The Trinity in the Old Testament

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In the fourth chapter in Can These Bones Live?, Robert W Jenson has an excellent biblical theological overview of the Trinity.

Jenson begins by tracing the historic development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Historically, the doctrine of the Trinity was solidified through the Nicene Creed; it was further grounded by the Cappadocian fathers. Jenson summarizes the historical articulation of the Trinity by explaining the difference between being and person or hypostases: “There is in God… just one being, which is why there is just one God. The is-ness of God is single, but there are three hypostases [or persons]” (p 48). So then, Christians worship one God who eternally exists in three persons. Jenson concludes that this is “the most biblical view” (p 48).

But of course, in order for it to be the most biblical view, it must be found in the Bible. The question then becomes, can the Trinity be found in the Bible? Or is the Trinity a novel doctrine created by the early Christians? Jenson explains:

It is often supposed that Christian trinitarianism is a total break from Judaism’s understanding of God. The Jews are said to have the doctrine that there is only one God and the Christians are said to have introduced a modification. This is historically false, and two of the most profound contemporary Jewish theologians, Michael Wyschogrod and Peter Ochs, both recognize that. Neither Judaism nor Christianity is an abstract monotheist religion. Neither insists that there is just one God and that this is all that can be said about him. Both are rather instances of what I would like to call “dramatic monotheism.” For both Judaism and Christianity, the oneness of God is the oneness of the story that he lives with his people. (p 48-49)

Jenson then goes on to explain that the OT presents a dramatic God who not only exists outside of history as “its author, who in some sense stands outside of the play or drama as the author of the drama” (p 49), but also…

as a figure in the drama, a figure in the history of Israel. Consider, for example, “the angel of the Lord.” Throughout the Pentateuch when something really decisive happens, the “malach yhwh”— that is, the angel or messenger of the Lord— appears to speak on the Lord’s behalf. As the tale goes on, however, this angel or messenger of the Lord speaks as God in the first person. It turns out that he is the Lord. So the malach of the Lord is simultaneously a messenger for the Lord or of the Lord but also the Lord himself. (p 49)

Jenson also points out the glory cloud of the Lord that is understood to be the presence of the Lord himself:

In the temple of Jerusalem we find simultaneously a manifestation of the Lord, the glory of the Lord, and a sort of shining of the Lord which just is the Lord…

The old rabbis of somewhere between 150 bc to ad 300 regarded such phenomena as different forms of the same thing which they called the “shekinah,” which means “the settlement one” or “the resident one.” The shekinah of God, then, is God as resident within the life of Israel as distinguished from God as author and transcendent to the life of Israel. (p 49-50)

Jenson notices “there are three” persons who are generally equated as YHWH in the OT, each in some way participating within the drama of Israel. This leads to the conclusion that the YHWH of Israel is more dynamic than simply one God as one person.

When this drama turns to the NT, Jenson observes that for the writers of the NT letters, the resurrection of Christ came to mean that the Shekinah glory of the temple had come to illumine and dwell within one man, a single Israelite (p 50). No longer was the glory outside of the people, but it had come to make its home within mankind. Even more then that, it is said in the NT that it was the Father who raised Jesus by the power of the Shekinah. Thus, the NT continues the threeness of the OT: the Son was raised by the Father in the power of the Spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Old Testament and Gentile Religion

I’ve written on this blog before about the purpose of God’s seemingly long pause between the fall and the incarnation and cross. If the cross is the remedy of man’s fallen state, then why, after the fall of Adam, does God wait thousands of years before the incarnation?

One answer is Israel: Israel is seen by Paul as God’s “training ground”. It is God “tutoring”, as Paul says, this covenant people, to understand certain key principles: sin, atonement, sacrifice, temple, holiness, et al. Once Israel understands these key principles, we find Christ coming not simply as Messiah, but as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29). This term of course would have struck certain imagery into the Jewish person’s mind: Exodus, redemption, blood, sacrifice, atonement. God used this time to train Israel to receive their Messiah.

But what about the rest of the world? How did this long pause between the fall and the cross benefit, say, the Gentile pagan world?

Hans Urs von Balthasar has an interesting answer. He tries to explain that God’s intention for the pagan nations was to allow man to realize his own state as fallen and apart from Him.

Balthasar says this:

[My aim is] to show that man’s historical situation in this world is in a state of permanent tension: he is constantly on the lookout for a solution, a redemption, but can never anticipate or construct it from his own resources; nor does he have even an intimation of it. (Theo Drama 4, kindle, 981-983)

Since man can neither throw off his [desire for a higher power] …nor entrap [God]… within his own finitude by his own (magical) efforts, he becomes, right from the start, a figure of pathos on the world stage. To the best of his ability, he will attempt to make present, in finite terms, his orientation to [a God] that transcends him; thus arise the temples and kingdoms [of world religions]… (Kindle, 946-49)

[We cannot] play down the ultimately hopeless situation of finite existence in the face of a transcendence that does not automatically disclose itself (Kindle, 986-87)

Now, what Balthasar is meaning to say here, is that the pagan world was left, to a large extent, to its own devices after the fall. Yes, Israel was given revelation of the true God at this time. But the rest of the pagan nations were not. And so, they were left to their own creativity to “figure God out”; to understand their place in the universe. To know their own origins.

And because man is made in the image of God, and because he can observe God’s handiwork (creation), he is prone to search for him somehow. We find this in the differing world religions which manifested themselves after the fall. Man was expressing his desire to have God, to know him. Man was confessing his knowledge of his own falleness — he desires to be one with his Creator! Because of this innate, ingrained desire for God, we do find some rays of truth in world religions: Sin, god, atonement, sacrifice, laws, et al. But even with these hints of truth, without revelation, man can never understand or know God in his fullness.

Man’s finiteness hides the fullness of God from him (1 Cor 1:7). But even more than that, man’s falleness separates him from God. And his sin permeates his search for God in such a way, that religion without revelation becomes corrupt, evil, satanic even.

Frank Sheed adds interesting insight on how sin and separation from God affects man’s search for the true God:

[H]uman nature tends to build religion, so by the wounds [of sin] in it it tends to deform what it has built. Thus the human intellect would tend to see that there must be some sort of Supreme Being: but only a human intellect at full strength would by its own unsupported powers hold on to one God and that God spiritual, just as a human will at less than full strength would find one God too overwhelming, and a purely spiritual God too remote. Polytheism and idolatry came crowding in everywhere; pantheism was an escape in a different direction. Moral corruption naturally corrupted religion, too. Sexual rites could only grow monstrous: man’s fallen nature gets too much excitement out of sex to be trusted with sexual ritual. Nor did man’s fallen nature always keep blood rituals in control: animal sacrifice suggested human sacrifice, and human sacrifice could grow to hecatombs. And if this means aberration by excess there was the possibility of aberration by defect, religion falling to a mere ritual relation without love or holiness or sense of moral obligation, but only gods to be placated and a routine of placation. (Theology and Sanity, 193)

Religion without revelation, without God’s condescension, mixed with man’s falleness, spirals into a chaotic brutal worship. And this we find in the Old Testament. Pagan nations falling into brutal practices, just trying to find the God of creation. They knew he was there, and yet, their finitude and sin kept them from finding him truly.

This is precisely what God was meaning to teach the Gentile nations during this “pause”: one cannot know God fully without him making himself known. And the fallen man, plagued with sin, separated from God, cannot craft a religion which ascends to God. His religion, though it may have a hint of truth, will be mixed with error such that it spirals into idolatry.

Paul, in Acts 17, called this time period “the times of ignorance” (vs 30). “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (vs 23), Paul preached. And “now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent” (vs 30). Paul explains that the pagan nations sought after an unknown God. This was all they knew. They were shut out from him.

God had allowed the nations to remain in ignorance, to feel their own lostness, to know their own finitude. To know that without him making himself know, they are lost. But now he has made himself known. And he commands all people to repent!

Why Christians Need the Old Testament

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I mentioned in my preceding post that Christians need the scriptures for encouragement, growth, and spiritual fruit, because of the very fact that the scriptures reveal God’s saving purposes for mankind. Martin Luther went so far to say that the Word of God is itself a lengthened telling of the gospel.

In this post, I want to consider just exactly how the Old Testament tells this gospel-story.

And what I want to propose is that the Old Testament is just as much about the gospel than the New. And because of this, the entire biblical narrative is concerned and centered on Jesus — and, as I said in my last post, this is why we need the scriptures, Old Testament too!

So then, how does the Old Testament bear witness to the gospel?

If read carefully, and in context, it should become clear that the Old Testament is concerned with the gospel as much as the New; it just communicates it in different ways. Vaughan Roberts says (source),

[Many] have debated for years whether or not it is possible to point to a unifying theme that binds the whole Bible together…Any unifying theme that is used to help us to see how the Bible fits together must arise from scripture itself…and it must be broad enough to allow each part to make its own distinct contribution. The theme of the kingdom of God satisfies both requirements…

[God’s kingdom can be defined as] “God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule” …[Scripture throughout presents] God longing  for human beings to enjoy an intimate relationship with him in his presence. As he is a perfect, holy God, that is possible only as we submit to his loving rule and do not sin.

What Roberts wants to communicate here is that the Old Testament may not mention the word “gospel”, but the concepts of the gospel are there. Roberts proposes that it’s easier to present “kingdom” as a unifying principle that presents the same gospel-truths, both across the Old and New Testament. I agree with him. I think that the beginning chapters of Genesis present God’s people under his rule and blessing, submitting in humility to him — they present God’s kingdom in perfect form. And Revelation 21, at the very end of the Bible, presents it that way too: God’s people under God’s rule and blessing. This is God’s goal a presented throughout the entire Bible, from beginning to end. However, we find that Adam’s sin (and ours too) corrupted and ruined this kingdom relationship. And for that, all have fallen short and deserve God’s condemnation (Rom 3:23).

God’s response, however, was not to destroy us, but to provide a means for humanity to be in blessed fellowship with him once more. Roberts says well, “[God] is certainly not defeated by the fall”; because in Genesis 3:15, we are told that God promises to restore his kingdom relationship through a Seed (a child) who would come from Eve and undue the effects of our sin, ultimately restoring creation to its original state. How will this happen? Through Jesus. This Seed is Christ, and God will use him to restore his fallen creation. Even in the first few chapters of the Bible, Jesus comes into the picture.

And this is the theme of the Old Testament, which finds fulfillment in the New: God will provide someone who will rescue humanity from their sin. The Old Testament presents God’s preparation for this great rescue.

God begins this rescue-plan by calling Abraham from his land, and giving him a promise. God promises to Abraham that through his Seed (recall Genesis 3:15?) he will bless the world. Roberts rightly says, “the covenant with Abraham is a promise of the kingdom of God…It is a promise to reverse the effects of the fall”. Paul would eventually explain that although Isaac was Abraham’s immediate “seed”, Christ is the final Seed who would bless the nations (Gal 3:16).

Then, after God established this promise, he created a nation called Israel whereby he would reveal this Seed, and set a context for redemption. Many may ask exactly why God dealt with this nation Israel before Christ’s coming? John Piper aptly answers this (source):

Israel’s history is not just about Israel. It’s about “every mouth” and “the whole world.” This was not a 2,000-year detour. God was writing a lesson book for the nations. It’s not an accident that our Bible has the Old Testament in it…Because in God’s wisdom he knew that the nations of the world would grasp the nature of Christ and his work better against the backdrop of Israel’s 2,000 year history of law and grace, faith and failure, sacrifice and atonement, wisdom and prophecy, mercy and judgment.

What Piper here is explaining is that God established Israel’s kingdom in order to teach both Israel, and the observing nations about their need for redemption. God wanted to communicate to all peoples that they could not save themselves. And God needed years of history in order to accomplish this. Paul tells us that the sacrifices, the Law, the priesthood, the temple, everything, was given in order to be a tutor to explain our state in sin, and our need forgiveness and holiness. Paul says that the Mosaic Law “was added because of transgressions…until the Seed would come to whom the promise had been made…The [Law] has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal 3:19-22). So, God used Israel and the Mosaic Law as a training station to teach the nations how one is to be saved; namely through an atoning Savior who would die for the sins of others.

In this way, the Old Testament presented the promise of a Savior, and also presented our need for him. And in the New Testament, Christ became the embodiment and fulfillment of that promised. As Paul says, the Old Testament was “a mere shadow of what was to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:17). God is a great strategist, and this is how he accomplished this great redemption.

So when we read the Old Testament, we are reading God’s promises. God is “getting ready” to present Christ. And he is doing it by revealing through Israel what he will look like, and accomplish.

In this way, the Old Testament is just as much about the gospel than the New. For this reason, we should read, treasure, enjoy, and consume God’s Word on every page.

How does the New Testament gospel “fit” with the story of the Old Testament?

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In his book, The King Jesus GospelScot McKnight says that “one reason why so many Christians today don’t know the Old Testament is because their ‘gospel’ doesn’t even need it!”.

This is, in many ways, very true. Of course on the one hand, one should be able to present the message of the gospel to an unbeliever without delving into a long study of the Old Testament scriptures; on the other hand, there should be a natural flow from the Old Testament to the New. And one thing that is wrong is when we find no natural connection between our gospel presentation to the narrative of the Old Testament.

Paul himself tells us the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures”. According to what scriptures? Well, the New Testament wasn’t completed yet, so we must assume that Christ died, was buried, and was raised according to the Old Testament scriptures! Scot McKnight says that the gospel then “is the Story of Jesus that fulfills, completes, and resolves Israel’s Story…God’s inscripturated and storied promises [found in the Old Testament] become a loud trumpet-like ‘Yes!’ in Jesus…”.

What McKnight is trying to explain is that when Jesus showed up, it was not out of the blue. He didn’t simply come out of nowhere to pay for the sins of mankind, and then fly up to heaven. Jesus came in the middle of a story that started in Genesis 3, and one that continued through Israel’s history, and climaxed in Jesus’ incarnation and crucifixion.

McKnight says that the story of Jesus, the gospel, brings the “story of Israel to its telos point, to its fulfillment, to its completion, or to its resolution”.  In fact, McKnight will go so far as to say that the gospel message itself is the resolution of the story of Israel in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (and I think it goes further; that it is the story of Adam, Israel, and indeed all of humanity resolved in Jesus) — some clarification is needed.

God’s intention in creating mankind was that they be fruitful and multiply, and be God’s ikons. We were created to reflect and glorify God (1 Cor 10:31). However, Adam and Eve chose to rebel against God, consequently falling into a miserable state of sin and death. Humanity has found itself marred from that point on, under a curse, and born under the bondage of sin (Rom 6). From this point, God chose Abraham, and consequently Israel, as a nation that would bless the nations and bring God’s reign back on this earth (Gen 12-18). However, this chosen nation, the nation that was meant to bless the Gentiles, fell as well by choosing to worship other gods.

As a result, at the end of the Old Testament, we are left with a fallen humanity, and God’s chosen nation Israel just as lost. This is the context in which Jesus comes. And Jesus came for the purpose of restoring Adam’s fallen posterity, and to restore Israel to her original mission. This is why Paul says in Romans 15:8 that Jesus “became a servant of the circumcised (Israel) on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises to the fathers, so that the Gentiles may glorify God”. He also said in Galatians 4:5 that Jesus came to redeem those “under the law (Israel), so that we (Gentiles) might receive adoption as sons”. Paul explicitly says that part of why Jesus came and died was to restore Israel from her fallen state, so that he might fulfill her purpose in blessing the Gentiles! Jesus’ mission was to fulfill Israel, and thereby bless the world! In this way, Jesus became the true Israel. Also, Paul calls Jesus the second Adam, saying that “through one man’s disobedience (Adam) the many were made sinners, so also through another man’s obedience (Christ) the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). In this way, Jesus became a new Adam, the head of a new humanity.

And so when Jesus came to the earth, we find him in the midst of a broken humanity, and a lost nation Israel. And when he died on the cross, he bore the sins of Adam’s broken and sinful humanity on his back, that all peoples might be justified and saved by faith (Rom 3-5, Heb 2); and he bore the curse of the Law that in Him there might be a new spiritual Israel composed of both Jew and Gentile (Gal 3-4). Jesus did all this to become the last Adam and the true Israel, so that “the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles by Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:14), and that he might “free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death…and make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:15, 17), and that God the Father might sum up all things in Him (Eph 1:10). God accomplishes all of his cosmic purposes through Jesus. And the Old Testament finds its fulfillment through him. It’s all about Jesus!