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 comes to a study purely 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.
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
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 identification of Christ as YHWH, the only true God of the Old and New Testaments. 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. 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 interpretation 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 inform our understanding of the incarnation and the identity of Jesus Christ.
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. 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 accomplished. But then, in verse 19, he says: “That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself…”. He starts v.19 with the words “That is” as if to set up a further explanation of what he meant by “by Christ” in v.18. So, when you take these two verses together, we see that in verse 18, Paul is thinking of 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. On this point, Jesus said much the same thing: “The Father who lives in me does his works” (John 14:10). 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 reconcile humanity 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). Notice that v.20 follows up the thought of God being pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Christ by discussing reconciliation: “For God was pleased to have all this fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile everything to himself…”. We see a connection in thought between Colossians 1:19-20 and 2 Corinthians 5:19. In Colossians, it is said that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Christ)”; in 2 Corinthians, it is said that “God was in Christ”. In both it says that the purpose of this “dwelling in” was reconciliation.
Now, back up to v.15 in Colossians 1. It begins: “He is the image of the invisible God”. As it says in other places, “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18). Paul says of God that “no one has seen or can see [him]” (1 Timothy 6:16). But, as John finishes his thoughts in 1:18, “The one and only Son…has revealed Him.” In plain language, this means that God is invisible and has not and cannot be seen but Jesus is visible and has, can, and will be seen. Let’s think about these facts about God and Jesus from both the trinitarian and oneness perspectives and see which one makes more sense. Trinitarianism supposes that Jesus is the eternally distinct coequal second person of the trinity. If Jesus is truly coequal with the Father, then He would be as equally invisible as the Father. How is it then 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? If God the Son is equally as invisible as God the Father due to their coequality in nature, then why is it that God the Son can be seen but the Father cannot? Clearly, to attribute this fact that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” to some ontological difference between God the Father (the one who is invisible) and God the Son (the one who is visible) would undercut their coequality on the trinitarian interpretation. Is there a better way to think about this? I think so. Jesus Christ is a human being. You can see human beings because they are material. You cannot see spirits because they are immaterial. God is ontologically “spirit” (John 4:24) and not ontologically material. Therefore, Jesus, as a visible human being that is “Himself God” (John 1:18) is God making Himself visible. Therefore, one can see God the Father when they see Jesus, who is ontologically material, but cannot see the Father, who is ontologically spirit. On its face, this just makes more sense of the concept of Jesus being “the image of the invisible God” than the trinitarian notion that God the Son is eternally the “image of the invisible God” since God the Son would be equally ontologically “spirit” and thus immaterial and invisible. Additionally, Jesus Himself said something which sounds a lot like what I just said when Philip asked to see the Father in John 14. Jesus said: “When you have seen me, you have seen the Father”. So, after teasing this concept out a bit, I will say this as a point of orientation: Paul’s reference to the one under consideration as “the image of the invisible God” orients this passage as a reference to the human that is the result of the incarnation not to a pre-incarnate person. So, when we get to verse 19 and it says that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him” the “him” under consideration needs to be understood as the man Christ Jesus, the human being who is the visible revelation of the God who cannot be seen, not as a distinct divine person.
The second verse in Colossians is 2:9: “For the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ”. The fact that the fullness of God’s nature is said to dwell “bodily in Christ” supports the point I just made about the importance of understanding Jesus to be a human being, not a distinct divine person.
Now, take note of the term “God”. It is said here that “God” was in Christ and that the entire fullness of “God’s” nature dwells bodily in Christ. Trinitarian scholars will typically say that when “God” and “Christ” are thusly juxtaposed, there is a distinction being made between “the Father” and “the Son”. Well, I think this is true. But, this truth doesn’t bode well for trinitarianism. If these passages are referring to the incarnation of God as a man, then, we have the Father incarnating Himself as the man Christ Jesus not a distinct divine person “the Son” incarnating Himself. One could suppose that in this case, “God” doesn’t mean “the Father” even though it normally does. Well, what then does it mean, given the context? One alternative is that it is a reference to “the entire being of God”. This could be understood in two senses. The first sense is in reference to all three persons as the complete Godhead. Obviously, the trinitarian doesn’t want to say that all three persons were incarnate in Christ. The second sense is in reference to the attributes of divinity that the three persons share. So, this verse could be taken to mean that Jesus, due to the fact that he was the second person of the trinity incarnate, had possession of all of the same divine attributes the Father had possession of in order to reconcile mankind to God the Father. There are multiple problems with this. First, this conception of the term “God” doesn’t fit with the way the term is used in this passage by Paul and doesn’t fit with the usage of the term in the Jewish heritage from which Jesus and Paul came and from which Christianity sprung. Clearly, the “God” that was in Christ and that was pleased to have His fullness dwell in Christ is the selfsame “God” that was doing the work of reconciliation and is the selfsame “God” to whom the world is being reconciled. Second, the very language of God “being pleased to have His fullness dwell in Christ” suggests that this was something that occurred at a point and time and was something that was the choice of the Father to have occur. If Jesus were an eternally distinct divine person and this passage is to be taken to mean that Jesus has full possession of the divine attributes, the language is extremely odd as he wouldn’t need the Father to be pleased to have His fullness dwell in Him, He would simply have possession of this fullness by virtue of being the second person of the trinity. Third, the God whose fullness is dwelling in Christ is the God to whom the world is being reconciled. If the Son is the second member of the trinity, then He should be equally the one to whom the world is being reconciled. Yet, it is clearly the Father to whom the world is being reconciled by the Son in this passage. The final option for the term “God” is that one could say it refers exclusively to the Son. But, then, we have the Son reconciling the world to Himself and not to the entire Godhead which is problematic on trinitarianism much like my third point immediately above. To summarize my thoughts on these verses: 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 (the Father) who incarnated Himself as the man Christ Jesus (God was in Christ). In this man, by the incarnation, God was reconciling the world to Himself (God the Father was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself).
It seems to me that trinitarianism, in wanting to assert Jesus is an eternally distinct divine person, produces untenable interpretations of the work of reconciliation and the revelation of the Father by Jesus. Furthermore, it interprets the notion of the “fullness of God in Christ” either too narrowly or too generically. What do I mean by that? Well, by insisting that it was only the Son, the second person of the trinity, who was incarnate, it necessarily implies that only a part of the Godhead was incarnate in Christ. And yet, this is exactly the idea Paul is so clearly refuting in Colossians 2:9. Trinitarians recognize this and so they will inevitably fall back into the second sense of “the being of God” that I discussed earlier so that they can say that even though only a part of the complete Godhead (in terms of persons) was incarnate in Christ, the entire fullness of God’s nature was in Christ because the entire fullness of God’s nature is really this collection of attributes of which Christ has possession. As I’ve said before, I think this interpretation of the concept of “the entire fullness of God’s nature” is not in keeping with the way in which term “God” is used in the passage or the way in which the term “God” is used in the Jewish heritage of the NT writers so I think it is an entirely ad hoc and eisegetical attempt to preserve the legitimacy of the trinitarian conception of the identity of Jesus Christ. It is just a fact that the “fullness” and “nature” which dwelt bodily in Christ in this passage was that of a singular person, the Father, not of a trinity of three persons, or worse still, merely an impersonal collection of attributes that constitutes a “being”. Dr. James White, a prominent trinitarian theologian, has made just such a distinction in order to defend and proclaim the trinitarian doctrine. He says that the Trinity is “three persons sharing the one being”. In other words, three centers of self-consciousness have possession of the exact same set of divine attributes.
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: