ACST 18. The Independent One

Chapter 14 introduced the idea that God is transcendent.1 The term implies that God is not a part of the universe, but is separate from it. In the words of the Julie Gold song, made popular by Bette Midler, “God is watching us from a distance.” J. Gresham Machen insisted that this attribute of God is “absolutely fundamental in the Bible” and “absolutely necessary in order to render intelligible all the rest.”2 One of the reasons that God must be seen as separate from his creation is that the creation has been adversely affected by sin, but God has not.

The Old Testament fiercely preserves and protects the
transcendence of God, precisely because it fiercely preserves
and protects the holiness of God. Angels, particularly the
mysterious Angel of the Lord, seem to appear in the narrative
of the Hebrew scriptures for this very purpose – to allow
divine interaction with the corruptible world of created
beings, while at the same time preserving the distance between
God and all that is corruptible.3

Chapter 14 also introduced the theological flipside to the issue of transcendence. God is not only separate from his creation, but he remains active within it, intervening whenever and wherever he pleases.4 This concept is included in the doctrine of the immanence of God, defined as “God’s intimacy and closeness to all creatures.” He is immanent without losing his transcendence, or without “ceasing to be the free and sovereign Lord of all.”5

Putting both of these biblical concepts together reveals a God who is both sovereign over creation and independent from it. Yet it poses a problem: if God is independent from the universe which he created, how can we prove his existence?
The short answer is that we cannot. His transcendence makes it impossible for us to point to God and tell the world “there he is.”

Yet his immanence makes it entirely possible that we can point to God’s work as evidence that he exists. He has left footsteps in the sand to show that he has been here among us, and that evidence keeps reoccurring to show us that he still walks among us. The majority of the world still believes in a deity of some kind because of this evidence, but most suppress this truth. For that reason, simply recounting examples of this evidence may not achieve much. Nevertheless, it will not hurt to try!

Evidence from Creation

For most of human history, the sciences have come to the aid of theology in providing evidence for God’s existence because they examined the universe, both on a macro (telescope) and micro (microscope) level. The evidence science has catalogued indicated that “the universe manifests order and purpose that can only be the result of a conscious intelligence.”6 We see this order in the patterns that repeat themselves in creation: the petals on a flower, or the rotation of the planets in a solar system.

In the past century, as technology has continued to improve, science has become more and more capable of presenting this type of evidence, but, ironically has been distracted from that task. Science has been held captive by a philosophical belief system which refuses to acknowledge the possibility of anything supernatural about nature itself, especially its origin. This has resulted in the disenchantment of nature itself, and has been partially responsible for the exploitation of the environment that has left the planet with a number of ecological problems.7 We do not have to deify nature in order to solve the ecological crisis. We merely need to rediscover how important nature is as a means of connecting us to its Creator.

The psalmist tells us that nature is constantly communicating both the existence and majesty of God.8 It does this by presenting to us evidence that demands us to consider its design and thus postulate the existence of its designer. Even if we are not ready to speculate on the nature of that designer, logic demands that we imagine at least that there is one.

Many of us may not fully grasp the purpose of Stonehenge,
but we immediately recognize that it is the result of
intelligent design and not natural processes. This is
because Stonehenge contains a complex arrangement of
stones that match a pattern. We may know very
little about the purposes, beliefs, or identity of the
designers of Stonehenge, but we know it was designed.9

Like Stonehenge, nature gives us clues to its creator. We see in both the microcosm and the macrocosm an almost infinite number of recognizable patterns, complex machine-like systems working on the basis of complex encoded data. To suggest that all of what is there “just happened” defies logic, and requires a faith in chance that goes way beyond the faith required of any god in any religion.

Evidence from Philosophy

Some of Christianity’s earliest theologians were philosophers as well, and sought to bring their philosophical disciplines to bear on the subject of God’s existence as well. One of the first, and most effective of these was Thomas Aquinas. His five ways that nature evidences God’s existence show how the human mind keeps stumbling over the fact of God’s existence when simply thinking about the nature of what is.10

1. The fact that the entire universe is in motion leads us to suspect an unmoved mover as its creator.

2. The fact that everything that exists appears to have a cause leads us to suspect that it was all created by an uncaused cause capable of bringing everything into existence.

3. The fact that the universe exists leads us to surmise an uncreated creator, because nothing happens without a reason. If there was ever a time when nothing (or no one) existed, there could have been nothing (or no one) to bring the universe into existence.

4. The fact that we can appreciate excellence in the universe leads to the suggestion that a being exists who is the standard by which all else is compared. Since the universe contains degrees of complexity from inanimate objects to complex beings, it follows that an even more complex being than humanity is possible.

5. The fact that the universe manifests order and direction suggests a conscious intelligence directing it, and building order into its structure.

Arguments like these are constantly debated among philosophers, and rarely yield agreement. Even Aquinas did not come to faith in God by virtue of his appreciation of God’s evidence in nature. It was the other way around: after finding God through Christ, Aquinas was able to see the evidence for God’s existence in nature. Faith became a lens by which Aquinas was able to see creation more clearly, and thus detect the marks which God, the creator had left upon it.

However, Aquinas’ faith does not negate his logic. A witness’s testimony is not negated when she is able to give a more accurate story since she was wearing corrective lenses when she saw the incident. Her testimony is actually deemed more reliable. In the same way, believers who approach the question of God from the book of creation are not out of bounds and in error simply because they have access to the supplemental revelation of faith or scripture.

In fact, there are a number of thinkers in this planet who come to accept the fact of God’s existence without those corrective lenses. They are theists, but not believers in any particular god. They see sufficient evidence in nature and elsewhere for the assumption of a deity, while remaining agnostic as to his, her, or it’s identity. This fact lends credence to arguments like Aquinas’s five ways. It suggests that such arguments are not merely reflections of religious bias, tainting pure science. Like the citizens of Athens, they knew enough about God to know that he existed, but not enough to know who he was.11

Evidence from Human Nature

A particularly revealing chapter in the book of nature is the book of human nature. The thoughts and feelings within the human heart show an impression upon us that cannot be explained by merely blaming the environment or our past history. One example of these thoughts and feelings is the tendency all humans have of assessing the acts of other humans, or societies with the categories of justice or injustice. All human beings are not in agreement on what is fair and what is unfair. Neither has there been consistent agreement throughout time as to which actions are just, and which are unjust. Nevertheless, it is true that throughout time all human beings of whatever race, culture or creed have retained the concept of justice.

One question to ponder, then, is where did this concept of justice come from? It is too simplistic to say that such concepts are merely taught by parents and reinforced by society. Many, because of conscience, are led to reject the teaching of their parents, or rebel against their governments.

It is also too simplistic to assume that such ideas are programmed into us by the processes of evolution. To suggest that our moral consciences are merely throwbacks to the decisions our prehistoric ancestors had to make to survive does not account for the justice decisions people make all the time which are clearly not in the interest of personal or corporate survival. If there is a justice gene embedded in human DNA, then why is it that humans and nations are consistently inconsistent on what justice is?

From whence, then, do these ideas and policies come which seek fairness for all? Christians have an answer. We blame God for wiring all humans in such a way that we see actions as potentially right or wrong, fair or unfair, just or unjust. In fact, we often go beyond the concept of justice, and ask “what would be the caring or loving thing to do.” We seek reconciliation rather than retribution. Christians argue that these concepts did not emerge through a gradual process from the primordial ooze. They have been with humanity since creation, and are inherited from a loving God who wishes his creatures to imitate his character.

The Difference Christ Made

As good as the above arguments are, each of them is inadequate. Although they can lead some to be theists, they are not sufficient to dispel the agnosticism of Athens. It takes revelation to do that. So, Paul at Athens said…
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31 ESV)

This man is Jesus. His resurrection was the evidence, or assurance (pistis) that God offered to humanity still in ignorance (agnoia) of his existence. The resurrection of Jesus is all the proof the world will ever need that everything said in the Bible is true. As evidence supplied by God himself, it covers the issue of origins, the issue of our responsibility to God as his creatures, and everything in between. Thus it was on the basis of the resurrection of Christ that Paul commanded the Athenians to repent, and warned them of coming judgment.

Now that Christ has been raised from the dead, no human being will be able to stand before God and excuse her failure to pay attention to his word. The gospel message redirects a world that has ignored God’s message back to it. Once we return to God’s word, the gaps in our knowledge of him are filled in by it.

Evidence from the Bible

The Bible tells us that God exists, and progressively reveals more and more of his character and identity as it tells his story. Without this essential piece to the puzzle, crucial elements of the story of the universe and the story of humanity would remain a mystery. This explains why cultures who deny God’s existence are apt to bring harm to their environment and themselves. Conversely, those people and societies who care enough to seek God through the Bible find that the resulting relationship leads to a proper stewardship of the earth’s resources, and a better care for society as a whole. Knowing God makes a difference.

We saw in previous chapters that the Bible reveals a God who cannot be defined in the terms which we use to define everything else in the universe. He is immeasurable. That makes him independent of the universe which he created. Although he can affect change upon the universe, he cannot be changed by it. He is immutable. All around the universe change is happening, including the ultimate change of death, but God is not capable of such change. He alone has immortality.

Although analogies from nature (such as the shamrock, or water) have been used to illustrate the Trinity, nature is really insufficient to teach the doctrine. The Bible, however, has no such limitation. From the beginning of Genesis, where we see a God who is both a “he” and an “us,” the triune nature of God comes through. The holiness of God is also best seen in his relationship with man and nations, which is brought out best through the history given in divine revelation.

What we see as the evidence from scripture piles up around us is that God is not the same as the universe he created. He is the Independent One. His sovereign acts within history and his words revealing himself and his plan are just ways that he has chosen to connect with his creatures. They are adequate to give us glimpses of his existence and attributes, and that is all that faith truly needs. Skepticism and doubt are free to ignore that evidence, but that ignorance is a choice, not an excuse.12

Human beings have every capacity to recognize the clues to God’s existence in nature, thought, human nature and the Bible, but some choose not to do so. The reasons why this is so are found not in the nature of God, but in human nature, particularly that nature as it currently presents itself, marred by original sin. Thus logically we proceed to a study of those issues.

1 cf. page 98.

2 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism. (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2009), 54. “From beginning to end the Bible is concerned to set forth the awful gulf that separates the creature from the creator.”

3 Kevin W. Mannoia and Don Thorsen, The Holiness Manifesto. (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2008), 47.

4 cf. page 100.

5 Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 413.

6 Douglas J. Soccio, Archetypes of Wisdom. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009), 226.

7 cf. Alister McGrath, The Re-enchantment of Nature. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2002).

8 Psalm 19:1-6.

9 H. Wayne House, Intelligent Design 101. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2008), 241.

10 My summary of Aquinas is based on Patrick J. Clarke, Questions about God. (Gloucestershire, UK: Nelson Thornes, 2001), 30-31, and Soccio, 226-230.

11 Acts 17:23.

12 Romans 1:20.

ACST 17. The Holy One

If the concept of a triune God seems rationally incomprehensible for some, the concept of holiness may seem absolutely alien for most. Perhaps in a previous era theologians could have easily spoken of the holiness of God and gained a sympathetic audience, but those days are gone now. To most of the world, the concept of holiness is an outdated, archaic, almost prehistoric idea. In fact, aside from being used as a mild intensive (holy smoke!), the term is rarely used anymore. So, before we can speak of God’s holiness in today’s context, the term will need some careful definition.

The term holy in Hebrew is kadesh, which originally connoted something or someone that was unique. In the ancient Near East, the term holy came to be associated with the gods of the various tribes, and with things, animals, times or places or people related to the worship of these gods. This explains why the Hebrews used the term kadesh for pagan male cult prostitutes and kedeshah for female cult prostitutes. The term implied that these individuals were unique (in that they had sexual relations as part of their cult rituals, and not as part of a normal married life. They would also be seen as exclusively devoted to the deity they represented while performing those cult rituals.

The God of the Bible is represented as unique – kadesh as well. He told the Hebrews to consecrate themselves and be holy because he is holy (Lev. 11:44). Through the prophet Isaiah he asked his people “to whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.” Of all the “gods” of the nations, none can compare to him. The New Testament represents him as light, with no darkness at all. In fact, the Bible represents God as exclusively holy. To emphasize this point, he is described as “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Without redemption, humanity does not even have access to God.

But the God of the Bible is not just holy because he is different. His holiness is his goodness. Although goodness is an attribute that is communicable (that is, we can imitate God by being good) there is a purity which we cannot attain. His righteousness makes ours look like filthy rags in comparison. His holiness is a mixture of moral attributes that set him apart from all his creation.

A good summary of those moral attributes is found in God’s revelation of himself to Moses in Exodus 34.

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD,
the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and
abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping
steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and
transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the
guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children
and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth
Exodus 34:6-7 ESV

The LORD is Merciful.

His mercy keeps him from administering swift justice because he has compassion on sinners. It does not keep him from seeing when sin has been committed. In fact, his merciful nature is made that more astounding because he does see everything that happens. He is more aware of our sin than we are. Yet he has chosen within the depths of his own goodness to forego punishing us as we deserve because he wants the best for us. Any parent knows this dilemma: there are times when you know that your child has done something wrong yet something within you yearns to let it be, to let this one go. Perhaps that parental yearning comes close to manifesting God’s attribute of compassionate mercy.

The LORD is Gracious.

The same God, who withholds punishment out of compassionate mercy, gives constant blessing and undeserved favor out of his supply of graciousness. Anyone who has ever stopped to count their blessings knows that no matter how bad things get, the scale is always overbalanced in their favor. Knowing that we do not deserve anything but swift, immediate destruction from God, we are overwhelmed to think of all the blessings we have received.

When horrible things happen to us or the ones we love, we are tempted to tell God that he is not being fair. But those are the words of a spoiled child. They are a reflection of a life so filled with enjoyment and blessing that one is shocked when something does not go as he expected it to. They are the words of someone to whom blessing is normal. We expect blessing normally because our God is gracious.

The LORD is Slow to Anger.

This attribute parallels that of mercy, but communicates something extra by how it is said. The Hebrew idiom actually says that God is long of the nostrils. The idiom does not mean that God physically has a long nose, but it suggests that God takes a long deep breath before reacting emotionally. Anger management suggests that we stop and count to ten before reacting to something that we object to. This text implies that God does the same thing. It tells us that God has the capacity to be angered by the wrongs so often manifested in this rebellious world, but that his anger is under control.

The LORD Abounds in Steadfast Love.

The NET translates this attribute as “loyal love.” It is the stubborn, relentless devotion to his own people that led God to powerfully rescue them from bondage in Egypt. Moses depended upon God’s steadfast love to guide the children of Israel to the Promised Land. He also appealed to God to forgive his people based on the same attribute. This attribute parallels that of graciousness, but adds to it the concept of covenant loyalty.

The LORD is Faithful.

Whereas steadfast love implies that God is faithful to his people, faithfulness implies that he is true to himself. He is a firm and solid rock because he never wavers from one position to another. What is true about him remains true about him. In theological terms, he is immutable. In practical terms, he can be trusted. Abraham’s servant found that God could be trusted to lead him to a wife for Isaac. Jacob found he could be trusted to bring him prosperity. David found that God’s rules could be trusted to keep him on the right path.

In the animistic culture of the ancient near east from which the Old Testament emerged, gods were not trustworthy. A sacrifice to one’s favourite idol might bring one a good crop this year, but might not be enough to avert famine the next. If one god refuses to answer the plea for help, there were always others you might try. The gods of the nations were fickle. One could not expect consistency. The God of the Hebrews was different. Not only was he true to himself, he could be trusted to be true to his promises. He was (and is) faithful.

The LORD Keeps His Covenant Love for Generations

There is comfort for the parent and grandparent here. It tells them that their God has a vested interest in their descendants. It is not a guarantee that their children will be believers, since they will have the same freedom their ancestors did (to accept or reject God’s grace). But it is God’s assurance that he will love them just as much. He will remain faithful to his covenant because that is who he is.

The LORD Forgives Iniquity, Transgression and Sin.

There are three words for sin here, and each highlights a different way a person can offend his Maker. He can offend God by willfully harboring an unholy thought or unrighteous word or deed. That is to commit iniquity. He can offend God by breaking his Law. That is transgression, whether it is done through rebellion of simple carelessness. He can also offend God by not measuring up to his standard. That is sin, even if it is done in error.

The good news is that God has them all covered. He offers forgiveness for each of these types of offense. The gods of the nations usually only offer the opportunity for sinners to make up for their sins by means of gifts, rituals, or acts of penance. The LORD actively bears the punishment for the sins himself. That is forgiveness. He can offer such lavish grace because he has already paid for the price of all the sins of humanity by the death of Christ on Calvary’s cross.
The LORD Sends Consequences upon Sinners.

The holiness of God is both sweet and sharp. God promises his goodness, grace, love and mercy because his nature is holy and you can expect these good things from a holy God. But God’s holiness also demands that he actively deal with sins that are not confessed. He is a God who is “a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day” (Psalm 7:11). If a sin is not covered by the blood of Jesus (through personal confession and forgiveness) it causes God to be angered.

The results of God’s anger are two-fold. Ultimately all unconfessed sins will be dealt with at the lake of fire, called Gehenna, on the judgment day. But God loves sinners too much to simply wait until they get the punishment they deserve. So he sends consequences of sinful behavior. These consequences may even last long enough to affect the lives of the sinner’s great-grandchildren.
The purpose of these consequences is also two-fold. First, they vindicate God’s holiness by sending punishment upon offenders. However, their primary purpose is not specifically to punish the sins. Their purpose is to get the sinners’ attention so that they can repent. Even the sharpness of the consequences of sin is caused by the sweetness of his love for the sinner. They can be compared to a parent’s discipline, which is not administered to cause the pain, but to prevent a greater pain.

Practical Applications

The first practical application to these truths about God’s holiness is not hard to detect: God’s unique goodness should lead his people to worship him. In fact, that was Moses’ reaction after God revealed these moral attributes to him. The scripture says that “Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped”. It is only right that we human beings who aspire to be morally correct would feel compelled to show appreciation for our creator, who always has been holy.

A second application also suggests itself. Seeing the holiness of God manifest itself in the way he deals with his creatures, it is only right for us to attempt to imitate these moral attributes. We should do so for several reasons: 1) the author of Hebrews instructs us to “strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord”; 2) God encourages his people to be holy because he is holy; 3) the Apostle Paul encouraged believers to “be imitators of God, as beloved children”. If we dare to be more holy as we relate to the world around us, perhaps that world will dare to believe that the holy God of whom we speak is real after all.

A Call for Edifying Manifestations

1 Corinthians 14:6-12 ESV
“Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? 7 If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? 8 And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? 9 So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. 12 So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.”

In this series I have been highlighting Paul’s commands to the churches that are of a particular structure. The structure is called continuous active imperative. These are commands for the church to (positively) keep doing what it is supposed to be doing, or (negatively) to stop doing what it is not supposed to be doing. The command in today’s text is in verse 12, where Paul encourages the Corinthians to keep striving to excel in building up the church.

The context of this command is chapters 12-14 of 1 Corinthians.

Let me try to summarize what Paul is saying in these three chapters.

Chapter 12 is about Spiritual Gifts. He says there are going to be all kinds of gifts manifested when we gather together, because the body of Christ is made up of many different members, with many different ministries assigned to them by the head (Christ) and empowered by the Holy Spirit. He does encourage the whole church to earnestly desire the higher gifts, which are the ones which build up the most members of the body.

Chapter 13 is the love chapter. Here Paul encourages all ministry to be done out of love, otherwise it counts for nothing.

In Chapter 14 Paul addresses some examples where it appears the Corinthians are not doing that, so spiritual gifts are becoming a problem. They were being abused, and the result was chaos rather than order.

Now I want to summarize chapter 14 with a little more detail. This is the chapter in which our text for today is found, so it is important to put as much flesh on it as possible.

All of the problems that Paul was dealing with in chapter 14 have to do with speaking in church, that is, with manifesting spiritual gifts which involve public speaking in the assembly. He identifies three specific problems:

1) too many people were “speaking in tongues” instead of prophesying;

2) too many people were speaking all at once, which was leading to confusion;

3) some of the women of the congregation were speaking, and, for some reason that too was causing disorder.

I want to comment on each of these problems, and I want to talk about the simplest problem first, then go to the ones that are more complex. The simplest problem Paul mentioned was that everybody was jumping up to speak all at once, and the result was chaos. People didn’t know who to listen to, and very little edification was getting done. It was a free-for-all, and probably resembled a competition to see who could gain the most listeners. The confusion was being caused by a good thing: the Corinthians were eager to share. Paul encouraged them to be considerate of one another and limit the number of people who speak, and have only one person speak at a time. Be considerate. Problem solved.

Another problem that Paul brought up in 1 Corinthian 14 is that some of the women of Corinth were speaking at the assemblies, and that was adding to the disorder. Some people believe that God has only ordained men to speak in church services, but I do not think that is the case. I have already shared how Gal. 3:28 shows that all Christians have the same status before God. Also, Joel 2:28-29 predicted a new era of the Holy Spirit’s ministry would include prophesying by both “sons and daughters.” That new era began at Pentecost.

So why is Paul preventing the women to speak here? Verses 34-35 hold the key.

First, I draw your attention to the last part of verse 25, where Paul says “it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Now, one problem is that Paul had already given instruction for the wives of the congregation in chapter 11. He tells them that they should cover their heads with a veil if they want to pray or prophecy. Praying and prophesying are kinds of speaking. Those kinds of speaking do not appear to be shameful. Perhaps what Paul meant was that the Corinthian society saw it as a shameful thing for its women to speak in public. He didn’t say it to the Thessalonians, Ephesians, or even the Romans. But apparently it was a problem in Corinth so Paul orders them not to have their women preach in public.

Paul says that the women are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission as the law also says. The problem is that there is absolutely no Old Testament commandment against women speaking. But there were plenty of laws in Corinth against women speaking. Paul seems to be saying that the women in Corinth should not speak in public because it is illegal.

In fact, history tells us that there was only one class of women who dared to speak in public in 1st century Corinth: the professional prostitutes. These were also the only Corinthian women of marriageable age who dared to appear in public without a veil.

The particular issue that appears to be the problem at Corinth is that wives are interrupting the worship to ask questions of their husbands. This is understandable, because in the first century women were not educated. There was apt to be a great deal of what was being said that the women did not understand. Their zeal to know was commendable, but it was causing confusion in the assembly, which is exactly the problem that Paul was addressing. Paul’s solution was “let them ask their husbands at home.”

As if I have not stirred up enough controversy, I want to go now to the problem that took up the most space in chapter 14: the problem of too many people “speaking in tongues.”

To understand Paul’s advice here we have to ask three questions. First, “What was “speaking in tongues?” I realize that there is a whole theological tradition that suggests that “speaking in tongues” is some kind of supernatural language that God gives believers to edify themselves with.

But I suggest that the problem in First Century Corinth was simply this: people were coming to worship services and giving their messages in languages that most of the other worshippers did not know.

Paul’s solution to the problem is found in verse 28 “But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.”
He tells the tongues speakers the same thing he told the women, and for the same reason. The wives questioning their husbands was causing distraction and not edifying anyone. The tongues speaking (without a translation) was doing the same thing. So Paul says “stop doing that.” The goal of all the manifestations of the Holy spirit is to edify the body of Christ. If what you are doing is not achieving that goal, you have no business doing it.

I want to conclude by going back to verse 12, where Paul encourages the Corinthians to keep striving to excel in building up the church. That is the BIG IDEA that Paul is trying to get across in chapters 12-14. May we never forget that. We need to constantly evaluate ourselves to see if the things we are doing when we meet together are actually building up the body. If First century Corinth could have problems – even after being founded by Paul himself – then we have no reason to assume that 21st century Takanini is immune.
LORD, before we say anything in church, help us to ask ourselves “will this help the people who hear it?” If it will not help, give us the consideration and love to keep our mouths shut!” Amen.

ACST 16. The Triune One

Evangelical Christians have inherited a rather bizarre sounding doctrine of God. Many believers take this doctrine for granted, but would be hard pressed to explain it to anyone. Some openly reject the doctrine as unbiblical. This is the doctrine of The Trinity. It teaches that the God of the Bible is a complex being consisting of three equally divine persons, but that these three persons comprise one divine essence, not three gods. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not each 1/3 God, but each is fully God, while each is distinct from the other persons.

This trinitarian formula has been passed down to Christianity from its earliest days, and is the result of hashing over the biblical data in search of what it systematically tells regarding the question of the nature of the Father God, the nature of Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and their relationship to each other.

Unfortunately, most of that hashing over of the biblical data took place a long time ago. As a result, many sincere Christians fail to see the connection between the doctrine as it is expressed today, and the texts it developed from. The formula as it stands today is not substantially altered from that expressed by the creed of the Council of Nicaea, in 325 AD.


Alternate theories have developed. This chapter will seek to address some of those theories by identifying the points where they depart from trinitarianism, and their reasoning for doing so. Usually these objections to trinitarian language are trying to protect some other aspect of orthodox theology. For that reason, these arguments should be welcomed in academic theological study, even if at the end their premises are rejected.

The Biblical Data

The first place to turn, however, is not to the theories, but to the word of God. A survey of the Bible’s teaching about the nature of God reveals that the authors of the trinitarian formula were trying to summarize the biblical data when they developed the formula.

The very first verse in the Bible contains a grammatical contradiction. In Genesis 1:1 the verb bara’ is properly translated “he created.” But the subject of that verb – God, the one who created – is called ‘Elohim, which in form is masculine plural. The Jews developed many explanations for this apparent contradiction, but at least it suggested that the God who created the universe could not easily be defined. In the same chapter, God says “let us make man in our image” (1:26) which suggests again that God’s nature is a plurality of some sort. There is nothing in the context that suggests that God was talking to anyone else but himself. The occasional use in the Old Testament of plural pronouns when God is referring to himself,1 and plural verbs when referring to God’s activities2 and times when the titles “God” or “LORD” seem to refer to two persons at the same time3 seem to suggests that a raw Unitarianism does not capture God’s nature.

The contradiction is more than a grammatical one, because basic to Judaism is the concept of monotheism. The Bible affirms that monotheism in a number of places. In Deut. 6:4 the LORD is proclaimed to be one. In the face of pagan nations who claim that other beings are equally divine, God tells the Israelites that he alone deserves the title deity. This is more than simply a protest against idolatry. It is a fundamental testimony to the nature of God. But Moses, who wrote Deut. 6:4, is the same author who penned Genesis 1. Either he is contradicting himself, or he is suggesting a fundamental monotheistic deity who (in some sense) is also a plurality.

In the New Testament, this fundamental monotheism of Deut. 6:4 is retained in statements of essential theology. James takes it as a standard of orthodoxy to believe that “there is one God” (2:19). Paul repeats these words numerous times (1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:6; 1 Tim. 2:5). Yet when Jesus commands baptism in the name of this one God, he tells the church to baptize believers in the name of “The Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Notice that there is only one name mentioned. “The Father” is not a name, it is a title. “The Son” is likewise a title. “The Holy Spirit” is a title as well. If Jesus had in mind a name here, it could only be the name which, in our English Bibles is translated LORD. The name in Hebrew is YHVH. Thus the term which the Bible uses most for God applies equally to all three members of the Trinity.

The monotheism that the Bible proclaims is preserved by the trinitarian formula because each of the three persons of the trinity is called by the same name, identifying each with the same being, the same God. God is one “what” and three “whos” at the same time. There is no trickery here. If the data that the Bible presents allowed some other explanation, then the trinitarian formula should be renounced.

But the trinity is often rejected for another reason: it does not make sense. The reason is does not make sense is that it is an attempt to describe God’s nature. His nature is difficult to describe because there is no one else to compare it to. The Bible constantly affirms that there is no one else like God.4 We have already seen in the previous chapters that some aspects of God’s nature are exclusive to him alone. We should not expect to fully understand or relate to those attributes which are exclusive to God. God’s triune nature is one of those attributes.

Each of the persons of the Trinity is revealed in the Old Testament, and his existence and purpose is clarified in the New Testament. Psalm 2:7 records a conversation between God the Father and someone else. The Father is speaking to someone else who is in heaven with himself, and proclaims to that person “”You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” That other person was not an angel, as is made clear by the author of Hebrews (1:5). The New Testament affirmation is that this statement was made to Jesus Christ before he was born (Acts 13:33; Hebrews 5:5).
So trinitarian thought affirms that Jesus (in addition to being fully human) is also fully God, so preexisted his own incarnation.

Jesus constantly spoke of the Father sending his Son into the world.5 It was clear that he was not sent in the same way that the prophets were sent, because behind each of these references is that incarnational appointment as high priest under the new covenant (Hebrews 5:5). He was not sent just to be a messenger to the world, but he was sent to be its Savior, as Paul6 and John7 would proclaim in their epistles. A prophet could come from earth, and be a sinner just like us. But a Savior had to come from heaven,8 — from above9 –and be sinless, like God.

So, when Jesus did finally make his appearance in the flesh among the human race, God the Father declared that he was unique, because of his special relationship with him. Other people were God’s children by virtue of creation and subsequent procreation. Jesus was God the Father’s only begotten Son in whom the Father is well-pleased, and upon whom the Holy Spirit dwells and remains without limitation.10 He is uniquely the Son of God,11 therefore he knows the Father like no one else, and is equally known by the Father.12

Jesus also infuriated the Jewish leaders by claiming that special relationship. They correctly understood that Jesus was making himself to be equal with God. They were right in accusing him of blasphemy if his statements were not true.

John 10:22-33 ESV
At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem.
It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the
colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and
said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are
the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you,
and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s
name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because
you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and
I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life,
and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out
of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater
than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s
hand. I and the Father are one.” The Jews picked up stones
again to stone him. Jesus answered them, “I have shown you
many good works from the Father; for which of them are you
going to stone me?” The Jews answered him, “It is not for a
good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy,
because you, being a man, make yourself God.”

It was a serious thing to reject what Jesus was saying about himself here. Those who refused to listen to his voice were not part of his flock. He was not claiming to be the Father, but he was claiming to be one (that is, equal) with his Father. He was claiming full deity just as the Father has full deity.

Another factor that leads to trinitarian thought is how the biblical record treats the Holy Spirit. The language used of him is personal, and, when taken seriously, prevents the assumption that the Holy Spirit is just another name for the Father, or some influence or power sent from the Father. Although the title “Spirit” is neuter in Greek, the New Testament authors do not treat the Holy Spirit as a mere influence. They insist on using masculine pronouns when referring to him. He is a “he,” not an “it.”13 The actions he is said to perform are actions of a person who can communicate and whose words can be rejected, and even blasphemed against.14 The “he” in question is not the Father. The Son was sent from the Father. The Spirit was also from the Father but was sent by the Son (John 15:26).

Like the Son, the Spirit will have a mission, and carry out that mission on earth. In fact, the Holy Spirit would take on the same mission as Christ did, so far as the discipling of Christ’s followers is concerned. This is what Jesus meant when he said that the Holy Spirit would be another Helper. In John 14:16 Jesus predicts that the Father (one person) will answer his (another person’s) prayer and send another Helper (third person) who would be with the disciples forever. By using the term “another” here, Jesus implies that he (Jesus) was the first helper.

The term “another” is also significant because the Greeks used two words that can be translated into English as “another.” The term heteros means another of a different kind. We see that word in our English word heterosexual. A heterosexual has sexual relations with another person of a different gender. The opposite is a homosexual, who prefers relations with a person of the same (homos) gender. The point is, if the Holy Spirit were merely an influence from God, an impersonal power, then the Greek word John would have used in John 14:16 would naturally be heteros but it was not. Instead, John used allelos. This word also translates into English as “another” but it means another of the same kind. If Jesus, as a person, came as a helper for his disciples, then he would send the Holy Spirit, who is also a person to pick up the slack in his physical absence. For God so loved the world that he sent his Son. For Jesus so loved the world that he also sent another person: the Holy Spirit.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit had made a noticeable appearance together at the baptism of Christ.15 It was not until after the Holy Spirit appeared and began manifesting himself in the early Church that believers began putting one plus one plus one together and coming up with a God who is three persons. By the time the epistles were written, this had become so clear that invocations for blessings to God were now written not just to the Father, but to both the Father and the Son.16 And references to God’s work in believers’ lives would include all three persons.17


Not all evangelical believers see the data above as conclusive proof for the doctrine of the trinity. Some objectors, like the Arians and modern day Unitarians18 seek to preserve the monotheism by down-grading the Son to a lesser “god” with a small “g,” (which they would then argue is not God at all), and down-grading the Spirit to God in action (denying his distinct person-hood). Others seek to preserve the unity by merging all three persons into one, like the Oneness Pentecostals19 do when they insist on “Jesus Only.” They apparently see the examples of God’s plurality in speech or action as merely a plurality of manifestation of the one monotheistic God of the Bible.

Sometimes opponents of the Trinity object to it ad hominem because they believe the doctrine came from Catholicism, and thus must necessarily be wrong. While it is true that the first believers in the Trinity were Catholics, it is also true that the first believers in justification by faith and sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers (as those doctrines came to be expressed by the reformers) were also Catholics. The fact is, the doctrines that reveal the apostate nature of Roman Catholicism had not yet fully developed when the doctrine of the Trinity was approved by the Council of Nicaea. Its creed represents a Church seeking to conform to the Bible and present the Bible’s theology.

The trinity is a touchy subject for most of us. It has even been a matter upon which evangelicals have chosen to deny membership or fellowship to those who hold different opinions. While we evangelicals are sometimes quite liberal in our acceptance of those with differing theological views, this subject often seems too sensitive for that. After all, the nature of God himself seems too essential, too basic to allow much wiggle room.

There is also a practical reason that this doctrine is held with such fervor. To lose the triune nature of God is to miss out on a God to whom relationships are part of his essential being. Both Unitarians and Oneness Pentecostals proclaim a God who is categorically one person. Trinitarians proclaim, worship and serve a God whose unity has always been a manifestation of a unique eternal relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Trinitarians like to think that knowing the Triune God teaches us something about true unity in relationships.

Sincere Advent Christians have promulgated both the Unitarian and Trinitarian positions, but the debate has not always been as irenic as it could have been. The clashes in the past were partly due to the sensitive and important nature of the debate. But some of them (to our shame) have resulted from failure to treat each other with respect. May God forgive us.

1 Gen. 3:22; 11:7; Isaiah 6:8.
2 Gen. 20:13; 35:7.
3 Psalm 45:6-7; 110:1; Hosea 1:7.
4 Deut. 4:35,39; 1 Kings 8:60; 1 Sam. 42:8; Isaiah 45: 5,6, 18,21,22; 46:9; Mark 12:32.
5 John 4:34; 5:24,30,36,37; 6:38,39,44,57; 7:16,28,29,33; 8:16,18,26,29,42; 9:4; 11:42; 12:44,45,49; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5; 17:8,18,21,23,25; 20:21.
6 Gal. 4:4,6.
7 1 John 4:9,10,14.
8 1 Cor. 15:47; 1 Thess. 1:10; 4:16; 2 Thess. 1:7; Heb. 12:25.
9 John 3:31; 8:23.
10 Matt. 11:27; 24:36; Mark 13:32; Luke 10:22.
11 Matt. 4:6; 8:29; 14:33; 27:40,43,44; Mark 3:11; 12:6-8; 15:39; Luke 4:41; 22:70; compare John 1:34,49; 9:35; 11:27.
12 Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22.
13 John 14:17, 26; 15:26; 16:13.
14 Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10.

August 2010

photo by Jachin Mandeno

You have reached the Newsletter of Jeff and Penny Vann, missionaries with Advent Christian General Conference, currently serving in New Zealand as pastors-at-large with the Advent Christian Conference of New Zealand (ACCONZ). We serve as teaching pastors at Takanini Church of Christ, and Christian LIFE Church, Takanini, Auckland.

Our friend and fellow pastor David Burge fell asleep in Christ on July 4th. David had a disease that he knew was likely to take him in the prime of his life. Before the leukaemia started taking up his time, he had the chance to step back from the busyness of life and concentrate on the things that were important to him. But even those months he had, are not enough. It is unfair that we have to say goodbye to David at all. Our only consolation is that we are not saying goodbye for good. We are only saying goodbye for now.

Dave’s funeral was held on Saturday, July 10 at a local Baptist Church. Hundreds joined us as we gave tribute to this man of God. The message Jeff shared focused on the resurrection of believers, and is available on his web log:

photo by Jachin Mandeno

God’s timing is so awesome. While preparing for Dave’s funeral, I (Penny)had a sudden thought that I had better resend my cell phone numbers to my sister so in case something happened Stateside she could contact me. For whatever reason the email was delayed a couple of days. She got the numbers one morning and had to use them THAT afternoon to tell me of my dad’s heart attack. She called back an hour later to tell me he had died. It was 12:30pm here when the call came and I was at the airport ticket in hand 4 hours later. I flew back to Connecticut for his funeral. But, while in the States, I was able to visit Connie in Massachusetts, and be there for the birth of our newest grandson.

Simon Dean Shaw was born on July 22nd, 7lb. 5oz, and 22 in. He and his parents (Steve and Connie) are doing fine.

3 days after returning to New Zealand, Penny taught a one-day seminar on the Old Testament. The insights she shared helped us all to see the big picture of God working through thousands of years of history to bring about his purpose of calling the nations to himself.

photo by Jachin Mandeno

Our short trip to the South Island took place August 10-13. We visited some friends we met while Jeff was in seminary. One of the highlights was a trip to a lamb farm, where we saw thousands of newly born lambs.

See a video of the lambs:

Life in New Zealand (A Yankee’s perspective). It has been winter here. Winter in Auckland is NOT like winter in New England. The grass is still green and I have not seen one flake of snow. It mostly rains and is rather a raw cold. So we go to coffee shops
to chase the dampness away. Coffee shops act as the local social hang out. The other thing one notices here is most Kiwi’s don’t have central heating in their homes. They rely more on space heaters or wood/coal stoves for their heat. The reasoning is, “why heat a room you are not in?” They also keep the rooms cooler than most American homes. The idea is if your cold put on a jumper (sweater). It is actually not a bad idea, and one I grew up with in the 70’s during the oil embargo.
I often feel like I am trying to speak two dialects at the same time. I (Penny), being from New England, don’t have to try as hard as Jeff does having the “eh?” and “wicked” already down and being used to people dropping their “R”s. There are still differences, like a jumper-sweater, a pinafore-jumper, supper-night-time snack, while tea or dinner-supper, you get the picture. This with idiomatic differences is enough to keep us on our toes.

Please Pray:

1) For Penny’s family as they face the loss of her father.
2) For David Burge’s family as they adjust to life without him.
3) For The Takanini church that they make wise plans for present and future ministry.
4) For Penny and Jeff, that they continue to serve the LORD in New Zealand.