Note: This article is by Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Watchman Fellowship, Birmingham, Alabama and linked from that site.
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An Open Letter to Gwen Shamblin Regarding the Doctrine of the Trinity
October 6, 2000
Dear Mrs. Shamblin:
I am writing to you in response to your "Statement Regarding the Teaching of the Trinity - Expanded 9/15/2000," which appears on your Web site. I know that you receive a lot of mail, but I hope that you will consider what I have to say here.
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Rob Bowman, and I am the Director of Research for the Alabama office of Watchman Fellowship. Watchman Fellowship is a national organization of evangelical Christian apologetics/discernment ministries with offices currently in eight states. The president, James Walker, heads the office in Arlington, Texas. Bob Waldrep is the State Director here in Birmingham, Alabama. I am the author of several books in the field of theological apologetics, including Why You Should Believe in the Trinity and Orthodoxy and Heresy.
My purpose in writing to you is not to condemn you. Rather, I am writing to extend to you an opportunity to pursue dialogue on the subject of the doctrine of the Trinity. We here at Watchman Fellowship respect your right to hold whatever view you sincerely think is right. At the same time, we hope that you will likewise agree that we have a right and a responsibility to stand up for what we sincerely believe is right. Furthermore, our commitment to truth requires that we be open to learning new things and being corrected, regardless of the source. It is in this spirit of mutual respect and openness to truth that I invite you to discuss these matters with me.
POINTS OF AGREEMENT
To begin, I'd like to note certain important points of agreement between us, as these can be a basis for fruitful discussion. I appreciate your affirmation of the Bible as the infallible Word of God. I also agree that we need to obey God's Word and not merely talk about it. Truly, God is our Creator, Lord, and yes, our "Boss," and the heart of all true Christians is a heart that is inclined to hear, believe, and obey God's Word.
Second, I agree that people with no formal theological training should be welcome to participate in the discussion of these doctrinal issues. God wants all of his children to believe what he says in his Word about himself. I also appreciated your saying that you are not putting down people who obtain theological training in order to serve the Lord.
Third, I accept the New International Version (NIV) as a sound, legitimate translation of the Bible. I would add that there are others (such as the New American Standard Bible or the New King James Version), but I have no problem with your using the NIV. In fact, in this letter I will quote the Bible exclusively from the NIV.
Fourth, I agree with you that the word Trinity is not in the Bible.
Fifth, I agree that Jesus is not the Father. Jesus did not pray to himself in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus is the Son of the Father; he is the Son of God. He is not going to turn into the Father; he is and always will be the Son of God.
Sixth, I agree with you that Jesus is deserving of honor, praise, and worship. I commend you for pointing out that the Bible clearly tells us to worship Jesus just as we worship God.
Now, with these points of agreement in mind, allow me to raise some issues for us to discuss in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity.
WHO BELIEVES IN THE TRINITY?
In your September 15 statement, you wrote:
My statements have brought up questions such as "Do you believe in the Trinity?" People have asked me and my staff to answer this with "yes" or "no." This is not a "yes" or "no" question, because we do not know if the inquirer is asking if we believe in the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit; if this is the case, then the answer of course is "YES!" People asking this must not have read any of my materials to ask such questions. However, the inquirer may be asking if we believe in every word of the man-made teaching of the Trinitarian Creeds that were formed over 300 years past Christ and has been debated every since by many well-known theologians.
Actually, the issue from our perspective is not whether you believe in every word of the creeds. The issue is whether you disagree with and teach against the substance of the doctrine contained in those creeds. Protestants view the creeds as fallible statements of faith, not as Scripture. Still, in our view they adequately and faithfully present the substance of what the Bible teaches about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is not just the opinion of a minority of Christians. The doctrine of the Trinity is affirmed in the creeds of the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches and in the confessions of all of the historic Protestant churches, such as the Anglicans and Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the Baptists. It is affirmed in the doctrine of most Christian denominations of more recent origin, such as the Evangelical Free Churches, the Assemblies of God and most other Pentecostal denominations, and the Calvary Chapels.
The overwhelming support for the doctrine of the Trinity among Christians is not proof that it is true. However, I would suggest that this consensus of belief ought to give you pause about attacking the doctrine. At the very least, before continuing to teach against the doctrine of the Trinity, you might wish to consider engaging in serious dialogue with trinitarian theologians and reading books that explain its biblical basis.
You mentioned that the doctrine of the Trinity "has been debated every since [the creeds] by many well-known theologians." Actually, if we leave aside theologians that reject the Bible as the word of God, this is not true. There has been very little debate among Bible-believing theologians over whether the doctrine of the Trinity is biblical and true. All of the great theologians and church leaders of church history, such as Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Hodge, and Warfield taught and defended the doctrine.
I have to tell you that I am deeply concerned about the way you characterize those who disagree with you on this issue. The following is an especially troubling example:
People who do not like to change or submit to God generally do not like me because that is all I do and all I talk about. Just because a person sits in church, that does not mean that they have repented from being their own god of their life and are bowing down to Jesus Christ. Many have become the boss of the temple of God (their own body); see 2 Cor 3:16. They have learned religion, but they have not learned that religion should have led them to the cross - to die to self and live for God. (Rom 6) Those who claim to teach the Word should teach themselves first and walk like Jesus - not like Eve, who challenged this. In other words, they should give up their food, their pornography, their pride, their gossip, their slander, their love of money, etc. (See Gal 5:19-21, Eph 5:5) . . .
If someone who is opposed to my message and teaching is adamant about discussing words and yet is still being their own boss with regard to food, sexual lust, pride, etc., why do they care what the picture of God is if they are not going to bow down to Him? This will be the true test on Judgement Day.
No doubt there are Christians who criticize your beliefs and whose own lives are not exemplary. Then again, all Christians are in a process of growth; none of us has arrived. (Phil. 3:12-14) But I assure you that many of us who teach and defend the doctrine of the Trinity are sincere believers who have submitted to Jesus Christ as Lord. Perhaps you did not mean to do so, but the impression that your statement gives is that anyone who disagrees with your view does so because they are not living for God. I hope you will agree that such is not the case.
WHAT IS THE TRINITY?
The Book of Proverbs tells us, "He who answers before listening - that is his folly and shame." (Prov. 18:13) I try to live by this in my examination of the beliefs of others, and hope you agree with this principle. I do not wish to criticize your beliefs without understanding them first; and I hope you will extend to me, and to others who believe in the Trinity, the same courtesy.
To be honest, Mrs. Shamblin, you seem not to have a clear understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. I say this because repeatedly in your September 15 Statement you represent the doctrine of the Trinity as teaching that Jesus is the Father, or as denying that Jesus is the Son of God:
I do not believe that He will change into the Father, but He will remain the Son and be seated on the Father's right-hand side when we get to heaven. . . .
Others are calling me a cult because Jehovah's Witnesses teach that Jesus is the Son of God and that He is not the Father. . . .
Therefore, I urge people to be careful of accusing someone of heresy because they believe that Jesus is the Son of God and has hundreds of scripture references to back up that reasonable belief. . . .
Jesus is not God the Father. . . .
Therefore, it had to be a Father and a Son. . . .
. . . no scripture says that Jesus is the Father - but every scripture says that He is the Son of God and the Messiah (Christ). . . .
We know what a son is - why do we want to make Jesus the Father and not the Son - I will never know. . . .
Here are some other questions that stump people teaching the Trinity: "When the Heavens opened at the baptism of Jesus, did God say that He was pleased with Himself?" "When Jesus died on the cross and said it was finished, did God turn away from Himself?" No - "Jesus cried out in a loud voice, 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?' - which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" . . .
When Jesus prayed in the garden, He was not dialoging with Himself as if He were schizophrenic, but rather, He was dialoging with His Father.
The fact is that the doctrine of the Trinity does not teach that Jesus is the Father. It teaches that Jesus is the Son, not the Father. As the Athanasian Creed puts it: "For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit." There are professing Christian religions today that do teach that Jesus is the Father, but they reject the doctrine of the Trinity. For example, the United Pentecostal Church International, the largest Oneness Pentecostal denomination, teaches that Jesus is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is false doctrine, and those of us who affirm the doctrine of the Trinity oppose such a misunderstanding of the Bible. Jesus is "the Father's Son," (2 John 3) not the Father.
Perhaps this misunderstanding is good news. If the doctrine of the Trinity does not teach that Jesus is the Father, as you apparently were led to believe, then perhaps you could accept the doctrine after all, once you really understood what it does and does not teach. At least, I hope that in light of this information you will be willing to reconsider your public opposition to the doctrine.
The core elements of the doctrine of the Trinity are these:
Your Statement focuses primarily on issues relating to the third point, so in the rest of this Open Letter I will offer some responses to your Statement on this point. However, the first point is crucial to the doctrine of the Trinity. If Jesus is God, as the Bible says, and if the LORD is the only true God, as the Bible also says, then Jesus must be that one true God - not a separate God.
JESUS IS GOD
Let's start, then, with these three basic facts of the Bible: (1) there is one God; (2) Jesus is God; (3) Jesus is not God the Father. All three of these biblical facts seem to be acknowledged in your Statement. On the first point, you write:
There is one God, and God the King has given His Son, Jesus Christ, all authority over heaven and earth.
So, you agree that there is one God. On the second point, that Jesus is God, you acknowledge that there are "approximately three" or "approximately four" places in the Bible where Jesus is called God. Your Statement cites Isaiah 9:6, John 1:1, and 2 Peter 1:1 as calling Jesus God. In discussing these passages, you agree that they call Jesus God, but you emphasize that this does not mean that Jesus is the Father (with which, remember, we trinitarians agree):
The approximately four references of the Jesus as "God" does not force one to believe that Jesus not the "Son of God" because again Jesus IS royalty and ALL authority has been given to Him by the Father and every knee will bow to "our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 1:1) Therefore Jesus is my Lord, my Savior, and my God. . . .
They also use the one and only passage that I can find that might remotely back up their teaching. John 1:1-2 says "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning." However, this means that Jesus is deity - He is not the Father -- for verse 2 says, "He was with God in the beginning." And then verse 13 says "born of God." Please do not take verses out of context.
Now, here's the problem. If there is only one God and Jesus is God, then Jesus and God cannot be "two separate beings," as you put it. Yet, you not only distinguish Jesus from the Father, you separate him from God and make them out to be two separate beings:
The answer: I believe that Jesus and God are two separate beings. I believe that Jesus is our Lord (referenced hundreds of times) and our God (referenced approximately three times), but I believe that the God of Jesus is God the Father. Jesus is not God the Father.
Now, I repeat our agreement with you that Jesus is not God the Father. But the way you separate God from Jesus here, while calling Jesus "God," really sounds as though Jesus is a second God. In other words, you seem to be implying that the Father and the Son are two Gods. Now, you don't actually say that, and I'm not trying to put words in your mouth. You come closest to saying so when you write, "God and Jesus both are testifying that there is one ultimate God," implying that Jesus is a secondary God. But perhaps you didn't mean to imply that there were two Gods. Regardless, I am trying to get you to see that you have to make a choice. Either Jesus is the same God as the Father (while still somehow a different person than the Father) or he is a different God. If he is the same God, then we have at least two persons (the Father and Jesus his Son) in one God. That, as I'm sure you can see, is the answer given in the doctrine of the Trinity. If, on the other hand, Jesus is a different God than the Father, then we have at least two Gods. But we agreed that there is only one God. The Bible is clear, explicit, and emphatic on that point. Therefore, we must conclude that Jesus is the same God as the Father, not a different God.
JESUS IS JEHOVAH
Who is this one God? As I stated earlier, he is the God who in the Old Testament is called the LORD, i.e., Yahweh, or Jehovah. It is basic to the doctrine of the Trinity to recognize that, according to the Bible, Jesus is Jehovah. You specifically disagreed with that conclusion:
Teachers of the Trinity teach that Jesus is Jehovah; they have no scriptures to back this up, and why don't they believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that Jehovah is Jehovah?
Actually, we do have plenty of Scriptures to back up the teaching that Jesus is Jehovah. Remember that in most English translations of the Old Testament, including the NIV, the name "Jehovah" (Hebrew, YHWH) is replaced most frequently with the words "the LORD" (and occasionally with "GOD"). These translations are following the common Jewish practice in the first century of using the Greek word for Lord (kurios) or God (theos) when translating or quoting from the Old Testament. The New Testament (which was originally written in Greek) follows the same practice in its quotations from the Old Testament, which is why in virtually all English Bibles the name "Jehovah" is never found in the New Testament. (The Jehovah's Witnesses' New World Translation is a conspicuous exception.) Instead, the English New Testament (again, including the NIV) most commonly reads "the Lord" when quoting from an Old Testament text referring to Jehovah. With these facts in mind, let's consider a few passages from the New Testament that clearly do identify Jesus as Jehovah.
There are many other New Testament texts that support this identification of Jesus as Jehovah, but the three I have presented here will give you some idea of the biblical basis for this doctrine.
COMMON OBJECTIONS TO THE BELIEF THAT JESUS IS GOD
Your Statement voices a number of objections to the belief that Jesus is God - the same God as the Father, the Creator of the universe. Many of these objections are standard criticisms that we encounter all the time from religions that profess to follow Jesus while denying the doctrine of the Trinity. Allow me to comment on these.
WHO WILL WE SEE IN HEAVEN?
I turn now to a different sort of question you raise repeatedly in criticism of the doctrine of the Trinity. When we go to heaven, will we see only one being, or will we see separate beings?
Some believe that the Trinity teaches that God and Jesus are the same being, so that when you get to heaven, you will only see one being, not both Jesus and God, while some other Trinitarians are teaching that there are separate beings. . . .
If they were equal in glory, why does the Bible tell us over and over that we will see Jesus sitting at the right hand side of God? Why doesn't the Bible just say that Jesus and God would be sitting on two co-equal thrones? Half of the Trinitarians say that they will bow down to both Jesus and God when they get to heaven, and the other half believes that there will only be one being - but they can never tell me which one will be missing: Jesus or God. . . .
I have talked to several defenders of the Trinity recently, and they cannot answer this one question clearly for me: "When you get to heaven, will you bow down to Jesus?" They always answer "yes," but they get nervous because they see where I am going. Then I ask, "Will you be bowing down to God, too?" And they do not answer, because they then go on to say that Jesus and God are one. I then ask them, "Who will be missing - Jesus or God?" And they cannot answer. I pray that people will let go of man-made rules and hold on to the teachings of Jesus and of God through the inspired Word of God, which teaches you that there is God, and His Spirit, and Jesus, His Son at His right hand, and that every knee will bow to both Jesus and God.
A third question to ask them is, "Did the Heavens open and Stephen REALLY see Jesus at the right hand side of God?" . . . I know, like Stephen, that we will one day see the heavens open and see God and also see Jesus seated at His right hand; we will not see just one being. Several will argue that what Stephen saw was symbolic, but my question to them is "symbolic of what?" The only answer to this is that it is symbolic that Jesus is ruling with God, at His right hand. That is so easy to understand! Others will argue that God and Jesus are just spirits, and therefore, once again, it was symbolic to argue that Jesus and God are one. But God tells us that we are made in His image and in the image of Christ. An image is a image. I believe in the Word of God, and I believe that He gave us that image for a reason.
I am not surprised that your question has "stumped" some trinitarians, because your question assumes that we will see either (1) Jesus but not God, or (2) God but not Jesus, or (3) God and Jesus as a subordinate deity. The confusion that your question engenders arises because in fact none of these answers is biblical!
Let's begin with a basic premise of biblical theology: God is by nature an invisible, incorporeal, infinite being of spirit. That means that human eyes cannot "see" him in his essential divine being. "No man has ever seen God." (John 1:18) God, Paul tells us, "lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see." (1 Tim. 6:16) This premise leads to an obvious conclusion: Asking who or what we will "see" in heaven may be misleading.
You allude to this point when you comment, "Others will argue that God and Jesus are just spirits." Right at this point, however, an important fact has been overlooked. Jesus is not "just" a spirit any more. Jesus is God made visible. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us." (John 1:1, 14) Jesus is not mere spirit; he is a physical being, even in the resurrection, since he has a body of "flesh and bones." (Luke 24:39) In his human, physical nature, Jesus fully embodies and reveals the invisible God. "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form." (Col. 2:9) This is what Paul means when he says that Christ "is the image of the invisible God." (Col. 1:15) God is by nature invisible, but in Christ God makes himself visible; he has imaged himself in Christ. Likewise, the writer of Hebrews tells us, "The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being." (Heb. 1:3) Thus, John tells us, "No man has ever seen God, but God the only Son, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." (John 1:18) Whatever one may say about what we will see in heaven, the Bible is clear on this point: to see Jesus on earth is to see God making himself visible, making himself known. That's why, when Philip asked to see the Father, Jesus replied, "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." (John 14:9) This doesn't mean that Jesus is the Father - as I mentioned earlier, we agree on this much - but it does mean that Jesus is no less than God in the flesh.
Now, the Bible does speak repeatedly of Jesus in heaven as being at the right hand of God, or at the right hand of the Father. Some of these statements occur in the same context as the passages I have just quoted about Jesus being God made visible. Notice especially John 1:18 again: "No man has ever seen God, but God the only Son, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." (John 1:18) To speak of Jesus as being on God's right hand, or at the Father's side, does distinguish Jesus the Son from God the Father. But at the same time it emphasizes how close Jesus is to the Father.
Here is something odd to consider. The Bible never presents Jesus and the Father occupying separate thrones. Jesus is said to be sitting "at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven," or "of the throne of God." (Heb. 8:1; 12:2) But the same writer also pictures Jesus sitting on the throne and showing grace to those who come to him in faith. (Heb. 4:16) The Father himself tells Jesus the Son, "Your throne, O God, will last forever and ever." (Heb. 1:8) So Hebrews pictures Jesus sitting at the right hand of the throne of God and as sitting on the throne and ruling forever as God! In the Book of Revelation, Jesus is pictured as "the Lamb," and John refers to "the throne of God and the Lamb." (Rev. 22:1, 3) The Lamb receives the same "praise and honor and glory and power" as the one who sits on the throne. (Rev. 5:13) And when John says that he saw "a great white throne and him who was seated upon it," (Rev. 20:11) that person seated on the throne can be no one other than Jesus Christ (compare Matt. 19:28; 25:31). So, in the Book of Revelation we see the same mix of images as in Hebrews: Jesus is pictured both as right beside the throne of God and as sharing the same throne as God.
So, what is the answer to your question? We do not know exactly what we will see in heaven; we do not have the capacity to understand all that will be revealed to us then. (1 Cor. 2:9; 13:12; 1 John 3:2) But this much we know: we will see God, (Matt. 5:8) and we will see him in Jesus Christ. (John 1:18; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3)
Perhaps what we will "see" will be something like what Stephen saw in his vision before he died. You drew particular attention to that vision, so let's look at it for a moment. Stephen, Luke says, "saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God." (Acts 7:55) Now, notice something peculiar: Luke does not say that Stephen saw God and Jesus, but that he saw "the glory of God" and Jesus standing at God's right hand. The implication is clear: Stephen did not see two beings! He saw a glorious manifestation of God's presence and Jesus standing immediately to its right hand. Stephen saw the Shekinah glory as seen in the Old Testament in various shining manifestations (e.g., the burning bush, the pillar of fire and pillar of cloud, the glory-cloud that filled the tabernacle). And he saw the figure of Jesus, "the Son of Man," (Acts 7:56) standing at the right hand of God.
The short answer to your question, then, is this: We will see God's glory; we will see Jesus, the embodiment of God's glory; and we will see God revealed in physical, bodily form only in Jesus. We will not see them as two separate entities with separate bodies, as Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed to have seen in his "first vision." We will see Jesus, and in and through Jesus we will see the Father; (John 14:9) and we will see clearly that they are one God.
JESUS AS OUR EXAMPLE OF SUBMISSION
Finally, I turn to what may be the most crucial underlying issue in your critique of the doctrine of the Trinity. You don't spend much time on this issue, but it seems to loom large in terms of its importance for the overall message of your ministry.
People today are experiencing freedom from the power of sin and are reaping the benefits of repentance and simply wanting more truth and encouragement to stay on that path. People have lost from 1 to 300 pounds and/or have laid down drugs, antidepressants, cigarettes, pornography, anti-authority, pride, phobias, self-focus, adultery, homosexuality, gambling, anorexia, bulimia, love of money, and many other compulsive behaviors. They have done this by understanding the true picture of Jesus Christ - that He "would not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but humbled Himself to death, even death on a cross." (Phil 2) We have been asked to pick up our cross daily and follow this Jesus, and we are asked to be Christ-like. My experience has been that some of the Trinity teachings confuse some people on how we are to live like Jesus if Jesus and God are the same being. . . .
The reason that all of this important is that if you do not understand that God is the clear authority and that Jesus was under God's authority, then you will not have a clear picture what it means to be Christ like. Jesus suffered, obeyed, submitted, denied His will, and made it His food to do the will of the Father.
What you seem to be saying in the above comments is that belief in the Trinity has hindered people from understanding their need to submit to God. If we know that are to be Christ-like, but we think Christ did not need to submit to God, then, so you seem to be saying, we will mistakenly conclude that we don't need to submit to God, either.
I'll be honest with you. I have never met a Christian who suffered from this confusion. That is, I have never met a Christian who thought that he or she did not need to submit to God because Jesus was God! This really is a non-problem.
Jesus submitted to the Father as his God because he became a man in order to restore us to a proper relationship to God. That proper relationship is one in which we follow Christ's example by submitting to his Father's will. All evangelical Christians believe this. Trinitarian theologians unanimously teach this.
There is another side to this matter, though. Jesus did not become a man merely to set us a pattern or example of submission to the Father. If that was all he had done, he would merely have shown us how impossible it is for us to please God. For all of our efforts, none of us can truthfully say that he or she has submitted wholly and perfectly to God. This is because "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Rom. 3:23) For this reason, our right relationship with God cannot depend on our own personal submission to God. That is the way of Islam (the word Islam even means "submission"), not of Christianity.
Rather, our right relationship with God is a free gift that we receive by faith in Jesus Christ, who submitted perfectly to the Father's will on our behalf. God "saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life." (Titus 3:3-7)
Here is the Trinity in action: the Father saving us by grace, poured out on us through his Son Jesus Christ, administered to our hearts by his Holy Spirit (see also 1 Peter 1:2). It is God who saves us! It is the Lord God who came into this world as one of us and shed his blood for us. (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 2:8) It is the Lord God who dwells in our hearts and restores us to a living relationship with himself. (2 Cor. 3:17-18) Because salvation from start to finish is a work of God, our right standing before God is "a righteousness that is by faith from first to last." (Rom. 1:17) Our submission to God as Christians is the fruit of this right standing, not the root or basis of it. (Eph. 2:8-10)
I hope that this letter helps you to understand the doctrine of the Trinity a little better. I respectfully urge you to stop speaking publicly against this doctrine that has been a part of "the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints." (Jude 3) I would be very happy to discuss these matters with you at any length.
Sincerely in Christ's service,
Robert M. Bowman, Jr.