Adobe Stock & James M. González
Tri-Unity: Jewish & Gentile Views
The traditional doxology, "Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be," beautifully expresses God's tri-unity. Time is both seamless and boundless, transitioning from the past, present, and future without ceasing. Human beings may only live in the present, but even to say this is at once a past statement. We may plan the future, but no one knows it with certainty. God alone exists in the past, present, and future, which the Hebrew name Yahweh (H3068) implies. This timeless and most holy name originates in the phrase, "I AM WHO I AM" (Hebrew: EYEH ASHER EYEH; H1961, H834), which was God's response to Moses when he asked for his name (Exod. 3:14). The Hebrew name Yeshua (H3442, "Joshua")—rendered in Greek as Iēsous (G2424) and in Latin as Jesus—means "Yahweh saves" or "Yahweh is salvation". Therefore, when the eternal only-begotten Son of God (Greek: monogenēs Huios tou Theou; G3439, G5207; G3588; G2316; cf. John 1:1-18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9) took on human flesh and blood as Jesus of Nazareth, he kept his divine name to let the world know that he was coming to save it.
The English word "trinity" derives from the Latin trinitas (lit. "triad," from Latin trinus, "threefold"). Tertullian of Carthage (c. 155–c. 220) was the first theologian to use this term when defining the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in his tract "Against Praxeas" (Latin: Adversus Praxean). Trinity means "three in one," a unity of three consubstantial beings existing as one. This definition comes to us from the early church councils at Nicaea in 325, Constantinople in 381, and Chalcedon in 451. The elders and pastors at these meetings wanted to resolve their centuries-old theological debates over how to reconcile the necessary worship of one God with the divinity and humanity of Jesus. Nicaea and Constantinople described the hypostatic union of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Later, Chalcedon defined the divine and the human natures of Christ. This may all sound like Greek and Latin to you (it is!), but everything will be clarified in the section "Greco-Roman Views from Philosophy" later in the article.
Messianic Jewish Views from Scripture
For Jews, any discussion of God's attributes begins and ends with the Shema (H8086, "hear" or "listen"), a monotheistic confession of faith written by Moses. It reads, "Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone" (Hebrew: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad; Deut. 6:4). Jesus himself recited the Shema when a scribe asked him to explain the greatest commandment (Mark 12:28-30). Eloheinu, meaning "our God," is a conjugated form of Elohim (H430, "God" or "gods"). This word is uniplural, referring to the underlying reality of a singular yet multidimensional God. For example, when Moses wrote, "Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness'" (Gen. 1:26), he used Elohim. Likewise, the adjective echad (H259, "one" or "first") also implies a complex singularity. If he wanted to define God as an absolute oneness, Moses would have chosen yachid (H3173, "only"). This reading of the Genesis text is not just a convenient defense of trinitarian doctrine. When ancient Jewish scholars rendered the Torah into a formal translation called the Septuagint (LXX) for Greek-speaking Jews, they felt embarrassed by the plural pronouns at Gen. 1:26. They initially changed the verse to say "let me" instead of "let us" to give it a more monotheistic polish than the original Hebrew wording. However, later scribes eventually adjusted the LXX verse to a more literal translation.
Paul of Tarsus, always the Torah-observant Jew, alluded to the Shema when he wrote, "Yet for us, there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist" (1 Cor. 6:8). He even referred to the Shema about God's tri-unity when he said, "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all" (Eph. 4:4-6). These lessons from Paul are the very essence of "the LORD is our God, the LORD alone," combined with Jesus' claim, "The Father and I are one" (John 10:30). The Judean religious leaders knew exactly what they heard: Jesus was claiming to be one with God in the very meaning of the Shema. They attempted to stone him to death for this perceived blasphemy (v. 31).
Biblical scholars who endorse the "Documentary Hypothesis" see two different authors when they read Torah passages that favor either Elohim or Yahweh. They name these hypothetical writers "Elohist" and "Yahwist," casting doubt on whether Moses composed any of the Pentateuch texts. However, Jewish readers have long realized that Moses simply used Elohim when alluding to God's transcendence over creation, while choosing Yahweh to emphasize his immanence with it. This is why Jesus came to us as "Yahweh saves," even applying the divine name to himself: "Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58). The author of Hebrews testified about Christ's immanence: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin" (4:15).
In Jewish teaching, rabbis stress that God reveals himself in patterns found in both scripture and nature. That said, Messianic Jews see his tri-unity throughout the many combinations of three in the Hebrew Bible, itself divided into three parts: Torah (H8451, "Law"), Nevi'im (H5030, "Prophets"), and Ketuvim (H3789, "Writings"). Jesus identified them when he said, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms [i.e., one of the writings] must be fulfilled" (Luke 24:44). Today, Jews call it the Tanach (TaNaK; תנ״ך), an acronym based on this tradition. These threefold patterns include the trio of Miriam, Moses, and Aaron as Israel's legal mediation before God during the exodus (Num. 12:4; Mic. 6:4). Moreover, the entire nation of Israel was a triune society of priests, Levites, and Israelites (1 Chron. 9:2; 1 Esd. 9:37) who were all descendants of the three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exod. 3:15). This tripartition of priest, Levite, and Israelite is a cultural background that we Christian gentiles miss in Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan when he shockingly interpolated a despicable foreigner in the place of a Jewish citizen (Luke 10:31-33). Finally, scripture tells us that all people are a threefold combination of body, soul, and spirit (Job 7:11; 1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 4:12).
Greco-Roman Views from Philosophy
Leading up to the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, the patristic theologians of the Roman Empire not only appealed to scripture in their debates but also philosophy. They were predominately gentiles who were more familiar with Aristotelian and Platonic ideas than with Jewish ones from the Torah. To their defense, the New Testament writers used many Greek words with a precedent in philosophy. For example, the author of Hebrews chose the noun hupostasis (G5287, lit. "underlying" reality or substance) when writing, "Now faith is the assurance [emp. added] of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (11:1). Likewise, the early church leaders applied hupostasis to define the "hypostatic union" of three underlying "persons" whom each share the same essential nature—think DNA (see "Nicene Creed"). They viewed the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as three distinct hypostases of one substance who relate socially and economically in a "communication of properties" (Latin: Communicatio idiomatum). Within the person of Christ Jesus, both divine and human natures exist without separation or distinction; however, both are fully present and wholly genuine (see "Chalcedonian Definition"). Parenthetically, we must take care even when using orthodox vocabulary, as both the Latin persona ("person") and Greek prosōpon (G4383, "face" or "appearance") originally referred to ancient Greco-Roman theater masks. The patristics compared God to a stage actor who always keeps his essential personality while functioning in three roles. However, he does not role-play as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but exists consubstantially in them.
At first glance, these Greek and Roman formulas based on metaphysics—abstract ideas beyond the natural world—seem to have little to do with first-century faith. All of the early Christians believed the what: Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God, both divine and human. Even the historical records from secular writers in the Roman Empire bore witness to this fact (see "Historicity of Jesus"). Starting in the second and third centuries, church leaders realized they had little consensus on the how. Various falsehoods arose that denied Jesus' timeless divinity: 1) Adoptionism: the Father merely adopted the Son as his heir sometime before creation or during his earthly ministry; 2) Monarchianism: both the Son and the Holy Spirit are ambassadors of the Father in a hierarchy and royal procession, and; 3) Subordinationism: the Son and the Holy Spirit submit to the Father in perfect will and obedience. Each one of these concepts suggests the Father created the Son instead of recognizing him as eternally uncreated in the exact image of God.
The Council of Nicaea was necessary for the early church to sort out whether Jesus is "of one being" (Greek: hōmoouisios; G3676, G3776) or "of similar being" (Greek: hōmoiousios; G3664) with the Father. Yes, the patristic theologians really did debate over a matter of one single iōta, the Greek letter I. However, the very definition of Christ's identity—christology—was at stake. This is still a make-it-or-break-it salvation issue for all Christians regardless of their time or place. The Latin derivative consubstantial means "with the same substance." At Nicaea, the elders and pastors listened to two opposing theologians both from Alexandria, a city renowned for its vast library and influential thinkers. The first, Alexander (d. c. 328), upheld that Jesus is the eternally uncreated Son of God who lives in one essence with the Father. Arius (c. 250–336) believed, "There was a time when the Son was not." The council affirmed that Christ shares one essence with the Father, setting an example for all Christians to acknowledge him as the very nature of God in human form from everlasting. In the first century, the author of Hebrews testified, "[Jesus] is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word" (1:3a). Athanasius (c. 293–373), the successor to Alexander as the diocesan bishop of Alexandria, became the champion of high christology in the aftermath of Nicaea. Antecedently, the apostle Thomas had no doubts about Jesus' relationship to the Father when he called him "my Lord and my God" (John 20:28).
Modern Views from Science
At its triple point, H2O coexists as liquid water, solid ice, and vapor. Many churchgoers use this analogy to explain the tri-unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in one God. However, this example is "heresy" (Greek: hairesis; G139, "self-chosen divisive opinion") because it literally allows for the separation of each divine person. Simon Peter warned that "no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation" (2 Pet. 1:20). While it is possible for H2O to exist in three states at once, the scientific ability to divide them exemplifies a type of modalism. This means H2O has three modes, whereas God does not exist in modes. All three hypostases of the divine nature coexist at the same time without division, yet keep their functional distinctions. Simply put, H2O is not an absolute tri-unity, a relationship of three underlying dimensions that can neither exist nor function without each other. Despair not, because absolute tri-unities do happen in the natural world.
The universe is an absolute tri-unity of space, time, and matter. Furthermore, each one of these components is themselves absolutely triune: 1) The algebraic formula for the three-dimensional space known as volume is length x width x height; 2) Time encompasses past, present, and future; and 3) Atoms—the building blocks for all matter—involve protons, neutrons, and electrons. God formed the vast cosmos as an absolute tri-unity of three constituent absolute tri-unities. He also created three heavens in this universe, each featuring diverse characteristics with firm(ament) yet permeable boundaries (cf. Gen. 1:6; Pss. 19:1, 150:1; 2 Cor. 12:2).
How does such complex metaphysics and cosmology relate to God's tri-unity? Some biblical scholars cannot fathom how a simple Galilean craftsman and rabbi they call the "historical Jesus" reconciles with the cosmic "Christ of faith". They apply the latter term to the more pious-sounding material in the New Testament. However, John son of Zebedee described Jesus as the divine Logos (G3056, "Word" and "logical definition of absolute cosmic truth"; cf. John 1:1; Gen. 1), a title rich with theological and philosophical overtones from the Genesis creation account and Greek philosophy. The evangelists and apostles who wrote about Jesus viewed his divinity and humanity to be in dynamic tension. Quantum cosmologists today realize how the entire universe appears to be especially suited for human life, the anthropic principle. To combine the very ancient theological/ philosophical meaning of Logos with the modern scientific view of the anthropic principle gives us this profound truth: The "historical Jesus Christ of faith" is both God's absolute truth and the reason we exist. Both John and Paul understood this when they each wrote:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people (John 1:1-4).
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him (Col. 1:15-16).
Blessed are you, O LORD our God, King of the world, who, with your co-eternal Son and Holy Spirit, is one God, one Lord, in the tri-unity of persons and the unity of substance. For that which we believe of your glory, O Father, we believe the same of your Son, and the Holy Spirit, without any difference or inequality. Amen.
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