Common Sense and the Trinity
June 18, 2007
Every Witness has, in his ministry, run across the person who will speak of only one thing: the Trinity, and whose capacity to speak of it is inexhaustible. Think we're tenacious? We can't hold a candle to these guys, at least not on their favorite topic.
Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in the Trinity; that is, they don't believe that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all actually the same person. A mere doctrinal difference? Hardly. The really fundamentalist churches refuse Jehovah's Witnesses Christian status on that account! When Isaac Newton, a staunch believer in God, began to refute the Trinity, he risked absolute ruin of his career and even his physical freedom. Prison was a real possibility. So he learned to be discreet in his comments.
Yet the Trinity defies the power of reason God gave us. If you have three persons described in different terms, who speak with each other, who are contrasted with each other, who occupy different places at the same time, common sense dictates that they are different persons, not the same. (One of them, in fact, turns out not even to be a person) God speaks to Jesus. Jesus prays to God, for example, when being put to death. "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do." And we're to believe they are the same person? Has common sense absolutely died?
Does this "common sense" argument prove that the Trinity is untrue? No. Sometimes unintuitive things turn out to be true. However, it does show that the burden of proof lies, not with me to prove what reason would indicate is obvious, but with you to prove that the seemingly absurd is, in fact, the way matters really are.
And reasonable people will require solid proof. They won't accept things that, in any other context, would instantly be recognized as a metaphor, figure of speech, or personification, since any good book makes liberal use of all these devices. No. They will want solid proof, otherwise, they are simply being gullible.
Since Jesus and his Father speak with one another, occupy different places at the same time, and are said to have different abilities, will anyone not instantly recognize their "being one" as a literary device to convey their close harmony? And if, say, you run across a scripture which says they are "equal," what does that prove? Aren't there myriad situations today in which different persons are said to be "equals"? Does anyone for one second take that to mean they are physically the same person? No! People immediately realize the expression refers to equality of stature, rank, responsibility, and so forth. With regard to the Father and Son, there are hundreds of such literary expressions. You don't plow through each one individually because the same argument applies to them all: a figure of speech in any other context is not enough to override common sense.
What do you do with a person who, when you say "don't beat around the bush," insists on looking for the bush, who will not acknowledge that the "bush" is not literal, since he "reasons" that you say what you mean and mean what you say? What do you do with such a person? I wish I knew.
Jesus has the key role in fulfilling God's purpose toward His creation. "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ." (2 Cor 1:20 NIV)
They've always worked very closely together, even before the Son came to earth. "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. Col 1: 15, 16 [A good analogy. When you see your image in the mirror, you see something which looks just like you. Nobody, however, supposes that it actually is you in the mirror.]
Following Christ's death and resurrection, the closeness with his Father continues and his authority grows: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," he told his disciples upon his resurrection." (Matt 28:18)
These scriptures are more than enough to account for the many places in which the Son and Father are shown to fulfill the same role/do the same things. There is no reason to think they would override the obvious: that persons who speak with each other are actually different persons.
Of course, you can always say, and Trinity people do, that the reason you can't figure it out is that "God's ways are higher than your ways." (Isa 55:9) Well, maybe. But can't you use the God's higher ways argument to sell any bill of goods that otherwise makes no sense at all? What's wrong with Galileo's point of view? "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."
Galileo, of course, is the fellow who dropped two masses of different weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa (which leaned less at the time) and took note that they landed simultaneously. Thus, he demonstrated acceleration was independent of mass. He also got into a scrap with the Church for announcing that the earth revolved around the sun, contradicting the latter's decree that just the opposite happened. But Galileo was not an anti-God heretic. Like all scientists of his time, he viewed his work as uncovering God's modus operandi, thus glorifying Him as Creator.
............................***** The bookstore
Something that I've noticed that I find interesting is that, in Galileo's time, the Catholic Church was fighting hard against science in order to retain power and influence. They did everything in their considerable power to preserve their teachings. Today, we see the Catholic Church bending over backwards to reconcile their creed with scientific discoveries, even if such discoveries are blatanly at odds with a set belief, regardless of scriptural teachings.
An obvious one is evolution. The Bible makes it clear in Genesis that all life on Earth was created "according to its kind." The surviving texts leave no room for evolutionary theory (You have some excellent posts on this subject, Tom). Yet the Catholic church has adopted this theory into their creed.
In normal human pursuits, such attitudes are admirable. In fact, as an educated person who champions the power of reason, you'd think that I'd be singing their praises. Yet, how can someone claim to be representing the god of the Bible when they abandon teachings that are inconvenient? You can't have it both ways. Of course, they're selling a commodity now...
Posted by: Screech | June 19, 2007 at 05:29 PM
A serious question:
Did Jesus, the Son of God, exist before he was born?
I mean was there always a 'son' even though he doesn't appear in the Old Testament, or did his conception in the New Testament begin the whole 'Son of God' issue?
I suppose what I'm asking is, was the 'Son of God' a literal interpretation - was he really a combination of God and Mary, ie., half-human? Or was Mary simply a convenient incubator?
The Trinity thing, if I recall correctly, was inserted by King James 1st during his preferred reconstruction of the Bible and has no other basis.
Also, what exactly is this 'Holy Spirit'?
Posted by: Romulus Crowe | June 19, 2007 at 08:24 PM
Tom, i'm not sure if you are aware of this, but pretty much every argument in this blog is not an argument against the Trinity, but against Modalism.
In fact, almost every argument is actually the same arguments I use against my Modalist friends who argue that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all one person. These people are commonly part of the UPCA, also known as "oneness pentecostals."
If you don't know the difference in Modalism and Trinitarianism, then we need to talk, because you are only going to run into communication problems in your ministry that could so easily be avoided if you know what in the world you are talking about in attempting to represent Trinitarianism accurately.
Posted by: Mike.e | June 19, 2007 at 10:01 PM
JW's believe that the Son of God was the very first of God's creations. Through him, or by means of him, all other things were created. So, Col 1:15-17 (New Testament) says:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; because by means of him all [other] things were created in the heavens and upon the earth, the things visible and the things invisible, no matter whether they are thrones or lordships or governments or authorities. All [other] things have been created through him and for him. Also, he is before all [other] things and by means of him all [other] things were made to exist,
Most likely, then, when God says "Let us make man in our image," (Gen 1:26) the "us" is He and his Son.
The New Testament, to put it in "cute" terms, is the "Son of God on a mission." His life-force is placed inside of a woman so that he is born fully human, but born without sin. Your second choice is correct: Mary served as "incubator."
The reason he is born as a perfect human is to undo the damage Adam did. Adam, the only other perfect man, lost that perfection when he rebelled against God. All his offspring were therefore born with imperfection (that is the basic meaning of "born in sin." Sin literally refers to "missing the mark.") Sort of like putting a dent in a cake pan and every cake that comes out of it afterwards will have that dent.
Adam died unfaithful to God. Jesus died faithful. God "substitutes" Jesus for Adam to those putting faith in that arrangement, thus the "legal" basis is laid for humans once again to be promised everlasting life. (God's original purpose toward humans) So the familiar expression "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" also includes "soul for soul" (for example, Deut 19:21)
The Trinity belief long precedes the KJV. It was formalized, more or less as it stands today, at the Counsel of Nicea, in the year 325, for reasons more political than religious. You may have in mind 1 John 5:7, which in the King James Bible expressly states the Trinity. (For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.)
The passage is not found in modern translations, since it has since been determined that the words are spurious, not found in any manuscript dating before the 16th century.
Jehovah's Witnesses have produced a booklet "Should You Believe the Trinity?" which covers the subject pretty thoroughly. It is available online: http://www.watchtower.org/e/ti/index.htm
Also, these posts are relevant:
I recognize the term "Trinitarianism" from the day I first took an interest in spiritual things. I confess, though, I have never heard of "Modalism." If I haven't, I doubt many readers have. Is it not some sort of subset of the Trinity belief?
If my post can serve to refute Modalism, well....that's good, I guess. But I don't see why it also doesn't work for Trinitarianism - at least, as most people understand the word.
Posted by: tom sheepandgoats | June 20, 2007 at 01:17 PM
Mormons also reject the traditional Trinitarian conception of God, of course we also add a goodly bit to our conception of him as well. But to stay focused on the doctrine of the Trinity, I’ve never once heard it explained to my satisfaction. The popular shorthand explanation of ’three-persons in one essence or being’ is entirely unsatisfactory, as are the various metaphors ( i.e. the trinity’s like a three pronged candle stick, or its like an egg, shell, yoke, and whatever the other parts called) employed to describe something they do not realize is a textually implied metaphor itself. These attempts at description promote a rhetorical conception of God that ultimately doesn’t mean anything, they doesn’t describe anything. I mean they put the words “three persons” before the words “in one God” attribute it to the Bible and think that proves something. All it proves is that you can put the words “three persons” before the words “in one God” in a sentence, but it still describes and explains nothing. This is a frustrating thing to talk to most Trinitarians about, because they are unwilling and/or unable to reason back beyond there creedal conception of things, for if they did they’d likely find themselves at a lose. This is why they routinely dub the Trinity an ‘unknowable mystery’, maintain that it is non-the-less a basic and essential element of Christian belief, and brand any group that deviates there from as heretical and unchristian. Oddly Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are the only religious groups that I can think of that take the Biblical descriptions of the relationship between Christ and his father at face value. Are you aware of any others?
Posted by: NateDredge | June 20, 2007 at 06:56 PM
Unitarians, perhaps? I'm not really sure.
In general, I've found that evangelistic groups will argue the Trintiy with a zeal that takes your breath away. It far eclipes any other interest.
More mainline churches, it's tough to say. The official doctrine is probably the same, but the members don't necessarily believe it, adhere to it, or even know it. Sometimes "Trinity" to them simply means that there are three parties.
Posted by: tom sheepandgoats | June 20, 2007 at 09:54 PM
Tom, Modalism is very strictly unitarian. As a matter of fact, Modalists will argue against the Trinity just as strongly, if not more, than JW's. If you look into your church history, Modalism is almost as ancient (maybe more?) as Arianism.
Quite honestly, saying that arguing against Modalism as if its Trinitarian is pretty much a lost cause and is only going to cause informed Trinitarians to completely lose respect for you. Have you noticed a trend that you are having communication problems in witnessing to Trinitarians? This is why; you aren't arguing against Trinitariansm when you say things like, "God can't be a Trinity because the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are clearly three separate persons, not one person." That is about as big of a strawman as you could possibly come up with.
Show Trinitarians the respect they deserve and actually read what informed, Trinitarian scholars have written. I promise you that you will gain a lot more respect from Trinitarians.
Posted by: Mike.e | June 21, 2007 at 06:07 AM
I did a little research and didn't find any major religions (membership above 1 million) other than the LDS Church and Jehovah's Witnesses that were non-trinitariast.
Wikipedia has a whole list at the bottom of their article on the Trinity, but the remaining religions seems to be more philisophical than religions.
Although I did stumble upon a few articles that alude to a rise in non-denominational churches, which seems to me to indicate that people are simply giving up on the concept of getting to know God and the Bible.
Posted by: Screech | June 21, 2007 at 10:48 AM
BTW...Tom, if you want to see what Modalism is, look it up at www.wikipedia.org. It also lists it's name as Sabellianism. To sum it up: Modalism teaches that Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and Jehovah (God) are all the same person, but different aspects of Him.
So they believe the Jesus and the Holy Spirit are part of the Cardinal Attributes of God. I'd say that you are discussing your points properly against the Trinity concept. I'd suggest thinking of Modalism as a further demotion of Jesus to a personality trait. It's not technically correct, but it helps to visualize it.
Ahh...now I await the masses of writers who will expose my ignorance!
Posted by: Screech | June 21, 2007 at 10:55 AM
Interesting thing I noticed about the Bible.
The Bible defines the Holy Spirit as God's Active Force. If God were a Jedi (forgive the analogy), the Holy Spirit would be the Force.
This is further supported by the fact that the father and the son both speak extensively in the Bible. However, not one word is ever uttered by the Holy Spirit. Both the father and son are given names (Jehovah and Jesus, or Yahweh and Yeshua if you want to be technical about it), but the Holy Spirit is never given one.
It is also funny how even the New Catholic Encyclopedia (the people that came up with this idea in the first place) said this:
“The formulation ‘one God in three Persons’ was not solidly established, certainly not fully assimilated into Christian life and its profession of faith, prior to the end of the 4th century. But it is precisely this formulation that has first claim to the title the Trinitarian dogma. Among the Apostolic Fathers, there had been nothing even remotely approaching such a mentality or perspective.”
The formulation of the Trinity was largely for political reasons, and many early Church fathers argued against it. It was derived from early pagan Trinities and integrated (among many other beliefs) into Christianity by Constantine and others.
From my experience, most Trinitarians justify their belief by latching onto semantics in selected english translations. Some I've encountered actually believe the King James Version was the original Bible and it was originally written in English. I don't take them seriously of course, and I of course don't think they represent all of the Trinitys' believers.
It seems like this new belief of Modalism is spawned by a group of Trinitarians that realized the Bible doesn't support the Trinity, but desperately wanted to keep believing the "three in one" philosophy. Why? I couldn't say. Perhaps it makes one feel sexy to hold a "mysterious" belief.
My problem with Modalism is that it introduces new logistical problems with Jesus' time here on earth. Not only does God now have multiple personality disorder, but he prays to beings that aren't there. Jesus prayed to his father many times in the gospels. Sure, you could argue that he did so to demonstrate for onlookers the proper prayer procedure, and sure, I could buy that. The only problem with that is Jesus prayed many times in private as well. He prayed to "let this cup pass from me" when facing execution. Why pray to a being that isn't there (because God is one being, remember?) when no one is around? What good would it do?
I think if any of this Trinity or Modalism nonsense were true, it would have been a lot more obvious. Jesus wouldn't have gotten in any more trouble with the authorities than he already did. Why didn't he just say explicitly "Hey, I am God, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost all in one, like that three-headed knight thing on the Holy Grail movie, man that was hillarious. Anyway, yeah so I'm like three guys but we're all working together in my body, it's awesome. Oh by the way, don't write anything about it, I'm going to have a Monk about 1,500 years from now add that in."
Posted by: Brian | June 24, 2007 at 09:38 AM
Interesting you should mention the Holy Grail. Sometimes I liken Trinity discussions to fighting the Black Knight. You take off one arm. No response. And another. Doesn't faze them. A leg. Nope. They keep challenging you to keep fighting. The other leg, but it still makes no difference. So you take your leave, and all the while they taunt you for being a coward.
Between that scene and the one you mentioned, which I'd never considered before, it almost makes me wonder if satire aimed at the Trinity was part of the movie's goals.
"Show Trinitarians the respect they deserve and actually read what informed, Trinitarian scholars have written. I promise you that you will gain a lot more respect from Trinitarians."
I guess I owe you an apology. I try to do that & probably fail. The belief makes no sense whatsoever to me on the surface, and speaking with Trinity people over the course of 30 years in my ministry makes me feel I've dug beneath the surface. It still makes no sense to me. So I'm not inclined to dig even deeper by reading all the myriad books that exist on the subject, especially when I don't see anything amidst Trinity people superior to what I already have.
Trinity is easy to study up on, for anyone so inclined. Even on the web, for every one site (like this one) that takes issue with it, there are 20 that support it.
Posted by: tom sheepandgoats | June 24, 2007 at 06:00 PM
Tom, I really don't think you get it. No one is saying, "Tom, you HAVE to agree with everything I say!" At least that's not what i'm saying. All i'm saying is that you should give Trinitarians the respect of accurately representing what we believe.
Yes, there are a lot of confused Trinitarians out there who have probably given you the most twisted and confusing definitions of the Trinity. But that's not gonna cut it as an excuse.
When I witness to Mormons, it would be completely and totally disrespectful to argue against the prophecies of Joseph Smith unless I knew what in the world I was talking about. In other words, I need to study study study, and then study some more FROM THEIR LITERATURE to make sure that I am representing their beliefs as accurately as possible. Does this mean that i'm going to actually believe what they teach? Of course not. You can understand or at the very least be able to define and articulate THEIR POSITION (not your strawman of it), but at the same time completely disagree with it.
I'm probably completely wasting my time here. But the fact that you confuse Trinitarianism with Modalism just shows me that you have done absolutely no research in Trinitarianism (online research really doesn't count); at least nothing from what credible Trinitarian scholars have written.
Tom, i'm sure in your witnessing situations, you get a little bent out of shape when someone for the billionth time says something like, "What's the point in being a JW if only 144,000 are going to heaven?" Wouldn't it be nice if people actually read your literature so that they could actually represent your beliefs accurately? I do anyways. I've read your publications. In fact, i've read a lot of them. Why? Because I respect Jehovah's Witnesses. I want to do everything I possibly can to respresent their beliefs as accurately as possible. And i'm really sorry that you don't respect me enough to do the same. I'm not asking you to read a library's worth of books. Maybe one or two would do the trick.
Posted by: Mike.e | June 25, 2007 at 02:38 PM
I really feel that speaking to hundreds of Trinitarians in the course of 30 years, some confused, and some lucid, does "cut it" as an excuse.
You study, study, study Mormon literature only for the purpose of tearing apart their "false" prophesies? [I edited out the "false" in the comment, with the writer's permission] Why would anyone do that? And I know from prior discussions that you do the same with our literature.
To study and study and study Mormon literature because you find it attractive and are thinking of adopting it; that I can understand. Or even just as a general student of religion. But all that effort just to rip it apart?
Any good lawyer studies the opposition well so that he can rip it to shreds. He/she has a client to represent. Why do it here? We're not lawyers. Only individual conscience and freedom to worship as one sees fit is at stake. Sometimes people disagree. I can live with that. Let God sort it out.
If someone makes the point you mentioned regarding the 144,000 (you're right, it's a common misunderstanding) I simply explain the way matters really stand. If they reject it, then I move on. I don't get "bent out of shape" over it.
Posted by: tomsheepandgoats | June 27, 2007 at 08:56 PM