(Originally printed in the Winter/Spring 2016 Issue of the MCOI Journal Page 14)
By Jay Hess
In my personal exploration of the Doctrine of the Trinity as described in Scripture, I found it to be the most complex doctrine I have ever studied. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness (JW, student of Watchtower Bible and Tract Society*, aka WTBTS) and was in that false belief-system for over 23 years. Although the JWs are opposed to the Doctrine of the Trinity, I thought I understood it from what the WTBTS taught in their publications and from my discussions with mainstream Christians when going door-to-door with the WTBTS’s message. After being expelled from the JWs for worshiping Jesus, I re-examined the doctrine. After much research and examining over 800 Bible verses, I became convinced of the classic Trinity Doctrine. I consider the Doctrine of the Trinity to be foundational but not essential to understand.
Since the doctrine is so comprehensive, I will endeavor to explain it using far fewer than 800 verses. To explain it to non- Trinitarians—especially to the JWs—and to demonstrate it in Scripture, I find it can be done with somewhere around 20 verses to support the definition and 5 verses to help in understanding it. That is what I will do here. Remember, this is not meant to prove the doctrine beyond all question, but rather it is to define it, to show where it is clearly revealed in Scripture, and to make it understandable.
Because there is so much confusion about the Trinity, I wish to first comment on what the Trinity is not. The Trinity is NOT Modalism, also known as Oneness Theology. That is a very different doctrine; and if you wish to understand that better, you can contact groups holding that belief like the United Pentecostal Church or the Apostolic Pentecostal Church. These groups believe Jesus is identically the same entity as God who changes the mode (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) in which he interacts with mankind, which is an idea that Trinitarians reject. This doctrine is attacked—but not by its name, Modalism—by the WTBTS in their 1984 brochure Should You Believe in the Trinity? pages 16- 17, which is now out of print.
Theologians often prefer short definitions, but the words are often loaded with theological meaning. They use the term God not as meaning a person but as meaning a nature. I found this confusing when I first heard it, so I prefer using the term Godness and avoiding the word God altogether. So to avoid misunderstandings, I will start with a longer and more precise definition; and then I will support each part of the definition with Bible Scriptures.
In the One Creator are three, distinct testifiers: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Who each equally and uniquely possesses Godness.
This definition will help identify the differences between mainstream Christianity and other groups such as the Oneness Pentecostals, the JWs, and the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, aka LDS) who all deny the Doctrine of the Trinity.
There is a second part to this definition we will consider, because Trinitarians fall into two categories. The majority view among Evangelical theologians is known as the Complementarian View1 and the minority view is known as the Egalitarian View.2 This additional part of the definition gives the Complementarian View.
DEFINITION, PART 2:
The Son and the Holy Spirit are eternally subordinate to the Father.
To support this two-part definition, we now turn to some Bible passages (all from the ESV – English Standard Version).
There is only One Creator
Thus says the LORD [YHWH], your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: “I am the LORD [YHWH], who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself,” (Isaiah 44:24, also see Acts 17:24,26)
This One Creator includes the Father, Son and Spirit
1) The Father is Creator
Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? … (Malachi 2:10)
2) The Son is Creator
Compare Psalm 102:25-27 with Hebrews 1:10-12
Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end.” (Psalm 102:25-27)
This O.T. passage is quoted in Hebrews 1:10-12:
And, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.”
Notice Hebrews 1:10 adds the reference to “Lord,” while Psalm 102:25 does not. This is because the N.T. Greek text of Hebrews 1:10 follows the O.T. Greek Septuagint (LXX) which does add the specific reference “Lord.” From the context of Psalm 102, this “Lord” must be YHWH/Jehovah (as seen in vss. 12, 21, 22). Carrying this forward to Hebrews chapter one, who then is the “Lord” in Hebrews 1:10? Is it YHWH? Since there is only one Creator, it would seem logical that it is.
Does the context of Hebrews chapter one give a clue as to who this “Lord” is in verse 10? Beginning in verse 5, there are a number of O.T. verses applied to the Son of God, and this continues through to verse 13. These applications to the Son are in verses 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13; the exception is verse 7, where it specifically states it is about angels. Therefore, what is said in Psalm 102 about YHWH laying the foundation of the earth and the heavens being the work of his hands is applied to Jesus in Hebrews 1. There is no distinction made between YHWH the designer and Jesus the builder as typically claimed by most JWs. Both Psalm 102:25-27 and Hebrews 1:10-12 are about the builder who built the universe with his own hands; and in the O.T., this is the one Creator identified as being YHWH/ Jehovah (also see Isaiah 45:12).
3) The Spirit is Creator
The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life. (Job 33:4)
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground. (Psalm 104:30)
Thus says God, the LORD [YHWH], who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it. (Isaiah 42:5)
There are three distinct testifiers: Father, Son and Holy Spirit
The next part of the definition says there “… are three distinct testifiers: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” This part of the definition does not say separate, but rather it says distinct. Theologians use the term distinct rather than separate because of the implications of the term separate. In Mark 10:9, the concept of the term separate (the act of dividing one unit into two detached units) is shown to be synonymous with divorce and implies the relationship between two individuals is damaged. So if we wish to say a married couple is composed of two separate persons with an undamaged relationship, then we prefer to use the word distinct rather than separate. Since we hold that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have a perfect, interrelated relationship (see John 17:11, 20-23), then distinct is the right word to communicate there are multiple persons with a perfect relationship. We also do not say the persons are different since that, too, might imply the Father is of one kind of thing while the Son is of another kind. However, as we will see below, the evidence shows the Father and Son both have Godness, and thus, they are not different, but rather, they are distinct.
Further, as we shall see, the three persons are testifiers (I prefer this over the term person). Testifier is a biblical term and indicates a person who is capable of observing reality and stating what is and is not true. A testifier has a mind and is capable of individual actions.
Under the Law of Moses, if someone is accused of a crime, two or three testifiers are required to give individual intelligent testimony. One testifier is not enough:
A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. (Deuteronomy 19:15)
If someone is called upon to testify in a court and brings a puppet and makes it appear to speak, no one would accept the puppet’s voice as a distinct testifier. The testimony is invalid. Thus, the biblical term testifier captures the idea we are looking for when we use the word person.
So, what is the evidence that the three—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—are each a testifier distinct from the others? You might think this is obvious; but to non-Trinitarians such as Modalists (who believe all three entities are the same person) or to the JWs and Binitarians3 (who believe that the Spirit is not a distinct testifier), this is not clear at all.
So the Pharisees said to him, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.” Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, … You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.” (John 8:13-18)
The Pharisees believed Jesus was alone in His testimony and, therefore, according to Israelite Law, His testimony was not credible. Jesus then said in verse 16 that He was not alone for the Father Who sent Him was also with Him. Then He described His connection with His Father as that of two distinct witness bearers (“two people” in this translation: ESV). If the Father and the Son were the same person, the same testifier, then Jesus would have been alone, and His testimony would have been invalid under Israelite Law. For Trinitarians, this is solid evidence the Father and Son are two distinct testifiers.
But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. … And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,” [then follows a quote from Jeremiah 31:33] (Hebrews 10:12-15)
The O.T. Hebrew version of Jeremiah 31:33 reads:
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD [YHWH]: …
In Hebrews 10:12, it clearly mentions “Christ” Who sits at the right hand of another person—here identified as “God.” This is an O.T. reference to Psalm 110:1 where the Lord Jesus Christ is described as sitting at the right hand of YHWH. This same verse is explained in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 by Paul who identifies the other person on the throne as the “Father.”
Then, notice in Hebrews 10:15 it says, “the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us.” The word “also” (Greek kai) implies this is introducing a new entity—the third in the immediate context— and is a testifier other than “Christ” (Hebrews 10:12) and other than “God” (Hebrews 10:12 – Whom we know as the Father from 1 Corinthians 15:2). This Holy Spirit is said to be the testifier (or witness bearer) Who “bears witness” in Jeremiah 31:33. But that text specifically says the speaker is YHWH. If one were to suppose the Holy Spirit Who authored Jeremiah 31 is identical to the throne’s occupant “God” in Hebrews 10:12, then why not use the same terminology God in verse 15? This leads Trinitarians to conclude that God, the Father, (the throne’s occupant in verse 13 and in 1 Corinthians 15:24) is distinct from the Son, Jesus Christ (in verses 12 and 13), Who are both distinct from the testifier, YHWH the Holy Spirit (in verse 15).
Each testifier equally possesses Godness
The next part of the definition claims that each of the three testifiers equally possesses Godness. What is Godness? I do not use the typical term deity, because this term no longer has precision and clarity in our culture and this term could potentially invoke thoughts of Hindu deities. By Godness, I mean the nature of God as found in the Bible. Trinitarians claim it is the nature of God that is equally possessed by the three testifiers: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
1) The Father has Godness
The N.T. references “God the Father” about 19 times. Here are examples:
Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal. … It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. (John 6:27, 45)
To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:7)
2) The Son has Godness
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Hebrews 1:1-3)
From verse 3 it says of the Son, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” This phrase, especially the reference to “the exact imprint of his nature” convinces Trinitarians the Son has the exact nature of God, what I am calling Godness.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:3-7)
Paul is asking the Philippian Christians to adopt the humble servant attitude they knew Jesus had and apply it to their relationships with others. This attitude comes from recognizing Jesus as having existed in the “form of God,” but He behaved as though He did not. Even though He had this “form,” He still did not exploit it—counter to humility—as the Philippians were doing. The Philippian Christians all had the same human form and were living counter to humility. They were living as though their shared “form” entitled them to an attitude of equality among persons with the same “form”—humanity. Paul asks them to abandon that attitude in order to emulate Jesus Who had the same “form” of God—Godness, yet He did not behave as though that “form” entitled Him to equality with God. Instead, He emptied Himself of his God-privileges that came with being in the “form of God,” took on the “form of a servant,” and was born in the likeness of humanity (“men”). Did Jesus truly possess the likeness or form of humanity? Yes. Therefore, He must have truly possessed the likeness or form of God—Godness.
He [Jesus] was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:2, 3)
On the top of a piece of paper, write: “All things.” Under that make three columns side-by-side: At the top of the first column write: “All things that were not created, they always existed.” At the top of the second column write: “All things created (without agency of Jesus).” At the top of the third column write: “All things created (with the agency of Jesus).”
agency of Jesus
agency of Jesus
Now list things like: The Father, the Holy Spirit, angels, stars, humans under the appropriate columns. Lastly, find the appropriate column for Jesus. However, note we learn from John 1:3 that there cannot be anything in the column that says, “All things created (without agency of Jesus).” Jesus also cannot be listed in the column “All things created with the agency of Jesus,” because Jesus could not create Himself. Therefore, Jesus was not made and is under the same column with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
The above three passages support the case that the Father and the Son both have the nature or form of Godness.
3) The Spirit has Godness
The Holy Spirit is identified in the Bible as being YHWH (as we saw above in Hebrews 1:15) and elsewhere as “God.”
But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God. (Acts 5:3-4)
Peter claims Ananias has lied to the Holy Spirit, and this is lying to God.
how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:14)
Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice to God through the “eternal” Spirit. The Holy Spirit is eternal, which is an attribute of Godness. (Also see 2 Peter 1:21; John 4:24; 1 Cor. 3:16.)
Each testifier uniquely possesses Godness
If any person other than the Father, Son and Holy Spirit has Godness, then our definition is invalid. So, do angels have Godness?
There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours. … For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God. (Psalm 86:8, 10)
Let the heavens praise your wonders, O LORD [YHWH], your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones! For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD [YHWH]? Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD [YHWH], a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him? (Psalm 89:5-7)
Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, (Isaiah 46:9)
From these three passages it is clear no angel, no heavenly creature is like God. None of them have Godness. Putting the previous together, we have this definition:
In the One Creator are three distinct testifiers: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Who each equally and uniquely possesses Godness.
If I encounter anyone who has a disagreement with the Doctrine of the Trinity, I have them identify with what part of this definition they disagree, and then we examine the supporting Scriptures.
Addendum to the above definition
Within the Evangelical Trinitarian camp are two views: Egalitarian and Complementarian views. The Complementarian View is the majority view among Evangelical scholars. This view holds that the Father is the final-decision-maker and has the highest rank and authority over the other two testifiers. The other two testifiers are eternally subordinate. This is also sometimes referred to in scholarly literature as “the eternal subordination of the Son.” In contrast, the Egalitarian View holds that the Son is temporarily subordinate to the Father and only as part of the Plan of Redemption. If you present the Complementarian View to a JW, you will meet with much less resistance. Therefore, if you hold to the Egalitarian View, I recommend that you at least mention the Complementarian View. This is the reason for my addendum to the previous definition.
ADDENDUM TO DEFINITION:
The Son and the Holy Spirit are eternally subordinate to the Father
If you wish to compare these two views, you can listen to a debate on the internet that was held on October 9, 2008. It was over two-hours long and involved four seminary professors— two supporting each view. Each professor either was or had been a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can find this debate on the internet by searching for “TEDS Trinity debate audio Ware” (one of the debaters was Dr. Bruce Ware).
A typical verse used to support the Complementarian View is:
When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:28)
How can three persons be one?
In what biblical sense does one, plus one, plus one truly equal one? Is there a biblical illustration to make this easier to understand?
I am not in favor of the non-biblical illustrations. They may be easy to use and appealing, such as the water illustration— water is solid (ice), liquid (water) and gas (steam), but I do not recommend any of them. They do not offer a precise explanation of what we mean. The water illustration is somewhat close; because in all three forms, the water has the same nature—that of water—but functions differently.
There is another illustration that is definitely not Trinitarian. This illustration says, “I am a father, because I have children. I am a husband, because I have a wife. I am a son, because I have a father. But I am not three persons; I am only one.” This does not illustrate the Trinity; it illustrates Modalism.
Illustrating the Trinity with social relationships
If you can understand Adam and Eve, you can understand the Trinity. Let’s read about Adam and Eve in the Garden.
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)
Here the Bible describes something that is to be understood by all: Two persons can become one. One person plus another person can become one flesh.
This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. (Genesis 5:1-2)
The text says, “When God created man, he made him;” how many persons does this say God created? How many is this? This is one specific person, whom we know as Adam. Then in the rest of the passage it says, “Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man.” To whom does this “Man” refer? Humanity, the nature —Humanness— possessed by the two persons God created. How many make up this “Man?” Two! There were two persons here called “Man.” Is this concept borrowed from pagan ideas or from Greek philosophy? No, this is found in the beginning of the Bible! No one inserted this to support the Doctrine of the Trinity. In Genesis 5:1, the term man identifies a single person; but in verse two, the term man refers to a nature. Remember this as we continue; it is a key concept.
Now a little bit more about Adam and Eve and marriage:
“But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:6-9; also Matthew 19:4-6)
This is talking about the first couple, and Jesus said they were no longer two. What did Jesus mean when he said, “they are no longer two?” He meant they were two, but then they became one. They started out as two what? Did He mean they were two persons, and now they are no longer two persons but one person? That does not seem right since they still look like two persons. So apparently, this does not mean they are now one person. So what was it that had twoness before, and then became one through marriage?
This passage is talking about the marriage relationship. Before my son was married, I could talk to him as a single person. We could arrange to do things, and he did not have to consult with anyone. The same was true of his fiancée. Anyone could deal with her as a single person, and she would relate to them. However, once they were married, the relationship between my son and me changed. If I wanted to arrange to do something with my son, he would consult his wife. My relationship with my son now necessarily included his wife. Before their marriage, they were two independent persons, each having a distinct relationship with all others. But after their marriage, they no longer were two independent persons with separate relationships; they were now a single relational unit whom all others must recognize. To relate to one person, you must also relate to the other. The two persons with separate relationships, become one joined relationship—a social unit. Outsiders must now view them and relate to them as a single entity. It is in this context that Jesus said, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:9)
So one relationship plus another relationship equals one merged relationship. One plus one equals one. Is this pagan arithmetic? This is Jesus’ arithmetic! I think this is something simple enough that a child can understand it, and it is biblical.
So in the Garden, Adam and Eve became one thing—one flesh. First of all, they shared the same nature—humanness. They were both human. Eve was genetically related to Adam since she was made from his rib. Eve was not more or less human than Adam was. This kind of unity based on nature (ontology4) is called an “ontological unity.” Secondly, they were joined as one in a special relationship that went beyond their shared human nature—humanness, and this special relationship required all others to relate to them as a single entity. This was a “social unity.” This is the illustration I prefer, and it is a biblical illustration.
Let’s explore this illustration and see how it can be adapted to explain the Trinity. Consider this saying:
“In the garden was the woman, the woman was with the man, and the woman was Man.”
Do you recall Genesis 5:1, 2? God made them “Man?” Do you understand what the above sentence is saying? Do you see how in the light of Genesis 5:1, 2 this is true?
But if I reword this to say, “… the woman was a Man,” would it still be true? No, because the woman was not a man, she was a woman. She was to become “one flesh” with this man and be in a special merged relationship.
What if I reword this to say “… the woman was the Man,” meaning the same man she was with? Would that still be true? That sentence does not even make sense. How could she be the same identical person with whom she also was?
So this phrase does not work with either “the woman was a man” nor with “the woman was the man.” This only makes sense if we say, “the woman was Man,” that is, she was man by nature—humanness and was man by a special united relationship with the man.
Let’s build on this illustration by considering another verse that is a favorite of the JWs:
“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD (YHWH), “and my servant whom I have chosen, …” (Isaiah 43:10)
In this text, God is addressing his people Israel and first calls them His “witnesses” (plural). As we saw earlier, this is a legal term under the Law that identifies as testifiers the people who can all individually speak to Who God is. But then, he refers to the whole nation as a single entity—God’s “servant” (singular). God relates to this body of believers as a single unit, and they were not to see themselves as just a collection of individual servants. No single individual was regarded as a servant separated from the whole. They were simultaneously a multitude of individual testifiers and a single, social unit in a single relationship to God. This is much like our illustration of Adam and Eve, but it expands on the number of persons involved. But is this illustration a valid illustration of the Trinity? Yes, it is. Jesus says so in John 17:
“… that they may be one, even as we are one. … I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, … The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, …” (John 17:11, 20-23)
This explains the kind of unity—the kind of oneness— between the Father and the Son. Jesus says in prayer to His Father that the kind of oneness they possess is the kind of oneness Jesus requests for all His followers. This kind of unity must be based on more than just having the same human nature—humanness, which is common even to those who do not believe in Jesus. This unity is more, since it reflects the spiritual unity—the special relationship possessed by the Father and the Son. This unity is more than ontology; it is a social relationship. The Father and Son are so close, that Jesus could say the Father was in the Son and the Son was in the Father (John 17:21). This is the kind of closeness Jesus is requesting His followers to have one day in perfection, including all those who would come to believe in Jesus through the message of the Apostles (John 17:20).
This passage cannot mean the Father and the Son are the same person. Jesus’ request, in prayer, was that the same kind of oneness eternally experienced by the Father and Son was what Jesus wanted for all His followers, although they are not eternal like God is. If the Father and Son are the same person, then Jesus would have been requesting that all His followers would one day truly become a single person. Rather, this is a uniting of a collection of distinct persons. This alone refutes Modalism.
The oneness between God and us is NOT a oneness of nature, for we will never have God’s eternal nature. But the goal Jesus requests is that one day, we human followers will be united with each other in perfect unity, and then we also will have a unity with the Father and Son. This oneness that the Son refers to here is a social unity like that shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit from eternity to eternity; this is the “Social Trinity.”
To summarize: The three Testifiers are one both in nature— Godness (the Ontological Trinity—based on Philippians 2:6; Hebrews 1:3) and in social relationship (the Social Trinity—based on John 17:11, 20-23).
Let’s apply this illustration to the Trinity in John 1:1:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
Does this allow for “the Word was a God?” No. Just like we saw previously, Eve was not ‘a man’ distinct from Adam. Likewise, as we saw previously in Isaiah 4:10, no individual testifier was ‘a servant’ distinct from the whole. So here in John 1:1, “the Word” is not a distinct God from the God with Whom He was. “The Word” is united in both nature and in relationship with God.
Does this verse allow for saying “the Word was THE God?” No. For the same reason we said Eve was not THE Man—the man with whom she was. That would not make sense to say the Word was with (the) God and was that same God. How can He be with Himself? But as was mentioned earlier, there is a theological position that holds to this view: Modalism. Modalism claims that the Word, Who is the Son, Jesus, is identically the same person as God just acting in a different mode. There is no distinction. This is more than saying the Word has the nature of God and is to be viewed as if united with God. No, this view claims the term God in John 1:1 refers not to a nature or a relationship but to a single person. Adherents claim this single person manifests Himself in any or all of three modes: Father, Son, or Holy Spirit, but this is still only one person, one testifier.
John 1:1 makes the Trinity clear. The “Word was” not “a” God, nor was the Word “the” God. The “Word was God,” because He was what God was. In the first part of John 1:1, where it says “the Word was with God,” that term God refers to an individual, the person (or testifier) we know as the Father. At the end of the verse where it says, “the Word was God;” this time the term God is not an identifier of a person (or testifier), but it refers to the nature of God, or as I prefer to say, “Godness.”
Does this sound odd that in the same verse the same noun “God” can in one case be a person and in another case be a nature? Do we see this in Scripture? We did in Genesis 5:1, 2.
… When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, … and named them Man.
In Genesis 5:1, the term “man” was applied to a single individual and referred to as “him.” But in verse 2, God names them both “Man,” which refers not to an individual, but rather to a couple who shared a single nature and to whom all outsiders would relate to as a single entity.
Does the WTBTS (aka JWs) teach “the Word” has the nature of God? In print, they have implied such. In the 1985 edition of their Kingdom Interlinear Translation (KIT, now out of print), on page 1140 of the Appendix and also in their 1984 New World Translation Study Bible (pg. 1579), they attempted to support their translation of John 1:1 by quoting an article written by scholar Philip J. Harner for the Journal of Biblical Literature, (Vol. 92, 1973). There he discusses clauses like John 1:1 and says this on page 85 of that article, which portion they quote in the KIT: “They indicate that the logos [Word] has the nature of theos [God].” There it is: The Word has the nature of God. This quote was intended to be supportive of the WTBTS’s own translation of John 1:1; and in using it, they do not make any negative comment. This must have slipped through the WTBTS reviewers. Harner’s full article is not quoted; but if it were, one would find he explains John 1:1 cannot mean “the Word was a God” nor can it mean “the Word was the God” for reasons like those given above.
Perhaps the clause could be translated, “the Word had the same nature as God.” This would be one way of representing John’s thought, which , as I understand it, that ho logos [the Word], no less than ho theos [the God], had the nature of theos [God]. (Harner’s article page 85)
What do Christians mean when they say, “Jesus is God?”
Normally, the word is means identically the same as. But Christians do not mean to say Jesus is identically the same as God—although Modalists affirm this. On pages 264-266 of his 1995 book God in Three Persons—A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity, Millard Erickson comments on this issue and points out that the word is can have different uses. In his list, he cites three uses; the third he calls the ‘is’ of predication,” and this is what is meant when Christians say “Jesus is God.” This is similar to saying “my car is red.” I can have several cars that all have the exact same color—red, but they are not the same car. There are multiple cars but only one red color. Likewise, when we say “Jesus ‘is’ God,” we mean Jesus has the very nature of God. There are other persons distinct from Jesus Who are also properly called “God;” yet there are not multiple Gods, there are not multiple natures, there is but one God—Godness. This is the one nature that is shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In this phrase (‘Jesus is God’), the term God is a qualifier, not an identifier. The Son, Jesus, is equally God, but not the same person as either the Father or the Holy Spirit. This is why I use the term Godness in my working definition of the Trinity.
Now let’s examine two passages the WTBTS teaches the JWs to use in order to challenge the Doctrine of the Trinity.
Who is “the only true God?”
And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)
Does this mean the Father alone is the only “true God,” and no other person can properly be called “true God” as the JWs typically claim? [See the WTBTS 2005 publication What does the Bible Really Teach?, page 152, paragraph 17] Since John 1:1 says Jesus is God, what kind of God is He? Is Jesus a true God or a false God? If there is only one true God—the Father, and Jesus is a true God, then He must be included in the “only true God” along with His Father. So, even the WTBTS has a problem here, since they do teach that Jesus is “a god” (their translation of John 1:1) but not a false god.
To understand John 17:3, we first ask if this is speaking about ontology (nature) or something else? Is Jesus saying only the Father has the true nature of Godness, or is He referring to some other quality associated with being the “only true God?” The answer is found by noting that Jesus refers to Himself as being the One Whom God sent (“and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”). This is not a distinction of nature, but rather it is a distinction of function and rank.
We find references to Jesus be sent by the Father elsewhere in the Book of John (John 5:23,24,30,36-38; 6:44,57; 7:28; 8:16,18,42; 10:36; 12:49; 13:3,20; 14:24,28; 17:3,8,18,21,23,25; 20:21). For example:
… I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. (John 8:42)
Functionally, Jesus is the One sent; the Father is the sender. This has implications for a difference in rank. Note how Jesus refers to the sent One as being a “servant;” while the One Who functions as the sender is greater in rank.
Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. (John 13:16, also see John 15:20)
Notice how the disciples identified Jesus as being the servant of God in Acts 3:20, 26; 4:24, 27:
that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, … God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness. (Acts 3:20, 26)
And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, … for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, …” (Acts 4:24, 27)
Is Jesus ever the sender? Yes, Jesus sends his disciples into the world to deliver the Gospel in John 17:18 (“As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”) and in John 20:21 (“… As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”). But it is the Father alone Who is always the sender and never the One sent, and always has the higher rank.
What does all this tell us? In the Book of John, Jesus is revealed functionally as a servant, as one who is sent and, therefore, of lower rank. The attribute of being sender is always associated with the One True God. The Book of John also reveals Jesus as having the nature of the Father (John 1:1), as the agent Who created all things (John 1:3), and as One to be honored just as much as the Father (John 5:23). Do these revealed concepts contradict each other? No, the functionality the Son has is a distinction within the Ontological Trinity. The Son has the nature of Godness, but He does not always function as the Father does. The Father always functions as the One with the highest rank—as the One Who sends; while the Son is the servant Who is sent.
Thus in prayer in John 17:3, Jesus distinguishes Himself from the Father functionally, not ontologically (in nature), and He identifies the Father alone Who epitomizes Godness as the One Who is the true God Who sends; while He (Jesus) is the One Who is sent. John 17:3 does not say the Father alone is the “only true God” (excluding the Son and the Holy Spirit). The Father is the “only true God,” and Jesus is also the “only true God” (in nature).
We can see this in 1 John 5. Before we do, note that 1 John is like a theological synopsis of the Book of John. If you compare both books and remove the historical narrative from John, you will see the parallels with 1 John. For example:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, … concerning the word [Greek: logos] of life —the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— (1 John 1:1, 2)
Compare this to the opening words of John 1:1-4, and you will see the parallels.
There is a statement in 1 John 5 that parallels John 17:3. We saw above where John 17:3 says “eternal life” is based on knowing “the only true God, and Jesus Christ …”
Now compare 1 John 5:11-13, 20:
And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. … And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
John is teaching that “eternal life … is in his Son” (1 John 5:11) and this life “was with the Father and was made manifest to us” (1 John 1:2). This “eternal life” is a clear reference to Jesus. Now note the parallels between John 17:3 and 1 John 5:
- eternal life is knowing the only true God and the Son … we can know we have eternal life (1 John 5:11,13)
- the Son was sent … the Son has come (1 John 5:20)
- we can know the only true God and the Son … we can know him who is true (1 John 5:20)
Then 1 John 5:20 says, “… we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.”
So “in” whom are we? The text answers: We are “in” “Jesus Christ.” It further says, we are “in” “him who is true.” Thus, Jesus is “him who is true.” Then the verse continues: “He is the true God and eternal life.” Who is the “eternal life?” As we saw above, this is Jesus. Who is it that is “him who is true?” Again, we saw this was Jesus. So who is “the true God and eternal life?” This, again, must be Jesus.
The references here to God and the Son make no distinctions between any functionality or rank. So the identity of “true God” can apply to either person: the Father or the Son.
So to summarize: When referring to the “only true God” in John 17:3, there is a clear distinction between the One Who sends and the One Who is sent; so the Father is identified functionally as the “only true God.” But in 1 John 5:20, the distinction between sender and sent is not in focus, but rather “eternal life” is the focus. This “eternal life” is in the Son Jesus Christ, Who in nature is “true God.”
Is God all-knowing?
But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (Mark 13:32)
We typically say an essential attribute of Godness is being all-knowing. Yet this text says Jesus—or some part of Jesus—is NOT all-knowing, because He does not know the timing of His Second Coming. How do we explain that some part of Jesus’ mentality is not all-knowing? Throughout history, the majority of theologians have given an answer that explores the union of the two natures of Jesus: Godness and humanity—humanness. I think a better answer is found in exploring the meaning of the word knowing.
This same Greek phrase “no one knows … but …” is found in two other places in the Bible—both in Revelation.
… To the one who conquers … I [Jesus] will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it. (Revelation 2:17, the NLT says, “no one understands;” the NET says, “no one can understand”)
So other than this person, does anyone else know (or is aware of) this name? Is this name known only to Jesus (the giver) and the recipient? Does the Father know it, too? Since the Father is all-knowing, we would expect that He does. Yet the verse says, “no one knows except the one who receives it.” How is it true then that no one knows the name except the recipient and Jesus?
His [Jesus] eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. (Revelation 19:12, 13)
So other than Jesus, does anyone else know (or is aware of) this name? Is this something only Jesus knows and not the Father? If we compare Mark 13:32 with these two verses in Revelation, it seems there are things only Jesus knows and there are things only the Father knows. Then Who is all-knowing?
The answer is that this phrase, which occurs these three times in the NT, “no one knows … but” has a special meaning other than “no one is aware … but.” This knowledge is not an awareness of information; rather it is something very personal and experiential.
Consider this: Did the Father experience death on the cross? No. Does the Father know the cross in the same way and to the same extent as the Son does? No. The Son knows the cross in a way the Father will never know it, because the Son alone experienced the cross. So when Mark 13:32 says the Father knows that day and hour, and the Son does not; that—like the two examples in Revelation—means the Father alone has some kind of special, personal knowledge regarding the Second Coming.
So when they [the disciples] had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” (Acts 1:6, 7)
Here the disciples again are asking about the timing of the same event as in Mark 13:32—the Second Coming of Christ and the restoring of the Kingdom. Jesus’ answer here is that it is not for the disciples to know when this will be. He gives no further reason why they cannot know it other than to say it is because the Father has decided the time on His Own authority. This response is also similar to the answer Jesus gives in Mark saying that others do not know the timing, which belongs to the Father alone. The knowing of the time as mentioned in both accounts is restricted to the Father alone. The knowing of the time in Acts refers to the authority the Father has in setting when it will occur—an authority no one else has, not even the Son. Between Mark 13 and Acts 1, we see the same question and nearly the same response.
Putting these together shows the knowing of the time is not about an intellectual awareness, but rather it is about the decision-making that is in the Father’s jurisdiction alone. Mark 13:32 is not saying the Son has no awareness of the time, but rather He does not have a share in deciding the time. No one but the Father has this.Ω
Jay Hess is currently the teaching elder and director of discipleship at Grace Christian Fellowship church in Garner, NC. He is also an associate member of the Evangelical Theological Society. Prior to becoming a Christian in 1992, he was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for 23 years and was briefly associated with the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society’s writing department. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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- Complementarian view – Within the Trinitarian relationship are three distinct persons: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each is an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory. Further, the Father has the highest rank and the Son and Holy Spirit are both eternally functionally subordinate to the Father. ↩
- Egalitarian view – Within the Trinitarian relationship are three distinct persons: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each is an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory. Further the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are always equal in rank even though the Son was temporarily subordinate as part of the redemption of man. ↩
- Binitarians – those who view the Father and Son as two distinct persons equally divine in nature but being the One True God. The Holy Spirit is something of God related to the mind or power of God but not a distinct person like the Father and Son. ↩
- Ontology – The study of a being’s nature and existence. The Ontology of God is the study of the nature of God, the being of God, the attributes that constitute the nature of being God. ↩