The Trinity


In my previous posting, I considered the ways in which the doctrine of the Trinity represents a very specific, detailed, and dogmatic way of describing an infinite God who so often defies our finite attempts at capturing his nature in words and symbols. I now want to go a little deeper into how the Trinity represents a human doctrine about Jesus as he relates to God, rather than a divinely revealed truth. Like all human doctrines about God, it has its history and its context. So I would like to specifically delve a bit into how the understanding of Jesus's nature evolved within the writings of the New Testament.

I believe that Jesus never proclaimed himself as divine in his lifetime, but that after his death his perceived status underwent an evolution over time. We can actually see within the pages of the New Testament some of this evolution in understanding of Jesus.

The earliest writings in the New Testament that we have were the letters of Paul. In his epistle to the Romans, Paul proclaims that Jesus "was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead." Interestingly enough, Paul says nothing here about an eternal pre-existent Christ who descended to earth--that idea came much later. On the contrary, Paul writes that Jesus was adopted as God's son at the time of his resurrection. Note that Paul also made no claims in his letters that Jesus was bodily resurrected and walked among the disciples before ascending to heaven. In 1 Corinthians 15, he says that after the resurrection of Jesus

he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
We can see in the above text that Paul uses the same verb--"appeared"--for each experience of the resurrected Jesus, including his own. Thus each encounter with Christ represented, as Paul described it, the same category of experience. Since both Paul and the book of Acts assert that Paul saw Jesus through a visionary experience of the exalted Christ, rather than through having been with Jesus during a period of a bodily resurrection on earth, it is clear here that Paul was stating that the nature of his experience of the resurrected Jesus was the same as that of the other apostles who came before him. It therefore was the experience of an exalted Christ who was in heaven with God--not that of a bodily resurrected Jesus. Paul, as already noted, believed that Jesus was "declared" the Son of God upon resurrection, at which time Jesus was exalted into heaven with God. It appears, therefore, that he never believed that a resurrected Christ walked on earth with the disciples and then "ascended" to heaven.

After the letters of Paul, the next New Testament work to have been written, at around 70 CE, was the Gospel of Mark. Mark makes no mention of any resurrection appearances by Jesus. Thus, for Mark, like Paul, any description of a bodily resurrected Jesus is actually absent. Mark suggests that the disciples would encounter Jesus in Galilee--but the nature of any such an encounter is never described. He only notes that certain women went to the tomb, found it empty, were told that Jesus was resurrected, and fled. End of story. He does, however, move Jesus's adoption by God as the Divine son earlier than Paul did. In Mark's case, upon Jesus's baptism (described in the very first chapter of the book), God proclaims that Jesus is God's son. Thus, for Mark, it is at baptism, rather than at his resurrection, that God adopts Jesus as his son.

Being God's son, in this case, does not mean that Jesus was divine. Jesus is quoted in this gospel as saying at one point, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." In that statement, Jesus clearly distinguished himself from God. This was obviously an embarrassing quotation to later Christians who wanted to identify Jesus more closely with God; thus Matthew, written only some 10-15 years later, and which used Mark as a source, subtly reworded the rhetorical question to say, "Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good." This subtle change now takes away the distinction that Jesus makes between himself and God.

In Matthew, also, the time of Jesus's declaration as God's son is moved back still earlier. From Paul's location of the event at resurrection, to Mark's location of the event at baptism, we have Matthew locating it at conception. Meanwhile, Matthew is the first Gospel to describe an actual resurrection appearance by Jesus. Luke and Acts, written still later, go into greater detail with respect to describing Jesus's post-resurrection appearances, locating them in Jerusalem instead of Galilee, and also describing an ascension into heaven. The Gospel of John goes even further with respect to when Jesus became God's son--according to the prologue of that Gospel, Jesus was the pre-existing Divine Logos who had always been with God.

From all of this we can see that several things evolved in the understanding of Jesus during the years after his death. Initially, his loyal followers were so taken with his disclosure of the Divine presence that they believed that they had experienced him as having been exalted into God's presence and declared God's son after his execution. Later New Testament writers embellished these claims--placing his adoption as God's son at earlier and earlier points in his life until the Gospel of John took it to the ultimate conclusion and had him pre-existing eternally with God. These embellishments also included the invention of tales of physical appearances on earth after his death and resurrection, which were then followed by an "ascension" into God's presence that obviously was based on three-tiered cosmology. So we went from Jesus being the subject of a mystically experienced exaltation into God's presence after his death to stories of a physical resurrection and later ascension.

This elaboration of the understanding of Jesus over time ultimately led to the development of a fully worked out doctrine of the Trinity. The reality is that this doctrine was wrangled over for some time before it was finally arrived at. Furthermore, there were many competing understandings of the nature and life of Jesus; the one that won out became known as "orthodoxy", while the losing theologies became "heresy". The writings that supported the orthodoxy became part of the New Testament, while those that did not were suppressed. The elaboration of theology about Jesus over time that I described above took place among those writings that were placed into the New Testament by the orthodoxy. Thus the Trinity was not an inevitable result of a straight line progression of ideas, but rather one possible conclusion about Jesus among many--the one that was victorious, and then the victors got to include those books that were the most consistent with that conclusion into their canonical scriptures.

The Bible was written by human beings. The evolution of ideas about Jesus was a human process. Like all human process, it reflects the world in which those humans lived. We in the modern world have the tools for examining that process and evaluating it in the light of our modern understanding of the world. The old three-tiered cosmology of the ancient world no longer applies. The old patriarchal God who rules from atop this three-tiered universe also has fallen by the wayside. The old paradigm simply no longer holds. Instead, perhaps it is time for those who follow Jesus to re-examine the old paradigms. For some of us who believe in God and who are attracted to the Christian tradition, the old creeds and the old Trinitarian formulas just no longer make any sense.