The Bible: Trinitarian to the Core

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield [1851-1921]

The simplicity and assurance with which the New Testament writers speak of God as a Trinity have, however, a further implication. If they betray no sense of novelty in so speaking of Him, this is undoubtedly in part because it was no longer a novelty so to speak of Him. It is clear, in other words, that, as we read the New Testament, we are not witnessing the birth of a new conception of God. . . . The whole book is Trinitarian to the core; all its teaching is built on the assumption of the Trinity; and its allusions to the Trinity are frequent, cursory, easy and confident.

The doctrine of the Trinity . . . takes its place in its pages . . . with an air almost of complaint, already “in full completeness,” leaving no trace of its growth. “There is nothing more wonderful in the history of human thought,” says Sanday, “than the silent and imperceptible way in which this doctrine, to us so difficult, took its place without struggle – and without controversy – among accepted Christian truths.”

Our New Testament is not a record of the development of the doctrine or of its assimilation. It everywhere presupposes the doctrine as the fixed possession of the Christian community; and the process by which it became the possession of the Christian community lies behind the New Testament.

Adapted from B.B. Warfield, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity” (as published in Sermons and Essays from the Works of B.B. Warfield)

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  • Paul Williams

    Here is the Christian creed:

    We believe in…one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man…

    These extraordinary words express the faith of the Christian church since it formulated them at the Council of Nicaea in 325AD. Jesus is identified unequivocally as “very God” of “very God”, of the same substance as the Father. In a word, Jesus is God.

    However, unknown to the vast majority of Christians who faithfully fill the pews each week, since the nineteen century historians of the Bible have attempted to look afresh at the person of Jesus of Nazareth to see what his life signified to those first century writers who wrote the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

    It is important to understand that the Bible is a library of books written over a period of a 1000 years or more by mostly unknown authors. Today, Christians still disagree about which books should be in the Bible. Catholics think it should contain 73 books, Protestants 66 books and most Orthodox Christians 78 books. However, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church believe the Bible contains 81 books – the highest figure of all! Jews believe the Bible contains 24 books.

    The New Testament contains 4 ancient biographies of Jesus called ‘gospels’, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Careful readers have long recognised that the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are quite similar, although not identical. Students of the Bible refer to the first three gospels as the ‘Synoptic Gospels’ because they include many of the same stories, often in the same sequence, with similar wording in the Greek. They are so similar that most modern scholars think they are interrelated.

    The scholarly consensus is that Mark was the first to be written. Matthew and Luke then used Mark as a source, as well as a hypothetical sayings source known as Q. I think this is the most plausible explanation, though a few scholars disagree. To take Matthew as an example: he relies on Mark as one of his sources. But he clearly thought Mark was inadequate and incomplete. Sometimes Matthew paraphrases Mark, sometimes he deliberately alters Mark. This shows us that for Matthew facts could be changed to enhance his message. A good example of this change is to note the negative portrayal of Jesus’ disciples in Mark: they are shown as hard of heart and timid and they repeatedly fail to understand Jesus’ message. Matthew has a very different positive picture: perhaps wanting to show the disciples as good role models for Christians, he is happy to change the facts of history to fit his view point. (Compare for example Mark 6:51-52 and Matthew 14:27-33)

    Likewise it is clear that there has been a development in the way Jesus is presented in the pages of the New Testament. Let’s look at the earliest gospel to be written, that of Mark.

    This shows us a very human figure:

    1) Jesus is a man who prays to God (1:35)

    2) Jesus is unable to work miracles in his own town (6:5) – but see Matthew’s redaction of Mark in 13:57-58.

    3) Jesus confesses his ignorance about the date of the End of the world (13:32).

    4) Jesus did not know the identity of a woman who touched him and had to ask his disciples for help (Mark 5:30) – but see Matthew’s redaction in 9:20-21.

    5) Jesus was so irritated by the absence of figs he cursed a fig tree even though it was not the season for figs (Mark 11:14) – but see Matthew’s redaction in 21:18-22.

    6) Jesus even denies that he is perfectly good (Mark 10) – but see Matthew’s redaction of Mark in 19:17.

    7) Mark portrays Jesus despairing of God’s help at the crucifixion as he cries: ‘My God my God why have you abandoned me?’ (15:34) – Luke and John both omit this.

    So it seems clear that in the earliest gospel Jesus does not exhibit any of the attributes of God that Jews, Christians and Muslims commonly accept: unlike God, Jesus is not all knowing; he is not omnipotent; he is not perfectly good; he is not eternal; he is not immortal; he is not unchanging. Therefore it seems obvious that he cannot be God.

    If we compare these incidents from Mark with Matthew’s version of these same stories we can see that he has removed Jesus’ potentially embarrassing statements (at least from a later Christian point of view).

    As a mental experiment lets assume that Matthew had a copy of Mark in from of him. What Matthew does is to make Mark fit his understanding of Jesus. In each case Matthew introduces significant changes to Mark’s account with the result that Matthew has a somewhat higher christology (i.e. a higher doctrine of Jesus) than Mark. Matthew has quietly fixed statements where Mark implied or said that Jesus was weak or ignorant.

    In Mark 5:30, a woman with a flow of blood that had persisted for twelve years touched Jesus’ clothes and was cured. Mark portrays Jesus as not knowing who touched him:

    Mark’s gospel says: ‘Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who has touched my clothes?’’

    In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus knew immediately who touched him, picked her out of the crowd and said to her, “Courage my daughter your faith has restored you to health.”

    Here is a second example. In Mark we read:

    As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

    “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

    “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

    Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

    Note that Jesus does not tell the man that he must put his faith in Jesus, or that salvation is solely dependent on Jesus dying to atone for his sins.

    That this passage caused embarrassment to Matthew is evident from the changes he made to Jesus’ words by removing his denial that he is good.

    Here is Matthew’s altered version in 19:17 (compare this with Marks original)

    A man asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

    And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ (Instead of Mark’s original ‘why do you call me good?’)

    Although I do not intend to dwell on what the later figure called St Paul taught about Jesus, as he never met Jesus of Nazareth during his life, it is worth noting that even he clearly stated that God alone possesses immortality.

    ‘God who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.’

    (1Tim 6:15-16).

    Immortal means God does not die. Therefore, anyone who believes that Jesus died cannot believe that Jesus is God. Such a belief would contradict what Paul says here. Furthermore, to say that God died is a blasphemy against God. Who would run the world if God died? So Paul believed that God does not die.

    Paul also said in the passage that God dwells in unapproachable light — that no one has seen God or can see him. Paul knew that many people had seen Jesus. Yet Paul can say that no one has seen God because Paul was sure that Jesus is not God.

    I would like to make a brief mention of the apostle Peter’s first speech recorded in the book of Acts. He has this to say about Jesus’ status before his God:

    “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, was a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know” Acts 2:22

    Later in the same speech Peter says:

    ‘Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah’ Acts 2:36

    Moving on now to the four gospels. If we read the last of the four gospels to be written, the gospel of John, we move into a different world. Here Jesus seems to move effortlessly through his ministry, he is clearly portrayed as a divine figure, indeed as “God” himself. The Nicene creed I quoted earlier finds an echo in the prologue to John’s gospel, where the writer says ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’.

    Instead of Jesus saying in Mark’s gospel “Why do you call me good – no-one is good but God alone”, John has Jesus say: ‘Before Abraham was I am’.

    In the very first chapter of the gospel according to John, the Prophet John the Baptist proclaims Jesus to be ‘The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ when he first meets him. But in the earlier synoptic gospels, John the Baptist not only does not say this but half way through Jesus’ ministry sends messengers to Jesus asking

    “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Matthew 11:2)

    So even this brief survey has shown the enormous evolution of the story of Jesus which occurred in less than two generations after Jesus was taken up by God.

    Unlike in the earlier gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, in John Jesus speaks with a clear awareness of his divine existence with God from before his time on earth (5.19ff and 8.12ff make this clear). But the question cannot be ducked: whether the Jesus of the fourth gospel was intended to be historical, whether Jesus of Nazareth actually spoke in the terms used by John. Were the claims about Jesus in John’s gospel already in place from the beginning of Christianity? It seems hardly likely.

    Few scholars today would regard John as a source for information regarding Jesus’ life and ministry in any degree comparable to the Synoptics gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is worth noting briefly the reasons why scholars think this:

    One is the very different picture of Jesus’ ministry, both in the order and the significance of events and the location of Jesus’ ministry. For example, the cleansing of the temple happens at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in John but occurs at the end of Jesus’ ministry in the synoptic gospels. A clear contradiction.

    Another is the striking difference in Jesus’ style of speaking – much more discursive and theological in John, in contrast to the aphoristic and parabolic style of the Synoptic gospels. Jesus’ way of speaking is the same, whether Jesus speaks to Nicodemus, or to the woman at the well, or to his disciples, and very similar to the style of John the Baptist, and indeed very similar to the 1st Letter of John. The conclusion is unavoidable that the style is that of the author of the gospel of John rather than that of Jesus himself.

    Probably most important of all, in the synoptic gospels Jesus’ main theme is the Kingdom of God and he rarely speaks of himself, whereas in John the Kingdom of God hardly features and the discourses are largely about Jesus’ own self-consciousness and self-proclamation. To put it simply, in the earlier gospels Jesus does not preach about himself but God and his kingdom. In John, Jesus speaks about himself and his Father. Had the striking ‘I am’ claims of John been remembered as spoken by Jesus, how could any gospel writer have ignored them so completely as the Synoptics gospels do?

    Luke tells us that he ‘investigated everything carefully from the very first’ but his portrait of Jesus does not contain any of the I am sayings found only in John. As the acclaimed New Testament scholar EP Sanders concludes:

    ‘So when we consider the synoptic gospels on the one hand and John’s gospel on the other, it is impossible to think that Jesus spent his short ministry teaching in two such completely different ways, conveying such different contents, and there were simply two traditions, each going back to Jesus, one transmitting 50 per cent of what he said and another one the other 50 per cent, with almost no overlaps. Consequently, for the last 150 or so years scholars have had to choose. They have almost unanimously, and I think entirely correctly, concluded that the teaching of the historical Jesus is to be sought in the synoptic gospels and that John represents an advanced theological development, in which meditations on the person and work of Christ are presented in the first person, as if Jesus said them.’

    The Revd Professor Richard Burridge is Dean of King’s College, London and a leading expert on the gospels. He has written the standard work on the gospels entitled: ‘What Are the Gospels?’ (Cambridge University Press).

    He says:

    “Some modern studies assume that if there is ‘fiction’ in the gospels, then they are inauthentic or unreliable. However, closer attention to literary criticism shows that no one wrote a classical biography to provide a documented historical text as we might capture something with a tape recorder, but rather in an attempt to get ‘inside’ the person. Thus, John’s stress on ‘truth’ is not about documented fact but the higher truth of who Jesus is, which is why he writes in a biographical format. For him, Jesus is ’the way, the truth and the life’, so his Jesus says these words (John 14.16). To ask whether Jesus actually ever spoke these words is to miss the point completely. This is neither a lie nor a fiction; it is simply a way of bringing out the truth about the subject which the author wishes to tell the audience.”

    I strongly disagree with Dr. Burridge when he says: ‘To ask whether Jesus actually ever spoke these words is to miss the point completely’. I believe that if we wish to do responsible Jesus research then this is precisely the kind of question we must ask.

    So it is now widely agreed among New Testament scholars that Jesus himself, the historical individual, did not think of himself as divine and did not teach anything like the later doctrine of the Incarnation. The New Testament sayings in which Jesus seems to claim divinity, such as ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’, ‘I and the Father are one’, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me’, are all in the gospel of John and it is widely agreed that they cannot responsibly be attributed to the historical Jesus, but are words put into his mouth by a Christian writer around the end of the first century, some seventy or so years after Jesus’ time, and express the evolving faith of the church at that time.

    *

    I’d like to share with you an important finding which very few ordinary Christians are aware of: the meaning of the term ‘Son of God’. Again, modern historical scholarship has thrown important light on this. We now know that the term ‘son of God’ was a familiar metaphor within Judaism. Israel as a whole was called God’s son, Adam was called the son of God, the angels were called sons of God, the ancient Hebrew kings were enthroned as son of God and we have in the Old Testament the enthronement formula : ‘Thou art my son. This day I have begotten you’ (Psalm 2: 7); and indeed any outstandingly pious Jew could be called a son of God, meaning someone who was close to God, doing Gods’ will, perhaps with a special mission from God. But within Judaism this was quite obviously a metaphor. Jesus himself used it in this way when he said that we are to forgive our enemies ‘so that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven’ (Matthew 5: 45).

    But what happened in the period between Jesus’ lifetime and the full development of Trinitarian doctrine is that the metaphorical son of God was transformed in Christian thinking into the literal son of God, second person of a divine trinity. It is this development that is questioned by Biblical scholars today.

    Historians of the early church have also discovered that within the very early church a division soon began between the original Jewish Christianity based in Jerusalem, which continued for a while as a new movement within Judaism, that saw Jesus as a human being with a special divine calling, and, on the other hand, the teaching of the apostle Paul which took the Jesus movement far beyond Judaism into the pagan world and exalted Jesus to a divine status. From then on Christian theology was done in Hellenistic terms leading ultimately to the Nicean creed which I quoted at the beginning.