Trinitarian community

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I taught a class in church on the doctrine of the Trinity last week, and you know, all things considered, it went pretty well. I placed some emphasis on the developmental character of the doctrine. I explained that it’s not all there in the Gospels necessarily, but that some thin strands of theological reflection and charismatic experience emerged subsequent to the resurrection that were woven by the Greek and Latin theologians of the post-Jewish church into the highly rationalized doctrine of three differentiated but same-substance persons in a singular Godhead. That was their prerogative, and who am I to object?

To this effect I quoted from Alistair McGrath’s Christian Theology: An Introduction (249), which went down remarkably well:

The doctrine of the Trinity can be regarded as the outcome of a process of sustained and critical reflection on the pattern of divine activity revealed in Scripture, and continued in Christian experience. This is not to say that Scripture contains a doctrine of the Trinity; rather, Scripture bears witness to a God who demands to be understood in a Trinitarian manner.

However, McGrath begins his brief—that really should be emphasized—section on the biblical foundations of the Trinity by noting that there are only “two verses in the entire Bible which seem, at first glance, to be capable of a Trinitarian interpretation” (248). He goes on to argue, of coures, that there are several other texts which, at second glance, may be seen to have Trinitarian potential. But let’s just stick with these two.

From our post-Nicene perspective these verses certainly look Trinitarian. But if our chief interest is in their significance for understanding—or more likely proving—the New Testament origins of the doctrine, then I think we are probably going to miss the real point. It seems to me that these two verses have much more to say about the early Christian communities’ understanding of themselves than about their understanding of God.

The verses in question are the formulaic statements about Father, Son and Spirit that we find in Matthew 28:19 and 2 Corinthians 13:14:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

What I would suggest is that the force of the baptismal formula “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” was not so much theological as eschatological. It was not meant to align the early communities of believers with a particular understanding of the Godhead, though this may have been a legitimate later development. Rather it associated them with a particular eschatological narrative and with a particular eschatological response.

Arguably, both the narrative and the response were anticipated in Jesus’ baptism as the inauguration of a prophetic community of renewal from within Israel. Jesus’ baptism was in itself the fulfilment of a couple of critical Old Testament archetypes: he becomes the chosen “son” or “servant”, who has the Spirit of God, in whom YHWH delights, through whom Israel will be restored, who will “bring forth justice to the nations”, who will receive the nations as an inheritance (Ps. 2:7-8; Is. 42:1).

In any case, the compressed and over-familiar formula needs to be unpacked, the story needs to be told, the eschatological outcome needs to be brought back into focus.

In the name of the Father

To be baptized “in the name of the Father” meant to be associated with the agenda of Israel’s God—the “Father in heaven” whose kingdom would soon come in the form of both judgment and restoration. It meant to become part of a community that had been called into an intimate relationship with YHWH, grounded in a radical trust, through which eschatological transformation—by which I mean decisive historical transformation—would sooner or later be achieved. It meant to be ready instinctively to cry out, “Abba! Father!”, at times of uncertainty and fear, as Jesus had done in the garden of Gethsemane (Mk. 14:36; cf. Rom. 8:15).

And of the Son

To be baptized “in the name of the Son” entailed a close identification with the one who in the first place had responded in obedience, symbolized in his baptism, to the agenda of Israel’s God. It meant, moreover, to affirm a willingness to emulate Jesus in his suffering, with the same hope of vindication—it was a baptism into his death and resurrection (cf. Rom. 6:3-4). It meant, in effect, to become part of a martyr community, a community that would have to suffer rejection, vilification, arraignment, imprisonment, and quite possibly death, if a viable “new creation” people was to survive the devastation of the Jewish War and the extreme hostility of Rome towards biblical monotheism. And when fear got the better of them, they were to know that the Lord who had died and had risen from the dead ahead of them, would be with them right through to the end of the age of second temple Judaism (Matt. 28:20).

And of the Holy Spirit

To be baptized “in the name of the Spirit” no doubt echoed the “anointing” of Jesus as the eschatological servant who would “bring forth justice to the nations”, who would proclaim to Israel the imminent intervention of YHWH both to judge unrighteousness and to comfort those who mourned over the wretched state of Israel (cf. Is. 42:1; 61:1-4). But more importantly it signified direct participation in a prophetic community that would continue to proclaim to Israel—in Jerusalem, Judea, and throughout the diaspora—that a great and terrible day of judgment was approaching when only those Jews who called on the name of the Lord would be saved (Acts 2:17-21). The outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost constituted the extension of Jesus’ prophetic witness to the coming kingdom of God to the whole community of his followers. Those who were baptized “in the name of the Spirit” took upon themselves the enormous responsibility of living out that witness.

The grace…

If an eschatological narrative of this sort was deliberately invoked when people—Jews first, but as time passed disproportionate numbers of Gentiles—were baptized into the prophetic communities of renewed Israel scattered throughout the pagan world, then it seems likely that the closing words of 2 Corinthians were intended to reinforce the point.

As a “Trinitarian” community the Corinthians identified themselves with the narrative of eschatological renewal prefigured in Jesus’ baptism and established in their own individual acts of baptism. This prayer was a simple reminder that they could not undertake their radical “mission” without the sustaining grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was utterly for them; that as they faced opposition and aggression, they could not be separated from the love of the Father who had called them for this purpose; and that they were all bound together in this by their participation in the Holy Spirit, through whom they had become a prophetic servant community.


The final point to make here is that there is no reason, as far as I can see, why churches today should not be equally self-consciously Trinitarian communities. We do not participate in the same eschatological narrative—we can’t, any more than we can participate in the Battle of Hastings or the D-Day landings; these are things of the past. But we can certainly reformulate our missional reliance on the Father who calls us apart to be radical new creation in the world, on the Son who safeguards the integrity of our communal life, and on the prophetic Spirit who drives us into an uncertain and difficult future to find a new contextualized missional identity.

Benjamin Smith | Mon, 05/23/2011 - 10:33 | Permalink

Hi Andrew. Sorry to bang on about this, but I really do reccomend you look at Michael Heiser's work on the 'Two powers' - - as it seems like the essential backdrop to the reasons for the early church using the doctrine.

Benjamin, I had a look at the limited material on Heiser’s website. My question about the relevance of the two powers argument has less to do with the Old Testament interpretation, though I’m not convinced that the visible YHWH / invisible YHWH is the best way to explain the particular phenomena highlighted. It’s more whether there’s any indication that the New Testament draws on this distinction to account for the identity or worship of Jesus. Unfortunately, that part of the argument seems to be missing from Heiser’s site, but off the top of my head I can’t think of anywhere in the New Testament that clearly makes reference to the distinction between YHWH and the “angel of the Lord”—comparable say to the association of Jesus with Wisdom or the exalted Son of Man. Can you point us to something more specific?

Hi Andrew. The most obvious link between Jesus and the Angel of the Lord is in Jude 1:5 where Jesus is identified as the angel who brought the Israelites out of Egypt - the angel who had Yahweh's 'name' and therefore actual presence. This also makes sense of Jesus saying in John 'I have manifested your name to them.' The apostles already knew God's name was Yahweh, so I think Jesus is saying something even deeper than we realise. Heiser would also say that the claim to be the 'son of man' in Daniel is stronger than we think - 'coming on the clouds' is only ever used of Yahweh elsewhere in the OT, and when it is realised that the 'two powers' idea was widely held by the Jewish people before the second century, it's a strong suggestion that Jesus saw himself as the embodied Yahweh. To get the fullness of Heiser's points you'd really need to watch his videos on vimeo on 'Jesus and the Old Testament': they're pretty fascinating, and go to show that the structure for a multiplicity of persons within the Godhead was already something in place. Michael's bringing a book out sometime, and I honestly think it will change the way we look at this issue.

Thanks for the discussion!

Ben, there are some interesting ideas here, but I also have some questions.

I can’t check the textual variants of Jude 1:5 at the moment, but the text I have in front of me has kyrios rather than “Jesus”.

Does “name” in John 17:6 mean anything more than “glory” or “purpose” or “character”? The context, moreover, differentiates between God and Jesus: the Father has given the disciples to the Son. 17:5, however, perhaps makes it more likely that for John Jesus is to be identified with a pre-existent “name”, though isn’t Heiser’s argument that the “name” are the “angel” are distict hypostases, or whatever? Is Jesus both “angel” and “name”? Or have I got that wrong?

I agree that the Son of Man motif is important, but the coming on the clouds does not so obviously indicate divinity. First, the Son of Man represents the community of faithful Israel. Secondly, the intrinsic contrast is between the clouds of the heaven and the sea from which the beastly kingdoms emerge. The saints of the Most High are given authority and kingdom, but it seems to me that we severely strain the symbolism if we make all this an argument for the divinity of the Son of Man.

It may well be the case that the “two powers” idea was in some way influential in shaping early christology. I just don’t see that this is reflected in the New Testament. But I haven’t listened to Heiser’s argument at length.

Some early manuscripts had 'Jesus' there.

I think you'd need to listen to his arguments... a lot of these things rely on seeing it through a particular lense - so if it's demonstrated that the two powers language was quite common, it's no great stretch to see divine equality for the Son of Man for the reasons I put above and to see much other stuff as being indicative of this. It'll take up a few hours of your time, but it's definitely worth it.

Blessings to you and your family.

Hope to read more thoroughly later, but I'm intrigued immediately by  the last sentence in your first paragraph. . . .

"Who am I to object?"  Well, you're a thinking, believing, seemingly intelligent person with pure intentions, I assume!  That would give you right to object if you wanted to.  You're no less worthy just because you live a bunch of centuries later.  :-)  Neither you nor "Church Fathers" are specially inspired in the sense that Biblical authors were.

Personally, I suspect that Trinitarian doctrine is fairly on target, but way trumped-up over the centuries.  As you suggest by "not in the gospels necessarily" and "thin strands," it's really not a biblical doctrine, although the activity of the Essence/Spirit of God doesn't seem to have been in question for the early church.  Certainly, the divinity of the Father and Son are assumed, as well.

Perhaps more later, as time permits, but thanks, for now, for your thoughtul approach.

Yes, “Who am I to object?” was a little tongue-in-cheek. I have to be careful not to object too much. The Trinitarian doctrine may be roughly on target, but there are some quite significant changes in how we read the NT underway at the moment, and it may turn out that the doctrine doesn’t fit our reading of the texts quite as well as it used to. But this is a work in progress. In the mean time, I would be happy to hear more of your thoughts.

The divinity of the son may be assumed by you, but it wasn't by the writers of the NT. I think that is the point here. People read divinity into language that was not meant to imply divinity.

One example is the "Son of Man' and "suffering servant" language that scholars know was intended as a description of Israel at large or humans who were acting to do the will of God.

The early church knew nothing about any essenses. That is a Greek concept, I suspect the members of the early church would have been horrified by it.

Trinitarians can argue that the truth of passages about Jesus in the Hebrew bible were hidden from the original readers. I find that hard to digest.

Paulf, we may have a different view on scripture (or not).  We could examine such as John 10:30, the John Prologue, and all the times Paul linked Father and Son in function and identity.  Or ...

In my view, the NT authors seem to have assumed Jesus was God.  Admittedly, the epxressions "Son of Man" and "Son of God," whether considered in tandem or separately, don't in themselves speak Christ's divinity, but it seems to me that it's because there's no passage that spells it out--"Christ the Lord, the Son, IS God"--it's because that passage doesn't exist that it makes sense to assume the divinity of Christ.  For example:  Jesus' response in Matt. 26:64 was “You have said it yourself," rather than "Yes, I am the Christ, and I am God." This toned-down response (or at least that's how I hear it) seems both to respect Jewish custom and, in later literary analysis, to assume that Christ-ians believed He was God. 

I like to choose carefully between "Jesus" and "Christ," depending on importan d purpose of what I'm saying.  The records of the Christ's origins, His miracles and teachings, etc., all strongly suggest His divinity.  His "smicha" (authority) in Mark, etc., comes directly from the Father (Mark 1), not from another rabbi.  If all that happened and He wasn't God, wouldn't the writers have needed to state otherwise, and emphatically?!

So, I suspect the writers and first readers of the NC documents did in fact believe Jesus the Christ was God, but you're probably right on about the "essence" concept's being more Greek than Jewish.  I often opt for the term "Essence" because I have a hunch "Essence of God" is what "Spirit of God" really means, more than the latter expression attempts to define a third personage.  I tried an exercise once of reading all the "Holy Spirit" and "Spirit of God" passages with the word "Essence" substituted, and it worked about 95% of the time.  "Pneuma," of course, is Greek, but it is a very close approximation of the Hebrew "ruach," so whatever Luke, Paul, Peter, John meant by "Spirit" in Greek would be pretty close to what the Hebrew writers meant by "Ruach," I suspect.

Andrew, I appreciate the challenge of what is probably largely, as you say, a post-Nicene perspective.  Personally, I grew up ignorant of the historical creeds and still have very little patience with their theological berths today.  To question something propounded by a "creed" is perfectly fine with me!

Also, thanks for not listing an older, disputed 1 John 5:8 rendering as the third Trinitarian passage.

Having skimmed your entire essay now, I can say that I appreciate very much the overall import, not to mention the emphasis on Christian baptism, which is so largely neglected in most Christian circles today.  I'd be interested in support for what you theorize that the successive identification with Father, Son, and Spirit meant/means, but assuming you are generalizing and theorizing, it's still OK by me.

Your non-questioning use of the word "Godhead" draws one last comment.  It's a strange, almost grotesque word to my ears.  If memory serves, "theotes" is only used in the Colossians 2 passage, and "Godhead" is a pretty weird "translation."

This quick revisit to Colossians reminds me of how much Christ's divinity is assumed in this letter.