A Cheerful Defense Concerning the Triune God
The material on this page was written in the 1970s to respond to the criticisms of Walter Martin, founder of the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and the original “Bible Answer Man.” CRI has since withdrawn those criticisms and reversed its earlier conclusions (see “A Brief History of the Relationship between the Local Churches and the Christian Research Institute”). The text of this article is published here for the historical record, for the important points of truth it addresses, and because CRI’s criticisms, although withdrawn, are still repeated by others.
From: Answers to the Bible Answer Man – Appendix
A booklet has recently been published by the Christian Research Institute entitled The Teachings of Witness Lee and the local churches. This booklet states that “The local church doctrine of God…is contrary to the Word of God…. It must be rejected by Christians as heretical” (pp. 8-9). We in the local churches respond to this charge with the attitude and testimony expressed by the Apostle Paul under similar circumstances, “…I cheerfully make my defense…. Neither can they prove to thee the things whereof they now accuse me. But this I confess unto thee, that after the Way which they call a sect, so serve I the God of our fathers, believing all things which are according to the law, and which are written in the prophets…” (Acts 24:10, 13-14, ASV).
In accordance with Paul’s attitude we in the local churches likewise cheerfully take the opportunity to scripturally defend our belief and experience of the Triune God. We also would express our judgment that the booklet published by Christian Research Institute does not prove any of its accusations that we teach the trinitarian heresies of “successive modalism” and so-called “static modalism.” It only exposes that the authors are deficient in four areas:
- They lack revelation concerning all the Scriptures revealing the Triune God.
- They lack knowledge concerning the history and meaning of modalism.
- They demonstrate repeatedly that they have not studied all the materials written by Witness Lee and the local churches.
- They lack ability to interpret and apply our writings according to the standards of honest scholarship.
Eventually, what is labeled as heretical by the Christian Research Institute is proven to be in fact a testimony to…all things …which are written…” in the Bible concerning the revelation of the Triune God.
We in the local churches would request that the Christian Research Institute carefully consider our cheerful defense concerning the Triune God. Firstly, in contrast to the booklet’s traditional and mere doctrinal expressions, we hold to biblical terminology and the language of experience. Secondly, in contrast to the accusation that we teach “successive modalism,” we believe in the historical revelation of the Triune God. Thirdly, in contrast to the charge that we teach so-called “static modalism,” we acknowledge the biblical revelation of the relationship within the Triune God.
The Triune God is revealed in the Bible with language selected by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, our understanding and utterance of the Triune God should remain within the boundaries of biblical terminology. In contrast to the terminology of theology, councils, and creeds, biblical terminology is God’s own expression and revelation of Himself in His Word; hence biblical terminology is the highest available revelation of the Triune God. To remain biblical in our understanding, utterance, and experience concerning the Triune God, we must speak the way the Bible speaks. The particular way the Scripture speaks of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit not only reveals the fact that God is triune, but also conveys the exact sense and meaning of man’s experience of Him.
It is also vital to realize that the biblical revelation of the Triune God came through the language of experience. Therefore, the expression of the revelation bears the mark of experience rather than of a clear mental apprehension of a doctrine of the Trinity. Since the revelation of the Triune God was given to experience, then it follows that the proper understanding of the Triune God must be received in the realm and context of experience. In other words, the revelation of the Triune God was poured into the mold of experience. Therefore, we must safeguard this revelation by keeping it in the language of experience.
The language of experience concerning the Triune God has always troubled the theological mind that likes to put the Father, Son, and Spirit into neat creedal categories. Nevertheless, Paul’s experiential utterances concerning the Three of the Godhead will always stand as a constant witness to the limitation of the human mind in fully comprehending the Triune God. However, it should be made clear that although the understanding is limited, the reality of the experience of the Triune God is in no way hindered. In fact, the terminology of the Triune God found in the Bible exactly fits and expresses the genuine experience of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
A. Lewis Humphries’ outstanding book, The Holy Spirit in Faith and Experience (p. 219) points out this same characteristic in the New Testament revelation of the Triune God:
One thing which close study of the New Testament makes clear to us is that its ideas and, therefore, its terms were framed in an atmosphere not of speculation but of experience. The angle from which all truth is seen is that of its manifestation in life. Hence, when Paul speaks of the Spirit, it is in no world of abstract generalizations that he is moving, but simply within the confines of the immediate experience of the Church. In one word, it is the Christian experience of the Spirit which he and other New Testament writers seek to formulate.
The scriptural understanding of the Triune God is derived from the facts of revelation as they are found in the Bible. These facts not only reveal the relationship that exists within the Godhead, but also reveal the Triune God in the process of accomplishing His purpose for man. Franz Delitzsch comments on this point: “The trinitarian conception of God is not a product of philosophical speculation, but the reflex, not only of New Testament, but also even of the Old Testament facts of revelation” (Old Testament History of Redemption, p. 178).
It is in the historical revelation of the Triune God that we see the practical purpose of His Triune Being. That is, as the Father, Son, and Spirit are progressively revealed from Genesis to Revelation, we discover that the Triune God is working out His economy and plan in relationship to man. In fact, the revelation of the Triune God takes place in the context of His purpose for man. Therefore, the scriptural understanding of the Triune God must be from the perspective of His relationship to man. It is as God works out His plan of creation, incarnation, redemption, in-dwelling, sanctification, and glorification that He is unveiled as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Triune God is revealed in the Bible not for the purpose of speculative theology but in the context of the actual experience of accomplishing His eternal purpose with man.
The aspect of the economy of the Triune God in His historical revelation is found from Genesis to Revelation. Genesis 1:26-27 reveals the Triune God in the context of the creation of man in His own image and likeness. John’s Gospel reveals the Triune God in His accomplishment of redemption (especially in John 1:1-2, 14; 7:37-39; chapters 14-17; 20:22). Matthew 28:19 reveals the Triune God in the context of applying the benefits of redemption to the nations by baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Romans 8:9-11 and Galatians 4:6 reveal the Triune God in relationship to His indwelling in man in order to give life to him. Second Corinthians 13:14 reveals the Triune God in the realm of fellowship and enjoyment. First Peter 1:2 reveals the Triune God in the context of His work of sanctification. Revelation 21:22-23 and 22:1-5 reveal the Triune God in His ultimate glorification in the New Jerusalem.
The scriptural revelation of the Trinity is rooted in the historical manifestation of Father, Son, and Spirit doing something for man and in man. This aspect of the revelation of the Triune God is not to be understood as the successive modalism taught by the heretic Sabellius in the third century which denied the eternal distinctions in the Godhead. Rather, it is the successive steps of the Triune God’s historical revelation related to His plan of dispensing Himself into man for the fulfillment of His eternal purpose.
As the Scriptures reveal the outward historical manifestation of the Father, Son, and Spirit, we also find in the Bible a relationship existing within the Triune God. This relationship shows that God is both Three and One at the same time, and also manifests the inseparable oneness of the Father, Son, and Spirit. This relationship within the Triune God is found in two types of Scriptures.
The first type of Scripture which reveals the oneness of the Triune God is the kind which expresses the inner relationship existing between the Father, Son, and Spirit. This relationship is one of a mutual interpenetration and coinherence of each with the other. That is, the Father, Son, and Spirit inseparably and mutually indwell each other. The type of Scripture that reveals this mutual interpenetration discloses something of the nature of the oneness existing within the Godhead.
The second type of Scripture which reveals the oneness of the Triune God is the kind which is related to the outward expression and function of the Triune God, especially in connection with man’s subjective experience of Him. The relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit in this type of Scripture is one of identification. That is, the oneness of the Triune God is of such a nature that the Father, Son, and Spirit are identified in expression and function. This identification is seen in the Scriptures where it specifically states that One is Another, and also where the Three are used interchangeably in relationship to man’s experience. These Scriptures revealing the identification of the Three also disclose something of the nature of the oneness existing within the Godhead.
Both types of Scripture concerning the interpenetration and identification of the Three testify to oneness, reveal oneness, and express oneness. However, this oneness of the Three does not nullify their distinction as Father, Son, and Spirit. On the contrary, God is eternally both Three and One at the same time. The interpenetration Scriptures strongly indicate the oneness of an indivisible relationship between them and thus preserve their distinction without separation. Also the identification Scriptures are not to be taken with the loss of distinction between the Three, but rather they reveal the height of their oneness. The distinction in the Godhead is a distinction within the oneness and of the oneness, not a distinction which qualifies oneness, or usurps the place of it, or destroys it. Again, both types of Scripture, interpenetration and identification, manifest the oneness of our one God.
The charge that Witness Lee and the local churches teach a so-called static modalism is fully refuted by our belief in the interpenetration and identification Scriptures. Next week’s article will continue our cheerful defense of the Triune God by examining in detail the two types of Scripture which reveal the oneness of the Triune God.