Christians insist that Jesus is God, but does that mean the Trinity “split apart” when he came “into the world” (John 1:9, 14)? The tendency is to assume such, but the Biblical model of the Father-Son-Spirit relationship does not present itself in such a black and white manner–one that is easily quantifiable to human minds.
Due to the extreme repulsion to the doctrine of Christology by those who deny Jesus’ divinity, this article will focus on the Father-Son aspect of the Trinity.
3 issues must be addressed and clarified: 1.) What Jesus meant by “being one” with the Father 2.) The nature of perfect unity 3.) The incarnation
1. What Jesus meant by “being one” with the Father
In a cluster of texts in John (John 10:30; 17:11, 21-22), Jesus (via John’s Gospel) said that he and the Father are “one.” In all these, he used a neuter verb, which means he wasn’t talking about a person, but rather something more abstract.
The context of John 10 illustrates: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (10:27-29).
In this case, Jesus was saying that the Father and himself were “on the same mission”–they are “one” in the sense that they both guarantee protection for those that believe (10:26).
In John 17, Jesus is praying for his disciples to find the unity that he shares with the Father. This is not unlike Paul’s desire for the Philippian church to “be of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). Like in John 10, Jesus is more focused on unity of purpose rather than explaining the ontology of how he is “one” with the Father (even if this isn’t Jesus’ point here, it is certainly assumed).
So these texts should not be used, especially in isolation, to argue for the divinity of Jesus. To conclude, however, that Jesus was not divine, based on these texts, is to discount the rest of the Biblical data.
2. The nature of perfect unity
The traditional Christian doctrine of Theology Proper maintains the ontological unity between Father and Son (and Spirit). This is derived from Biblical data (Matt. 3:16; 28:19; Mark 2:5-11; John 1:1; 5:17; 8:58; 15:26; Rom. 9:5; Col. 1:16-19; Heb. 1:1-4); taken as a whole, the textual evidence for Jesus’ divinity is convincing.
Yet when one contemplates how both the Son and Father can equally be God, concerns arise. For instance, does claiming Jesus’ divinity contradict the shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4)?
Are Christians not monotheistic? Is worshipping the Trinity akin to worshipping three gods?
An important consideration is to acknowledge that the ontological characteristics of perfect unity are beyond our comprehension. We simply cannot know (in a complete sense) what perfect unity looks like. We may formulate it as an abstraction, but we cannot actualize it in any way because we are, quite plainly, finite (indeed, if God would be quantifiable on human terms, it would invalidate his ontological transcendence over human experience and intellect).
An animal may “know” what breeding is, but it can never know marriage. We may “know” what unity is, but we will never know what perfect unity is.
The Christian concept of the Trinity does not contradict the shema because the Trinity is indeed “one.” The problem lies not in the Trinity but in our limited perception of what perfect unity in diversity looks like.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “unity in diversity.” Humanity has dealt with this issue since history began. We cannot shake the concept of “unity in diversity.” We are driven by the desire to make order out of chaos.
Christianity is the only viable way to explain why we have such a drive to find unity in diversity. As Ravi Zacharias says, “Only in the Trinity is there unity in diversity–in the community of the Trinity.”
For the Trinity to be “three in one” is to mean it is perfect in love. Perfect love is perfect unity in diversity–perfect community. And it’s not illogical to say perfect unity results in ontological oneness.
It must be asked: How can God be a God of love if he had no one to love? If God was monadic, how could he possess the ability to love? If God is eternally complete (see Heb. 13:8), then to “learn love” in any way would contradict this. He would have needed to possess love before the world was created, and the only way for this to be possible is if there was perfect unity in diversity–the Trinity.
Ironically, the Father and the Son best display their unity by loving beings who are bent on disbelieving their oneness. The greater the disbelief, the more the limits of their perfect love are tested. For God to cease loving humanity is to contradict his character of perfect love, and so he is compelled to extend his love to a disbelieving people only to make the extent of his love more known. Indeed, only through such extreme limits is the extent of perfect love quantifiable (Rom. 5:8).
3. The incarnation
While being fully God (Phil. 2:6), Jesus “took on” the nature of humanity (2:7). For Jesus to be human does not negate his ontological oneness with the Father (non-human).
As stated above, we falsely assume that the mechanics of the Trinity should be knowable to us. So we must begin with the assertion that the infinite “realm” of God entails mysteries that are impossible for finite beings to quantify. If we believe there is such a thing as God, then miracles become a natural result of such a supernatural Being interacting with our natural world; the immaculate conception, the incarnation, the Trinity, etc., are what we would expect to see if God interacts with us.
The incarnation is thus the only way for God to show his infinite, unified love to a finite, diversified creation–he had to “take on” human form so we would be able to quantify his love that ultimately draws us into new life. Jesus puts so much weight on who he is and where he came from (John 8:24, 42; 17:5) because to know this is to know God’s love.
The only way to maintain the tension in the ontological unity between the Father and the Son is to keep the tension between Jesus’ humanity and divinity. To negate his divinity is to make him ontologically separate from the Father, and to negate his humanity is to make him an apparition. But an apparition cannot be “touched” (1 John 1:1-2) or crucified, and a divine-less human cannot show us God, so the historical claims of Christianity (1 Cor. 15:1-9; 1 John 1:1-4) become moot (1 Cor. 15:2b, 14).
Emphasizing either aspect of Jesus’ identity is to destroy Christianity.
One critic of Jesus’ divinity says “the Son” was created at the immaculate conception, which makes him finite. Jesus was a monotheistic Jew, the argument goes, and he could not have seen himself as divine, let alone united with the Father in a Trinitarian sense. If this were the case, Jesus would not have been preexistent (divine) before the immaculate conception, yet this is to ignore the Biblical data (Matt. 3:16; 28:19; Mark 2:5-11; John 1:1; 5:17; 8:58; 15:26; Rom. 9:5; Col. 1:16-19; Heb. 1:1-4) and recall the aforementioned impossibility of a perfect, monadic and infinite Being’s ability to love.
What we’re left with is our response: what do you make of Christ? It all hinges on that.
In addition to writing at A Clear Lens, Alex Aili (B.A. in Biblical Studies) writes short stories and offers his musings about God’s hand in the world at Covert God: Redemption in Shadows. He is a novelist-in-progress who lives in northern MN with his wife and two sons. He thrives on coffee, good pipe tobacco and longs walks in the woods. See what he’s up to on Twitter.
Burge, Gary M. John The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000.
Fee, Gordon D. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.
Bray, G.L. s.v., “God.” In New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by T. Desmond Alexander, Brian S. Rosner, D.A. Carson and Graeme Goldsworthy, 511-521. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.