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.