Jesus and the Trinity
by Mark M. Mattison
The figure of Jesus Christ is the most powerful in all of human history. He stands at the center, literally, dividing all of history into two epochs: "Before Christ" and "The Year of Our Lord." Images of Christ have inspired, provoked, comforted, and sustained faithful people for nearly two millennia.
Who is this person named Jesus? A cynic? A sage? A rebel? A healer? A prophet? He is all these things, to be sure. But Christians affirm more of him than this. Jesus is the Son of God who saves us from our sins.
Apart from this basic affirmation, however, there remains considerable diversity in the Church about the exact relationship of Jesus to the heavenly Father. Dialogue about these differing views is complicated by the assertion of many people that theirs is the only valid Christian view. Hence it is sometimes difficult to find an objective description of each position.
The purpose of this article is to explain objectively what the different views are and why. Identifying the historical basis for each position helps us to understand today's theological landscape and to appreciate where others are coming from. So let us begin our study at the beginning - with Jesus himself.
Throughout much of his ministry Jesus' true identity, and the meaning of that identity, were pretty much obscured. Jesus referred to himself most often with the cryptic term "Son of man" (cf. John 12:34), a term probably taken from Daniel chapter 7 (cp. Dan. 7:13 with Mark 14:62). The apocalyptic figure "like a son of man" in Daniel's prophecy receives a kingdom, but only after much tribulation (7:21,22; 25-27). The "son of man" is vindicated and glorified through suffering. Similarly, Jesus, the Son of Man, had to suffer and die (Mark 8:31) before returning in glory with the angels (v. 38). Jesus also saw his own ministry in terms of Isaiah's suffering servant, who dies for many (Mark 10:43-45).
More than a prophet or a teacher or an exorcist, Jesus was the chosen Messiah of God, the Christ (John 1:41). Yet the idea of "Messiahship" had strong political overtones, as Acts 17:7 illustrates. Knowing that his mission could be jeopardized and that he could be killed "before his hour," Jesus generally avoided the provocative term "Christ" (cf. Mark 8:29,30). Nevertheless he was acutely aware of his unique relationship to God, whom he addressed intimately as Abba, "Father."
The men and women who gathered around Jesus were profoundly changed by the experience. They found forgiveness, love, meaning, and salvation. When Jesus rose from the dead, they also found the power of the Holy Spirit, given freely by the risen Lord Christ (Acts 2:32,33). This is the uniquely Christian experience shared by all who have chosen to identify themselves with Jesus Christ and to follow him in discipleship. New Testament Christians nurture a deep and abiding sense of solidarity with the risen Jesus, about whose earthly ministry we read in the Gospels.
More than just a man, this Jesus who invites our worship inspires and challenges us. Here is a man who lived a sinless life, intertwined with the very character of God. Naturally his followers have tried to come to grips in many ways with his unique nature. Many different models have been proposed through the years to explain the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.
The power of the New Testament's christology lies in the fact that this Jesus who was uniquely "from God" was at the same time fully human, one of us. However, apart from affirming Jesus' divine origins yet unqualified humanity, the New Testament Scriptures tell us little more, leaving room for considerable reflection. Jesus is Christ, Lord, Son of God. What do those things mean for us?
One early response was that Jesus may have been an angel from heaven. After all, the Son of Man is a celestial figure who comes on the clouds of heaven surrounded by angels. The Greek text of Isaiah 9:6 describes the Messiah as "the angel of great counsel." Perhaps Jesus was himself a powerful angel, or even an archangel. Traces of this christology can be found in a first- or second-century Christian book named The Shepherd of Hermas. One passage, Sim. 8.3., virtually identifies Jesus with Michael the archangel.
However, this view did not leave a lasting impression on the church. Later theologians, like Justin (Trypho 59) and Tertullian (De carne Christi 14), were willing to use the term "angel" to describe Jesus in a descriptive way as one sent from God, but not as a way to describe his nature. For most Christians, this is not a sufficiently exalted way to think of Christ. Others do find it satisfying. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, note the close association between Jesus' return and the voice of the archangel in 1 Thessalonians 4:16. On this basis they too identify Jesus with Michael. (For an additional note on Jehovah's Witnesses, see the Appendix to this article.)
Another way to explain the divinity and humanity of Christ rests on the distinction between "flesh" and "spirit." For example, the earliest surviving Christian sermon, an early second-century book known as 2 Clement, tells us that "we ought so to think of Jesus Christ, as of God, as of the Judge of quick and dead....If Christ the Lord who saved us, being first spirit, then became flesh, and so called us, in like manner also shall we in this flesh receive our reward" (1.1; 9.5).
Similarly, The Shepherd of Hermas describes "the Holy Spirit that spake with you in the form of the Church...for that Spirit is the Son of God" (Sim. 9.1). This view is spelled out in more detail earlier in the book. As will be seen below, parts of this description seem to combine ideas that later would be identified as "binitarian" and "adoptionist."
The view that Jesus first existed as a spirit or the Holy Spirit, then "became flesh," was one way to think of his divine origin and his human existence. However, this way of thinking was not very technical and did not satisfy many Christians, who continued to ask questions about how Jesus could be both human and divine.
By the middle of the second century A.D., Christianity was under attack from all fronts. Christian doctrines had to be restated in Greek language that the educated philosopher or pagan could understand. Christian doctrines were thus, for the first time, systematically treated in a sophisticated way. The writers who accomplished this are called the Apologists.
The Apologists sought to explain the relationship between God and Christ by appealing to the imagery of the Word or Rational Principle, particularly as understood by the Stoic philosophers. With the Stoics, the Apologists distinguished between the immanent Word (logos endiathetos) and the expressed Word (logos prophorikos). With this distinction in mind, they could neatly differentiate between two stages in the existence of the Word: first as residing within God (immanent) and then as a distinct person who had been begotten (not created) by God (expressed). Theophilus of Antioch writes, for example, that "God, then, having His own Word internal within His own bowels, begat him, emitting him along with His own wisdom before all things" (Autol. 2.10) and also of "the Word that always exists, residing within the heart of God. For before anything came into being He had him as a counsellor, being His own mind and thought. But when God wished to make all that He determined on, He begat His Word, uttered, the first-born of all creation, not Himself being emptied of the Word, but having begotten Reason, and always conversing with His Reason (Autol. 2.22. Cf. Also Athenagoras, Supplic. 10).
These concepts afforded the Apologists a more precise way of conceiving Christ's divinity. At this point the unformulated "spirit-flesh Christology" of an earlier stage began to give way to a more developed "Word-flesh" Christology. Justin Martyr seems to have believed that the Word took the place of the rational soul in the man Jesus (2 Apol. 10).
Justin was certainly the most prominent and influential Apologist and played a significant role in the articulation of Christological doctrine.
He too began with the popular Stoic doctrine of the "germinal word." He believed that the Word or Reason is what gave men knowledge of God. Even before the coming of Christ, men had seeds of that Reason within them; therefore, fragments of the truth could be reached by even pagans. The philosopher Socrates, Justin claimed, was a Christian (I Apology 46). He even went so far as to say that the Greek philosophers copied ideas from the books of Moses.
The Word of God was more fully revealed, however, in the person of Jesus. The mediatorial role of the Word was absolutely necessary in Justin's philosophical theology as he believed, like the Middle Platonists of his day, that God was completely transcendent, beyond comprehension.
Justin advanced three arguments for the divine Word as a being distinct from the Father. First, while the Old Testament constantly described God as appearing to men such as Abraham, it was incredible that the "Master and Father of all things should have abandoned all supercelestial affairs and made Himself visible in a minute corner of the world"; therefore, "below the Creator of all things, there is Another Who is, and is called, God and Lord" (Trypho, 60.2, 56.4). Second, texts such as Genesis 1:26 ("Let us make man in our own image") imply that God talked with a fellow being (62:2). Third, Justin compared the Word to the Wisdom figure, an agent of creation who was distinct from God (so it was understood). His description of the Word is well put in the Dialogue with Trypho:
The Apologist Melito significantly contributed to later Christological thought by conceiving the divine and human natures of Christ as operating independently of each other. Writing of Christ's two natures, he was the first to use the philosophical term ousia, "nature" (Frag. 7). This term became more critical later on.
Throughout this period Christian writers were so occupied with thinking about the Son that they did not give much thought to the exact role of the Spirit, or to the interrelationships between the Father, Son, and Spirit. To be sure, references to the three were common (cf. Matt. 28:10; Did. 7; 1 Clem. 46.6; 58.2; Ignatius, Eph. 9.1; Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 13,65). Theophilus first used the word "trinity" (or possibly "triad") when he wrote "of the trinity [triados], of God, and His Word, and His wisdom" (Autol. 2.15). However, the first Apologist to wrestle with the idea of a Trinity (not just a triad) was the uninfluential Athenagoras (Supplic. 10).
Many Christians during this time, however, were growing concerned about preserving traditional monotheism, the absolute oneness of God. In the second and third centuries, these Christians were known as Monarchians because they wanted to defend the divine "monarchy" of the one God. Today they are frequently called "modalistic Monarchians" as distinct from "dynamic Monarchians" (cf. below). The modalistic Monarchians denied any division within God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are but different "modes" of the one God's operation.
Put differently, God is seen as filling certain roles, just as a man may be an employee, a husband, and a father, all at the same time. God is then one person, indivisible, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Another term for this is "Sabellianism," named after the third-century teacher Sabellius. It is also known as "Patripassianism," a term which implies that the Father suffered on the cross.
Modern-day modalists are found most frequently in Pentecostal groups, like the United Pentecostal Church International and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. They rely heavily on Isaiah 9:6, which calls the Messiah not only "Mighty God" but also "Everlasting Father," and on John 10:30, in which Jesus said "I and the Father are one."
The second- and third-century African theologian Tertullian took exception to this widespread doctrine. Like his predecessors, the Apologists, he drew arguments and language from the Bible, Judaism, Stoicism, and other sources, but he introduced a new source for discussing Christology: Latin legal terminology. Tertullian argued that though God is one substance [unitas substantiae], He exists in three distinct persons [personae]. He was also the first author to use the Latin term trinitas (trinity).
Tertullian's book Against Praxeas contains his arguments against the modalistic Monarchians. He wrote, for example, that:
Tertullian was also the first Christian to deal specifically with the relation of the two natures in Christ. How, he asked, could the divine Word "become" flesh (Adv. Prax. 27)? Not, he asserted, by transforming himself into flesh, because then he would no longer be divine. Rather, he put on flesh; thus, the divine "substance" and the human "substance" both constitute the one "person" of Christ.
Like the Apologists, Tertullian posited a two-stage existence in the Word: First as immanent within the Father, then as expressed at the Son's generation:
For Tertullian, the Word became the Son of God when it was begotten of the Father prior to creation. The Son, though God by nature, thus occupies a subordinate role within the divine economy. Similarly, the Holy Spirit occupies a status of third rank:
As can be seen in this description of the divine economy, the Son and the Spirit are not divine in a static way but in a dynamic way; they proceed from the one substance as they have separate tasks to fulfill. They are three in order and distinction, but one in substance.
Considering this language it is easy to see why this is frequently called "the economic Trinity." Irenaeus of Lyons and Hippolytus of Rome, other second- and third-century theologians, also thought about the Trinity in this way.
This changed significantly with the third-century Origen. Although Origen's Trinity was also hierarchical, the Son and the Spirit being subordinate to the Father, Origen conceived of the Trinity as God's eternal mode of being, not as an economy. In sharp contrast to the Apologists and Tertullian, Origen refused to postulate two stages in the existence of the Word. Rather, he held that the Word is eternally being generated by the Father (De princ. 1.2.2).
The idea of subordination within the Trinity has cropped up occasionally in the history of the Church. It surfaced again, for example, among early Arminians in Europe. However, most Christians are not satisfied with assigning the Son and the Spirit subordinate positions, and many evangelical scholars today prefer to talk about economic modes within the Trinity as only one aspect of the Trinity. The Son is described, for example, as voluntarily subordinating himself to the Father in the incarnation.
The economic Trinity of Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus may not have been considered fully adequate by the Trinitarian standards of the fourth century and later, but it was successful in creating an alternative to the popular modalistic Monarchianism. However, modalism was not the only Monarchian position in the early Church.
If the modalistic Monarchians sought to defend the absolute unity of God by denying any distinctions between the three Persons, the dynamic Monarchians sought to do it by heading in the opposite direction. Whereas the modalists described the three Persons as merely different "modes" of the one God, the dynamic Monarchians described the Father as wholly separate. Dynamic Monarchianism is also known as "adoptionism," a term which properly designates the eighth-century Spanish doctrine that Christ's human nature was "adopted" by the divine Word. The term is frequently used in a more broad sense, however, to describe any view of Christ which traces his Sonship to his resurrection, transfiguration, baptism, or birth.
Dynamic Monarchianism is generally traced to a man named Theodotus who taught in Rome late in the second century. The best known dynamic Monarchian is Paul of Samosata, the bishop of Antioch from 260 to 272. For Paul, the Word was not a Person but an attribute of God which indwelt the man Jesus. As the synod of Antioch in 268 put it, Paul was "unwilling to acknowledge that the Son of God has come down from heaven" (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., 7.30.11).
Photinus, the bishop of Sirmium in the mid-fourth century, also taught that the Word was not a Person. As Chrysostom put it, Photinus believed "that the Word is an energy, and that it was this energy that dwelt in Him who was of the seed of David, and not a personal substance" (Homily VI). According to Sozomen, Photinus "acknowledged that there was one God Almighty, by whose own word all things were created, but would not admit that the generation and existence of the Son was before all ages; on the contrary, he alleged that Christ derived His existence from Mary" (Eccl. Hist. 4.6).
To support the doctrine that Christ did not preexist his birth, the Photinians cited 1 Corinthians 15:45 to the effect that Christ was preceded by Adam. Scriptural texts which may seem to teach Christ's heavenly origin, the Photinians explained, in reality refer to the heavenly origin of Christ's teaching and power. They also cited Isaiah 44:6 in defense of their strict monotheism: "This is what the LORD says - Israel's King and Redeemer, the LORD almighty: I am the first and the last; apart from me there is no God" (NIV).
This type of Monarchianism was reflected among the Spanish Bonosians through the seventh century and reappeared in sixteenth-century Poland among the Socinians. This view of Christ, along with the next view (Arianism), is known historically as the Unitarian view as opposed to the Trinitarian view. Modern-day dynamic Monarchians, who sometimes identify themselves as "Biblical Unitarians" (in contrast to liberal Unitarian Universalists), include some Adventist churches like the Church of God General Conference (Morrow, GA), as well as the Christadelphians, the Way International, and various ministries that have grown out of the Way, like Christian Educational Services in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Named for Arius of Alexandria, the Arians taught that the Word was not eternal. Arius did not believe that the Son is God, but an intermediate divine being, both in creation and redemption.
The debate broke out between Arius and his bishop Alexander early in the fourth century and became the subject of the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in A.D. 325, where Arius and his views were condemned. Athanasius, a deacon to Alexander, continued to oppose Arius and his views throughout the fourth century. Some of Arius' teachings have been preserved in Athanasius' polemical works. In the following passage, Athanasius cites several statements from Arius' Thalia:
For Arius, as for the Middle Platonists and the Apologists before him, the mediatorial activity of the subordinate Word helped to explain how a transcendent God could relate to the material creation. Arius' innovation was to argue that the Word was created ex nihilo, "out of nothing." And though he rejected Origen's view of the eternal generation of the Son, Arius used other parts of Origen's theology, particularly his subordinationism, in articulating his own position. For the Arians, the experiences attributed to Jesus in the Gospels - hunger, emotion, death - could not have been predicated of the Word had he been fully divine.
Arianism has been one of the most common forms of non-Trinitarianism in Church history. Its spread can be traced through Europe and into the Reformation period. It has claimed many distinguished adherents, including John Locke, John Milton, and many Unitarians. Several Adventist groups today, including Jehovah's Witnesses, hold to an Arian view of Christ. (For an additional note on Jehovah's Witnesses, see the Appendix to this article.)
The controversy over Arius' views prompted Emperor Constantine to arrange the first Ecumenical Council early in the fourth century. So in 325, over 300 bishops gathered at Nicaea to address the Arian issue and agree upon a creed.
As we have seen, Arius maintained that the Son was of a different (heteros) substance from the Father, but Athanasius maintained that the Son was of the same substance (homoousia). A compromise suggested by Eusebius of Caesarea, that the Son be considered "of similar substance" (homoiosia), was in the end rejected. The council's final creed (which differs from the revised creed of 381) reads as follows:
It was on this foundation that Athanasius argued against every form of subordinationism. Later the Cappadocian Fathers extended the homoousia concept to the Holy Spirit, completing the doctrine. From this point on, the dominant viewpoint in the Church by far has been Athanasian Trinitarianism: One God existing in three distinct Persons, co-equal, co-eternal, consubstantial.
As spelled out in Athanasius' book The Incarnation of the Word of God, the primary concern of Trinitarian doctrine is soteriological in nature: In order for humankind to be saved, God Himself had to become man and die on the cross. Only then, Athanasius taught, could the gap between God and humankind be bridged. For Trinitarians, the Son is the Word of God who was God (John 1:1) yet became flesh (1:14).
During the first four centuries of the Church's history, Christians speculated, reasoned, argued, fought, and agonized over the doctrine of Christ. Although the Ecumenical Creeds formally recognized Athanasian Trinitarianism, each of the Christological options described above have persisted in the Church. And Christians today study and debate the doctrine of Christ just as zealously as our early counterparts.
Angel Christology, modalistic Monarchianism, economic Trinitarianism, dynamic Monarchianism, Arianism, and Athanasian Trinitarianism all attempt to grapple with the issue of what Jesus Christ means to us. Each position has merit, though some admittedly are more meaningful than others. The important thing to realize is that none of these theologies in and of themselves constitute the totality of Christian faith, as some argue. Rather, they are each attempts to understand Jesus better. As such, each position contains some nugget of truth. The Jesus who said "I am the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6, NIV), who is "the First and the Last" (Rev. 1:17), who sustains "all things by his powerful word" (Heb. 1:3), cannot ultimately be reduced to a formula or a creed. He is more real than a theology. Whoever wishes to know Jesus must finally meet him at the foot of the cross, where Jesus can be recognized as the righteous Son of God who gives his life for many (Mark 15:39; 10:45). This is all that God requires we understand (cf. 1 Cor. 2:2; 15:1-3). Beyond that, there is room for doctrinal diversity in our interpretations.
But if each of the views described above is acceptable, how are we to understand Paul's warnings about another Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 11:4)? The article Heresy and Unity deals with this critical question. (This article is not available.)
One may also ask how Christians with different theologies can claim equal trust in the same Scriptures, or how we can fellowship and work together when so many Christians have divided and fought over these very issues through the centuries. The Basis for Christian Fellowship addresses these questions. (This article is not available.)
It is difficult to discuss the theology of Jehovah's Witnesses without also asking whether their organization, the Watchtower, is a religious cult as most Christians maintain. Many evangelical Protestants, like the late Walter Martin, define a "cult" as any group that holds to a different theology. Frequently a version of the Trinity is the watershed issue. This definition, however, is subjective and prone to abuse. It is easy to define ourselves as being "correct" and everyone who disagrees as being "wrong."
I propose a much healthier approach. Rather than focus on creeds and labels, we would do far better to consider more practical spiritual matters. Is any given church legalistic, authoritarian, divisive? That's the issue. Such churches and groups are capable of inflicting deep psychological damage. In the case of the Watchtower, my problem is not so much with their theology as with their authoritarianism. Any member who begins to develop an opinion contrary to the organization is excluded and ignored. Good Christian Jehovah's Witnesses are denied their relationships with family and friends. If a Jehovah's Witness' life is invested in the organization - if everything and everyone she knows and holds dear is bound up with the group - then exclusion can be a very terrible experience indeed. This bondage is a far cry from the liberating truth represented by Jesus, who loves us unconditionally whether we get our theology right or not.
Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954, reprint 1978.
Grillmeier, A. Christ in Christian Tradition, Vol. 1: From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451). 2nd ed. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975.
Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978.
Lampe, G.W.H. "Christian Theology in the Patristic Period." A History of Christian Doctrine. Ed. By H. Cunliffe-Jones. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.
Citation of 2 Clement from J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, eds., The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House), 1891, reprint 1984. All other citations are from Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), and Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.).
Posted March 18, 1999 by permission of the author
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