The conception of Jesus, Trinity, and the search for an appropriate metaphysics: it’s nearly Christmas, after all

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In a recent blog post entitled “Avoiding Trinity” Dave Bish discusses Christian squeamishness about sharing Jesus with Muslims using John’s Gospel on the grounds that it is too Trinitarian. He suggests that such a strategy of avoidance betrays two assumptions—first, that we think that the doctrine of the Trinity really is weird; and secondly, that we think it can safely be marginalized, left to the geeks. He goes on to argue that the doctrine is just as evident in the Synoptic Gospels, and concludes that you can’t avoid Trinity without avoiding Jesus.

Dave is writing from a fairly basic pastoral perspective. He’s clearly not offering a technical exposition of the texts on which he bases his argument. Nevertheless, I want to look at his claims in some detail because I think that they highlight a disturbing disconnection between popular theologizing and critical exegesis, between the complacent assumptions that we make about the meaning of scripture and what is actually being said. Why are we so readily content to defend, in this instance, the doctrine of the Trinity on the basis of what are—as far as I can see—flagrant misreadings of New Testament passages? Why is it so difficult to get pastoral discourse and critical discourse to converge?

Let me just make something clear, however, before we get into the details. This is not an argument against Trinitarian belief; it is an argument for a narrative reading that grasps the grounded historical significance of the supernaturally conceived Jesus. I think it is a serious problem that in our eagerness to defend traditional theological positions we muzzle the New Testament, we stifle it, we prevent it from saying what it really wants to say.

Miscalculating Trinity in Matthew

Dave begins with Matthew’s birth and infancy narratives. He adds together 1:23 and 2:15 and gets the answer Jesus is God. Jesus is both (A) Immanuel, God with us, and (B) God’s Son; therefore he is (C) the second person of the Trinity.

Let’s look more closely at the arithmetic.

A) What does Matthew mean when, quoting Isaiah 7:14, he says that ‘ “they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us)’? Presumably he means what Isaiah meant, which is that the birth of this child would be a sign, underlined by its exceptional circumstances, that YHWH was with his people both to judge and to save. Isaiah certainly did not think that the boy who would be born to him in the reign of Ahaz, who would be given the name Immanuel, would be God incarnate.

Moreover, Matthew appears not to have thought that Isaiah was actually referring in any sense to Jesus, because he makes no effort to show that Jesus was given the name Immanuel. The significance of the fulfilment has to do not with the identity of the child but with the prophetic meaning of the birth: confirmation for Ahaz that Israel would come under attack from the Assyrians, but that at this time of crisis God would be with his people. This makes a lot of sense, prophetically speaking, in light of the coming war against Rome.

B) Matthew sees in the return of the child Jesus from Egypt a fulfilment of Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” What does this tell us about the sonship of Jesus? It tells us that Jesus was a son in the same way that Israel was a son. The difference, of course, is that whereas Israel was a wayward, rebellious child (Hos. 11:2), Jesus “learned obedience” (Heb. 5:8). But if any identification is being asserted here, it is between Jesus and Israel, not between Jesus and God.

C) So if we add these two thoughts together, what do we get? Not Trinity, that’s for sure. Not in any sense that would offend a Muslim, though a Muslim might take exception to the narrative on other grounds. What Matthew is telling us is that Jesus would embody in himself the coming eschatological transformation of Israel—or something along those lines. 

Spirit and sonship in Luke

Dave cites the angel’s words to Mary as evidence for Trinity in Luke:

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”

Given the earlier statement that Jesus would be called the “Son of the Most High” and would be given the “throne of his father David” (Lk. 1:32-33), it seems pretty clear that “Son of God” in verse 35 refers to Jesus as Israel’s king—the one chosen by YHWH to rule on his behalf. The Davidic monarchy rules on behalf of YHWH, but it is not a divine monarchy.

The description of the Spirit coming upon (epeleusetai) and overshadowing (episkiasei) Mary evokes the thought of the restoration of Israel as a new creation, on the one hand (cf. Is. 32:15 LXX), and of God returning to dwell in the midst of his people, on the other (cf. Exod. 40:35 LXX). But as Nolland says, there is “not the slightest evidence that either of the verbs involved has ever been used in relation to sexual activity or even more broadly in connection with the conception of a child”.1 What the manner of Jesus’ conception points to is not the divine identity of Jesus but an impending unique eschatological transformation that will see him installed as Israel’s king and ruler of the nations.

The same conjunction of Spirit and sonship is seen at Jesus’ baptism. The Spirit descends upon him and a voice from heaven declares, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Lk. 3:22). The statement brings together two Old Testament texts: Jesus is the royal Son who will be given the nations as his inheritance (Ps. 2:7-8); and he is the servant “in whom my soul delights”, who has been given the Spirit of God, who will “bring forth justice to the nations” (Is. 42:1).

So the fact that we have in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism (Mk. 1:10-11) “the Father announcing his pleasure at his Spirit-anointed Son”, as Dave Bish puts, does not constitute an argument for classic Trinitarianism. Not in any conventional sense. What we have is Israel’s God choosing and empowering Jesus as the one through whom he would bring about eschatological transformation.

Unquestionably, we cannot give an adequate account of the God of the New Testament without taking into consideration the intimate collaboration of Son and Spirit with the Father. But I’m not sure that the traditional metaphysical categories of Trinitarian theology really help us to understand what is going on in these passages.

Metaphysics and narrative

I notice that my friend Robin Parry has expressed his concerns with the idea of a “post-metaphysical theology” in a couple of brief posts recently, on his Theological Scribbles blog and on the Wipf and Stock Running Heads blog. With his comments in mind, I would point out that my objection to metaphysics is not an objection to the supernatural or to belief in a God who is directly and dynamically engaged with his creation. It is an objection to the use of the categories of a post-biblical metaphysics to reinterpret New Testament thought.

The metaphysics of the New Testament—if we must retain the term—is narrative-historical. It is grounded in creation, covenant, vocation, faithfulness, prophecy, eschatology, conflict, crisis, political transformation. I would argue that these remain perfectly adequate categories for speaking about Father, Son and Spirit today.

  • 1J. Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, 54.
peter wilkinson | Wed, 12/19/2012 - 15:31 | Permalink

Andrew — this gives me the opportunity of wishing you, at least, a Happy Narrative-Historical Christmas, with much appreciation for the stimulus to careful study of the biblical texts (doesn’t that sound so much more impressive than saying “the scriptures” or “the bible”?) to which your posts always prompt me.

I haven’t got round to reading all your rejoinders to my recent comments yet, so can’t take into account their content and tone, which no doubt ranges from exasperation to the patience needed for dealing with a rather slow and dim-witted child.

It continues to strike me just how closely the fictitious parallel world of Sir Toby’s resembles the world of intrigue, conspiracy, and rapine cut-and-thrust of theological debate which Postost conjures. Even now, as the first snows descend over Prague, theologians return to their customary haunts in preparation for the never-ending debates in the communal room … .

Just to let you know that I never make the mistake of identifying you as a person with the viewpoints which I so frequently vigorous dispute. This is cyberspace after all, and words on a two-dimensional screen are not the same as the person who types them.

As regards this pre-Christmas sally, it’s at best a ‘yes and no’ from me. When Isaiah was told to name his children, Emmanuel represented the confirmation of God’s protection of Israel. Not just any old aspect of God, but in particular, “God with us”. However, the parallels of the political situation then with 1st century Israel are only partial. The Assyrians invaded Israel in Hezekiah’s time, but Jerusalem was protected, and eventually the Assyrians withdrew. Israel was saved. In AD 79, Jerusalem was not spared from Rome, and neither did the Romans armies withdraw so that Israel could live another day.

So in what sense was Jesus being named “Emmanuel”, in what was clearly both like, yet very unlike the circumstances of Hezekiah’s day? In what way would Jesus show that Israel’s God was “God with us”? You have your view on this, but it does not exclude the possibility of another view, which is that Jesus was indeed God incarnate, and that a salvation was to come which was very much broader in scope than Isaiah had predicted with the Assyrian invasion.

In the association of Jesus with the Exodus, through the citation of Hosea 11:1, was it not also the case that the original Exodus narrative, which was still a story in search of a conclusion, was about to be brought to that conclusion in Jesus, as the Last Supper/Passover powerfully and strikingly conveys? In this sense, Jesus is the “Son” as the Israel which God had intended it to be, the true Israelite, and as the gospels tantalisingly depict it, so much more.

In the angel’s words to Mary, we have the allusion to “the throne of his (Jesus’s) father David”, which recalls the prophecy of 2 Samuel 7:13-14 (and so much more in that passage). The double emphasis of reference to the Holy Spirit and the Most High in the birth is remarkable and unprecedented, however, and highly suggestive when joined with the birth of Jesus.  Then there is the absence of the male role essential to human conception. Virgin births have been recorded with female offspring, but never of male offspring. So this is very much more than a continuation of OT redeemer/deliverer birth stories, as the OT prophecies had themselves also begun to suggest. It is highly suggestive that here we have an embryonic (excuse the play on words) trinitarian formulation, which of course we have elsewhere in the gospels.

And yes, very well supported links to OT contexts and expectations in Jesus’s baptism, but don’t overlook the unique factors as well. There was the voice from heaven, the father/son relationship, and the striking involvement of one who can now be called ‘Father’, with ‘Spirit’, and also now ‘Son’. Also, what now has to be taken into account is not simply history as it was observed in narrative form, but the editing activity of the authors in the light of their post-ascension understanding of Jesus. To you, this is no more, in the narrative-historical framework, than the exaltation of a man to heaven (though you don’t like that word). There are very good grounds for thinking that the post-ascension authors saw Jesus as part of the godhead, and that this colours their portrayal and understanding of Jesus as they describe him pre-ascension. Not least at his baptism.

I love your word-studies linking key NT words, here from Luke’s gospel account of the conception of Jesus, to LXX episodes in Exodus and Isaiah. Whatever Nolland says about previous scriptural usage of the words (you and he are almost becoming soul-mates if not bedfellows), it is quite clear that there are sexual connotations to this conception account, unless you are being extremely naive. Stories of conceptions arising from encounters between gods and humans provide proto-mythological parallels to the divine insemination taking place in Luke 1:32-33, but as shadows of the reality.

Meanwhile Happy Christmas again to you and fellow contributors. It’s a season toward which my attitude is deeply ambivalent, and an escape from it all to Sir Tobys would be highly to be desired. Which in a way of course, is what contributing to this website has, for me, always been all about.

@peter wilkinson:

Six years since Christmas at Sir Toby’s? It seems ages ago. Merry Christmas to all the gathered scholars and mystics and ascetics.

One substantive question — Andrew writes with respect to Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14 that “Isaiah certainly did not think that the boy who would be born to him in the reign of Ahaz, who would be given the name Immanuel, would be God incarnate.” Who is then is the boy born two chapters later, whose name will be called “Mighty God” and “Eternal Father” (Isaiah 9:6)?

@peter wilkinson:

Corrigendum: penultimate paragraph: the reference should be Luke 1:35, not Luke 1:32-33.

But please also read John Doyle’s question in the preceding post.

Reading the New Testament through Trinitarian glasses is one of the more effective ways of depriving oneself of understanding.  Of course, the same is true of reading it through Unitarian glasses.

Let the Scriptures speak!  And let our understanding be shaped accordingly.

Andrew -

You post a question: Why is it so difficult to get pastoral discourse and critical discourse to converge?

I think this is a situation I find myself in. Though I am not of the caliber of critical scholarship that you are able to engage in, I love reading and pondering aspects of theology of all manners. But, what I’ve found for those in my congregation, of which I am called to pastor, is that they mainly want to know how to walk with the Lord on a daily basis rather than be stuck in an ivory tower pondering these things. Of course, I need to be able to enjoy that which I enjoy. But with my teaching/preaching in a congregational setting, they are not interested in Pentateuchal development, the discussion of genre concerning the early chapters of Genesis, the Pauline perspective on justification, does the NT really lay out a Trinitarian theology, etc.

Also, when something is settled within evangelicalism, it takes donkey’s years to move forward from it. I can only think of the social issues of both blacks and women. Not to mention that, in engaging with these issues, it calls for critical thinking and dealing with ‘deeper’ issues. And, again, most don’t want to walk that line.

So it is a challenge of how to walk in both areas as one shepherds a local congregation. I suppose if a congregation is larger, having multiple 100’s, then you could find a few handfuls of people of which classes could be offered on the side. But within a smaller congregation, like mine, of 40-50 adults, there might only be a few.

Just some practical things I’ve been thinking through myself.

Blessings this Christmas!


That’s great input, Scott. I’ve had some other feedback from people along these lines and I’ll try to write something in the New Year. My general view is that the answer is not to teach the narrative approach to a small intellectual elite. Rather I suggest that we need slowly to overhaul the narrative frame—the worldview—within which we manage our spiritual lives on a daily basis. It would be a good topic to think further about, anyway.

Wasn’t the phrase “You are my son, with whom I am well pleased” a common saying that fathers said to their sons when they came of age?  If so, wouldn’t the average reader of Matthew’s audience assumed a father/son relation with the one speaking those words? In that case, wouldn’t the Gospel writers have taken steps to make clear something else was meant?  Furthermore, the Gospel writers make a habit of quoting the specific OT Scripture that Jesus fullfilled.  If they are alluding to Pslm 2:7-8 and Isa. 42:1, wouldn’t they have quoted them to point out that Jesus had fullfilled them.

@Michael Davis:

Michael, thanks for the comment. What is the evidence for the “common saying”? I’ve not come across the idea before. Presumably later rabbinic writings? It’s not out of the question, clearly, but given the significance of the event, the widespread use of Psalm 2:7 elsewhere in the New Testament, the association of sonship/servanthood with anointing/Spirit in Psalm 2:2 and Isaiah 42:1, Satan’s reference to Jesus as “Son of God” in a theologically charged context straight afterwards (Matt. 4:1-11), and a general hermeneutical assumption that there is a great deal of implicit intertextual material in the New Testament, it seems to me that the consensus of commentators is right that Jesus and those present at the baptism—and by extension the readers of the Gospels—would have heard an allusion to these Old Testament texts.