The Oneness 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 CRI has since withdrawn those criticisms and reversed its earlier conclusions (see “A Brief History of the Relationship between the Local Churches and the Christian Research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here for the historical record, for the important points of truth it addresses, and because CRI’s criticisms, although withdrawn, are still repeated by others.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
This article is a continuation of a scriptural answer to a booklet recently published by the Christian Research Institute entitled, The Teachings of Witness Lee and the local churches. In response to the charges made in this booklet concerning our belief in the Triune God, we in the local churches openly invite the publishers to examine with us three types of Scripture which reveal the oneness of the Triune God:
- The interpenetration Scriptures revealing the inner relationship of oneness existing within the Triune God.
- The identification Scriptures revealing the outward expression of the oneness of the Triune God.
- The interchangeable Scriptures revealing the one operation of the Triune God within man’s experience.
This type of Scripture reveals the inner relationship of oneness which exists in the Triune God. For example, the interpenetration of the Son with the Father is found in John 14:10, where Jesus says: “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 doth his works.” This verse unveils that the relationship between the Father and the Son is one of interpenetration and mutual indwelling. Thus, each in the Godhead interpenetrates and coinheres the others, that is, each is permanently one with the others. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown’s commentary speaks of John 14:10 as a “…Mutual Inbeing of the Father and the Son….” This mutual inbeing and interpenetration reveals the fact that the Triune God is inseparably and uniquely one and also preserves the distinction within the Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Augustine in the fifth century summarized this truth in his classic work, On The Trinity (Book VI:10:12): “…in that highest Trinity one is as much as the Three together, nor are two anything more than one. And They are infinite in themselves. So both each are in each, and all in each, and each in all, and all in all, and all are one.”
This mutual interpenetration within the Godhead is further revealed by the Lord in John 16:13-15: “…the Spirit…shall not speak from himself; but what things soever he shall hear, these shall he speak…He shall glorify me: for he shall take of [ek, out of] mine, and shall declare it unto you. All things whatsoever the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he taketh of [ek, out of] mine, and shall declare it unto you.” These verses unveil the inner relationship of interpenetration that exists between the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Firstly, the Spirit’s speaking is “not…from himself….” That is, the speaking source of the Spirit within the Godhead is from the Son and the Father, which reveals the interpenetration of the Three. Secondly, the Spirit’s taking is described as “he shall take of [out of] mine….” That is, the taking position of the Spirit within the Godhead is out of the Son and the Father, which reveals the interpenetration of the Three. Thirdly, the interpenetration of the Father, Son, and Spirit is also revealed by the inner nature of the Spirit’s hearing. The Lord’s words concerning the Spirit, “What things soever he shall hear …” refer to a hearing within the Godhead. Martin Luther remarks on the nature of the Spirit’s hearing in John 16:13: “Here faith must disregard all creatures and must not concentrate on physical…listening, it must conceive of this as… listening inherent in the essence of the Godhead” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 24, p. 364). The esteemed New Testament commentator, Dr. H. A. W. Meyer also comments on the nature of the Spirit’s hearing in John 16:13:
The Spirit, however, hears from God not externally as a Subject separated from God, but (comp. 1 Cor. 2:11) through an interna acceptio [internal receiving]; for He is in God, and proceeds from Him, [John] 15:26″ (Critical and Exegetical Handbook of the Gospel of John, Vol. II, p. 268).
The interpenetration Scriptures reveal the inner relationship of oneness which exists within the Triune God. They also indicate a distinction of the Father, Son, and Spirit; but this distinction does not involve separation in the Godhead. It is an interpenetration where the Father, Son, and Spirit so indissolubly exist in each other that in their expression they can be identified.
This type of Scripture reveals the outward expression of the oneness of the Triune God by making an identification of the Son with the Father and the Lord with the Spirit. Examples are found in Isaiah 9:6, John 14:9-10; 10:28-30, 38 and 2 Corinthians 3:17.
a) Isaiah 9:6 identifies the Son with the Father: “…a son is given…and his name shall be called…Everlasting Father….” This type of Scripture revealing One being Another must be understood with the type of Scripture revealing the Three mutually interpenetrating each other, that is, what unlocks the understanding of Isaiah’s utterance of the Son being called the Everlasting Father is Jesus’ utterance in John 14:10: “…I am in the Father and the Father in me….” One utterance identifies the Son with the Father; the other reveals the mutual indwelling or interpenetration of the Son and the Father. In other words, the interpenetration Scriptures view the oneness of the Triune God from the angle of their inner existence, and the identification Scriptures view the same oneness from the angle of their outward expression. Both utterances are God’s word and must be taken together.
b) John 14:9-10 also identifies the Son with the Father and is spoken by the Lord Himself: “Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and dost thou not know me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father….” However, immediately following His statement in verse 9 identifying Himself with the Father, the Lord explains in verse 10 the exact sense in which this is to be understood: “Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me…?” Therefore, it is in the sense of the interpenetration of the Son and the Father that we understand the identification of each with the other. The Father and the Son are so one by a living mutual interpenetration and inter-existence in each other that their expression is identical.
c) John 10:28-30, 38 are another group of Scriptures that unfolds the significance of the identification of the Son with the Father. The Lord says, “…they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand [Christ’s]…and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one…. that ye may know and understand that the father is in me, and I in the Father.” The Lord’s hand (v. 28) and the Father’s hand (v. 29) are identified. In other words to be in “…my hand…” is identical to being in “…the Father’s hand.” This identification of the hand is made in relationship to the power of the Son and the Father to keep the sheep.
The identification of the “Son’s hand” being the “Father’s hand” and vice versa is revealed in verse 30 to be an identification of oneness: “I and the Father are one.” This is identification revealing oneness, not identification destroying, or nullifying, the distinction of Father, Son, and Spirit. John 10:30 makes it clear that “I” and “the Father” exist at the same time, yet they are one (not singular, “is one”).
The identification of oneness made in John 10:28-30 is revealed in John 10:38 to be a oneness consisting of a mutual interpenetration: “…that ye may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” John Albert Bengel, in his classic New Testament Word Studies, makes the same observation on John 10:30 and 38 by saying: “These two sentences, I and the Father are one, and, the Father in me and I in the Father, mutually explain one another.” Thus, the Scriptures identifying the Son with the Father as in Isaiah 9:6, John 14:9, and John 10:28-30 must be interpreted in the light of oneness and mutual interpenetration in the Godhead.
d) Second Corinthians 3:17 makes an identification of the Lord with the Spirit: “Now the Lord is the Spirit….” This identification must also be understood with the type of Scripture found in John 16:13-15 revealing the interpenetration within the Godhead. What unlocks the meaning of Paul’s utterance of the Lord being identified with the Spirit is Jesus’ utterance in John 16:14: “He [the Spirit] shall glorify me: for he shall take of [out of] mine, and shall declare it unto you.” Paul identifies the Lord with the Spirit because they inseparably interpenetrate each other as the one God.
These words of identification express the ineffable oneness of the Triune God. It is an identification of oneness rather than an identification that obliterates the eternal distinctions of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Their oneness is so complete that they can be inseparably identified in expression. This is the highest type of oneness revealed to man.
This type of Scripture reveals the one operation or function of the Triune God within man’s experience. This one operation is seen in several passages where “the Father,” “the Spirit of the Father,” “the Lord,” “Christ,” and the “Holy Spirit” are used quite interchangeably in reference to the believer’s experience.
a) The fact that all Three in the Godhead operate as One in man’s experience can be seen by comparing Matthew 10:20, Mark 13:11, and Luke 21:15. Each Gospel reveals One of the Three doing exactly the same thing under the same set of circumstances.
Concerning those brought before the councils and synagogues Matthew 10:20 says, “For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father….” Then, Mark 13:11 (comp. Luke 12:12) says, “…for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Spirit.” And again Luke 21:15 says, “For I [Christ] will give you a mouth and wisdom…” Thus, the Spirit of the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Christ Himself are used interchangeably in relation to the same experience of the believer. The operation of One is interchangeably ascribed to Another, because the Father, Son, and Spirit function as One within the inseparable oneness of the Godhead.
b) John 14:17-18 also reveals how the Lord and the Spirit are used interchangeably in their coming to the disciples: “Even the Spirit of truth: whom the world cannot receive; for it beholdeth him not, neither knoweth him: ye know him; for he abideth with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave you desolate (orphans): I come unto you.” When the Spirit comes to the disciples, the Lord Himself also comes to them, that is, the “him” and the “he” (the Spirit) in verse 17 become the “I” (Christ) in verse 18. The coming of the Spirit is the coming of Christ. In the experience of the disciples there is no separation between the Lord and the Spirit. They are interchangeably used in the disciples’ experience so that the coming of One is the coming of the Other.
The interchangeable Scriptures reveal that in man’s experience the Father, Son, and Spirit operate as one. R. C. Moberly in his classic work, Atonement and Personality (pp.168-169) also comments on this one function and operation of the Godhead in the believer’s experience:
Observe, it is not for an instant that the disciples are to have the presence of the Spirit instead of having the presence of the Son. But to have the Spirit is to have the Son. Again it is not for an instant that this is a sort of indirect or secondary mode of having the presence of the Son; as we, in our bodily existence in space and time, are forced into current phrases which make “presence in the spirit” a sort of apology or substitute (and sometimes a very lame one) for “reality” of presence: quite the contrary: this is the only mode of presence which could be quite absolutely direct, and primary, and real. Any presence of the Son other than this; any presence of the Son other than as Spirit, within, and as, ourselves, characterizing and constituting the very reality of what we ourselves are; would be, by comparison, remote, ineffective, unreal; nay, it would be, after all, a form of absence, a substitute for the presence which alone can be called true or real.
There are not, then, three separate spheres of spiritual operation upon us, which the good theologian is to be careful to demarcate exactly, and not confound: the sphere of the operation of the Father, and the sphere of the operation of the Son, and the sphere of the operation of the Holy Ghost. The operation is the operation of One God, Father at once and Son: and both in and through Spirit.
By examining the Scriptures that reveal the oneness of the Triune God, we see there are three aspects of their oneness. As to their inner existence, they interpenetrate each other; as to their outward expression, they are identical; as to their operation in man’s experience, they are one. These three types of Scripture reveal the oneness of our Triune (Three-One) God.
This article concludes the present series.