Testing the Trinity (Part 3 of 3)

In part 1 of this series, we looked at several passages of Scripture that are inherently problematic for the doctrine of the Trinity. Then, in part 2, we considered an alternative view of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” which proposed that this three-fold designation isn’t the New Testament’s way of revealing “three persons in a Godhead;” rather, it highlights the unique role and position that Jesus enjoys with our heavenly Father versus the rest of His fallen, estranged brethren.

In short, whereas the doctrine of the Trinity declares the existence of “three persons within the Godhead” and looks something like this:

The alternative is much simpler and highlights the uniqueness of Jesus as God’s Son:

Not only is this alternative simpler to understand as well as apply, it also aligns much better with the entirety of Scripture than the Trinity. I know this is a bold claim, but as I’ve noted previously, the Trinity can’t point to a single verse of Scripture that unequivocally substantiates its core premise of “tri-personness in God.” Every aspect of the alternative, however, is clearly and unambiguously supported by dozens if not scores of passages, none of which require any special “rules,” “exceptions,” or “disclaimers” that the doctrine of the Trinity relies upon to keep from imploding when faced with passages that appear to refute it.

For example, there’s the constant appeal to Jesus’ humanity vs. His divinity as a way to preserve the equality of Father and Son… Then there’s this notion that a divine “division of labor” exists amongst the members of the Godhead, which helps to explain away any other apparent in-equalities between the Father, Son, and Spirit… And if all else fails, anything that contradicts or questions the veracity of the Trinity is simply dismissed as “heresy!”…

Indeed, when you think about the various “defenses” that the Trinity relies upon to survive, it is fair to say that they are as integral to the doctrine as its core premises. After all, without them, the doctrine becomes exposed to attack and hopelessly fragile. As such, a more complete picture of the Trinity would include an outer ring of its defenses:

And so, in this installment of the series, we’re going to put both of these frameworks to the test as we seek to apply both “lenses” to some enigmatic passages of Scripture and determine which framework illuminates…or at least coincides with…the obvious import of the passage.  Our goal is to truly let Scripture speak for itself rather than have the lens dictate the answer, but before forging ahead we need to give this alternative framework a name.

After many potential options I have settled on dubbing it the “Filium, ” a Latin word which translates to “The Son.” It’s an apt designation that focuses our attention upon Jesus as the foundation, pinnacle, and fullness of all of God’s plans.  Consider the diagram below, which compares the Trinity to the Filium:

Although each framework addresses a fundamentally different question, you’ll notice that there are actually two points of overlap between them…which incidentally are the only two stipulations of the Trinity that can be unequivocally substantiated with actual Scripture.  Moreover, notably absent from the Filium are all of the extra corollaries, conditions, and exceptions that the Trinity requires in order to maintain balance amongst members of the hypothetical “Godhead.”  They simply aren’t needed when God is in fact…One.  And most significantly, there is no need to worry about whether any given statement about Christ refers to the “fully God” divine Son or to the “fully man” person of Jesus – they are all about Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God. 

So without any further ado, let’s start with an “easy” question to get warmed up…

Why Does Jesus Pray?

Ever since I was a child learning about Jesus in Sunday school, the question of why Jesus prayed has always somewhat baffled me.  For in light of the fact that prayer is how we communicate with God, and since we affirm that Jesus is God, isn’t He effectively talking to Himself?  Furthermore, it always seemed odd to me that Jesus, as the Incarnate “second person,” couldn’t simply look within Himself to find the answers to each and every question rather than always appealing to the “first person.”  After all, as co-equal members of the “Godhead” (per the Trinity!) it’s not as if Jesus would ever get a different answer from the Son versus the Father.

Simply put, since the Trinity declares that Jesus is inseparably united with God the Son, would He not be able to draw upon that relationship to discern the will of God?  The short answer is “yes” in theory; however, the Trinity typically invokes its “division of labor” clause at this point, which stipulates that “God the Son” has a unique job description vis-à-vis both Father and Spirit.  In other words, the reason that Jesus prayed to the Father apparently has more to do with “divine protocol” rather than necessity.

That being the case, I eventually satisfied myself with the idea that even though Jesus didn’t technically need to pray to the Father, He did so primarily to teach His disciples the importance of devoting ourselves to prayer.  And while this explanation clearly makes some intuitive sense; unfortunately, it can’t account for everything.  Think about Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane.  Jesus pleads with the Father for a way to avoid the horror that awaits Him, even though the Trinity declares that from all eternity the divine Son agreed that the Cross was the only way.  Accordingly, as the incarnation of the Son, what would be the point of this prayer? 

The Trinitarian response to this question predictably appeals to the distinction between Jesus’ human and divine natures, rightly positing that in His human nature there were indeed some limits on Jesus’ knowledge and understanding.  In practical terms, this means that in His humanity Jesus prayed to gain wisdom or to seek the will of God…just as we do.  And once again, while this answer provides a reasonable response to the question about Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, it also effectively brings us back to square one.  For since there is clearly more to Jesus’ prayer life than merely setting an example for the rest of us, tell me again why Jesus prays exclusively to the Father? 

In short, every answer inevitably leads to another question, and you soon find yourself going in circles just to explain the answer to the original question: if Jesus is God, why does He pray?  From the perspective of the Filium, though, I believe the answer is simple: as an Agent representing His Father, Jesus was obligated to seek out the will of His Principal…just as we are.  The difference is that as God Incarnate there was nothing inhibiting His connection; His complete and utter union with God’s Holy Spirit meant that He always knew exactly what He was supposed to do.  All He needed to do was ask.

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.”

John 4:34

Not only does this perspective align with all of the Scriptures that depict Jesus both asking for and carrying out the will of the Father, but it serves to instruct us as His disciples.  Because if Jesus’ entire life was a constant dialogue with God, such that by His example we learn what it means to “walk in the Spirit” or to be always “in the Spirit,” should we in any way assume that our need for prayer is somehow less vital than His?  Indeed, why do you think that Paul urges us to “pray without ceasing?” 

Thus when we consider the impetus behind Jesus’ prayers in general, or His agonizing plea in the Garden of Gethsemane specifically, it should both humble and inspire us to not take our relationship with God for granted.  For just as with Jesus, it is incumbent upon us to both seek out God’s will for our lives and then to respond as our Lord and Savior did to every request: “Thy will be done.”  Whether we’re talking about seeking God’s will in the “big things” or the seemingly small, passing moments, like Jesus our answer should always and ever be “yes, Father.”  Because whenever we say “no” to our Heavenly Father we pay lip service to our devotion and betray the same unholy spirit of sin and rebellion that plunged Adam and his descendants into ruin. 

More Questions Than Answers

While contemplating the rationale behind Jesus’ prayers is one thing, the passages that I found most cryptic when viewed through the lens of the Trinity are those where Jesus speaks of Himself in terms that clearly subordinate Him to the Father.  For whereas the Trinity is at least able to propose an answer to the question of why Jesus prayed – circular and nebulous as it may be – it is even more hard-pressed to explain statements like:

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?  Not surprisingly, the only answer that the Trinity can offer is to distinguish between Jesus’ human and divine natures.  Again, the problem is that since the Trinity is an “all or nothing” proposition, it has to somehow preserve the “co-equality” of the divine Son with both Father and Spirit in each and every circumstance.  Hence this appeal to Jesus’ human nature is the only real option, and quite frankly, most of the time this argument seemingly resolves the issue.

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 would affirm 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 I have also heard some appeals to the differing roles of Father, Son, and Spirit as a way to resolve the tension.  So which is it?  Because the latter option doesn’t seem very “co-equal” to me.

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 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? 

A Clearer Perspective

These are just a few of the many passages that the Trinity struggles to explain, and even with all of its caveats and defenses 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.  This “triune” model may make sense in theory, but it just can’t stand up against the collective testimony of Scripture.  That being the case, these inconsistencies should give us pause and force us to reconsider our assumptions. 

Accordingly, let’s compare the Trinity’s “answers” to the conclusions that dovetail naturally with the Filium:

  • When Jesus says that the Father is greater than Him, there is no difficulty accepting that statement in light of the fact that as God’s Mashiach, Jesus is an Agent of the Father and therefore answerable to His Principal.  Indeed, Jesus is acknowledging that as “the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26, 1 Cor. 3:23) His authority, His power, and His identity have all been given to Him by the Father via His own Holy Spirit.  So with the decisive battle for the Kingdom looming on the horizon, Jesus is simply letting his disciples know that He is being recalled to the Father’s side so that He can begin His next assignment: receiving the throne of His earthly Father, David, and ruling from Heaven in majesty and honor.
  • The fact that there are elements of God’s plan which Jesus has no direct knowledge of…at least not yet…reveals that from a human perspective He too had to live by faith in God’s promises even when He didn’t necessarily have all of the details.  This may seem strange to consider, but not only does this epitomize the human experience – and Jesus was fully human, after all – it certainly helps explain why Jesus’ prayer-life was so intense! 

Furthermore, think about Jesus’ faith in the context of Satan’s temptation in the wilderness: “If you are the Son of God…”  Remember how Satan lured Adam and Eve to disobey God by getting them to trust their own judgment rather than God’s Word?  Satan was likewise testing Jesus’ resolve to trust and obey His Father, and His unwavering obedience even unto death is the very model of Biblical faith.  Not only that, but the magnificent truth is that we can likewise prevail over temptation through the power of the very same Spirit that always gave Christ victory over the enemy!

  • Lastly, when it comes to Jesus’ admonition against blaspheming the Holy Spirit, the Filium sees this as a sober warning to His adversaries that as God’s Agent, they are in danger of not merely slandering Him but His Principal as well.  It harkens back to Isaiah’s warning whereby he proclaims “woe” upon those who intentionally try to obfuscate good and evil:

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

Isaiah 5:20

Quite simply, Jesus is trying to get them to see how hardened and impervious their hearts have become to the Spirit of God.  Why else would they choose to ascribe the miracles done before their eyes to the power of Satan rather than God?  The tragic reality is that they would rather cling to their stubborn pride than yield to the prompting of the Spirit and glorify God, because in doing so they would also have no choice but to humble themselves and acknowledge the identity of the Son who is standing before them.  And so Jesus’ warning carries with it the gravest importance and eternal implications. 

Contrast this interpretation to the Trinity’s primary conclusion, which basically focuses on differentiating between actual blasphemy and the kind of mocking insults that Jesus apparently encountered on a regular basis:

They said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God.”

John 8:41

Fair enough, but if Jesus is truly concerned about separating personal insults from statements that qualify as outright blasphemy, then why does He invoke the so-called “third person” in contrast to His humanity?  This would certainly be the opportune time to call out the “second person” if that was what He meant to say, but He didn’t.  So why put words into Jesus’ mouth?

In the final analysis, the Filium sees Jesus’ intentional juxtaposition of Son and Holy Spirit as further evidence of the fact that His identity as God’s Son is indeed through the Spirit.  He is plainly and forthrightly identifying the very source of His power and authority, not as some “third person” versus a “second person,” but as the fullness of the Spirit of God.  Thus not only is Jesus here to do the works of His Principal, but as with all duly appointed agents, an affront against God’s Agent is likewise an offense to the One who sent Him…plain and simple.

At this point I hope you are beginning to appreciate the needless complexity and confusion that are inescapable artifacts of the Trinity…especially in contrast to the simplicity and clarity of the Filium.  The “Human or Divine?” conundrum simply vanishes from the standpoint of the Filium, since it understands the Son to be God’s quintessential, human representative through the fullness of God’s own Spirit, rather than a participant in some hypothetical “triune Godhead.”  Consequently, since there is no need to try and discern if Jesus is talking about his “human” or “divine” nature, every statement is simply about Himself as God’s Messiah, the Father’s supreme Agent, who in spite of His power and authority is still subordinate and answerable to His Principal. 

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