Friday, March 23, 2012

Random Meditations on the Trinity

The following is just a collection of meditations on the Trinity that I've had for most of the week, especially after some interesting conversations.

Do you need to believe in the Trinity to be saved?

This is a rather tricky question that must be first rightly phrased before it can be rightly answered. Emergents, liberals and other false teachers often attack orthodoxy by accusing Christians of teaching that you need to hold a specific set of beliefs in order to be truly saved. We recognize, however, that it is not the mere mental assent towards a deity is synonymous with salvation, for the Lord speaks of those who will call him "Lord! Lord!" on the day of judgment and yet be rejected (Matt 7:21-23), and the apostle James likewise writes: "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!" (Jam 2:19) To say that a mere belief or adherence to a certain type of teaching will grant one salvation is at best easy believism and at worst cultism. Therefore, it is not merely an empty belief or understanding in the Trinity which gives a person salvation.

With this realized, let's transition to the more appropriate understanding of the relationship between belief and salvation. Faith, in regards to its salvific purpose, is dependent not upon the person who professes it, but upon the God who enables that person to confess it. Our blessed Lord spoke, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (John 6:44), and the apostle Paul wrote (in an often misquoted passage), "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phi 2:12-13). God enables a person to believe, and through that faith in Christ they are saved. B.B. Warfield put it perfectly when he wrote, discussing the topic of sola fide, that it is not faith in Christ which saves, but Christ who saves through faith.

Now let us turn this understanding towards our question of the Trinity and salvation. We know that mere assent to the belief in the Trinity saves no one - however, we also know that it is God's doing in the work of transforming a man's heart to believe fully in Him. If, therefore, someone denies the Trinity, then their very status of salvation is in question. Why is this? If God quickens a person, common sense begs us to understand that He quickens a person to believe towards Him and no other entity, for all other religions are the worship of demons (Deu 32:17; 1 Cor 10:20). If we recognize that God quickens a person, and we also recognize that God would quicken a person towards Him and no other entity, then common sense will now beg us to recognize that a person quickened by God to worship Him as He is in His very state of being and in no other way. That is, a person quickened towards God will not burn incense to Hindu gods, or pray towards Mecca in allegiance to Allah and the teachings of his so-called prophet Mohammad. A person quickened towards God will recognize who God is and what His "divine make up" is. I might compare this to an orphan who meets his natural mother and father and finds out their identity; he will not give respect owed to parents to the first random person on the street, but to those whom he has discovered are his true parents.

Therefore, recognizing that if it is God who quickens a person, and that person should now submit to God alone, and that person must submit to God with an understanding of what, and not just who, God is, then a person who denies the Trinity denies what God is, and how His state of being exists, and therefore must have their salvation questioned. That is, a person who claims to be called of God and yet worships another god who is not Trinitarian in nature cannot truly have been saved, for he is directing his worship towards someone other than the true God of scripture.

Do we need to find the word "Trinity" in the Bible in order for it to be true?

A common attack by some against the Trinity is the fact that either the exact word "Trinity" is not mentioned, or that no New Testament writer ever spends time elaborating upon the Trinity in detail. Is this a fair argument? On the other hand, this argument forgets two main points:

1) This is reading backwards into history. That no one used the word "Trinity" in the New Testament is because the word came at least a century or two later, long after the time of the apostolic church and her writers. Furthermore, the word was not created to invent a doctrine, but to identify it. Note very carefully: I am not arguing for a kind of "progressive revelation" akin to the Roman Catholic Church. The Trinity (rather, God's Trinitarian Being) was always present even though the term itself had not been conceived. The point we are trying to make is that we should not expect any one to use terms and phrases that did not exist at their time.

A historical example: Pliny the Younger, describing the explosion of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, did not use any scientific terms, and yet his description of the explosions are so great that vulcanologists, reading it more than a millennium later, were able to identify exactly what he was describing (in fact, he described it so well they named the type of eruption after him). That Pliny did not know what to call the type of eruption does not suggest his description of it was invalid, nor that the 79 AD eruption didn't happen at all. It would be absurd to read backwards into history and demand Pliny use terminology and phrases that did not exist until long after his death.

2) The absence of a term does not imply that the definition cannot be discovered or seen. To explain this point, I often use an example from the movie The Battle of Algiers: in the movie, reporters ask the fictional Colonel Matthieu if he is torturing Algerian prisoners, to which Matthieu replies, "The word 'torture' is not written on any of our orders." Unfortunately, the truth of the matter was they were torturing prisoners. That the word "torture" was not written in the orders did not mean that torture was not happening.

The reason the word "Trinity" came into being at a later point in history was not because the doctrine in toto was being created along with the term, but rather to identify and name the doctrine that had already been known, in the same manner that the volcanic eruption was named to identify and name that which Pliny the Younger had seen.

Is the Trinity taught in the Bible?

Now that we've established a word does not need to be present in order for its definition or what it describes to be seen, and that a historical label does not need to be forced backward upon a person describing said label, let us ask the basic question: does the Trinity exist in scripture? Or is the Trinity a later teaching not only in word but in definition and understanding? It is common for many people today to say that you can't prove the Trinity with scripture...and yet, this is completely and utterly false. The following are some verses I have personally discovered in my own studies (and not by running to Google, I assure you) regarding an identification of the Trinity and what roles the Trinitarian Persons play. I'll quote them and provide a brief explanation for each.
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” [Matthew 3:16-17]
Here we see all three Persons of the Trinity make an appearance: the Son is baptized, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and the Father speaks from heaven. There is a level of individuality seen in all of them: the Holy Spirit takes on the form of a dove, the Son is there in the flesh, and the Father is speaking as an eyewitness to the Sonship of Christ.
"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" [Matthew 28:19]
Here, in the midst of the Great Commission, we have the command for Trinitarian baptism. Baptism, in Judaism, was always in the name of God, and indeed one would imagine that baptism should be in no other name except that of God. Yet here Christ commands the apostles to baptize in the name (singular) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (each Person, in the original Greek, has the definite article preceding their name, emphasizing the distinction).

A person who denies this teaches the Trinity must therefore come to either one of two conclusions: Tritheism (three gods), which would contradict the monotheism of the rest of scripture; Modalism (three titles for the same god), which can be easily contradicted by other scriptures in which these persons are spoken of as distinct individuals (cf. Acts 2:26).
"Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, [the Son] has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing." [Acts 2:33]
Here the apostle Peter, speaking to the Jews at Pentecost, explains the goings on and the source of all the wonders happening. After a lengthy discussion on the Person of Christ, Peter states that the Son has been exalted at the right hand of God, the Father, and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, the Son has bestowed the Holy Spirit upon the believers. Here we have an example of the "monarchical procession" of the Trinity that ancient theologians often wrote on. That is, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and through the Son upon believers. This signifies the various roles that the Trinity played at Pentecost, as well as how the Persons relate to one another: the Father bestows, the Son receives and sends, and the Holy Spirit is sent out.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. [Romans 8:3-4]
Here, during Paul's great exposition on salvation, the apostle identifies the actions of the Trinitarian Person within said salvation: God the Father sent God the Son in the likeness of flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to God the Holy Spirit, who is our guide in this.
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. [Romans 8:16-17]
Continuing his exposition on salvation, Paul states that the Holy Spirit bears witness (which is a personal action, suggesting the Holy Spirit is a Person and not a mere impersonal force) with our own spirit that we are children of God. If this is the case, Paul says, then we are heirs of God the Father, as we are fellow heirs with Christ, the Son. Thus all three Persons within the Trinity act to verify our salvation: the Holy Spirit is our witness that we are heirs with the Son, and as we are heirs with the Son, we are heirs to the Father.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. [1 Corinthians 12:4-6]
The apostle Paul begins a discussion on the unity of believers within the church despite the numerous gifts and talents. At the very beginning, Paul makes a sign of unity by turning to the Trinity itself: there are variety of gifts, but the same Spirit (who bestows those gifts); there are a variety of service, but the same Lord (who grants the ability to serve); there are a variety of activities, but the same God (that is, the Father, and who empowers those activities in believers). The roles of the Persons within the Trinity are made distinct from one another, and yet they are likewise put on the same level with one another, and unity is maintained.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. [2 Corinthians 13:14]
At the conclusion of his epistle, the apostle Paul writes out a blessing to the Corinthians by naming all three Trinitarian Persons. He wishes for the Corinthian church: 1) grace from the Son; 2) love from the Father; 3) fellowship from the Holy Spirit. As with the first epistle, all three Persons are mentioned in the same train of thought.
In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. [Ephesians 1:13-14]
Similar to Romans 8:16-17, the apostle Paul goes into brief detail regarding the roles of the Trinitarian Persons within a believer's salvation. In Christ, the Son, believers were sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit, who serves as our guarantee of the inheritance of the Father.
For through [the Son] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. [Ephesians 2:18]
In a very blunt verse, Paul states that in the Son we have access to the Father by the Holy Spirit. The Son, of course, is the only way to the Father (John 14:6), and it is in the Holy Spirit that Christians have fellowship with one another (2 Cor 13:14).
How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. [Hebrews 2:3-4]
Writing to Jewish Christians, the writer of Hebrews (whether the reader believes it was Paul or not) asks how one can neglect so great a salvation, and then discusses how this salvation was revealed to the Jews. First, it was declared by the Lord - that is, the Son - through the ministry of Christ, which was heard by the apostles and other eyewitnesses. Second, the witness of the Father's favor in the Son was seen through the signs, wonders and miracles. Third, it was seen by the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to the apostles and early Christians as a sign to the Jews of that time. In just two verses, the writer explains how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit worked together in the exposition of salvation to early believers.
How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. [Hebrews 9:14]
In the great discussion of our salvation by Christ's atonement, the same writer of Hebrews goes into a discussion on how all three Persons work in this salvation. That is, the Son (Christ), offered Himself, through the Holy Spirit, without blemish to God the Father, in order that believers may be purified and made holy to serve God.

This is just a sampling of verses wherein the Persons of the Trinity are identified, most of which also go into discussion regarding the roles of those Persons. Again, the idea that the Trinity cannot be taught or seen in scripture is simply untrue.

Should we be concerned if no one previous to the New Testament writers believed in the Trinity?

Did Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah and other Old Testament personalities believe in the Trinity? Of course, men like David never wrote on the Trinity, and it's probably safe to assume that Abraham and Moses were not in full knowledge of God's true design of Being during their lifetime. Is this enough to dismiss the Trinity, however?

Obviously, we recognize that those in the Old Testament and New Testament alike worshiped the same God, and that the God of the New Testament is the same God as the Old Testament. Trinitarianism is still monotheism, and the Trinitarian nature of God does not contradict or usurp the monotheistic teachings of the Old Testament. Therefore, the God whom Abraham prayed to and the God whom Paul prayed to are one and the same God. In this regard, there is no conflict.

What we must consider, however, is that through the Old Testament there was a progression of revelation towards the Messiah and the atonement of the Messiah's people. We see this throughout the Old Testament itself. Abraham did not know anything of the Temple or its sacrifices, though Ezekiel and Jeremiah certainly did. Deborah knew of the sacrifices for atonement, but nothing of the Temple, though John the Baptist and the apostles certainly knew of both. All that God revealed, bit by bit, pointed towards Christ. They were a "shadow of the good things to come" (Heb 10:1) until "the fullness of time" wherein God would send His Son (Gal 4:4).

Part of this revelation would be the full understanding of God's Being as being Trinitarian in function. For certain there are moments wherein the existence of coequal Persons within the Trinity are hinted at, such as the account of Sodom and Gomorrah's destruction, where it is said that "the LORD rained...sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven" (Gen 19:24), or the psalm of David where he writes "the LORD says to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand...'" (Psa 110:1). However, the truest revelation of God's Trinitarian Being would be in the time New Testament period, with the incarnation of the Son and the gifting of the Holy Spirit to the church. Everything from Genesis to Revelation is about the coming of Christ and the fulfillment of God's glory in His death and resurrection.

Therefore, it should not surprise us that no one previous to the New Testament spoke on the Trinity any more than it should surprise us that Abraham knew nothing of the Temple and its sacrifices. This does not, however, denote that the Trinity is created. God revealed forward, and the apex of this revelation was in the Trinitarian revelation of the New Testament, where the Father would send the Son to willingly give His life in the cross that, with the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, we may have forgiveness of sins and become fellow heirs with the Son to the inheritance of the Father.