In part 1 of this series, we considered several passages of Scripture that are inherently problematic for the doctrine of the Trinity. And as perplexing as these verses are vis-à-vis the Trinity, though, they are really just the “tip of the iceberg.” Because whereas the Trinity affirms that Jesus is divine by virtue of His identity with God the Son, i.e. the “second person of the Trinity,” the New Testament consistently indicates a much different relationship with the supposed “Godhead”:
At once the Spirit sent [Jesus] out into the desert.
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.
At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth.”
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert.
So what’s the problem? Quite simply – per the Trinity – since Jesus is the incarnation of the “second person,” and since all of the persons of the Godhead must remain distinct entities that neither overlap nor mix, then these verses describe scenarios that violate and essentially contradict the Trinity. In short, the doctrine of the Trinity does not allow for Jesus to be the incarnation of the Son and simultaneously filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s one…or the other, thus being “both” is out of the question.
Furthermore, there are other passages which ascribe actions to the Holy Spirit when we might logically expect them to be done directly by the Son Himself. For instance, take Jesus’ statement which ascribes the driving out of demons to the “third person” rather than Himself, i.e. the “second person”:
But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
Since Jesus is the incarnation of the “second person,” and since the Trinity affirms that the Son is co-equal to both Father and Spirit in every respect, then why does Jesus have to appeal to another member of the Godhead to drive out demons? Even if you accept the Trinity’s “Division of Labor” clause (that each member of the Godhead willingly assumes a different “role” when it comes to effecting our salvation) it begs the bigger question of why Jesus’ actions and authority are always attributed to either the “third person” or “first person” of the supposed Godhead…never the “second.”
“I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.”
Then there’s the passage from Hebrews that speaks of Jesus offering Himself through the “Spirit” rather than the “Son”:
For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
Considering that the Trinity’s “Division of Labor” defense is based upon the notion that Father, Son, and Spirit each assume distinctive roles and responsibilities as they work collectively to enact our redemption, why does the author of Hebrews attribute Christ’s sacrifice to an act of the Spirit rather than the Son? Isn’t the Son’s sacrifice the whole point?
And what of these passages which declare not only the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, but also glorify the One responsible:
Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
Who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord,
For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.
But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.
Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead)
So did the Father raise Jesus from the dead, or did Jesus – i.e. God the Son – do it Himself? Was it actually the Holy Spirit? Maybe it was a collective effort? Or is Scripture telling us plainly that the “three persons” aren’t so distinct after all? Indeed, Paul seemingly obliterates the Trinitarian separation between Father, Son, and Spirit in the way that he routinely refers to the members of the Godhead as if they were the same “person”:
However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.
We could look at scores of similar passages, but the point is simply this: the Trinity cannot provide a satisfactory explanation for the confluence that is implied in these passages without simultaneously tripping over one of its own rules. Its insistence upon multiple, distinct persons within God is its Achilles’ heel, because as soon as you attempt to reconcile all of the Trinity’s many rules and restrictions about relationships within the Godhead, the doctrine simply collapses under its own weight. And while there is nothing that inherently precludes “tri-personness” as a potential way of conceptualizing God’s nature, the problem is that you can’t pick and choose which parts of the doctrine to apply in a given passage. Because due to the internal, logical construction of the doctrine itself, every part of the doctrine has to hold true in every verse…or none of it does.
So what’s the solution? The difficulties with these passages vanish if you assume that God is a single “person,” such that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” speaks not to multiple persons in a Godhead, but to God’s relationship with all human beings. Indeed, whereas the riddle the church fathers were trying to solve was the manner in which a “three person” God relates to Himself, what if the relationship at the heart of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is God’s relationship to mankind generally, through His unique relationship to one Man specifically?
This hypothesis probably seems a little too simplistic, but which relationship makes more intuitive sense: God’s relationship to mankind – which Scripture speaks to on virtually every page – or God’s three-way relationship to Himself which has no actual mention in Scripture? If we are to truly let Scripture speak for itself, then given the prior verses which plainly declare Jesus’ connection with the Holy Spirit, His designation as “Son” speaks not to His union with the “second person” of some theoretical Godhead, but it attests to His unique relationship with God via His own Holy Spirit! For as the only-begotten Son, Jesus was not just the first person to experience the indwelling of God’s Spirit, but He was the fullness of the Spirit dwelling in human flesh.
Furthermore, what is the essence of the Kingdom of God if not God reconciling those who were naturally alienated from Him? Moses couldn’t do it. David wasn’t up to the task, either. There wasn’t a prophet, priest, or king in all of Israel who was able to placate God’s wrath and thereby repair humanity’s fractured relationship with Him…and it was all by design. Because as the saying goes, “if you want something done right…you have to do it yourself.”
God knew all along that there was only One way to redeem creation and thereby establish His Kingdom, which is why everything under the Old Covenant pointed forward to the mission, victory, and glory of His Son. The solution to Creation’s curse was always in view, but God nevertheless had to let us discover that we are utterly incapable of saving ourselves…even with the assistance of His own Holy Spirit. For just as with any stubborn child who insists upon their ability to “do it myself,” He had to make sure we understood that in spite of all of our strivings we remain hopelessly alienated and separated from Him on account of our willful, selfish hearts.
But now, on account of everything that Jesus has done, the hope which had previously been promised has finally become reality. He has made peace with God on our behalf and freed us from the dominion of darkness, triumphing over the unholy spirit of this age which manifests itself as disobedience and rebellion against God.
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.
So whenever the New Testament refers to the work of the Holy Spirit, it testifies to the fact that a Holy God continues to build His Kingdom by calling us out of spiritual bondage and drawing us unto Himself. His Spirit beckons to ours amidst the throng of unholy voices which clamor all around us, convicting the world of sin while seeking to awaken each of us to the glory and the majesty of His Son. To all those who hear His voice, receive Him, and repent of their sin, God gives them the right to become His children on the basis of the price that Christ has already paid to redeem them. They are born again as citizens of God’s Kingdom, indwelt by His Holy Spirit, and given new hearts that long to honor their Father and their Lord:
“This is the new covenant I will make with my people on that day, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.”
Hebrews 10:16 (NLT)
Clearly not everyone responds to the Spirit’s call, and all those who resist His Spirit and willingly harden their hearts are therefore utterly incapable of entering into His Kingdom. Their rejection of His Spirit is likewise a repudiation of Christ, and whoever does not have the Son does not have the One who sent Him. Thus by suppressing the Spirit of Truth they remain in spiritual darkness and under His condemnation as children of wrath:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
Here’s a model of how this works in practice:
Ultimately, then, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” serves first and foremost as a threefold doxology which reminds us of the love that God has for the world, a love that compelled Him to give His only Son in order to save it. At the same time, it showcases the boundless love and compassion of Christ, the righteous One who gave His life for the unrighteous, and glorifies Him as our kinsman-redeemer, the only worthy intermediary between a Holy God and the one aspect of creation that has willfully rejected Him:
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.
Thus the point of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” isn’t to reveal “three persons in God” who manifest the essence of love by loving each other from all eternity; rather, it proclaims the great love that the Father has for all humanity…especially for His Son. The point is not to differentiate between co-equal members of a Godhead, but to distinguish the subjects of the Kingdom from those who remain forever alienated from their Creator. To separate those who are indwelt by His Spirit from those whom His Spirit only convicts. To set apart God’s children from those who practice lawlessness. To divide the sheep from the goats, to identify those who are “in Christ” versus those who are not, and most of all, to glorify the One who made it all possible, the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s only Son and chosen King.
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.
Granted, this is a lot to absorb, and in part 3 of this series we will take another look at some of these verses that confound the logic of the Trinity and see how well this alternative stands up.