In our last blog, we took a look back in history:
- First, to the politically determined outcome at the Council of Nicaea of 325 AD.
- Second, to the 16th century insertion of the first-ever explicitly Trinitarian phrase into the New Testament.
All this in support of a concept of the trinity as “three in one.”
Our conclusion is that to retrieve an authentic Christianity, we need to go back to the boneyard of Nicaea – and start all over again. Confess the Nicene error, and move forward in the reality of Father, Son and Spirit as beings of similar but separate essence.
With this blog, we get to a more challenging underlying question: Is Christianity a monotheistic or polytheistic religion?
To get to this more definitive answer, we step back yet further in time to the preserved writings of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament.
Be prepared – this is not a journey for the faint of heart. But as none other than Apple guru Steve Jobs once said, this is a case where “the journey is the reward.”
Back to Genesis
In Genesis 1, the singular (and apparently monotheistic) God creates the heavens and the earth. Then the Godhead turns to the business of making people with this oft-quoted statement: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness …”
The question is: Who is us? Is this a veiled Old Testament Trinitarian reference to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three in one? Or is this God appealing to his entire heavenly retinue (as with angels) to help shape humanity?
The Hebrew Scriptures never offer an explicit determination. We humans – the created – are left to make our best guess.
So, let’s take a look at the available evidence – of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And with a fourth possible addition – Sophia (or Wisdom).
God the Father
In the Hebrew Scriptures, God first defines who he is in discussion with Moses, the man being groomed to lead his people out of slavery to freedom in a land flowing with milk and honey.
Moses asks God this question: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
God’s answer is succinct: “I Am Who I Am.”
Then the Almighty explains: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’ ”
And further: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”
Years later, wandering in the wilderness, Moses delivers 10 Commandments on behalf of the God of his people. He then follows up with that great statement of what is known as the Shema (translated by the New King James as follows):
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
Another perhaps more accurate translation might be:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord alone. …
(Note: use of the term ‘alone’ is used in biblical translations as diverse as the Living, New Revised Standard, and New American Standard versions).
What is the difference? The first version of the “Lord is one” has been too easily conflated with the Trinitarian doctrine of three in one – a sort of Old Testament source-proof for a concept first introduced in the Christian Testament.
In contrast, the second version makes it clear that the God of the Hebrews should stand apart as the superior god but not the only god. This God alone trumps those Old Testaments gods of human and/or demonic invention – as with Baal, Astarte, Molech, and so on. Could it be that this God also stands apart and above even other other members of a heavenly Godhead?
The concept of God alone – this is the basis of the Hebrew (and later the Muslim) religions as stoutly monotheistic.
There are two other Old Testament passages to consider – the first being the confrontation of God with his faithful servant Job. After enduring a long back-and-forth between Job, his “friends” and the Almighty, God finally answers Job like this:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
Later, a Psalmist would similarly declare:
Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you endure;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You change them like clothing, and they pass away;
but you are the same, and your years have no end.
This God takes responsibility for the heavens and the earth – for all time – superceding even the duration of the universe.
The concept of God as ‘Father’ is introduced in the Christian New Testament. Writing to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul proclaims:
Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— 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.
Paul makes a clear distinction between the Father as God and Jesus as Lord. This distinction is also evident in the teaching of Jesus himself during the period of his earthly ministry.
Most directly, Jesus makes his subordination to the will and purpose of the Father known in his discourse with the Jewish leader Nicodemus, saying that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son….”
God not only gave his only Son, but Jesus goes on to say that God also “sent” his Son. God gave Jesus followers. John’s gospel says that:
Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.
God the Son
We are definitively introduced by the Christian New Testament to Jesus, a man who would also be defined as the Son of God. How this introduction is handled varies with each of four New Testament gospel writers.
The Gospel of Mark leads readers on a guessing game as to who Jesus is. Only when Jesus dies does a Roman centurion (of all people) make the observation that: “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
Both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke get to this point more directly. Luke’s gospel perhaps comes closest to an early Trinitarian formulation – in a backhanded sort of a way:
At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
Matthew caps off his gospel with what has become known as the Great Commission:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
On the surface, this is trinitarian stuff. But notice, while there is a clear articulation of three distinct entities, there is no claim here that these are “three in one.”
Of the four gospel writers, John portrays Jesus as Son of God (or synonymously as Word of God) repeatedly – opening his gospel with the declaration: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And to the Pharisee Nicodemus, Jesus says that “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son …”
But as is evident with Luke and Matthew, John also clearly portrays Jesus as subordinate to the Father. Just before his betrayal, Jesus prays to his Father for all those “whom you (the Father) gave me.”
And like Job before him, the Jesus of Mark’s gospel would express frustration with apparent betrayal by his own Father, crying out at the point of death: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
If Son and Father are one and the same, why would one bother to cry out in anguish against the other?
God the Holy Spirit
When we get to the Holy Spirit, the picture is more muddled. The Spirit is here and there – but but who is this spirit?
Back to Genesis, when the earth was without form and void and dark, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Was this God – who is Spirit? Or was it a separate entity that would become known as the Holy Spirit by the time of the Christian New Testament?
Matthew’s gospel records Jesus as quoting the prophet Isaiah, who speaking for the Father says: “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him…” Using this prophecy, there is a clear sense of divine infusion and identity both with God’s servant (i.e. Son) and His spirit.
When other gospel writers are added to the mix, things get more confusing. For example, Mark notes that “Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves” Is Jesus referring to the Holy Spirit? Or to his own spirit within him – as flesh and (possibly) God?
What we today know as the Nicene Creed (actually modified), states that: “And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who together with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, and who spoke through the prophets, and one holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.”
God the Wisdom (Sophia)
There is another tradition partly in and partly outside of the OT/NT canon that bears on this discussion – the tradition of the Sophia (or Wisdom).
The writer of the Proverbs declares that:
Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks
Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
“You that are simple, turn in here!”
To those without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight
In the New Testament, the female personality of wisdom is invoked by Jesus as a response to charges that he was living a dissolute lifestyle:
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
The Sophia of Jesus Christ also is part of the non-canonical Nag Hammadi Library. For example a gnostic text describes the “Great Sophia” as the consort of the “Self-constructed Father.”
The disciple Bartholomew asks:
How (is it that) (he) was designated in the Gospel ‘Man’ and ‘Son of Man’? To which of them, then is this son Related?” To this the Holy One answers:
I want you to know that First Man is called Begetter, Self-perfected Mind. He reflected with Great Sophia, his consort, and revealed his first-begotten, androgynous son. His male name is designated ‘First Begetter Son of God’; his female name, ‘First Begettress Sophia, Mother of the Universe.’ Some call here ‘Love.’ Now First-begotten is called ‘Christ.’ Since he has authority from his father, he created a multitude of angels without number for retinue from Spirit and Light.
At the end of four gospels, we are left with a condundrum. Matthew gets us closest (but not all the way) to the Trinitarian formulation of the Nicene Creed, Mark gets us not very far at all, and Luke and John get us perhaps half-way. John makes perhaps the most explicit statements of Jesus’ oneness with the Father, but complicates the issue by saying we are all children of God. None of this is very satisfying to bolster a creed at the center of Christian belief and doctrine.
Part 3 of this series will close with concluding observations as to the bottom-line question: Is Christianity monotheistic or polytheistic? And, what does the answer to this question mean to the application of Christian faith and practice – day in and out?
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