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Wesleyans believe in the Trinity. How can we explain to Muslims that we do not believe in three Gods?

 

Dr. James P. Toga

 

President, Wesleyan College of Liberia

Introduction

Jews are monotheistic. In other words, they know and worship only one God, the God of their ancestors—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (E.g., Deut. 6:4; cf. Deut. 4:35, 39; Neh. 9:6; Ps. 86:10; Isa. 44:6; Zech. 14:9). God Himself told the Israelites, “I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God” (Isa. 45:5, NIV). He also told them, “Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: I am the first and the last; besides me there is no god” (Isa. 44:6, NRSV. Cf. 41:4; 48:12).

Wesleyans are also monotheistic. For example, our “Articles of Religion” says, “We believe in the one living and true God, both holy and loving, eternal, unlimited in power, wisdom and goodness, the Creator and Preserver of all things. Within this unity there are three persons of one essential nature, power and eternity—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Articles of Religion, 2.210). In fact, the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church at Ephesus speaks of God as Father as, “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6).

Our position comes from the Bible’s implicit and explicit references to this “One living and true God…the Creator and Preserver of all things” as “Father, Son and Spirit” (the Bible calls this “The Godhead”, Col. 2:9). Each of them “can do all things, knows all things and is everywhere present” (Pawl 2020:5; Dupuis 2001, paragraphs 306/12, 17).

The Persons of the Godhead are also “equal, living eternally, containing all things visible and invisible, all-powerful, judging, crating and saving all things” (Pawl 2020:5; Dupuis 2001, paragraph 306/21; (Reymond 1998:205, 206; cf. Behr 2018:320-330; Young 2004:527-541; Dempster 2017:61-78; Poythress 2017:16-29; Rine 2017:39-70). Nonetheless, members of “The Godhead” are “distinct in subsistence” (i.e., existence, survival) Persons (Cf. John 14:16-26; 15:26; 16:5-15; Eph. 4:3-7). The Bible’s indication of the “threeness” of God’s personhood is not the same as tritheism (belief in three different gods), which Christians are accused of (cf. Ferguson and Wright 1998:694).

Let us now consider a couple of relevant Bible passages that indicate that God is triune:

1. Regarding God as Father: 1:1, 3-25, 27-2:22 suggest that God as Father unilaterally “created the heavens and the earth” and their contents. However, Gen. 1:26 (“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…’” NIV) indicates that God as Father did not unilaterally create mankind. Similarly, God He invited others to join Him to come “down and confuse” the language of the people who were building “a tower that reaches the heavens” (Gen. 11:7, NIV). Nonetheless, Gen. 11:5, 6, 8 indicate that it is the “LORD” (singular) who “came down to see the city and the tower” and who noticed the oneness of the people (NRSV). God as Father is “Spirit” (John 4:24).

2. Regarding God as Son: Isaiah the Prophet proclaimed to the Jewish people, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father…” (Isa. 9:6, NIV). Isaiah’s “child” and “son” are the same person. It is this “child” and “son” who is “Mighty God” and “Everlasting Father”. Matthew the Apostle says, this “child” and “son” was “conceived in” a virgin named Mary “from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20, 23).

This “son” was born and given the name “Jesus” (Matt. 1:21) and “Immanuel”, meaning “God with us” (Matt. 1:23).  The Gospel of Luke supports Matthew’s claim (Luke 1:30-34). Luke records that an angel answered Mary’s question about how she would conceive this “child” and “son”, since she was a virgin: “The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:34-35, NIV).

The term, “overshadow (episkiazō) means, “to cover, to cast a shadow, to envelope with a cloud”. The “Most High” is undoubtedly God the Father. He is “Spirit” (John 4:24). Thus, the “Spirit” that came upon Mary and overshadowed her, was most likely God the Father Himself. The phrase “came upon Mary and overshadowed her” is not the same as “God having sex with Mary to bear a Son”, as some people have claimed.

John the Apostle refers to the Son of the “Most High” as “The Word” who had existed in the beginning with God the Father and was Himself God (John 1:1-3). John says, this “Word became flesh” (human) at a certain point in time (John 1:14). The term “became” indicates that the “Word” had not been “flesh” (human) earlier. It is logical then to think that this “Word” was Spirit, prior to becoming flesh, just as God the Father is Spirit. In short, God as Father and Spirit entered into Mary and transformed Himself into human. The result was that that child was fully God with human flesh. Jesus therefore identifies Himself as “Son of God” (John 3:16-18; 5:17-26).

God as Father agrees that Jesus is His Son (Matt. 3:16-17; Mark 1:10-11; Luke 3:21-22). This is why Bible scholars and theologians refer to Jesus as “The God-Man—fully God and fully Man”. It is interesting to note that Jesus made a couple of profound statements about His relationship to God the Father, which flabbergasted His Jewish audience to the extent that they opted to stone Him. For example, He declared, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30-33, NIV). Jesus’ audience understood Him to be equating Himself with God, and they attempted to stone Him (John 10:31-33). The Apostle records that Philip, one of his colleagues, asked Jesus to “show us the Father and that will be enough for us” (John 14:8).

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. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work” (John 14:9-10, NIV). Jesus’ statements indicate that He is using “Father”, “I” and “Me” interchangeably. Grammatically, “Father” is a noun and the antecedent of “I” and “Me”. Jesus cements his intricate, interwoven relationship with God as Father in the following declarations:

  • “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to com, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8, NIV)
  • “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last” (Rev. 1:17, NIV)
  • “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright and Morning Star” (Rev. 22:12-16, NIV). You would recall that I mentioned earlier that God as Father says, “I am the first and the last; besides me there is no god” (Isa. 44:6, NRSV. Cf. 41:4; 48:12).

Paul the Apostle and the author of the Epistle of Hebrews concur with the statements about Jesus’ deity. For example, Paul told the Christians at Colossae, “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9, NKJV). “Godhead” is rendered as “Deity” by several English Bibles. The term, “Godhead”, is translated from the NT Greek, theotēs. It means, “divine character/nature, deity, divinity” (BDAG 2000:452). On the contrary, the Jehovah Witnesses Bible (New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures) describes Jesus as the one in whom “all the fullness of the divine quality dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9).

“Divine quality” translates a different NT Greek term, theiotes, rather than the theotēs, which Paul uses. It is worth noting that Paul was a trained Pharisee and a devoted defender of the Jewish monotheistic religion (Philp. 3:1-11). He opposed the followers of Jesus vehemently, prior to his encounter with Jesus (Acts 7:54-8:3; 9:1-31; 24:10-25:11; 1 Tim. 1:12-16). It is this Paul who says, Jesus houses the fullness of the “Godhead”. Finally, the Epistle of Hebrews indicates that seeing Jesus the Son is seeing God the Father:

Heb 1:3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

Heb 1:4 So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

Heb 1:8 But about the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom.

Heb 1:10 He also says, “In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands (NIV).  

I think that Hebrews 1:10 summarizes the intricate, interwoven relationship that exists between God as Father and God as Son. God the Father says, it is His Son who “laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of [the Son’s] hands”. The question now is, how could God the Father create the heavens and earth alone (Gen. 1:1), and at the same time, He declares that it was the Son who did so? This verse implies therefore that God is more than one person in Himself.

III.      Regarding God as Spirit: Before the earth was formed, filled and lit, “the Spirit of God was hovering [hanging] over the waters”(Gen. 1:2, NIV). The question is, was this “Spirit” a mere “wind” that God dispatched, which was apart from Himself, as the NRSV suggests? Or was it God Himself, since He is Himself “Spirit” (John 4:24)? I think that Jesus, the Son and God, answers this question implicitly. Matthew the Apostle records that Jesus commanded them, “having gone, then, disciple all the nations, (baptizing them—to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19, Young’s Literal Translation).

You would observe that “name” is singular, even though Jesus mentions the three persons of the Godhead. I think that if Jesus the Son, God the Father and God the Spirit were three separate gods, Jesus would have pluralized “names”.  As Jesus’ earthly ministry was about to end, He assured and comforted His disciples, saying,

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you (John 14:16-18, NIV).

Jesus’ reference to “another Counselor” coming to His disciples after His departure suggests that they had a “Counselor” with them. Verse 18 suggests that He was the Counselor who was with them and would continue to be with them by means of the Spirit: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you”. Jesus gave a similar assurance to His disciples, according to the Gospel of Matthew: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (28:20).

Let me refer to at least one more passage that shows the intricate, interwovenness between the Jesus and the Spirit. It is 2 Corinthians 3:17, 18; its author is Paul the Apostle: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (NIV).

Conclusion

Our study has revealed that God the Father created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). Yet, He identifies His Son as the Creator (Heb. 1:8, 10; cf. John 1:3). We discovered that the Son was with God the Father when the beginning began, and He was Himself God (John 1:1, 2). At a certain point in time, the Son “became flesh” (John 1:14). God the Father is “Spirit” (John 4:24). Thus, the Son being God and becoming “flesh” indicates that He was Spirit, prior to becoming “flesh”.

In addition, the Son told His disciples explicitly that their seeing Him was tantamount to seeing the Father, for He and the Father were “One” (John 10:30-33; 14:7-10). With regard to the Spirit, we have seen that He is not existing apart from God as Father and God as Son, for He is the Spirit of both of them. Thus, the God whom Wesleyans, and presumably every Christian, worship and serve, is not “three gods”. Rather, He is one God who is three distinct, yet intricately interwoven persons.  

Works Cited

BDAG 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Dupuis, Jacques 2001. The Christian Faith: In the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church. Edited by Jacques Dupuis. 7th Rev. Staten Island, NY: Alba House.

Pawl, Timothy 2020. Conciliar Trinitarianism, Divine Identity Claims, and Subordination. TheoLogica, 1-27.

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