Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Quick! Guess! What was the hot topic for Christian leaders a few centuries after Jesus Christ died?

Naturally, they were having a spirited discussion about the nature of God.

But that doesn’t quite capture what was going on.

In the late 200s and early 300s, the leaders of the Christian Church were locked in a pitched battle about what the (then) fairly new books of the New Testament meant when they talked about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (also called the Holy Ghost).

And wow, were they confused! What they were reading just didn’t make sense to them. So they began coming up with theories, staking out positions, kicking each other out of the church, and telling each other to go to . . . oh, wait, that’s not quite right. They told everyone who didn’t believe what they themselves believed that they would go to hell.

Yes, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was the hot topic among Christian leaders in the year 325. That’s when the Roman emperor Constantine invited all 1,800 Christian bishops to a council held in a town called Nicaea. Two or three hundred of them actually showed up. In meetings attended by the emperor himself, these bishops came up with the first version of a statement of belief that attempted to define the relationship between Jesus Christ (the Son) and the Father. The statement they drafted is called the Nicene Creed. The vast majority of Christians and Christian churches have accepted it as essential Christian doctrine ever since.

And yet, the Council of Nicaea is precisely where the Christian Church got seriously off track. At least, it is according to Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772).

Why?

Although the Nicene Creed does not actually use the word “Trinity” or the word “Persons” (neither does the Bible, by the way), what it did say about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit set the Christian Church on a course toward the doctrine of the Trinity of Persons. One and a half to two centuries later, the Athanasian Creed, another statement of belief that greatly expanded on the Nicene Creed, did use the terms “Trinity” and “Persons,” making explicit the doctrine that the earlier creed had strongly implied.

And according to Swedenborg, the doctrine of a Trinity of Persons in God led to a quick death for true Christianity by introducing contradiction, confusion, and polytheism into the church.

What is a Trinity of Persons?

So . . . what’s a Trinity of Persons?

I don’t know. I’ve never been able to figure it out.

That puts me in good company. Nobody has ever been able to figure it out. When it comes right down to it, even the people who believe it and teach it end out saying it’s a mystery that you just have to believe.

But here’s the general idea:

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three in Person, but one in essence. Each Person is individually God—infinite, eternal, uncreated—and each has a distinct role; but the three Persons are still one God because they share a common essence and always act in unison.

The Trinity of Persons is a human-created doctrine

Of course it’s called a “mystery.” Because the reality is that it makes no sense. How can three Persons be one God? Millions of words have been written over the centuries in an attempt to explain it, and none have succeeded.

The fact is, no matter how many times the proponents of the Trinity of Persons say it’s one God, they are really thinking of three. In other words, the lips say “one,” but the mind says “three.” The Athanasian Creed itself recognizes this when it says:

The Father is one person, the Son another, and the Holy Spirit another. The Father is God and Lord, the Son is God and Lord, and the Holy Spirit is God and Lord. Nevertheless there are not three gods and lords; there is one God and Lord. Just as Christian truth compels us to confess each person individually as God and Lord, so the catholic religion forbids us to say three gods or three lords.

Are you confused yet?

If not, you should be. Because the doctrine of a Trinity of Persons in God is not a “mystery”; it’s a contradiction. It makes no sense. And it is taught nowhere in the Bible.

Let’s be clear: the doctrine of a Trinity of Persons in God was formulated and taught by human beings, not by the Bible. And any doctrine not plainly and clearly taught by the Bible has no claim to being essential Christian doctrine.

The proponents of a Trinity of Persons have put human teachings ahead of the teachings of the Word of God. In so doing, they have introduced contradiction, confusion, and polytheism into the church.

One of the primary reasons people who belong to monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Islam reject the Christian Church is that they view it as polytheistic—as teaching that there are three gods. And no amount of saying “one” can erase the fact that Christians who believe in a Trinity of Persons think in terms of three distinct gods. Even classic Christian art commonly portrays the Trinity as three separate individuals, the Father being portrayed as the traditional white-bearded old man, the Son as a young man with the scars of his crucifixion, and the Holy Spirit as a dove. And the different roles given to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit make it clear that those who believe it are thinking of them as three, not as one.

What is the real Trinity?

Though the Bible does not use the word “Trinity,” that word is not the real problem. The real problem is the word “Persons”—plural. Everywhere the Bible speaks about how many Gods there are, it always says the same thing: there is one and only one God. The Old Testament says it. The New Testament says it. Jesus himself says, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30).

If there is one God, that means God is one person, not three people.

And it’s really not hard at all to understand how there can be a Trinity in one God.

The Bible says that God created human beings in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26–27). So if there is a Trinity in God, that means there must be a trinity in each one of us, too. Otherwise we would not be in God’s image and likeness.

Now let me ask you a question: Are you three persons, or one person?

Uh huh. I thought so! And God is one person, too.

Now let me ask you another question: Are there different parts to who you are as a person?

Yes, of course there are. Just as there are different parts of God.

When the Bible talks about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it is using visual images to talk about three different parts of God. And the easiest way to understand those different parts is to think of three basic parts that we as human beings have:

  • The Father is like our soul.
  • The Son is like our body.
  • The Holy Spirit is like all of our words and actions.

These are three distinct parts of who we are. Yet together, they make the one person who is us:

  • Our soul, or spirit, is our inner self, where we love, think, understand, and desire things.
  • Our body is the way we express what we love and what we think, and how we become present with other people.
  • Our words and actions are the actual expression of who we are as a person, going out into the world and affecting the people around us.

Even this basic understanding of who we are as human beings makes it possible for us to get a basic, sensible idea of the Trinity that exists in the single Person of God. Yes, of course, God can and does get much more complicated than that. But the complications are not illogical or contradictory. They’re just infinite expansions and developments of the basic three-part nature of God as expressed in the Gospels by the highly symbolic ideas of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

For now, let’s just take a simple view of what each one of these ideas, or parts of God, means:

The Father

As presented in the Bible, the part or aspect of God that is called “the Father” is the infinite, eternal, and unknowable core of God. We finite human beings can never fully understand the inner nature of God. God is so far above us that if we were to try, it would be like trying to understand the nature of the sun by flying into it. We would be instantly vaporized.

And yet, we can still have some basic idea of what the “Father” aspect of God is all about.

The core of God is love, just as the apostle John says in 1 John 4:8, 16. This infinite, eternal love is so powerful that it created this entire vast universe. Everything we see around us on this earth and millions of light years away in the universe was and is created from the love of God.

That same love that created the universe and everything in it is also an intense love for everything in the universe, including every one of us. God loves each one of us, and wants to give every one of us eternal joy and happiness. That is God’s goal in creation: to create a heaven from the human race—meaning a heavenly community of people who love God by loving and serving their fellow human beings.

The Son

Though we can never know the “Father,” or the core being of God, directly, God reaches out to us so that we can have some way of approaching, knowing, and loving God.

What the Bible calls “the Son” is the way that God has reached out to us and become present with us so that we can know and love God. For Christians, the Son is Jesus Christ as the human presence of God.

Just as we humans need a body in order to interact with each other and have relationships with each other, so God needs a human presence and a human body in order to interact with us and have a relationship with us.

The infinite being of God is far beyond our limited ability to understand and approach. But we can understand, approach, love, and listen to Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ, “the Son,” is God coming to us in person so that we can know, love, and follow God, and have a personal relationship with God just as we have a personal relationship with our fellow human beings.

The Holy Spirit

When we have a relationship with God, it affects us. We hear the words God speaks to us—usually through written Scriptures such as the Bible—and it changes our lives from the inside out. We become new people because we learn and know that God loves us, that God has a purpose for us, and that God has specific teachings and guidelines for us to live by.

The Holy Spirit expresses all of the ways God touches us through words and actions. This can come:

  • From the outside, such as by reading the Bible and other spiritual literature, or listening to spiritual talks, or
  • From the inside, such as by feeling God’s love and sensing God’s guidance within our own soul, and being changed and uplifted by it.

When we feel moved and our life is changed by God’s presence, that is the Holy Spirit of God coming into us, renewing us, and changing us into a better and truer version of our own deepest self—which also comes from God.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God

Yes, it’s understandable that those Christian leaders who lived a few centuries after Jesus Christ died were confused by the Bible’s statements about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. After all, many of them had come from polytheistic religions themselves. So when they read about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, it was fairly natural for them to think in terms of three Persons, or three gods.

It helps to understand that the Bible commonly speaks in figurative and symbolic language. As soon as we understand that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not meant to be read as distinct beings, but as symbolizing different parts of the one Being of God, then it all starts to make sense.

Of course, this brief introduction can only scratch the surface. But I hope it helps steer your mind toward a clear understanding and appreciation of the true oneness of God as presented in the Bible, which is at the heart of true Christianity.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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21 comments on “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  1. perandre says:

    I agree that the Athanasian Creed is not only hard to grasp; it doesn’t really make sense. I do however disagree that Nicaea was essential to a moving away from oneness, towards “threeness”. As a matter of fact, studying Christian litterature from after NT to about yr 250, you will find eternal subordination of the Son to the Father as a central doctrine in almost all writings. The only times you will find a theology of oneness, is in critique of sabellianism/modalism/monarchinism. The early fathers are very clear on the (eternal) distinction of the two, based on the Son’s subordination.
    It could of course be that NT teaches something completely different, but it is obvious that this theology was the most widespread teaching after NT up to Nicaea (and not the other way around).
    Let me know if you are interested in references 🙂

    • Lee says:

      Hi perandre,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      You may be right that threeness was rampant in Christian literature up to the time of the Council of Nicaea. The particular beliefs of the early Church Fathers is not one of my strong points. In general, I skip over all of the various creeds and doctrinal formulations of the early Christian Church–which are human documents. Instead, I go back to the Gospels themselves, and to the Bible as a whole.

      The thing is, the “primitive Church”–meaning the first followers of Jesus and the Christian groups that sprung up in the first century of Christianity–were not all that concerned with doctrine. They were focused on what it means to live as a Christian, and what it means to love and follow Jesus Christ.

      This focus on love and on life rather than on doctrine is why none of the books in the New Testament presents a really coherent, doctrinal picture of Christian belief. That simply wasn’t what either Jesus Christ himself or the early Christian Church was all about.

      It was only as the focus shifted from Jesus Christ himself, and living a Christlike life, to determining correct belief that the church began to fall away from its early state, and to get corrupted more and more.

      What the Council of Nicaea, and the Nicene Creed, did was not so much to originate the faulty doctrine that was developing in the Christian Church as to codify and enforce it as a (supposedly) universal Christian doctrine that all Christians were henceforth required to believe.

      Constantine’s purpose in calling the council was to bring unity to the church around a single belief that all must subscribe to, and to make this the banner of a political (worldly) kingdom with himself as its king and emperor. This purpose is antithetical to the purpose of Jesus Christ and true Christianity.

      I think it would be accurate to say that none of the early Church Fathers had a sound understanding of God, the Incarnation, salvation, or any of the major doctrinal points of Christianity. Most of these Church Fathers were converted pagans who had been steeped in polytheistic culture, belief, and practice prior to becoming Christians. They were simply not equipped to understand a complex, nuanced monotheistic religion such as Christianity.

      That’s why as soon as they turned their minds away from Christian love and Christian life toward Christian belief and Christian doctrine, they immediately plunged into all sorts of false and faulty beliefs.

      What happened in the Christian Church is not that the true faith won out over a multitude of heresies. Rather, the Christian Church was quickly invaded by a multitude of heresies, and the strongest heresy won out over the rest of the competing heresies. This resulted in the Nicene Creed, which led inexorably to the Athanasian Creed and the destruction of the Christian Church that Jesus Christ had begun, and that was practiced by his earliest followers.

      The heresy that won out over all the rest, which is the keystone of that destruction, is the idea of the Trinity of Persons. This non-Biblical doctrine won out in the Christian Church generally, and led to its doctrinal destruction.

      However, behind that heresy, and the doctrinal destruction of the Christian Church, was a shift from a focus on love for God and the neighbor toward the idea that belief, or faith, is primary. This eventually resulted in the false and anti-Biblical doctrine of salvation by faith alone promulgated by Luther.

      And behind that shift from love as primary to faith as primary was a shift away from the Great Commandments as taught by Jesus Christ toward a desire for wealth and for power over others. Constantine was not interested in spreading God’s love far and wide. He was interested in establishing his own power far and wide. And that became the interest of the entire Christian Church that followed him and adopted the Nicene Creed as its central statement of belief.

      The Christian Church of history was focused on its own wealth and power, not on spreading love of God and the neighbor as taught by Jesus Christ.

      That’s why the Christian Church became utterly corrupt, to the point where that historical form of false “Christianity” is now waning and dying as the world tears it apart and leaves it behind.

      • perandre says:

        Thanks for your reply!

        Should you be interested in reading down of the early fathers, head over to ccel.org and download The Ante Nicene Fathers ebooks. Very interesting!

        Again, you are right about the early christian focus on life rather than dogma. There are some underlying assumptions however, and we find that these are often very Jewish. In the NT and in e.g. The Apostolic Fathers, there is little reflection regarding the trinity. They take for granted that God is the God of the Jews, and that Messiah is the one promised by the prophets. In the rare cases where the relationship between the two is discussed, they see no need to mention the Holy Spirit; there is no interest in establishing the trinity as a dogma.

        I would argue however, that the lack of doctrine in NT on the subject, shows that the writers take it for granted that Jesus is subordinate to the Father. Some examples:

        – Jesus prays to the Father
        – Only God knows the hour, not the son
        – God anoints, while Jesus is the anointed one
        – God “sent” Jesus
        – Jesus will judge the world, not the Father
        – Jesus was raised by God

        One could argue that these things are only relevant for Jesus time in the flesh, as the moralists would. That doesn’t take into account one of the main themes, though, which is the eschatological judgement/end of the world (which is relevant only after yr 33).

        The most quoted OT verse in NT, is from Psalm 110. It basically says that God puts all enemies under the feet of Jesus. Paul makes a clear case in 1 Cor 15, which makes it obvious that there is a numerical distinction between the two, also in Heaven. It’s actual central to the ending drama, it seems, that the Son is subordinate to the Father.

        Also, the term Father/Son should be taken seriously, I believe. Father and Son are of the same substance (even the same “family”), which is why Jesus (after his death and resurrection) is referred to as our brother, and God as our Father.

        The verses in John are not well suited to establish oneness, as he exact same Greek word is used by John to establish the oneness among the disciples. The natural interpretation of the last is not oneness in essence of course, but a oneness of love and will.

        An argument from the Jewish Shema is better, but still doesn’t take into account that the Jews indeed expected their Messiah to be numerical different from God; they just didn’t expect him to be referred to as Son. More to say about that, but at least they had no trouble seeing Messiah as an instrument for God’s will, without him actual being God himself.

        Would love to hear your thoughts, especially on 1 Cor 15.

        Thanks!

        – And again: I love the focus on love in here. Life is what matters 🙂

        • Lee says:

          Hi perandre,

          I would say that the people of Jesus’ day and the following centuries simply weren’t ready for or capable of understanding God and spirit as they truly are. The foundations had not yet been laid for that. All they had to go on was the Hebrew Scriptures and their various ancient (to us) interpreters, and Greek, or pagan, mythology and religion, plus various other religious influences that passed through the crossroads that was the Holy Land. They did not have our modern science, philosophy, education, or any of the tools of logic and reason we take for granted today. Yes, some of those were present in embryonic form, but humanity simply wasn’t ready for any clear understanding of God and spirit as they really are. That’s why Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12).

          I’m aware that the subordination vs. equality issue with regard to the Father and the Son were big issues among the early theologians. However, with no clear understanding of what the Father and the Son are, and with no clear understanding of the nature of the Incarnation, nothing could emerge from that debate but confusion.

          For starters, it’s necessary to understand that during Jesus’ life on earth, he actually did have a dual nature. He had an infinite divine nature that was the Father, analogous to our soul, and he had a finite human nature that came from Mary, which was his body and the lower levels of his mind.

          During his life on earth, Jesus’ conscious awareness alternated between the two. At times he was more present in the finite humanity from Mary. At those times, he prayed to the Father as if to a separate being, and even felt separate from and abandoned by the Father at times.

          At other times he was more present in the infinite divinity within that was the Father. At those times he spoke about he and the Father being one, and said things such as that those who have seen him have seen the Father. (And yes, I’m aware of the same language about “oneness” being used both of his relationship with the Father and their relationship with his disciples.)

          Without an understanding of Jesus’ life on earth as a process, it is impossible to understand either the prophecies of the Old Testament as they apply to his life or the narratives of the Gospels, and the commentary on it in the Acts and the Epistles. Much of the confusion in Christian theology has come from a lack of understanding of the nature of the Incarnation and the process of transformation, or “glorification,” that Jesus went through during his lifetime.

          Throughout his life, Jesus went through a process of inner struggles of temptation as he fought against the powers of hell, or the Devil. As he did this, he progressively emptied himself of the finite humanity that came from Mary, and replaced it with a divine humanity that came from, and was, God. The Crucifixion was the last of these temptations. In the tomb he left behind the last of the finite humanity that came from Mary. When he rose, he was fully divine, even as to his body. After the ascension, he became fully one with the Father. By that time he no longer had a dual nature in the sense of having a finite humanity and an infinite divinity. He was fully divine and human at the same time.

          Once this understanding of the Incarnation takes hold, both the Old Testament prophecies and the Gospel narratives can be read in a whole new light.

          However, none of it works if we insist upon reading Scripture in a doggedly literal way. It is necessary to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of Scripture itself to avoid falling into all sorts of doctrinal errors and contradictions of the kinds that have plagued the Christian Church for nearly two thousand years now.

          If you haven’t read these two articles yet, I would once again recommend them. They offer some better understanding of the nature of the Bible and how it is to be read:

          1. How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads
          2. Can We Really Believe the Bible?

          The Bible is a complex book. It can never be reduced to any simple doctrinal formulas. In fact, I believe one of its purposes is to continually challenge us to look deeper, think deeper, feel deeper, than we have before. It is intended to continually challenge our views and formulations, to keep us from thinking we can ever fully know and understand God and spirit.

          I don’t pretend to be able to fully explain everything in it. However, I do think that it is possible to gain a basic, foundational understanding of God and spirit that can stand the test of the entire Bible if we pay more attention to “the spirit that gives life” than to “the letter that kills” (2 Corinthians 3:5-6).

          (continued . . .)

        • Lee says:

          (. . . continued)

          The issues and questions you raise are many and large. I can’t do justice to them in these relatively brief comments. However, I’ll attempt to give at least quick responses to a few more of them.

          About subordination, even after the Ascension, there is a sense in which the Son is subordinate to the Father. If we think of the Father as the divine love, and the Son as the divine truth, then love is indeed primary, and truth is indeed secondary. So in that sense, the Son is subordinate to the Father.

          However, it’s more of an abstract and philosophical distinction than anything else. In fact, it is impossible to separate the Father from the Son, any more than we can separate love from truth. Neither has any real existence without the other.

          It would be similar to trying to separate our soul from our body–by which I mean primarily our spiritual body. Our soul is primary, but without a body, it can do nothing. And our body is secondary, and cannot exist without a soul, yet it is the vehicle by which the soul does everything it does.

          So arguments about subordination vs. equality are more academic than anything else. The fact is, the Father and the Son are one in a very real sense, and not only in the sense in which both are one with the people of God.

          Once again, to truly understand this, it’s necessary to rid one’s mind of the idea of the Trinity of Persons, and understand it as a Trinity in the single Person of the Lord God Jesus Christ.

          (continued . . .)

        • Lee says:

          (. . . continued)

          About the OT prophecies vs. their fulfillment in Jesus Christ:

          I think it’s fair to say that Jesus Christ was not much like what the Jewish people were expecting based on their reading of the prophecies of the Messiah in the Hebrew scriptures. They were expecting a king who would throw off their enemies and re-establish them as not only a sovereign nation, but as the rulers of the then-known world.

          Jesus didn’t do that. That’s one of the reasons they turned against him and crucified him as a false Messiah.

          However, if we look at the OT prophecies from a somewhat more objective stance, we find that there are at least two distinct lines of prophecy.

          In one line of prophecy, there is a Messiah, or anointed king, who will be of the lineage of their greatest king, David, and who will re-establish the literal, political kingdom of Israel.

          In another line of prophecy, the Lord himself will come and redeem his people.

          Jesus was the fulfillment of both lines of prophecy. However, he was not a messiah, or anointed king, in the literal way in which most of the ancient Jewish leaders interpreted it. His conversation with Pilate in John 18:33-38 is very instructive in this regard. He was well aware that most of the Jews expected a literal anointed one (Hebrew “Messiah”) who would be a political king over them. And he explicitly stated that he was a king, but that he was not the sort of political king (“of this world”) that they were expecting. Rather his kingdom was one that involved testifying to the truth.

          The Jews did not expect their Messiah to be either God or the Son of God. They expected him to be a great human being in the line of David. When Jesus didn’t turn out to be what they expected, they turned against him.

          That is, those who could not accept a deeper view of the Messiah turned against him. Those who could raise their minds from the material world to something of a spiritual understanding did accept him, and became his followers.

          However, they still had only the most rudimentary understanding of who he was and what he was about. His own closest disciples were continually confused and dumbfounded by what he was attempting to teach them. He himself said that he was unable to express to them the full truth, because “they could not bear it.” They simply weren’t prepared to receive it.

          It took many centuries of Christian history and development of human society before people capable of understanding it more fully came into existence as a significant percentage of human society. That’s why it is only in the last few hundred years that any clear understanding of the nature of God, the Trinity, the Incarnation, redemption, salvation, the spiritual world, and so on has begun to emerge in the world.

          That’s enough response to this comment for now. What, in particular, would you like me to comment on with regard to 1 Corinthians 15?

  2. perandre says:

    Thanks for your reply!

    I agree that the Jews at Jesus time had different expectations. Before jumping straight to what we believe is the truth, it could however be fruitful to see what each NT writer thought about the subject (then agree/disagree/interpret after).

    Regarding 1 Cor 15, I find it very hard to not see a numerical distinction between Father and Son when reading verses 24-28:

    24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

    Also note the distinction made in v 27. God and Christ = separate entities to Paul, also in Heaven.

    • Lee says:

      Hi perandre,

      The fundamental issue here is whether there is one God or multiple gods.

      The basic “numerical” issue from a Bible standpoint is that every time the Bible actually specifies a number for God, that number is one. (I am excluding the trinitarian formula in 1 John 5:7, which is recognized by Bible scholars as a much later addition, and not genuine.)

      The word “person” as it is generally understood means a distinct individual. Saying that there are three Persons of God means, fundamentally, saying that there are three gods. Saying that they are one in essence does not erase this. It only confuses it. Hence the line in the Athanasian Creed:

      For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord, so are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords.

      It could hardly be clearer that a Trinity of Persons involves thinking in terms of three gods, but saying that there is one God.

      I believe this is precisely what everyone who subscribes to a Trinity of Persons is, in fact, doing, no matter how much they protest that the Trinity is one God. Each Person is thought of as a distinct entity of its own, with a distinct personality, characteristics, and relationship to the others, and its own distinct role to play as an individual. This is especially true of the Father and Son, who are clearly thought of as two separate beings–and therefore as two separate gods.

      Saying “one God” with the lips does not erase the fact that those who believe in a Trinity of Persons in God are, in fact, thinking in terms of three distinct gods. The only thing accomplished by saying they are “one in essence” is to give some vague notion that even though there are three of them, they somehow act in unison.

      The Athanasian Creed at least has the honesty to tacitly admit that believing in a Trinity of Persons involves a contradiction between the mind and the lips.

      The Trinity of Persons is a doctrine taught nowhere in the Bible. Yes, it was adopted quite early in Christianity–within a few centuries of the life of Christ. But it is still a human doctrine and interpretation. And I believe it is a false one–in fact, the fundamental falsity that has led the entire Christian Church, in all of its branches, astray doctrinally.

      For any interpretation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to pass Biblical muster and maintain Christianity as a monotheistic religion, it must present God as one not only in essence, but also in person. Any division into distinct and separate persons (something the Bible never says) involves a division into multiple gods (something the Bible specifically rejects).

      I’m not aware (so far) of any theologian in the history of Christianity up to and including the Protestant Reformation who was able to present a coherent, non-contradictory, Bible-based understanding of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that didn’t involve either splitting God into three persons, and therefore into three gods, or denying the full divinity of the Son and/or the Holy Spirit.

      To my knowledge, this was achieved only by Emanuel Swedenborg in the 18th century. Though I do depart from some of the details of his Christology, such as his adoption of the Aristotelian idea that the soul comes from the father and the body from the mother, my Christology comes largely from Swedenborg’s.

      If you want the full picture, your best bet is to read his final theological work, True Christianity. (The link is to my recent book notice for it.)

      By the time Swedenborg wrote True Christianity, the Lutheran Church that dominated Sweden, and in which Swedenborg himself had grown up, had begun to attack Swedenborg’s theology, not to mention any prominent person in Sweden who adopted it. One way to think of True Christianity is as Swedenborg’s response to the charges of heresy that were being brought by the Lutheran Church against people such as Dr. Gabriel Beyer and Dr. Johan Rosen, who were driven from their university teaching positions due to their adoption of Swedenborg’s theology. (Swedenborg himself was so famous and revered in Sweden as to be untouchable.) If we think of True Christianity as a book directed at the Lutheran orthodoxy of the day, it accounts for the fact that it is written in the form of a standard Lutheran catechism. It also accounts for the combative tone he adopts in much of the book.

      Since you have a degree in Lutheran theology, I think you would find this book (one volume in Latin, two in English) to be fascinating reading.

      A bit of historical trivia: When the Swedenborgian Church of North America joined the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA back in the 1960s (I believe), the only member that could not see clear to vote in favor of it was the Lutheran Church. However, it decided not to block entrance by the simple act of absenting itself from the meeting at which the vote took place. Family rivalries are the most bitter and long-lasting, it seems.

      And incidentally, apparently the Lutheran Church’s fears of Swedenborg’s theology were not groundless. According to an essay by Olle Hjern titled “The Influence of Emanuel Swedenborg in Scandinavia” (published in Emanuel Swedenborg: Essays for the New Century Edition on His Life, Work, and Impact), over time Swedenborg’s theology had a profound impact on the clergy in in Sweden, causing, for example, a general disavowal of the doctrine of the Vicarious Atonement among them.

    • Lee says:

      Hi perandre,

      Now specifically about 1 Corinthians 15 and the numerical issue:

      Of course the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are numerically distinct. If there were no distinction among them, they would not have distinct names, nor would they be assigned distinct roles in the Bible.

      However, this isn’t saying as much as is commonly thought among Trinitarians.

      In the human body, the head, the torso, and the limbs are numerically distinct. Each has its own role to play that the others do not play. We can speak of them distinctly. However, this does not mean there are three bodies, three individuals, or three people (the more common plural of “person”). Rather, they are three distinct parts of one body, one individual, one person.

      The body can be distinguished into as many parts as you care to distinguish it into numerically. There are hundreds of distinct bones, hundreds of distinct organs, hundreds of distinct muscles, and about 100 trillion distinct cells. And yet, together they make a single body.

      Similarly, for Christianity to be a monotheistic religion rather than a polytheistic one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit must be thought of not as three Persons (three People, in more common language), and therefore three distinct “bodies,” or individuals, each of which is God and Lord, but instead as three parts of a singe “body,” or individual, or Person, of God.

      Though the analogy of head (Father), torso (Son), and limbs (Holy Spirit) can work, a better analogy is to the soul or spirit (Father), the body (Son), and the words and actions (Holy Spirit). If we think of the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in this way, it enables us not only to say that there is one God, but also to think that there is one God.

      It also clarifies many things about the relationships described in the Bible among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

      The Bible never actually defines Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, we know that the Bible speaks extensively in symbolic and metaphorical language, using material images to speak of spiritual realities. If we allow Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be metaphorical and symbolic descriptions, rather than literal ones, it opens the way to a non-contradictory, Bible-based understanding of them that requires us neither to separate God into three persons, and therefore three gods, nor to reject the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit in order to believe in one God.

      There is also a way in which Father and Son are more literal designations during the time of Jesus’ life on earth. That involves an issue you bring up in your next comment. The Incarnation was a complex event! Understanding it requires a complex understanding of Christian theology. However, it can be understood in a coherent, non-contradictory way, without the inherent contradictions of the doctrine of the Trinity of Persons.

  3. perandre says:

    Interesting debate, btw!

    Considering your Christology, I have come to realized that it is perhaps not as “high” as I first thought. On the one hand it is, since you would say that it was God the Father himself who became man. On the other hand, you allow a gradual growth into divinity, which hints of adoptionism. I haven’t considered the growth aspect as one of “essence” before; I’ll reread the gospels and see what comes out of it 🙂

    Thanks for your engagement so far!

    • Lee says:

      Hi perandre,

      I would say that in order to avoid confusion about the nature of God in Christ in reading the Gospels, it is necessary to understand the contributions of both the mother (Mary) and the Father (God) to the nature of Jesus Christ at birth, and what happened to those two natures during the course of his lifetime.

      If Mary did not contribute something to the nature of Jesus Christ at birth, what would be the purpose of having a human mother at all? If God is capable of bringing about the miracle of virgin birth, couldn’t God have simply appeared by spontaneous generation as a human being on earth with no human parentage at all?

      In my view, a major failing of all the traditional Christian theology that I’m aware of is that it does not fully account for the fact that Jesus had a human mother, nor does it deal with all of the implications of that fact.

      Given the fact (according to the Gospels) that Jesus did have a human mother, there must have been some reason for this that was essential to the Incarnation.

      Why would a being who is God With Us even have a human mother if she didn’t contribute something to the nature of Jesus Christ that could be contributed in no other way?

      This is a huge subject, and I can’t do justice to it in these relatively brief comments.

      However, if we take the Gospel account of Jesus’ birth seriously, we must recognize that at birth, Jesus had both a finite human nature from his mother, and an infinite divine nature from his Father.

      Obviously, a finite human nature is not God, and is no part of God. Only the infinite, divine nature is God. This means that at birth, some parts of Jesus were God, and some parts were not God.

      In your terms, this would be a mix of “high” Christology and “low” Christology.

      The important thing to understand on this particular issue, though, is that nothing that came from the mother ever was God, nor did any of it end out being God. There was no “adoption” of any mere human being into divinity. Rather, there was a gradual (through Jesus’ lifetime) emptying out of all the finite humanity that came from the mother, and a replacement of it with the infinite divinity that came from the Father.

      I deal with this briefly under the heading, “Jesus Christ: A Different Perspective” in the article, “Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?

      If you look for it in the Bible, you will find various expressions of Christ being poured out and emptied out, generally accompanied by temptation, pain, and agony. These are speaking of his emptying himself of the finite humanity from his human mother, which took place through harrowing battles of temptation within him.

      You will also find images of his being glorified, filled with the spirit, and being one with the Father. These are speaking of his being filled with the divine being of the Father following his being emptied of the finite humanity of the mother.

      This was a process that took place gradually over his entire lifetime. It was completed only through his final temptation and agony on the cross. As I said earlier, by the time he rose from the grave, there was nothing left of the finite humanity that came from his earthly mother.

      God chose to be incarnated via virgin birth from an ordinary human woman, and therefore (temporarily) take on a finite human nature in addition to his infinite divine nature for a very specific reason: This was the only way to face and fight against evil on its own ground, and overcome it without annihilating it altogether.

      If the full divinity of God (the Father) had directly approached hell, or the Devil, it would not have conquered hell. Instead, it would have vaporized hell and everyone in it. So God needed a human medium, or field, on which the combined forces of evil, or the Devil, could approach him and fight against him without being utterly destroyed in the process. This made it possible for him to overcome and gain full power over hell while still granting its inhabitants continued life rather than snuffing them out entirely.

      This was not only due to God’s mercy and continued love even for the evil, and his granting them of life to eternity–even if the life they have chosen is actually eternal spiritual death in hell. It was also due to the use that hell, or the Devil, serves in providing balance, and therefore freedom, to the human race, so that we can freely choose to love God and the neighbor rather than being forced to do so–which would rob us of our humanity.

      This is a simplified picture of a very complex event. But I hope it gives you some idea of why the (temporary) finite human nature was necessary as part of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.

    • Lee says:

      Hi perandre,

      Oh yeah, about the Father and Son being more literal designations during Jesus’ life on earth:

      I’m still thinking this out (didn’t I say the Incarnation was a complex process!), but in one sense there was a more literal Father and Son relationship during Jesus’ life on earth.

      To the extent that Jesus was born of a human mother, and God provided the contribution that would normally be provided by a human father, God was Jesus’ father in a more literal way than I spoke of in my earlier comments.

      As I’ve understood it so far, this is true primarily of the relationship with the finite humanity from his mother (Mary) that was part of Jesus from birth. It was when Jesus’ conscious mind was engaged in and inhabiting primarily this finite, human part of himself that he looked to God as a Father as if to a distinct, and even separate, being. At those times there was a more literal father and son relationship.

      However, once Jesus was fully glorified and ascended to the Father (to use the Biblical terminology), that type of literal father/son relationship ended, and was replaced with a purely spiritual (or divine) father/son relationship of the sort I outlined in my earlier comments and in the previously linked article, “Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?

  4. Kim Albertini says:

    Sorry buddy but the Trinity exists. In the Old testament,the hebrew name for God is—-Elohiim.The hebrew term Elohiim is pluralistic.Here we have the begiining of the Trinity later revealed by Christ.When God created man he said “Let Us create man in our own image”.
    The term trinity is the best way to describe a God who is one yet exists in three.Just like a 3 leaf clover has 3 parts but is one.Just like a human person has a body,spirit & intellect but is one.God warned about not having any gods but him. Jesus pronounced he was God where in John he proclaims “before Abraham IAM ” obviously thats how God described himself in the Old Testament at times.If God is not a trinity of persons,why would the Father allow competition with the son ? Surely they are distinct but One as Christ often speaks of.The holy Spirit is often interwined with the father & Son. The Trinity is already implied in the bible

    • Lee says:

      Hi Kim,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.

      The problem is not with the “Trinity” part. It’s with the “persons” part. Yes, clearly there is a “three” in God. But the Bible never identifies the three as “persons.” This idea violates the most basic teaching about God in the Bible: that God is one.

      About “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26), the simplest explanation is that God is using the plural of majesty. The Hebrew word elohim (“God”) is a plural form, but it almost always takes a singular verb. Clearly it is not meant to imply that there is more than one God, or more than one “person” of God. This would be an anathema to the Hebrew authors and editors of the Old Testament.

      Consider your analogy of a human person with body, spirit, and intellect. Each one of us has these three parts. But do we say that we are three persons? Of course not! We are one person who has three parts. In the very same way, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are used in the New Testament to refer to three different parts, or essential components, of the one Person of God.

      God is not schizophrenic. God is one both in essence and in person.

      For more on this, please see:

  5. Frankly Frank says:

    Interesting discussion all! My only concern is that as is so commonly recited, Paul is elevated to someone revered as being infallible when it comes to quoting chapter and verse.

    Essentially who exactly ordained Paul as a Big Biblical Kahuna that I should be required to pay heed to or else? By that I mean after I croak is someone (an Angel) vetting me out as worthy or unworthy based upon partially me giving Paul’s opinions less importance than they warranted? You know I should’ve been on the Paul Brigade wagon, man!

    I mean to further say this: IMHO Paul is so over quoted by just about everyone to support their particular biblical perspective to the extent nowadays that Jesus and the original apostles literally appear as second tier personages. This is how it comes across to me. So when I hear or read anyone quoting Paul ad nauseum I have to wonder why they have that much faith to consider Paul’s writing so sancrosanct. Hell fire folks, why not St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc. too?

    Just because some Nicosian council deems Paul to be King James worthy why should I place so much faith in this guy as a true spokesperson of God?

    I just wish people would stop quoting Paul as if he’s literally equal to God already!

    FF

    • Lee says:

      Hi Frankly Frank,

      It may interest you to know that Swedenborg did not consider the Acts and the Epistles (including Paul’s letters) in the New Testament to be part of the Word of God—although he did call them “good books of the church.” He rarely quoted them in his earlier published theological writings, though he did quote them a bit more in the late works, especially True Christianity. That book was clearly intended to be a systematic broadside against Protestant doctrine. It used their own canon of scripture to establish that their key doctrines were mistaken.

      One interesting thing Swedenborg said, though, was that under God’s providence the Epistles were allowed to become part of the Christian canon of scripture because by focusing on them instead of on the Gospels, the Christian Church would do less damage to the Gospel message, since most of their distortions and false doctrines were (and are) based not on the Gospels, but on Paul (though on a misunderstanding of Paul’s teachings). This left the Gospels relatively unscathed. So it’s not all bad that institutional Christianity has built its dogma mostly based on Paul and not based on the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Gospels.

      I quote Paul and the other Epistles because they are seen as scripture by most Christians, and therefore have the weight of authority for them. And even they don’t teach the things Protestants, especially, attribute to them. So they are useful in showing that traditional Christian doctrine is false and wrong because it’s not taught even in their canon of Scripture.

      Swedenborg’s teachings, however, are based primarily on the Gospels and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, plus the books called “The Law and the Prophets,” and the Psalms, in the Old Testament. For a listing of the specific books of the Bible that Swedenborg considered to be the Word of God, see this Q&A on Christianity StackExchange: What writings are held as “biblical canon” by Swedenborgians?

  6. Frankly Frank says:

    All I can say at this point Lee is Wow. There are those other books that were left out by the Nicosia council. What does Swedenborg say about those?

    FF

    • Lee says:

      Hi Frankly Frank,

      Swedenborg doesn’t include any of those other books in his canon of scripture. He believed that God provided for the preservation and inclusion of the books of the inspired Word of God in our present-day Bible, even if a number of other books got included as well.

      However, Swedenborg does several times speak of an “Ancient Word,” now lost, that existed before our present Bible, from which, he says, the first several chapters of Genesis were copied, and several books of which, he says, are referred to in the Old Testament.

      Over the years there has been great speculation and some intensive searches for this “Ancient Word” by various Swedenborgians, but so far all of these searches have come up empty.

      The books of this “Ancient Word” would predate any of the New Testament era books by several thousand years, however. As I understand it, most of the books not included by the early Christian councils were additional Gospels, Epistles, and other books related to Jesus Christ and early Christianity. By that time, the Old Testament canon had already been fairly well established.

  7. Alex says:

    Hi Lee. Hope you are doing well?

    Let me touch on the Holy Spirit. A lot of preachers and teachers go on about being filled with the Holy Spirit, but none really go into what it means. It all comes across as cryptic and as if none really has a proper idea what it is supposed to mean.

    Jesus said we must be filled with it. Does ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ mean as much as using the knowledge acquired, be it through Jesus at the time or the Bible thereafter, and put it into action and thus be filled by it. Basically, be filled with actions God commanded and approved and thus do his work and thus praise him?

    Or does it refer to God ‘breathing’ something into us that makes it easier it even possible to do good and thus a completely external process depending on us asking for it and the graciousness of God?

    When Jesus said to the Disciples on the Mount of Olives to stay in Jerusalem until they are filled with the Holy Spirit, did He mean to stay and actually live out what they learned before they go spread the Word? It would make sense.

    However, the KJV (Luke 24:49 to be specific) he said “…but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.”
    This sounds more like God would send some sort of power, possibly ‘breathing’ the Holy Spirit into them, as opposed to the more practical interpretation above. However, it could also mean by doing what God commanded and thus ‘being filled with the Holy Spirit’ they were able to achieve and spiritual life and all the benefits coming from it. Could that be the ‘power from on high’? I am not sure.

    Do you have an answer that could solve this little issue? Or at least make it less cryptic.

    Cheers 🙂

    • Lee says:

      Hi Alex,

      Good question. My general answer is that it’s a distinction without a difference. Jesus said:

      I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)

      In other words, unless we have Jesus in us—which is also the presence of the Holy Spirit—we cannot engage in good actions that are really good, and not merely self-serving. So when the Holy Spirit enters us, that gives us the ability to “be filled with actions God commanded and approved and thus do his work and thus praise him.”

      If a person claims to be filled with the Holy Spirit but doesn’t do God’s work, that person is either self-deceived or a liar. Being filled with the Holy Spirit doesn’t just mean speaking in inspired ways (though for a preacher, that might actually be doing the works God commands). It means acting on the good things spoken, and living as a changed, spirit-filled person who loves the neighbor as the self through practical service to the neighbor done out of love and concern for the neighbor.

      Does that answer your question?

  8. Alex says:

    Hi Lee. Thanks for taking the time.

    This multi-layered meaning was actually what I was partially expecting. I have been reading and trying to understand the Hebrew way of thinking as opposed to the Hellenistic/Greek way we are using today. We tend to use a ether/or dichotomy, limiting interpretation to a black and white scenario, just as I did in my question, whereas it seems that the Hebrew way of thinking was multi-layered and contextual ‘block’ logic and an emphasis on doing vs. knowing. In this case, being filled with the Holy Spirit is as much of an inspiration from God (both literally and figurately) as well as us living the right way (emphasis on living, instead of just knowing).

    So yes, this does help me in understanding, especially in conjunction with how the Hebrew people though compared to us. This is particularly mind-bending, but I think I am beginning to see what this is all about 😀

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