A look at Hebrew positions related to the trinity and how this informs our gospel theology for a renewed creation and our discipleship as the church in the world today, especially as God’s peacemakers.
How can the Christian vision of the trinity fit into the Hebrew bible vision of one God?
I don’t think the early apostles struggled very much with this question. There was a very clear Old Testament theology for this already in place before Christ came. John’s Gospel shows Christ fitting into that theology very easily. The early apostles demonstrated an acceptance of Christ in his divinity at the very beginning of the early church. How did they see this so quickly in their monotheistic faith?
The creeds on the divinity of Christ were developed much later. The Greek church father Athanasius in the fourth century gave us a way of understanding the trinity that became established orthodoxy. Prior to that time, the church had a variety of ways within orthodoxy of viewing this important part of our faith.
We know the trinity is in the New Testament. We see Father, Son and Holy Spirit quite clearly in the Gospels and letters. But how are we to make sense of this “one God, three persons?” What framework do we have for understanding such a concept? What was the Hebrew way of seeing this in the first century?
The Greek culture had a pantheon of gods in their mythologies. These were different gods in heaven struggling among themselves, looking much more like men in their passions and corrupt characters. Maybe Greek church fathers adopted some of this framework for trinitarian thought, but “redeemed” the framework somewhat: three eternal persons in one united God-substance, with proper divine holy character, as they saw that character in the biblical vision and person of Jesus.
Maybe the distinctive Hebrew way of handling a topic like trinity was somewhat lost by the time the Greek fathers struggled with the concept. Constantine in the fourth century wanted a single doctrine that would unite the empire, so he couldn’t tolerate diversity of view. Eventually the Athanasius framework prevailed. More Hebrew views were then cut off. This also suited with the rising persecution of the Jews by the church. “God may have given us eternal life through the Jews, but for wisdom we have the Greek, thank you!”
However, if we go back a bit, we see that the early “Hebrew-Christian view” of God in trinity was not a novel, Christian innovation. It wasn’t a view that separated them from their Hebrew monotheistic faith. No new theology had to be invented to see the divinity of God in Christ. No Greek wisdom or frameworks were required. Let’s have more of a look at this.
It may even be possible that the Quran in some of its entries touches on the Hebrew view of the divine trinity, being closer to the Semitic/ linguistic understanding of the Hebrew culture. We will look at this briefly also. Keep your mind open, as we go for a biblical meaning.
Starting with our creeds we have often tried to read our view of the trinity into the Hebrew Old Testament text. “Let us make man in our image.” We have claimed the self-revelation of God in plurality means he lived before creation in a plurality of persons. But was this how the Hebrew reader would have read the text? People have answered this question in different ways.
It’s difficult to argue the that Hebrew reader would have read this the way Christians might. Like Elohim is a plural word for God from the Hebrew, it seems to designate God in all his fulness, in all his divine attributes, all his emanations, and his whole dominion. God assumes all the power ascribed to all the pagan gods in one being. He sums them all up in one.
Some have said that New Testament understandings can revise Old Testament concepts, so that it isn’t necessary that the Hebrew would have seen in their own scripture what we now know. This way of treating scripture can end up being rather subjective. It’s far richer to see the New Testament as embodying and fulfilling Old Testament themes, that flow on into the New Testament on their own merit.
Instead of using scattered references from the Old Testament as proof-texts for our ideas on the trinity, its far more enriching to see how trinitarian faith was understood in the much wider body of the Hebrew scriptures. No text-proofing is required for this. And seeing trinitarian faith in its Hebrew setting gives us a non-Greek idea of its meaning, which furnishes the church much better for its mission today in the world.
God Present in Creation
The creation narrative begins with a transcendent God. God is other than creation, independent of creation, holy, unknowable unless he reveals himself. The pagan gods were all in some way dependent on the creation. The God of the Hebrew people held a sovereign power over all things and all things depend absolutely upon him for their original and continued existence. This is the transcendence of God. God is above and beyond creation.
Then Genesis shows God coming and revealing himself to his creation. This is the immanence of God, meaning his presence among us. He is both transcendent and immanent. This is getting to the heart of trinitarian faith already. Trinitarian faith is about the coming of God, his revelation of himself to the creation.
First, God’s Spirit is hovering over the waters. His purpose is to bring order to the creation, to bring it out of its beginning state of chaos. He brings the creation from chaos to cosmos, meaning goodness. This had a powerful impact on the Hebrew when they came out of Egypt, for understanding why God had brought them out of the pagan chaos of Egypt. God’s Spirit had come to them, because he wanted them to bring an order of neighbourliness/ goodness to their world.
Then in Genesis 1 God speaks. This means God has come into his world through his word. His word is his immanence. His word isn’t other than God, but it is a faculty of the same transcendent God, sent to his creation to be with us. At least, this is the theological presentation in the story of how the almighty God is present and known to his creation. His transcendence and immanence are at once maintained.
Then there is the light. In the story, light appears before the sun, which is created on day four. This could mean that the light at this point is the divine presence of God, just as are his Spirit and word. This is how God’s light is seen in many other texts. In Revelation 21-22 the light is God’s own presence. So, in the beginning, God is present to his creation by his Spirit, his word and his light. These are all emanations of the same one God of the Hebrew people. This seems to be how the Hebrew people viewed the text of Genesis.
Then we see God making mankind, male and female, in his image and giving them the commission to keep the creation. This will later inform our understanding of “Sonship” when we come to Jesus. It means the one who bears God’s full image, the one who is given the world as his inheritance, to bring order to the world, to save it from its chaos. Sonship means the image bearer. It isn’t to be understood in the Greek sense, of another eternally begotten person prior to creation.
When Israel came out of Egypt, God was again present to them in his Spirit, word and light. The pillar of light, the word empowering Moses, the Spirit in the tent with Moses, the word in the Torah, were all seen by the Hebrew people as emanations of the one God among them.
Once more, this Genesis story is what gave meaning to their faith. God had come to them in Egypt, in his Spirit, word and light, just as he did in the first creation, to bring new creation, to heal their world through their becoming his sons (male and female children), his image bearers to the world. God had renewed the Adamic creation through Israel.
Wisdom and Creation
The Proverbs also describe creation as the product of God’s wisdom. Proverbs 8 shows how God established his wisdom first and built his entire creation upon his wisdom to ensure its foundations were secure. The Psalm was written in poetic text. It was not saying that wisdom existed as a separate person, but that it emanated from the transcendent God to this world. The wisdom is the divine word, or light, the sure presence of God among us. The Hebrew people saw this wisdom as God himself, his divine attribute. They didn’t read the text in Greek-Christian terms.
When we see Paul speaking of Christ as the wisdom of God, we understand he was speaking as a Hebrew person. He meant that Christ is God’s presence in the creation to redeem and restore the whole cosmos to himself. He has come to make the entire creation new, so that it reflects God’s image in its fulness. The creation shall be filled with the glory of God, through Christ, as the waters cover the sea.
This is how we see the creation spoken of in Isaiah 11. The Messiah is the sevenfold Spirit of God hovering over his creation for its renewal in the gospel. He is God’s Spirit of wisdom, knowledge, understanding, etc, upon which new creation is established on a firm, eternal footing. The passage ends beautifully with the vision of the earth: “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” God returns to his creation in Jesus Christ, as his Spirit, word and light.
Hebrew Immanuel Theology
“Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)
We have used this verse as a proof-text to show Jesus Christ is the Messiah. But it is much more than a simple proof-text. “Immanuel” means God with us, which refers to the scripture’s larger witness of the imminence of God to his creation.
This is what we would call incarnational theology. The incarnation is God in the world with us, revealing himself to us all. It is how the transcendent God becomes known and intimate with us. It is how he fills his creation as a kind of temple.
This “God with us” idea Isaiah spoke of wasn’t new to Israel. It was the bedrock of their faith. They knew God present in the creation in his Spirit, word and light. The coming of God in Christ was a continuation of Israel’s “Immanuel” theology.
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)
The son of God is the one who bears the government, like that given to Adam and Eve. Once again, there was nothing novel in the Hebrew scripture about God coming as Son. It doesn’t refer to a pre-creation, eternal birth of another person of God. It is the same one God, coming in human form to ruler over the cosmos. This is in keeping with divine immanence in the Hebrew faith. The Son is an emanation of God in the flesh. These are the Hebrew categories in scripture for understanding the incarnation of Christ.
The tabernacle/ temple of Israel was another example of the immanence/ presence of God in Hebrew theology. God was present in the tabernacle by his Spirit. The term was the shekinah (glory), presence of God. This God was known as Yahweh. Yahweh himself was the God that dwelt within the Holy of Holies by his Spirit.
The tabernacle was referred to as a curtain for God’s presence. That was his covering. He was present in the clothing of the tabernacle material. The tabernacle was his body. The purpose was that the tabernacle/ temple would be the means by which God would fill Israel and their world. The tabernacle was the conduit between heaven and earth. It was a prophetic symbol of God filling his whole creation with his presence.
This is how Ezekiel used the temple theme, when adopting temple symbolism to speak of the restored Israel in the end chapters of his book. The temple spoke of the immanence of God filling his creation with renewing life.
Transcendent God Immanent
In the Old Testament we find a very clear and consistent theology of God coming to be with his creation to fill it with his presence. The purpose was also clear and consistent. God comes to take the creation from its state of chaos and fallenness to cosmos/ order and goodness. This could be called Hebrew “Immanuel theology,” in which God comes to both create the world and then to redeem and renew it.
Israel saw all these emanations of God, whether Spirit, light, word, wisdom, son, or shekinah, as emanations from and of the same God, whom they knew as Yahweh. They saw this God in a monotheistic faith. They did not see these emanations as pre-existent different persons in heaven, which, as I said above, may have been a more Greek framework for understanding the trinity.
Israel saw all these emanations in this one category or framework of God’s creation and his loving/ covenanted commitment to keep and restore the creation. For God to emanate in Christ was wholly in keeping with what Israel already knew in their faith. It was simply a matter of God putting on a different garment. Rather than the cloth of the tabernacle, or the stone of Solomon’s temple, Yahweh puts on the garment of human flesh.
And to emanate as “Son,” does mean he is a second person given birth to by God in heaven. it means God has put on the garment of human flesh to become the second Adam, the divine image bearer, to fulfil the original commission of sonship in redeeming and governing the entire creation.
During the latter second-temple period (the Herodian temple), just prior to the coming of Christ, there was a heightened expectation among the Jews of the coming of “the Son of Man.” The term “Son” meant the one who would become heir over the nations, to renew the world. It would be the one to take on the Adamic commission. This was what “Son” meant in this eschatological thinking of the Jews.
The Dead Sea scrolls have furnished us with an understanding of much of the thought patterns of that Jewish period into which Christ came and in which the New Testament faith was born. These scrolls were discovered in the twentieth century and it has taken many years for them to be translated and then sifted through for an understanding of the theological themes common in Christ’s time. In the last twenty years, or so, a greater understanding of the first century Hebrew faith has come to light.
The term “Son of Man” comes from Daniel, where this son was a divine-human figure, who ascended to heaven to rule with God over all the nations of the earth. This was in fulfilment of Israel’s divine commissioning to restore the Adamic image to a new age of global renewal. The Dead Sea scrolls show us that terms such as Son, wisdom, word and image-bearing all related to the renewal of the creation. None of these terms referred to a pre-existent second person.
In Greek styled theology, the Son is a pre-existent second person who comes from heaven with the goal of taking people back to heaven. In the second-temple Jewish theology of Paul, the Son was an incarnation of Israel’s Yahweh in human flesh, to establish a heavenly rule over the creation, to transform all the nations. These are very different theologies, with very different outcomes for how we view our own commission in the world as the church of Jesus Christ. One is about salvation and escape to heaven, the other is about the outcome of salvation: community renewal here on earth.
What we see, as Isaiah shows, is Yahweh comes in human flesh, to fulfil in the flesh his need of a faithful Servant on earth. In Hebrew faith this is simple incarnation, or Israel’s one God emanating within his own creation. He comes as Israel’s seed to fulfil their law and covenant with himself. He comes as Israel’s temple to embody his presence, to bring heaven’s rule and earth together in one. He comes as Adam to fulfil his commission to bear his own image to the creation.
In other words, the trinity is not a doctrine of the pre-existence of three persons, but it is how the Hebrew faith describes their God in action to redeem his creation. The trinity is the manifestation of God to his creation to redeem it. He comes in his Son (in human flesh) to take rule over the earth, to establish his kingdom in the world. He comes in the Spirit to walk with his church in living out the new creation. The trinity shows how Yahweh sets out to bring the world out of chaos and into its final flourishment.
“Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” (1 Tim 3:16) In second-temple faith, receiving Christ in glory referred to the launching of God’s second Adamic rule over the creation.
This explanation of the trinity doesn’t make it any less of a mystery, but it does explain the Hebrew foundations of the incarnation and its purpose in the promises of God to Israel about a new creation. It does show that when Christ came, the Jews had an already established biblical theology for understanding how and why God would come in the flesh, how a transcendent God could be immanent to his creation and still be one God. It does show that early Hebrew-Christian believers didn’t require a new innovative doctrine of three pre-existent persons to explain the coming of Christ. They didn’t even need a new way of looking at Old Testament texts.
It also shows how there could be various views in understanding the meaning of trinity in the early church, which were orthodox regarding the divinity of Christ and the Spirit, but not expressed in the same categories of the later Greek fathers. The Hebrew faith is the immanence of a God who self-emanates to his creation. This is entirely consistent with Hebrew monotheism as the Old Testament portrays it.
That is, the questions of the Greek fathers were more philosophical, speculative, about the nature of the pre-existence of God. The Jews of the second-temple era, including Paul, were not speculating on the inner make-up of the divine being in heaven. They didn’t speculate on the ontology (nature of being) of heaven at all. Their interest in heaven was in it bringing its image to bear for a new kingdom on earth. Their thought about “Sonship” was not ontological, but entirely to do with the Adamic rule upon earth.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
So opens the beautifully written Gospel of John. I remember being at bible college in the mid 1980’s, being taught, as was the thinking then, that John’s Gospel was largely Greek in its themes. One idea was that “since John wrote Revelation when in his 90’s,” his Gospel was also written late, by which time John was reflecting more Greek ideas. So, the opening of his Gospel was to do with Greek styled ontological announcements, about the nature of the pre-existent trinity. It’s hard to misread John more than this.
The Gospel of John is thoroughly Hebrew in its thought patterns. It opens with the creational theology of the Jews. The word was the creational power and presence of God. To see this as an announcement about a pre-existent trinity, one has to read that into the text. John is rather announcing that the transcendent God was present in creation by his word. This is Hebrew “presence/ incarnational/ Immanuel theology,” not speculative Greek ontology.
As we progress through John 1, we see the three ways in which God was present in creation, and that God was then becoming present to the world again through the Gospel and person of Christ. Christ is the word, light and Spirit of God, that was emanating from God to be immanent with his world. John was announcing the gospel of Christ using the creational theology of the Hebrew people. He was announcing a new creation act of God in the gospel.
Christ is the word
Christ is the light
Christ is the Spirit, the shekinah of Yahweh in the temple…
When I was younger, I thought John was merely announcing the divinity of Christ, using pre-existent trinitarian philosophy as his argument. I have since realised that wasn’t what he was doing. He wasn’t interested in that kind of trinitarian theology. He was announcing that Christ was the God of creation, embodied in human flesh, for the purpose of carrying on the same creation project he began in Genesis
1. It’s this new creation project that is key for us to see.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Just as God pushed back darkness in the first creation, he had come again in the gospel to push back darkness from the world, as Isaiah depicted as a flourishing world.
“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” This isn’t to do with our Western notions of private or personal salvation. It is creational theology from Genesis. It is the carrying on of the Adamic commission of sonship, to preside as God’s image-bearers over a new creation. This is a call for us to follow the cross, the self-giving transforming life of God in the world.
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” This is Hebrew temple theology. John said the God who was in the tabernacle, is now “tabernacling” among us in the flesh of his Son. God has incarnated in Sonship, in the flesh, in his self-revelation to the world, as his own human image-bearer to the creation, so that in his immanence, we might know the true God.
The one who was in the tabernacle (called “dwelling” above) was Yahweh. He is the one who came in the flesh, not another pre-existent person. The Father/ Son relationship was something that took place in the flesh of Jesus. God came as a man, to walk out this relationship with the heavenly Father, just as Israel were called to do, but failed to do. God himself, by coming in the flesh, fulfilled the Adamic commission and Israel’s commission to walk with God and rule over the creation.
It is these commission themes, God coming to his creation, to identify with our divine vocation and calling, to fulfil it, that is the Hebrew theology John was writing about, not the “pre-existence” in the Greek ideas on ontology. We need to read John in his right world. Otherwise we will miss our commission in Christ.
In the Greek world, the concern was about the nature of the gods in heaven, as the place we are destined to be. They would trample the earth and their enemies under foot on their journey. Their armies would pillage the earth, while their heroes enjoyed the pleasures of heaven.
The Jewish world of the second-temple era spoke about heaven only in the sense of it bringing to us our renewed vocation in channelling true life to the world. The church that follows this view functions as peace-makers, in the image of God, as we see his image in the person of Christ. Which “John” are we following? Jesus isn’t our ticket to heaven. He is heaven’s ticket to renew this world. This is a much better vision to live by.
Just one other passage in John’s Gospel to pick up here: the shekinah chapters of 14-17. The Jews had a promise of their return from exile. They had been partially returned from Babylon, but the new temple God promised them had not yet come. Herod’s temple wasn’t the promised fulfilment. The shekinah that previously departed from Solomon’s temple had never returned. (Ezekiel 10) God promised he would return. Jesus was his promised return, but it would be to a new temple: his church.
So, in speaking of the coming of his Spirit, Jesus was speaking of the new temple of Ezekiel’s prophecies. This new temple would bring about a whole new creation. It would bring heaven into this world. Throughout his Gospel, this is the new creation message John is giving. Jesus is this new temple, and his body, the church. God had come in Christ to fill the creation with his presence, his immanence and glory. The gospel is the transcendent God coming in his Son, making all things new. He sent his Son as an emanation of himself, just as he sent his word.
The many rooms Jesus has prepared are the rooms of his new temple. In the Wilderness, these rooms where for the twelve tribes, to congregate in the presence of God. In the new temple, these rooms are for all the ethnicities of the world, to be with God in new creation. This is how Ezekiel depicted the dwelling places of God’s people in the world, in the new land, in Isaiah’s flourishing natural environment, flourishing also with new relationships between Jew and gentile.
“And now, O Father, glorify me with your own self with the glory which I had with you before the world was.” (John 17:5) Here is another verse we have read by our default Greek view. Let’s look at it in the Hebrew sense.
Jesus was about to go to the cross. To glorify Christ was to show the world the true nature of God’s person through the cross, his true self-giving rule that makes our hearts, relationships and communities to be renewed. The cross would glorify God, make his real person known to the world. Christ was praying for strength, as a man in the Adamic line, to go through this trial and reveal God’s love.
“Glorify me with your own self.” It means, let the cross match up with your own glory, so the world will know in the cross the real God. Misconstruing this verse does our mission a lot of damage. The cross, his neighbourly love, is God’s true glory which is to fill this earth. If we trample over this, to see some heavenly glory, then Christ needed not to have come, to show us his true glory, for us to know God and to really follow him in the world.
“The glory which I had with you before the world was.” The glory Christ was destined to reveal to the world, before the world was made. God had predetermined that he would come in his Son, before creation. Christ was thus “crucified before the foundations of the earth.”
This is Christ’s temple prayer, how the creation would become new through his people being made one in love, through the true glory and image of God being revealed through the sufferings and resurrection of Christ. The resurrection doesn’t depict the pre-existent glory of another person, but it depicts God’s new kingdom, which had risen in the world through the person of Christ, in whom God had come to make all things new.
The meaning of John 17:5 is best understood within Hebrew immanence theology: God becoming immanent to his creation in and through his temple, his flesh, by which his Sprit is known to the world, for the world’s transformation and renewal.
John’s Gospel is a new creation message throughout. It shows all the same Hebrew themes of the Old Testament, of a God who was present in the creation, present in the temple, coming in and revealing his true glory to the world through his Son, in order to fill the world with his new body, the church. It is God moving from transcendence to immanence, from hiddenness to self-revelation, moving the world from its chaos to cosmos. It’s Hebrew presence theology. It is not Greek ontology.
I think there are some aspects of the language that may confuse us, when we don’t read them in the original sense. Like God “sending his Son.” This looks like one person sending another. It is that way, when it comes to the human Christ and his relationship with heaven, while in the flesh. But the statement also reflects the royal nature of divinity. God sends his word. The word is himself, but he sends it to be among us. The sending of his word is his own coming to his creation.
We can also misconstrue the gospel message itself. It’s not like one person in heaven being angry at our sin and sending another person to go and suffer for that sin. That doesn’t look like self-giving. It’s rather that God himself comes in his Son and takes on the suffering himself, as God in the flesh of Christ, forgiving that sin, to show us his forbearance and love.
This is more transformative. It means we lead from the front, doing what God did, giving himself in self-incarnation for others. It breaks down the hierarchal nature of rule, and makes rule genuine condescension, self-giving. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.”
In Christ, God gives himself, not another. Anything else misses the full nature of God and his humility, his true revelation of himself. The one true God of Israel was incarnated in the person of Christ. Discipleship is his call to us to do the same for each other. Following the image of God as we see him acting in the person of Christ.
We see how Paul spoke of the divinity of Christ. Paul was dealing with idolatry in the city of Corinth and whether the believers could eat meat sacrificed to idols. His answer was twofold, summarised by this verse:
“Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Cor 8:6)
Paul was here invoking the Hebrew shema from Deuteronomy 6 and showing how this was to be lived out in Christian community. “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.”
First, of all, there are no other God, but one. But here Paul puts Jesus into the Hebrew statement of monotheism. He includes Jesus into the statement about the Jews worshipping one God. How does Paul do this?
He is showing the same line of Hebrew thought that we have been discussing so far. God comes into the world in and through his word, and in and through his Son. It is the same one God. There is no difference here to normal Hebrew thought and the normal expression of the transcendent God becoming known in immanence to the world through his coming.
Paul wasn’t introducing a second pre-existent person here. That would have been a controversial innovation in Hebrew thought. That might look a little like a Greek pantheon. “God having a child in heaven before creation or in some way having an offspring of a second person in eternity.” That was more a Greek idea than a Hebrew one. The Hebrew one is simple: God comes to us in his Son, in the human flesh of incarnation.
The one God comes to creation in the flesh of Jesus Christ. This isn’t the subordination of a second divine person. God comes to us through his word in creation and Exodus, now in his Son in the flesh, through whom God acts as immanent in the world and through whom he reconciles us to himself.
This entirely fits with the Hebrew shema on monotheism. It is one God acting in Christ. There is a sense of subordination of the Son, but not in an eternal relationship of two persons. The subordination is of the man Jesus, in order the fulfil the Adamic human relationship with God.
And the subordination is a voluntary act of God in Christ in order to show humanity his true humility and love, so we might copy it. And this is Paul’s second point to the Corinthians. Just as God humbled himself in Christ to serve us, so we serve the weaker members of the church community, but not eating meat if doing so wound the weaker brother. This, Paul says, in his corresponding discussion on the same point in Romans 14, is the kingdom and rule of God: the stronger serving the weaker, rather than pleasing himself. This is what God showed creation through acting, as he did, in the humiliation of immanence, of suffering in human flesh.
This, Tom Wright says, in the amazing thing about the text: Paul slips Jesus into the shema prayer of Deuteronomy 6, adding him to the one God of Hebrew faith, and no one calls him out on it. Paul didn’t have to argue this in his letter to the Corinthians. The divinity of Christ was understood in the first century church already, based on the already existing theology of the Hebrew faith about God coming into his world. He didn’t have to argue a new Christian approach to trinitarianism. He worked with an already existing Hebrew framework and didn’t even feel the need to defend it.
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 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)
Here again Paul inserts the Spirit and Christ into Hebrew monotheism. Tom Wright commented on this verse: “Paul seems to have thought of (the trinity) as simply the irreducible threefoldness of the divine work in and among his people.” “Paul regarded the Spirit, as he regarded the Messiah, as the personal presence of YHWH himself.” Paul saw both the Spirit and Messiah in accordance with “the Jewish eschatology of the return of YHWH.” (Tom Wright, see Notes at the end of this article.)
That is, the trinity is the redemptive presence of one God in and for the world. One God comes to the world in covenant faithfulness through his Spirit and through Christ. The inclusion of Christ into Hebrew monotheism wasn’t seen as strange by Paul’s Corinthian audience, nor foreign to Paul’s Hebrew faith.
“Paul doesn’t add Jesus onto the outside of God, as a second bit of God, almost making him a second God, but discovers Jesus inside Jewish monotheism.” “There is no sense (in the Old Testament) that “Son of God” means the incarnation of a second person of the trinity… he is wisdom incarnate, Torah incarnate, the one in whom Yahweh has returned to Zion (to his new temple in his Spirit.) This is trinitarianism monotheism.” (Tom Wright)
We have already seen that Christ fits right into the creational theology of the Jews. This means that God comes in Christ to carry on his creational project. God, through his coming, his presence in Spirit, word and light created the world, and he came also in Christ to redeem the world, to bring new creation.
We see this in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. He spoke of us being the light of the world. To the Jewish listener, this meant we are God’s people of new creation. They heard “light” as a reference to the first creation and to the Adamic commission. When Jesus said the peacemakers are the sons of God, this was a confirmation of the gospel he was declaring. We are the new Adam and Eve’s, carrying forward God’s creation project as his image-bearers. The discipleship Jesus taught in the sermon is the image of Christ we are to live out for creational transformation.
We need to bear this in mind when reading Paul. He was a disciple in this world view, and this is the background in which he wrote about Christ. So, for example, when he wrote in the opening of Colossians, speaking of Christ being our wisdom and knowledge, the Jewish reader picked on the creational themes of wisdom from Proverbs 8 and Isaiah 11 we referred to earlier. We know this through the writings of the Essene and the Qumran community in those days, and from many other Jewish writings of that time.
Reading on in Colossians, Paul said we are strengthened by God’s Spirit and brought into the kingdom of God’s light. These are themes from Genesis 1. When we speak of the “Spirit” we usually think of personal themes, about our own Christian life. But the Jews didn’t. They saw the Spirit in terms of creation, and God’s return to build community and make creation new. This, they knew, was the unique work of the Spirit, why he is among us. It’s the same all through Acts. Our Western understanding of the work of Spirit in Acts is quite individualistic, compared to his genuine new family, community program.
Then Paul continued, saying Christ is the exact image of the invisible God. We have taken this just to be a declaration of Christ’ divinity, but to the Jewish reader it is that, and much more. It’s continuing Paul’s walk through Genesis 1. Jesus comes to be the Adamic image-of-God bearer, over a rule of the world. It is a declaration that God has come in Christ to restore the creation, to finish Adam’s job, to live out the Yahweh/ Israel (Father/ Adamic Son) relationship, just as Psalm 8 and Psalm 110 declared he would. The next phrase of Paul was, “the firstborn of all creation,” which means the heir, the new Adam in charge of the world.
Paul then continued, showing Christ is the immanence of the transcendent God in creation, that through him God made all things, and now as the head of the church, he is reconciling all things in creation, to fill the world with his fulness, his image bearing rule. So here, Paul shifts from Genesis themes to temple themes, which are really linked. The creation is God’s temple, but also through the temple of Israel, God prophetically depicted his filling creation once more with his glory. The shekinah of Yahweh that filled the temple has come in Christ to fill creation.
This is all Hebrew immanence/ temple theology about the presence of Yahweh. None of it is Greek styled second divine person theology. These themes were all mixed in with the Exodus narrative in Romans 8. God came to Israel in his Spirit, word and light to free them from bondage in Egypt. In Romans 8, the Spirit present in creation fills his new temple, the church, to make us God’s sons, his image bearers, to a creation being set from its bondage to corruption. The mention of the Spirit in Romans 8 means God has come to carry on his creation project in his new Adamic people. The narrative encompasses all the usual Hebrew themes, and this is how it should be read.
“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:19-20)
This is Hebrew temple language. In Christ, that is, in his body the church, the fulness of God is dwelling, that is, to fill the creation with God’s glory. This is the promised return of God’s shekinah to Israel’s temple, his people, the church. It is the return of Israel from their exile, into a new land, filled with God’s presence. We see this finally depicted in Revelation 21-22, as God coming into and filling this world.
We will see this same theme expanded on in Ephesians 1. The purpose of his body is to reconcile all things. It is to carry on the work of the cross, living it out in image-bearing discipleship, to reconcile, to bring together all things in Christ, renewing the creation. This includes the rulers (governments, heavenly – higher powers), our cultures, our enemies. It includes bringing justice to the hungry, healing to the sick, shelter for the homeless and naked, jubilee and rehabilitation to the prisoners, bringing about the vision of newness that fills the pages of Isaiah.
“Making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:9-10)
“And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:22-23)
“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14)
“So that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 3:10)
Paul carries on the same Jewish temple themes, which was the vision of Ezekiel on how the creation would be filled with goodness. God is present in the world in the church, bringing together all things that were once in hostility. This particularly refers to the hostile Jewish/ gentile relationships, that extends to all ethnic groups. The church is to lead the way in living reconciling lives, peace-making, light bearing lives, as the Sermon on the Mount teaches us.
Christ is the fulness of God, Yahweh himself, and in his body, God’s fulness fills and renews “all in all,” the whole cosmos. This is the final outworking of the Genesis creation narrative, moving us from chaos to goodness. The church does this by bringing newness to the powers, meaning the world’s governments, the world’s display of human strength, and our cultures, in which all these are turned from selfishness to service of the weak. This is the vision of Isaiah: the wolf serving the lamb, the weary being brought in from the sun, the refugee being given shelter.
The church reflects the image-bearing rule of God, his self-giving cross, bringing reconciliation to the downtrodden, between our enemies, reflecting selflessness to an ego-centric, fearful world, bringing about the true vision of divinity, of power serving weakness.
Just one more reference from Paul, to show the narrative in which he was writing. “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face (image) of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Pauls depicts the gospel, the coming of God in Christ, as a second creation. This is how the Hebrew depicted the Torah. God had come in the Torah to give Israel new hearts, to make them his light to the nations. Paul said this is fulfilled in the living Torah, the actual presence of the living God in Christ and his Spirit.
This is the same message John preached. The gospel is the coming of God’s creation light to our lives, to drive back the darkness of chaos. Any Jewish person reading Paul would see his message as unmistakable. He was not preaching a gospel of individualistic salvation, but of new creation. It’s only by putting Christology firmly within this creational/ Exodus narrative that we see its meaning in the first century. Second divine person theology brings us into Greek themes, where heaven itself becomes our goal, not the coming of heaven through Christ and the Spirit, to bring all things together in one.
This is the Hebrew shema fulfilled: “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.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) The Jews claimed that this was Israel’s vision of monotheism. It didn’t just mean one God, but also one creation, one united heaven and earth. If God is one, then all things are to be reconciled and subsumed under his government of covenant faithfulness.
This is the goal of God’s coming in Christ.
Christ and the Quran
We won’t touch an all things that the quran says about Christ, but just look mainly at this issue. The quran says Christ is the sign, the word and the Spirit of God. This is exactly the way Paul referred to Christ. The “sign” means the image of God. This is very high Christology. These are the attributes of divinity.
Seeing Christ as the immanence of a transcendent God would answer some of the arguments the quran seems to make against the Christianity of its day. The quran disputed Christ being called “the Son of God.” This could be because the term was confused in the early days of Islam. This confusion may have been due to more Greek ideas about what Sonship meant.
There was the sense in some quarters that God the Father had a Son in eternity past. This, according to Islam, was a more Greek view of the gods. However, the biblical meaning of Sonship doesn’t refer to Greek ideas. As we have seen in this article, Sonship means the one who is the heir of creation. It means the ruler over the creation, ruling in the image of God.
Surah 19, Maryam, verse 33 quotes Jesus saying he would die and rise from the dead. Another passage seems to deny this, but variant interpretations of this passage may have been formed over the years.
Some of the quran’s arguments about penial substitution would be true in some contexts. The idea that on the cross of Christ takes our sin, while we use the cross as a symbol of warfare and dispossession of others, could have been more along the line the quran was disputing. There is a lot to think about.
The early history of Islam is unclear. It may have started more closely related to Christianity and then drawn away in the conflicts that arose. Today this conflict is fully entrenched in our cultures and over the years this has drawn our understandings, positions and doctrines into wider disagreement.
Most Christians were not displaced in Islam’s early days. The church practiced conquest of its detractors well before Islam arose, along with the taxation of non-believers. In ensuring years, Christianity became more dangerous in Islamic areas, just as Islam did in Christian areas. Today, it is largely a political issue.
It would be good to try to get back to some earlier foundations in our relationship, to see how we could learn from each other and build bridges in Christ. It can be done, if we can climb down from more hostile postures and work with a more self-giving, reconciling missionary spirit. The very least we could do, is bear our cross in the Islamic world, rather than seek to put them on a cross. A bit more of the Francis of Assisi approach.
All the way through the scriptures we see the story of God coming to his creation to fill it with his goodness, to take the creation from chaos to cosmos. We could refer to this in various ways, as immanence theology, or Immanuel theology, or temple theology.
In the creation, the transcendent God becomes present, revealing himself in creation and in its goodness. In the Exodus, once again, God comes to his creation to set his people free from their captivity. In Christ he returns, using the same language we see in the creation and Exodus: the transcendent God is moving to an ultimate level of self-disclosure by coming in the flesh and dying for his creation.
This movement of God into his creation continues in the church, until, in the end, as Revelation 21-22 says, his personal presence fills the cosmos. Heaven and earth are united in one. Death is swallowed up and the veil that hides God is taken away. (Isaiah 25:8)
When we speak of the person and coming of Christ, we speak of it in these biblical, Hebrew terms. These terms are sufficient to introduce us to the way the early church saw God coming to creation in trinity, to bring creation into redemption and reconciliation. There is no dispute here with Old Testament monotheism.
I enjoyed a few years visiting Oral Roberts University with a class of nine students, studying for a D. Min degree. One of the students was a Oneness Pentecostal bishop. This denomination claims not to believe in the “trinity,” but does believe in the divinity of Christ and the Spirit, along with the Father. I admired this bishop as a pastor, who loved his people. I tried to draw him into discussion on the trinity, but he politely refused. I said, “God is love, so he must have pre-existed in the plurality of persons.” I thought I had him. He humbly did not answer me. I didn’t know my statement was philosophical, not actually what the bible said. I am going beyond my own understanding to place this kind of framework on the scripture, on God’s eternal being.
It has been said that a trinitarian philosophy shows us the way to social unity and community. However, as we travel through the Old Testament, social community and love are built on the themes of sabbath and jubilee, both of which call us to exercise restorative love towards the neighbour and stranger. It is by using these themes, that community is encouraged in the Torah and the Prophets, and in the teachings and life of Jesus. Yahweh calls us to community by his own self-giving. This is the basis of the cross and of our lives of love and unity.
“As the Father has loved me (Jesus), so I have loved you.” I see this as an expression of God’s covenant faithfulness for Israel, expressed in and through the Father/ Son relationship, not speaking of a pre-creation relationship between two persons. Sometimes it is expressed through the metaphor of marriage, God being married to Israel in love, chosen while hated by the world, while slaves. So Jesus is chosen of God and loved, when rejected by the world.
This covenant faithfulness, this love, certainly, we are to express towards others, including our enemies. The love of a pre-existent trinity of persons may teach us to love those close to us, but the love of the Torah and Prophets, highlighted in Jesus, teaches us to love those who can’t repay us, to those distant, to the poorest. A pre-existent trinity of persons may send its members out to redeem others, but the Torah, Prophets and Jesus teach us to go and give ourselves.
For me, this is where the mystery lies. God, coming in the new temple, that temple must be human, the connection with the physical world, just as earlier temples were, bringing heaven and earth together. It must be God in human flesh. This is how he has joined us to his resurrection, a physical new creation, in the body of Christ. So, this body must live out the human relationship with God, while being God. This is the nature of the incarnation of God in human flesh.
I have never studied or read Oneness Theology. I have never read the writings of those who dispute the trinity. This article is for the trinity but looks at Hebrew ways in which “trinity” would have been understood in the monotheist framework of the early church. It wasn’t until I read N T Wright’s book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, that I saw the Old Testament themes that brought trinitarian teaching together for me. See also N T Wright’s article, Jesus and the Identity of God.
On my few comments on Islam: my wife and I have lived among Muslims for many years, making friendships with many. I have learned a little about the historical situation between Christianity and Islam and found that some of my earlier readings in the area lacked precision. This is a work in progress.
The quotations from N T Wright comes from related passages in his book Paul and the Faithfulness of God. The last quotation comes from an audio by Tom Wright on Romans 8, available on Youtube.