The Trinity (IIIa)

The NT Witness: The Ancient Church Formulas in the NT


As we turn to the NT data (and related historical documents), we get tons more data, but still of the same 3-fold type:

  1. Creedal/liturgical formulas that 'suggest' or even make explicit plurality within God;
  2. Portrayal of multiple agents as "being God" and portrayal of those same agents as "interacting with God";
  3. These agents will be appropriately treated as deity (e.g. prayed to , worshipped), whereas attempts to treat OTHER agents so will result in rebuke or censure.

Methodologically, then, we will need to look first for creedal/hymnic materials in the NT. This material is generally considered to be the OLDEST data we have, preserving material that existed in fixed-form BEFORE whatever document in which they occur was written. (Refs: NTLE:192ff, MNT:74-75, GNTI: 632f, Schaff-Creeds of Christendom, vol 2.5-8)

The hymnic/creedal materials of the NT include:

  1. benedictions and blessings
  2. creedal statements/confessions
  3. hymns
  4. liturgical formulas (i.e. prayers, baptismal forms, eucharistic forms)
  5. doxologies
  6. other passages in which the terms are co-located

When we look at these for any patterns in them suggestive of plurality in unity, we find that the 'incipient' plurality in the OT is expanded into VERY explicit 'multiple person' statements!

1.Benedictions and blessings: Whereas in the OT the benediction form was STRICTLY that of YHWH, in the NT, the 'multiple agents' creep in.

Old Testament examples:

New Testament cases: Summary: the benedictions move in and out of single-Father, single-Christ, dual-Father/Son, triune statements.


2. Creedal statements and confessions

Summary: The creedal/confessional data is aimed at OTHER topics generally, but one or two DO add some support for the plurality position--esp. the Confession of Thomas-- (and NONE for the unitarian positions per se.)


3. Hymns

Summary: The hymns afford a surprisingly strong witness to the deity of Christ and the interactions between Him and His Father. The passages from Col. and Phil. are VERY explicit as to the exalted nature, and even divine nature, of Jesus the Christ.


4. Liturgical formulas

Summary: The liturgical formulas, when they deal with the topic at all, present a STRONG indication of trintarian belief on the part of the earliest church--so early that there would not have been time for them to 'create the myth'.


5. Doxologies

Summary: The doxologies, which are appropriate to GOD ALONE, sometimes ascribe this glory to the Son of God!


6. Other passages in which the terms are co-located.

Summary: There are a huge multitude of passages in which the persons of the trinity are linked in the life of the believer and in the history of redemption. Sometimes it is very difficult to sort out what roles they are playing, and what the relationships between them are. But the spiritual experiences of the early church and her leaders NATURALLY BROUGHT TO THEIR LIPS the three Persons of the Godhead.


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Pushback: Glenn, you give numerous examples of three-fold co-ordinate statements. But if I use that argument on the triple formula in I Tim 5.21: I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism then I would get ALL of the good angels as GODS! Aren't you being a little inconsistent with your methods, or conveniently selective in your data?

Response: This issue is easily resolved, due to (1) the sheer magnitude of the 'multiple agent' passages cited versus THE SINGLE EXCEPTION under discussion(!); and due to the fact that the context of judgment in the passage is correlated in scripture with angels present AT the judgment (cf. Matt 16.27: For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done., also Mt 25.31). What is being described by Paul is judgment--NOT the redemptive work of the Triune God in the history and life of the believer. Hence, we would expect 'all parties necessary' to that setting to be mentioned.

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Pushback: But, glenn, when you cite co-ordinate phrases like "God the Father and our Lord", doesn't the very presence of the word "God" in describing the Father--without the same 'God' designator being applied to the Lord--PROVE that the Lord is NOT 'God'?

Response:Probably not. The PRESENCE of the word "God" MEANS something positive, but the absence of the word "God" CANNOT be construed as positive data for the opposite. Take for example, the phrase "God our Father" or "God the Father"--would the occurrence of the simple phrase "our Father" or "The Father" PROVE that the Father was not God? Certainly not--it could not be construed as a PROOF. [Indeed, "the/our Father" occurs VERY OFTEN without the word "God" attached--in the Epistles alone a score of times--cf. Rom 6.4; Eph 2.18, 3.4; Col 1.12; Heb 12.9; Jas 1.12; I Pet 1.17; I John 1.2, 2.1, 2.13-24; 4.14; 2 John 4.] [There ARE passages in which the Son is specifically called 'God'--other than the ones we have seen so far--but they fall outside of the scope of THIS piece on church formulas.]

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Pushback:You know, glenn, your argument seemed sorta convincing up until you got into those "would a mere creature be mentioned co-equally with God?!" passages. But you seem to have overlooked a MAJOR weakness of that argument--We have SPECIFIC passages where God and a human ARE JUST SO CONNECTED. For example, what about Ex 14.31: And when the Israelites saw the great power the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant? And I Sam 12.18: Then Samuel called upon the LORD, and that same day the LORD sent thunder and rain. So all the people stood in awe of the LORD and of Samuel.? And 2 Chrn 20:20: As they set out, Jehoshaphat stood and said, "Listen to me, Judah and people of Jerusalem! Have faith in the LORD your God and you will be upheld; have faith in his prophets and you will be successful." ? And Judges 7.20:they shouted, "A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!"?.

Response: A couple of notes about these verses will highlight the main differences between these and the ones I cited above.

Thus the huge differences between the offered contrary-data and the affirmative-data are such that the original position still seems the most sure.


Conclusion

This survey of the ancient forms imbedded in the New Testament reveal a surprisingly robust 'theology', with an especially exalted Christology. The Spirit of God is predictably linked closely to the Father, but the exalted terms and pre-existence of the Son, along with the extent of His responsibilities, perfection, and identification with deity, is amazing, given the limited vision and faith of the disciples even up to the Resurrection (cf. Luke 24.25; Mrk 16.14). The supernatural event of Pentecost--the outpouring of the Spirit--as promised by Jesus the night before He died, so transformed the interpretive grid of the apostles that Peter was able on that very day to preach a high-Christology sermon, and draw upon OT texts for support!

This belief in Father, Son, and Spirit was somehow experienced, intuited, and drawn from OT texts and words of Jesus. It was not derived from theological ruminations. These liturgical forms above represent the pre-reflective confession of the church--their response to the disclosive acts of God in history. Thomas' response of "My Lord and my God" might have been 'softened' if he had had time to critique his words from his background theology! But as such they describe an irreducible core belief in the plurality of God--esp. the deity of Jesus Christ.

Jaroslav Pelikan notes that this core belief surfaced in EVERY extra-biblical arena (JPECT:173):

The oldest surviving sermon of the Christian church after the New Testament opened with the words: "Brethren, we ought so to think of Jesus Christ as of God, as 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 oldest surviving account of the death of a Christian martyr contained the declaration: "It will be impossible for us to forsake Christ...or to worship any other. For him, being the Son of God, we adore, but the martyrs...we cherish." The oldest surviving pagan report about the church described Christians as gathering before sunrise and "singing a hymn to Christ as to [a] god." The oldest surviving liturgical prayer of the church was a prayer addressed to Christ: "Our Lord, come!". Clearly it was the message of what the church believed and taught that "God" was an appropriate name for Jesus Christ.
It is this ascription of deity to Jesus Christ that is the core contention of all those who do not accept the doctrine of the plurality-in-unity of God. The data we have surveyed in the OT indicates that the position was very much 'a problem' there, and a few of the messianic prophecies guaranteed that the 'problem' would surface again in the NT--and indeed it did!

The first of our criteria--examining the creedal/liturgical statements for 'signs' of plurality--has yielded VERY strong, extensive, and conclusive data IN FAVOR OF a plurality-in-unity position (e.g. no less than 3 clear ascription's of deity to the man Jesus and doxologies/prayers offered to him!).



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