Trinitarian Distinctions and Why they Matter
In the first three centuries of the church there was probably no greater doctrinal argument than that over the “substance” of Christ as he related to the Father. Trinitarians argued that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, while three separate persons were all a part of the same substance or essence, something called “homoousios”.
Arianism as it was called argued that God was not Triune but that the Son was “begotten” of the Father and thus the Son and the Holy Spirit were all of their own individual substance or essence or “heteroousios”. Therefore Jesus Christ was a created being and not eternally God.
Around the same time another theological camp came forth called Semi-Arianism that would agree with Arianism that the Son was not “of the same substance” (homoousios) or the Father but they would go on to say that the Son was of a “of a similar substance” (homoiousios). So similar but still different.
In time, Arianism and it’s brother Semi-Arianism would assume the label of heresy and Trinitarianism would win the day becoming orthodoxy.
What’s the significance of this? Well the significance I’d like to point out is that distinctions matter. Even very particular distinctions. The Trinity is a great mystery. The human mind isn’t capable of fully understanding the paradoxical nature of the Triune God. All we’re capable of knowing are the things we do know. Namely, God is one in three persons; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God. The Father is not the Son nor the Spirit; the Son is not the Father nor the Spirit and the Spirit is not the Father nor the Son. God is the uncreated reality of Truth. This is what we can know about God’s nature. How this is possible we can not understand, nonetheless it is so.
These distinction are of great significance. If we don’t acknowledge them then we don’t acknowledge God for who his is or has revealed himself to be. We’ve in effect, created a false god, one that does not exist and we have profaned the true living God in ascribing to his nature things that he himself does not reveal to us as pertaining to his character.
Distinctions, even the most minute, have very serious implications, especially as they pertain to the nature and being of the Holy Trinity.
In Exodus 20 the Lord God spoke to his people laying out for them what would come to be known as the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. In verse 4 God says the following:
“4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;” – Exodus 20:4-5
Essentially, God has told his people that they shall not make any idols for themselves, nor shall they worship them. Not ANY likeness of ANY thing. Nothing. The Triune God is alone to be worshiped. And while the Israelites didn’t know God to be Triune at the time, nevertheless he is and was and will always be Triune.
So NOTHING but God was to be considered God or worshiped as God.
So what’s this got to do with the Holy Scriptures? If you’ll read my Theological Distinctions page you’ll see my view on the Scriptures. I have much more I’d like to share on this website about the Scriptures but for now, know this: that the Scriptures are the testimony of God.
They are what God has said about himself and his creation. They are true. They should be believed. In fact, if one does not believe what they say, then Jesus says they will not believe his words (John 5:46-47). Jesus himself gives an inescapable weight and significance to the Holy Scriptures. They are, after all, his own testimony about himself and his creation, it stands to reason that Christ would place such a weight on his own words.
If you or I were to give our testimony concerning ourselves I’d assume we’d certainly want what we had said to be believed by those to whom it was given. So it appears it is the same for the Lord. His testimony, the Holy Scriptures, matter to him a great deal.
When considering the nature of the Triune God and his Holy Scriptures yet another distinction must be made in order to properly understand what God has revealed to us about his very nature. And that distinction is this: the Holy Scriptures are not the Triune God, nor is the Triune God the Holy Scriptures.
Remember, our God is Triune. He is THREE persons, ONE God. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Holy Scriptures are not the Father, nor the Son nor are they the Holy Spirit. The Holy Scriptures are the testimony of the Triune God but they are not themselves the Triune God. The Holy Scriptures are no more God the Son than the Holy Spirit is the Father. Our God is Triune not Quadriune; he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he is NOT Father, Son, Holy Spirit and Holy Scriptures. These distinctions matter.
Remember the great theological debate of early church history. The issue at hand was the substance or essense of God. Both Trinitarians and Arians believed that the Father was God, the Son was God and the Spirit was God. On this important note they all agreed. The absolutely critical component of their disagreement was the question as to whether or not the three persons of God shared the same “substance” or “essence”. Trinitarians said yes. Arians said no. And the question at hand was of profound consequence.
So it is with the Scriptures. There must be a clear distinction between the Triune God and his testimony, the Holy Scriptures. If there is not a distinction, then the logical implication is that the Triune God IS the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Scriptures ARE God. And this is heresy.
Why is it heresy? It’s heresy because in effect, if we do not make a distinction between the Triune God and the Holy Scriptures we have made them one and the same, they are essentially the same substance or have the same essence or homoousios as it were. So just as the argument over Trinitarianism vs Arianism was a discussion of whether or not the Father, Son and Spirit shared the same substance, so we see the same implications are at play if we say that the Father, Son, Spirit and Scriptures are of the same substance. There MUST be a distinction between the Triune God and his testimony, the Holy Scriptures. If there is not, then we’re saying that the uncreated God is now a created thing, his testimony. We’re saying He is a tangible thing, a book of writings (however accurate and truthful they may be) and this is directly contrary to what the Scriptures themselves teach about the nature of God and the Scriptures.
In order to better explain what I mean perhaps a few illustrations would help. If a person goes to court and gives a testimony concerning themselves they are speaking forth a new thing, something that didn’t exist before they were sitting on the stand now exists as they speak forth their testimony. In effect their testimony is a new creation. It is a created thing. What didn’t exist before they took the stand, now exists in their sharing their testimony. Whatsmore, no one would assume that the physical record or transcript that the court reporter created of the person’s testimony would actually physically become the person on the witness stand. That’s absurd. The person on the stand doesn’t become a physical transcript after giving their testimony. No, the person remains who they are and now a new thing, a thing separate from their being is created, a testimony.
The written record of the persons testimony is simply that, a written record. Assuming the witness told the truth and the court reporter accurately recorded the testimony given then the written record of that testimony is accurate, it is true, it is to be believed. Further, no one in their right mind would now assume that the physical transcript that the court reporter drafted would now become in essense and substance the same thing as the person on the stand giving they’re testimony. No, this defies all reason.
So it is with our Triune God and his testimony the Holy Scriptures. Our Triune God is uncreated. His testimony is created. Our Triune God tells the truth and his prophets have accurate transcribed his testimony according to the power and direction of the Holy Spirit and therefore the written record of his testimony, the Holy Scriptures are accurate, true and should be believed. But God’s testimony has not become God. To say it has means that God is no longer uncreated and eternally existent. No, the Holy Scriptures are simply God’s testimony concerning himself and the revelation of his glory in all creation. Thus, why they are called the Old TESTAMENT and the New TESTAMENT. They are testimonies. They are God’s own testimony concerning himself and his creation. They are true and they should be believed. However, they are not God himself.
Another example of what I mean. Most of us carry around some form of identification. Why? What’s it for? Well essentially, it’s a testimony. Our driver’s license or a passport is a basically a testimony that we give so that we can verify we are who we say we are.
My passport will say that my name is Kyle McDaniel, it will show that I have brown hair and brown eyes, it will say that I’m roughly 6’1″ tall and 210 pounds. It should accurately record my physical address and testify that I am a citizen of the United States of America. All of these things are true, they should be believed by anyone who takes a look at my passport and they are believed by immigration officials who use it to verify my claim that I’m Kyle McDaniel and I’m an American citizen and should there for be granted admittance into the United States.
However, I am not my passport. Nor is my passport me. The passport is my testimony concerning myself. That’s it. If I committed a crime and the authorities sought to apprehend me and they happened to find my passport does any rational person believe they would have “me” in custody? Ha! Of course not. I’m not a passport, I’m a human being.
The same can be said about our Triune God and his testimony the Holy Scriptures. God is not the Bible, nor is the Bible God.
Not to belabor this point but for further illustration the map is not the territory, it’s an accurate, true and believable testimony concerning the territory being traversed. The recipe is not the meal, it’s an accurate, true and believable testimony about how to cook the meal but it’s not the meal itself.
I hope these illustrations provide some help in demonstrating the point I’m trying to make.
Why does this matter? Part 1
So why does this distinction matter? Well it matters for multiple reasons but primarily because this distinction ensures that we understand accurately who God has revealed himself to be; who he is and what he is not.
“29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” – Acts 17:29
“28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.” – Isaiah 40:28
“8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” – Revelation 1:8
Our God is not a created being. He is the uncreated, eternally existent reality of Truth. The Holy Scriptures however are his testimony, a thing created by him and spoken forth before the foundations of world itself were lain. Nevertheless they are still a created thing. Therefore it is of the utmost importance that we do not call the Holy Scriptures God for in doing so we make a created thing to be the uncreated God.
Back to Graven Images…
Now that we’ve established that our Triune God is uncreated and that his testimony, the Holy Scriptures are a created thing, perhaps Exodus 20 will bring on new significance.
So what is a “graven image” anyway? The Hebrew word used in Exodus for “graven” is “pecel” which means “an idol, a carved (graven) image” and comes from the Hebrew root word, “pacal” which means “to carve, whether wood or stone, to grave or hew”.
Essentially, a graven image is anything, ANY thing, that is carved or shaped by human hands and worshiped as an idol, as if it were a god.
When the prophets wrote the Holy Scriptures under the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit they did so by engraving (that is writing) God’s testimony on a physical thing, whether it was stone or animal skins or parchment or whatever else.
If we say that there is no distinction between the Triune God and his testimony, the Holy Scriptures then in effect we have said that the graven image crafted by human hands is God and shares his very substance or essence and is therefore worthy of worship.
We’ve violated the second commandment.
We’ve crafted an image, a graven image, that we now worship as God. This is idolatry.
Again, Exodus 20 clearly states;
“4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of ANY THING that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;” – Exodus 20:4-5
I want to be crystal clear with what I am and am not saying here. I am not saying that God had men create a graven image or an idol when he had them transcribe the Holy Scriptures. Nor am I saying that the Holy Scriptures, because they were transcribed by men, were a creation of man. Absolutely not. The Scriptures were written by God himself even before they were transcribed by the prophets. (See Galatians 3) The Holy Scriptures are God written, they are good, they are true, they are Holy.
What I am saying here is that when men treat the Scriptures as though they are God, they wrongly attribute to both God and the Scriptures characteristics that neither God nor the Scriptures themselves ever testify to. When the Scriptures are made to be God, which they are not, idolatry is committed.
Why does this matter? Part 2
This distinction matters for another reason. It hinders us greatly from truly knowing God for who he is and having his resurrected life in Christ Jesus made manifest in us. When we elevate the Holy Scriptures to a place they don’t belong, the place of God, then we begin to worship them as God when in reality we are worshiping an idol. We forsake the living God for his testimony believing that his testimony, the Holy Scriptures, can give us the eternal life that is only found in Jesus by hearing his voice. This is exactly what Jesus explained to the Jews in John 5.
The Jews were seeking to kill Jesus because he was making himself equal with God. In verse 24 Jesus says,
“24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. 25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” – John 5:24-25
It is those who HEAR HIS VOICE that will have eternal life.
“39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. 41 I do not receive glory from people. 42 But I know that you do not have the love of God within you.43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. 44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” – John 5:39-47
The Jews sought the Holy Scriptures, God’s own testimony concerning himself, because they believed that by doing so they would have eternal life but Jesus says they didn’t come to him that they may have that life. In saying these things Jesus has done three things:
- He makes a very clear and unequivocal distinction between himself and the Scriptures. They came to the Scriptures but not to Christ. If Christ and the Scriptures are not distinct from one another then this is not possible. If Christ and the Scriptures are the same substance or essence then the Jews should have been coming to Jesus when they came to the Scriptures, yet Jesus clearly explains in very plain language this wasn’t the case. Christ is not the Scriptures and the Scriptures are not Christ. The distinction is crystal clear.
- He’s exposed the heart of the Jews, that they didn’t actually love God (v. 42), they loved the glory that came from another. There hope was set on Moses, there hope was set on self perfection. They believed that if they knew Moses writings (which are the Holy Scriptures) perfectly they believed that they would be perfect and acceptable to God. But by works of the law shall no man shall be justified!
- He establishes the fact that the Scriptures do indeed bear witness about him. The Scriptures as I’ve clearly stated before are God’s own testimony, they do bear witness about him and they are true and should be believed. Not only that, but Jesus comes full circle to what he said in verses 24-25 about those who believe his words will have eternal life and says that if you don’t believe the writings of Moses (the Holy Scriptures) you won’t be able to believe his words.
So we see you can’t know God and have his eternal life by simply knowing the Holy Scriptures as the Jews did. You must HEAR HIS VOICE.
In John 8:47 Jesus reiterates this point with crystal clarity:
“47 Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” – John 8:47
For The Letter Killeth…
In John 14 Jesus tells his disciples of the promised Holy Spirit and how he will teach us everything that Jesus said.
“26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” – John 14:26
So after the Holy Spirit comes he will now be the one who speaks to God’s people. And the voice that Jesus said we had to hear in order to have eternal life, will be the voice of the Holy Spirit.
And the Apostle John encourages us in his epistle with this same message.
“24 Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. 25 And this is the promise that he made to us[a]—eternal life.” – 1 John 2:24-45
The current ministry of the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential to the life of a born again believer in Jesus Christ. We MUST hear his voice in order to have the life of Jesus Christ. We MUST. And this is why the Jews who sought to kill Jesus didn’t have the eternal life they sought. Because they didn’t hear the voice of the Spirit.
A final word on graven images. The etymology of the English word graven is the past tense of grave, meaning “to bury”. Perhaps this is not by accident as Paul so clearly taught us:
“4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” – 2 Corinthians 3:4-6
You can and should search the Scriptures. They should be read, study and believed. But know this; the letter, the Holy Scriptures in and of themselves will not give you the life you seek. No amount of diligent study or theological acumen will birth the life of Christ in you. Apart from the Holy Spirit the Holy Scriptures, like all idols and graven images will always lead to death. The Holy Spirit must speak and we must hear his voice in order to have the life of Jesus Christ.
It is the Spirit that gives this life.
Grace and Peace to you in Jesus name.