Faith, Reason, and the Trinity
Does the Trinity doctrine stand up to reason?

otis asks: what is the belief of water baptism in Jesus name only? Hear it taught in our church.
Question about A Point of Doctrine: The Trinity
Motivation - Curiosity: General interest; Curiosity: Sincere curiosity; Curiosity: Discussion with friends; Guidance: Not sure, confused
Bible view - The Word of God - [question 223, Saturday, 13-Feb-2016]

Blind Faith and Reasonable Faith

By and large, the Bible does not ask us to accept its precepts on blind faith. Instead, the Bible presents reasonable faith, that is, personal belief that stands up to reason. If the Bible operated solely on blind faith, it would be rejected by every person with discernment, and it would be rejected by science. Science requires that reason be applied to observed data. Many biblical precepts align with reason and with science. For example, consider the fifth Commandment:

Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
- Exodus 20:12 [KJV]

Biblical faith is reasonable faith, not blind faith.
For the most part, biblical faith is reasonable faith, not blind faith. There are some circumstances where blind faith is required, as discussed in this article.

The promise 'that thy days may be long upon the land' is not always seen in individuals, but, in terms of human civilization, there is plenty of scientific data that indicate strong families lead to enduring societies, but weak families lead to societal turmoil. It is very reasonable to put personal faith in the fifth commandment.

There are, however, two important areas where we have little to go on:

  • The existence of God: the Bible assumes God exists
  • God's essential being: it cannot be described in natural terms

From its very first verse in Genesis, the Bible assumes that God exists. The question is not even brought up, nor are any explanations given. To believe that the God of the Bible exists requires some blind faith. Plenty of scientific data points to God's existence, especially the magnificent complexity of the Universe and its obvious need of a First Cause. But, without a small amount of blind faith in a person's life, he or she will never subscribe to the idea that God exists. It only takes faith the size of a tiny mustard seed (Matthew 17:20).

God's Essence: Both Personal and Infinite

Like the existence of God, the nature of God's essential being is never fully explained in the Bible. There are plenty of references to God's characteristics, e.g., His omnipresence, His omnipotence, His love for all people, and His eagerness to communicate with us, but nothing explicitly about His very essence. The closest the Bible comes to describing God's essential nature is this:

God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
- John 4:24 [KJV]

God is like the wind
In John 3:8, Jesus likens God to the wind: you can see the wind's effects, but not much else. Aside from 'God is spirit' (John 4:24), the Bible has very little to say about the essence of God's nature.

The word spirit comes from Latin spiritus or breath. It has many different meanings and connotations, but most of them relate to a lively, non-corporeal, immaterial substance, as contrasted with a living, physical, material body. Hence 'God is a spirit' means 'God is alive but without a body.' The Bible goes no further when it speaks directly about God's essential nature.

In their quest for knowledge, theologians analyze the biblical text to uncover God's characteristics in an effort to understand His essential being. Per Dr. Grudem in Systematic Theology, Bible-based attributes of God are:

  • He is independent from creation (Job 41:11)
  • He does not change (Psalms 102:27)
  • He is eternal (Psalms 90:2)
  • He is everywhere (omnipresence) (Jeremiah 23:23)
  • He is unlike anything else (Exodus 20:4)
  • He is invisible (John 1:18)
  • He has all knowledge (omniscience) (1 John 3:20)
  • He has all wisdom (Romans 16:27)
  • He is true and faithful (John 17:3)
  • He is good (Luke 18:19)
  • He is love (1 John 4:8)
  • He is full of mercy, grace, and patience (Exodus 34:6)
  • He is holy (Psalms 71:22)
  • He is a God of peace, not confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33)
  • He is righteous (Deuteronomy 32:4)
  • He is jealous of His own honor (Exodus 34:14)
  • He acts with wrath (John 3:36)
  • He does what he pleases (Psalms 115:3)
  • He is all-powerful (omnipotence) (Genesis 18:14)
  • He is perfect (Matthew 5:48)
  • He delights in Himself (He is blessed) (1 Timothy 1:11)
  • He is beautiful (Pslams 27:4)
  • He is glorious (Psalms 24:10)

Some of the attributes in this list are easily related to human personality (e.g., goodness, mercy, patience, jealousy), while other attributes apply to God alone (e.g., independence, omnipresence, holiness, glory). This means that God is both personal and infinite: a clearly unreasonable proposition from a scientific standpoint. He is unlike anything else we know. He defies description in terms of natural science today. He is supernatural.

The infinite and personal God of the Bible
Unlike every other religious system, the Bible portrays God as both infinite and personal. He upholds personal relationships and He pervades the entire universe, both at the same time.

The God of the Bible is Unlike All Others - Only in the Bible is a personal and infinite God found. Other religions have no such concept. In Greek and Roman Pantheism, for instance, gods are personal and interact with people frequently, but they are weak and frail gods, with many moral failures, far from infinite. On the other extreme, Deism portrays an infinitely powerful god who is so removed from the world that he has no dealings with humanity. In contrast, the God of the Bible interacts personally with individuals, societies, and nations, while, at the same time, creates, sustains, and pervades the Universe.

Wherefore thou art great, O LORD God: for there is none like thee, neither is there any God beside thee, according to all that we have heard with our ears.
- II Samuel 7:22 [KJV]

The Trinity: An Attempt to Explain God's Essence

Trinity
The concept of the Holy Trinity defies natural logic and reason. No attempt at drawing it or explaining it is fully satisfactory. Nevertheless, this concept appears in the Bible and can be used to refute doctrinal errors.

Early in the history of the Christian church, religious leaders and theologians undertook the task of trying to explain the unexplainable. In an effort to separate biblical Christianity from other religious structures, they tried to explain the essence of God's being as both personal and infinite. Various meetings and councils were convened and, at the council of Nicea (325AD) and the Council of Constantinople (360AD), a formal definition of the Holy Trinity was devised. In summary, per Dr. Grudem, the doctrine of the Trinity says:

  • God is three persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit)
  • Each person is fully God
  • There is one God

This springs from many Bible references to God's distinct personalities as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These references are very clear, especially in the New Testament. Jesus, God the Son, was sent in the power of God the Holy Spirit by God the Father to solve mankind's sin problem by shedding His blood on the cross.

The three distinct personalities are completely explicit in the New Testament: Jesus prays to the Father, the Father is pleased with the Son, but He also forsakes Him at the cross, the Holy Spirit comes on the day of Pentecost and indwells believers, and all three are present at Jesus' baptism by John. These, and many other passages, point to God's three-ness. But, at the same time, His one-ness is seen in the baptism formula of the Great Commission:

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
- Matthew 28:18ff [KJV]

The baptism formula says 'name' of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not 'names.' This is an explicit reference to the unity of God, as forcefully put forth in the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
- Deuteronomy 6:4ff [KJV]

Without proper interpretation, the doctrine of the Trinity can be misunderstood as polytheism: three gods, not one God. Any polytheistic implication, however faint, can immediately squash the effectiveness of Christian testimony to fiercely monotheistic people, such as Jews and Muslims. This may be why a second baptism formula is found elsewhere in the Bible, most notably in Acts 2:38:

Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
- Acts 2:38 [KJV]

Since both 'three-ness' and 'one-ness' baptisms are found in the Bible, both are valid formulas for Christian baptism. The two biblical formulas reinforce the essential nature of God's being, as follows:

  • Matthew: God is personal, with three distinct personalities
  • Acts: God is infinite, as one spirit being

The Matthew baptism formula emphasizes God's personal nature, and the Acts formula emphasizes God's infinite nature. Both are consistent with the biblical principle that 'God is spirit.'

Is the Trinity Reasonable?

There was a time when many scientists believed in the God of the Bible. They saw Him as a masterful designer, and they considered it their job to uncover the intricacies of God's creation. This has changed. The majority of scientists today to not believe in any aspect of the supernatural. To ask such people to swallow a 'Trinity pill' is completely unreasonable.

However, since its inception, the doctrine of the Trinity has been brutally attacked by religious people. Today's Internet is replete with Bible-quoting articles about errors in trinitarian doctrine, and these attacks are a good indication that the Trinity has much theological truth to it. For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity refutes doctrinal errors such as:

  • the idea that God changes His personality to suit the occasion
  • the idea that Jesus is a created being
  • the idea that Jesus is subordinate to the Father
  • the idea Jesus was adopted by the Father
  • the idea that there are three gods

To most scientists, the Trinity is unreasaonable. To most theologians, the Trinity is reasonable and valuable.

Rejecting the 'Trinity Test'

Today there is a significant downside to Trinitarianism: religious leaders use it as a 'yes or no' test for Christian standing. Some leaders say that one must fully subscribe to the Trinity to be Christian. Others say precisely the opposite, i.e., that Trinitarians are not Christian. Both sides represent straight legalism, as strongly condemned by Paul in epistles such as Romans and Galatians. It is a good idea to reject simple 'yes or no' tests for personal Christian standing.

It is not likely that anyone would call John MacArthur a liberal theologian. He is very conservative, and he does not use a 'yes or no' Trinity test for Christian standing. Instead, in Pastor MacArthur's book Saved Without a Doubt, he lists eleven interlocked tests for personal Christianity:

  1. Have you enjoyed fellowship with Christ and the Father?
  2. Are you sensitive to sin?
  3. Do you obey God's word?
  4. Do you reject this evil world?
  5. Do you eagerly await Christ's return?
  6. Do you see a decreasing pattern of sin in your life?
  7. Do you love other Christians?
  8. Do you experience answered prayer?
  9. Do you experience the ministry of the Holy Spirit?
  10. Can you discern between spiritual truth and error?
  11. Have you suffered rejection because of your faith?

Of these 11 tests, only number 10 is doctrinal. All the other tests are moral or experiential. The doctrinal test is not about the Trinity, but about the person and work of Jesus Christ, as developed in 1 John 4. This doctrine is known as The Deity of Christ, that is, Jesus is God:

Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.
- 1 John 4:1ff [KJV]

So a better doctrinal test for a person's standing as a Christian is 'Do you believe Jesus is who He says He is?' rather than 'Do you believe in the Trinity?'

One Person or Three?

In addition to the obvious source of confusion in the Trinity (God is three and God is one, a simple contradiction), the use of the word 'person' puzzles most Westerners today. Repeating Dr. Grudem's outline of the Trinity:

  • God is three persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit)
  • Each person is fully God
  • There is one God

calling God a 'person' implies (1) He is able to form inter-personal relationships within Himself and with others, and (2) He has a body like every other 'person' we know.

Those who formulated the trinitarian doctrine probably wanted to make the first implication about relationships, but they did not want to make the second implication about a body.

In fact, only God incarnate, that is, God with a body, who is Jesus by name, is truly a 'person' in the way the word is used in modern English. So it is reasonable in modern times to say that God is one person: Jesus Christ, while at the same time saying God is three persons: Father, Son, Spirit. The singular personhood of Jesus is the very important doctrinal feature of 1 John 4, the deity of Christ, as outlined in the previous section.

Wordsmithing - One solution to the 'person' issue is to use a different word for 'person.' This was done early in the formulation of the Trinity doctrine, and is still used today, at least by some Christian theologians. The alternate word is hypostasis, or underlying substance, so a better summary of the Trinity is:

  • God is three hypostases (Father, Son, Holy Spirit)
  • Each hypostasis is fully God
  • There is one God

Some people substitute other words for 'person' to describe Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Words such as 'modes,' 'titles,' or 'manifestations' are sometimes used. These words bring their own problems to the doctrinal discussion. We favor 'hypostasis' since it has withstood the test of time.

Summary

From a theological viewpoint the doctrine of the Trinity is reasonable. Except for the use of the word 'person' discussed in the prior section, it is as close as we have been able to get to describe the essence of God: He is a supernatural spirit, both personal and infinite at the same time.

quantum physics
The study of quantum physics, where the classical laws of physics seem to be suspended, may one day make the personal and infinite God of the Bible perfectly reasonable.

However, from the viewpoint of the natural sciences, the Trinity contains an insurmountable problem: He is a supernatural spirit, both personal and infinite at the same time.

The Bible does not change, but science changes all the time. The scientific answer to the God of the Bible may lie in the realm of quantum mechanics, an emerging branch of physics that, for the past 100 years or so, studies the universe at the incredibly tiny level of atoms and photons. Scientists are reaching conclusions about quantum mechanics that are completely incompatible with classical science. Perhaps they will reach the conclusion that God is both personal and infinite. Time will tell.

Mon, 26-Jun-2017 03:47:10 GMT, unknown: 642402 ABDBfBQNKL3To
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