My name is Solomon Keal. I am a minister for the General Church of the New Jerusalem, which is a Swedenborgian Christian denomination. These are some of my thoughts about the Lord, the symbolic meanings in the Bible, life after death, faith, charity, usefulness, loving the Lord and one's neighbor, the 2nd Coming, Swedenborg's Writings, and other theological stuff.
Monday, March 8, 2010
Trinity of Person
The purpose of this paper is to attempt to answer some of the questions people may have about the doctrine of the Trinity, both inside and outside of the New Church. We will look at the historical origin of the doctrine of the Trinity. We will examine why the interpretation of the Trinity as three Persons doesn’t work, from the perspectives of authority, reason, and experience. We will examine the true interpretation of the Trinity of Person, based on the truths of the Lord’s 2nd Coming, and why it is so important for the Church to understand this interpretation. And we will find out what our responsibility is in explaining this doctrine, both for ourselves and for others.
First, what are some of the questions people have about the doctrine of the Trinity? From those who are unfamiliar with the New Church perspective on this doctrine, some of the question might be: Is the Trinity a doctrine that the New Church espouses or rejects?
Doesn’t the literal sense of the Bible describe 3 different persons as God?
Why doesn’t it work for Jesus to simply be God’s son; a separate Divine Being?
What’s wrong with thinking there could be 3 persons in 1 God? He is infinite isn’t He?
Why is God indivisible?
People who are familiar with the New Church perspective on the Trinity might also have questions. Some of these might be questions directed towards people who are unfamiliar with the New Church doctrine: Can you really think of the Trinity as three separate Persons, and not picture three gods in your head?
If you are acknowledging each Person as God, how can you be adding Persons and not be adding gods?
Where does the idea come from, that Jesus and His Father might be at odds with each other?
Some questions might be directed inward, as an attempt to understand our own doctrine:
Is the Trinity a doctrine that the New Church espouses or rejects?
Why did Jesus talk to the Father as if He was someone separate from Himself?
Why is the language Jesus used in the Gospels confusing on this subject?
What examples can we use that might help to explain this mystery?
Why is this such an important topic? We will attempt to answer these questions in this paper.
Where does the doctrine of the Trinity come from?
“The Apostolic Church knew no trinity of persons. The idea was hatched by the Council of Nicaea.” (TCR 163) The Council of Nicaea first met in 325 A.D. One of it’s purposes was to define the Church’s official doctrine about who Jesus Christ was. And the doctrine later became ‘set in stone’ as it were, by the Athanasian Creed around 500 A.D. in it’s insistence that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were separate Persons. (see Lord 56) This was confounded further by the existence a something known as the Trinity Shield, which states that the Father is not the Son, and is not the Holy Spirit, and so on. (See Trinity Shield image at the end of this paper)
Even the Apostles’ Creed of 180 A.D., and the language of the Epistles and the Gospels of the 1st century, definitely described a Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit, even though it was not described as a Trinity of Persons back then.
Why the Doctrine of a Trinity of three Persons in God does not work.
So where did people get the idea that the Father and the Son might be separate persons? Very likely from the language of the Gospels and the words of Jesus themselves:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son.” (John 3:16)
“For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” (John 6:38)
“Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father save Me from this hour?’ But for this purpose I came to this hour.” (John 12:27)
“O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” (Matt 26:39)
“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt 27:46)
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
All of these examples give the impression that Jesus had a will that was separate and maybe even at odds with the will of the Father, and thus that they were separate persons. (And yet the subject matter of what Jesus was saying was always that He was doing the will of His Father and NOT His own will. More on that later.)
Jesus Himself told His disciples to “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.” (Matt 28:19) Notice however that He used the word “name” and not “person.”
“Take for example the appearance... in the New Testament that there are three distinct persons in the Godhead. It is to be observed, however, that nowhere in the four Gospels is the term ‘person’ used in reference to the Lord; on the other hand, it is true that the Lord spoke of the Father as if of another, and that He referred to the Holy Spirit as One who was to come in His place.” (Pendleton, pp 42,43)
The Epistles frequently refer to “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” (Col 1:2, emphasis added), and yet at the same time the Apostles believed that Jesus Christ was fully God, “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” (Col 2:9) There is even a sense that the Apostles equated Jesus Christ with the God of the Old Testament:
“Moreover brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.” (1 Cor. 10:1-4)
And finally, there are numerous quotes from the Gospels that indicate that Jesus and the Father are one and the same.
“Philip said to Jesus, ‘Show us the Father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Those who see Me see the Father. Why then are you saying, ‘Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.’” (John 14:8-11) “Jesus said, ‘I and my Father are one.” (John 10:30)
(see also TCR 188:5)
From all of this we can see that the language of the literal sense of the Word is confusing on this topic. “The Word in the sense of the letter is such that it distinguishes things which are one, as if they were not one.” (Lord 55)
So let’s move on and examine the problem with our ability to reason. Does the doctrine of a Trinity of three Persons make sense, or not? Let’s begin by asking the question, “Is God divisible?” If we think about the nature of God being Infinity, or being the Source of everything, or being all Goodness; is that concept really divisible? Is it possible to divide Goodness, and say that something is half of Goodness, and another thing is the other half of Goodness? Doesn’t that actually lessen the Goodness? “We would be splitting a divine essence that is actually unified and indivisible. We would have made none of the three fully God; we would have given each one only a third of the power - an arrangement that a sound intellect has no choice but to reject.” (TCR 168) When in reality, I think we would all acknowledge that God cannot be lessened by being Infinite. The fact that He is omnipresent, doesn’t mean that He is ‘spread too thin.’
So then the question we might ask other Christians becomes, ‘If each Person in the Divine Trinity is fully God, then why do you call them separate Persons?” The doctrine of the New Church, and our own reason tells us that it doesn’t make sense:
“The truth is that dividing God or the divine essence into three persons, each of whom is individually a god in his own right, causes denial of God,” (TCR 15:2)
“For the Divine is not divisible; and to make three one by essence or substance does not take away the idea of three Gods, but only conveys the idea of unanimity between them.” (Lord 57)
“Just think. If one body had many heads, and each head had it’s own agenda based on it’s mind and its volition, could the body survive? There could be no unanimity among them the way there is with a single head.” (DLW 25)
This leads into the next major problem with the idea of a Trinity of Persons in God, which is that, in our minds, it then becomes possible for these Persons to be at odds with each other. The doctrine of the Trinity of Persons describes a scenario where Jesus intervened on our behalf and gave His life as a ransom, or payment for our sins. Payment to whom? Payment to the Father? Why would the Son need to pay the Father for something? Don’t they have the same goals in mind? (See above where I spoke of ‘separate vs. united wills’) “If we saw the Father as assigning spiritual credit or blame, [and] the Son as mediating,” (TCR 168) then there is no true unification between them.
As children we may remember a time when we went to our mother and asked for something, and she said, ‘No,’ and so then we went to our father and asked for the same thing, and he said, ‘Yes.‘ If you have ever been a parent, you know that this creates strife in the family. The parents are then not on the same page. There is no unified front. “Every city or house divided against itself will not stand.” (Matt 12:25). So how can the Persons of God be a divided front, and still govern the Universe effectively? They can’t. God is never a divided front. Therefore God is not divided into Persons.
However, many people still try to rationalize this idea. “They use various phenomena in plane geometry, solid geometry, arithmetic, and physics, as well as folding pieces of clothing and pieces of paper.” (TCR 184) C.S. Lewis, in his book, ‘Mere Christianity,’ uses the compelling analogy of finite persons as being like squares in two dimensions, and the Persons of God as being like squares that make up one cube in three dimensions. (See Lewis p. 162).
So lets play this game. I’ve heard Christians say that it’s not a matter of 1+1+1=3, it’s a matter of 1x1x1=1. I think this is actually fairly enlightened. But I don’t think that people fully realize how it actually doesn’t support the doctrine of a Trinity of Persons, but rather it supports the doctrine of a Trinity of Person. A multiplication problem is spoken in this way: 1x1x1=1 which means: One God, one time, and again one time, equals One God. It does not mean: one Person times another Person times a different Person equals One God. Any mathematician will tell you that this is true. This then becomes a great illustration of the nature of the Lord: God existed before time (the Father, the Creator), He exists in time (the Son, Jesus Christ), and He will continue to exist in all time (the Holy Spirit, Divine Proceeding); 1x1x1=1.
Another way that this doctrine is misunderstood is when people think that one person’s soul could be in another person’s body. But I think when examined carefully, people can recognize that that idea is only imaginary. It doesn’t actually work, because our bodies are shaped by our souls. (see TCR 171)
And finally, if there really were a Divine Family, that was yet one essence; wouldn’t God be guilty of selfishness, or in other words, of loving Himself?
“In regard to God, loving and being loved in return are not possible in the case of others who have some share of infinity or anything of the essence and life of intrinsic love or of Divinity. If there were within them any share of infinity or anything of the essence and life of intrinsic love - of Divinity, that is - it would not be others who would be loving God. He would be loving Himself. What is infinite or divine is unique. If it were in others, it would still be itself; and it would be pure love for itself, of which there cannot be the slightest trace in God. This is absolutely opposite to the divine essence.”
We have now shown that for Christians who are not aware of the truths of the 2nd Coming, the doctrine of a Trinity of Persons, is confusing; both from the perspective of authority and reason. How does it fare when seen through the lens of experience?
Really examine yourself: Can you think of the Trinity as separate Persons and not picture three gods in your head? I submit that you cannot. The Athanasian Creed says that “there are three persons, each of whom is God and Lord.” (TCR 172:2) Try saying that without making it an addition problem. ‘The Father is God, the Son is God, AND the Holy Spirit is God.’ Whenever you use the word ‘and,’ it’s an addition problem. And so according to the above statement you are really adding three gods. It doesn’t work. We cannot picture three Persons without picturing three gods. “The infinite things in Him should not be called ‘infinitely many’ or ‘infinitely all,’ because of our earthly concepts of ‘many’ and ‘all.’’ (DLW 17) Because we can only think spatially (since we are beings that exist in space) we therefore naturally think in numbers, and numbers don’t apply to infinity.
One of the difficult things about the language of the Gospels is that Jesus often talked with the Father as if He was someone other than Himself. Can our experience shed any light on this? Yes. Very often, we humans talk to ourselves as if we are talking to someone other than ourselves. We might even say, “Solomon, don’t do that, you know you shouldn’t!” That’s like the Lord saying, “Not as I will, but as You will.” (Matt 26:39) Jesus’ Divine Soul (The Father) was His conscience. And as He was glorified - like when we are regenerated - His will and understanding became conjoined. And at that point He didn’t have to be governed by His conscience as if it was someone other than Himself. His conscience was Himself. “I and My Father are one.” (John 10:30) He no longer had to talk to Himself. He was truly Himself. But without understanding the nature of the Lord’s glorification, the idea that Jesus ‘talked to himself’ or that He ‘talked with God’ could indicate to people that He wasn’t really God, since He was behaving more like we do at times. So the only alternative left for people was to believe in three Persons of God. And this leads into the next point.
If the Trinity of Persons is a bad idea, then why did the Lord let it happen?
The answer can be found when we look at what the Council of Nicaea was reacting against. A man named Arius was trying to encourage a doctrine that denied the Divinity of Jesus Christ.
“From this it is manifest that it was of Divine permission that Christians in the beginning should receive the doctrine concerning three Persons, provided they also accompanied it with the belief that the Lord is the infinite God, the Almighty, and Jehovah. For if they had not received this, the Church would have perished, since the Church is a Church from the Lord, and since from Him, and from no other, is the eternal life of all.” (Lord 55:4)
So the doctrine of three persons was better than not acknowledging the divinity of Jesus at all, which is what the Arians wanted to do. It allowed for simple Christians to still believe in God.
“Those who believe these things in simplicity according to the doctrine and do not confirm themselves in the idea of three Gods, but who consider the three as One, are after death instructed by the Lord through angels that He is that One, and that Trine.”
But according to the doctrine of the New Church, the Trinity of three Persons is still not an accurate description of God. In the next section we will look at what a true interpretation of the Trinity is according to New Church doctrine.
Why the doctrine of a Trinity in the One Person of God does work.
Willard D. Pendleton, in his book, ‘Education for Use,’ gets to the heart of the problem with this question:
“How there can be three Infinites and three Uncreates is a mystery, and by definition a mystery is that which cannot be explained. From this and from many other mysteries implicit within the letter [of the Bible], it seems evident that if these two Testaments are indeed the Word of God, they must contain a yet deeper meaning within the text.” (Pendleton, p. 17)
So we need to ask ourselves, ‘What does it mean for something to be true? When we say that ‘a light bulb went off in our heads’ is that a true statement? Well yes, and no. It’s true because it’s an analogy for having an idea. However, an actual lightbulb couldn’t go on in somebody’s actual head without killing them. Is it a lie to make a statement like that? No, but it’s also not factually true. This is like the truth of the Trinity of God. Though the literal sense of the Bible seems to indicate that there are three Persons in God, it’s not literally true. It’s simply illustrating a deeper truth, which is that there are three aspects of the one Person of God.
Swedenborg even indicates that the Athanasian Creed could be reworded, or better understood if the idea of ‘Person’ is not thought of literally. (see Lord 58, TCR 188:5)
In the New Church, the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg are considered to be authoritative in the sense that they give the correct interpretation of the Old and New Testaments. So given that that is true, what is the correct interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity?
There are many attributes or qualities of the Lord God Jesus Christ that are represented in the Word by the ‘Father,’ ‘Son,’ and ‘Holy Spirit.‘ The Father represents God as the Creator, the Son represents God as the Savior and Redeemer of mankind, and the Holy Spirit represents God as the Divine Activity in our lives. (see TCR 163) And yet the key difference being that these are not different Persons, but different jobs or roles of One God.
The Father, Son and Holy Spirit can also represent the soul, body and action of God. Our reason will confirm that even we humans (created in the image of God) have a soul, body and mind or activity; but that these are not separate ‘persons’ within us, but rather separate parts of one person. (see TCR 163)
Another triune represented by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is that God is Divine Love, Divine Wisdom, and Divine Usefulness. (see DLW 296) And there are more: End or Purpose, Cause or Means, and Result or Effect (see DLW 230). Origin, Manifestation, and Influence (see TCR 172). Essence or Substance, Form, and Expression or Proceeding. (see DLW 14, 40) And there are parallel triunes that appear in creation and in humanity because of being an image of God, for example: Heat, Light, and Atmosphere (see DLW 296) and the Celestial or Heavenly realm of the mind, the Spiritual realm of the mind, and the Natural realm of the mind (see DLW 232). All of these examples illustrate the deeper meanings that can be contained in the words ‘Father,’ ‘Son,’ and ‘Holy Spirit.‘
Does this make sense to us? Can reason confirm these ideas? I think some Christians today, who are enlightened, think that the use of the word ‘person’ is somewhat an issue of semantics. “Surely all wise people, though, think to themselves that ‘person’ here does not mean person at all. It means the attribution of some quality.” (TCR 173) They might actually have more of a New Church concept of the trinity than might be thought based on their religion. “After that [Last] Judgment, that is, now, every person who desires may become enlightened and attain wisdom.” (Lord 61) Therefore, as always, an examination of the assumption of what terms mean is key to true communication. But the important thing is that we need to not only understand in a philosophical sense how God contains a Trinity without being three Persons, but we also need to picture God in our heads as One Person.
As was said above, the idea of a soul, mind and body existing in one person is something that we can grasp. It’s easy to apply that to us and see how it is true. But even though we can apply it to the Lord, we are still left wondering why the language of the Bible is confusing. And so we need to delve a little deeper.
Why couldn’t Jesus simply be God’s Son? What’s wrong with that idea? Aside from the obvious polytheistic ideas that arise, it also just doesn’t work. Jesus’ soul came from God, and His body came from Mary. If it had stayed that way He would have continued to be distinct from God (the Father). But the Word says that His body didn’t stay mortal and finite, but that His body became Divine. (see TCR 170) The Lord went through varying state of glorification and emptying out (see DLW 234) that meant that He became less and less merely human and more and more Divine as His life went on. This is not a process that describes the formation of a new Divine Being, but rather it describes the process of the formation of the Lord’s Divine Human. While that subject is the topic of another paper, what we need to remember is simply that Jesus Christ is God Himself, and that He came to this earth for the purpose of making the connection we have with Him more personal. The doctrine of the Trinity of three Persons gets in the way of that purpose, because our attention is then divided.
Think about the Father as the soul of God, and the Son as the body of God. This helps us think more clearly about the various names of God. A soul cannot exist in two bodies. So the Father can only exist in the body of the Son. The Father does not have a body other than the Son. “The notion that a soul can exist and think and be wise without a body is an error that stems from deceptive appearances.” (see DLW 14) This helps to remove the mental image of three Persons.
So why does Jesus use the language of ‘Father,’ ‘Son,’ and ‘Holy Spirit’? Why couldn’t He have just used the words ‘Soul,’ ‘Body,’ ‘Activity’?
“Bear in mind, then, that these three elements - love, wisdom, and service - are in the Lord and are the Lord. Bear in mind also that the Lord is everywhere, is in fact omnipresent. Then consider that the Lord cannot make Himself manifest to any angel or to us as He really is and as He is in His sun. This is why He makes Himself manifest by means of things that can be accepted, doing so as to love in the form of warmth, as to wisdom in the form of light, and as to service in the form of an atmosphere.” (DLW 299)
We might take this idea further and surmise that this is why He makes Himself manifest by means of things that can be accepted, doing so as to love in the form of a Father, as to wisdom in the form of a Teacher (Jesus), and as to service in the form of a Holy Spirit.
Because the purpose of the Lord’s coming in the world was so that we could have a personal relationship with Him, it’s important to understand what the word ‘person’ really means when used correctly.
“By ‘person’ we have reference to qualities and characteristics which through experience we have come to identify with man[kind]; for example, love, wisdom, understanding, sympathy, affection, the ability to communicate, and many other attributes.” (Pendleton, p. 23)
If we start splitting God up into ‘Persons,’ then we actually begin to lose the very things that make Him a Person. God has a Human Personality, and He wants us to know Him. When we start to get caught up in assigning specific attributes to specific Persons, we lose the Humanity of God. We start picturing Greek gods with their specific powers, rather than One God with every power. And the Greek gods were not human. The Lord God Jesus Christ is Human.
My personal experience is that I like to picture the Lord God Jesus Christ as He is pictured in Revelation 1:13-16. Almost as if He was a 60-year-old Jesus. “He is in fact God the Father in human form.” (TCR 180). “Those who have seen Me have seen the Father.” (John 14:7,9) I believe that everyone can and will picture God in different ways, but the important thing is that we picture Him as One Person.
Why is the doctrine of the Trinity so important?
The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the main doctrines that sets the New Church apart from other Christian churches. The Christian church’s misunderstanding of this doctrine is what led to the decline of the whole church.
“If you carefully examine the church’s individual teachings - for example, on God, the person of Christ, goodwill, repentance, regeneration, free choice, the selection of the chosen people, the purpose of the sacraments of baptism and the Holy Supper - you will clearly see that there is a trinity of gods in each one of them. If some teaching does not make the Trinity completely apparent, it still flows from the Trinity the way water flows from a spring.” (TCR 177:2)
One of the main purposes of the New Church is to set this straight for the world. I think that that is why the very beginning of ‘Heaven and Hell’ (which could be considered an introduction to the doctrines of the New Church) discusses the false doctrine of the Trinity of Persons in God. (see HH 2) It’s a defining doctrine.
Since the Lord came to earth and glorified his Human, He created a situation where He allowed for true worship to again take place. That worship is the recognition of His Divine Human, and that is why Christ is the only door to the sheepfold. (TCR 174) The Jewish church was able to truly worship Jehovah because they were simply a representational natural church. But to move on to becoming a spiritual and celestial church, we have to recognize the Lord’s Divine Humanity. It’s not that we can’t worship the Lord as our Father (After all Jesus told us to in the Lord’s Prayer), it’s simply that we need to recognize that our Divine Father has a Divine Human nature. “For us to gain access to the Father [the thoughts and loves of God], we have to go to His human manifestation [the words and deeds of God], since this is how Jehovah God puts Himself in the world and made Himself visible to human eyes. Through this He became accessible.” (TCR 188:6)
I think it’s important in our church that we don’t shy away from the doctrine of the Trinity, or say that we reject the doctrine of the Trinity. Sometimes Swedenborgians are called nontrinitarian (look up ‘Nontrinitarianism’ on Wikipedia). To the extent that that means we believe in one indivisible God, then that is true. But to the extent that that means we reject the Trinity within God, then it’s untrue. There are a number of other churches that are also labeled as ‘nontrinitarian’ yet who have very different beliefs than we do, and we need to be ready and able to explain our particular doctrine as distinct from theirs.
People are not going to feel welcomed into our church if we say we reject the doctrine of the Trinity with no explanation. The New Church explanation of the Trinity doctrine could be exactly what many Christians need or want to hear. Simply “using oral confession of one God to wipe out a belief in a trinity of gods is... impossible” (TCR 173) We need to explain ourselves clearly. We need to get into the habit of not only saying that we believe in one God, but saying that we believe in the Trinity within God, and then explain what that means in a charitable way.
By learning about, and better understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, we not only help ourselves to have a better relationship with the Lord, but we can also be in a position to help others to have a better relationship with the Lord.
We have now examined why this doctrine is so important, what a true interpretation of the Trinity looks like, where the misunderstandings about the Trinity come from, and we have also found answers to some common questions about the Trinity.
“The divine Trinity ought to shine like a lighthouse in the minds of people in the church, since God with His trinity and with the unity in His trinity is essential to all that is holy in heaven and in the church.” (TCR 169)