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Messianics, Scripture and the Trinity
by Paul Sumner
"We should always be disposed to believe that that
which appears white is really black,
if the hierarchy of the Church so decides."
— Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556)
Founder of the Jesuits (Society of Jesus)
"The fact that we accept the Bible as the authority of the Church
does not make the authority of the Church the higher of the two."
— C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)
Professor of English Literature (Oxford and Cambridge)
A friend told me a story about his little boy who badly cut his knee in a bicycle accident. They took him to the ER where a nurse was about to give him a shot. "Will this hurt?" the boy asked. "No," the nurse said. He looked at his father, who said, "Yes, son, it will hurt. But it is necessary to prevent an increase in your pain. I am here with you. We will do this together." Assured, the child endured what followed, without a tear.
Deep, lengthy examination of Scripture with prayerful, listening humility should be a hallmark of all believers in Yeshua the Messiah. This isn't a distinctively "Protestant" thing to do. It used to be a Jewish thing to do, but is not so now.
When Paul of Tarsus, the Orthodox Jewish evangelist for Yeshua, entered the synagogue in the town of Berea in Macedonia (Greece), he was greeted eagerly by the Jewish leaders. They didn't immediately throw him out once he spoke about Yeshua. Nor did they uncritically accept him and his message. Just the opposite: they listened. They weremore noble-minded [than Jewish leaders in Thessalonica]...[and] received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so. (Acts 17:11)They listened and examined Paul's message in light of their Jewish Bible.
As a result, "many of them put their faith [believed] in [Yeshua]" (v. 12). Why did these synagogue Jews accept Paul's message? Because they believed it fit the message and prophecies of Israel's Scriptures: the Word of God.
Their openness, based on confidence in the Scriptures as the measure of revealed truth, is not prevalent today in the Synagogue — or increasingly less so in the Church.
Instead, groups have official doctrinal templates (paradigms) through which they view or hear all messages. Authority resides in these templates: the traditions of the elders, rabbis, theologians, preachers, and denominations.
In contrast, the example shown by the Berean elders — Jewish elders — is a point of light for gaining our own navigation bearings.
We live in an era of rampant Bible illiteracy when few people read Scripture for themselves but depend upon religious teachers to tell them what it all means. (Re)searching out ancient truths with noble-minded openness to Scripture is not widely encouraged. It isn't necessary, when all the questions have been answered by Tradition.
The doctrine of the Trinity is the most controversial issue between Judaism and Christianity. The Synagogue says those who believe in the Trinity are idolaters.
We also realize the doctrine is at the core of Muslim rejection of what they believe are Christian distortions of the true "Injil" (gospel) about the prophet Isa (Yeshua, Jesus). The Mosque says Christians are going to hell for believing in it. [Note 1]
The fact that Rabbinic Judaism and Islam reject the Trinity doctrine is not, in itself, reason to reexamine it. There is also a vast array of anti-Trinitarian Christian sects, such as the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians, and Unitarians.
Messianic believers should not allow any of these so-called "monotheistic" religions to influence what they accept as revealed truth. The most important reason to look seriously at the doctrine is rooted in Scripture, and it always has been.
It is literally a non-scriptural doctrine.
By that I mean, the non-Semitic, post-New Testament Church formulated, evolved, and institutionalized it. It is a speculative model of how theologians conceive the ontological, metaphysical relationships among the persons of the Godhead. It's a paradigm that theorists believe fits the data of Scripture and adheres to principles of deductive logic.
A modern summary of the Trinity Model reads:
1 John 1:3
"Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Yeshua Messiah.""There is one God and only one God; this one God exists eternally in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; these three persons are completely equal, each fully possessing the divine nature or essence."
The 5th century Creed of Athanasius had given more explicit detail:"The Catholic Faith is this:Church historians refer to this creed as the "Quicunque Vult" or "Whosoever will be [saved]" creed, because it contains the sober warning: "Whosoever will be saved must thus think of the Trinity."
That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance [Essence].
"In this Trinity none is before or after another;
none is greater or less than another.
"The whole three Persons are co-eternal and co-equal.
So that in all things, as said before, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped."
That is, "Christians" must think about God as a Triune Deity. If they don't, they are lost.
To Protest is Biblical
Anyone who abides within the thought-world of Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament is confronted with the alien mind of these abstract and, frankly, belligerent dictates.
How can we think about theoretical, hypothetical, unproveable abstractions that have not been revealed by God in Scripture?
More importantly: we who abide in Scripture should reject the dictum that our salvation depends not on our reliance on our repentance, the atoning blood of the Messiah and the forgiveness of God, but on our agreement to "think" about God as a "Unity in Trinity, Trinity in Unity."
Christian theologians have added to the Gospel and redefined biblical content. They have disobeyed the command "not to exceed what is written [in Scripture]" (1 Cor 4:6).
In the NT the phrase "one God" refers to the Father. Theologians say it refers to a composite of three divine beings. The Quicunque Vult tells us to worship the Triune God. In the NT, angels, martyrs and disciples only bow before the Father and Son. And Jesus himself worshiped only his Father, never the Spirit.
This is what I mean by saying the Trinity doctrine is not biblical. We're talking about philosophical assumptions and formulas created and imposed by the Church Fathers and required by most Christian divisions.
"God made [Yeshua] both Lord and Messiah."
Among many Yeshua-believing ["Messianic"] Jews, believing in the Trinity simply means affirming that Yeshua is the Messiah and Son of God. To them, he's not merely a good Jew or hasidic rabbi from Galilee. Theirs is the basic Gospel, without theological nuancing: John 3:16 is a key text accepted at face value (a view I share).God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son
that whoever would put their trust in him would not perish
but have eternal life.
But that simple, fundamentalist belief about Yeshua and God is not technically the doctrine of the Trinity. In the eyes of historical orthodoxy, John 3:16 is an inadequate summary of "Christian faith" and will not lead to eternal salvation.
The Nicene Creed of 325 describes Christ as "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God." This philosophical construct is what Christian orthodoxy demands people voice adherence to for their salvation.
Theologians admit that the Doctrine and its formulas are unfathomable. But their oft-used slogan "the mystery of the Trinity" wasn't coined by slow-witted Galilean fishermen or earth-bound shepherds in the hills above Bethlehem or bemused shopkeepers in ancient Jerusalem.
2 Timothy 4:1
"I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Messiah Yeshua."
It was coined by theologians themselves who speculated about the Godhead and literally didn't understand what they and their colleagues had concocted. Yet they were very sure everyone had to say they believe in the unfathomable doctrine.
Wait. If the professionals don't understand it, why do they demand that we fishermen, herders and shop keepers say we believe it? Does the Almighty tell us anywhere that He wants this verbal confession from us?
An Australian evangelical Anglican priest writes:"Let's face it, it is not easy even today, even for those who are familiar with the definitions of Nicea and the writings of Athanasius and others, to make sure you always state everything with correctness and precision. How much more for those Christians writing before Nicea!" (From: How God Became Jesus , ed. Michael Bird, p. 188)
Note Bird's points here:
- post-biblical theologians composed "correct" and "precise" definitions of the Godhead,
- we should "always state" our beliefs according to their definitions.
His unspoken implication is that Jews living before the Nicean and Athanasian creeds were not in possession of these truths. Logically, that would include Yeshua and his apostles, the NT writers.
"The kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah have come."
In recent years, I've noted how many studies come out trying to (re)explain the Trinity Theory. Evidently, very few scholars — and especially pew-people — are getting it after 17 centuries.
Here's a humorous attempt to modernize the theory. In his book Benefit of the Doubt (2013), the Christian thinker Gregory Boyd speaks of "the threefold loving eternal dance of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" (p. 60).
The Godhead dancing? This is certainly not abstract! So far, I can't find any Bible text where this imagery is found.
Personally, I prefer to approach the heavenly Throne with the same mindset that Isaiah had when he saw God: "Woe is me, for I am ruined! For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of armies" (Isa 6:5). Or when John saw the resurrected Jesus in Heaven, he responded: "When I saw him, I fell at his feet as a dead man" (Rev 1:17).
Western, Northern-hemispheric Christian theologians have always been obsessed with understanding and explaining "God" from atop Mars Hill in Athens. Norman Henry Snaith trenchantly wrote in his The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament:"Thy sons, O Zion, against thy sons, O Greece" (Zechariah ix.13) arose as a rallying cry in days long ago when some Jews sought to re-interpret Judaism in order to make it more acceptable to Greek ways of thought and life. There have always been Jews who have sought to make terms with the Gentile world, and it has in time meant the death of Judaism for all such. There have been Christians from the beginning who have sought to do this.
Our position is that the re-interpretation of Biblical theology in terms of the ideas of the Greek philosophers has been both widespread throughout the centuries and everywhere destructive to the essence of the Christian faith. (p. 187, bold emphasis added)
God Isn't a Puzzle Cube
Snaith's historical perspective is pertinent to us who live in a post-Biblical era, when Christianity is less and less a biblical religion and Judaism is for many just an evolving body of human ethics.
I think the lack of resonance with the Trinity Model among many Western Christians is because they can't "find" it when they read the Bible. It isn't native to the concrete, image-rich, Jewish, Semitic, Hebrew Scriptures — or to the Hebraic bedrock of the New Testament. It breathes another mind, from outside.
Simply said: The model is the product of non-Jewish Diaspora Christianity.
Ironically, some Protestant evangelical theologians in the West are among the most vocal defenders of catholic orthodoxy, which they prefer to call "historic Christian orthodoxy." (They dislike the word "catholic" so they use "historic" and "orthodox" to mean the same thing.)
They say they affirm what the Church has "always believed everywhere," and say the creeds of the 4th and 5th centuries embody those universal Christian beliefs. Yet this isn't true. These Protestants are validating Rome, not Scripture.
"God anointed Yeshua of Nazareth."
Here's another example of Protestant endorsement of Rome's theological authority by the previously cited evangelical Anglican Michael Bird:"Though obviously the term evangelical means different things to different people, I intend it as designating those faith communities who hold to the catholic and orthodox faith and who possess a singular religious affection for the Triune God." (Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology , p. 11)
For such theologians and spiritual leaders, the Bible alone is not the final arbiter of truth — the Church is. They accept the Roman view that only an elite, priestly class of theologically-trained insiders can interpret the Bible for the laity. And they want lay people to trust them about what God wants them to believe.
Judaism is Jewish Catholicism
"You have come to Mount Zion...to God, the judge of all...and to Yeshua, the mediator of a new covenant."
Modern Orthodox Judaism has no Reformation spirit — except perhaps in its fervor to return to Talmud-Torah Judaism. And like historical Catholicism, Jewish liberty to study and interpret the Hebrew Bible is restricted.
Jewish inquirers are told to consult rabbis (medieval or modern) for authoritative explanations of what the Tanakh means to Jews and how a Jew should think about it — not how any open-minded seeker of God's self-revelation should respond. In contrast, in Ancient Israel, true faith and loyalty to God were marked by obedience to the written scriptures that existed at the time.
Psalm 119 extols God's written revelation. "Your Torah is my delight ... Oh, how I love your Torah ... Your Word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path" (vv. 77, 97, 105).
By Yeshua's time, Torah scholars ("scribes") were an emerging class. Many of them were infuriated that he rejected their authority over the Bible and criticized them for twisting and disobeying Scripture, in favor of promoting their Academy traditions of exegesis and application (Matt 7:29; Luke 20:1-2).
Taking the kosher purity test
If you are a Berean at heart (Acts 17:11-12) and decide that the rabbis, church fathers, and esteemed seminarians have no ultimate authority over what you believe, you'll not hear affirming applause. Some will accuse you of rejecting the Christian faith and all it has taught and held dear. You'll be accused of being an apostate denier of Jesus.
Eventually, you will hear an intimidating — but faux — argument: "Dear brother, so you think 2,000 years of Christian history have been wrong? And you know better than all the great spiritual leaders of the Church?"
That's a pungent but irrelevant and inquisitorial taunt. In response, it's fair to ask, for example, whether the leaders were biblically orthodox when they dethroned Jesus as "the one Mediator between God and men" (1 Tim 2:5) and enthroned his mother Mary in his place as mediatrix.
Did their orthodox doctrine of the triune Godhead prevent them from descending into apostasy and blasphemy against the Son of God?
"[Yeshua, the Son] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation."
Evaluating a person with an orthodox, kosher theology grid is the same tactic Jewish anti-missionaries use on Messianic (Jesus-believing) Jews:
"Nu, 4,000 years of Jewish history are wrong about God and the Messiah, and you're right? Our esteemed rabbis misled us? And the Six Million died with a lie on their lips [the monotheistic Shema]?"
These emotional barbs from Christian and Jewish authorities can be persuasive. They're meant to be. Their purpose is to produce timidity, enforce unquestioning silence, and expel heretics.
But their rhetorical questions are historically anachronistic. The Trinity Model is not 2,000 years old, and Unitarian, Rabbinic, anti-Yeshua, Judaism is not 4,000 years old.
A number of Messianic scholars and teachers have been trained in Protestant seminaries. They seem to have accepted as axiomatic the traditional view that they must reconcile the Old Testament with post-biblical Christian theology.
So they tend to focus on finding the "Triunity of God" in the Hebrew Bible. They believe the Tanakh is the foundation document for Jews and for New Testament Messianism. (A view I also hold.)
But, like their Gentile Christian counterparts, what Messianic scholars present as proof texts turn out to be (as some admit) only "hints" of the doctrine. And when these hints are studied in context, they lose persuasive power, because a hint is not proof. And hints often become proofs when you find what you're looking for and already believe.
"I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."
Usually these proof-texts include the Genesis Plurals [Note 2], the plural word Elohim (God) [Note 3], and the meaning of echad (one) in the Shema [Note 4].
Supported by these and other biblical texts, Messianic organizations have opted for orthodox Christian creedal statements. That is, their creeds or "statements of faith" contain terminology and conclusions widely accepted by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and mainline Protestants.
[Samples of Messianic organization statements of faith are found in Modern Messianic Creeds.]
Messianics pressured to assimilate
Messianic scholars face a profound dilemma. For even though they have labored to find the doctrine of the Triune God in the Hebrew Bible, Christian Theological Tradition (CTT) dismisses the idea. It says the doctrine isn't in the Tanakh:"The Old Testament writings about God neither express nor imply any idea of or belief in a plurality or trinity of persons within the one Godhead." (Edmund Fortman, The Triune God, p. 9)
"The mystery of the Trinity was not revealed to the Chosen People of the OT." (New Catholic Encyclopedia, 14:306)
Some conservative Protestants agree with these Roman Catholic authorities. Note the recent comment by the evangelical OT scholar Bruce K. Waltke."God did not reveal to his covenant people before the coming of Jesus Christ that the Messiah is an incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity." (An Old Testament Theology , p. 621)
Not every scholar or teacher may agree with these statements from Christian authorities. But the historical opinion of CTT that the Trinity Doctrine isn't in Hebrew Scripture cannot be deleted from history — and should not be ignored. It should be a warning to Messianics.
1 Thessalonians 1:9-10
"You turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead."
The painful paradox is that Messianics are trying to prove something (a theological model) that isn't there — in the scriptures of Israel, which Yeshua called the "word of God."
The late Messianic scholar Jakob Jocz once criticized the "slippery path of exegetical acrobatics" that Christian apologists have used to prove the Trinity from the Old Testament. What he said about these Christian efforts generally can be applied to Messianic apologists today:"Some of this very dubious exegesis is still reproduced in pious tracts for the purpose of converting Jews."
(From The Messiahship of Jesus: What Jews and Jewish Christians Say, ed. Arthur W. Kac [Moody Press, 1980], p. 191.)
A reemerging tactic among some Messianics is to prove the Trinity using kabbalistic literature, such as the medieval book Zohar and the 18th century Tanya (Likutei Amarim). The latter was composed by Rabbi Shneur Zalman (1745-1812), who founded the Chabad movement of hasidic Judaism in Lithuania.
Jews For Jesus published an article called "Kabbalah's Best Kept Secret?" In it, the unnamed author attempts to show how the kabbalistic doctrine of the Sefirot and other mystical speculations about the Godhead foreshadow, even validate, Christianity's doctrine of the Compound Unity of the Triune God.
The article's author cites a passage in the Zohar about the Shema:
1 Timothy 5:21
"I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Messiah Yeshua and the chosen angels."YHVH Eloheinu YHVH echad. These three are one.... The threefold Divine manifestations [are] three modes which yet form one unity." [Zohar, Shemoth, Raya Mehemna, 43b]
In contrast, the only place in Scripture where the phrase "these three are one" is found in 1 John 5:7, a text interpolated into the Greek NT by Catholic scribes. That the author of this Kabbalah article shows no awareness that 1 John 5:7 is counterfeit is surprising and disappointing.
The Zohar passage merely validates Catholic dogma, not Biblical content.
Not mystery, but misrepresentation
Of course there is "mystery" about God. Any honest, thoughtful person would agree. God is beyond our comprehension — except where he has revealed himself, primarily in the written Word and in his Living Word, the Messiah. That's what the Word does: it reveals.
Mystery is not the issue.
Our concern should be whether the speculations about God that were crystallized by Christian theologians rightly reflect the whole content of Scripture, and to what extent their concepts and doctrines undermine our ability to read Scripture without lenses...which would undermine our reliance on the Bible itself.
Another concern is how this Christian Theological Tradition (CTT) view of "God" has distorted New Testament teaching.
Here are three examples of how CTT clashes with Scripture:
(1) In the NT the phrase "one God" refers to the Father of Yeshua.For us there is one God, the Father...and one Lord, Yeshua Messiah.
(1 Cor 8:6)
There is one God and one mediator also between God and men,
the man Messiah Yeshua. (1 Tim 2:5)
But in CTT "one God" refers to a theoretical compound triune Godhead of Father, Son and Spirit. The biblical phrase has been completely redefined. And that implies that Scripture means something other than what it literally says.
And that implies that only approved and trained interpreters of Christian doctrine can tell us what Scripture actually means.
"This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Yeshua Messiah, whom you have sent."
(2) Paul of Tarsus — an orthodox Jew, Pharisee, and apostle of Yeshua — opens his letters with blessings from "God the Father and the Lord Yeshua Messiah." And he calls the Father "the God of Yeshua" (Rom 15:6; 2 Cor 1:3; Eph 1:17). His word choices are specific and striking.
They do not depart from the track of his initial preaching:Immediately he began to proclaim Yeshua in the synagogues, saying, 'He is the Son of God'... proving that this [one] is the Messiah. (Acts 9:20,22)
Peter's evangelistic message parallels Paul's:Let all the house know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Messiah — this Yeshua... (Acts 2:26)
[God] sent to the sons of Israel the gospel of peace through Yeshua Messiah (he is Lord of all)... (Acts 10:36).
(3) God's angels and the martyrs for Yeshua in heaven weren't worshiping the CTT model of the Godhead when John overheard them singing praise before the Throne during his visions described in the book of Revelation. Rather, they praise God and the Lamb.To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb,
be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.
The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our God
and of his Messiah; and He will reign forever and ever. (Rev 11:15)
Would we be right to conclude that these divine beings and holy martyrs did not have a fully orthodox grasp of divine reality? If yes, then those closest to the Throne can't be trusted to give a true witness.
Then whom can we trust?
A suggested path to peace — with God and Scripture
My view is that Messianics who accept the New Covenant scriptures as God's revelation about Yeshua haMashiach have an obligation to break bondage to both post-biblical, Diaspora religions: Rabbinic Judaism and Catholic Christianity. I said break "bondage," not all ties.
If Messianics are to contribute to building up the Messiah's body of disciples in preparation for his return, they have to become "Berean Jews" and leave the old cities, go to the frontier and start over — with the sword-spade of God's word in hand and his promises in mind.
Nehemiah and his people rebuilt Jerusalem that way.
If Messianics (whether Jew or non-Jew) have been raised up by God for such a time as this, they are in a unique position to bring reconciliation between the Jewish people and Yeshua, between Muslims and Yeshua, and between Christians and the biblical Jesus.
This could bring peace to all three groups. And that would be a sign to the non-religious world that Yeshua is whom he says he is.
And that would fulfill God's will thatEvery knee should bow...
and every tongue confess that Yeshua Mashiach is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11)
(1) Several passages in the Qur'an refer to unacceptable Christian beliefs:
The Women [An-Nisa] 4:171
O people of the Book, do not be fanatical in your faith, and say nothing but the truth about God. The Messiah who is Jesus, son of Mary, was only an apostle of God, and a command of His which He sent to Mary, as a mercy from Him. So believe in God and His apostles, and do not call Him 'Trinity'. Abstain from this for your own good; for God is only one God, and far from His glory is it to beget a son.
The Feast [Al-Ma’idah] 5:73
Disbelievers are they surely who say: "God is the third of the trinity"; but there is no god other than God the one. And if they do not desist from saying what they say, then indeed those among them who persist in disbelief will suffer painful punishment.
Mary [Marium] 19:88-92 88
They say: "God has begotten a son." (89) You have uttered a monstrous falsehood (90) which would cleave the skies asunder, rend the earth, and split the mountains, (91) for they have attributed a son to Ar-Rahman [the Merciful One, God], (92) when it does not behove the Merciful to have a son.
[return to text]
(2) The Genesis Plurals are discussed at length in my separate article by this title. Briefly, it argues for the idea that when God uses the pronouns "us" and "our" he is speaking to members of his heavenly council. This conclusion is based on a broad spectrum of biblical ideology and interprets the passages in Genesis within the context of the whole Hebrew Bible. [return to text]
(3) The plural form "Elohim" — the most commonly used word for "God" in Hebrew Scripture — represents a biblical phenomenon in which this word and the word "Lord" (Adon, not "YHVH") are amplified or intensified out of honor for the Creator. God is both Elohim and Adonim.
Making nouns plural is a Hebrew way of putting them in all capital letters or in bold font or in gold. The Elohim the Israelites believed in is the GOD above all elohim (the word is also used for pagan deities). He alone deserves the title "God." [For extensive details see Elohim in Context]
[return to text]
(4) Echad in the Shema
The adjective echad has various uses in the Tanakh.
At times it means first or the numeral one or the same or singleness. It can also mean unique, one of a kind. In the context of the Shema (Deut 6:4) — which occurs in the broader context of Deuteronomy, which reflects the historical identity-battle between Yahveh and the gods of Canaan, Egypt, and Mesopotamia — echad means unique above all.
The Shema is a confession that Yahveh, who is our Elohim, is unique among the elohim. He alone deserves the title God, and he is our God and deserves our single-hearted [lev echad] allegiance.
The Shema is not transmitting a Da Vinci-like code across the ages that was deciphered first by Roman Catholic theologians in the Middle Ages who had constructed the Trinitarian creeds and were looking for evidence of their conclusions in the Tanakh in order to convince Jews that Roman Christianity was biblical and thus truer than Judaism.
The Messiah himself quoted the Shema in Mark 12, but he did not point to any hidden meanings that would bolster his identity as God's Son, or as God himself. Instead, he alluded to passages like Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:9-14 for scriptural validation. [return to text]
See the full article Echad in the Shema.
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