The Triune God Of The Bible

The first Christians were Jews who recited the ancient words of the Shema in their daily prayers: 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your soul, and with all your might' (Deut. 6:4). Jesus quoted the words of the Shema in answer to the question, 'Which commandment is the first of all?' and the earliest Christians affirmed their belief in the one God. 'We have one God the Father from whom are all things' (1 Cor. 8:6). The first commandment, according to the second-century work, the Shepherd of Hermas, is, 'Believe that God is one, who created and completed all things and made all that is from that which is not...' (Herm, Man. 1:1). The first article of the creed is 'we believe in one God'.

Though the earliest Christians were in agreement with their fellow Jews in confessing one God, from the beginning Christianity set itself apart from Judaism by the veneration it gave to Christ. This is apparent in the exalted language to describe Christ in the New Testament, son of God, image of the invisible God, the eternal word who is with God, the one in whom the 'fullness of the Godhead dwells', 'the express image of God's very being'; in hymns in honour of Christ, e.g. 'God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name' (Phil. 2); in the baptismal formula which joked Christ, a human being, with God the Creator of all things; and in the early Christian Eucharist where Christ was celebrated as alive and present in the breaking of bread. As early as the second decade of the second century an outside observer, Pliny, the Roman governor of Bithynia, reported that Christians were in the habit of meeting on a fixed day before it was light to 'recite a hymn to Christ as to god'.

One of the ways to reconcile the apparent conflict between worshipping Christ as God and venerating the one God, i.e. to offer rational justification for the shape of Christian language and practice, was to draw directly on the Greek philosophical tradition. Because of the influence of Christianity and Judaism on Western thought we are inclined to think of the divine as a category that has only one member (the one supreme God), but in antiquity the divine was a broad and expansive category of existence which included many different members. Within this tradition the most obvious way to deal with the 'divinity' of Christ and the Holy Spirit was to conceive of a hierarchy of divine beings. One could acknowledge the existence of the one high God, while also venerating lesser deities, who, though they did not rule over the whole universe as did the one high God, were nevertheless considered divine. 'The person who worships several gods, because he worships some one of those which belong to the great God, even by this very action does that which is loved by him', wrote Celsus the second-century pagan philosopher.

Influenced by this understanding of the divine, some early Christian apologists thought that in the polytheistic world of ancient Rome it was a shrewd strategy to accentuate the pluralistic character of Christian conceptions of the divine. Athenagoras, an apologist born in Athens who wrote in the latter part of the second century, informs his critics, with barely concealed glee at his cleverness in trumping an adversary:

Who...would not be amazed if he heard that folks who are called atheists bring forth God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit.Nor does our teaching concerning the Godhead stop there, but we also say that there is a host of angels and ministers whom God...set in their places.

How can we be called atheists, implies Athenagoras, when we confess not one God but three gods and many lesser divine beings who are associated with these three? In Graeco-Roman society the pluralism of Christian theology was not an embarrassment; for some it was a valuable selling point of the new movement.

Other apologists used similar language. Justin Martyr, for example, said that Christians honour Jesus Christ as the 'son of the true God himself, and hold him to be in the second rank and the prophetic spirit in the third rank'. Origen of Alexandria even went so far as to use the term 'second God' with reference to the Son. In a discussion with a Christian bishop from Arabia, he said, 'we are not afraid to speak in one sense of two Gods, and in another sense of one God'. As a temporary solution these ideas about the plurality of gods helped early Christian thinkers to explain how Christ and the Holy Spirit could be divine while retaining the belief that God is one, but under closer examination such formulations proved unsatisfying and were eventually discarded. For they seemed to make the Son and the Holy Spirit into 'assistants' to God, not 'associates'. Plurality with respect to God, however, had impressed itself on Christian thinkers from the very beginning.

Nevertheless when some in the churches heard theologians talk about a second God or different ranks of deity they believed that something had gone awry. After all, in becoming Christians they had been delivered from the worship of many gods to serve the one true God. Wasn't this talk of several gods a reversion to the life they had left behind? At the beginning of the third century, Tertullian of Carthage in North Africa, the first Christian thinker to write in Latin, said that the rank and file among Christians (he called them the 'simple folk') believed that in preaching 'two or even three Gods' the Church's belief in one God was compromised. They say, 'We hold to the monarchy', the one single God who rules all things. Because they held to the belief that there was one sole ruler, such Christians were called 'monarchians', that is, adherents of belief in the single (monos) rule (arche) of God.

As one examines the writings of the criticism of monarchianism by the Church's leading thinkers, e.g. Irenaeus, Tertullian, or Origen in the early period, it is evident that something deep within Christian tradition was propelling Christian thinkers to move beyond received conceptions of God's oneness and unity. One of the sources for this ferment was of course the Bible itself, not simply the New Testament, but also the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. Within some Jewish circles prior to the advent of Christianity, 'wisdom' (sophia) was pictured not simply as a divine attribute displaying God's activity in the world, e.g. in creation, but also as a 'divine agent', carrying out God's purposes for humankind. In time 'wisdom', though closely associated with God and identified with God, came to be conceived of as having a kind of independent existence in the heavenly realm. An important text is Wisdom of Solomon 7:

For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection (apaugasma) of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.

In the Wisdom of Solomon wisdom is called 'the fashioner of all things' (7:22), 'an associate in [God's] works' (8:4), a member of God's heavenly council who exists from eternity (24:9).

The New Testament identifies Christ with Wisdom: 'Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God' (1 Cor. 1:24). Hence one of the tasks of early Christian thinkers was to draw out the implications of identifying Christ with the figure of Wisdom as a divine agent portrayed in books such as the Wisdom of Solomon and Proverbs. Of course, the New Testament had pointed the way. For example, the opening sentences of the book of Hebrews use an expression that echoes the book of Wisdom: Christ is the 'reflection (apaugasma) of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being' (Heb. 1:3). In his treatise On First Principles Origen calls attention to the correspondence between such texts in the New Testament and passages from the Septuagint (besides the Wisdom of Solomon, also Prov. 8:22-5), as well as other passages in the New Testament that speak of Christ as the image of God, e.g. 'image of the invisible God' in Colossians (1:15). From these texts, he concluded that the 'wisdom of God has her subsistence nowhere else but in him who is the beginning of all things'. Because Christ is the Wisdom of God, argues Origen, he is rightfully called God. He is also called the 'only-son' of God, the one whose origin is to be found in God. To say, then, that Christ is the 'image of God' means that he shares God's nature in the way that a child shares the nature of his parents.

Origen realized that the term 'wisdom' was normally used adjectivally as in the phrase 'wise man', that is, 'wisdom' referred to a quality or attribute or characteristic of a person. In conventional usage wisdom did not designate something that acted as an agent or existed independently of something else. Applied to the doctrine of God, the question was whether wisdom (i.e. Christ) was to be understood as having its own proper existence, or whether wisdom was a way of talking about a mode of God's existence in relation to human beings. In technical theological language the question was whether the figure of wisdom was to be 'hypostasized', i.e. understood as an independent entity, albeit within God, what later theology would call 'person'.

The presence of passages in the Septuagint that spoke of Wisdom as a divine agent, indeed as the pre-eminent divine agent, helped Christians understand the language of the New Testament and gave them an initial conceptual framework to express, on the one hand, the belief that Christ is God, and on the other, that he is not simply a divine attribute or emanation but had his own proper existence. Wisdom, however, was only one 'title' for Christ in the New Testament and only as it was interpreted in light of other biblical titles, notably 'son of God' and 'Word (logos) of God', were Christian thinkers able to do justice to the reality that they had come to know in Christ. In his Commentary on the Gospel of John, Origen discussed these and other titles at length, e.g., light, door, way, shepherd, king, life, et al., but it was these three, 'wisdom', 'son', and 'word', that were most important in formulating the Church's doctrine of the Trinity.

Already in Origen's day the meaning of the term logos had become a matter of dispute within the Christian community. The question was asked whether 'word' was to be taken in its conventional sense to mean something which has no existence apart from the one who speaks the word, or whether when used of Christ it had a different sense. The term logos occurs in the LXX version of Psalm 45:2 (44:2) which reads: 'My heart uttered a good word.' The 'word' mentioned here and the 'word' in the prologue of the Gospel of St John were taken to be the same, and some Christians thought the meaning of the term was plain. 'Word' was to be taken in its usual sense, hence it designated 'an utterance occurring in syllables', i.e. a sound that disappears as soon as it is heard. Applied to Christ this meant that he had no existence apart from the Father.

Origen admits that it is difficult to understand how one can speak of a 'word' in the same way that one can speak of a 'son'. Hence the term word should be interpreted in conjunction with the title 'son', a term that implies 'having life in itself. Though a son receives life from his mother he exists as a human being independent of her. If the terms word and son are taken together it is clear that 'the word is distinct from God (the Father) and has its own existence'. Origen reminds his reader that in reading the Bible one must discern the 'sense' of the terms used; when one reads the term 'door' or 'vine' or 'way' no-one thinks that Christ is an actual door or a vine or a path. These terms must be taken as intended, i.e. to refer to something spiritual that is like a door or a vine. The word of God, then, must be understood as something that is like a human word, but is not a human word. The 'word of God', writes Origen, has its own 'individuality, i.e. has life in itself, and in this way is to be distinguished from word or reason in human beings, 'which has no individuality apart from us'. The Scriptures teach, says Origen, that the 'Son is other than the Father', i.e. has his own proper existence.

Tertullian had come to a similar conclusion though his reasoning is somewhat different. Like Origen he argued that the title in the Scriptures should not be taken in isolation; no one title could be taken as definitive in and of itself, not word, not son, not wisdom. The Scriptures speak of the same 'power.. .now with the name of wisdom, now with the designation word'. The several titles complemented each other. Hence in answer to those who took Psalm 45 ('My heart has uttered a good word') to imply no distinction between God and his 'word', Tertullian cites other texts applied to Christ that speak of Christ as the 'son'. If one argues that the word spoken by the Father cannot be distinguished from the Father, it would seem that the son in Psalm 2:7, 'You are my son, this day have I begotten you', must be the same as the Father, which is absurd.

Equally significant is Tertullian's analysis of the term 'word' or 'reason', logos in Greek, ratio in Latin. He argues that there is a sense in which reason in human beings, and hence in God, can be understood to have its own existence. Consider, says Tertullian, that as a human being made in the image and likeness of God you have reason within yourself. . Consider how when you deliberate silently within yourself by reason, this same action takes place within you [that takes place in God], while reason accompanied by discourse (sermo) meets you at every moment of your thought, at every impression of your consciousness; your every thought is discourse, your every consciousness is reason; you must perforce speak it in your mind, and while you speak it you experience as a partner in conversation (conlocutorem) that discourse which has in it this very reason by which you speak when you think in company of that [discourse] in speaking by means of which you think.

Tertullian is making a simple but profound point. As human beings we think of ourselves as a single person, with our own individual consciousness, and we look at the world from the perspective of our unique and distinctive 'ego'. Yet it is the universal experience of human beings, because they are rational creatures, that they have within themselves the power of reasoning. Reasoning is always dialectical, i.e. it involves questioning, saying yes and then saying no, a back and forth in the mind as words, ideas and concepts challenge, criticize, or confirm each other. This silent dialogue takes place within the mind without speaking a word. In thinking we become aware of an other within ourselves. This other of course takes many different forms depending on the topic and the purpose of our deliberations, whether we are thinking alone or in discussion with someone else. Yet the other is always present in the form of a question, an alternative, a doubt, a contrary proposal or complementary thought. The very term 'deliberation' suggests that thinking is a form of debate that goes on inside the self.

Because of the dialectical character of human reasoning, it is plausible, argues Tertullian, to speak of a kind of second 'person' within us. 'So in a sort of way you have in you a second discourse by means of which you speak by thinking and by means of which you think by speaking: discourse itself is another [than you].' Tertullian is not interested in establishing a truth about human psychology, though he wrote a large book dealing with the human soul, but in drawing an analogy between the human mind and the nature of God as God. Human beings were made in the 'image and likeness of God'. If it is the case that one can speak of a 'partner in conversation' in the human mind, an 'associate' if you will, 'how much more completely.. .does this action take place in God, whose image and similitude you are authoritatively declared to be, that even while silent he has in himself reason, and in [that] reason discourse'. Therefore it is not unreasonable to say that God is not a solitary monad.

So I have been able without rashness to conclude that even then, before the establishment of the universe, God was not alone, seeing he continually had in himself Reason, and in Reason Discourse, which he made another beside himself by activity within himself.

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