Testing the Trinity (Part 1 of 3)

When I first started reading through the Gospels, I was shocked to discover how often Jesus clashed with the “religious” people of His day, particularly the scribes and the Pharisees. After all, if anyone in Israel should have “gotten it,” it should have been Israel’s religious leaders! Yet not only were most of them oblivious to the Son of God who literally stood right in front of them, they actually hated Him enough to kill Him…

The problem was that in their zeal to uphold the Law, they had piled on so many layers of extraneous rules and regulations that they lost sight of the One they were ostensibly trying to honor. The result was a manmade, artificial standard by which righteousness and orthodoxy were measured, and while the Pharisees were apparently held in high regard by the average Jew, Jesus was none too pleased with the false piety and sense of self-righteousness that their semblance of Judaism fostered:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

Matthew 23:23-24

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.

Matthew 23:13

Without question, Jesus’ stern rebuke of those who prided themselves in their religion holds many lessons for us even today. In this post, though, I want to consider the principle which Jesus turned to whenever He was confronted with false teaching: He always debunked and refuted errant dogma by testing it against the entirety of God’s Word:

You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God.

Matthew 22:29

Jesus always put His adversaries in their place by citing Scripture (remember His temptation by Satan in the wilderness?) so I wonder how He would respond to those who have proclaimed Him to be the “second person in the Godhead.” For like the Pharisees, who had plenty of alleged Scriptural support for their own misguided extrapolations, Trinitarian stalwarts are able to muster an impressive array of Scriptures that apparently dovetail with and support the doctrine of the Trinity. Yet just as Jesus routinely revealed the flaws in the Pharisees’ teachings by citing a single verse to the contrary, so too could one verse effectively render the Trinity null and void. And as it turns out, it’s not all that difficult to find passages that are inherently problematic for the Trinity:

But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.

Matthew 24:36

How can there be things that the Father alone knows if the members of the Godhead are all co-equal?  The only answer that the Trinity can offer is to distinguish between Jesus’ human and divine natures.  Simply put, as the incarnation of the divine “second person of the Trinity,” Jesus is both “100% God” as well as “100% human.” As such, the Trinity posits that whereas the divine Son remains forever co-equal with the Father, in His humanity there were some things that Jesus did not ascertain…like the aforementioned knowledge of the end.

More often than not this distinction seems to resolve the tension; nevertheless, the stark way in which Jesus singles out the knowledge of the “Father alone” certainly creates an added layer of complexity in this passage.  For since there are clearly things the Father knows that “no one” else is privy to, and since the Trinity unequivocally affirms that the divine Son and Holy Spirit are distinct persons from the Father, are they therefore included in “no one”?  The standard Trinitarian response to this question is an emphatic “of course not!” but in the final analysis this retort sounds more like “because I said so!” than an actual explanation.

If this weren’t bad enough, the Trinity’s appeal to Jesus’ humanity in lieu of His deity completely falls apart in the face of verses that take things a step further:

You heard that I said to you, ‘I go away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved Me, you would have rejoiced because I go to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.

John 14:28

Here again, Trinitarians are quick to invoke the difference between Jesus’ human and divine natures.  In this case, though, if Jesus is truly referring just to His physical essence – which is really the only explanation that the Trinity can offer for the Father being greater than the Son – then the context of His entire statement immediately raises all kinds of thorny questions:

  • When Jesus says “I” go to the Father who is greater, if “I” is just His physical body, what becomes of His union with the “second person” when He leaves? 
  • How would it even be possible for Jesus to physically be with the Father apart from the “second person”?
  • Since the Trinity affirms that Jesus’ union with the “second person” is unbreakable – save for one moment on the Cross – then is it possible that Jesus is in fact referring to the divine “Son” being somehow lesser than the “Father”?

There are very few options in the Trinity’s bag of tricks that even begin to make sense of these questions, and once again, every answer inevitably leads to another dilemma. Indeed, to the extent that you attempt to exclude either Jesus’ humanity or the “second person” from this passage, I think you’ll find that you’ve got even bigger problems to deal with…

In the final analysis, the only real argument that the Trinity can propose is that within the space of a single sentence, Jesus simultaneously uses the pronoun “I” to refer to His entire being (which will go to be with the Father) as well as His human nature exclusively (which is the only part of His being that is subordinate to the Father).  I don’t know about you, but this “answer” strains all sense of logic and reason. 

And what about the bizarre warning that Jesus gives to the scribes and Pharisees when they accuse Him of driving out demons by the prince of demons rather than by the power of God?  In Mark’s account, Jesus concludes His rebuke with a stern warning against blaspheming the Holy Spirit.  The Gospel of Luke, though, records the warning with an added caveat:

And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him.

Luke 12:10

Although the Trinitarian response is predictable, it doesn’t really help when you try to reconcile it with the parallel doctrine which declares that “Son of Man” is a messianic title which should not be interpreted merely as a reference to Jesus’ human nature.  For whereas “Son of Man” appears to emphasize Jesus’ humanity from a certain perspective, its allusion to the heavenly figure of Daniel’s vision ostensibly makes it every bit as integral to Jesus’ deity as the title “Son of God.”  That being the case, how is it possible to blaspheme the “second member” of the Godhead with apparent impunity, and yet the same statements leveled at the “third member” would be unforgiveable?  Which doctrine has gotten it wrong? 

These are just a few of the many passages that the Trinity struggles to explain, and even with all of its caveats and exceptions the answers are not forthcoming.  The problem is not the person of Jesus per se, but the need to preserve the full deity of a Son who is distinct from both Father and Spirit and yet simultaneously united with Christ.  And so even though this “triune” model may make sense in theory, it simply can’t stand up against the collective testimony of Scripture.

Again, consider Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees.  Even though the Pharisees started with what was true, the Law of Moses, in their strivings to keep and defend it actually ended up obscuring and even subverting it.  Their traditions, dictates, and dogmas progressively warped the very fabric of Judaism, resulting in an untenable system that compromised the essence of the Law even as it maintained an appearance of righteousness and propriety.

Does this sound vaguely familiar?

Like the Pharisees before them, as the early church sought to ensure the integrity of the apostolic faith and protect it from errant speculation, they constructed an extra-Biblical framework that endeavors to speak where Scripture is silent.  In the process, the Trinity became a law unto itself by virtue of the church’s repeated insistence that it was true; unfortunately, though, it also ended up usurping the very ideals and truths it was designed to protect.  In short, the Trinity simply fails the test. Because when you try to reconcile the Trinity with Scripture it does little to illuminate Christianity’s most mysterious and yet distinctive aspect – an incarnate God who died to redeem Creation – and frequently generates more questions than it answers.

So is there a better answer than the Trinity? Many alternatives have been proposed over the past 2,000 years, and most have fallen woefully short. Still, I believe that a better answer does exist, and in part 2 of this series, that’s exactly what we’ll try to discern.

2 thoughts on “Testing the Trinity (Part 1 of 3)

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