I once was having a discussion with a Jehovah’s Witness missionary, when he uttered these words:
“Jesus never actually said that he was God.”
Despite the fact that, over the years, I have taught so many people that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe that Jesus is God; his words shook me.
If my meeting with the Jehovah’s Witness missionary had been in person, as it would have been before the Covid pandemic, he would likely have seen me flinch slightly at the statement. As I searched my mind for an adequate response, I found myself swimming in too many. I was not sure if any of them might be able to serve as the “silver bullet” people in my position are sometimes tempted to look for when dealing with apologetic issues. I referenced a few scriptures that I knew made a strong case for Jesus’ divinity, but even as I said them, I knew that in the New World Translation, my new friend likely had in front of him, those verses had been changed.
He deflected my rebuttals with a quick change in the direction of the conversation, likely a well-trained reaction that he had been taught to do in the event someone responds the way I did. As we continued talking, and I looked for any opportunity to ask questions that might lead to the truth of the Gospel, I wondered how this conversation might have gone for a Christian that was not well versed in how to have these types of conversations. How would this conversation have gone for most evangelical pastors who are gifted preachers, teachers, and counselors but who might struggle when asked the difficult questions of our faith?
When it gets down to the crux of the matter, can most pastors explain and defend the foundation of our faith, the triune nature of God? It might be easy to pretend that this is not a necessary facet of Christian leadership, but the simplest conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness, or anyone questioning their faith, will bring about an urgent need to be able to explain this mysterious and controversial teaching that the Church has been confessing almost since the time of Christ.
What is the Trinity?
Most often in evangelical circles you will find the Trinity explained as God being “one in essence, three in persons.” This simple explanation comes from hundreds of years of study going back to the creeds formulated at councils like the one that took place in 325 A.D. in Nicaea. Even before this, we have evidence that Jesus was looked at as divine by some of the earliest leaders of the Church. In 2 Clement (c. 140-160 A.D.) we read, “Brethren, we ought so to think of Jesus Christ as of God, as of the judge of living and dead. And we ought not to belittle our salvation; for when we belittle him, we expect also to receive little.” The words of scripture, as well as the teachings of the early Church fathers led Bishops in 325 A.D. to pen the words of the Nicene Creed which affirm,
“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.”
Later in the same creed, these bishops would include the third person of the Trinity when they proclaimed,
“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.”
The center of the argument rested in the belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were “homoousios,” or of the same essence or substance as one another. Yet while they were of the same essence, they were clearly individual in personage. Through these formulations, the Church began to teach that the triune nature of God was not a contradiction, as some would say, but instead a mystery as the two claims of essence and personage do not contradict each other but instead point to the infinite and unexplainable nature of God in His triune form.
New and Old Heresies
This doctrine, and the teaching that followed it, was certainly not popular with everyone, and at times was popular with few Christians at all. Many instead found it easier to believe doctrine that the Church today recognizes as heresy. The most prevalent of these heretical teachings was that of a bishop named Arius. In a letter to Eusebius, Arius wrote, “Before he was begotten or created or ordained or established, he did not exist.” Passages like Proverbs 8:22-31 led Arius and many others to teach that Christ was not preexistent, radically dissenting against the doctrine that would come as a reaction to this teaching at Nicaea.
In response to this growing heresy, a bishop named Athanasius rose as a now towering figure in Church history. A contemporary of Arius, Athanasius spent much of his life warring against Arianism, ultimately becoming the most important voice in making the argument for Christ’s divinity and trinitarianism as a whole. The Athanasian creed, which was named after Athanasius but was likely not written by him, serves as a dividing line between orthodox Christian belief in regard to the person of God in His triune form, and all other ways of thinking:
“And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.”
Despite the fervor that theologians like Athanasius and many others have taken in contending against Arianism, it and so many other Christological heresies have survived into the 21st century and have taken root in many pseudo-Christian cults and groups. Most notably in American culture are the Jehovah’s Witnesses who, as my new friend explained to me, believe what John 1:1 says in their New World Translation, “…and the Word was a god.” This war over who Christ is, and by association the entirety of who God is, has been waging since shortly after the words of the New Testament were written and have continued thousands of years later despite the best efforts of men and women who have devoted their lives to the truth that God is one in substance and three in persons.
It is with this in mind that every minister of the Gospel should be able to explain what the Church has historically taught in regard to the nature of God, and defend it to those who would question it because to question the true essence of God is to question God himself.
“The Church has historically taught that God is ‘One in essence, and three in persons.’ What do you think of that?”
My Jehovah’s Witness friend was silent for a moment before he responded by saying, “The Bible never uses the word “Trinity” and never mentions the substance of what God is. Those statements come from Greek philosophy.”
In beginning to respond to his claim that the Bible never discusses the essence of substance of God, I first do need to affirm that the Bible never uses the term “trinity.” However, this does not indicate that the concept is “unbiblical” as that would be argument from silence. Instead, I and anyone looking to keep these types of conversations grounded in truth, must seek to affirm the Trinity biblically and from an appeal to mystery.
An explanation and defense of the Trinity should not exclusively rely on logic and philosophy but instead have the testimony of God’s Word as its cornerstone because while the word in question is not found on the pages of scripture, the concept certainly is. The vast amount of scripture that can and should be used in any discussion on the triune nature of God or the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit is too much to include here. Instead a few key scriptures will be pointed out that should be ever present on the mind of the Christian seeking to further understand the nature of God.
Here is the famous passage known as the “shema.” Every Israelite would have known this passage well and recited it every day as it importantly distinguishes that, “…The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Any valid defense of the Trinity must begin with the affirmation that God is in fact essentially one, but any attack on the Trinity will likely begin with this verse as it seems to pick apart the concept from the very beginning of Israel’s understanding of Yahweh.
In any modern translation, other than the New World Translation, this verse begins John’s gospel by claiming that Jesus was not simply a god, but was instead God. The overall tone of John’s Gospel hinges on this divinity as John recounts his years following a messiah that could have only been God, given all the things He said and did.
Here is Thomas’ declaration of Jesus as his Lord and God. Earlier in this chapter, the same Greek word for God is used when Jesus said to Mary, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” John, within a few paragraphs, used the same word to describe the Father as God and then Jesus as God, with no distinguishing remarks. It cannot be lost on us either that Thomas was a faithful Jew who would likely have rejected any sense of polytheism, yet here we have an account of him proclaiming the resurrected Jesus as God.
In the middle of the Great Commission, Jesus instructs His disciples to baptize new believers in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He makes no distinguishing remarks about the three persons which He would have been sure to do in a 1st century Jewish culture unless He was okay with His hearers inferring equality. It should also be noted that there is a seeming personage applied to the Holy Spirit here.
Here, Paul charges the elders at the church in Ephesus to serve the church faithfully. After stating that the Holy Spirit is the one that made them overseers, implying personage to the Spirit, he also charges them to remember that God purchased the church “…with his own blood.” Either Paul is referring directly to Jesus as God, or he is identifying God the Father with the blood of Jesus as if it were His own, therefore, promoting to his hearers the idea that Jesus and the Father were equal. While many who antagonistically claim that the doctrine of the Trinity and divinity of Jesus were constructs that the Church manufactured much later, here we have evidence of trinitarian claims around 57 A.D., when this chapter of Acts seemingly took place.
Appeal to Mystery
We turn to Deuteronomy 6 again as my Jehovah’s Witness friend is trying to remind me that, earlier in the conversation, I affirmed with him that God is one. Without saying the word, he was trying to accuse me of stating a contradiction when I continually maintained that God was both one and three. Thoughts raced through my mind, thoughts of watching R.C. Sproul more eloquently explain that the Trinity was in fact not a contradiction because the two claims involved in it are not claiming the same thing.
The law of non-contradiction explained in most undergraduate logic classes explains that “A” cannot both be what it is, and what it is not. Put more simply, there can never be a square circle. There can never be a married bachelor. “A” cannot equal “-A.” So the non-Christian might look at this principle and exclaim, “There it is! The Trinity violates the most basic law of logic!” Yet a simple exploration of the concept shows that it, in fact, does not violate the law of non-contradiction, but instead appeals to something that is absolutely necessary when pondering the workings of an Almighty God — mystery.
When a Christian claims that God is one in essence and that God is three in personage, these are two separate claims about two separate truths regarding God. While it would certainly be contradictory for us to make a similar claim about any human, we are not discussing a human, but instead, an infinite being far beyond our comprehension. Therefore, not only is the Trinity not a contradiction, but it is a mystery — a truth that we cannot understand because we do not have all of the necessary information to do so. I would argue that even if we had all of the information, we still might not understand it because our finite brains might not ever be able to comprehend the infinite magnitude of God. This mystery is not an excuse to avoid answering the question, but instead, is a far more impressive answer than man could come up with on his own.
Appealing to the mysterious nature of the Trinity only makes logical sense given the size of the being in question. Too often, theologians, apologists, and pastors are quick to present to the questioner a God that is perfectly explained and managed, leaving nothing to ponder. I assume that if we could see the god of some of our explanations, it would be a god that few people would write songs about.
When faced with the question of the mysterious, we must lean into the unexplainable nature as a strength and evidence that we are in fact still talking about the infinite and unchangeable Yahweh of the Bible. It would only make sense that if the God of the cosmological argument does in fact exist, that there would be plenty that we could not understand about Him, and therefore not explain. The mystery of God’s triune nature should not be avoided by Christian leaders for fear of not being able to explain it well: It should be a centerpiece of any presentation on it. We worship an ultimately unexplainable God, and followers of Christ should never feel ashamed to highlight that as they attempt to explain and defend doctrines like the Trinity.
One of the greatest defenses of the Christian faith is that not all of it is ultimately defensible by Christians themselves. Charles Spurgeon once compared Gospel truth to a lion making the point that the best way to defend a lion is to let it out of its cage. I fully believe that the best way for Christians to truly convince nonbelievers of the Trinity is to let it out of its cage and appeal to the mystery of it all, instead of pretending it is easily understood or avoiding the conversation entirely.
I have not convinced him that Jesus is God, or of anything close to the Trinity yet, but my Jehovah’s Witness friend will continue to hear arguments for it, and questions pointing toward it, as long as he will continue meeting with me. The ultimate aim is not winning him to an idea, or winning an argument. I have a deep desire for him and others who have been tricked into believing false gospels to be won to the true Gospel, and the only way that will happen is if they hear it.
Christian leaders should be on forefront of addressing these questions, but for too long they have allowed themselves to be intimidated by the world and the critiques it has for our good news. If we truly believe that the news is good though, we will learn to communicate it, explain it, and defend it in whatever way necessary for it to be heard.
Sometimes it is as easy as it was for me: when the world knocks on your door and asks you if you have time to talk. What they do not realize is they are actually asking you if you have time to share your good news, the intricacies of an eternal God in triune form who became man to save us from our self-imposed darkness. Do not allow a fear that you cannot explain or defend your belief keep you from saying yes and joining with the likes of Sproul, Athanasius, those at Nicaea, and ultimately, the Lord and His own disciples, who never cowered away from a difficult conversation when truth was at stake.