Before the Council of Nicaea, the many bishops of the wider church in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe had a variety of outlooks regarding the trinity. Orthodoxy holds that Jesus Christ is God come in the flesh. All true church bishops held to this. This is the position of the Old and New Testaments, of the early Hebrew Apostles. Jesus wasn’t merely human, but also God. The church creeds written down by the Greek church fathers struggled to explain this mystery in church doctrinal terms. They often employed Greek philosophical themes as tools to help them explain the godhead academically: how Jesus is both man and God. They also used these same Greek tools to try to explain the doctrine of the trinity.
Over the first 200 years of church history, the church slowly shifted its centre from Hebrew to Greek culture. The Greek fathers became the majority, and they had not grown up in a Hebrew culture. They were ignorant of many Hebrew understandings and often used their own Greek background to handle biblical themes. Coupled with this, was the rise of Emperor Constantine in the church, who desired all his subjects submit to one viewpoint on the major church issues. The Nicene Creed therefore became a law of the state, which prosecuted detractors. Tolerance between bishops of different cultural backgrounds and shades of understanding was now going, being replaced with a political expediency.
The Greek culture consisted of philosophy and religious myths. In these myths, there were many god-like figures. The Greeks had creation myths, like all ancient pagan cultures, which showed gods who were like men, with passions, lusts, ego, and who acted in revenge, greed and violence, like brutal war heroes. Some gods, according to the myths, committed incest and had children, born in heaven. There were sometimes depictions of the lives of these gods in heaven prior to creation of the earth. I wonder whether some of the mythological ways of thinking influenced the development of some of the doctrines in the church, especially doctrines which may appear difficult in a Greek philosophical culture, like the trinity.
Depicting God in heaven prior to the creation, as three separate persons in eternity past, may be a Greek way of thinking and not Hebrew thought. In other words, is this what the Hebrew scriptures (Old and New Testaments) mean by trinity? The New Testament is also Hebrew scripture, written by Hebrew apostles of Christ, even though they sometimes did employ Greek concepts from the cosmopolitan culture of that time. What did the Hebrew apostles mean by Father, Son, and Spirit, as one God?
We sometimes believe that the concept of trinity is foreign to the Old Testament. By trinity, I mean the belief that God could be incarnated in human flesh and be present by his Spirit. It is sometimes thought that this idea is a New Testament innovation, a new belief, a new way of looking at God, which the Jews at that time could not have understood, or according to their Hebrew background, should have taken as heretical. This is not the case. The concept of God coming in the flesh of Jesus is very Old Testament and does not require new Greek philosophy or mythology to help us understand.
Let’s look at the trinity this following way. Let’s call it Emmanuel theology. Emmanuel means God is with us, in our space and human experience. This begins in Genesis 1. There, the God who is unknowable, who is outside of creation, who is holy and independent and totally other to the creation, made himself partially known to creation by his acts. This contrasts with what we call the transcendence of God. He is so holy that he transcends all flesh and all that is created. This is taught in Hebrew scripture. God is wholly unknowable to flesh, cannot be accessed by flesh, unless of course, God takes the initiative, and reveals himself in grace.
In Genesis 1, the God who is transcendent, who is unknowable, began the process of self-revelation, revealing himself. First, there was the Spirit of God, who moved upon the waters. The Spirit of the unknown, distant God was with his creation. God is both transcendent and he is also everywhere. God is revealing himself to his creation by being present with us in his Spirit. Next, was the word of God. God spoke his word into creation. The creation would come to know the presence of God by his spoken word. His word was in the creation, forming the creation into God’s will and purpose. Next, we see the light of God, come on day one, before there was the sun, moon and stars. So, God by his Spirit, word and light, is present with and revealing himself to the creation he loves.
God coming to us in this way reveals his condescension. Even though he is so holy, his love draws him to come down to our level, so we might be saved. In Philippians 2, this is applied to Christ, who comes in God’s full image. He condescends to us, by suffering amongst us. We are told to have this mind of Christ which we see in God throughout the scripture, in coming down to the level of the weak and serving.
The Spirit, word and light of God seen in creation are not three persons or three Gods. The Spirit, word and light of God were emanating (coming out) from the one God. They are among the many characteristics or powers of the one God. What I am saying is that in Genesis 1 we see Emmanuel theology, that is, God revealing himself to creation by coming in some form that we will see and experience him, at least, only in part, not his full person.
We see this throughout the Old Testament, God coming in some way, employing some vehicle the people would see and experience in some way. It could be in an angel, or in a pre-incarnate human form, or in a prophet, the burning bush, in the pillar of fire (light) by night, or in the Torah as the word of God, or in the tabernacle, as his Spirit, the shekinah glory, meaning the presence of God with us. This is all Hebrew incarnational theology, in the Old Testament. It means that God is made partially visible to humanity in some earthly form. The shekinah in the tabernacle was Emmanuel, God with us. God came to Israel in the Exodus, just like he came in creation in Genesis 1, as the Spirit, word and light. Not three persons, and not limited to three ways, but to employ different avenues in revealing the one true God to humanity.
We see this throughout the Old Testament, like the wisdom of God in the book of Proverbs. God gave his wisdom, knowledge and understanding to the world, which are the foundation stones of creation and of our lives, if we walk by them. This wisdom is God with us, helping us walk with him and have his life.
Some take Proverbs 8 literally, as though God made wisdom in eternity past, before he made creation. They claim Christ was created or born before creation, as a kind of second, or lesser demi-god. This is not the Hebrew sense of the literature in Proverbs 8. It is poetic, as all the Proverbs and Psalms, and most of the prophetic texts are. It personifies wisdom, simply to show its importance. It means that God built the creation upon the sure pillar of his wisdom, so creation cannot be moved. Wisdom, like his word, is not a second person. It is God’s personal characteristic. Proverbs tells us that God reveals himself to creation, by establishing creation on his wisdom (at least the unfallen creation). In Greek theology this is logos, meaning God’s partial revelation of himself in nature, as the source of all creation, a theme that is present in all human cultures.
We know the prophecy in Isaiah 7, that God would give us a sign, a virgin shall have a child, and his name shall be called Emmanuel, God with us. There is nothing un-Hebrew about this. In declaring the birth of Christ, Isaiah 7 uses the same theology as scripture does in the creation, Exodus, tabernacle, and Proverbs. In declaring the fulfilment of Christ’s divine incarnation from Isaiah 7, the apostles of the New Testament declare no new Christian innovation of theology. They do not use Greek terms to explain the coming of Christ. Their proclamation is in line with all Old Testament understanding. God comes to his creation, revealing himself in the creation, in some form that we can see and experience, lastly in human flesh. It’s simple Old Testament Emmanuel theology. God is revealing himself so we can know him.
When we come to John 1, we see these Hebrew themes repeated. John is presenting Christ entirely in Hebrew themes. Christ is the Spirit (John 1:14), he is the word and light of God. And throughout the New Testament, Christ is the wisdom of God. What we saw in Genesis 1, what we saw in the Exodus, tabernacle, and wisdom of God, we see fully in the person of Christ.
By the way, some scholars claim John wrote very late, employing Greek concepts. I don’t think this is true. Recent scholarship shows the New Testament was written far earlier than had been thought. The idea from western church tradition, that John wrote and died old, is different from eastern church tradition, like the Syrian church, who claimed John was martyred in Jerusalem before the temple was destroyed in AD 70. Also, the Gospel of John reads entirely as a Hebrew concept document, not in Greek terms. In Greek imagination, John is read as a story of gnosis for personal enlightenment. In Hebrew theology, the whole Gospel of John is about the new temple, which is the new creation.
In the incarnation, God comes to his creation in the person of Christ. This is fully Old Testament understanding. He only changes his “clothing”. In the Old Testament, the creation was God’s clothing, both revealing and concealing God. Again, in the Old Testament, God was present with us in the tabernacle. The tent was his clothing, both revealing and concealing God. In the New Testament, God put on different clothing, in the person and body of Christ, that he might be more fully known. Now, in the church, we are God’s temple, God is clothed and revealed in his church. It’s all Emmanuel theology. God with us, in his creation, in the Exodus, in the tabernacle, in Christ, and today, in his church, by his Spirit.
In the Greek church creeds, the trinity is seen in ontological terms. Ontology is a Greek philosophical category, which means the study of the nature or essence of a thing, especially applied to the natural things of creation. How could we possibly apply this to eternal or divine things, which we have not seen? When ontology is applied to the trinity, it means they want to study the nature of God in trinity, in eternity. But, as N. T. Wright explains, the scriptures do not speculate on the inner nature of God’s person in an ontological sense. The Hebrew scriptures simply proclaim that God is, they don’t explain it. The scriptures just say, “In the beginning, God…” They don’t say in what form he was in eternity past. Rather, the scriptures show God’s characteristics towards us, by how he interacts with his creation. The scriptures do not indulge in Greek styled philosophical speculation. The scriptures speak in terms of faith, accepting God’s existence. There are other forms of knowing: science, morality, and faith. None of these monopolises understanding.
In what context do the scriptures speak of trinity? They speak of trinity in the context of redemption, not in ontological terms. The trinity is set forth in scripture as God’s redemptive plan for creation. The trinity is how God fulfils his promises, keeps his covenant with Israel, about a redeemed creation. God is presented as the Father to his Son, in fulfilment of Adam’s faith call. God comes in the flesh and lives out the son relationship required of Adam.
Christ is not a son born in heaven, but God born miraculously (by the power of his word, not by human conception) in human flesh, then living out an obedient faith relationship as a human with his Father, fulfilling the law on our behalf, redeeming us from the law. Son means human, the human heir of creation, who is also God, to make the covenant sure and steadfast, unable to fail. And God comes in his Spirit to lead the church in that same relationship with him, the relationship that Christ foreshadowed for us.
According to the New Testament outlook of the Hebrew apostles, whenever they referred to Christ as Son (like Adam, meaning the heir of creation), or the wisdom, or word of God, these New Testament references were about the Hebrew faith of re-creation. All these terms refer back to God’s initial act of creation, and his covenant with Israel to make the creation new. As the word, wisdom, and image of God in Adam (sonship, stewardship of creation) came to make the first creation stand, they have come again in Christ to redeem and set the creation free.
This is what the gospel promises are. The gospel doesn’t refer only to our spiritual redemption, as claimed by reductionist Greek theology. To the Hebrew, the gospel is always about the whole of creation. God redeems us spiritually, in our heart, so that we might fulfil Adam’s call over the creation: that all things become new. This is also the context of the “Spirit of God” in the New Testament, like at Pentecost, or in the book of Acts. It refers to the Spirit who hovered over the waters in creation. In the New Testament, the Spirit of God means God is present again through us, hovering over our lives, to make the whole creation new. This is why we see the term “the seven spirits of God” in Isaiah 11:2 and in Revelation. Seven refers to the days of creation. Spirit is always about making the creation new, by making our hearts and relationships new.
“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.…” (Isaiah 11:1-2) These are the seven spirits of God, as in the lampstand in the tabernacle, beaten out of one piece of gold, with the central Spirit, and the six other lamps on the one stand.
This text is about Christ’s gospel. The Spirit rests (hovers over) Christ, like the Spirit hovered over the waters in creation. This is a declaration of Christ coming to make the creation new, not just for our personal salvation. The remaining part of Isaiah 11 goes on to show the peace that Christ brings to the earth. And the renewal of the animal world and of all nature, and concludes, “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9) This renewal of our lives, to renew the whole creation, is the Hebrew gospel.
This brings us back to Adam’s call, which is what the term Son means in Hebrew faith: to rule over a creation filled with God’s shalom. When scripture calls Christ the Son, it means that he is creation’s heir, to redeem and renew creation through the church.
This is how New Testament apostles used these terms:
“He has… transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son… He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation… through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:14-20) First born means heir in Hebrew culture. This passage shows the context of the word Son. It’s to do with creation and its transformation.
“God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power…”
The Greek view of God and creation may involve agency, claiming that God appointed an agent through whom he acts, whether in creation or in redemption. This is because in Greek thought, the creation is too secular or profane for God’s direct involvement. The agent is lesser or secondary to the true God. Christ is not seen as equal with God. I don’t believe this agency is found in the Old Testament. In creation, the Spirit, word, and light are not agents of God, but God himself. Everywhere the Spirit is present in the Old Testament, it is always God himself. Moses asked God not to send an agent, but to be present himself. God agreed.
In this passage in Hebrews, the phrase “by whom he made the worlds,” means though God came as a man, he is the one that made the world. If I make something by my word or by my hand, it isn’t an agency I use, but I did it myself. The hand is part of me.
Or, to say that God redeemed us by the agency of a lesser god, and not by himself, would mean our redemption is not sure. Hebrews also tells us that God came as Son, in the exact image of God. This relates to Adam, who was God’s son and image bearer, meaning heir of creation. Adam lost that office, but God came in Christ to restore it to man. The purpose is the earth being changed, meaning restored. (Hebrews 1:12) When son or image of God are used, the context is always the restoration of Adam’s call and new creation. The mission of God in Christ wasn’t just to die and rise, but to oversee the church until all enemies are placed under his feet, until death is removed from creation.
“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11)
Though Christ, as man, was equal with God, he did not grasp at elitism, but gave himself for all humanity. As a man, he was obedient to God, fulfilling Adam’s call, and thus all creation is renewed by his Lordship. This text comes from Isaiah, where God promises that false gods will no longer rule his creation, but every knee would bow to him. In Isaiah, God says every knee will bow directly to himself, Yahweh. Philippians tells us that Christ is Yahweh. Bowing to Christ, is bowing to God himself.
The following is a typical text of the apostles, linking the gospel of Christ directly to creation: “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor 4:6) The light and Spirit of God that brought forth the first creation are now active again through the knowledge of Christ. The purpose: new creation. Paul refers to the knowledge of Christ, as in the seven creation Spirits of God: knowledge, wisdom, etc. This is not the Greek gnosis idea of private salvation and escape from creation, but knowledge from the Old Testament, Hebrew perspective, upon which creation stands. In the gospel, this knowledge is to bring about new people, new relationships, to form a renewed cosmos (world).
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord (Jesus). There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” (1 Cor 12:4-6) “Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” (1 Cor 8:6)
These two texts coincide with one of the most important Old Testament texts in Paul’s mind as a Hebrew believer. That is the shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” This was central to the entire prayer life of Paul, every day. The startling thing to blind Jews at Paul’s time, was that Paul included Jesus into the one God of Hebrew faith. Paul said that God revealed himself to the world through his incarnation in Christ, just as he revealed himself to the world through his word in creation. He said that Christ is the person or avenue of God’s self-revelation. This is not an ontology of three eternal persons, but an avenue of God’s self-revelation to the world.
Difficult texts: “Now Father, glorify me, together with yourself, with the glory I had with you before the world was.” Christ prayed this before he went to the cross. “Glorify” means to make God known, plain, to reveal the true person of God. The cross revealed the glory of Christ and the glory of God. Christ was destined to reveal God’s glory before the world was made.
“My Father is greater than I.” This means Christ as a human. “Before Abraham was, I am.” This means Christ as God come in the flesh. “God sent forth his only Son…” This means human son, conceived by the Spirit, not in human sexual terms, divinely incarnated in the flesh, into the human family, son of David, among the sons of men. Christ is the only born son among men who is God come in the flesh. God sent him forth, didn’t hold him back or rapture him from his trials, but let him suffer for us all. God suffered for us in Christ.
“I came down from heaven, from the bosom of the Father,” which refers to his divinity, his divine incarnation in the flesh. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” This does not say the word was a separate person, a second God. It simply means that word emanates from the one God, as part of who God is. This is the way the Hebrew understood it. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself…”
“And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” (1 Timothy 3:16) This is the Hebrew shema.