A oneness exposition

Ryan Gustason, September 1, 2014

Introduction

“In the year 3171, a new contention arose in Egypt with consequences of a pernicious nature. The subject of this fatal controversy, which kindled such deplorable divisions throughout the Christian world, was the doctrine of three persons in the Godhead, a doctrine which in the three preceding centuries had happily escaped the vain curiosity of human researchers. -J.L. Mosheim (Professor and Abbott around 1720-1750 and eventually chancellor of the University of Göttingen in Germany).
“When we look back through the long ages of the reign of the (doctrine of the) Trinity…we shall perceive that few doctrines have produced more unmixed evil.” Andrews Norton (December 31, 1786 – September 18, 1853) was an American preacher and theologian.

Concise History of the Trinity

It was during this period that the doctrine of the Logos was propagated and developed. The idea of the Logos was already popular in the Hellenistic culture and philosophy. The apologists adopted this philosophy, tailoring it where necessary, in order to make the gospel acceptable to the general population, who saw Christianity as foolishness. To the Greeks, the Logos was reason as the controlling principle of the universe. It was impersonal, existing in the realm of ideas. It was this realm that was an intermediary between The Ineffable One and physical reality. Edward Hardy explained how the apologists, and Justin in particular, took the Hellenistic Logos doctrine and incorporated it into Christian theology.
Justin Martyr was the first prolific writer to clearly teach a plurality within the Godhead. He even numbered them, saying, “We reasonably worship [Jesus Christ], having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third.”11 Again he said, “There is … another God and Lord subject to the Maker of all things; who is also called an Angel, because He announces to men whatsoever the Maker of all things-above whom there is no other God-wishes to announce to them. … He who is said to have appeared to Abraham, and to Jacob, and to Moses, and who is called God, is distinct from Him who made all things-numerically, I mean, not (distinct) in will.”
Tertullian (150-225) was the first to speak of God as a trinity, and as three persons in one substance. God is “the ‘Trinity,’ which consists of ‘three persons…’ God is ‘one only substance in three coherent and inseparable (Persons)’. … The Father and the Son are ‘two separate Persons;, ‘two different Beings’, and ‘distinct but not separate’. The Son is ‘another’ from the Father ‘on the ground of Personality, not of Substance-in the way of distinction, not of division’.”
One of Tertullian’s most famous works discussing the trinity is found in ‘Against Praxeas’. In chapter three he states some enlightening things on his views of Christendom at his time. According to Tertullian the majority of believers in Christ are ‘simple minded’. He stated the majority of believers were startled at the doctrine of three-in-one. Why were they startled? Because most Christians at this time were under the belief (rightly so) that Jesus was God manifest in the flesh, and not a personhood of one god with three persons. This went against the Judaic beliefs that the Apostles taught as well as the teachings of Jesus Christ Himself!
He stated ‘The very rule of faith withdraws them from polytheism . . .’ which is true based on the teachings of only one God as found in the Sh’ema as well as the teachings of Christ. Those Gentiles who had just been drawn out of worshipping a pantheon of gods were now rightfully confused. Is God really three-in-one? What’s the difference then between the Christian God and the Egyptian god Ra who was also described as three-in-one, or the Hindu god Vishnu who was three-in-one?
Tertullian believed in his own oikonomia, or how he interprets and practices the canon. This is in line with his strict and rigid code that he practiced as a member of the heretical Montanist movement.
Tertullian writes ‘the numerical order and distribution of the trinity they assume to be a division of the unity…’ in chapter three. Tertullian’s theology implies an order or ranking of the persons of the trinity. Again he writes ‘in the Son and in the Holy Ghost, who have the second and the third places assigned to them,’. As you can see, Tertullian without a doubt believes that there is a pecking order in the trinity with God the Father assuming the highest role. Obviously, the other two hold to a lower position and stature. If you ask most trinity professing Christians today, they will say almost the same thing Tertullian proposes in his writings. His teachings have pervaded throughout Christendom to become the de facto standard in the way most Christians believe and perceive of God.
Lastly, in this post I’d like to leave you with Tertullian’s defense against modalists (which he admits is the majority of ‘simple minded’ believers) during his day. He said because modalists believe in angels who are with God and help perform heavenly tasks and are themselves spirit beings from God why should they be offended and reject a plurality of persons in the Godhead? So, basically, Tertullian would have them believe in the trinity because there are a multitude of angels so why not a multitude of persons in God.

Old Testament

Elohim

Elohim has plural morphological form in Hebrew, but it is used with singular verbs and adjectives in the Hebrew text when the particular meaning of the God of Israel (a singular deity) is traditionally understood. Thus the very first words of the Bible are breshit bara elohim, where bara is a verb inflected as third person singular masculine perfect. If Elohim were an ordinary plural word, then the plural verb form bar’u would have been used in this sentence instead. Such plural grammatical forms are in fact found in cases where Elohim has semantically plural reference (not referring to the God of Israel). There are a few other words in Hebrew that have a plural ending, but refer to a single entity and take singular verbs and adjectives, for example (be’alim, owner) in Exodus 21:29 and elsewhere.
Let us consider for a moment Genesis 1:26-27.
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. Gen 1:26-27 KJV
Again, Elohim is used with the word asah, which is ‘to do’ or ‘to make’. Tselem is also used, a plural masculine noun. Could this be considered evidence of a pre-incarnation trinity? No. The evidence is in the context of the next verse. The plural Elohim is again connected to a singular verb. What we see here is an example of a literary plural. In formal writing, a plural form is often used when referring to something that is above all else. In this form, God is speaking thus the use of the literary plural. In verse 27 we see the author reaffirming in his words, thus the use of the singular.
Hebrew words may have a plural morphology, yet mean a singular connotation based on the context in which it is used. For example, in English we have the word sheep. This can mean either a single animal, or a group of sheep and the only way to infer the author’s meaning is by the context of the words around it.
If I said there are many sheep in the pasture, how many am I referring to? Obviously with the usage of are and many, I am speaking of more than one sheep. If I said this sheep is sick, I am referring to a single sheep, rather than a flock.
Here are some other examples of Hebrew words which have a plural morphology and singular connotation:

Echad

Echad is simply the numeral “one” in Hebrew. “Jehovah is one LORD,” so states Deuteronomy 6:4. The same word, Echad, also appears as a modifier for Abraham in Ezekiel 33:24, (“only one man”-NIV). Isaiah51:2 also describes Abraham as “one/Echad.” Echad appears in translation variously as the numeral “one,” “only,” “alone,” “undivided,” “one single.” It’s most natural meaning is “one and not two” (Ecc 4:8). There is nothing at all in the word Jehovah which even remotely suggests a plurality. The word occurs with singular verbs and pronouns in all of its approximately 5550 occurrences. It is important to note that the One God is identified as the Father in Malachi 1:6 and 2:10.
The claim that “one” really means “compound unity” is a perfect example of argument by assertion without logical proof. The argument involves an easily detectable linguistic fallacy. Echad appears some 650 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and in not one single case does the word itself carry even a hint of plurality. It means strictly “one” not two or more. Echad is of course a numerical adjective and naturally enough will sometimes be found modifying a collective noun- one family, one bunch, one herd. But as noted, we must be careful to understand that the sense of plurality resides in the compound noun and never in the word one/Echad.
In the second chapter of Genesis, we are told that, “the two will become one flesh” (Gen 59 2:24). Yet even here, the word one means precisely ONE and no more–one flesh–not two “fleshes”! This point can be confirmed by any standard lexicon of Biblical Hebrew. For instance, Koehler and Baumgartner give as the fundamental or primary meaning of Echad, “one single” (Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. 1967). You will see this plainly illustrated in scripture in verses such as: Job 12:9-24; I Kings22:8; Ezekiel 33:24 and 48:31-34. Thus when we come to the matter of Deuteronomy 6:4, the text is informing us that Israel’s Supreme God, Jehovah-Elohim, is “one single LORD,” or “one Lord alone.”

New Testament

The Holy Spirit

First, we will summarize the nature of the relationship of the Spirit to the Father and Son. The OT speaks of the “Spirit of God” quite frequently. This simply means that the Spirit belongs to God. God is Spirit (John 4:24), and God is holy (Joshua 24:19), so it is no surprise that the Spirit is referred to as belonging to YHWH in the OT, or as being the Holy Spirit in the NT. God’s very nature is a holy spirit.
We have seen that the Spirit is distinguished from the Father and the Son (John 14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:13; Romans 8:26). We have also seen that the Spirit is equated with Jesus (John 14:20). The Spirit is also equated with the Father. It is said that the Holy Spirit caused Jesus’ conception (Matthew 1:18-20; Luke 1:35), thus making the Holy Spirit the Father of Jesus. The Father, however, is spoken of as being Jesus’ Father too. Jesus did not have two fathers, but one. It seems that the Holy Spirit was YHWH, who is spoken of after the conception as being Jesus’ Father.
In Romans 8:9, 11, Paul said, “But you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if the Spirit of the God dwells in you. Now if any man does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. … But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also give life to your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwells in you.” In verse fifteen we are said to be filled with the Spirit. If the Spirit of God is the Father as contrasted with the Spirit of Christ, and the Spirit of adoption, then we are said to be filled with the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. These names are used interchangeably. It cannot be that we are filled with three Spirits, for there is only one Spirit (Ephesians 4:4). It seems that the Holy Spirit is the Father, and is the Spirit of Christ (See also II Corinthians 3:17; compare Acts 5:3 with 5:4; Romans 8:26 with 8:34; I Corinthians 3:16 with 6:19). Calvin, referring to Romans 8:9-11, said, “…the Son is said to be of the Father only; the Spirit of both the Father and the Son. This is done in many passages, but none more clearly than in the eighth chapter of Romans, where the same Spirit is called indiscriminately the Spirit of Christ, and the Spirit of him who raised up Christ from the dead.”

The Father and Son

The name Jesus, or the term Son, specifically refers to the incarnation. These appellations are never used of God before the incarnation. This is very clear in Luke 1:35 when the angel told Mary, “The Holy Ghost will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you: therefore also that holy thing which will be born will be called the Son of God.” Notice the future tense of will. Only after the conception would Jesus be called the Son of God, because God would father His existence; not the existence of His deity, but of His humanity. “Son” was not a name of God before the incarnation. It is a relational term between God in His transcendence beyond His existence as a man, and God in His immanence as a human being. The term Father also begins to be used for God after the incarnation. Although God was known as a Father before this (Malachi 3:10), the term was used between God and His creation, not between God and God. God’s fatherhood to Jesus Christ was of a different nature than that spoken of in the OT. He was still Father in reference to His relationship to man, but His relationship to the man, Christ, was much different than His relationship to any other man. The Jews clearly recognized Jesus’ special use of the term (John 5:17-18; 8:42, 54-59; 10:30-38), realizing that He claimed a special relationship to God that no one else could claim. God was Jesus’ Father because it was God who caused Jesus’ conception, i.e. His existence as a man. Jesus, the man, would have never existed without God’s contribution to His humanity. We on the other hand, are born naturally, and only become the sons of God by adoption.
That the Son was not preexistent is evidenced by the fact that Paul said, “But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law…” (Galatians 4:4). The Son came at a certain point in time, from a woman. The fact that Paul said the Son was sent does not imply that the Son preexisted the incarnation any more than that John the Baptist preexisted his physical birth, who is also said to have been sent by God (John 1:6). The sending of the Son was not the sending of a preexistent person of the Godhead, but rather YHWH making Himself known in the face of Jesus Christ.
The Son was not eternally generated from the Father. Many have claimed that the Son was eternally begotten by God based off of Psalm 2:7 which says, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” Charles Ryrie had this to say about the doctrine of eternal generation, which is connected with the idea of a preexistent son: “I agree with Buswell (A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, pp. 105-12) that generation is not an exegetically based doctrine. … The phrase ‘eternal generation’ is simply an attempt to describe the Father-Son relationship of the Trinity and, by using the word ‘eternal,’ protect it from any idea of inequality or temporality.” Though Ryrie most definitely believes the Son to be eternal, even he confesses that the doctrine of eternal generation is not found in Scripture. For the illegitimate use of Psalm 2:7, which speaks prophetically of the Son, Ryrie said, “Least of all should generation be based on Psalm 2:7. “25 The Psalm is a coronation psalm, referring to the day a king is coronated, not the day of birth or time of origin. It is used of Jesus’ origin in Hebrews 1:5, as contrasted with the angels. Whereas they were created, the Son was begotten by God. This is referring to the incarnation as the context shows (vs. 4, 6). Psalm 2:7 is also used of Jesus’ ascension in Acts 13:33, demonstrating that the verse is not strictly speaking of the conception of Jesus by God.
The only way in which the Son of God preexisted the incarnation was as the logos. In John 1:1 the logos is identified as being God Himself, but He is also said to be with God. It was the logos who was made flesh (John 1:14).
The logos is the self-expression, word, or thought (reason) of God. As David Bernard has said:
The Logos is God’s self expression, “God’s means of self disclosure,” or “God uttering Himself.” Before the Incarnation, the Logos was the unexpressed thought or plan in the mind of God, which had a reality no human thought can have because of God’s perfect foreknowledge, and in the case of the Incarnation, God’s predestination. In the beginning, the Logos was with God, not as a separate person but as God Himself – pertaining to and belonging to God much like a man and his word. In the fulness of time God…expressed Himself in flesh.
According to Philippians 2:6, Jesus was in “the form of God” before the incarnation. “Who being in the form of God” is translated from hos en morphe theou huparchon. Huparchon, translated as “being” is from two Greek words, hupo, “under,” and arche, “a beginning.” It involves existence both before and after conditions mentioned in connection with it. In this case it is speaking of the preexistence of the “form of God.” Morphe, referring to the preexistent “form” of God speaks of “that external form that represents what is intrinsic and essential. It indicates not merely what may be perceived by others, but what is objectively there.”27 The emphasis is primarily upon the essence behind the form, but recognizes the visible form also.. Theou is in the genitive case, indicating possession. This form was God’s form. The word is also anarthrous, thus emphasizing God’s person. In this context, then, Paul was pointing out that this existing visible form of God was His essential deity.
What exactly this form that God possessed was, we are not told. Nevertheless, it was existing in eternity probably until the incarnation, or possibly the ascension, at which time Jesus’ body would have replaced the need for the visible form of God. From John we might gather that this form of God was the logos that was with God.
This form was at least visible to the heavenly host, for they presented themselves before God in some manner (I Kings 22:19; Job 1:6). Since God is omnipresent, there could not be any specific location at which to gather, unless, that is, God appeared in some type of visible, albeit spirit form. So the logos was the visible expression of God’s invisible essence. “The Word was not merely an impersonal thought existing in the mind of God but was, in reality, the Eternal Spirit Himself clothed upon by a visible and personal form…”
There can be no doubt about it, that the deity of the one Jesus related to as His Father was the deity that was in Christ; however, there is a vast difference in saying that the deity of the Father is in the Son, and saying that the Son, who is God manifest in the flesh, is the Father. Father specifically refers to God transcendent, without a human body, as he fills the heavens, being unlimited by the incarnation. The Son specifically refers to God immanent in a human body, as He is temporally located in the person of Jesus Christ, being limited by the incarnation. To confuse the terms is to confuse God’s existence as Spirit, and God’s existence as Spirit made flesh. I emphasize terms because we are not speaking about two different Gods. Let there be no mistaking it that the deity of Jesus Christ is the Father. Ontologically then (pertaining to the nature and essential properties of existence), Jesus is the same God identified as the Father. Functionally, however, because of the addition of a genuine human existence to God’s person, Jesus is referred to as the Son of God. Jesus is the person of the Father, but in a distinct manner of existence because of the hypostatic[2] union. In such a manner of existence He is known as the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Common Objections

Jesus’ Prayers

Who in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared” (Hebrews 5:7).
Jesus possessed a complete human psyche through which He communicated with man and with God as all other human beings do. The verse quoted above demonstrates this well when it explains Jesus’ prayers as being prayed “in the days of his flesh.” This doesn’t mean that the body Jesus possessed during His earthly ministry was dissolved somehow upon His glorification and ascension, but was speaking of the days in which Jesus walked in this earth before His ascension into heaven. It was during that time that Jesus prayed in the manner the author described.
That Jesus’ prayers were genuine is witnessed by the fact that Jesus prayed in solitary places and at night (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16). Not only did Jesus pray alone, but He prayed all night long at times (Luke 6:12). For Peter, He prayed that his faith would not fail (Luke 22:31-32).
There is probably no greater example of the genuineness of Jesus’ prayers than those recorded of in the Garden of Gethsemane before His betrayal and crucifixion. It was here that Jesus prayed so earnestly that it is said “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).
Jesus needed to pray as much as we do, and He did. He prayed because He needed a relationship with God, and depended upon God’s strength and power that comes from His anointing to minister to the world and finish the works the Father gave Him to do (John 4:34; 5:36).

The Preexistence of Jesus

The Bible never says that the Son of God preexisted the incarnation, but Jesus as the Spirit did preexist as the logos, both in the morphe of God (Philippians 2:6), and as the expression of God. Just as Jesus can be said to be the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8), without having a physical body until the incarnation and having been slain in time, God can give glory to His logos before the logos is ever made flesh to actuate the plan. God does call those things which are not as though they were (Romans 4:17). Jesus could rightly say that He came forth from the Father. The logos was with God, and then was made flesh, coming to the earth (John 1:1, 14). Jesus did return to heaven. He ascended to the Father, from whence He came some thirty-seven years or so before. Since the logos was God, He did not come as one of the three personalities in the Godhead, but it was the deity of the Father Himself who came.

Footnotes


[1] In the year 317 a storm arose in Egypt which spread its ravages over the whole Christian world. The ground of this controversy was the doctrine of three persons in the Godhead, which during the three preceding centuries had not been in all respects defined the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, without offence being taken.
Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria expressed himself very freely on this subject in a meeting of his presbyters, and maintained, among other things, that the Son possesses not only the same dignity as the Father, but also the same essence. But Arius, one of the presbyters, a man of an acute mind and fluent, … on the ground that they were allied to the Sabellian errors, and then, going to the opposite extreme, he maintained that the Son is totally and essentially distinct from the Father; that he was only the first and noblest of those created beings whom God the Father formed out of nothing, and the instrument which the Father used in creating the material universe, and therefore that he was inferior to the Father both in nature and in dignity.
[2] hypostatic (The essential person of Jesus in which his human and divine natures are united)

Filed under: theology, christology