I decided to write this piece in response to these questions and concerns (mainly the latter one), for of ALL the 'strange' teachings of the Judeo-Christian faith, the Trinity ranks WAY UP THERE in 'strangeness' perhaps.
I have thought a reasonable amount about the Trinity over my life, and have re-evaluated its basis any number of times--as honestly as I could at those points in my Christian experience. I still ALWAYS come up with the intellectual conviction that God has multiple, real, independent persons within Him. There are certain 'stubborn' data points that I just cannot EXPLAIN any other way, than by the plurality of persons within a unitary ultimate agent.
What may surprise you is that the OLD TESTAMENT is the source of the STRONGEST evidence for this plurality within God! The New Testament provides clearer data about the persons, perhaps, but the OT has more 'stubborn' passages for our evaluation. If my assessment is correct in this regards, then JUDAISM has the SAME "PROBLEM" that Christianity has, and correspondingly, is NO ESCAPE from that 'problem'!
What I want to lay out here is the way I approach the problem, the data I find--both PRO and CON, why humans might have such a problem with it, some philosophical/theological musings on it, and then an examination of my own day-to-day experience of that plurality-in-unity.
First, let me start with my basic understanding of what the concept of "Trinity" is.
In simplest terms, it is that there are three Persons who can accurately be called 'the One God'. The early church would convene 'thinktanks' (e.g. councils, although some of them were apparently more akin to political circuses!) to come up with better notions, and ended up with "three Persons in one essence", and by this they meant "three Persons in one Being".
"Orthodoxy" maintains this definition. I feel a little uncomfortable with the notions of 'being' and 'essence'--relative to 'person'--so I prefer the notion of 'unit'. So I get "three Persons in one ultimate unit".
A couple of points about this. First, the adjective 'ultimate' is the 'god-word' in this definition. If I had 15,000 persons, each of which was 'ultimate', I would still only have ONE ULTIMATE. (This is the somewhat obtuse philosophical discussion about not being able to have multiple 'ultimates' because then the principle which distinguishes them is MORE ULTIMATE--a nonsensical phrase. For example, this is the objection to ethical dualism--if good and evil are both ultimate, then they are THE SAME--but we KNOW they are NOT and the distinction between them MUST be the 'REAL' ultimate. But I REALLY don't want to get into that tonight! But I will come back to some of the philosophical/theological issues at the end of these discussions.)
So the notion basically says that ALL the 'things' I find that can appropriately and accurately be called "God" or "Ultimate", are 'one in essence' ALREADY--by DEFINITION of 'ultimacy'.
The second point is this: I am not sure we could ever really understand how the "persons" and the "essence/unit" are related--especially in GOD! We don't understand these things in HUMANS, much less God. But then again, we probably don't have to.
And, to be QUITE FRANK, I would expect a "God" to be a bit more complex than everything He created! I would expect SOME overlap, perhaps, say in the notion of 'personality' but for me to say that God COULD NOT have three interior Persons would be VERY intellectually presumptuous (especially for a mortal creature of only 5'10"!) To say that a God who could speak a universe into existence HAS TO BE no more complex in His nature that humans are would be GROUNDLESS speculation of the most ludicrous sort! I think Feuerbach would call it 'making God in OUR image'!
The "net" of this is that:
Now, let's try a little 'thought experiment'.
Let's make some 'test' ASSUMPTIONS for a moment:
So, IF the plurality-in-unity had been experienced somehow by the originals of the race, and somehow passed down in the literature (as it has been), then polytheism would have been MUCH MORE PROBABLE to occur than monotheism. (Naive polytheism is much more easy to believe that a 'plurality-in-unity' monotheism!)
This is interesting, of course, but the real data will have to come (for the Judeo-Christian) from the recorded words and acts of this God's actions in history--the Bible.
So, if our ASSUMPTIONS were true, what would we expect to find in the Old Testament?
Quite simply, we would expect to find passages:
First, let's consider The Angel of YHWH--The Angel of the Lord.
The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, "Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?" I'm running away from my mistress Sarai," she answered. Then the angel of the LORD told her, "Go back to your mistress and submit to her." The angel added, "I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count." The angel of the LORD also said to her: You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers." She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: "You are the God who sees me," for she said, "I have now seen the One who sees me."NOTE: Before I go to the next passage, ask yourself this question--"How ELSE could I explain this passage WITHOUT recourse to a notion of plurality-within-God (assuming you believe the text to be authoritative revelation)?". This is the CRUX of the issue for me. In this passage and MANY, MANY others, you will be confronted with the phenomena of one Person who is called/acts like GOD and yet who refers to GOD in the 3rd person as someone Else. In a monotheistic worldview WITHOUT the plurality of persons in God, THESE PASSAGES will be unexplainable and MORE problematic that the whole notion of 'trinity'! You need to sort through this now. What are the alternative understandings of the ABOVE passage that would do AS GOOD A JOB at explaining the details of the passage?
- This angel promises to 'increase the descendants'--a promise only GOD makes (Type 3)
- This angel is called YHWH by the writer. (Type 1)
- This angel is called God by Hagar. (Type 1)
- This angel refers to the LORD in the 3rd person (Type 2).
But God said to him, "Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring." Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought, "I cannot watch the boy die." And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob. God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, "What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation."
- God repeats the promise of This angel in the Gen 16 passage(Type 3)
- The Angel repeats the promise of God as HIS OWN promise (Type 3)
- This angel refers to God in the 3rd person (Type 2).
But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!" Here I am," he replied. "Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided." The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."
- The Angel says Abraham did not withhold his son from Himself, even though it was God who ordered it (22.2) Type 3)
- This "non-withholding" clause identifies the Angel with the YHWH of the "I swear by myself" passage (Type 1)
- This angel refers to 'God' and 'YHWH' in the 3rd person (Type 2).
- The angel repeats the blessing that had been previously uttered by YHWH and by the Angel (Gen 16, 21) (Type 3).
Then the LORD said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him."
- This figure is NOT explicitly called the "Angel", but appears as one of three 'men' (vs. 2)--two of them are later called 'angels' --in all probability it is the Angel of YHWH(19.1)
- This figure is called YHWH (Type 1)
- This figure refers to 'YHWH' in the 3rd person (Type 2).
- This figure has 'chosen' Abraham--election is purely a divine action (Type 3).
The angel of God said to me in the dream, 'Jacob.' I answered, 'Here I am.' And he said, 'Look up and see that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled or spotted, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.' "
- The Angel of God calls HIMSELF the "God of Bethel" (Type 1)
- The Angel of God calls himself the recipient of Jacob's vow--which was made to YHWH in Gen 28 (Type 3)
There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, "I will go over and see this strange sight --why the bush does not burn up." When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, "Moses! Moses!" And Moses said, "Here I am." "Do not come any closer," God said. "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground." Then he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
- The Angel of God calls HIMSELF the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (Type 1)
- The writer calls the Angel "God" (Type 1)
By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel's army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.
- The same events are ascribed to BOTH YHWH and the Angel of God (Type 1,3)
Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, "I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back." The angel of the LORD said to Balaam, "Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you." So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.
"Well, I have come to you now," Balaam replied. "But can I say just anything? I must speak only what God puts in my mouth."
He answered, "Must I not speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?"
- The Angel is called both God and YHWH (Type 1)
The angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said, "I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your forefathers. I said, 'I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.' Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this? Now therefore I tell you that I will not drive them out before you; they will be thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you." When the angel of the LORD had spoken these things to all the Israelites, the people wept aloud, and they called that place Bokim. There they offered sacrifices to the LORD.
- The Angel claims to be the one who achieved the exodus and the one the Mosaic Covenant was with! (Type 3)
And God sent an angel to destroy Jerusalem. But as the angel was doing so, the LORD saw it and was grieved because of the calamity and said to the angel who was destroying the people, "Enough! Withdraw your hand." The angel of the LORD was then standing at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.
- The Angel was sent by GOD (Type 2)
NOTICE:These passages ALONE would be enough data to 'force' us to accept the basic concept of multiple agents WITHIN the One God. Once we have broken the conceptual and 'logical' barriers down to plurality-within-unity, the issue THEN would become 'how many persons' in the Godhead? Two, three, ten?
Next, let's consider the Spirit of God.
We can take a different approach with the Spirit of God, simply because the linkage between God and His Spirit is already understood. The Spirit of God is 'part of' God already, so we don't need passages that say that the Spirit of God IS God. Instead, we need to look for any passages that seem to argue that
Now, in principle we COULD run across a special problem here, in the areas of figures of speech--especially in those where one part of something can stand for the whole (synecdoche). But in reality, I cannot find a single clear case of this in hundreds of uses of the OT words for spirit! Instead we have a narrow range of uses. Spirit in the OT sometimes meant a 'personality' (e.g. 'spirits'--2 Chrn 18), sometimes meant a 'mood' ("distressed in spirit"--Is 54.6), and sometimes meant a 'vital principle' ("a new spirit in them"--Ez 36.26).
Let's look at some passages that manifest some sort of 'distinction' between God and His Spirit (e.g. sending, putting, withdrawing, giving)--TYPE B's.
Let's look at some passages that demonstrate the personal characteristics of this 'remote Agent' of God--TYPE A passages.
There are other similar passages in the OT that speak of some aspect of God in highly individualized, 'dispatched', and/or personalized manner: His "Presence" (e.g. Ex 33; Is 3.8), His "Name" (e.g. Ex 23:21; 2Chrn 6,7), and His "Glory" (e.g. Ex 16, 40; I Kgs 8). These are generally understood (but not unanimously so) to refer to His Spirit as well.
WHAT IS STRIKING about all this data is that there is NO attempt to 'synthesize' this into a coherent whole--the tension within a strictly monotheistic system is simply NOT addressed. The Israelites don't try to 'wrestle' the concept to the ground, establish a logical schema for it, or even to probe the implications--they simply recognize YHWH in each of those experiences.
(It is interesting to me that the awe of encountering the Angel of YHWH did NOT stop them from engaging in some reflective work. For example, when Jacob wrestles with the Angel of YHWH in Gen 32, he is amazed that he saw 'God face to face, yet my life was spared'. And in Exodus, Moses is consistently warned that if anyone sees YHWH's face, he will die--yet Moses speaks face-to-face with YHWH frequently (cf 33.20 with 33.11). The Angel of YHWH seems to be the One who is always seen face-to-face in history, whereas YHWH Himself is never seen. A plurality-in-unity understanding makes this a little easier to understand, but their early efforts in this area stayed very pragmatic--they were still alive after confronting God!)
What emerges from this cursory study of some OT passages is a concept of a plurality of agents, that are very much God, but still somehow separate agents WITHIN God. So the Angel of YHWH seems to be the main 'external interface' with humans and the Spirit of God seems to be the main 'internal interface' with us. In other words, an Israelite would meet God 'face-to-face' in the Angel, but would be confronted with God INSIDE his thoughts by the Spirit of God.
For example, Glenn, the passage in Gen 22 that you cite has the Angel saying the LONG form:
The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous..Here we have the Angel speaking with an "I swear" but adding quickly "declares the Lord". This would form the general pattern of all the later OT prophets, who consistently spoke as YHWH in the 1st person, but ALWAYS qualified it by "declares the Lord". So why couldn't the Angel's messages be simply shortened forms of prophetic utterances, and so not leading us to believe he was claiming to be/acting like YHWH?"
The angel IS often a messenger, but the main reasons I don't find this objection strong enough to overturn the original arguments:
The interesting thing about this is that you CAN find this 'problem' in the Talmudic literature! Whereas most of the above passages are assigned to Gabriel and Michael, there was also a higher angel named Metatron, who was the angel that went before the Israelites in the wilderness (see talmudic discussions at Exodus 23.20). A. Cohen, in Everyman's Talmud (Dutton Books), discusses the 'heretical identification of Metatron with God' in passages such as San 38b and Chag 15a (p. 52-53). These discussions center around the texts we have cited above--the 'problem' IS THERE in Jewish thought and remains unresolved to this day.
The ''sending" argument was an argument for the DISTINCTION between the "sender and the sendee"--not an argument for the deity of either.
The talmudic data discusses the Holy Spirit (their term) as a manifestation of God's presence on earth. As such, it is clearly divine--since it is simply a 'manifestation' of God. However, it is also given personal characteristics/actions (e.g. weeping--Lament R. I.45; being 'driven away' --Gen R. LXV. 4). But again, the implications are not drawn.
The Best Question.
Now, overall, it seems obvious to me that the arguments about the Holy Spirit are not as 'strong' as those about the Angel of YHWH, simply because the relation of Spirit to individual is somewhat more fuzzy. In other words, if the Holy Spirit is an 'internal part' of God, then we would EXPECT the Spirit to be called YHWH; we would expect God to refer to it by 'my spirit' (just as I will refer to "my heart is heavy''), but we might NOT expect God to refer to it as "THE Spirit"--a seemingly independent title or reference. But this is JUST what we find in a couple of passages (Ex 31.3; 35.31) and this title becomes a standard way of referring to God's Spirit throughout OT history. "The Spirit" can somehow be referred to as 'distinct from' God (within bounds).
At the same time, I am not sure we eliminate the 'problem' by calling it a 'manifestation'. This particular manifestation has all the attributes of God's presence, as well as personal characteristics. God 'dispatches' this Spirit, just like He 'dispatched' the Angel. As being in God, they both could be called 'manifestations' but they both seem to be 'more'.
This has been generally explained as a 'plural of majesty' or 'singular of intensity' . But all the related ANE cultures use the singular form "El" without a single case of 'elohim'--there are no ANE parallels to support this usage. If this incipient plurality-in-unity was either an implication of religious experience (e.g. "we experience Him as multiple-agents in One God") or simply a revelation, THEN there would be no better way to 'say it' in the text than elohim(plural)+verb(singular)! (see TWOT, s.v. 'elohim')
This is the famous Shema: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one." There are two words for 'one' in Biblical Hebrew: 'ehad (composite unity--one made up of parts) and yahidh (uniqueness-only one of its kind). This verse is sometimes used by groups within the Jewish tradition to asset the numerical unity of God, over against what they perceive as a 'Christian' notion of plurality-in-unity. (Which I have been arguing for hours and hours is a Jewish issue too!). But this verse actually does the opposite. Instead of using yahidh, which MIGHT be of some support to their position, it uses 'EHAD, which lends itself to the plurality position. Consider just two passages in which EHAD is used:
[Granted, the NT difficulty of calling a man "God" is a DIFFERENT challenge than calling three 'supernatural' figures (YHWH, Angel of YHWH, Spirit of YHWH) all "God", and THAT issue will be addressed in my analysis of the messianic prophecies. Although strictly speaking, it is just as blasphemous to call a angel 'God' if he is not, as it is to call a man 'God' if he is not. But it is sufficient to the point herein to acknowledge that the TRINITY concept itself is not "escaped" by simply abandoning the Judeo-Christian scriptures in favor of the Judeo- Scriptures only.]