn’ does not mean ‘first created’; the Greek for the latter is protoktisis, while firstborn is prototokos. In fact, the verses after Colossians 1:15 show that Christ Himself is the creator of all things.

John 17:3 where our Lord tells us that, when praying to the Father, that He is the only true God, and our Lord was sent by Him.

Shaun Doyle has answered this in Simplified sardine arguments and ‘sacking’ heretics: Do either have a place?:

Regarding … John 17:3, it doesn’t support Unitarianism. Your [the critic Mr Doyle was responding to] understanding of John 17:3 commits the fallacy of denying the antecedent (See Loving God with all your mind: logic and creation, and this commentary on John 17:3 for more details). John also indicates that Jesus, as God’s Word, is intrinsic to the identity of the one true God (John 1:1, 5:23, 8:58–59, 10:30–39, 20:28). If John 17:3 supports Unitarianism, then John contradicted himself, and made Jesus contradict himself. However, the Father is described as the “one true God” to contrast him not with Jesus but with false gods. Moreover, since Jesus included himself in the definition of “eternal life”, he made himself the only full and true representative of God, and an object of faith in the same breath as “the one true God”. Interpreted within John’s Gospel, that defines Jesus as God’s eternal and intrinsic Word, who is God and with God.

PM: 1 Cor. 8:6 … one God, and … one Lord Jesus.

JS: In Defending vital doctrines and the deity of Christ, it is shown that this is powerful evidence for the Deity of Christ:

Also there is 1 Cor. 8:6:

‘Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.’

Here, Paul is applying the famous Shema of Deut. 6:4 ‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD.’ Paul has used the key phrase ‘one Lord’ and applied it to Jesus Christ, thus including Jesus in the divine identity! Also, phrases like ‘of’ or ‘by whom all things’ are typical Jewish formulations that express God’s relationship to creation. This is in line with the Jewish concept of Wisdom, God’s attribute, as God’s tool for creation. Yet this still retains monotheism by including Jesus within the divine identity.

PM: 1 Cor. 15:28. then the Son also be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.

JS: As mentioned in A biblical defence of the Trinity, equality of nature does not imply equality of roles. Philippians 2:5–11 states that Jesus had equality by nature with God, but voluntarily took on the lower role of a servant. The distinction can be illustrated in the human realm by the role of the Prime Minister — he is greater than us in position, but he is still a human being like us, so is not better in nature. Indeed, Christ submitted to His mother and stepfather (Luke 2:51), although He was infinitely superior by nature.

PM: God the Father, His Son—the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit work in unison and have a common purpose and separate. I’ve been trying to understand it all for some years now. I put my faith and trust in all 3.

JS: Indeed, no one said it was easy. One distinction is one God with three centres of consciousness

Jack C., Australia, 23 September 2012

To be honest it’s a waste of time trying to fully comprehend who or what God is and how it’s made up by whom and what. We can only think in terms of the physical Universe whereas God exists within and also outside our physical Universe. It’s impossible for us at this time to understand what it means to “exist” outside our Universe (ie, space-time continuum). Time and space have no meaning “there”. Even the word “exists” has no meaning “there”. Even “there” has no meaning. See what I mean? What’s even more interesting is the Holy Spirit can be a force (as distinct from a person) emanating from both God the Father and Jesus His Son. There is no mention of the Holy Spirit emanating from the Holy Spirit. The scriptures also describes the Baptism of the Holy Spirit by the apostles several times in Acts (sometimes without the baptism of water) whereby the Holy Spirit descended upon those being baptised. Even Jesus had the Holy Spirit descended upon him. So, the Holy Spirit could be considered as something different all together from the other two, making the concept of the Trinity even more vague if not questionable. We should just park such issues aside as we won’t know the full answers until we enter the Kingdom of God. For now the concept of the Trinity is the best we can do but we shouldn’t assume it’s the only possible answer to the mystery of who or what God really is. Just be content in the fact there is a God who loves us so much that He planned for the perfect sacrifice some 2,000 years ago so that we can have salvation and a place in the Kingdom of God, where I’m certain all will be revealed in good time.

Jonathan Sarfati responds

It is hardly a waste of time to go deeply into God's Word to find out what He has revealed about His nature. Some of the greatest theologians in the Church spent their lives on these deep questions, because of how they affected salvation. We should not misunderstand Sola Scriptura to the exclusion of great theological teachers, something taught in Scripture itself. Any theological novelty, never before seen by great theologians, is likely to be a serious error.

One of the greatest Trinitarian theologians, the fourth-century Gregory Nazianzen (or Gregory the Theologian) famously said in a quote the Reformer Calvin loved:

I cannot think of the unity without being irradiated by the Trinity: I cannot distinguish between the Trinity without being carried up to the unity.

Peter M., South Africa, 23 September 2012

Dear Jonathan, This should require a lengthy comment, which I am probably not allowed. In short then, the origin of the Eternal Sonship of the Logos, was Origen, a very dodgy theologian indeed. His analogy of the sun giving birth to light is lame. The Bible never speaks of any Eternal Son. Psalm 2 says “You are my son.Today I have begotten thee.” And Heb 1 says, “I will be his father and he will be my son”, indicating that this was to happen in the future and was to include a change of relationship. What was Jesus prior to becoming Jesus? He was Jehovah, and is referred to by John in Jn 1 as “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God. He was the theophany that appeared to Abraham at Mamre, he was the Creator that made the world, he wrestled with Jacob,and appeared as the Captain of the Lord’s armies to Joshua, talked with Adam in the garden,and appeared to Gideon. What happened at Nazareth, and Bethlehem was a totally new thing. God became man,born of a virgin, and his father was not Joseph, but God, but being born of a virgin, he was the great … grandson of Adam. So all at once the Logos became the Son of Man, BUT ALSO the Son of God. He was never before that a son, but only God. There are three persons in the Godhead, one who has become Father, and one who has become Son and the Spirit of God. The correct analogy comes from the fact that we were made in the image of God, so in a sense, we are body, soul and spirit, and yet we are one man, but my body is not my soul, or my spirit, and after we die, our soul and spirit do not dissolve. This came to me in a flash when arguing with a JW. Later I came upon the teaching in The chaos of the cults by Dr Walter Martin, in my version p. 100. I would love to sit down with you and discuss this. God bless you, Peter Mills

Jonathan Sarfati responds

Dear Peter

I know that the late Walter Martin taught this view in his otherwise fine book The Kingdom of the Cults, but he was mistaken here. This was a departure from the Nicene Christology derived carefully from the Bible:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

Actually, Justin Martyr said this before Origen:

Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being his Word and first-begotten, and power; and, becoming man according to his will, he taught us these things for the conversion and restoration of the human race (First Apology 23, AD 151).

Dr Martin’s view has been called ‘Incarnational Sonship’, and was once held by Creation magazine interviewee Dr John MacArthur. But he has publicly retracted this.

The problem is: the Bible clearly tells us that God gave or sent his Son to be incarnated (John 3:16, Gal. 4:4, 1 John 4:10,14; etc.). Thus the Incarnation was not the beginning of His Sonship, but when the One who was already the Son added human nature. This is supported by the parable of the vineyard owners in Mark 12:1–12, who first killed the owner’s servants then killed the owner’s beloved son when he was sent. Jesus was clearly referring to God’s prophets and finally Himself, the Son of God.

We can also know this because back in Proverbs 30:4, we are asked,

What is his name, and what is his son’s name?

As stated in The Hebrew language and Messianic prophecies:

This clearly states that God does have a son, and uses the usual Hebrew word ben. And God’s name יהוה (YHVH, the LORD) had been revealed to man by this stage. But at this stage of God’s progressive revelation, no one could know the Son’s name, which is the point of the writer’s irony, “Surely you know!”

Even before that, we see that it was by and through the Son that all things were created, which should be a clincher (Colossians 1:13–16, Hebrews 1:2).

Similarly, the Prologue to John’s Gospel reveals that the Word/Logos/Memra is eternally with God but is also God. Just as a Word comes forth from a speaker, a Son comes forth from a Father, but with God, this coming forth is eternal—there was never a time when the Word/Son was not, as Athanasius put it.

About the passage you cite, the above shows that it can’t be referring to a time where Sonship was conferred, since Jesus always had this. Rather, MacArthur concluded in his retraction:

It is now my conviction that the begetting spoken of in Psalm 2 and Hebrews 1 is not an event that takes place in time. Even though at first glance Scripture seems to employ terminology with temporal overtones (“this day have I begotten thee”), the context of Psalm 2:7 seems clearly to be a reference to the eternal decree of God. It is reasonable to conclude that the begetting spoken of there is also something that pertains to eternity rather than a point in time. The temporal language should therefore be understood as figurative, not literal.

Here is a helpful page (off-site): What is the doctrine of eternal Sonship and is it biblical?

PS: your analogy rests on the premise that man is tripartite or trichotomous (body/soul/spirit). Many systematic theologians, such as Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology) and Millard Erickson (Christian Theology) and the Reformers, don’t agree. Instead, they argue that the biblical teaching is that man is bipartite or dichotomous, comprising a material aspect (body) and a non-material aspect (soul/spirit used interchangeably). CMI doesn’t have a corporate stand but I personally support a bipartite view.

God bless you too.

Doug T., United States, 23 September 2012

Wow, awesome handling of a very difficult topic. As I’m sure you appreciate, this is a topic that Muslims (even after they’ve trusted Christ as savior) can really struggle with, especially with the relation of the Son to the Father.

Jack C., Australia, 24 September 2012

The word Trinity is not mentioned in the Bible anywhere. So, it should not be used as it’s a term formulated by man, not by God. It’s actually a form of idol worshipping given the Trinity is not a prescribed object to be preached or followed, only God the Father, Jesus His Son and the Holy Spirit should be referred to when discussing God. You might say it’s the same thing but it can’t be because there are a number of other alternative interpretations of what God may be that are preached in other Churches that do not agree with the Trinity concept. Personally I do not know the answer and nor do I care as I don’t believe we have the mental capacity to understand what God really is. Anyone who claims they do understand must be more intelligent than a hundred Einsteins, or more to the point someone like God, which would be blasphemy.

Jonathan Sarfati responds

The implied premise is:

A word that is not mentioned in the Bible should not be used.

But this is actually self-refuting. That’s because the word “Bible” is not mentioned in the Bible!

As I pointed out in reply to an Islamic apologist, it’s irrelevant that the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, because the doctrine is.

Actually, the great creationist reformer and theologian John Calvin answered the same sort of complaint in his monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion, ch. 13: The unity of the divine Essence in three Persons taught, in Scripture, from the foundation of the world:

“It were better,” they say, “to confine not only our meanings but our words within the bounds of Scripture, and not scatter about foreign terms to become the future seed-beds of brawls and dissensions. In this way, men grow tired of quarrels about words; the truth is lost in altercation, and charity melts away amid hateful strife.”

If they call it a foreign term, because it cannot be pointed out in Scripture in so many syllables, they certainly impose an unjust law—a law which would condemn every interpretation of Scripture that is not composed of other words of Scripture. But if by foreign they mean that which, after being idly devised, is superstitiously defended,—which tends more to strife than edification,—which is used either out of place, or with no benefit which offends pious ears by its harshness, and leads them away from the simplicity of God’s Word, I embrace their soberness with all my heart. For I think we are bound to speak of God as reverently as we are bound to think of him. As our own thoughts respecting him are foolish, so our own language respecting him is absurd. Still, however, some medium must be observed. The unerring standard both of thinking and speaking must be derived from the Scriptures: by it all the thoughts of ours minds, and the words of our mouths, should he tested. But in regard to those parts of Scripture which, to our capacities, are dark and intricate, what forbids us to explain them in clearer terms—terms, however, kept in reverent and faithful subordination to Scripture truth, used sparingly and modestly, and not without occasion? Of this we are not without many examples. When it has been proved that the Church was impelled, by the strongest necessity, to use the words Trinity and Person, will not he who still inveighs against novelty of terms be deservedly suspected of taking offence at the light of truth, and of having no other ground for his invective, than that the truth is made plain and transparent? …

Where names have not been invented rashly, we must beware lest we become chargeable with arrogance and rashness in rejecting them. I wish, indeed, that such names were buried, provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit, are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that each has his peculiar subsistence. I am not so minutely precise as to fight furiously for mere words. …

Arius [like today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses] says that Christ is God, and then mutters that he was made and had a beginning. He says, that he is one with the Father; but secretly whispers in the ears of his party, made one, like other believers, though with special privilege. Say, he is consubstantial, and you immediately pluck the mask from this chameleon, though you add nothing to Scripture. Sabellius [like today’s Oneness groups] says that the Father, Son, and Spirit, indicate some distinction in God. Say, they are three, and he will bawl out that you are making three Gods. Say, that there is a Trinity of Persons in one Divine essence, you will only express in one word what the Scriptures say, and stop his empty prattle. Should any be so superstitiously precise as not to tolerate these terms, still do their worst, they will not be able to deny that when one is spoken of, a unity of substance must be understood, and when three in one essence, the persons in this Trinity are denoted. When this is confessed without equivocations we dwell not on words.

Daniel F., United States, 27 September 2012

Here is an anology. Objects are in 3 dimensions. Height, width, and depth are all totally different from one another. But what if you take away all of the height (even the height of the atoms)? You are left with nothing. If you take away all of the width or depth you are also left with nothing. So even though height, width, and depth are different from one another, height is all of the object, width is all of the object, depth is all of the object. God is a spirit, but couldn’t a spirit also have 3 “dimensions” like a physical object?

Jonathan Sarfati responds

You might like the classic article The Gospel in time and space.

Cindy B., Canada, 8 October 2012

I believe the Bible does teach we are tripartite. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23 Paul writes: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Jonathan Sarfati responds: Dichotomist theologian Wayne Grudem argues in response that Paul was piling up synonyms rather than delineating different parts. We also have Jesus telling us in Mark 12:30: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” If these were all distinct parts of man, we would be pentachotomous or hexachotomous. So these lists could prove too much. But according to Grudem, Jesus was piling up synonyms to command us to love God with all our being, and Paul was telling us, whatever our immaterial part is called, he prays that God will continue to sanctify our whole being.

CB: I show this verse to Jehovah witnesses whenever possible. If humans have a triune nature and are created in the image of God then our Lord certainly has a triune nature (aka Trinity).

JS: This does not actually follow logically, as shown by the analysis of all the other triad analogies in the main article. Nor does it follow from a bipartite view of man that God is not a Trinity.

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