Tag Archives: Trinity

The Consequences of Trinity Sunday

ChurchI had no idea there was such a thing as Trinity Sunday until I was sitting in a little, local Lutheran church with my Mom last Sunday and the Pastor was preaching on it. I guess it’s a “thing,” just like Reformation Day, which I’d never heard of either until several years ago. Seriously, I know more about the Jewish religious calendar than the Christian version.

I checked this with my friend Tom earlier today, who had never heard of it either, and he’s been a Christian a lot longer than I have.

Anyway, part of the service included the congregation reciting the Athanasian Creed, which is Christianity’s formal codification of the doctrine of the Trinity, and this supposedly can be traced back to the 6th century CE.

However, the Pastor actually preached about the Nicene Creed, including presenting a pretty sanitized version of the Emperor Constantine.

Apparently, it all began with a 4th century CE presbyter and ascetic (and also a heretic according to Pastor) named Arius, who taught that God the Father was superior to the Son, and that Jesus was a created being like the angels. There’s a Biblical basis for this found in Proverbs 8, but I won’t get into the details.

Apparently, in the first few centuries of the (Gentile) Christian church, there was a lot of disagreement over the nature and character of God and the relationship of God the Father to both Jesus and the Holy Spirit. According to Wikipedia (I know, I know):

Arius is notable primarily because of his role in the Arian controversy, a great fourth-century theological conflict that led to the calling of the first ecumenical council of the Church. This controversy centered upon the nature of the Son of God, and his precise relationship to God the Father. Before the council of Nicaea, the Christian world knew several competing Christological ideas. Church authorities condemned some of these ideas but did not put forth a uniform formula. The Nicaean formula was a rapidly concluded solution to the general Christological debate.

Long story short, Constantine got all the Bishops together (I am severely oversimplifying all of this) to hammer out these issues, and they eventually concluded with the Trinity as we have the doctrine today.

I’m probably going to make a lot of people mad at me, but it seems that between Biblical canon and the present day Church, a bunch of religious authorities got together and decided the exact nature and character of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, the so-called Church Fathers got a few things wrong, in my humble opinion, such as supersessionism or replacement theology. I mean if they could reinvent the nature of Gentile faith in the Jewish Messiah King to eliminate the nation of Israel and the Jewish people, why should I believe they didn’t get the Trinity wrong, too?

See? I told you I’d make people mad. But it gets worse.

Why is the codification of the Trinity any different than the Jewish codification of halakah in Talmud? Okay, I probably just got myself in trouble on a number of levels, but please, give me enough rope to hang myself with. Christianity likes to think of itself as relatively tradition free compared to Judaism, but it seems to me that there are some similarities, at least in terms of process.

You have ancient Christian counsels that got together and defined all kinds of things about Christian belief and praxis, and you have ancient Jewish authorities that got together and (more or less) did the same thing about Jewish belief and praxis. Christians say they are “Bible-believing” and are led to interpret scripture by the Holy Spirit (also “scripture interprets scripture”), but really, what Christians believe and do today, especially relative to the Trinity doctrine, was decided centuries after the last book of the Bible was added, and more centuries after the Gentile Church divorced itself from the original Judaism.

In other words, it may well be that the Apostle Paul had no idea that Jesus was supposed to be the second person of the Godhead.

I know the Pastor of the church I take Mom to every Sunday would call me a heretic too, most Christians would, but how sure are we that we have a Triune God? Just asking.

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Did Paul Know Jesus was the Second Person in the Trinity?

First, a quote: “The Church cannot indefinitely continue to believe about Jesus what he did not know to be true about himself,” J. W. Bowman, The Intention of Jesus (London: SCM, 1945), p. 108.

This is not really a historical claim but a theological one, and it reflects a common assumption: The assumption that the theological/religious validity of claims about Jesus rest upon what Jesus believed and taught about himself. In my book, Lord Jesus Christ (pp. 5-9), I’ve noted the irony of how this assumption has been shared by critics and advocates of Christian faith, and also how it has worked mischief in the historical investigation of Christian origins.

-Dr. Larry Hurtado
“Questioning a Common Assumption,” May 13, 2014
Larry Hurtado’s Blog

Dr. Larry Hurtado has been prolifically writing on something rather compelling over the past few days. Did Jesus know he was Divine during his “earthly ministry?” Did Jesus know he was to be an object of worship?

I think most Evangelicals would assume the answer to those questions is a resounding “yes,” but here we have one of the most preeminent New Testament scholars in the world drawing that assumption into question. I think Hurtado’s comments deserve further scrutiny.

(NOTE: I should mention here that I have no intention of matching my meager brain power and limited knowledge of New Testament scholarship with Dr. Hurtado’s. I merely want to bring this issue to my readership in order to explore what he presents on his own blog and to see what responses his viewpoints elicit here.)

Looking at the evidence in the New Testament, Hurtado concludes that the “high” view of Jesus as Divine Messiah didn’t emerge until what he calls “post-Easter.”

But I’d like to make two observations. First, the earliest extant Christian texts themselves make it perfectly clear that the “high” notions about Jesus sharing in divine glory, exalted to heavenly status, worthy of worship, etc., all erupted after Jesus’ ministry, not during it, and that the crucial impetus for these notions was what earliest believers saw as God’s actions, particularly their belief that God had raised Jesus from death to heavenly glory. (See, e.g., Philippians 2:9-11; Acts 2:36).

To underscore the point, the remarkable escalation in the status/significance of Jesus to the “right hand” of God, to sharing the divine name and glory, and to the central and programmatic place he held in earliest Christian devotional practice all rested on the fundamental conviction that God has exalted him and now required that Jesus’ exalted status be recognized, and that he should be reverenced accordingly.

My second observation is this: Why should this be taken as some kind of threat to the theological legitimacy of traditional Christian faith?

-Hurtado, ibid

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

This sounds like it was only after the resurrection that it was known to anyone else including Jesus that he was indeed the Divine Son of God the Father.

I think a lot of people would find that startling, but as Hurtado says above, why should that be a threat? And yet on the aforementioned blog post and two others, many, many comments were generated, some of them rather “impassioned.”

Indeed, more explicitly than any of the other Gospels, GJohn makes it clear that the author saw and accepted a distinction between what he regarded as the level of understanding of Jesus among his followers during his earthly life and the subsequently enhanced level of understanding in the “post-Easter” period.

But my point here is that even GJohn doesn’t make the high Christological claims affirmed by the author rest simply (or even particularly) on demands and teaching of the earthly Jesus. Instead, the text fully affirms that the realization of Jesus’ glorified/glorious status came subsequently, through the revelations of the Spirit.

-Hurtado, Jesus and Christology: The Gospel of John as a Case Study, May 14, 2014

Hurtado wrote this as a follow-up to his prior missive, which continued to inspire passionate discourse, and based on those comments, he wrote a third blog post, Jesus, “Pre-existence,” etc: Responding to Questions on May 15th.

He breaks his response down into four points to which he comments on his blog at length:

  1. His response to his emphasis that the NT makes God’s actions (esp. in raising Jesus from death and giving him glory) the basis for the “high” Christological claims and the remarkable devotional practice in which Jesus was included with God.
  2. His position about texts such as John 1:1-2, where, of the “Logos” (here, the “pre-incarnate” identity/form of the incarnate Jesus), we read: “he was with God and he was God”.
  3. What we are supposed to make of statements ascribing “pre-existence” to Jesus (to use the typical theological buzzword). If you entertain these, how could Jesus not have known this and spoken of it?
  4. What about subsequent creedal controversies and formulations? E.g., the three “persons” (or “hypostases”) that comprise the “Trinity,” etc.?

I don’t want to re-create the full content from Hurtado’s blog and reader comments, but I do want to draw attention to one particular paragraph (for full context, please use the links I provided and read all three of Hurtado’s posts):

But I suspect that if Paul were asked whether Jesus was the “second person of the Trinity,” he would likely have responded with a quizzical look, and asked for some explanation of what it meant! Were the patristic texts and creedal statements saying something beyond or distinguishable from what the NT texts say? Certainly. Does that invalidate those later creedal discussions and formulations? Well, if you recognize the necessity of the continuing theological task (of intelligently attempting to articulate Christian faith meaningfully in terms appropriate and understandable in particular times and cultures), then probably you’ll see the classic creedal statements as an appropriate such effort. But that’s a historical judgement about that later period, and/or a theological judgement. And my emphasis is on the historical question of what the NT texts say and how to understand them in their own historical context.

-Hurtado, Jesus, “Pre-existence,” etc: Responding to Questions

This goes not only to what Jesus thought of himself prior to his crucifixion and resurrection, but what Paul and the Jesus-believing Jews (and Gentiles) believed about the nature of Christ relative to God during the Biblical period.

The Jewish PaulDid Paul believe in the Trinity? Again, an Evangelical wouldn’t miss a beat in saying, “Yes, of course,” but again, we have Hurtado, who we have every reason to believe is presenting a credible case from current NT research, saying that Paul wouldn’t have a clue about the Trinity.

I should mention that Derek Leman at Messianic Jewish Musings has been writing a great deal about the Divinity of Jesus lately, and a lot of his perspectives are based on Hurtado. His own research and conclusions will be presented in his forthcoming book Divine Messiah, which should be available for digital download from Amazon as early as May 23rd, so maybe Leman’s text will offer some insights.

In addition to my recent commentary on Zetterholm and the implications of his research on our view of the Church, I’ve recently read an article at Bible History Daily called The Origin of Christianity by Noah Wiener, which is a review of Geza Vermes’ work, From Jewish to Gentile: How the Jesus Movement Became Christianity (November/December 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review).

By contrast, the early second century Epistle of Barnabas shows a distinctly gentile Christianity in its presentation of the Hebrew Bible as allegory instead of covenantal fact. The clearly divinized Jesus in this document is distanced from the Jewish Christians and the divide between the Christian communities continued to widen over time. Geza Vermes writes that after Hadrian’s suppression of the Second Jewish Revolt, the Jewish Christians quickly became a minority group in the newly established church. At this point we can see the origin of Christianity as a distinctly non-Jewish religion; late in the second century, the Jewish Christians either rejoined their Jewish peers or become part of the newly gentile Christian church.

-Wiener

The implication here, as I’m reading it, is that many of the Biblical truths we hold onto as Christians were conceptualized and codified after the Gentiles formed the Christian Church and left Jesus-worship within the Jewish context. In other words, the Jewish apostles and disciples wouldn’t have imagined many of the theologies developed later by the Gentiles in relation to their own understanding of scripture (the Tanakh/Old Testament) and of the teachings of Messiah. In fact, Jesus himself, even “post-Easter,” may not have seen/see himself as “the second person of the Trinity,” at least not using that particular language.

This isn’t to deny the Divine nature of Messiah, the profound mystery of him being “the visible image of the invisible God,” (Colossians 1:15) or his sitting at the right hand of the Father in all exalted honor and glory, but exactly how we see the nature of Jesus may be based more on Evangelical assumptions and long-cherished traditions than how the original authors of the Gospels and Epistles actually understood the nature and character of Messiah.

It seems clear then, that the origin and development of Christianity as a completely separate entity from the ekklesia we see recorded in the Bible, departed from the original theological and doctrinal template taught by the apostles, and I imagine Paul, witnessing the Evangelical Church of the twenty-first century CE, would find little if anything to relate to or even recognize as devotion to Messiah, Son of David.

Any thoughts?