Many Christians think of God and Jesus like this: Jesus is the one who loves us; Jesus is the one who died for us; Jesus is the one who is always with us, and the one who would do anything for us. But God is standing over to the side, and God has a completely different attitude toward us. God really doesn’t like us. God is mad because we haven’t lived the way He wants us to. In fact, God is so mad that He would love to burn us in hell for all eternity. But He doesn’t, because Jesus stands between Him and us. God really wants us to burn in hell, but Jesus stands in the way. As long as we have Jesus to protect us from God, we’re OK. But the very thought of having to face God without Jesus there to protect us is scary.
This way of looking at things comes from the Christian belief in the Trinity–that God is one in three “persons,” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But is that what the belief in the Trinity should lead to? That’s what I’d like for us to think about today–the Trinity, how and why it originally developed and what it was originally intended to mean.
To understand the Trinity, we need to go back to the time of Jesus. Assume you were alive back during the time of Jesus. Remember, there was no such thing as Christianity back then. There was no New Testament; you had never heard anything about Jesus. But one day, you saw Jesus. You saw Him perform miracles; you heard Him teach. Later, you heard through the grapevine that He had been killed but had risen from the grave. And then, you yourself were one of the approximately 500 people the Bible says Jesus appeared to after His resurrection. What would you have thought? Who would you have thought Jesus was?
Or, assume that you were one of the first generations of Christians. Christianity was a new religion, and you wonder about Jesus—who exactly was this person? He was apparently not just another human being because He did things no regular human being could do. So who was He?
That was the situation in Christianity during the first 300 years or so—people wondered exactly who Jesus was. There was no agreement on that. There were many different opinions about who Jesus was. In fact, the first 300 years or so of Christian history were characterized by disagreements over who Jesus was.
But then, in the early 300’s, the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to use Christianity to unify the far-flung Roman Empire. The problem was that Christianity itself wasn’t unified. There wasn’t just one version of Christianity; there were many different versions of Christianity, many different groups of Christians who held very different beliefs. Constantine realized that in order to use Christianity to unify his empire, there would have to be just one, official version of Christianity.
And so Constantine created “The Church”—the religion of Christianity as an institution, an official arm of the Roman government. He installed leaders in that church and instructed them to come up with one, official set of beliefs. Constantine started the practice of holding what were called “councils”—that just means meetings of religious officials—and those religious officials started decided what the “correct” Christian beliefs should be. The first of these councils was held in the year 325, almost 300 years after the time of Jesus.
This was the beginning of Christianity as an organized religion—Christianity as a religious institution with official beliefs and a hierarchy of religious officials at the top.
These religious officials who Constantine installed as leaders of “The Church” had to decide on official Christian beliefs. They started with the question: Who was Jesus? That was the source of most of the disagreements in Christianity. There was general agreement that Jesus was some kind of divine being, but there was no agreement on exactly what kind of divine being Jesus was. Was Jesus the same as God? Or, was Jesus a divine being equal to and in addition to God? Or, was Jesus some kind of divine being less than God? Was there just one God, or were there several different Gods? Different Christians had different ideas. There was no agreement.
Compounding the problem was the fact that there was no clear indication from Jesus Himself as to exactly who He was. In fact, Jesus gave what could be seen as contradictions as to who He was. At times Jesus referred to Himself as the “Son of Man.” What did that mean? No one knew because Jesus never explained what He meant by “Son of Man.” In many places in the Gospels, Jesus indicated He and God were identical. He said things like “I and the Father are one” and “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” But on the other hand, Jesus prayed to God and called God “My Father,” which would seem to indicate that Jesus and God were two separate things.
It was very confusing.
But there was another complication. We talked about Jesus referring to God as “Father.” That was something new. Christianity, at least ostensibly, arose from within Judaism, and Judaism did not have any kind of concept of God as Father. Jesus had introduced a new way of thinking about God—as Father.
How could Constantine’s church officials say there was only one God, yet take Jesus into account?
They realized that in order to make sense out of who Jesus was, they were going to have to think about God in an entirely different way than God had been thought of in Judaism.
Try to put yourself in their position. Constantine instructed them to come up with one set of official Christian beliefs, but right at the first, they were up against a brick wall because of this puzzle about who Jesus was. On one hand, they wanted to maintain the belief that there was only one God, but on the other hand, they had to take Jesus into account, and they couldn’t figure out how Jesus fit in. If they couldn’t decide something here, for the very foundation of Christianity, they could never hope to develop any kind of official Christian beliefs. And so they had to figure out something.
Finally, the only way they could figure out to try to make sense of it was to think of God as one but yet subdivided, in a sense, into “Father” and “Jesus.” They said that “Father” and “Son” together make up God. When they used the term “Son” for Jesus, they didn’t define what they meant by “Son.” They just used the term without explaining it.
They said God is, in a sense, composed of “Father” and “Son.” There is one God made up of Father and Son. Here we need to stop and be sure something is clear: They were not saying that “Father” is God; they were saying that Father and Son together make up God. God is one entity, composed of Father and Son together. That’s what they came up with.
They didn’t explain how all this worked; they just put out the language without explaining it. But even so, they had at least developed a framework to use to think about who Jesus was. They had developed a new way of looking at God, one Being composed of Father and Son. This was, of course, not in any way related to the Jewish way of looking at God. Jews just looked at God as one thing; Jews had no concept of God as Father, and Jews had no concept of God being composed of two things.
But, that’s what Constantine’s church officials decided about God—God is one Being, somehow composed of Father and Son together.
There would soon be a fly in the ointment.
People began noticing a big difference between the Jewish scriptures, which would eventually become the Christian Old Testament, and the Christian writings which would eventually become the Christian New Testament.
In the Old Testament, “God” is active a lot. God does things all over the Old Testament. But in the New Testament writings, God doesn’t appear very often and doesn’t do much. By far most of the time in the New Testament outside the Gospels, what we see is something called “the spirit.”
For example, in Acts chapter 8 is the account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. It says, “And the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go near and join yourself to this chariot.’” There are numerous other examples.
“God” isn’t talked about much in the New Testament, but there’s a lot about “the spirit.” Try this as an example at home: Read through the book of Galatians, and you’ll see what I mean.
In the Old Testament, it’s all about “God.” But in the New Testament after the Gospels, it’s all about “the spirit.” People started wondering—What is this spirit?
Let’s stop and think for a minute. The oldest copies of the New Testament we have are in a form of ancient Greek. The word that’s translated into English as “spirit” is the Greek word pneumatos. It literally means moving air that does some work. It’s where our word “pneumatics” comes from. A pneumatic system is some kind of system that does work by moving air.
Sometimes when the word pneumatos is used, it’s used alone—just “spirit.” Sometimes the Greek word for “holy” is used near it, like “holy spirit.” But sometimes it’s “spirit of God,” sometimes “spirit of Christ,” sometimes “spirit of the Lord.”
So people wondered: Are there all these different spirits out there, a multitude of different spirits? Was “spirit” different from “holy spirit;” was “spirit of God” something else; “spirit of Christ” something else; and “spirit of the Lord” yet something else? How many different “spirits” were there?
Some said that all these uses of “spirit” refer to the same thing—the power of God active in the world. Instead of just saying “the power of God,” for some reason the biblical writers used all these different constructions with “spirit” in them, but all of them mean the same thing—“the power of God.”
Other people, though, noticed that on closer examination, there seemed to be a difference between the times “spirit of God,” “spirit of Christ,” or “spirit of the Lord” is used and the times “holy spirit” or just “spirit” is used. It seemed like “holy spirit” or just “spirit” referred to a distinct, divine being. In some places in the New Testament, this “spirit” even talks. How could it just refer to the power of God if it talks? If it talks, it must be some kind of being in its own right. Here, again, just like when they were trying to decide who Jesus was, they ran up against a brick wall.
What could they do with all this? What is this “spirit”?
Eventually, in the late 300’s, they came up with the idea that there is one God, composed of three “persons.” But, what did they mean by “persons”? Well, by this time, the language of Christianity had changed from Greek to Latin, since Christianity had now become an official arm of the Roman government. The word we translate as “persons” is the Latin word “personae.” And does the Latin word “personae” mean what we think of as “persons”? No. Personae was the Latin word for masks worn by actors in a play.
Sometimes, one actor would play several different roles in the same play. For example, one actor might play the roles of John, Tom, and Paul. So the audience could distinguish which character the actor was playing at that moment, the actor had different masks, one for each character he was playing. He had a mask for John, a mask for Tom, and a mask for Paul. If he was playing John in a certain scene, he’d wear the John mask. If he played Tom in the next scene, he’d put on the Tom mask; then when he was playing Paul, he’d wear the Paul mask. It was the same actor, playing three different roles. He had three different masks so the audience would know which character he was playing at that moment.
This was the original conception of the Trinity—one God playing three different roles. It dates from the late 300’s, and it pictures God as one, but having three “masks,” so to speak—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One God playing three different roles—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One God active in three different ways—sometimes as Father, sometimes as Son, sometimes as Holy Spirit.
It didn’t take long before people started criticizing this idea. The criticism went like this: “You’re saying God hides behind masks. That means we never really know ‘God,’ because He’s always hiding behind a mask.”
The church officials said, “No, that’s not what we meant.”
The critics said, “That’s what you said.”
The church officials said, “But that’s not what we meant.”
The critics said, “Well, what did you mean?”
And the church officials said, “We don’t know. But not that.”
And that’s how it’s been ever since. No one has ever really been able to explain what the Trinity actually is. It’s always been talked about in relation to what it’s not. “It’s not this, and it’s not that” rather than what it actually is.
Eventually, for all practical purposes, Western Christians came to understand the Trinity as three separate Gods: The Father, who is the main God, the one at the top; Jesus, who is God’s Son in the same sense as a human father has a biological son; and the Holy Spirit, which is something nobody can really understands what it is or what it does. Three completely separate things. That is not, though, what the original idea of the Trinity was meant to convey; that’s what it was eventually interpreted to mean in Western Christianity.
And actually, that understanding of the Trinity is what caused the English language to adopt the Latin word “persona” for our word “person.” Remember, the Latin word meant the mask an actor wore in a play, and that’s the word used to describe the Trinity in its earliest form. Then later, the Trinity came to be understood as three completely separate, different Gods. That led the English language to adopt a variant of the Latin word “persona” for our word “person,” which to us means a distinct, separate individual. It acquired that meaning from Christianity, after the idea of the Trinity was interpreted to mean there are three separate, distinct Gods.
The Trinity became an ingrained belief in Christianity, a belief that Christians are supposed to believe. We’ve seen today that the original idea behind it is far removed, though, from how many Christians understand it today.
The Trinity prevents us from seeing God the way Jesus taught us to see God—as our Father. Because of the Trinity, when we think of God as Father, we think of God as Father in the Trinity sense of it, and that’s all. But Jesus told us to think of God as Father in the sense of the best human fathers—a Father who wants the best for us, always tries to give us the best, a Father who doesn’t want anyone to burn in hell but who opens the door and invites all to come to Him and have eternal life, a Father who has prepared a great banquet, has the table loaded down with all kinds of good food, and who invites all to come and eat, a Father who has numbered every hair on our heads, and a Father who loves the entire world so much that not even a tiny bird falls out of the sky but that He notices and sorrows over it.
That’s not the kind of picture of God people get from the Trinity. That’s not how most American Christians think of God. It is the Trinity that stands in the way of that. Keep in mind that the Trinity is not a belief that is taught in the Bible. It was developed by organized Christianity. It is a belief people have derived from one certain interpretation of a few certain things that have been pulled out of the Bible.
The alternative to the Trinity is to see Jesus the way the ancient Christians saw Jesus—as God Himself come to earth as a human being. In Jesus, we don’t see some kind of lesser God, we see God Himself, the only God, coming here to save us.