When discussing different viewpoints, whether theological or otherwise, failure to correctly interpret another’s position can lead to the fallacy called “attacking a straw man.” A straw man fallacy occurs when a person ignores another’s position on an issue and instead exaggerates, misrepresents, or creates a distorted version of that position, which makes it easier to attack. This can be done either inadvertently or deliberately, by arguing against a distorted or misrepresented or simply misunderstood version of the other’s position.
Anti-trinitarians sometimes construct their arguments against an inaccurate version of the doctrine of the Trinity, and might then believe they have demolished it. This fortnight’s blog doesn’t have space to present all the scriptural arguments or quote all the various positions by different writers and theologians. Those details (and extensive Scriptural evidence) can be found in my various other blog entries, in my now-published book, The Trinity Hurdle, and elsewhere. What I aim to do with the current discussion is to highlight some ways in which the Trinity has been misunderstood and misrepresented, by both well-meaning but misinformed believers, and by opponents of the doctrine. Hopefully this will clear the air and allow a more open and accurate engagement with various viewpoints.
Straw man #1 That the Trinity proposes three Gods, not one
The Bible is clear that there is only one God. He is unique, a being like no other, completely different and separate from all created things. There are no degrees of divinity; even the angels are created beings. God alone is creator, God alone is to be worshipped. This “unique divine identity,” as Richard Bauckham has described it, or “divine substance” (ousia) as the early church called it, is in every sense a unity, unmatched and unrivalled. The one God, or Godhead, demands and deserves our undivided devotion and to worship or honour any one or anything else is idolatry. When the Bible shows that the Son and Spirit share the divine attributes in unity with the Father, we must understand the oneness of God to transcend a simplistic mathematical construct. 1 + 1 + 1 does not equal one, and the doctrine of the Trinity does not fragment or triplicate the Godhead; perhaps a better (although still inadequate) formula would be 1 x 1 x 1. There is a line, as it were, dividing deity from non-deity, Creator from creation. Above the line, Father, Son and Spirit comprise the one true God, mutually indwelling as the unique divine identity, the being or substance of God.
Straw man #2 That God is defined as one in the same sense in which he is three
This is a common, but fundamental misconception. God is not three persons in one person, or three essences in one essence. The Godhead is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each demonstrably divine, completely united and yet having a distinctiveness in role and activity. These three are not modes of expression acting successively (the heresy of Modalism) thus blurring their distinctions, nor are they a coming together of three individual deities (Tritheism). God is three in a different sense from which he is one, even though the ancient language of the creeds may have portrayed this a little clumsily for our modern tastes. Father, Son and Spirit are each divine, yet they are also distinct. The Father sent the Son, the Son humbled himself, taking on flesh in order to effect our salvation. The Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son to bring their sanctifying work to completion. Their unity in essence (substance or divinity) is complete yet they are distinct; the Father did not die on the cross!
Straw man #3 That the Trinity denies the full and real humanity of Christ
Son of Adam, son of Abraham, son of David, born of a woman, born under the law, tempted as all points and like us in every way yet without sin, the Bible is clear: Jesus Christ is fully human. The man Jesus existed for the first time at his conception in the womb of Mary, the point at which the Word took on flesh, the incarnation. Divine and human were united as the Father sent his Son at the appointed time. To effect our salvation by bearing our sins and their punishment the Saviour had to be fully human, subject to all our weaknesses, overcoming sin in the very flesh in which it usually reigns. The incarnate Son was not a divine mind in a fleshly shell and thus incapable of sinning and human weakness; this heresy was Apollinarianism and is kin to Docetism, the idea that Christ only seemed human. The ancient Greeks had a problem with divinity becoming human; the Bible most certainly does not. Nevertheless, it took a good deal of thought for the early Church to articulate how full divinity and humanity were combined in Christ, but orthodoxy has always maintained the complete and genuine humanity of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
Straw man #4 That calling Jesus “God” makes him the same person as the Father
This misapprehension stems from the false idea that God is one in the same sense in which he is three. The Son shares the same divine nature as the Father, yet he is distinct. In the traditional language of the creeds, he is different “person.” As Augustine explained, with respect to the Father, he is called Son, with respect to creation, he is God. When the Bible uses the unqualified term “God” (Hebrew elohim, Greek Theos) it usually means the Father, but not always. The Son is one with the Father, but he is also distinct. The Father sent the Son, the Father and Son send the Holy Spirit. The Bible does not blur the distinction between Father, Son and Spirit; that was the error of Modalism and is not Trinitarian doctrine. The Father, Son and Spirit have different roles in their interaction with their creation, which reflect their eternal relationships.
Straw man #5 That because the word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible, it cannot be a scriptural doctrine
It’s true that the word “Trinity” is not found in the Scriptures. But, correctly understood, the fundamentals of the doctrines which bear this convenient label of “tri-unity” are clearly demonstrable. Perhaps we could come up with another word to describe our unique God who exists as Father, Son and Spirit, but that’s not the point. The tortuous development of the the way the nature of God came to be understood and described, as against various false understandings, is to be differentiated from the principles of the doctrine itself. In that respect, the vocabulary has its own story to tell. But irrespective of the language employed, the Bible teaches that the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ is God, that his Son Jesus Christ is God and that the Holy Spirit, being personal and divine, is also God. But these are not three Gods, but three distinctives within the one unified Godhead who is completely separate from creation. Scripture commands baptism in the name (singular) of the Father, Son and Spirit and groups the three in many distinctive ways; how does this fit with the Father solely as divine? Dismiss the word “trinity” if you must, but do not dismiss the doctrine.
Straw man #6 That the doctrine of the Trinity was fabricated by the Catholic Church centuries after the New Testament was written and is not original Bible teaching
The way the inspired New Testament writers quote from and expound the Old Testament clearly shows that they regarded ascriptions of and prophecies about God to refer to Christ. Christ fulfils the Old Testament and in doing so displays the attributes, performs the works and receives the honour and glory due to God alone. It is only through the clarifying lens of the New Testament revelation of Christ that we really see his divinity testified in the Old Testament. That the New Testament portrays Christ as worthy of honour and worship due to God alone, displaying the attributes and discharging the prerogatives of God alone, bears the names and titles of God, does the works only God can do and shares the throne of God, is beyond dispute. These principles were believed by the early church and formed the basis of their worship and teaching. This carries through clearly and consistently through the very earliest extant writings, which were written contemporary with the close of the New Testament. Throughout the first few centuries of the church, orthodoxy held that Father, Son and Spirit are each divine and yet there is only one God. Jesus was worshiped as God. Various heresies arose, typically extreme or distorted versions of orthodox doctrine. For example, overemphasising either the divinity or humanity of Christ to the exclusion of the other. This necessitated careful discussion (and, alas, the attacking of various straw men along the way) and resulted in the creeds and confessions of the church. These did not replace Scripture, but since it was the Scriptural passages whose interpretations were being disputed, aimed to succinctly state the common definitive understanding of the collective import of these passages. All this took place well before the Papacy took hold in the Western Roman Empire and the Medieval Roman Catholic Church usurped the authority of Scripture.
Straw man #7 That if Jesus is really God, he could not be tempted or sin or die. His temptations and death would not be real and hence he couldn’t save us.
The genius of God’s plan of salvation is that the Saviour had to be both divine and human. God himself stepped in to do what we could not do for ourselves. No mere human being, devoid of divine input, could refrain from sinning, overcome temptation, be perfectly obedient and thus be the ultimate sacrifice. No mere human being could bear the sins of the world; he would be no better than the Hebrew High Priest who had to keep entering the Holy of Holies year after year with imperfect sacrifices. No, the perfect sacrifice required a perfect human being, who could be truly tempted and could condemn sin. But as soon as we allow enough divine influence on any regular human being to allow such a one to lead a blameless life from toddlerhood through childhood, adolescence and manhood, never sinning, we do not have a human being like us any more. Nor would it be appropriate to take the sins of one human and transfer them to another; that would not be just and God must be just, even as he justifies the wicked. Only God himself could keep himself spotless and holy, and only God could bear the divine wrath against sin, yet God in his absolute divinity cannot be tempted and cannot die. God’s solution was to take it upon himself to propitiate his own wrath, to provide the Lamb, to bear the consequences of the covenant which humanity broke. The incarnation is the coming together in one person of true divinity and true humanity. The Bible teaches the full and genuine humanity of Christ and the full and genuine divinity of Christ. Not a divine mind in a fleshly shell, nor simply a phenomenally gifted human being but a true God-man, the Word become flesh, God with us. Perfectly combined into the the One and Only (monogenes) saviour Jesus Christ, within whose very being took place the battle of wills, the triumph over temptation and sin, that achieved victory. Because Jesus is truly God, he could overcome sin. Because he is truly man, he could bear our sins and their consequences in his body unto death. Precisely because the work of Christ was a work of God from beginning to end, it does not rely on mere human effort and therefore the Christian may have absolute assurance of its efficacy.
Straw man #8 That if Jesus were God, he could not be subservient to his Father, or his Father be greater than he, without giving up his divinity
The Father sent the Son, and to effect our salvation the Son took on humanity, but did not cease to be divine, nor to be “the Son.” He humbled himself, taking the form of a servant, relinquishing not his divinity but the prerogatives thereof. (Contra the doctrine of kenoticism which taught that the Son relinquished his divinity at the incarnation; that is not Trinitarian or Scriptural teaching). He came to obey his Father and in this role of Son the Father is greater. Just as in a human family, imperfectly modelled after the divine, the father has authority over his son, without the son being inferior in person. The voluntary subservience or “inferiority” of the Son is one of role, not being. As part of his experience of genuine humanity he learnt obedience, he suffered being tempted, he depended on his Father and prayed to his Father. He recognised the conflict of wills between his human and divine natures.
Straw man #9 That speaking of the Holy Spirit as a person denies the Spirit as God’s power
The Holy Spirit’s function in salvation history has primarily been as God’s powerful activity in the lives of God’s people. This activity has manifested in different ways and only in Christ is the Spirit most fully known. Not only is the Spirit the expression of God’s powerful interactions with his creation, the Spirit is both the presence of God and a personal actor, distinct from the Father. The Spirit’s activity is personal, even in the Old Testament. The Spirit of God instructs, admonishes, leads, regenerates, may be grieved and angered. In the New Testament, the Spirit determines which gifts to give and distributes them, can be grieved, lied to and blasphemed. The Spirit helps and intercedes in a personal involvement as we pray, teaches, convicts of sin, sanctifies, loves, indwells, testifies, hears, speaks, forbids, jsutifies, knows the deep things of God and has fellowship. The Spirit is the Other Comforter — another of the same — who would come when Jesus returned to heaven. The Spirit is linked with the Father and Son in a triad of mutual glorification and unity of purpose.
So please, Reader, if you have heard or expoused such arguments against the Trinity, show those with whom you disagree the courtesy and integrity of truly understanding where they are coming from, what they really believe and teach. Don’t accept second– or third–hand, unacknowledged or unreferenced statements about “what Trinitarians believe…” Examine the context in which statements are made and the credentials of the authors before you accept the arguments as fair, accurate and representative. Read some mainstream Christian writings for yourself, such as the suggestions below. Be a Berean, and search the Scriptures yourself to see if these things are true. After all, if you indeed hold the Truth, and have a sound Bible knowledge, you should not be afraid of having your own preconceptions challenged.
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology; An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Nottingham: IVP, 2014). Classic general textbook of mainstream Christian theology, carefully argued from Scripture and very readable. See particularly Part 2 The Doctrine of God and Part 4 The Doctrines of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Robert M Bowman Jr and J Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place; A Case for the Deity of Christ. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007) Very readable yet comprehensive.
John Stott, The Cross of Christ. (Nottingham: IVP, 1989). Classic work on the Christian understanding of the atonement and work of Christ.