Archive | The Great Trinity Debate

The Great Trinity Debate, Part 6: Rob Bowman’s Closing Statement

I would like to thank David Burke for taking so much time from his busy life to participate in this debate. His efforts have given all of us an opportunity to learn a great deal from the contrasting arguments for our two theological positions.

Trinitarianism versus Unitarianism: Defining the Issues

The doctrine of the Trinity is biblical if and only if all of the following propositions are biblical teachings:

  1. One eternal uncreated being, the LORD God, alone created all things.
  2. The Father is the LORD God.
  3. The Son, who became the man Jesus Christ, is the LORD God.
  4. The Holy Spirit is the LORD God.
  5. The Father and the Son stand in personal relation with each other.
  6. The Father and the Holy Spirit stand in personal relation with each other.
  7. The Son and the Holy Spirit stand in personal relation with each other.

The only theological position that affirms all seven of the above propositions is the Trinity. However, each of these propositions finds affirmation in at least one or more non-Trinitarian doctrines. Continue Reading →

The Great Trinity Debate, Part 6: Dave Burke’s Closing Statement

Biblical Christology: Which Way does the Evidence Point?
In previous weeks I have shown that my arguments are strongly supported by standard authorities and a broad range of recent Trinitarian scholarship. This week I will be summarising the key elements of the Biblical Unitarian position, identifying key weaknesses in the Trinitarian position, and weighing the evidence against three primary criteria: reason, Scripture and history.

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The Great Trinity Debate, Part 5: Bowman on the Trinity

In the preceding three rounds of this debate, I have argued that the person of Jesus Christ existed as God prior to the creation of the world and that the Holy Spirit is also a divine person. If my argument up to this point has been successful, I have thoroughly refuted the Biblical Unitarian position and established two key elements of the doctrine of the Trinity. Add to these two points the premises that there is only one God who existed before creation and that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and the Father is not the Holy Spirit, and the only theological position in the marketplace of ideas that is left is the doctrine of the Trinity. Since these are all premises that Biblical Unitarianism accepts, I have not defended them here.

A possible objection to my argument so far is that it does not show that the “threefoldness” of God that the doctrine of the Trinity affirms has any clear support in the Bible. I will therefore now address this aspect of the doctrine directly.

I think everyone is aware of the fact that the NT in many places exhibits a “triadic” pattern in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are coordinated in some fashion. The NT writers sometimes use these three specific designations, but they also use other terms, such as God, Christ, and Spirit, or God, Lord, and Spirit, or some variation of one of these triads. My online outline study of the Trinity lists well over fifty clear examples of such triads, and that is a conservative list. I won’t discuss or even list all such texts here, but will instead draw attention to several notable examples and comment on their relevance to the doctrine of the Trinity in some depth. Continue Reading →

The Great Trinity Debate, Part 5: Dave Burke on Father, Son & Holy Spirit

The Divine Hierarchy: Father, Son & Angels
This week I hope Rob will show Biblical evidence for the essential relationship formulae of Trinitarianism:

  1. Father = “God”, Son = “God” and Holy Spirit = “God”
  2. “God” = Father + Son + Holy Spirit

In Week 1 we saw that proving the first does not automatically prove the second, for even if we agree that The Father is God, Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God, it does not necessarily follow that God = the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Both formulae (F+S+HS=G and G=F+S+HS) must be proved independent of each other. Additionally, Rob must show that all three are individual divine persons comprising a single divine being.

For Biblical Unitarians, the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit begins with the Father as head of a divine hierarchy:

  • God, the Father: “the Most High God, Creator of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:19); “God of gods” (Deuteronomy 10:17); “rules over all” (I Kings 18:15); “Father, Lord of heaven and earth” (Luke 10:21); “He alone possesses immortality” (I Timothy 6:16); “Almighty” (Revelation 21:22)
  • Jesus Christ: “the Son can do nothing on his own initiative… I do not seek my own will, but the will of the one who sent me. If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true” (John 5:19, 30-31); “I live because of the Father” (John 6:57); “the Father is greater than I am” (John 14:28); “God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36); “God is the head of Christ” (I Corinthians 11:3); “and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (I Corinthians 3:23)
  • Angels: “angels came and began ministering to [Jesus’] needs” (Matthew 4:11); “ministering spirits” (Hebrews 1:14); “he did not put the world to come, about which we are speaking, under the control of angels” (Hebrews 2:5); “[Jesus] is at the right hand of God with angels and authorities and powers subject to him” (I Peter 3:22)

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The Great Trinity Debate, Part 4: Rob Bowman on the Holy Spirit

Due to space limitations, I will focus in this round on defending the Trinitarian position that the Holy Spirit is a divine person and refuting the claim that the Holy Spirit is simply God’s power or divine force. As I see it, the question of whether the Holy Spirit is a person or God’s power is the critical issue that separates my view of the Holy Spirit from Dave’s, so it will be the focus of my argument here.

A. Common Unitarian Arguments

Before I present a positive case for my position, I will address three common arguments that Unitarians and many other anti-Trinitarians use to disprove that the Holy Spirit is a person.

1. Definition by Parallelism

A common strategy that anti-Trinitarians use to show that the Holy Spirit is not a person but is simply the power of God involves an argumentative strategy that I will call the definition-by-parallelism fallacy. The classic example in this context is the use of Luke 1:35 to prove that the Holy Spirit is simply another term for the power of God. In Luke 1:35, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Anthony Buzzard, for example, asserts that this text proves that “spirit and power are interchangeable terms” (Buzzard and Hunting, Doctrine of the Trinity, 228).

If this reasoning were to be followed consistently, it would lead to the conclusion that God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the gospel are all “the power of God”: Continue Reading →

The Great Trinity Debate, Part 4: Dave Burke on the Holy Spirit

The Need for Contextual Exegesis
A notable feature of this debate has been the contrast between the exegetical methodologies of both sides. Rob favours an approach that places great stress on the NT texts and interprets these in a Hellenistic way that frequently steps outside the first-century milieu, whereas I take a holistic approach which embraces the full range of data from OT and NT, and interprets them in a Hebraic way that is consistent with first-century Second Temple Judaism. This issue of context is central to our respective interpretations of Scriptural evidence and the conclusions that we derive from it.

Richard Bauckham believes that the NT writers included Jesus in the identity of God, but nevertheless emphasises the need for contextual sensitivity in the study of NT source material (Jewish World Around the New Testament: Collected Essays I, Mohr Siebeck, 2008, p.1):

Most New Testament scholars would now agree that the New Testament writings belong wholly within the Jewish world of their time. However much some may be in serious conflict with other Jewish groups, these disagreements take place within the Jewish world. Even New Testament works authored by and / or addressed to non-Torah-observant Gentile Christians still move within the Jewish world of ideas.

Their God is unequivocally the God of Israel and of the Jewish Scriptures that they treat as self-evidently their own. Jesus for them is the Messiah of Israel and the Messiah also for the nations only because he is the Messiah of Israel.

Bauckham’s advice is particularly relevant to this week’s topic: the Holy Spirit. The mainstream Trinitarian doctrine of the Holy Spirit bears no relation to the OT Jewish perspective which informed the NT understanding, because the mainstream doctrine is not derived from a Jewish context but a Hellenic one. First-century Christians found no need to elaborate upon their doctrine of the Spirit, and could speak of it in the same language that their forebears had used. Later Christians developed their doctrine of the Spirit via philosophical speculations predicated upon the same Hellenic ideas of essence and consubstantiality which had led so many of them to conclude that Jesus is God. Which position is more likely to be correct?

Due to the paucity of evidence, Rob may argue that his doctrine of “God the Holy Spirit” is merely “implicit” in the NT, as he does with the Trinity as a whole. Precisely what this means remains unclear, since he still hasn’t provided a working definition of “implicit” for the context of this debate, nor has he explained why inspired Christians with personal experience of Jesus Christ would be unable to formulate anything more substantial than a handful of “implicit” doctrines about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. By contrast, I argue that the Bible provides us with explicit doctrines about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which in previous weeks I have shown to be firmly rooted in OT theology. Thus, if we are to understand the Holy Spirit correctly, we must begin with the OT and follow its lead into the NT.

The Simplest Interpretation is Most Plausible
Before we continue we need to think about how to break the “proof text” deadlock, or we’ll have a repeat of what happened last week. I’m going to propose a method of doing so, with reference to last week’s exchange.
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The Great Trinity Debate, Part 3: Rob Bowman on Jesus Christ, continued

I turn now to some major Christological passages in the epistles. Regrettably, I wrote a full treatment of Colossians 1:12-20 but have had to cut it for sake of space.

Romans 10:8-13

Verses 8-10: Paul states that the saving confession is that “Jesus is Lord” (kurios) and “that God raised him from the dead.” As Paul does regularly in his epistles, he refers to Jesus by the divine title “Lord” while referring to the Father by the divine title “God.” That these are both divine titles in Paul’s usage will become clear as we proceed.

Verse 11: “For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’” The word “for” (Greek, gar) indicates that Paul is citing this Scripture reference from the OT as support for the statement he has just made about believing in Jesus as the risen Lord for salvation. The reference is to Isaiah 28:16, which Paul has just quoted: “They [unbelieving Israel] have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame’” (Rom. 9:32b-33). Of course, Jesus is the “stumbling stone” and “rock of offense” (Matt. 21:42-44; Mark 12:10-12; Luke 12:17-18; Acts 4:10-12; 1 Pet. 2:6-8).

Verse 12: Paul explains that belief in Jesus for salvation is for anyone who “calls on him” for salvation. This is because “the same Lord” (kurios) is Lord “of all.” In this context, the “Lord” here must be Jesus. Paul cannot be referring to this Lord as “the same” Lord if he is a different Lord than the one he just mentioned! Paul states that this same Lord, Jesus, bestows his riches (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9) “on all who call on him.”

Note that “calling on” Jesus as Lord is an act of prayer (cf. Gen. 4:26; Deut. 4:7; Ps. 145:18; Is. 55:6; Joel 2:32). Paul speaks of prayer to Jesus elsewhere (1 Cor. 1:2; 16:22; 2 Cor. 12:7-9), as does Luke (Acts 1:21-24; 7:59-60; 9:14, 21; 22:16) and John (John 14:14; 1 John 5:13-15; Rev. 22:20-21). Thus, we have support from the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation for the practice of addressing prayer to Jesus Christ (see Putting Jesus in His Place, 47-53).

This biblical practice of praying to Jesus raises severe difficulties for the Unitarian position. First, if Jesus is a different being than God, and yet Jesus hears and answers prayers, the conclusion follows that Jesus is at least functionally a second God. That is, Jesus is a supernatural or heavenly being to whom believers address prayers—including prayers for salvation and at the moment of one’s death (Acts 7:59-60). Continue Reading →

The Great Trinity Debate, Part 3: Dave Burke on Jesus Christ, continued

Jesus Christ: Prefigured and Prophesied
Last week I finished my opening argument with a reference to Genesis:

Genesis 3:21
The LORD God made garments from skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.

This is Christianity’s foundation teaching:

  1. Sin deserves death
  2. Sacrifice offers a covering for sin
  3. Only God can provide a sin-covering sacrifice; a sacrifice which is “other than God”

The OT repeats three principles constantly. They underpin the entire Law of Moses, which underpins NT atonement theology. It is essential to understand these principles and recognise how they were fulfilled by Christ, as they inform our understanding of his identity and purpose. The OT was a guidebook pointing forward to Christ (Galatians 3:24); thus any interpretation contradicting the OT’s view of Christ must be rejected.

The OT refers to Christ in two ways: typology (symbolism) and prophecy. As Rob and I both agree Jesus appears in prophecy, I’ll look closely at the typology and its implications for NT Christology:

  • Atoning sacrifice for Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21)
  • Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18; cp. Hebrews 5:10, 7:1-10, 9:11)
  • Ram sacrificed by Abraham (Genesis 22:11-13)
  • Passover lamb (Exodus 12; cp. John 1:29, I Peter 1:19, Revelation 5:6)
  • Sin offering for high priest & (Leviticus 4)
  • Brass serpent on pole (Numbers 21:8-9; cp. John 3:14)
  • Joseph (Genesis 37-41)
  • Boaz (Ruth 2-4)
  • King David (I Samuel 17-I Kings 2)
  • King Solomon (I Kings 4-I Kings 11)

Jesus is represented in four primary roles: (a) sacrifice for sin, (b) priest; (c) redeemer; (d) divinely anointed king in King David’s family line. As the Jewish Messiah he incorporates all four roles, none of which requires him to be God, and two (sacrifice for sin and descendent of King David) requiring he is not God.

Jesus Christ: Predestined, not Pre-existent
The connections between typology and prophecy in Jewish religious interpretation and ideas of prefiguration and predestination cannot be overlooked; thus, if God says something, it is as good as done, a prophecy uttered is as good as fulfilled, a promise made is as good as kept. If God determines to create something at a future date, it can be described as existing already. Likewise, the subject of a typological reference can be said to have “existed” in the past via a figurative reference made before their literal existence (e.g. I Corinthians 10:4, 9, “For they were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ … Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents”).

We find examples in the Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 39b:

Seven things were created before the world, viz., The Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehenna, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah. The Torah, for it is written, The Lord possessed me [the Torah] in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. Repentance, for it is written, Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world … Thou turnest man to destruction, and sayest, Repent, ye sons of men.
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