Why We Don't Worship Three Gods

 

 

Neither philosophy nor tradition should control the reading of Scripture.

John Reeve

The conception of God as Trinity has always been both central and problematic to Christianity. Nevertheless, “three Persons in one God” effectively summarizes biblical revelation about the nature of the Godhead. Externally, this conceptualization of God has caused the other two monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam, to accuse Christianity of being polytheistic. Internally, ever since the early Christian Church chose this Trinitarian formula to best express what the Bible revealed about God, no doctrine has seemed more essential to the Christian conceptualization of God. At the same time, the doctrine of the Trinity has been repeatedly attacked as an illogical misrepresentation of God by various determined minorities.

 

Adventists and Trinitarianism

In early 19th-century America, the Christian Connexion, a small denomination that for a time counted Joseph Bates and James White among its ministers, was one such anti-Trinitarian minority. As leaders in the little flock that grew and eventually organized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Bates and White contributed to an anti-Trinitarian overtone in the formative years of the movement. Over time, however, this early aversion to Trinitarian theology was replaced with the recognition that though the Scriptures do not use the term Trinity, the descriptions of God given in Scripture call for such a conception. During the 1890s, when the Adventist understanding of Jesus Christ heightened and The Desire of Ages was written, most Seventh-day Adventists came to a Trinitarian understanding of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

A healthy process caused many early Adventist leaders initially to reject the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. They viewed this doctrine as coming from tradition rather than from the Bible. Furthermore, some confused the Trinitarian formula of three Persons in one God with the modalistic conceptualization of God as One Person in three modes. Joseph Bates wrote that he could never accept that Jesus Christ and the Father were one and the same Person.1 This initial rejection set a healthy hermeneutic of not accepting Christian tradition as authoritative, but instead, only accepting doctrine as understood from the Bible. Thus, when the Seventh-day Adventist Church did turn to a Trinitarian understanding of God, it was because of belief that it was the best representation of all that the Scriptures revealed about God.

Such a shift in the conception of God has implications for how one relates to God, and also how one perceives salvation. Viewing God as a heavenly Trio of three equal Persons making up a single Godhead has far-reaching ramifications for the doctrines of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and salvation.

 

Revelation and Logic

That three are one is a logical impossibility. It defies mathematical logic; it also defies Aristotelian logic. So why did the early church conceptualize God as “Three in One”?

First, and most simply, it was because the writers of the New Testament so clearly portrayed Jesus Christ as God along with the Father. Nearly every salutation or praise includes God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ in conjunction (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:1–3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 1:3–6; Phil. 2:5–11; James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:2; 2 John 3; Jude 25; Rev. 1:9). Further exploration of the biblical teaching finds both the Oneness and the “Threeness” of God in Scripture.

The oneness is clear in passages such as Deuteronomy 6:4, which the Jews use in the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (NIV). The threeness can be seen in passages such as the baptism of Christ in Matthew 3:16, 17, in which the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are individually described as simultaneously active. It is also evident in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, in which Jesus commands His disciples to make disciples and baptize them “‘in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’” (NASB), which became the standard benediction in the Christian Church. Thus, two great prayers from the Bible, the Shema and the benediction, describe God as “One” and as “Three.”

In spite of human logic, the Bible insists that “God is One” and that “God is Three.” So, should priority be given to human logic—or to revelation?

 

Trinity: Solution or Paradox?

Expressed this starkly, revelation must prevail over logic. Any other answer creates a theology built from the bottom up, a human understanding based on perception and analogy. On the other hand, placing divine revelation before logic allows for a theology revealed from above, from the self-revelation of God, who is infinitely greater and wiser than human minds can conceive. Granted, this revelation comes through human agents and human language that is to “see through a glass, darkly” and “know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12, KJV); yet it is better to see, only partially, the true God, who is far above human conception, than to claim a full view of a humanly constructed Divinity.

The Trinitarian formula is summarized simply: “God is Three” and “God is One”: Triune equals Trinity. The concepts are straightforward and biblical; the term is simply a name signifying that which God reveals about Himself in the Scriptures.

The early church did not resolve the revealed paradox that “God is One, yet God is Three.” They simply named it. Trinity is not a solution. It is a one-word designation that holds the paradox intact: Three in One, our Triune God.

 

The Holy Spirit as a Personal Member of the Godhead

There is an assertion by some that the Holy Spirit is not a personal member of the Godhead, but an impersonal power from God. This assertion, which has a small following in Adventism, takes many forms and angles, but at its core, it asserts that the Bible does not support a view of the Holy Spirit as having any “personhood.”

This issue is addressed directly in the Bible, which gives strong evidence for ascribing personhood and full Deity to the Holy Spirit. Afterward, I will address one historical and one philosophical idea that may shed light on the perceived confusion concerning the Holy Spirit.

In his closing address to his letters to the Corinthians, Paul initiated a classical Trinitarian benediction: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14, NIV). Here Paul recognized that the Holy Spirit is especially identified with fellowship, which is the very heart of interpersonal relationship. Other Scriptures describe the personal ministry that the Holy Spirit undertakes in direct relation to individual believers. These include convicting (John 16:8–11), regenerating (3:5–8), guiding (16:13), sanctifying (Rom. 8:1–17), empowering for service (Acts 1:8), revealing (Luke 2:26), and moving the inspired prophets to speak and write the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21).

All these passages denote an active or relational function. Even when the Spirit is portrayed as not asserting His own will (as in “‘He will not speak on His own initiative’” [John 16:13, NASB]), there is an active relational component in the description of personal relationship to the believer (as in the same verse “‘He will guide,’” “‘He will speak; and He will disclose’”). The texts in 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21, along with numerous texts describing being filled with the Holy Spirit, denote that the Holy Spirit is responsible for the production of Scripture and prophecy, which have propositional content. This task, like all those listed above, involves more than impersonal power; it requires the conscious communication of content. All these personal interactions with individual believers highlight what Paul pointed out at the end of the Corinthian letters: the Holy Spirit is in an especially close personal relationship/fellowship with us.

In John 14 to 17, the Father, Son, and Spirit are portrayed as being in an interdependent, interactive relationship for the purpose of including us in Their intimate, reciprocal relationship of love and obedience. If you see and know the Son, you see and know the Father (14:6, 9); the Son reveals the Father (17:6, 25); and while the Son brings glory to the Father, the Father glorifies the Son (17:4). The Father sends the Son (16:5) and the Spirit (14:26); the Son sends the Spirit (15:26; 16:7); the Spirit teaches, guides, and testifies concerning the Son (14:25; 15:26); and through the Spirit living in us, the Son, who is in the Father, will come to us (14:16–20).

The interactions are portrayed as reciprocal among all Three. This is especially true as pictured in chapter 17, verses 6 to 10: Through the revelation of the Father by the Son to us—who are described as being given to the Son by the Father—the Son gains trust to give us the words the Father gave to Him, and to enable us to accept those words in obedience. In this way, the Son is a bridge between the Father and us, as believers, engendering the loving, trusting, believing, and obeying intimate relationship. This bridge of the Son is secured to us forever by the Spirit living in us (14:16–18). True, the Son and the Spirit fulfill submissive roles in this relationship for our salvation (14:31), but there is another aspect of these verses that tends to suggest equality: unity.

The Gospel of John contains several direct statements of unity between the Father and the Son: “‘I am in the Father, and . . . the Father is in me’” (14:10, NIV); “‘All I have is yours, and all you have is mine’” (17:10, NIV); even a direct “‘we are one’” (vs. 22, NIV). This unity extends indirectly to the Spirit as well, as evidenced in John 16:14,15: The Spirit “‘will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you’” (NIV).

This reciprocal ownership and open access to what the Three share describes a unity of the Three. Similarly, John 14:16 to 23 portrays a unified indwelling. Though He had to leave us, Jesus indicates that He will come to us through the promise of the Spirit living in us. Then, Jesus finishes the passage with the promise that He and the Father both will come to us and make Their home in us. This Father and Son making Their home in us is on account of the Spirit living in us. This is a strong unity that equates the presence of One of the Three with the presence of all Three.

Whether this unity is perceived as a unity of purpose or a unity of being has been hotly contested, but either way, the unity of the Three is a perception of a Trinity. This unity of the Three also suggests that the Holy Spirit has personhood, just as the Father and the Son have personhood. That, along with the clear interpersonal relationship that the Spirit has with the believers, strongly suggests that the Bible presents the Holy Spirit as a Person, even though most biblical presentations of the Spirit do not include a body. Personhood is not derived from a body but from a relationship.

How did the Holy Spirit begin to be understood as an impersonal force? The answer lies in history and philosophy. The philosophical milieu of the early Christians included a Platonic and Stoic conception of God in three parts: The transcendent One, or Monad, which Plato called the “Father”; the demiurge or Logos who was the immanent Creator, which Plato sometimes referred to as the Dyad (Two) or as the “Son”; and the infusive power of life and energy that fills all the universe and the living creatures in it with life force and power, which Plato and Zeno of Citium called the Pneuma, that is “breath” or “spirit.” This philosophical conception of spirit was often assumed when reading Scriptures about the Holy Spirit, thereby tending to make the traditional readings emphasize the subordinate role of the Spirit and using language that could construe the Spirit as only a force. The texts that portray the personal and relational aspects of the Spirit initially received less use and theological weight. However, neither philosophy nor tradition should control the reading of Scripture.

 

Ramifications for Salvation Concerning the Tri-Unity of God

To turn attention, then, to the ramifications of the saving relationship with our God as three Persons within the one Godhead, the core of those ramifications is that our salvation is secured by the very God who is the Creator and Sustainer of all. Jesus Christ is God!

In John 1, Jesus Christ is described as the Logos (Word). This Word is described as both Creator and God (vss. 1–3), the all-powerful Ruler of the universe. In Titus 2:13, Paul describes Christ as “our great God” (NKJV) and in Romans 9:5 as the “eternally blessed God” (NKJV).

Most Adventists would be familiar with Ellen G. White’s description of Jesus Christ as “one in nature, in character, in purpose” with God the Father.2 John 1 describes that nature and character of God as life and light (vss. 4, 5), emphasizing that the Word is the Source of both eternal life and eternal truth. In verse 14, John says that this “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (NKJV), summarizing the Christmas story, in which the great, eternal God becomes a helpless child. Growing and becoming aware of His mission as the Messiah, He carries on a public ministry for some three years while preaching the kingdom of God and preparing His disciples for His death. Then He died, as a sacrifice, the Passover lamb, the Suffering Servant by whose stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53). However, He did not stay dead! As He said, “‘I have authority to lay [my life] down and authority to take it up again’” (John 10:18, NIV). To this Ellen G. White would add: “In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived. . . . The divinity of Christ is the believer’s assurance of eternal life.”3

God the Son, in His role as Savior (1) is the Almighty, (2) loves us, and (3) is Himself the bridge of salvation connecting us humans back to God. Only the true God can accomplish these three tasks of our salvation. If He were less than fully divine, His ability to save would be diminished. To view Him as less than fully divine diminishes our ability to comprehend and enjoy His work of salvation. As John 15:13 declares, “‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’” (NRSV).

 

John Reeve, PhD, as an Assistant Professor of Church History at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.


NOTES AND REFERENCE

1. Joseph Bates, Autobiography of Joseph Bates (Battle Creek, Mich.: Steam Press, 1868), 205.

2. Patriarchs and Prophets, 34.

3. The Desire of Ages, 530.