The Doctrine of the Trinity and Christianity

That is not the impression I have received from over 50 years of engaging with hundreds of evangelical Christians. Most of them speak as if God is a person that they talk to, and sometimes literally hear back from, whether in words or “signs.” They speak of God’s personal presence in a room, that they can literally “feel” his warmth and personal love, like a caring hand on their shoulder (and sometimes not even “like” – sometimes they actually claim to feel his hand), and so on. Their language is heavily personalistic, and they apply the personal language to God just as much as to themselves. You are an outlier among the evangelicals I have known. I don’t think you are representative of the evangelical mindset overall. That doesn’t make you wrong, but it makes you puzzling. Your way of describing God and your relationship to him seems to be neither that of classical Christianity nor that of modern evangelical faith, but something else.

No Biblical author claims that God is white or red, so Augustine’s example is fatuous. And I thought you were more concerned about the Bible than the Fathers, anyway. Why don’t you want to discuss my Biblical examples?

Such expressions were understood as figurative even by the Biblical authors. But that God created, made, gave laws, parted the Red Sea, turned rods into snakes, made covenants, was angry, etc., were not regarded as figurative by them. I’m asking you to comment on those things, not on the obvious metaphors.

I find it interesting that you say you want to put the Bible above all human speculation, yet appeal to Augustine, who at least in these passages you have quoted is at his most “Greek” and least “Biblical.” Why don’t you read his account of the Biblical history in On the City of God instead? He offers a much more concrete “Lord of Nature and History” reading of the Bible there – much more in line with traditional Protestant notions of a hands-on, active God.

Then why did he write this:

“… let us believe that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God, maker and ruler of the whole creation: that Father is not Son, nor Holy Spirit Father or Son; but a Trinity of mutually related Persons, and a unity of equal essence.” (De Trinitate, IX, 1.)

You see the word “Persons” in there?

But again, I’m less interested in what Augustine says than in what the Bible says. Augustine fluctuates between a Greek and a Hebraic mentality; if you want the pure Hebraic mentality, you need to go to the Bible. The portrayal of God, especially in the Old Testament, is heavily couched in personalistic language.

I’m not saying that personalistic language for God is necessarily right; I’m saying that’s what the Bible gives us. Yes, he is beyond our understanding, he is shrouded in mystery, he cannot be fully seen by any man, even Moses (who sees only his “hinder parts”), and his deepest plans are not known to us; yet he is not completely alien to us; he talks to Adam and Cain and Abraham and Jacob and Moses; he and Abraham seem to come to a common understanding of justice in the Sodom story; he promises, he covenants, he gives instructions to Israel in matters secular as well as sacred, he is angered, he loves. One can reject all of this in favor of the “philosopher’s God” who is an object of our intellectual contemplation and reverence, but who is admired like a beautiful statue more than loved like a father or a bride; at points Augustine seems to lean that way (until his devotional side gets the better of him and he returns to the personal language); but one certainly has to choose, in the end, the kind of Christian one wants to be, one who follows the God of the philosophers or one who follows the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I am not sure where you sit on this choice; you seem to be trying to split the difference. You seem to want God to be utterly remote and alien to human nature, yet yourself to have a “personal relationship” with this remote and alien being. I cannot grasp this. Possibly my mind is too rigid in its categories. Anyhow, I must do some real-world work now, and so I may not respond for a while. If you want to add something, go ahead, and I will get to it when I can.

I can’t explain any differently than I already have. I am not interested in arguing for arguments sake. I am not dodging anything. You asked me to look at Augustine, I did, and I agree with his opening statements on the Trinity and provided you with excerpts from his writing that states exactly my point. If he says it differently somewhere else, then your example (your choice of whom to engage with as an example) is not genuine in his belief. Go ahead and view God as a person, see where that leads. I choose to view God in a different light and am confident that what I receive from the Holy Spirit (who is not a person in any form) shows me the truth. I don’t have time now to engage any further either, I have answered all your questions (by using your reference), you just don’t like the answers. We can agree to disagree. I appreciate the conversation, I learned a great deal, which has helped me solidify my position.

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I too have appreciated the conversation. Your tone and attitude are a good deal gentler and more civilized than what is often seen around here. You have kept our disagreements polite and constructive. My main disagreement with you is not over the original point (I don’t absolutely insist on the Nicene formulation, and I agree that its language goes beyond the language of the Bible, which while not necessarily bad, is not necessarily good either), but over your apparent way of reading the Bible’s statements about God. It appears to be quite selective and to skate over dozens of important Biblical passages describing God or his actions, which is odd given that you say that the Bible is your ultimate foundation. I would think you would give much more weight to quite explicit Biblical statements than you do. I wonder if you are not giving too much importance to what you believe the Holy Spirit is telling you, and not enough importance to the words of the Biblical text. If you would take away a parting thought from this discussion, this is the one I would have you reflect upon.

Did Mark provide you with any thoughts worthy of your reflection?

I don’t know what I have said to give you this idea. I put a higher value on scripture than most. I also know that the Spirit confirms scripture and scripture confirms the Spirit, so they work together…neither is more important, but one without the other is useless.

If you would like to engage in a hermeneutics discussion on a specific passage, I will. I agree that I am a bit of an outsider in my beliefs, but so was Jesus, so I’m ok with that.

Yes. The give and take between us should be a sufficient indicator of that.

And did you find my remark and question – which you never responded to – worthy of your reflection? To remind you of what you said and my reply (on the other thread):

Then the Bible is filled with bad theology. Is that your view?

Are you going to duck the question, or answer it?

The bad theology is to humanize/personify God. So if you equate the bible with humanizing God, then yes, your bible is filled with bad theology.

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I referred to dozens of passages, not by chapter and verse number, but you know the Bible well, so you can easily find them by the contents (creation, Red Sea, God remembering Noah, God repenting of his creation, etc.). You can discuss as many of them as you like. Can you eliminate the idea of a personal God from all of those passages? No hurry – take a couple of weeks if you like. I’m busy anyway. I’ll keep an eye out here for future replies.

What’s really interesting to me about this conversation between @Mark10.45 and @Eddie is that on the one hand Eddie defends Nicene Trinitarianism, on the other hand he also defends a more “evangelical”, “biblical”, “personalist” understanding of God, in opposition to a “God of the philosophers”. In contrast, many classical theists (mostly Roman Catholics) I’ve encountered would say similar things as Mark has regarding God - that God is not a “person” in the English sense of the word and that the idea of a “personal relationship with God” is inaccurate, naive Protestant language. However such Christian classical theists would also strenuously defend the Trinity as revealed by faith! (Though their way of explicating the Trinity would be criticized as “modalist” by some others.)

So I find it disorienting to make sense of either participant’s position. I suppose Mark’s stance reminds me a little bit of a non-Christian strict classical monotheist, such as the Muslim understanding of God.

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My question was addressed to John Mercer, so you are exempt from answering it. Let’s see if he answers it.

I don’t get your point…

I have a personal relationship with God. I also have a personal relationship with my phone, and it is not a person.

God is not a person, nor is there anything in the bible that suggests that God is “like” man.

I don’t know how to say it any differently. I’m trying.

Jesus is God. Jesus is man. Jesus is a person, so…

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Good point. I’ll have to ponder that one. My answer to an earlier question of which God I follow, my answer was Jesus…

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My initial response is that I stated before that Jesus would be the only “person” I see in the trinity. Jesus became flesh for our sakes, and was a man, but was also God and the only righteous man to exist and be worthy in God the Fathers eyes. So, inasmuch as Jesus became “like us” in a fleshly, He was also not like us in spiritual terms of sin and righteousness…if that makes any sense.

But I will meditate on this for a bit…my position is more that Jesus is the only part of the trinity that we can fully understand as a person. But I suppose that the only part of Jesus that we really know is His human experience and what He taught…I suppose there is much more to discover.

I think quite the opposite, I have a personal relationship with God and recognize all three in my daily walk. I get clear confirmations from the Spirit, I pray to the Father, I see Jesus as a friend. I suppose that I see the Father and the Spirit as beyond my understanding and have learned to see the unseen and be OK with relying on faith rather than needing to personify them.

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I think you are on the right path. That is what is distinct about Christianity: that we can know the ineffable, incomprehensible God through Jesus, who is God in the flesh. This is why Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). We cannot imagine, understand, or relate to God with our limited minds (and of course our sinfulness), but we can rely on Jesus to bridge that gap for us. That is why it is important to affirm that in in Christ “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). Jesus is the Son in the flesh, and the Son possess the fullness of God. At the same time, the Son is distinct from the Father, as Jesus himself says: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (John 7:16). When Jesus was baptized, a voice came from heaven saying: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” In his prayer, Jesus also said: “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5), indicating that the Son has existed since even before he came into the world in human flesh.

The need to balance these two poles - one of safeguarding God’s oneness and transcendence, the
other of Scripture’s abundant witness that Jesus is God in the flesh, yet distinct from the Father - led to the doctrine of the Trinity, which simply affirms both: there is a real sense of three-ness in God that Scripture supernaturally reveals to us, yet each of these three fully possess the divine essence.

I like the term essence much better than person…Augustine used the term essence, makes more sense in my mind…

Whatever a “personal relationship with a phone” may mean, I don’t think it means that you pray to your phone, that you would lay down your life for your phone, that you wish your phone glory and honor and power for ever and ever. But you would do these things to or for a person that you loved or respected (or feared). You would lay down your life for your brother, or pray to God for guidance. I cannot see how religious language, at least in the monotheistic traditions, can ever escape being language addressed to a being conceived of as in some sense personal. Indeed, the very fact that when man addresses God, he uses the second person pronoun and the second person verb endings (Thou, You, Thee, Thine, etc.) seems to imply the same.

But why try to reason this out on general principles? Why not simply follow the Bible’s lead? If the Bible appears to treat God as personal (even if it never calls him a “person”), why would that not be sufficient reason for you to do so also?

On a particular point: Would you say that it’s true that if a zebra is in some sense “like” a horse, that it is also true that a horse is in some sense “like” a zebra? Or that if a Roman galley is in some sense like a fisherman’s rowboat, a fisherman’s rowboat is also in some sense like a Roman galley? If so, consider the statement that man is created “in the image of God”. That has long been taken to mean that man is in some sense like God (not identical to God, not equal to God in power or goodness or wisdom, but like God, having some resemblance to God, on some level, if not physical, then mental or spiritual or the like). If you accept this almost universal Christian belief, then don’t you also have to accept the converse, i.e., that God is in some sense like man? And if so, in what sense? Not in power (man is weak), not in wisdom (man is foolish), not in most things. But in some sense. Maybe in more than one sense. Why would the Bible give us the information that we are created in the image of God, if not to draw attention to a fundamental likeness?

Did he use it to translate the term “hypostasis” (Latin persona)? Or the term “ousia” (Latin substantia)? Or some other Greek word? You seem to be suggesting that he used the term “essence” instead of “person”, but as I already indicated, he at points explicitly speaks of three “persons”, not three “essences”. In any case, we can let Augustine go, since on your view we must base everything on the Bible. So I come back to the question whether the Bible describes God as a being we would call in some sense personal. Do God’s conversations with Adam, Cain, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, etc. suggest that God is an entirely impersonal being? Does God’s “repentance” or “regret” that he made man suggest a non-personal being? What about his care for Hagar in the wilderness? His rescue of Israel from Egypt? His formation of covenants with a number of people, and with Israel? His preservation of the three young men in the fiery furnace? It seems artificial, forced, and almost programmatically ideological to insist that none of these incidents convey even the slightest trace of “personality” in God. It seems as if the Bible is being beaten into shape in the service of a theological agenda, rather than simply being read in a natural way.

I will state again, I have a personal relationship with God, but don’t regard God as a person. In the same respect that God is three and is one, it is difficult for some to understand without simplifying the message. The bible characterizes many personalities of God for our benefit, so that our feeble minds can grasp a small portion of the glory of God that relates to us. But if you take the bible in its entirety, the personalities of God end up being all the representations of human personalities. That leads some to think that God is inconsistent, when in fact He is just ALL. So, again, to claim that God is this or that as humans tend to be this or that is in my opinion lessening the magnificence of God.

Yes, but that does not make God in any sense like man. This message is repeated many times in the bible. (Job, proverbs, psalms, ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah, most of the new testament and all the teaching of Jesus).

Matthew 11:27 - All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. No r does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.

Not really. I suppose you can draw a likeness in any category by any two things. Man is like a tree because they both live on earth. Water is like air because they both have oxygen. Man may be a minute resemblance to God, a speck of dust compared to the universe…in that sense, they both contain matter and are like one another. The bible says we are like God, not that God is like us, and in fact warns of making God out to be lesser than He is. Paul warns of God’s wrath upon those that objectify God and knowing an unknowable God in Acts 17.

Acts 17:22-31 - 22 Then Paul stood in the midst of the [i]Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 23 for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:


Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. 25 Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. 26 And He has made from one [j]blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ 29 Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. 30 Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.”

God interacts with my person, I don’t interact with the person of God, I interact with God. Personifying God is dangerous. As Paul states in Acts, assigning a specific quality to God is likened to idol worship and would bring judgment, for which we need to repent…God is God, I am not.

I have no doubt that God is loving, and saves, and is merciful and is a great number of things that are wonderful for our benefit…but God is in no way like me. If that were so, we would all be dead.

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Isaiah 55:8-9 - “For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord.
9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts.

Psalm 103:11-18 - For as the heavens are high above the earth,
So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;
12 As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
13 As a father pities his children,
So the Lord pities those who fear Him.
14 For He [a]knows our frame;
He remembers that we are dust.

15 As for man, his days are like grass;
As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
16 For the wind passes over it, and it is [b]gone,
And its place remembers it no more.
17 But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
On those who fear Him,
And His righteousness to children’s children,
18 To such as keep His covenant,
And to those who remember His commandments to do them.

2 Samuel 7:22 - 22 Therefore You are great, [f]O Lord God. For there is none like You, nor is there any God besides You, according to all that we have heard with our ears.

Job 42:1-6 - Then Job answered the Lord and said:

2 “I know that You can do everything,
And that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You.
3 You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
4 Listen, please, and let me speak;
You said, ‘I will question you, and you shall answer Me.’

5 “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear,
But now my eye sees You.
6 Therefore I abhor[a] myself,
And repent in dust and ashes.”

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Thanks again, Mark, for your willingness to respond to questions and objections. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be able to get closer together. You seem to have doubled down on your statements, and to have dug in deep to maintain a position that I consider dangerously close to Gnosticism. A few responses to what you have posted in the two posts above, and then a closing remark:

Not personifying God takes one to, at best, Hinduism or Buddhism or Taoism, and, at worst, Gnosticism. To be a theist requires “personifying” God, to some extent. Christians and Jews don’t worship an impersonal One, but a being who has Reason, Will, Love, etc.

You’re misinterpreting Paul’s words. Paul is rejecting pagan ideas of God, but he isn’t rejecting the idea that God is personal. Indeed, if God is not in some sense personal, most of what Christians have been doing in their Church services for two thousand years, and in 95% of their prayers, has been a complete waste of time; they’ve been talking to a being who can’t possibly hear them or care about what they are saying to him. A Christian God who is not in some sense personal is a contradiction in terms.

What do you think the Damascus road experience was, if not a personal communication from God to Paul?

This statement is logically incoherent. But I don’t think I can get you to see that, as long as you are under the spell of Barthian types of theology.

The Lord pities those who fear Him – yet the Lord is not personal? That is incoherent.

The Lord gave commandments, yet the Lord is not personal? That’s incoherent. Only a personal being, or a corporate being channeling the will of a number of personal beings (e.g., the state), can give commandments. “Commandment” logically entails the existence of a personal being, if the true meaning of “command” is grasped.

Only a personal being can question anyone. To say that God questions us, yet is not Himself in some sense personal, is incoherent.

Aristotle’s God is not personal. He (or better, It) cannot create, give commandments, question anyone, love anyone, be angry with anyone, pity anyone, show mercy on anyone. The Christian God can. This is because the Christian God is in some sense personal.

I count myself fortunate to have spent so many years studying the Hebrew Bible, and to have had Jewish as well as Christian teachers. The experience enabled me to avoid the near-Gnosticism that pervades much of Protestantism. The greatest defect of many North American Protestants – and of most of their pastors and theologians – is that they don’t know their Old Testament. Any form of Christianity that does not give due weight to the conception of God found in the Old Testament is a flawed Christianity, and one that will tend in the direction of Gnosticism. I think you are avoiding a full encounter with the God of the Old Testament, insulating yourself from the Old Testament portrait of God by using a quasi-Gnostic reading of Paul as a sort of waterproof shield, to keep the Old Testament conceptions from seeping through.

I think we won’t get much further at this stage. Our disagreement is over large questions of theology, philosophy, and hermeneutics, and such disagreements aren’t resolved overnight. But I thank you for the gracious exchange. I think you are entirely sincere and have the best of motivations. Our disagreement is only over conceptualization.