When Erasmus produced the first printed Greek New Testament in 1516, he left out a key proof text for the Trinity. The verse in question was 1 John 5:7, which says: ‘For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one’ (KJV).
Despite the verse appearing in all the Latin manuscripts since the ninth century, Erasmus said he couldn’t include it because it wasn’t in any of the original Greek manuscripts. Exasperated at the constant criticisms, Erasmus vowed that he would add the verse if anyone could show him even one Greek manuscript that contained it. So someone commissioned monks in Dublin to write one! Erasmus had to keep his vow, as his complaint in the notes of his third edition shows.
Stories like this make me feel nervous. Like most scholars, I regard 1 John 5:7 as a blessed thought that someone recorded in the margin of an early Latin manuscript. Accidental omissions were normally written in the margin, so scribes who copied this manuscript mistakenly inserted these words into the text. It’s a great verse, but we mustn’t dilute God’s word with human additions. Yet for some in Erasmus’ day, and today, defending doctrine is more important than the exactness of the Bible text.
The Trinity is established firmly in the Bible even without this verse. It is true that you can’t find the words ‘Trinity’ or ‘three in one’ in the Bible, but nor can you find ‘resurrection of the body’, ‘priesthood of all believers’, or ‘communion of the saints’. And yet these doctrines are based on the Bible, just as the Trinity is.
It is also true that only a couple of verses have all three members of the Godhead in a single list (2 Corinthians 13:14 and Matthew 28:19). But there are many others that refer to all three together (eg Luke 3:22). Other passages state or imply that the Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4) and speak of Jesus as God (John 1:1). The New Testament also quotes Old Testament statements about God and applies them to Jesus. There are even hints in the Old Testament because God says to himself ‘Let us…’ and ‘in our image’ in Genesis 1:26 (my italics).
A DEBATED DOCTRINE
Sadly, the early Church was pulled apart by disputes about the Trinity because it is so difficult to square with the important doctrine that there is only one God. Some said Jesus wasn’t ever a real mortal, because God can’t die. Others said he completely put aside his Godhead while on earth, because he ‘emptied himself’ (Philippians 2:7, ESV). These disputes were ended by establishing official creedal statements describing Jesus as both ‘fully God’ and ‘fully man’. These creeds became almost more important than the biblical texts for establishing doctrine.
I do worry about the doctrine of the Trinity. Not because we’ve got it wrong, but because we’re too simplistic. We don’t take into account passages such as Romans 8:9-10, where the Holy Spirit is called both ‘the Spirit of God’ and ‘the Spirit of Christ’. Of course, this may merely be different ways to refer to the one Spirit, but it may also imply that our concept of three equal and separate persons is oversimplified.
OUR CONCEPT OF THREE EQUAL AND SEPARATE PERSONS IS OVERSIMPLIFIED
There are likely to be interrelationships in the Godhead that we can’t encompass with a simple creedal statement. We don’t want to reduce doctrine. I do worry about the doctrine of the Trinity. Not because we’ve got it wrong, but because we’re too simplistic.
We don’t take into account passages such as Romans 8:9-10, where the Holy Spirit is called both ‘the Spirit of God’ and ‘the Spirit of Christ’. Of course, this may merely be different ways to refer to the one Spirit, but it may also imply that our concept of three equal and separate persons is oversimplified. There are likely to be interrelationships in the Godhead that we can’t encompass with a simple creedal statement. We don’t want to reduce doctrine to slogans, because these are as unconvincing as a politician’s sound bite. But most of us don’t want to read long theological explorations of the Trinity either. Instead we resort to illustrations, and so the Godhead gets shrunk to the size of a cloverleaf. I realise that I may be about to make things worse, because I want to illustrate the Trinity by looking at the atom.
An atom was considered indivisible for 2,000 years until we discovered it is made up of three parts: electrons, protons and neutrons. In a similar way, Jews disseminated the precious truth that there is only one God, and then Christ revealed a threefold structure within that Godhead.
Dare I suggest that electrons are like the Holy Spirit? They travel as far from the core (in relative terms) as asteroids travelling round the solar system, and their influence extends outside the atom through electrical and chemical interactions. Protons are perhaps like the Father because they determine the fundamental character of the atom. If the core has six protons the atom is sooty carbon, but add just one more and it becomes gaseous nitrogen.
Neutrons, the third component of atoms, are similar to protons, but a few can leave the core without altering the atom’s character. For example, carbon-14 and carbon-12 act identically inside our body, even though one is lighter by two neutrons. Jesus is a little like neutrons because he can be separate from the Father, and yet this type of absence does not diminish or change the Godhead.
Ok, this is no better than a host of other illustrations, except in one aspect: we are still investigating atoms, and we are discovering new complexities. We now know that neutrons and protons are each made of three quarks, and that electrons interact by constantly emitting and absorbing photons. And that’s just the start.
If we are willing to explore the complexities of atoms, we might also be willing to continue exploring the nature of God. If the Trinity can be compared to an atom, perhaps we should be prepared to explore additional complexities within it. That is, we might continue to dig into scripture instead of complacently resting on what has already been discovered.
Can the creator of the whole universe be encapsulated in a handful of theological slogans? Simple doctrinal statements are good as summaries, so long as we don’t fool ourselves into thinking they represent the complex reality. Doctrines are valuable stepping stones to guide our paths while exploring more about God. He encourages us to find out about him in creation and the Bible. And he has given us firm foundations established by former saints and scholars. But that doesn’t mean we should simply stand still and gaze down at our feet.
David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge