Those who know me personally know that I change my mind easily. It seems to me this trait can be both good and bad. I’d like to think it reflects the fact that I am sincerely seeking truth and willing to follow the evidence where it leads. However, with respect to doctrine, I recognize this is a sign of immaturity. According to Paul, the goal of the Christian life is “the unity of the faith”. He envisions the life of believers to be such that they are “growing into maturity”. He says that when the believers are growing they will “no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching” (See Ephesians 4:11-16). Clearly, my objective is to no longer be immature and to be established in the truth. Until then, if you consider yourself to be a spiritual person (i.e., “mature Christian”; see 1 Corinthians 14:37), please look on me with love as perhaps a family member would the little boy always getting into trouble as he learns how he is supposed to think and act.
So, what trouble have I gotten myself into lately?
Well, four months ago, I made public a change in my theology, and an attempt at a defense of this change, with my post “Why I Affirm The Trinity”. I’ve since come to rethink both this decision and the reasons for it.
It seems to me that I was extremely hasty. I’ve spent relatively little time seriously studying these issues, as I promised I would in my post “An Introduction To My Study of the Nature of the Godhead”, and have truly not even begun the immense work I’ve set out to do. Perhaps, I should’ve given myself more time to consider. However, I understand that no one truly comes to a study objectively; everyone has presuppositions and biases they bring to their study. So, it is not wrong to have an opinion and to honestly admit it, as I did. But, my transition from my prior thinking into the affirmation of the Trinity was honestly not so much a result of my studies as it was the result of a desire to identify myself with what I was coming to believe was the “better” version of Christianity than that from which I had come. As such, I feel as though I’ve fallen under the condemnation of the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 14:23: “Everything that is not from faith is sin.” In other words, my change was not so much a result of faith (prayerful study in dependence upon God’s Spirit to lead me) as it was a result of my own desire to fit in with the theological circles in which I found myself at the time. This is grave mistake to make on a search for truth as truth.
So, after I felt convicted by God for my rash decision, I began to rethink my supplied reasons for affirming the Trinity and to look at the issue afresh. First, I will supply the reasons that have caused me to withdraw my affirmation of the Trinity and to renew my affirmation of Oneness. Then, I will examine my supplied reasons for affirming the Trinity and attempt to provide a response.
WHAT DO I CURRENTLY BELIEVE & WHY
As you will know if you’ve read my two previous posts, the two conceptions of the Godhead and Jesus’ place in that Godhead with which I am grappling are the trinitarian and the oneness interpretations. It seems to me that these are the only two viable alternatives as they both affirm the deity of Christ. Perhaps I find myself working with a false dilemma and there is another option out there, but I find that hard to believe at present. If you are aware of one, let me know.
At present, I find myself more convinced by the oneness interpretation. This doesn’t mean that I’m unwilling to be convinced otherwise. What I want more than anything is to know, believe, and proclaim truth. So, why am I convinced?
During the month of December and especially the season of Advent, I began to think about the incarnation. You know, this doctrine about “God becoming a man” and Jesus being the “God-man”? I began to think of how differently these two interpretations conceive of the incarnation. The trinitarian interpretation suggests that only one of the three eternally distinct persons within the Godhead became incarnate as a man, Jesus Christ. The Oneness doctrine suggests that the unipersonal God Himself became incarnate as a man, Jesus Christ. Then, I began to reflect on three Scriptures that seem to me to be informative as to how we should conceptualize the incarnation.
The first was 2 Corinthians 5:19. A part of it reads: “…in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself…”(CSB). The context of these words is Paul’s discussion of God’s work of reconciliation of sinful humanity to Himself through Christ. In the old KJV, Paul’s words about God’s activity in the work of reconciliation are even stronger: “…God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself.” Make note of the possible difference in meaning between these two translations. The CSB could be taken to mean that by “in Christ” Paul means “through Christ” or “by Christ”, focusing on God’s use of Christ, and therefore this verse wouldn’t necessarily be a reference to the incarnation, God becoming a man in Christ. I would argue that the context suggests 5:19 to be a definite reference to the incarnation and that the other two verses we will consider solidify this understanding. As to the context, verse 18 says: “…God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Christ…”. Clearly, the Apostle Paul has instrumentality in mind when penning verse 18; he says that it was by (KJV) or through (CSB) Christ that the work of reconciliation was being/is being accomplished. But then, in verse 19, he says: “That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself…”. So, when you take these two verses together, we see that in verse 18, Paul is conceptualizing the work of reconciliation as God using Christ to accomplish His purpose, whereas in verse 19, Paul wants to make that point that God is not detached from Christ somehow, but is actually doing the work Himself in Christ. Therefore, this seems to me to be a clear reference to the incarnation. This interpretation fits well with what we know of the purpose of the incarnation in general. The incarnation is God becoming a man in order to save lost souls. This is what is meant by “reconciliation”.
So, before moving on to the other two verses, let’s summarize so as not to lose the forest through the trees. God is said to have been in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself. I take this to be a reference to the incarnation.
Also, take note of the term “God”. It is said here that “God” was in Christ. Trinitarian scholars will typically say that when “God” and “Christ” are juxtaposed, we have there a distinction between “the Father” and “the Son”. Well, I think this is true. But, this truth doesn’t bode well for trinitarianism. If 2 Cor. 5:19 is a reference to the incarnation, then, we have “the Father” incarnating Himself as the man Christ Jesus. One could say that in this case, “God” doesn’t mean “the Father”. Well, what then does it mean, given the context? The only plausible alternative is that it is a reference to the entire being of God, which would encompass all three persons of the Trinity, which, again, doesn’t bode well for trinitarianism, as it would suggest that all three persons of the Trinity were incarnate in Christ. Finally, one could say this “God” refers exclusively to the Son. But, then, we have the Son reconciling the world to Himself and not to the entire Godhead. To summarize my thoughts on this verse: the trinitarian interpretation doesn’t seem to me to fit for the above stated reasons whereas the oneness interpretation fits very well. The oneness interpretation conceives of God as a unipersonal being who incarnated Himself as the man Christ Jesus. In this man, by the incarnation, God was reconciling the world to Himself.
The next two verses are found in Colossians. The first is 1:19, which reads: “…God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him” (CSB). The second is 2:9, which reads: “For the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ”. To my knowledge, all in the debate between trinitarianism and oneness recognize these two verses are related to the incarnation; it seems to me that they clearly speak to the incarnation and our conception of the person of Christ. Notice that v.20 follows up the thought of God being pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him by discussing reconciliation, which really puts the nail in the coffin of any idea that 2 Corinthians 5:19 is not referring to the incarnation. It was by God having all of His fullness dwell in Christ through the incarnation that the work of reconciliation was accomplished.
Check out verse 15 of Colossians 1: “He is the image of the invisible God”. Jesus Christ, because of the incarnation, is the “image of the invisible God”. Trinitarian interpretation tends to think of this as meaning that the Son is the image of the invisible Father. Well, if that is true, then verse 19-20 is telling us that the Father was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son in order to accomplish reconciliation, which is clearly a reference to the incarnation, not to some pre-incarnation relationship between the divine persons. But, this would fly in the face of the trinitarian interpretation of the incarnation as they believe that the Son is the one whose fullness of deity dwells in the man Jesus, not the Father! As an aside, let’s think about how 1:15 could inform our thinking on this manner. How is it that the equally invisible yet distinct person God the Son could be the image of the invisible Father in eternity past prior to the incarnation? That doesn’t work. Given Paul’s reference to the one under consideration as “the image of the invisible God”, we know this is a reference to the result of the incarnation, the man Christ Jesus, the God-man.
So, we come to verse 19 and it tells us that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.” Now, if by “God” this means “the Father”, then we have a refutation against Trinitarianism because they conceive of the Son alone being incarnated as the man Christ Jesus, not the Father. However, let’s give the trinitarians what they want. Let’s agree that “God” is a trinity of three persons. Now, this verse tells us that “the trinity” was incarnate in Christ, which is equally anathema to the trinitarian interpretation.
Then, we come to 2:9 which states what was said in 1:19 even stronger: “…the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells in Christ.” Just think about that for a second. The entire fullness of God’s nature! That means that whatever you can conceive of as being an essential part of God’s nature was incarnate in Christ. I submit to you that, if God is essentially a trinity, that is, if the correct interpretation as to the nature of the Godhead is trinitarianism, then the entire trinity was incarnate in Christ. However, the notion that it was only the Son incarnate as Christ is so foundational to trinitarianism, that I do not think it can survive the truth stated by Paul in 1:19 and 2:9.
And trinitarian scholars recognize this. Therefore, they argue that Paul is not trying to communicate that all three persons of the trinity were incarnate in Christ but that Christ was fully God. Well, exactly! This is clearly a verse regarding the incarnation of God as Christ and it tells us that the entire fullness of God’s nature was incarnate in Christ. So, any doctrine which has as one of it’s foundational propositions that only a part of the essential nature of God was incarnate in Christ cannot be in accord with what Paul is trying to communicate. And, the trinitarian interpretation cannot avoid this as they say it was only the Son and not the Father or the Spirit who was incarnate and yet also say that God is essentially three persons (Father, Son, and Spirit).
Now, I’ve heard Dr. James White, a prominent reformed theologian and apologist, who wrote a book entitled, “The Forgotten Trinity”, attempt to avoid the accusation that trinitarianism commits one to a denial of the truth of the fullness of God in Christ communicated by Paul by saying that “each person of the Trinity shares equally the being that is God”. The idea is that “God” is a being comprised of the attributes of deity (omnipotence, omniscience, etc.) that is shared fully and equally by three distinct persons. Thus, even if it were only the Son who was incarnate as Christ, the Son would have access to all the essential attributes of deity, and thus, all the essential attributes of deity would be incarnate in Christ. I have a few problems with this. First, it reduces our concept of “God” to an impersonal being, which is clearly not in accord with the OT or NT use of the term “God”, which is always personal (and, I would argue, it is always unipersonal). One cannot, it seems to me, on the basis of the OT and NT usage of the term “God” walk away with any other idea about God than that He is essentially personal. That is “God” is a “he” not merely an “it”. Second, it leads us to the logical conclusion that the three persons themselves are not themselves essential to the being of God which would make one wonder why trinitarians are so insistent that God is essentially three persons. Think about it. The explanation offered is that there is this impersonal being, which is a collection of divine attributes, that the three persons share. So then, the persons themselves are not essential to the being of God but rather share in it. But, trinitarians do want to affirm that God is essentially three persons. Let’s think about what follows from affirming that the three persons are actually essential to the being of God. If each person shares fully the being of God, and the three persons themselves are essential to the being of God, then each of the three persons shares fully in the “person” of the other two persons! If the answer to the accusation that a trinitarian conception of the incarnation limits the fullness of the nature of God that is incarnate in Christ is to say that the Son “shares fully the being of God” in order to preserve the essential tri-personality of the being of God, it seems necessary then to say that, somehow, it was not only the Son that was incarnate, but in some mysterious way, the Father and the Spirit were also incarnate in Christ. Which, of course, is precisely what the trinitarian is trying to avoid saying by the distinction in the first place! Of course, it seems to me, this brings us right back to where we began. All the fullness of God’s nature is in Christ; whatever God is, all of it is incarnated in Christ. If on wishes to insist that God is a trinity, then, I think these verses will require one to believe all three persons where incarnate somehow as Christ. But, as I mentioned before, when Paul wrote “God was in Christ” and “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him” and “the entire fullness of God’s nature is dwelling in Him”, the context requires that this be a reference to “the Father”, so I don’t think you can exegetically justify belief that a trinity of three persons was incarnate as Christ from these verses.
Now, there are many issues to flesh out with regard to Christology and how exactly the incarnation is supposed to work on this oneness interpretation of the doctrine of God and the incarnation. I am eager to study them out and learn more. Perhaps, I’ll even come to recognize the truth of the tri-unity of God. However, at present, on the basis of the above considerations, I am more convinced by the oneness interpretation.
To summarize, it seems to me:
- There is one, unipersonal God, the Father.
- The Father incarnated Himself as a man, Christ Jesus, the Son.
- Christ Jesus was fully God and fully human.
ANSWERING MY PREVIOUS REASONS FOR AFFIRMING THE TRINITY
There are primarily two Scriptures and two reasons I gave for my prior affirmation of the Trinity. I wrote that John 1:1-3 suggested that prior to the incarnation the Son was a distinct person from the Father and that John 16:13 suggested that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person from the Father.
With respect to John 1:1-3, there were two points I raised. First, the personal pronouns in the passage applied to “the Word” suggest that the Word under discussion is a person, not an impersonal thing. Second, the fact that John says “the Word was with God” suggests that the distinct person “the Word” existed as a distinct person with God prior to the incarnation. However, upon examination, I have issues with that interpretation. The primary issue I have is that the trinitarian interpretation requires us to change our definition of “God” midway through the verse. The trinitarian would have us suppose that what John is communicated is something like this: “In the beginning was the Word (a personal entity), the Word was with God [the Father], and the Word was God [the Word was divine].” And, so they say, “See, here we have a personal entity ‘the Word’ that is divine and yet distinct from the Father.” Notice the change in the definition of “God” from clause 2 and clause 3. If we kept the definition consistent, the verse would read like this: “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God [the Father], and the Word was God [the Father].” But, that doesn’t fit with Trinitarian interpretation. What I think is clear from the NT usage of the word “God” and from the immediate context is that John did in fact mean “the Father” by “God” (Read John 1:1-18 where, after the Word has been made flesh in v.14, the distinction is made clear between “Father” and “Son”, v.18.) In conjunction with the considerations I’ve suggested earlier in this post with respect to 2 Corinthians 5:19, Colossians 1:15-19, and Colossians 2:9, I think this interpretation fits well with John 1. The only question is: What do we make of the fact that “the Word” is spoken of as a personal entity (“he” and “him”)? I think my earlier on Colossians 1:15-19 are relevant. Notice that in both John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:15-19, the context is creation. Creation is accomplished by the person of Jesus Christ. However, in Colossians 1:15-19, Paul is speaking of Christ as the God-man, as the “image of the invisible God”, the one Who is God incarnate in flesh. So, just as Paul can, looking back to the time before the incarnation, speak of this authentic human being as the one who created the universe even though he was “born of a woman, under the law” (Gal. 4:4) because, in truth, prior to the incarnation, He was God Himself Who created the worlds, so too John can, looking forward to the time after the incarnation, speak of the Word as the authentic human being it would become even though, prior to the incarnation, the Word was the plan in the mind of God. But, I don’t want to limit the identity of the Word to merely the “plan or thought in the mind of God” because John doesn’t. However, I want to be consistent with my definitions and say that the Word is God Himself, not a distinct person from God. Of course, God is personal, so, given the Word is God Himself, referring to the Word as “he” and “him” is legitimate. A final note on “the Word was with God”: trinitarian exegetes tend to insist that the Greek work translated “with” requires an interpretation something like, “the Word was face to face with God”, however, the Greek word itself is most often rendered “to” in English, so, this interpretation is hardly required by the word itself, it is only the interpretation trinitarian exegetes would like to suppose given it fits well with the presupposed trinitarian interpretation. I would simply suggest that any interpretation which separates the Word from God such that it is a distinct person from God on the basis of “the Word was with God” hasn’t dealt fully with the follow-up clause “the Word was God”. The Word was actually the God it was with!
With respect to John 16:13, my argument was essentially that the Holy Spirit is here distinguished, by the use of personal pronouns, from the person of the Father. We need to understand that this verse is in the context of Jesus’ long-form teaching to His Apostles immediately prior to His death, burial, and resurrection. This verse comes in the context of Jesus reiterating the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit which He had already mentioned multiple times in this discourse and before (John 14:15-26; John 15:26; John 7:37-39). Before explaining the apparent distinction between the Holy Spirit and the Father in John 16:13 from a oneness perspective, I think there are a few things to keep in mind. In John 14, Jesus not only promises that the Father will send another counselor, but claims that when you see Him, you are seeing the Father (John 14:6-9), and informs the Apostles that after He leaves them (through His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension), He would not leave them “as orphans” but would come back to them (John 14:18). Now, a couple points. First, it is noteworthy that Jesus says, “I will not leave you as orphans.” He is saying, “I will not leave you fatherless, I will come to you and be your father.” When considered in light of his comments in John 14:6-9, I don’t see how we can take this to mean anything other than that Jesus is the Father incarnate, as I’ve already argued from other verses of Scripture. Second, it is in the context of promising the coming of the Holy Spirit to believers that Jesus makes this promise to personally come and be a father to the believers. He is saying that, when believers receive the Holy Spirit, they are actually receiving Jesus in their hearts to be their father. On this note, Jesus says in verse 23, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word. My father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home in him.” This is just to connect all the dots. When we receive the Holy Spirit, we are receiving none other than the Father and the Son into our hearts! But, from a trinitarian perspective, this is problematic. This suggests that we have three persons indwelling us. They don’t typically want to say that; so they will say that no, it is really on the third person indwelling us, but, somehow, through the mystery of “the interpenetration of the trinity”, all three persons are involved. I would say this is unnecessary philosophical speculation that is being forced onto the text of Scripture not drawn from it. The Scriptures couldn’t be more clear: when we receive the promised Holy Spirit, we receive Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To emphasize the point, Paul identifies the Spirit in our hearts as none other than Christ Himself multiple times (Romans 8:8-9; Colossians 1:27; 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, 4:5). The last one is especially significant in my thinking. Paul doesn’t mince words or speculate philosophically or theologically on what he says, he just says it: “The Lord is the Spirit” and “Jesus is Lord”. When I consider all of these things and think of how they could be harmonized, the oneness interpretation of the one, unipersonal, transcendent God who incarnated Himself as the man Jesus Christ and Who now lives in our heart by the Holy Spirit, shines, not the trinitarian interpretation. That all being said, what of the question of the apparent personal distinction in John 16:13? Well, I think Jesus was trying to communicate that when believers received the Spirit it was not some other person than God who would be teaching and instructing the believers on his own authority but it was none other than God Himself indwelling the life of the believer. When considered in the context of the above considerations, I believe this interpretation is plausible.
So it is that, with respect to my previous reasons for affirming the trinity, I find their blow significantly softened and I find my current reasons for affirming oneness far superior in strength.
As I’ve said before in this post, my sincere desire is to know, believe, and proclaim the truth. As such, I am more than willing to be lead by the Word of God and the Spirit of God to different conclusions. I think this is the attitude required of a sincere seeker of truth and believer in Christ. Feel free to comment here or communicate with me some other way to explain why you think I am wrong. I’m open to hearing it.
Also, I’d like to suggest a couple of resources for further reading. If you are interested in learning more about my perspective and would like a systematic and scholarly exposition, I would suggest you pick up three books: