The Trinity a mystery, not a contradiction – Part 1
June 4 on the Christian calendar this year is Trinity Sunday, and I thought a primer on this controversial doctrine may be useful. My guess is that the vast majority of Christians have never had even an introductory treatment of the topic in their local assembly or annual denominational gathering!
Within Christianity, there are three basic groupings concerning the composition of the Godhead – trinitarians, binitarians, and unitarians or ‘oneness’.
Trinitarians hold that the biblical testimony reveals that the term ‘God’ is applied to three distinct people, described as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Most Christian churches are trinitarian. It is very useful to bear in mind that in the New Testament, when the word ‘God’ appears, unless the text or context suggests otherwise, it is the Father that is meant.
Binitarians argue that the biblical testimony reveals that the term ‘God’ is applied to two distinct people, described as Father and Son. For binitarians, the Holy Spirit is God, but not a person, just simply the presence of Jesus in the world today. Garner Ted Armstrong’s group, The Church of God International, is binitarian. My late journalist friend Ian Boyne was pastor of this church in Jamaica.
Unitarians or ‘Oneness’ believers argue that the biblical testimony reveals that the term ‘God’ is applied to one person only who manifests at different times as Father or Son or Holy Spirit. Oneness groups would be most (though not all) of the churches that call themselves Apostolic. These churches are popularly called ‘Jesus Only’ by others, but the term they use of themselves is Apostolic or ‘Oneness’.
In passing, let me note that the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not technically fall into any of the traditional camps just mentioned because they hold that only the Father is God, Jesus Christ being only a created elevated being of great significance and the Holy Spirit being neither God nor a person but simply a force comparable to a radar beam.
How might one begin to approach the biblical testimony concerning the Godhead? One useful approach might be to ponder what we would expect to find in the language and ideas of the various biblical writers if they wanted to convey the idea of a trinity or binity or ‘oneness’.
Before we explore some of the biblical evidence, let it be clear that all three groups, trinitarians, binitarians and unitarians, claim a belief in only one God consistent with the testimony of the Bible. How, though, is this oneness of God expressed in the language of scripture?
Let’s begin with the Old Testament. There are about nine Hebrew words that are at times translated by the word ‘one’, but only two of these would be relevant to our exploration of oneness and the Godhead. The two Hebrew words are YACHID and ECHAD. The sound of the ‘ch’ in each word is a back-of-the-throat hard ‘k’ like the ‘ch’ in Loch [Ness monster].
Yachid means one in a solitary, digital sense. It is one ‘deggeh, deggeh’ as we would say in Jamaican. Echad, on the other hand, means one in a complex or compound sense. This word suggests the unity that results from combining plural entities.
Interestingly, the Old Testament writers never use yachid to describe God! That fact would, on the surface, suggest that they did not believe in God as a solitary, digital, ‘deggeh, deggeh’ person. What we do find is that echad is used to describe God, which would be expected if the writers believed in a multipersonal God.
Take the case of the classic passage on the oneness of God in Deut. 6:4, a fundamental passage for Jews then and now. The text reads, in transliterated Hebrew then in English, “shema Yisrael, Yahweh Elohenu, Yahweh echad.” “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.” The word for one in the text is echad not yachid.
To appreciate the force of echad as composite unity or compound oneness, we would need to see its usage in a few passages.
In Gen. 2:24, Adam and Eve are described as ‘one flesh’. Echad is used - two distinct persons forming a mystical but real unity. In Gen. 3:22, God said “… the man has become like one of Us …” echad is used; several distinct persons sharing oneness or a likeness in the knowledge of good and evil. In Gen. 11:6, the people were ‘one’, echad again; many individuals agreeing on a common goal.
The point we have been making here is that the Hebrew word describing God’s oneness is a word consistent with the multipersonal nature of the one God.
Related to this issue of the terms used to describe God’s oneness would be the nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and verbs used about God. If God is digitally one or one ‘deggeh, deggeh’, then we would expect to find the biblical writers using only singular words in their description of God. However, if the one true God is multipersonal we would expect to find both singular and plural words used to describe God, depending on which member or members of the Godhead is/are being spoken of.
The fact is that the biblical writers used both plural and singular words to describe God. The two most popular words translated as God in the English Bible are Elohim and Adonai, and both are plural words. In Job 35:10, Psalm 149:2 and Isaiah 54:5, God is described as ‘Maker’, and the Hebrew word is a plural. Ecclesiastes 12:1, calls God ‘Creator’ with a plural Hebrew word.
It is difficult to make sense of these plural words used to describe God if you are of the ‘oneness’ persuasion. The standard explanation offered by such brethren is that these are examples of the ‘plural of majesty’.
The only problem for this explanation is that Classical Hebrew had no such concept as a plural of majesty! Further, even if Classical Hebrew had the concept, it could only be applied to direct speech words like ‘we’ or ‘our’ or ‘us’ and could not apply to a writer’s plural description of God as Creator or Maker.
Before moving to the New Testament, I would ask you to ponder the plurality of persons implied in Daniel 7:13-14, where both the ‘Ancient of Days’ and the one like ‘a Son of Man’ are described in terms which suggest that they are both God.
Part 2 continues next week in Family and Religion
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