Concerning the Scriptural Meaning of 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 CRI has since withdrawn those criticisms and reversed its earlier conclusions (see “A Brief History of the Relationship between the Local Churches and the Christian Research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here for the historical record, for the important points of truth it addresses, and because CRI’s criticisms, although withdrawn, are still repeated by others.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
Witness Lee & the Local Churches Reply to the “Bible Answer Man”
The charges and false accusations made by the Bible Answer Man concerning the belief of the local churches about the Trinity reveal that he is uninformed concerning the meaning behind our usage of Biblical terminology. We prefer to speak with the language of Scripture when speaking of the Trinity. However, due to the history of the development of trinitatrian dogma, other unscriptural terms were introduced in order to define what the Trinity is not and to safeguard against heresy. The heresies of dynamic monarchianism, modalistic monarchianism and tri-theism have caused some theologians to flinch at the usage of any terminology that sounds like these classical trinitarian heresies. The Bible Answer Man falls into this category.
The local churches prefer to speak with Biblical terminology when referring to the Triune God. For example, to say the Son is called the Everlasting Father (Isa. 9:6) and the Lord is the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17) are Biblical quotations. The interpretation put on these quotations makes all the difference in the world. There is a proper and improper use of the Scriptures. However, regardless of their misuse by heretics we have chosen to stay with the language sanctioned by the Holy Spirit to utter the Triune God in our experience, rather than eliminate a part of the Word of God because heresy has put a false connotation upon it.
The Bible Answer Man has falsely charged Witness Lee and the local churches by putting a heretical interpretation on our usage of Biblical quotations. For the benefit of the Bible Answer Man, his associates and Christian public, we now present a positive statement concerning the scriptural meaning of the Triune God.
In the Scriptures, God has revealed Himself as triune. This revelation means that God is both Three and One at the same time. He is the Three-One God. Therefore, all Christians can equally confess that God is simultaneously Three and One.
The Bible doesn’t attempt to analyze how God is Three and One at the same time; indeed, the Scriptures are not even aware of any problem connected with understanding the Trinity. In fact, the New Testament passages that reveal the Triune God are directly related to man’s experience of God, rather than to theological definitions. The following points prayerfully considered will reveal the truth concerning the Trinity.
- The scriptural facts. There are at least seven scriptural facts that reveal the Triune God.
- God is uniquely one—Isa. 44:6; 1Cor. 8:4,6.
- God is triune—Gen. 1:26; Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14.
- All three are God—1 Pet. 1:2; Heb. 1:8; Acts 5:3-4.
- All three are eternal—Isa. 9:6; John 1:1; Heb. 9:14.
- All three exist at the same time—Matt.3:16-17.
- All three are one—John 10:30; 14:8-11; 2 Cor. 3:17.
- All three are in us—Gal. 4:6; Eph. 4:6; Rom. 8:10; John 14:17.
- The scriptural terminology. The truth concerning the Trinity should be expressed in the same scriptural terminology that is given to us in the Bible. This principle can be seen by comparing 2 Peter 1:20-21 with 1 Corinthians 2:13: “…no prophesy of scripture is of private interpretation….but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit….which things also we speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the spirit teacheth; combining spiritual things with spiritual words” (ASV). It is better and safer to keep the language selected by the Holy Spirit to convey the various aspects of the Triune God. By using scriptural terminology in speaking of the Trinity, we will preserve both the objective revelation in the Bible and the subjective experience of God.
- The scriptural principle. Apparently the Scriptures revealing God being Three and One at the same time are contradictory. Actually this seeming contradiction is a revelation of the scriptural principle of the two aspects or two foldness of divine truth. Robert Govett (A.D. 1813-1901), a fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, a highly esteemed Biblical scholar, deals with all important but much neglected principle in his booklet, The Twofoldness of Divine Truth. Concerning two apparently contradictory aspects of a scriptural truth, Govett says:
- The scriptural understanding. Firstly, a scriptural understanding of the Trinity is related to how God revealed Himself and made Himself known on the stage of history. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit appear from Genesis to Revelation as a threefold unveiling of the one living God to fulfill his purpose with man. This is the economy of God in creation, redemption and sanctification. By this economy in the Scriptures we understand that God is triune.
- The scriptural relationship. The scriptural revelation of the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity is found in two types of Scriptures. The first type is the verses that reveal that the Father, Son, and Spirit mutually indwell One another. One example is John 14:9b-10 where Jesus says: “…he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; how sayest thou, Show us the Father? Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I say unto you I speak not from myself: but the Father abiding in me doeth his works” (ASV). The relationship between the Father and the Son is one of mutual indwelling. That is, each Person interpenetrates and coinheres the Others. This mutual indwelling and interpenetration reveals the distinction within the Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and also preserves the fact that the Triune God is uniquely One.
- The scriptural meaning. The scriptural meaning of the Trinity is for God to be experienced by man. All the verses related to the revelation of the Trinity are in the context of experience. When the Trinity becomes merely a dogma of theological debate, the scriptural meaning of the Triune God is lost.
But are they not contradictory? That cannot be, for they are both parts of the Word of God, and contradictions cannot both be true. Both, then, are to be received whether we can reconcile them or no. Their claim on our reception is not that we can unite them, but that God has testified both….The same twofoldness of truth appears in the Scripture statements concerning the nature of God. It affirms His unity….But the Scripture as plainly affirms the distinction of persons in the Godhead. “Unity in plurality and plurality in unity” is the assertion here. This master-truth, which takes its rise in the nature of the Godhead, flows out into all His works.
How could God be Three and One at the same time? Simply because the Word of God distinctly affirms both truth. Both the Three and the One should be equally embraced without question.
Secondly, a scriptural understanding of the Trinity is also related to personal experience. Without experience there is no proper understanding of the Triune God. Paul makes this clear by speaking of the Trinity in the context of his actual experience. For example, Galatians 4:6, says, “And because ye are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” The Triune God is here revealed within the limits of Paul’s heart. Thus, the Father, Son, and Spirit must be experienced within our hearts in order to scripturally understand that He is triune.
The second type of Scripture showing the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity is the verses that specifically state that One Person of the Triune God is Another. Examples of this type are found in Isaiah 9:6 and 2 Corinthians 3:17. In one the Son is called the Everlasting Father and in the other the Lord (referring to Christ) is identified with the Spirit, viz., “Now the Lord is the Spirit.” These verses revealing the Persons being each Other must be understood with the verses revealing the Persons mutually indwelling each Other. That is, the understanding behind Isaiah’s utterance “the Son is called…the Everlasting Father” is Jesus’ utterance “…I am in the Father and the Father in me…” Both utterances are God’s Word and must be taken together. One utterance identifies the Persons, the other reveals the mutual indwelling of the Persons. By putting these two types of verses together, the Bible interprets itself.
From these Scriptures we can see that the oneness within the Godhead is of such a nature that the work of One Person is ascribed to the Other, and all Three function as One with One Name (Matt. 28:19) as One God (1 Cor. 8:4, 6).
Dr. Augustus Strong in his Systematic Theology, pages 330-334, fully discusses this scriptural relationship between the Persons of the Triune God. Speaking of the three Persons having one essence he says:
This oneness of essence explains the fact that, while Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as respects their personality, are distinct subsistences, there is an intercommunion of persons and an immanence of one divine person in another which permits the peculiar work of one to be ascribed, with a single limitation, to either of the others, and the manifestation of one to be recognized in the manifestation of another. The limitation is simply this, that although the Son was sent by the Father, and the Spirit by the Father and the Son, it cannot be said vice versa that the Father is sent either by the Son, or by the Spirit. The Scripture representations of this intercommunion prevent us from conceiving of the distinctions called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as involving separation between them…. This intercommunion also explains the designation of Christ as “the Spirit,” and of the Spirit as “the Spirit of Christ,” as in 1 Corinthians 15:45—”the last Adam became a life-giving Spirit”; 2 Corinthians 3:17—”Now the Lord is the Spirit”; Galatians 4:6—”sent forth the Spirit of his Son”; Philippians 1:19—”supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.”
God as triune desires that we experience Him by firstly being baptized “…into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19); secondly, that we daily enjoy Him in our experience as Paul declared: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14).
This is the fourth of five articles in this Reply to the “Bible Answer Man”