Revisiting the Trinity

Revisiting the Trinity December 29, 2018

You may have gathered that my post about Jesus’ exaltation as the early Christian gospel, with lots of links related to Christology, started out as an engagement with a particular post, then a series of posts on that blog, and then became a dump for links related to the theme of the blog post, which then languished for a long time because it had become so unwieldy. Well, here is another blog post with a similar history. Hopefully many of the links that WordPress helpfully turns into previews with excerpts will show up below as they are supposed to. If you find yourself having to copy and paste links as text, I apologize. But there was such a flurry of activity related to the Trinity over the past year that it was hard to keep up even with reading or skimming them all, never mind trying to engage with them. And so at this stage, I’ll share them, and if you read something on one of the blogs that I link to below that you’d be interested in me exploring in more detail, let me know and I’ll seek to do so!

I should perhaps start with the surprising news about how widespread Arianism is among modern-day Christians. And then let me note the quote from Thomas of Kempen that Graham Cheeseman shared“Of what use is it to discourse learnedly on the Trinity if you lack humility and so displease the Trinity?”

I’d also like to highlight two posts about adoptionism in the New Testament, i.e. the idea that the divine came upon Jesus not at birth, but later, most commonly at his baptism. Andrew Perriman asked when the Word became flesh according to John, while Philip Jenkins blogged about Christmas and Epiphany (coming soon to churches near you). Jenkins writes (summarizing the reasoning of many ancient as well as more recent interpreters):

Jesus was not divine from birth, but rather divinity descended upon him at a specific moment, namely at his baptism in the Jordan. That fits reasonably with the interpretation we might get if we relied only on the gospels of Mark and John, where the baptism clearly marks some kind of explosive, transformative, moment in Jesus’s career. Of course, that reading of the Baptism is not the only possible interpretation, nor necessarily the best, but it does have an internal consistency.

See also Dunn on Jesus as kyrios, “Lord,” in the New Testament.

ASOR had an article on the making of monotheism. The blogging about Christology, monotheism, and worship on Andrew Perriman’s blog was not limited to what I highlighted in my last post, nor the one mention above. See his posts about Daniel’s Son of Man, every knee bowing in Philippians 2, Jesus as Alpha and Omega in Revelation, and “In the beginning was the Word” and Jesus being accused of “making himself God” in the Gospel of John. See also in particular his discussion of my work in connection with the saying, “Before Abraham was, I am.”

Roger Olson blogged about what it means to say “Jesus is God,” Weekend Fisher offered a Venn diagram, and Episcopal Cafe wrestled with the Trinity as heresy. Brian Small highlighted a monograph about divine Christology in Hebrews (where else?). Jonathan Robinson blogged about Michael Welker’s book. Bob Cornwall blogged about Christology and Christian engagement with other religions.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on blogs…

Gregory of Nyssa on Eternal Relations of Origin

Origen: Athanasian or Arian?

Ian Paul on explaining the Trinity in short words

The Trinitarian hymn “Holy Holy Holy”

What is Mere Christianity?

podcast 229 – Buzzard and Hurtado on God and Jesus – Part 2

podcast 230 – The Failure of Fashionable Antiunitarian Arguments

God Commands: Worship my Son

Hays’s tri-Jes-ism again

Do you think Jesus is the Trinity?

Letter to a friend who is converting to Orthodoxy; the case against preexistence; and Hays’ Three Jesuses

feedback on an argument that the New Testament is unitarian

Do Christians worship three Gods?

podcast 246 – Response to Branson Part 4 – the shortcomings of “monarchical trinitarianism”

Ben Sira’s Incorporative and Cosmic Messianism

New Book by Larry Hurtado: Honoring the Son

Book Review: Larry W. Hurtado, Honoring the Son

Honoring the Son: New Book Out Now

Origin of Divine Christology

When Jesus Reveals God

Finally, Zondervan had a blog post about the concept of hypostatic union, in which the importance of understanding this view of Jesus is emphasized. It seems to rather illustrate why this concept, couched and ultimately dependent on Greek philosophical terms and categories that few today can relate to much less understand, is a hindrance rather than a help for people thinking about Jesus in our day and age. Having had the Trinity come up in my Sunday school class as we discussed the Gospel of John, and having found myself needing to talk about Tertullian, where the term comes from, and whether it is ultimately a help or a hindrance to understanding the Gospel of John, I think that it is crucially important that Christian traditions which do not simply embrace ancient creeds to be open to critically examining this historic doctrine, and at the very least reformulating it, if not setting it aside in favor of one that better does justice to the New Testament evidence, and a better job of explaining the New Testament to people today.

What do you think?

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  • John MacDonald

    James said:

    Finally, Zondervan had a blog post about the concept of hypostatic union, in which the importance of understanding this view of Jesus is emphasized. It seems to rather illustrate why this concept, couched and ultimately dependent on Greek philosophical terms and categories that few today can relate to much less understand, is a hindrance rather than a help for people thinking about Jesus in our day and age.

    I don’t know anything about hypostatic unions, but here is how I would parse it from a purely linguistic/Philosophical point of view:

    I like the word hypo-stasis “standing under.”. It’s like the word hupo-keimenon “underlying thing”, which is a useful Philosophical concept. A hupokeimenon would be that which underlies and persists despite change, e.g., a substance. A hypostatic union would be two of these underlying, persisting things coming together in the apparently contra-dicere God/man, the mystery of how God and man can be one. Seems simple enough.

    • John MacDonald

      I decided to do quick web search for New Testament and hypo-stasis, and found in Hebrews 1: 11, the NKJV translates the beginning of the sentence, correctly I think, hupo-stasis as substance, but I think in order to flesh the meaning out it is helpful to relate it to hupo-keimenon, that which persists and underlies, providing ground, as I do in my comment above.

      • John MacDonald

        Hebrews 11:1; not 1:11. Sorry, lol

        • John MacDonald

          One final thought.

          I checked and the NIV translates Hebrews 11:1 as “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” The NRSV translates it as “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

          I think the NKJV is closer to the Greek and makes a more significant theological point. The NKJV translates Hebrews 11:1 as “Now faith is the substance (hupostasis) of things hoped for, the evidence (elenchos) of things not seen.”

          Given what I said above, substance (hupostasis/hupokeimenon) is what persists through change and hence provides a ground. On the other hand, evidence is that which grounds/supports (e.g., evidence supports a theory of a crime, etc.). Hence, I would follow the NKJV version in translating Hebrews 11:1, but would translate more freely/un-literally as: “Faith is the ground upon which our things hoped for rest and gives us confidence about them, and faith is the ground/source for trusting in things not seen.”

          Linguistically, my translation is clearly the worst/least literal, but that seems to be the thought the author of Hebrews is trying to convey.

          That’s the best I can do while having no training in biblical hermeneutics, lol.


          • John MacDonald


            For anyone who found that comment too “wordiafied,” I guess another more colloquial, concise way to translate Hebrews 11:1 may be as a Definition of Faith. In this way, Hebrews 11:1 could possibly be translated as something like Faith is what supports (hypo-stasis) people in hoping with confidence.”

          • John MacDonald

            This is fun!

            I looked around and found this interesting article on the use of hypostasis in Hebrews 11:1: . Among other things, it points to Kenneth Wuest translating hypostasis as “Title Deed.” I think this is helpful, but I would still like to emphasize how the author of Hebrews seems to pimp (exploit) an apparent reversible dialectical appositive between hypostasis, substance, and elenchos, evidence. Substance, as that which stands under, is that which supports, just as evidence is that which supports, supporting a theory of a crime, or an interpretation of a text, etc.

            In this regard, I like translating Hebrews 11:1, regarding the essence of faith, as something like: Faith is that which supports having a confidence-based, hopeful approach to life. And isn’t that what Faith is?

          • John MacDonald

            And, of course, the opposite of faith can lead to giving up on our ideals/values, having no hope. Paul says “If the dead are not raised, [let us be gluttons and drunks], for tomorrow we die.'” (1 Cor 15:32)

          • John MacDonald

            For my final post here at Religion Prof (as per my New Years Resolution I’m only involved in the world of blogging until the end of 2018 – Thank God no more Vridar and Neil Godfrey!), I have a New Years Eve riddle based on what I posted above. You have until 11:59 Eastern Standard Time to answer (lol):

            (1) What is the essence of faith? There are people of faith: theists. There are people without faith: atheists. There are people who aren’t sure (like me): agnostics. But what is faith? Belief is a part of faith, but is that all it is?

            (2) I had a friend, Erin, who was devoutly Christian. Sadly, she believed she was going to Hell because she had an abortion. This foundation of belief left her despondent and listless. She was in and out of psychiatric wards for terrible depression and experiences of meaninglessness, and often would just give up and live on the streets. She even researched suicide on the internet because she wanted to know what effect killing herself would have on her children. Care for her kids was practically the only thing that kept her from self-harm. Erin had belief in God, but it wasn’t really Faith. Let’s call it “Deficient or Un-Faith” to distinguish it from the triad theism/atheism/agnosticism.

            (3) My riddle to you is: How was Erin’s Un-Faith deficient with respect to the regular way we think of an ordinary person of faith? What was her belief system lacking so that it was no longer faith? Erin had lost ____________.

            That’s my riddle. If you can think what Erin’s belief system lost by having that abortion and how she interpreted it, then perhaps this contrast will allow you to see the essence of the faith she had before the abortion happened and tore her mind apart. What is the essence of faith?

            N.B. A very long time ago, the Greek Philosopher Heraclitus The Obscure said “physis kryptesthai philei,” being loves to hide. The Greeks also said Truth meant “a-letheia,” coaxing out of hiddeness. Perhaps the Truth of Faith is hidden. Maybe solving the riddle will bring it to light!

            * It was a real pleasure meeting all of you, but my path leads in a different, more “exoteric” direction (lol). I’m so punny!

  • Andrew Perriman

    Hi James, thanks for all the links. Just for clarity, though, if you’ll allow me, I don’t think “adoption” is what’s going on at the baptism. Jesus is already in some sense a “son” because he is a Jew, but at his baptism he is identified and empowered as the “servant” or “Son” who will fulfil the purposes of YHWH (cf. Is. 42:1). There is then the further elevation of Jesus at the ascension, which results in him becoming the “Son” who is Israel’s king at the right hand of the Father (cf. Ps. 110:1). But this is an appointment, not an adoption. I don’t think even Psalm 2:7-8 is to be understood as the adoption of Israel’s king: ‘I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.’ Trinitarianism was a way of resolving this complicated narrative into something more rational, though the impression I have is that the church took the logos route to orthodoxy, not the kingdom road. Anyway, that’s how I see it. Happy new year.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to clarify your viewpoint. Your terminological preference not only better fits the way you understand things, but seems preferable to me as well.

      Happy new year!

  • Brandon D. Smith

    Thanks for sharing my posts, James. Good and informative post/links all around!