Does the Beginning of the Doctrine of the Trinity have its
Roots in the Historical Life of Jesus?

                                                              

 

Peter Engholm

Monash University, 1999

 

 

 

ABSTRACT:

This paper aims to look at the validity of the beginning of the Doctrine of the Trinity, and whether it has its roots in the earthly life of Jesus. It shall be argued that the doctrine has no strong basis in the historical life of Jesus. That three divine elements exist (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), is beyond doubt after examining the New Testament, but the true relationship between them cannot be deducted from the Gospels. This must be left to faith alone to decide, and not to historical or scientific methods.

KEYWORDS:

Bible, theology, Trinity, Jesus, Doctrine, faith, Trinitarianism

 

FULL TEXT:

Introduction

The doctrine of the trinity uses terminology not used in Scripture. It teaches and emphasises plurality in the Godhead while the Bible emphasises the oneness of God. It detracts from the fullness of Jesus Christ’s deity. It contradicts many specific verses of Scripture. It is not logical. No one can understand or explain it rationally, not even those who advocate it. In short, trinitarianism is a doctrine that does not belong to Christianity.[1]

In the past 1,600 years, the Doctrine of the Trinity has been elaborated, analysed, discusses, and criticised by Christian authorities, and remains today one of the most debatable issues concerning its validity for contemporary Christian belief.  The theology of the Trinity has been referred to as “an incomprehensible and cramping burden to some”[2], leading to a better understanding and justification of Karl Rahner’s earlier observation that most Christians in practice are monotheists because the contents of the Doctrine is too hard to grasp.[3]  As noted by Johnson, Christians simply take it for granted and leave the mysterious doctrinal aspects to theologians.[4]

The disagreements about the theology of the trinity centre around the Trinitarian confession of one God in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Critics to the doctrine mainly argue that its theism detracts from the important biblical themes of the oneness of God and the absolute deity of Jesus Christ, meaning that the doctrine does not proclaim Jesus as truly God but as some personality that in one sense is God, but at the same time separate from God. They argue that there are no links to the life of the historical Jesus that justifies the Trinitarian view, and that it actually contradicts the Bible with its basic message of the oneness of God. Also, the critics see the Holy Spirit not as being part of the ‘God-head’ but merely being the power of God, that is, not a person.[5]

Kasper writes that the Trinitarian confession is the “recapitulation and summary of the entire Christian mystery of salvation, and with it the entire reality of Christian salvation stands or falls.”[6]  Other theologians, however, mean that this is not necessarily the case, and that we by rejecting the Doctrine still can affirm the deity of Jesus, the humanity of Jesus, and all that is encapsulated in the traditional Christian belief. Even the famous theologian Karl Rahner writes that: “…we must be willing to admit that should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false (…) the Christian idea of the incarnation would not have to change at all”.[7]

For a true Christian believer, it is necessary to form an opinion about the doctrine of the Trinity if one believes that God inspired Paul to write: “Test everything. Hold on to the good” (1 Thes. 5:21), and: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).

Therefore, this paper aims to look at the validity of the beginning of the Doctrine of the Trinity, and whether it has its roots in the earthly life of Jesus, because if it has not, how can it then be justified and of any importance for Christianity today? Some may argue that the doctrine came about through spiritual revelation experiences by the early Church fathers and not through historical examination of the Gospels, but that view is beyond the rational discussion of the Trinity that is the purpose of this paper. Before the discussion begins, however, it is important to look closer at what the beginning of the Trinity says.

The Doctrine of the Trinity

The creed that is referred to as the Doctrine of the Trinity was initially formed at the council of Nicaea in AD 325, and later modified at the Council that met in Constantinople in AD 381. A shorter version of the Creed, known as the Apostles’ Creed is widely accepted by Christians today and is used here for the purpose of discussion. It begins:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried...[8]

As with the original Creed (I believe in one God…the father… and one Jesus), this clearly indicates that the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit are seen as three different beings, although somehow intimately related. The word Trinitarianism itself implies the belief that there are three persons in one God.

Hence, there are basically three main possible explanations to the relationship of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. The first explanation is a modified Modalist view, which states that the three are one, but exists as somehow different modes or persons. This is the view that is closest to that of Trinitarian theology.[9] The second view is that Jesus is the one and only God, and the Holy Spirit is merely the power that stems from this God. Advocates of this Unitarian view emphasise the true divinity of Jesus and criticise the inclusion of the Holy Spirit in the Trinitarian doctrine, usually arguing that it came about through pagan and various philosophical influences. Finally, it could also be argued that there is only one God (the Father) and Jesus and the Spirit are merely ‘tools’ used by God in His divine plan for humanity - a view close to the liberal Protestantism that arose in the nineteenth century.

Therefore, to determine the basis and true interpretation of the Doctrine of the Trinity, we must first go to the roots of the theology it professes. This is the Bible, and primarily, the life of the historical Jesus. If these findings cannot completely support the Trinitarian view, one must then consider alternative reasons for the development of the doctrine.

There is one important ‘red flag’ about the following discussion that must be mentioned. It shall be assumed that most of what is written in the Bible (and is referred to in this paper) goes back to the historical life of Jesus. However, as the four Gospels are the only sources for Jesus’ deeds and sayings, they provide a weak basis for a valid historical assessment. These documents are also often referred to as confessional documents - a blend of historical facts and faith-inspired interpretations and modifications, and might not faithfully represent the true sayings or deeds by Jesus. But then again, if one is only to consider the material that most scholars agree upon is highly authentic material, one may get no connection to a Trinitarian view at all, which would put an end to the discussion here and now. For this reason, the Gospels will be used to support or reject the issue of whether the Trinity has its roots in the historical life of Jesus.

With this in mind, the Gospel texts can now be analysed, and the focus shall first be on the argument that the Doctrine of the Trinity has its basis in the life of Jesus, followed by the view that it has not.

Support for the Trinitarian view:

There is no dispute that the Bible does not explicitly mention the word ‘trinity’, but as noted by Johnson[10], there is also no substantive proof such a doctrine is even indicated. This has always been the main obstacle for Trinitarian advocates to overcome. Probably the most notorious scripture used in the past as “proof” of a Trinity is 1 John 5:7[11], but many theologians recognise that this scripture was added to the New Testament probably as late as the eight century A.D. when the Doctrine of the Trinity already had been in existence for a few centuries.[12] Also, this is not a passage that has its basis in the historical life of Jesus, but in the post-death and resurrection era marked by interpretation and revelation of the risen Christ.

According to Owen[13], however, there are plenty of triadic passages in the Gospels texts where the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are simultaneously distinguished and united. He mentions Matthew 28:19, where the risen Jesus commands his apostles to baptise all nations “in the name of the Father, Son and of the Holy Spirit”. This is a passage often cited by Trinitarians, but as noted by Johnson[14], the passage does not indicate that God is a Trinity. However, although Kasper agrees with that interpretation, he also states that it provides a basis for such reflection due to the fact that the passage sees the Father, the Son and the Spirit side by side as full ‘equals’. He also notes, though, that this baptismal command is generally regarded today not as a saying of the historical Jesus, but as a summary of the early church’s development which was guided by the Spirit of the risen Christ and to that extend authorised by Jesus himself.[15]

Trinitarian advocates generally argue that although there is no direct link to the doctrine in the Scripture, the passages that speak about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit speak about the three as working together as a unity in their salvific work, and McGrath makes the point that:

Time after time, New Testament passages link together these three elements as part of the greater whole. The totality of God’s saving presence and power can only, it would seem, be expressed by involving all three elements.[16]

This can specifically be seen in the Gospel passages describing Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-11; cf. Matt. 3:13-17; Luke 3:21f), where the Gospel writers recognise a unique triune relationship. The baptism of Jesus is also seen as part of the authentic material, because it satisfies the embarrassment criteria for authentic material, meaning that events that would have been considered embarrassing for Jesus’ disciples but still recorded in the Scripture are highly likely to have happened. As the baptism meant forgiveness of sins, and Jesus was considered sinless, the Gospel writers would have felt uneasy to record the event, and would not have done so had it not really happened. Hence, these passages that recognise a close relationship between the Father, the Son and the Spirit can be seen as one strong basis for the Trinitarian view.

It should be noted, though, that no passage clearly defines the relationship between the three, just that various texts acknowledge that one exists - and this is the basic message of the Doctrine of the Trinity: One God, but three ‘persons’.

Also, one must not forget that the Old Testament laid the structure for a later Trinitarian understanding. Although both the Old Testament and the New Testament share the faith in one God (monotheism), there are plenty of passages that indicate that God’s oneness does not mean that it can not be ‘shared’ with other persons, for example, the statement: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26; cf. 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8), where God speaks about himself in plural. Many passages in the Old Testament also speak about the ‘angel of Yahweh’, again indicating more than one personality in God and provided the New Testament with a point of departure for later Trinitarianism.[17] It should be noted, though, that critics to Trinitarianism simultaneously use this evidence to prove the doctrine wrong.

Trinitarianism in Jesus’ life:

The discussion so far has generated an overview and a basis for the Trinitarian belief. If one looks deeper into the life of Jesus and His own spiritual experiences, hints and formulations that support the Trinitarian view can be deducted. For example, in the unique and non-transferable Abba-relation that Jesus has to God, God is revealed as being ‘Father’. Indirectly, this makes it clear that from eternity God is the God and Father of Jesus Christ and therefore that as Son of God Jesus belongs to the eternal being of God.[18]

A claim by Jesus that God was his father in a special and unique way that did not apply to other human beings would have seemed controversial and heretic at the time. The Abba-relationship implies a personal trust and intimacy between a father and his son, and it would have been unthinkable for a contemporary Jew to use that word for God. Jesus also affirmed that as the Son he is the sole means by which the Father can be known: “No one knows the Father except for the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). In various ways Jesus is depicted as claiming a status higher than that of any prophet, and the question then follows: Could a mere man validly claim to embody God’s reign, to exert divine authority, and to be the sole means by which knowledge of the Father is obtained? Trinitarians say no. [19]

Jesus also affirmed that in his works the promised Kingdom of God had arrived, and his lifestyle, teaching and behaviour showed that he possessed the Spirit of God. That led his disciples to believe he was more than an ordinary man, in fact, that he was God incarnate. The possession of the Holy Spirit - believed to had been given to Jesus at His baptism, laid the ground for the Trinitarian concept with the Father and the Son, completed with the add-on of the third person, the Holy Spirit, as it was experienced by the Christians after Jesus’ death and resurrection.[20] Hence, Trinitarians argue that the beginnings to the Doctrine of the Trinity are to be found in the earthly life of Jesus by stating that:

a) Many passages indicate a special relationship and intimacy between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Although the word ‘trinity’ does not appear anywhere in the New Testament, it is clear that these three work together in unity for God’s work on earth with man’s salvation.

b) The Holy Spirit was given to Jesus at His Baptism, and hence plays an important, if not vital, part in the salvation act by Jesus. The Abba-relationship between the historical Jesus and his Father, and the clear indications of Jesus’ possession of the Holy Spirit throughout his life that later explicitly was experienced by His disciples, indicate a triune God.

Kasper concludes that the doctrine of the Trinity has its basis solely in the history of God’s dealings with human beings and in the historical self-revelation of the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit,[21] and hence there is a case for arguing that the beginnings of the doctrine of the Trinity can be found in the historical life of Jesus.

The discussion now turns to the view that object the inclusion of the Holy Spirit in the Trinitarian view and the lack of full recognition of Jesus’ divinity, hence rejecting the validity of the Trinitarian doctrine.

Criticism of the Trinitarian view:

Many theologians argue that the doctrine of the Trinity does not have a Biblical basis, hence not originating from the historical life of Jesus. John Graham wrote in the early 1920’s that:

The doctrine of Nicaea may have been a useful thought-form for the time when it arose; it may have crystallised experience and speculation in the best shape then possible - but (…) I doubt the usefulness of the washed out or attenuated forms of the doctrine in which triple manifestations of some kind can be noted or discerned in God.[22]

Ted Peters writes in his book God as Trinity that: “There is no inherent reason for assuming that the three persons have to be identical or equal in nature”, and he continues with arguing that “the notion of one being in three persons is simply a conceptual device for trying to understand the drama of salvation that takes place in Jesus Christ”.[23]

Earlier in the paper it was recognised that even the famous Catholic theologian Karl Rahner raised the issue about the validity of the doctrine of the Trinity, so how do the critics justify their objections to the Trinitarian view, and what exactly do they try to convey?

God is duality, not trinity

The main argument against Trinitarianism is that it can be reasonably well deducted from the Bible and Jesus’ historical life that the Father (God) and the Son (Jesus) are One, but there is on the other hand no proof in regard to the Holy Spirit’s equal divinity. Karl Barth, one of the most noted theologians of the twentieth century, admits that the Church has gone beyond the Bible to arrive at its doctrine of the Trinity, stating that: “The Bible lacks the express declaration that the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are of equal essence and therefore in an equal sense God himself”[24]. Owen also admits that the New Testament’s teaching on the Spirit is less developed than the teaching on the Son, and thus nowhere affirms a co-eternity with the Father. Rather, the Spirit was sent solely for the purpose of mediating the life of Christ to believers, not being the object of worship. [25]

Critics to Trinitarianism argue that the early Christians came out of a strictly monotheistic world of Judaism into the rampantly polytheistic Roman Empire, and the doctrine of the Trinity was one attempt to position themselves theologically between the extremes, and to try to explain the complex relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as it was experienced by Jesus in his earthly life, and by his disciples after the resurrection[26].

Ted Peters sums up the main argument by stating that: “the Holy Spirit is itself the relationship between the father and the Son. The Spirit is not an additional entity… rather… is itself the presence of God.”[27]

The beginnings of John’s Gospel clearly indicate the duality of God, according to the critics: “The Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1), and “The Word became flesh..:” (John 1:14). Other passages throughout the Gospels show that Jesus is the human name given to God the Son, manifested in flesh. Hence, the critics stress the Oneness in God: God became man (Jesus) through the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit was then given to Jesus’ disciples to mediate the life of Jesus (God). Hence, the Trinity falsifies the true nature of the one-and-only-God, and there is nothing in the historical life of Jesus that indicates otherwise. The critics argue that the early believers believed in only one God, but that the doctrine of the Trinity was a later man-made theory, influenced by Greek philosophy and pagan thoughts of polytheism. [28]

Concluding remarks:

This discussion has focused on two main views about the doctrine of the Trinity. While the Trinitarian view supports the notion of a “three-in-one” God, the critics argue that this has no basis in the life of Jesus. Rather, they argue, it is a man-made theory that detracts from the central fact that God (the Father) is One, manifested in flesh (the Son) to bring salvation through the power of the Holy Spirit.

It is hard to take any of the two views for granted, as they both have many weak points. For example, although Trinitarians argue that one can sense a unique triune relationship between Jesus, the Spirit and God by looking at the historical life of Jesus, there is really not much in the Gospels that clearly support the notion of a trinity. Some Trinitarians may argue that it was ‘fulfilled’ by the Holy Spirit after the historical life of Jesus, but this would then not completely satisfy the purpose of this paper to see whether the trinity has its basis in Jesus’ life. The critics to Trinitarianism may find it hard to explain why Jesus talked about his Father, prayed to his Father, and preached about his Father if He was truly God himself. Trinitarianism may have better answers to this, with its underlying modalist philosophy.

In the end, the problems with the true nature of God has led some towards liberal Protestantism, the third view that sees Jesus and the Holy Spirit as some ‘tools’, used by a ‘one-and-only’ God to bring salvation to mankind. Whatever view is correct, it seems as if the doctrine of the Trinity has gathered the information about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit from the New Testament, but that it may not correctly reveal the true relationship between these, nor the full divinity of Jesus.

Still, the doctrine of the Trinity is part of the general Christian faith today, and Kasper believes that the confession of the Trinity is a necessary part of Christian life, stating that: “a christological confession is possible only in the form of a Trinitarian confession”.[29] The author of this paper stands neutral to this belief, as well as the question of the validity of the doctrine of the Trinity, but argue from the discussion above that it has no strong basis in the historical life of Jesus. That three divine elements exist (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), is beyond doubt after examining the New Testament, but the true relationship between them cannot be deducted from the Gospels. This must be left to faith alone to decide, and not to historical or scientific methods.

 

Any reproduction or distribution of this text is prohibited without express permission by the author. Please contact peter@engholm.nu for permission or further information.

 

REFERENCES:

Books:

Graham, J., (1920). The Faith of a Quaker, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kasper, W., (1997). The God of Jesus Christ, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York.

Owen, H. P., (1984). Christian Theism, T & T Clark, Edinburgh.

Peters, T., (1993). God as Trinity, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville Ky.

Rusch, W. G., (1980). The Trinitarian Controversy, Fortress Press, Philadelphia.

Swinburne, R., (1994). The Christian God, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Willis, A. H., (1996). A Search for the Christian God, Minerva Press, London.

 

Internet Articles:

Active Bible Church of God Homepage, “Is the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity Obsolete?”, http://www.abcog.org/trinity.htm.

Johnson, G., “Is the Trinity biblical?”, http://www.biblestudy.org/basicart/trinity1.html.

The Christian Connection Homepage, “Why We Believe in One God and Reject the Trinity Theory”, http://www.freeyellow.com/members4/fixdonhim/onlyone.html.

The Pentecostal Homepage, “Trinitarianism: An evaluation”, http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/pentecostal/One-Ch12.htm.

Worldwide Church of God, “Is the Trinity in the Bible?”, http://www.wcg.org/lit/God/trinitybible.htm.

 

The Holy Bible:

New International Version, (1984). International Bible Society, Colorado Springs.

 

FOOTNOTES:



[1] The Pentecostal Homepage, “Trinitarianism: An evaluation”, http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/pentecostal/One-Ch12.htm.

[2] A. H. Willis, (1996). A Search for the Christian God, Minerva Press, London, p.66.

[3] Walter Kasper, (1997). The God of Jesus Christ, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, p.234.

[4] George Johnson, “Is the Trinity biblical?”, http://www.biblestudy.org/basicart/trinity1.html.

[5] The Pentecostal Homepage, “Trinitarianism: An evaluation”.

[6] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, p.233.

[7] Johnson, “Is the Trinity biblical?”.

[8] Willis, A Search for the Christian God, p.62.

[9] Note: Trinitarian theology is itself a widely debatable theology that tries to explain in depth this complicated ‘three-in-one’ relationship. For the sake of the discussion in this paper, further detailed knowledge of this is not needed, as the focus only is on whether the concept of trinity has its roots from the earthly life of Jesus or not.

[10] Johnson, “Is the Trinity biblical?”.

[11] For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.

[12] Ibid.

[13] H. P. Owen, (1984). Christian Theism, T & T Clark, Edinburgh, p.53.

[14] Johnson, “Is the Trinity biblical?”.

[15] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, p.245.

[16] Worldwide Church of God, “Is the Trinity in the Bible?”, http://www.wcg.org/lit/God/trinitybible.htm.

[17] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, pp.242-243.

[18] Ibid., p.244.

[19] Owen, Christian Theism, p.37.

[20] Ibid., p.55.

[21] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, pp.237-242.

[22] John Graham, (1920). The Faith of a Quaker, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp.64-64.

[23] Ted Peters, (1993). God as Trinity, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville Ky, p.70.

[24] Johnson, “Is the Trinity biblical?”.

[25] Owen, Christian Theism, pp.54-55.

[26] Active Bible Church of God Homepage, “Is the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity Obsolete?”, http://www.abcog.org/trinity.htm.

[27] Peters, God as Trinity, p.67.

[28] The Christian Connection Homepage, “Why We Believe in One God and Reject the Trinity Theory”, http://www.freeyellow.com/members4/fixdonhim/onlyone.html.

[29] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, p.249.