Baker Academic

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Of Hamburgers and the Trinity - Le Donne

I was at Five Guys Burgers and Fries today with a friend of mine in Indianapolis. The conversation shifted from tonight's debate between Obama and Romney to matters theological.

Him: "So, you being a historical Jesus guy and all, you probably have some weird ideas about the Trinity."

Me: "My ideas are probably not any more or less weird than anybody else's." (a thoughtful pause, with a hint of handsome brow-furrowing) "...The Trinity is an utterly bizarre concept, how could I have anything but weird ideas about it?"

Him: "You see."

Me: "What I mean to say is that I think that the whole concept evokes a bit of mystery."

Him: "Do you think that John thought that Jesus was divine?"

Me: "You mean the author of the Gospel of John?"

Him: "Yes."

Me: "Yes."

Him: "Do you think that he believed that there was only one God?"

(a long pause; more brow-furrowing; face contorted like a pug)

Me: "Yes."

Him: "Do you think John believed that there was a necessary distinction between the Son and the Father?"

Me: "I don't know."

So I thought I'd throw it out to you all. Do you think that the author of the Fourth Gospel had a developed conception of the Trinity? Perhaps a greater complication arises from John's depiction of Jesus "breathing out" the Holy Spirit onto his disciples (Jn 20:22).

Any ideas?



  1. How could he? The trinity was not even developed until the third century where its infancy took place at the council of Nicea. It was later developed and polished by Tertullian and Origen. (not together mind you)

    1. Since no one else did, I'm just going to weigh-in on your comment.

      Your chronology:
      The doctrine of the Trinity—its infancy developed in the third century at the council of Nicea. It was later hammered out by the theological heavyweights of Tertullian and Origen.

      Actual chronology:
      Origen and Tertullian had both been dead for a CENTURY before the first council of Nicea happened in the FOURTH century.

      If you're going to make comments implying that the early church was incapable of properly understanding the documents written within their same era at least have the decency to get the chronology right.

      Or better yet, actually do research next time.

  2. Perhaps the father is the inside meat; Jesus the outside bread; and the Holy Spirit all the fixins that bring it all together. Together they make the unity of the hamburger?

  3. Him: "Do you think that the author of the Fourth Gospel had a developed conception of the Trinity?"

    Me: "Yes."

  4. I don't think any of the NT writers had a 'developed concept of the trinity'. They have this idea that Jesus was the full representation and embodiment of the God of Israel. That Jesus was Yahweh in the form of a man. But they didn't express this in terms of 'trinity' or 'three persons'.

    As the post-Biblical Church kept moving outward into the Gentile world, now lacking a direct sense of guidance from fiercely monotheistic Jews, they struggled to understand how there is this God over here, and this Jesus over there (and even this Holy Spirit in the third corner), without there being three gods? It was in this post-Biblical context that the concept of 'trinity' developed, as a way of trying to organize the thoughts of the NT writers into something short and cogent. Emphasizing the 'threeness' of God, applying terms like 'trinity' to him, were varying ways of trying to figure out what the NT writers were saying.

    I'm not so sure the NT writers would have approved of such explicitly plural language (since every sense we have tells us that 'God is three' is not 'God is one'), but that's just my opinion.

    Instead of trying to incorporate new lingo, we see the NT writers instead drawing upon a variety of OT images and tying them together to present the idea rattling around in their heads. The word of God, the image of God, the name above all names, every knee shall bow, etc. The NT writers needed to present the idea that (1) Jesus is supremely exalted without also compromising the adamant 'God is one' creed of their faith, (2) this Jesus is a man, without forgetting that Jesus fulfills Yahweh-only roles and actions, and (3) that equivocation between Jesus and God ('the Father') is not acceptable.

    I think they had a rough job making sure people understood all of this about God and Jesus, but I don't think it is impossible to understand, nor do I think that 'trinity' language is necessarily the best way to explain it. This probably puts me in the minority on the issue, but that's all I can say for now.

    1. I like that. My question is this: Did the pre-Jesus Jews have theological beliefs about YHWH and his spirit? Because even in the OT there are some funky verses about this distinction. And This: Did the pre-Jesus Jews expect the Messiah to be a co-laborer with YHWH to the extent that NT displays? How much of this NT theological material was new?

      Do we have answers for those questions? If not, then we should probably find them.

    2. Thanks for your question John. This is not an attempt to sidestep a very important issue, but I have to take a moment to address an assumption that you've betrayed. It is the assumption that we can arrive at a general answer to the question: "What did Jews believe back then?" - I need to emphasize that there was no monolithic entity called "the Jews". Lots of folks would have self-identified as children of Israel, but there was an enormous amount of ideological diversity in this group. This is absolutely crucial because one could answer that there were some Jews who personified "Wisdom" as a companion of the Lord... this might help us understand the Fourth Gospel better. But it would be folly to suggest that all or most Jews had this belief. So to your question, did some Jews have an elevated notion of the messiah as an extension of the will of the Lord? The answer is that some probably did.

  5. Mark this is a really worthwhile synopsis of a view that I do not see very often. I'm going to chew on this before I post on this topic next. Lots of potential here (not that my approval matters much, but I found it thought provoking).


  6. I think John knew Jesus was Yahweh. He made it clear in the prologue that The Word created everything in consonance with "God" and he knew the word was God and he surely knew Genesis 1:1.

    Did he already have a developed view of the doctrine we believe? I think probably binitarian at that point, trinitarian is not as demonstrable.

    In the OT text, "the word" is personified at times and there does appear to be a binitarian view of Yahweh fairly well documented there. It isn't as obvious as John's prologue, it is there though.

    Dr. Michael Heiser has some good explanatory videos out on this.

    BTW, after watching these, you will start finding other OT verses not developed in them with "weird verbiage" that transitions from "He" to "I" relating to Yahweh in the same verse.

    Zechariah 12:10 is one. I never noticed stuff like this before.

  7. Fascinating discusussion as we tread the precipices of orthodoxy between the twin chasms of the heresies of modalism and polytheism! Isaac Newton apparently wanted to be ordained but some suspect he may have choked on the Trinity, so he went home. Alister McGrath wrote in "Dangerous Idea" that during the upheaval of the Reformation some were asking, "So are we gonna chuck the Trinity, too?" It would be interesting to know who was suggesting that and what they would have replaced it with. Isaiah 9:6 calls the Son the Everlasting Father, and there is some manuscript evidence that Jude wrote that Jesus led the children of Israel in the wilderness. I don't want to speak for Hurtado, but he has some thoughts about something like a binatarianism in earliest Christianity which I am likely badly distorting. Paul seems to have believed that all of God was in Jesus. Mysterious, indeed.

  8. An interesting interpretation by Jesus in Matthew...Matthew's interpretation of Jesus' interpretation. Originally Ps. 110:1.
    Now Matthew 22.

    41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

    “The son of David,”(AE) they replied.

    43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,

    44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand
    until I put your enemies
    under your feet.”’[e](AF)
    45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46 No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions."

    Paul indeed said that all of God was in Jesus, but Paul also often speaks of the overwhelming power of the spirit. In John's Gospel (I know, I know, it falls from many an historian's bookstand), after the resurrection when Jesus encounter's his disciples, he breathes on them and says "receive the holy spirit." I dunno, just some thoughts.