1.2 The Nature of God
Volume 1: Foundations—Chapter 2
The Nature of God
Anybody who’s been raised in a traditional Christian church (a term I use in the broadest sense) has been confronted with the idea that God is a Trinity—a Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit. Most of us swallow the doctrine whole, never giving it a second thought, happy to remain blissfully unaware of the raging controversy that’s been fought over the issue between competing schools of thought over the past seventeen hundred years. While some of us realize that the word “Trinity” (or anything like it) does not appear in Scripture, we’re content (if we think about it at all) to let the theologians and preachers have the last word on the subject. But considering how often religious professionals have led us down the primrose path—not to mention how often they disagree with each other—I think maybe we should not surrender our intellectual prerogatives quite so lightly.
Neither the prophets nor apostles spoke of a Trinity—One triune God, defined as having three persons but one substance, essence, or being. Our first problem is that this definition makes no sense, at least not in any way we can relate to in the real world. It’s theological mumbo jumbo, like saying black and white are really the same color—hypergray. To make matters worse (or at least more interesting) the idea of a trinity of gods predates Christianity by thousands of years. The prototypical instance is apparently the Babylonian triad of Nimrod, Semiramis, and Tammuz. The imagery is always the same: an authoritarian creator-father figure; his female counterpart, the Madonna or “Queen of Heaven” fertility goddess; and the Son, usually marketed as a Sun god. These three show up in various guises throughout the history of man. They’re Horus, Isis, and Osiris in ancient Egypt; the Greek pantheon had Zeus, Athena, and Apollo; Rome venerated them as Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury; then Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva were worshiped among the Hindus. Not to be outdone, today’s atheistic secular humanists worship Power, Sex, and Money. The fact that all of these trinities (even the last one) predate the first-century advent of Yahshua the Messiah ought to be a clue that something might be amiss with either the doctrine of a trinity or the religion that promotes it—or both.
The most definitive statement concerning the numerical component of God’s nature is found in the Torah: “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) The Hebrew word for “one” is ’echad, which according to the Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains means: “1. one, a, an, i.e., a cardinal number in contrast to more than one; 2. first, i.e., an ordinal number, as the first in a series involving time, space, or set; 3. one time, once, i.e., a single occurrence, possibly in some contexts to the exclusion of all other occurrences; 4. one, i.e., that which is united as one in contrast to separate parts; 5. each, every, i.e., one as a part of a totality; 6. certain one, i.e., a reference to a person which is not explicit, but only one reference; 7. only, i.e., one of a unique class or kind, and so distinctive; 8. unit: אֶחָד לְ־ אֶחָד (’echad le- ’echad) one by one, i.e., a sequence of single units; 9. unit: שְׁכֶם אֶחָד (shekem ’echad) in unity, formally, one shoulder, i.e., pertaining to serving in a unified or unanimous manner.” It’s clear then that even if God is properly described as a “Trinity,” He is not three Gods, or even “God in three persons.” While all of these DBLSD definitions are true of Yahweh to some degree, the keys to understanding His “numerical” nature are definitions #4 and #5. Why this is so will become apparent as we continue to study the matter.
On the other hand, the three “persons” of the Christian Trinity are juxtaposed often enough in Scripture to make the doctrine seem plausible, if not proven. Maybe all these bogus trinities are just another case of satanic counterfeiting—the devil trying to confuse us by putting forty “packages” on the shelves that look to the unwary shopper just like the real thing. There’s only one way to find out for sure: let’s look at the Scriptures and engage our brains.
After His resurrection, Yahshua issued the “great commission,” recorded at the end of the book of Matthew like this: “Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:18-20) All three of the Trinity’s supposed “persons” are listed here, but their “name” (Greek: onoma) is singular, not plural—there’s only one name in view here, and that name is Yahweh. Note also the extraneous instances of “of.” This literally reads: “…immersing them in the name: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Also, the definite article “the” (Greek ho) implies an exegetical or explanatory function: it would not be improper to translate this, “…the Father, that is to say, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” So what looked at first glance like an airtight proof text for “Trinity” is actually shaping up to be an argument for Unity.
Let’s try another one. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.” (II Corinthians 13:14) See? See? There are three divine persons listed. That’s a Trinity, right? Well, yes and no. What’s really being differentiated here is function. First, grace—unmerited favor, kindness, good will, a gift—is bestowed upon us by Yahshua the Messiah. (Note, by the way, that of the three, only Yahshua is called “the Lord,” the reason for which was clearly stated in our previous scripture, when He declared, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” Being “the Lord”—master, ruler, and owner—is the function of the Messiah, even though that authority is derivative: it’s “given” to Him by Yahweh, the One to Whom it naturally belongs. The exercise of authority among men is the essential function of neither Father Yahweh nor His Spirit nor any manifestation of God in our experience other than Yahshua, the risen Messiah. We really need to learn to be more careful in our application of the term.)
Second, love is provided by God, i.e., Yahweh, “the Father.” Yahweh’s love is the source of everything—our existence, our free will, the gracious provision for our reconciliation with Himself, and even Yahshua’s authority. Love is the defining characteristic of the Living God. As John reminds us, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (I John 4:8) At first, it seemed strange to me that Paul listed God’s love second in the list, but upon reflection, it makes perfect sense: we cannot experience Yahweh’s love if we have not first embraced the grace afforded by Yahshua’s life and sacrifice.
Third and finally, communion—fellowship, intimacy, and community (both with God and among our brothers and sisters)—is what the indwelling set-apart Spirit of Yahweh brings to the party. Again, the order is significant, for communion cannot be maintained among those who are not unified by God’s love, which in turn is delivered to us through grace. Light can have no communion with darkness, nor can one be in intimate fellowship with both the world’s values and Yahweh’s at the same time.
Paul has thus concluded his second letter to the believers at Corinth by simply asking Yahweh to be Himself, the form of His revelation being ultimately determined by the function of the character trait He wished to bestow upon us, whether grace, love, or communion. (I guess Louis Sullivan’s architectural credo, “Form follows function,” has theological ramifications.) Further, I believe Paul’s conclusion in a previous letter still applies: “The greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:13)
The concept of Unity (as opposed to Trinity) appeals to this difference in function to define the nature of God not as three distinct divine persons, but rather as One Entity, Yahweh, who manifests Himself to the object of His love, mankind, in whatever way the situation demands. And as we will soon learn, there are some things Yahweh wished to achieve in our world for which neither the “Son of Man,” Yahshua, nor His indwelling Spirit were appropriate. For these functions Yahweh manifested Himself in other forms. Unless I’ve missed something, there are six of these Logos manifestations of Yahweh spoken of in Scripture, not just two—another instance of the Bible’s ubiquitous pattern of sevens, always expressed as six plus one. This epiphany renders the doctrine of the Trinity not so much wrong as it is insufficient—inadequate for the task of accurately describing the revealed nature of God in our corporate human experience. God is not a trinity. He is, to coin a word, a SeptiUnity.
I hasten to add that though I’m using the term Unity, I’m not advocating the heresy of Unitarianism (which is sometimes referred to as “Unity”), which states that God is One, but Jesus (they would never call Him by His real name, you understand) was merely a man, a great moral teacher. That’s one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever heard, for Isaiah had prophesied concerning Him, “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6) Yahshua Himself had confirmed this, saying, “I and My Father are One…I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me…I am in the Father and the Father in me.” (John 10:30;14:6, 11) If He’s not God incarnate, then these statements would prove that He’s not a “great moral teacher” either, but is rather a cruel, lying sadist out to deceive anyone who’s trusting Him for their salvation. No, what I’m saying is the same thing that Moses declared: “Yahweh our God, Yahweh is One.”
Let’s review another scene in which it is said all three divine “persons” are present—at Yahshua’s baptism by John. “When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” (Matthew 3:16-17) Again, function, not identity, is what’s being distinguished. Yahshua was preparing for ministry—the ministry of providing God’s grace to mankind. The Spirit is seen (in the form of a dove) descending from “the heavens” as if from God. So as before, the Spirit’s role or function is communion—facilitating an intimate relationship between a loving God and a lost and needy human race.
Yahweh here is adhering to a principle He had laid down in the Torah, that “By the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established.” (Deuteronomy 19:15) John had already testified, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. This is He of whom I said, After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me. I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water….” God required at least two witnesses (preferably three) that Yahshua was His Anointed One. John the Baptist announced it publicly. That’s one.
The Spirit’s manifestation as a dove alighting upon Yahshua was the next witness. The dove as a symbol has a rich symbolic persona of its own, a discussion I’d like to defer to a later chapter. It’s worth noting, however, that nobody seriously thinks the Holy Spirit is a bird. This, rather, was taken (by those who were willing to see it) as a symbol of a greater reality: the dove visibly represented the Holy Spirit of Yahweh, in whom the followers of Yahshua would find themselves immersed. “And John bore witness, saying, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.’” (John 1:29-34) The Spirit of God, in a rare visible symbolic manifestation, arrived to confirm the remarkable revelation that John had made. That’s two.
Finally, a Voice came from heaven. It spoke Yahweh’s message, confirming publicly what John the Baptist had been told by God in private. The voice was not Yahshua’s, nor was it the dove’s. It was a separate divine manifestation stating—confirming—that Yahshua was the Son of God. (Note that the voice was not that of Yahweh Himself in His undiminished glory either, but rather another manifestation, a theophany. The evidence for my contention is that the witnesses survived the encounter.) Here at the outset of the Messiah’s public ministry, Yahweh was concerned with establishing Yahshua’s credentials. You might be able to brush off the testimony of one eccentric locust-munching prophet baptizing people in the wilderness, and you could chalk up the dove thing to “bizarre animal behavior,” but the audible Voice From Heaven—especially in light of the other witnesses—should at least have given the doubters pause. God had spoken. That’s three.
We could go on, but the pattern with these scriptural examples is well enough established: God reveals Himself to man in different ways, and sometimes He invites more than one of His symbolic manifestations to share the stage at the same time. But that in itself does not establish a Trinity in the traditional Christian sense, for several reasons:
(1) Every manifestation of God seen among men is diminished, reduced, or restricted—“dialed down” in some way from what we can perceive of Yahweh’s glory. They all bear evidence of being derivatives, shadows, or as I put it previously, symbols of God’s infinite presence. (I’m using the term “infinite” because I can’t really comprehend the scope of Yahweh’s being. If you can conceive of a limitation in Yahweh’s character or existence that isn’t self-imposed, then feel free to select another adjective.) These Logos forms of God are not created beings, however: they share Yahweh’s character, nature, identity, and eternal existence, though not His magnitude. They are God; they’re just not all there is of Him. More to the point, they’re all of God that He allows us to experience, at least for the moment.
(2) Yahweh is never seen or heard in His undiminished glory in any of these encounters. To do so would be fatal to the very object of His love—mankind. “Voices from heaven,” whether audible speech or ominous “thunderings,” always stop far short of the kind of awesome power of which the Creator, who spoke the very universe into existence, was capable. (I believe the heavenly Voice heard at Christ’s baptism was the same divine manifestation of Yahweh that delivered the Torah to Moses on Mount Horeb.)
(3) The Holy Spirit is never spoken of as being a person distinct from Yahweh, but rather as the form of Yahweh that He has set apart from Himself for our benefit—in order to indwell, cleanse, and empower His children.
(4) As I mentioned before, God has historically revealed Himself among men in a variety of diminished forms whose description fits neither that of Yahshua the Messiah nor the Holy Spirit. There are four of these, besides the two obvious manifestations that are universally identified as being part of the “Trinity.” One God, Yahweh, manifests Himself to mankind six different ways. This six-plus-one pattern is ubiquitous in scripture—and every time it’s used, it’s function is to reveal Yahweh’s character or His plan to us, whether in soteriological, chronological, or personal terms. Yahweh and His six chosen manifestations are the subject of this chapter, for they define the nature of deity as He has revealed Himself to man.
I hope it’s clear that my objective here is not to shake your faith in God—only your confidence in traditional religious dogma. I don’t want to challenge your belief in the scriptures—only to encourage you to look at them more closely, and with fresh eyes. Even honest theologians sometimes get it wrong—and theologians aren’t always honest. Yahweh, on the other hand, never makes stupid mistakes. If we believe a doctrine that doesn’t really hold up under the light of scriptural scrutiny, the problem isn’t with God’s Word, but with our own inadequate understanding. And if the scriptures themselves seem to be contradictory, it should tell us that we need to delve deeper. Errant translations can lead us astray, as can our traditions. Clerics, customs, and culture can conspire to rob us of insight. And apathy and inertia can quench our confidence and joy. Still, the truth is there, if only we’ll seek it. If it’s hidden at all, it’s hidden in plain sight: all we have to do is cut down the weeds that have grown up around it.
(First published 2013)