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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Talking Jesus: how does the Trinity fit in?

Neil asks in connection with my post Talking Jesus: problems with the modern evangelistic paradigm: “how do you view the Trinity given your statement about the uniqueness of Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ and everyone else’s encounter with either the pre-risen Christ or the Holy Spirit post-resurrection?” I had complained that in the “Talking Jesus” report on evangelism in England the understanding of Jesus that dominates the New Testament is entirely disregarded. I will try and explain roughly how I think the Trinity fits into this argument.

Garofalo, The Conversion of Saint Paul (ca. 1525)

1. Whatever inkling the disciples may have had of Jesus’ future exalted status (eg. Mk. 10:37), they don’t appear to have been under the impression that they were dealing with someone who claimed to be God incarnate. The authors of the Synoptic Gospels, at least, were careful to keep such speculations out of their accounts.

2. Paul clearly did not “see” the Second Person of the Trinity on the way to Damascus. He saw the recently crucified Jesus who had been raised and seated at the right hand of God—made both Lord and Christ, as Peter puts it (Acts 2:36). Others had similar visions—Stephen, for example (Acts 7:56)—though Paul seems to have thought of his own encounter as in some way unique (1 Cor. 15:8; Gal. 1:16). I take it that this revelation was received quite widely in the churches, though perhaps in a less dramatic visionary fashion, through the Spirit.

The point of these visions was that they established and confirmed the belief of the early church that Jesus had been vindicated and given authority to judge and rule over both his own people and the nations in the age to come. It was a belief or faith firmly oriented towards a future crisis and transformation:

For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thess. 1:9–10)

My view is that this constitutes the dominant and most important story that is told about Jesus in the New Testament following his death and resurrection. It does not identify or equate Jesus with God. Jesus is rather the obedient servant who is exalted and given the authority to judge and rule as Lord and King—an authority which YHWH otherwise reserved for himself.

This is most, if not all, of the argument of the Christ “hymn” in Philippians 2:6-11. Jesus does not take the path of the pagan divine ruler who seeks to make himself equal to God. He takes instead the path of the servant, in obedience to YHWH, and is subjected to a humiliating death on a Roman cross. But he is vindicated for his faithfulness and given the name which is above every name, etc. The outcome will be the one envisaged in Isaiah 45:20-25: the pagan nations will abandon their idols and glorify the God of Israel.

3. The experiential basis for this apocalyptic christology was the resurrection of Jesus and the charismatic experience of the early—and I suppose we might add the concrete historical expectation that the nations of the empire would confess Jesus as Lord.

Paul encountered the risen Messiah. The Fathers encountered—in a less violent sense—the Second Person of the Trinity.

It is less clear to me why the early Christians told a second, less developed, more speculative story that associated or identified Jesus with the divine Wisdom or logos by which all things were made. My working assumption is that the Wisdom motif basically provided a way to talk about the new world that was coming into existence as a result of the apocalyptic narrative. This seems to me to be especially clear in Hebrews 1:1-2:9.

Once the connection with Wisdom was made, it led in two directions. First, it gave expression to the belief that Jesus was, like Wisdom (cf. Prov. 8:22-31), the agent of creation, the one through whom all things were originally made (Jn. 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2).

Secondly, Hellenistic Judaism already had the idea that divine Wisdom came into the world and dwelt in Israel in the form of Torah:

Then the creator of all commanded me, and he who created me put down my tent (skēnēn) and said, ‘Encamp (kataskēnōson) in Jacob, and in Israel let your inheritance be.’ Before the age, from the beginning, he created me, and until the age I will never fail. In a holy tent I ministered before him, and thus in Sion I was firmly set. In a beloved city as well he put me down, and in Jerusalem was my authority. And I took root among a glorified people, in the portion of the Lord is my inheritance. (Sir. 24:8–12)

This seems a fairly obvious antecedent to John 1:14: the Word through which all things were made “became flesh and dwelt (eskēnōsen) among us”.

4. As the church consolidated its position in the Greek-Roman world, it had less need for the apocalyptic narrative with its orientation towards vindication and a future kingdom. But the Wisdom-logos motif would prove increasingly useful as a way to reconcile the unique status attributed to Jesus with a more rationally constructed notion of divinity. The Logos christology of Justin Martyr, for example, was a significant staging-post on the way to Trinitarian orthodoxy.

The point I would stress here is that the whole process was thoroughly contextual. It remained a matter of how people encountered and talked about Jesus in their cultural-historical context. Patristic orthodoxy was just as much a response to circumstances as Jewish apocalypticism. Paul encountered the risen Messiah. The Fathers encountered—in a less violent sense—the Second Person of the Trinity.

The early Jewish church drew on Old Testament and Jewish-apocalyptic categories, imagery, narratives, in order to express the conviction that Jesus had been put in control of the foreseeable future. To a significant degree this was underpinned by charismatic experience.

The Greek-Roman church responded to the intellectual and apologetic challenges presented by its very different cultural environment to reformulate the relationship between Jesus and the Father in broadly (neo-) Platonic terms. This was underpinned not by charismatic experience but by the furious ratiocinations of the Fathers.

The process and the outcome were neither better nor worse than in the case of the apocalyptic argument (except insofar as they led to a massive depreciation of the Jewish biblical narrative, which we are only just getting over). It simply had to be done. And it’s now part of the story.

Comments

It wasn’ t like that of course. ‘Trinity’ was an explanation that grew out of the implications of ALL the biblical data and the Jesus Event. Not one strand or stream. While the pages of the NT were being and soon after the first Christians…. prayed to Jesus, worshipped him, and from John 20v28 through to IGnatius approx 100 ad ( called Jesus God 12x. The ‘name’ they prayed in, baptised in , did anything in was the name of JEsus. OT texts referring to YHWH or EL were appropriated and totally unselfconsciously applied to Jesus as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Just read Hebrews 1 and Romans 10. This was no later development, it was no minor note in the NT symphony .

The ‘name’ they prayed in, baptised in , did anything in was the name of JEsus. OT texts referring to YHWH or EL were appropriated and totally unselfconsciously applied to Jesus as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Just read Hebrews 1 and Romans 10.

This, of course, as you realize, is one of the main points at issue. Jesus exercised divine authority, and this was acknowledged at a very early stage. The question is whether this is explained by identification or as the bestowal of authority on an anointed king.

I don’t see how you can conclude from “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9) that Paul was thinking of Jesus here as God.

Focus in on Romans 10, we will see what was going on internally with the first belIevers which would lead to the ‘explanation ’ of the Trinity later. The main plank which is central to ‘Trinity’ is Jesus being recognised as ‘God’. Not the father of course ( I even see some modern scholars ‘misunderstanding ’ the divinity / deity of Jesus as some claim to 100% identity with the father) .

So in this passage it is kurios ( Lord) is the issue plus useage of OT passages that there apply to YHWH and in this passage are applied without any hesitation or doubt to Jesus. There are passages of course where Jesus is called ‘God’ ( notably John 20v28) but let us examine where. YHWH Is applied to Jesus……… to grasp what I am saying a reading of the full chapter is required while noting every occurrence of ’ Lord’, and being aware that the underlying word is kurios every time. Also noting when a quote or allusion to the OT occurs and to whom it refers to in the OT and to whom it refers in the passage.

The LORD in v9 refers to Jesus. The him in v11 is God and refers to Jesus in the our passage. Who is the Lord and what is his name ( identity) of …… the same lord who is lord of all v12 is also the one who richly blesses those who call on him and is the one who to call on his name is to be saved v13. Joel 2v 32 where it is yhwh is quoted the same with isa 28v16.

It is clear to me that the Lord identified in v9 is consistently the same lord throughout the passage. Without blinking they apply YHWH passages to Jesus .

This is a widespread practise throughout the various authors in the NT. the LXX is the background here of course but these first followers of Jesus ( this includes the writers of the gospels) all applied YHWH to Jesus. Yahweh / YHWH, IAO, Jehovah, Yahweh. Do not appear anywhere in the manuscripts and texts of any part of the NT ( unless one includes the four occurrences of HalleluYAH in Revelation 19). This phenomena of application to Jesus OT texts which refer to Jesus is remarkable.

Here lies one of the seeds of the later explanation we now know as Trinity. It was not by some pagan interpolation or Greek philosophical influence that the first Christians made reference and implication to the fact that Jesus was in some way ‘God’. They prayed to him, worshipped him, called on his name and as the NT was being concluded Ignatius of Antioch called him ‘God’ 12 times , no one complained, no one accused him of straying g from the true core teaching. On this issue …I am with him.

John, thanks for this. I’ve tried to explain why are think you are wrong about the YHWH texts here.

I will reply to your comments in the next day or so. Last week was very pressured and this week I am lecturing in a bible college on apologetics. However I will have time to reply.

Andrew. I have been hesitant to say this but I have for some time come to the conclusion that
You do not seem to understand ‘The Trinity’.

There are indications in your comments that you think that Jesus as God means that he is the father. This is untrue. It does violence to the data in the NT that fed into the later discussions and formulations.

I also believe that you make a fundamental error in your approach to this issue.

You make it an ‘either or’ issue rather than an ’ as well as’ issue.

Your emphasis on Jesus as the King etc is neither contradictory or a difficulty for holding to an early high Christology as well. The two emphases are there in the texts and your sometimes ingenious ways of removing the ‘deity of Christ’ and the other components of what was later describes as ‘Trinity’ just won’t work because the material is in the NT.
The impliCations I feel for holding your view is that you cease to be orthodox, cease to be evangeliCal . Sorry to be so blunt.

John, you can be as blunt as you like. I make no bones about the fact that I think scripture has to be interpreted on its own historical terms, not subjected to extraneous theological interpretation just to save orthodoxy. In that respect, a both/and approach to the matter is nonsensical.

It’s then up to the theologians to go back and look at how they have formulated Trinitarian orthodoxy and consider whether there are ways of restating things that maintain the metaphysical relations without riding roughshod over scripture. The theologians need to roll their sleeves up and do some hard biblical reading again. It’s not good enough just to keep parroting ancient dogma.

I don’t think that is necessarily an impossible task. There is more to the New Testament witness about Jesus than the statement that the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead and gave him all authority and power, to judge and rule over Israel and the nations. This is critical to how we understand the New Testament narrative and its view of the future, and I would also say that it is an emphasis that we urgently need to recover. But other stories are told, other connections are made—e.g., with Wisdom and creation—and I think it would be a very interesting exercise to work through the narrative and see where it takes us under the terms of a post-enlightenment, post-modern, rather than neo-platonic, metaphysics.

But look, there was a fair amount of interpretive or exegetical detail in this post. You have taken none of it into consideration. You have simply dismissed it and blithely claimed that this creature that looks like a donkey is also a hippopotamus. I hesitate to say it, but I am leaning towards the conclusion that you don’t understand the New Testament.

John,

Without blinking they apply YHWH passages to Jesus

I think you are correct here. In fact, ancient Judaism (see Alan F. Segal’s book Two Powers in Heaven) held what today is called the “two powers” concept. They were completely ok with a YHWH in heaven and a embodied YHWH on earth. That is until the 2nd century, which was clearly a reaction to Christianity.

Another great work where this concept is presented is Michael Heiser’s book Unseen Realm- that book really changed my Biblical worldview. He has a 1.2 hour presentation on this concept on YouTube.

Very clear explanation! Thanks for posting this.

If that was for me Pete then thankyou!!

Concerning point #1, all the Gospels testify to the fact that the Lord Jesus is God.
a. Matthew: In Matthew 28:18 we learn that the Lord Jesus is the Almighty. There is no limitation to His absolute power.
b. Mark: In Mark 14:62 the Lord Jesus alludes to the vision of Daniel in which the Son of Man receives ‘pelach’ (cf. Daniel 7:14) - a worship properly given unto God alone.
c. Luke: In Luke 24:52 supreme worship is rendered unto a visibly absent Savior.
d. John: In John 5:23 the Lord Jesus is due equality of worship with the Father. No creature, no matter how highly exalted, could justifiably claim such supreme worship.

Thanks for the input, Marc.

a. Jesus says that all authority in heaven and earth has been given (edothē) to him, alluding presumably to Daniel 7. The figure “like a son of man” in Daniel 7 is certainly not God, most likely a symbolic representation of the persecuted righteous in Israel. Jesus claims to have received the highest authority and rule from God, but this cannot be twisted to mean that Jesus is claiming to be the Almighty.

b. Mark 14:62 makes the same point. The Son of Man is not identified with the “Power”. He is seated at the right hand of Power, which echoes Psalm 110:1: God gives his king authority to rule in the midst of his enemies. No identification. Jesus doesn’t himself claim that all peoples will “serve” (plch) him, but it’s an important observation. Given the impossibility of equating the “one like a son of man” and the “ancient of days” in the vision, my assumption would be that this “service” or “worship” also reflects the fact that dominion, glory and kingdom were given to him.

c. In this passage Jesus identifies himself as “the Christ”—that is, as Israel’s anointed saviour and king—in whose name forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed to all nations (Lk. 24:46). “Christ” is not “God”. In this context proskunēsantes simply means that they did obeisance to him as to as their Messiah and Lord—a widely attested use of the verb. The magi did not think that they were worshipping God when they said that they had come to worship (proskunēsai) the king of the Jews (Matt. 2:2). When Luke picks up the story in Acts, we soon get Peter’s explanation for the “worship” of the disciples: “God has made him both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

d. It’s clear that Jesus is worthy of the same “honour” (timōsin) as the Father because the Father “has given all judgment to the Son” (Jn. 5:22). That’s exactly my point. In these passages Jesus is “worshipped” or “honoured” because he has been given the authority by God to judge and rule as Israel’s king on YHWH’s behalf. The argument requires a clear distinction of identity between Jesus and God, not a confusion of identity.

Hello Andrew,
Thanks for your response.
If God the Father created another omnipotent being then that means there are two that are Almighty. The Bible teaches there is only one Almighty God.
Those who believe the Lord Jesus is God can account for the fact that he was “given” all power in that He simply refused to always employ His omnipotence but those who deny the Lord Jesus is God can not satisfactorily explain that the Lord Jesus has (right now) all power - He is omnipotent/Almighty.
Since the Lord Jesus is the Almighty He is the proper recipient of ‘pelach - the worship due unto God alone.’

In Luke this worship was rendered unto Christ as a visibly absent Savior - which demands that it is supreme worship.

In John the distinction is between the Father and the Lord Jesus. Given the history of idolatry with all of humanity it is very interesting to notice that the Bible never teaches that the Father ever receives a form of worship superior to the worship properly received by the Lord Jesus.

I think you may be conflating the terms “power” as in omnipotence and “power” as in authority.

When Jesus announces, “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me,” he is not announcing that he has become omnipotent.

Having all authority in the universe encompasses having all power in the universe.
1. TDNT: His omnipotence, in which Christ shares as the kyrios (1 C. 8:6; Col. 1:16; Matt. 28:18), extends over the whole world, over heaven and earth (1:679, earth, Sasse).

Well, Matthew didn’t say he had been given all authority in the universe. He said he’d been given all authority in heaven and on earth.

So, in Luke 4, you would contend that Satan was tempting Jesus with an offer of omnipotence?

Or in 1 Corinthians 7:4, you would say that Paul is suggesting that men have supernatural powers over their wife’s body and vice-versa?

Or in 1 Timothy 12, that Paul is suggesting that women should not be able to exercise their Godlike powers over men? I mean, that’s a great suggestion; it just seems like the New Testament idea of authority is, well, authority and not godlike super powers.

The Bible does teach that the Father receives a form of worship which the Son does not - namely, the Son’s worship and sacrificial self-offering. The Father never served as a priest on behalf of the Son. The Father never offered Himself up to the Son. But the Son became a high priest by offering his own body to God. (Hebrews 9:14)