3 = 1 is not bad math.
Did you know it takes the sun 230 million years to orbit the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way?1 Obviously, nobody has yet seen it happen, so we have to rely on mathematical calculations.
Interesting fact number two: scientists estimate that there are about 100 billion stars in our galaxy. 2 I always start worrying when scientists estimate things. They love to touch, test, count, measure, dissect, and document. So 100 billion is an estimate of immeasurability. It could be more; it could be less.
Allow me one more: If all the DNA in all the cells of one human being were uncoiled it would stretch 10 billion miles, roughly the distance from Earth to Pluto and back. 3 DNA carries all our genetic information, and nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA.4
By now you may begin to wonder: Why do I need to know about the time it takes our sun to orbit the center of our galaxy? I don’t get 230 million years. And what do 100 billion stars (or more!) in our galaxy mean to us when we struggle to grasp the immensity of 7.5 billion people living on our planet? We can watch the population growth on the Internet, 5 but it doesn’t become more real when we see the numbers rolling by. Except for biologists or geneticists, we may not really get the complexity of our DNA, and most of us live quite happily without really understanding these random facts that describe, in just a small way, the breadth and width of life, our galaxy, and the universe.
We can hear the Father’s love and the Son’s grace in the murmurs of the Spirit whispering to our hearts.
So what? is a valid question. So what about all those billions of years? So what about the immense distance my stretched-out DNA covers? So what about other stuff? So what about the Trinity and the personality of the Holy Spirit or the nature of Christ? How does this affect my life, my faith, my walk with Jesus?
Getting the Big Picture
We instinctively know that we cannot really comprehend God because He is beyond human imagination and explanation. Elihu, one of Job’s friends lecturing the poor man after his immense losses, exclaimed: “Behold, God isgreat, and we do not know Him; nor can the number of His years bediscovered” (Job 36:26). We realize that we cannot think God’s thoughts; that He is the wholly other. “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” writes Paul to the church in Rome. “Or who has become His counselor?” (Rom. 11:34).
Yet while we recognize that our minds are limited, God chose to reveal Himself through His Word, for He knows we yearn for answers. He knows that for hope to penetrate every fiber of our being we need to catch a glimpse of the big picture.
Why the Trinity?
I spent 15 years in the classroom training future pastors. I taught Hebrew and Aramaic; introduced my students to the Pentateuch, the historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament; dug deep into poetry and wisdom literature with them; offered them a glance of the history and culture of the world in which God chose to reveal His Word. I never taught systematic theology, but I often had to field questions about the nature of God, the Trinity, the nature of the Holy Spirit, and Christ Himself.
It’s a topic that is as relevant today as it was when Jesus taught His disciples. “Show us the Father,” pleaded Philip, one of the twelve. Jesus’ reply points us in the direction we should go when we seek to better understand the Godhead. “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works” (John 14:8-10). Pay attention, Philip; look and listen carefully. You see me, you see the Father.
So let’s think together about the So What? regarding the Trinity. 7 Let’s focus on the big picture and remember the interconnectedness of every theological concept, ultimately affecting our lives. Let’s start right at the beginning. Let’s talk about love.
A Loud Voice About God’s Love
Without love there would be no Trinity. John asserts that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and for love to be love it must be relational. I can write a sonnet about my love for my wife; I can tell her that I love her 20 times every day, but this love will become real and tangible only when I relate to her lovingly. Words are precious; deeds are powerful. As the Father, the Son, and the Spirit act and speak, whether in relating to one another in the Godhead or to us their creation, they teach us about love.
They also offer a powerful example of how we should relate to each other in the body of Christ, and how we should relate to God. Their common engagement in the plan of salvation highlights God’s commitment to save a world in rebellion. Salvation was not an afterthought. The triune God was not caught by surprise, but chose humanity—through Christ—“before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4).
A Tangible Illustration of Equality and Voluntary Submission
“In the beginning” involves all three members of the Trinity. Genesis 1:1 describes how God made the heavens and the earth. The Spirit hovered over the void and emptiness of an unformed world (Gen. 1:2); and, looking back, John 1:1-3 tells us that the living Word, Christ, was there as well. The Father, the Son, the Spirit are not just three different modes of divine expression. They play different roles in Creation and salvation; yet they are, at the same time, one (Deut. 6:4). While Jesus was hanging on the cross, the Father and the Spirit were not disconnected. Engaged and involved, like Jesus, they suffered the same earthquaking moment of separation caused by our sins.
While on earth Jesus showed us the Father, and since His ascension, the Spirit pursues those who seek salvation. Jesus did not leave His church without a Comforter and Helper (John 14:16-18). I am always amazed at the seamless work of the Godhead. The Father sends; Jesus teaches and demonstrates on the cross divine grace; the Spirit reminds us of that grace and translates it into our lives so that we may be able to understand it more clearly (John 16:7-14).
We can hear the Father’s love and the Son’s grace in the murmurs of the Spirit whispering to our hearts. What could happen in our families, our local congregations, the world church, if we could emulate—in just a tiny way—the equality and voluntary submission of the members of the Godhead? The Father, the Son, and the Spirit don’t worry about order and sequence, visibility or leadership. They submit to each other to accomplish the grand mission of saving lost people.
A Lesson on Communication and Reach
I have three daughters who are very different. They share the same last name, the same genetic pool, and most experiences growing up. Yet all three are unique individuals. My wife and I have learned how to reach them more effectively by playing on our individual strengths and abilities to connect. Scripture employs many metaphors to capture the essence of God. There are moments we relate better to the Father or the Son/Brother. Sometimes we need a Helper or Comforter. The multiplicity of the Godhead represents another attempt to reach and transform every heart.
Salvation From Ourselves
The biblical foundation for the Trinity reminds us that we desperately need grace. Only a divine Saviour can offer salvation. No angel or created being could stand in my place. As the Second Adam, Jesus demonstrated God’s love. As the eternal living Word He became my substitute. No other could do.
When we understand the personhood of the Spirit as an integral member of the Godhead, we realize that we cannot manipulate Him as a “thing” or a “force.” My car is a thing. While it has a powerful engine and an advanced transmission, I call the shots. I drive the car; I am behind the wheel.
Some Christians (Adventists included) who consider the Spirit an impersonal force love to sit in the driving seat. They pray for power; they claim miracles; they lead the way. The Trinity reminds us that we need to submit, that He is in control, and that we are part of something organic that is bigger than the sum of our individual beings. I am grateful for this object lesson.
Wrapping It Up
I love my wife. I cherish her care, commitment, creativity, and humor. I respect her mind and value her suggestions. Often, without speaking to her, I know exactly what she is thinking. (At least, I think I do!)
Our oneness, however, hasn’t reduced our individuality. We have many shared interests and enjoy doing many things together. We have invested nearly two decades of raising three daughters together. We enjoy team ministry. She loves following the British royal family, while I enjoy reading up on European soccer leagues. We are one, but also different.
Our triune God models perfectly the love relationship He envisions for His church. We submit to one another not because that’s the natural thing to do. We submit and engage with one another because that’s the divine thing to do.
In the end, our most telling answer to the Trinity So What? may well be this fact: salvation is a trinitarian program. God’s arrangement of that program for us involves clearly distinct roles for each of the Persons of the Godhead. We do ourselves no good by ignoring, confusing, or even dismissing the program’s mysterious, sophisticated, and complex character. God can work with us so much better, and accomplish so much more, when we welcome His revelation, understand His program, and cooperate with Him in all its revealed details. As we do so the perfect, glorious Father; the all-powerful, grace-giving Saviour Jesus; and the life-giving, infallibly guiding and comforting Spirit are truly free to perform Their awesome miracle in all of us.
- You can find more details here: starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/StarChild/questions/question18.html
- See www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Herschel/How_many_stars_are_there_in_the_Universe.
- Read more at ww2.kqed.org/quest/2009/02/02/a-long-and-winding-dna/.
- Connect to your DNA at ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/basics/dna
- Visit www.census.gov/popclock.
- Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- I am thankful to the following individuals who engaged with me about the So What? of the Trinity: Richard M. Davidson (Andrews University), Ricardo A. Gonzáles and Eike Müller (both Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies), Frank Hasel (Biblical Research Institute), Gerhard Pfandl (retired, Biblical Research Institute), and Peter van Bemmelen (retired, Andrews University).
Gerald A. Klingbeil, D.Litt., is an associate editor of Adventist Review who yearns to see more reflections of the community of the Trinity in the church he loves.
Knowing God, Loving God
The doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t have to be understood to be appreciated.
Do you find the concept of the Trinity hard to understand? I did. Even though I’m a third generation Adventist, born, bred, and raised in the church, I never really understood the Godhead and how God reveals Himself in the Bible. This left me open to be drawn into an anti-Trinitarian movement (often called the One True God movement) that tries to explain God in literal human terms. Those terms often make sense to human minds, but as I discovered, they’re not biblical.
A Simple Misunderstanding
After studying the matter with friends, I came to believe that there is really only one true God, the Father. Jesus Christ was God only because He was the Son of God.
In other words, at some time in eternity past, Jesus proceeded from the Father, and thus He owes His existence to the Father. He is God, I believed, because He is the same substance as the Father. I came to believe that the Holy Spirit was not a person like the Father and the Son, but was the presence and power of the Father and the Son. This belief made sense to me at first. I thought I was closer to God because the literal Father-Son relationship seemed to help me understand the sacrifice of the Father.
But it didn’t last. It took me to the fringes of Adventism and fostered a critical spirit in me. I became critical of the church and got into various conspiracy theories. I came to believe the church set up this whole thing and altered Ellen White’s writings to suit its agenda. I loved to debate this subject on Internet forums, and people often couldn’t answer my arguments.
But I couldn’t solve the nagging problems in the back of my mind. Why were there so many clear Ellen White statements that were hard to harmonize with this teaching? Didn’t she say that the Holy Spirit is a mystery, not clearly revealed? Aren’t we trying to explain this mystery? Why did it seem that so few genuine Christians believed this teaching?
But I pushed these doubts aside by comforting myself that the weight of evidence was in my favor.
Weighing the Evidence
Through a long chain of providential circumstances I left the circle of people with whom I was fellowshipping and moved from Queensland to Victoria. Here I began associating with people who were good Bible students, and also Trinitarians. They shared ideas with me that I had not seen before. They raised questions that left cracks and fissures in my foundation.
I distinctly remember talking with one of my Bible teachers regarding my belief that the Son proceeded from the Father at some point in eternity. He said, “If God has foreknowledge, that means He knew about the coming of sin before Christ came into existence. That means He brought Christ into existence to fulfill the plan of redemption. This casts aspersions on the love of God. If the plan of redemption had failed, couldn’t He have begotten another Son? The idea that God can clone Himself and make a Son destroys the whole plan of redemption!”
This and many other things rocked my world and sent me back to the drawing board to restudy my understanding of God. I threw all my preconceptions to the wind and asked God to teach me the truth. Slowly, piece by piece, the picture came together. I studied the Bible and the writings of Ellen White.
I came to understand that Christ is eternal God in every sense of the word, as is the Father. He is self-existent, with life original, unborrowed, and underived. I discovered that the Holy Spirit is an actual person with His own individuality. That His work is to represent Christ to us now that Christ is eternally bound to a human body. The Holy Spirit so perfectly represents Christ that to us His presence is the presence of Christ. This truth makes it self-evident that there are three divine persons in the Godhead. They are a heavenly trio that functions in complete unity. They are not three Gods, but like a family, they all bear the same name. That’s why we baptize in the name (singular) of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
What’s more, I came to understand the love of God on a much deeper level. I realized that God’s love does not depend on a literal Father-Son relationship as we understand it. The relationship between the Father and the Son is a relationship that has existed from all eternity. It has never been broken from eternity past. Yet They were willing to sever that relationship at Calvary for you and me. What amazing love!
Joel Ridgeway lives in Australia with his wife and three young children. His passion is sharing Jesus through a family business/ministry called Revealer Films. He tells his story in the book Understanding the Godhead: My Personal Journey (RevealerFilms.org/Godhead).
Understanding the Trinity
A doctrine I used to doubt
Twenty-two years ago I was about to leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Many of my friends had recently left the church, and their notices of resignation aided me in writing my own notice. My friends felt that we could no longer worship with those who believed in the supposedly unbiblical and pagan doctrine of the Trinity.
Surprisingly, our case was not an exception, and others have since followed the same path.
That our early Adventist pioneers generally opposed the classical doctrine of the Trinity is a well-documented fact. History shows that Adventists continued to study their Bibles, and gradually adopted a belief in the full divinity of Christ, the personality of the Holy Spirit, and the oneness of three divine Persons. By the 1940s the church had become predominantly Trinitarian.
Therefore, it is astonishing that some church members have reverted to opposing the doctrine of the Trinity in recent years. There are surely different reasons for this. Each person has a unique experience. But over the years I have nevertheless observed that the experience of my friends and me with the doctrine of the Trinity resembles the experience of others who since then have come to doubt and question the church’s stance on the Trinity.
Truth and Distrust
The decisions to reject belief in the Trinity and to leave the church do not usually come in a vacuum. There is often dissatisfaction with, and distrust of, church leaders, pastors, and trained theologians. When local or regional church leaders question foundational Adventist beliefs, or fail to exemplify a kind and loving character, their church members may find it more difficult to trust them. Deep down we all yearn for someone we can trust.
Adventists believe that “the Lord has led us.” 1 Our pioneers lent themselves as trustworthy leaders in matters of faith and practice. In theory everyone may say that our beliefs derive from the Bible. But in practice some choose the early understanding of those trusted pioneers as their final norm in matters of biblical interpretation. Thus they inadvertently choose their understanding of Adventist tradition as the lens through which they interpret the Bible. This mind-set characterizes itself as committed to “historic Adventism.”
When my friends and I learned in the mid-1990s that our Adventist pioneers generally did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, many of us began to question that doctrine. Confronted with Ellen White’s statements about the Holy Spirit “as the third person of the Godhead,” 2 or the “three living persons of the heavenly trio,”3 we either considered those and similar statements forgeries or attempted to reinterpret them to align them with our views. We wholeheartedly believed that Adventists unitedly opposed the Trinity doctrine until it was introduced into the church in the early 1930s. We reasoned that every Trinitarian statement that predated 1931 must have been a later forgery because we could not imagine that the pioneers and Ellen White had made such statements.
Our methodological doubt spared nothing, not even Scripture. Friends of mine blackened supposedly unoriginal parts in their Bible, because those verses did not fit their understanding of the doctrine of God. Thus they became immune to spiritual growth in areas that were at variance with their views. Those who concluded that Ellen White had really written her Trinitarian statements rejected her as a false prophet, and the Sabbath and sanctuary doctrines, as well as our prophetic interpretation, as all unbiblical. Most of those who left the church over this doctrine have not returned because they never questioned their critical presuppositions that leavened every other area of life.
Since the early 1990s I have observed three waves of anti-Trinitarian resurgence. Each wave was characterized by the same mind-set of methodological doubt, yet technological progress has amplified the impact of each anti-Trinitarian wave on the church. Whereas the first wave in the early and mid-1990s that affected my friends and me came primarily in the form of books and pamphlets, the second wave in the mid-2000s benefited from a wider use of the Internet. The third wave in the mid- and late 2010s experienced a global upsurge through social media.
Growth in Understanding
One may ask why I did not leave, and why I am still a member of the church. This has primarily to do with the fact that I chose slightly different methodological presuppositions.
First, like my friends, I reasoned that for God to be able to lead and use early Adventists, they must have been perfect in their beliefs and practices. Surprisingly, we did not question that assumption despite the following two realities. We believed that God was leading us too, although we knew inwardly that our character and beliefs were far from perfect. Further, we never interrelated that assumption with the fact that there was a need for Ellen White to send these early Adventists testimonies of reproof. Later I realized that God makes use of broken and imperfect people, a truth we see many times in the Bible.
Second, we thought that it was not until the 1930s that the doctrine of the Trinity found entrance into the Adventist Church. We used the statements of Adventist historians about the early Adventist opposition to the Trinity to support our position. We also joined in rejecting Ellen White’s positive remarks about the full divinity of Christ and the personality of the Holy Spirit as later forgeries.
Nevertheless, I came to realize that my friends had pulled the carpet from under their own feet: they declared statements and documents forgeries without any hard evidence of forgery. It was simply because those statements did not fit their view. I came to understand that while “God has never removed the possibility of doubt,” “our faith must rest upon evidence.” In fact, “God never asks us to believe, without giving sufficient evidence upon which to base our faith.” 4
I therefore reasoned that God would at least provide some evidence that would allow people to trace and identify such forgeries if He wanted us to recognize them as such. Otherwise there would be no checks and balances anymore. Each person could declare something as unoriginal simply because it does not conform to their present understanding of truth.
I further had the impression that true spiritual growth would be stifled if I were to limit God to only those texts that did not stand in contrast to my present beliefs. Over a period of five years I studied early Adventist materials and gradually came to realize that our narrative of early Adventist history had been selective and distorted.
Third, I had been completely unaware of the vast amount of historical material that shows how, already in the 1890s, Adventists pondered about and advocated Christ’s full divinity, the Spirit’s personality, and the harmonious relationship between three divine personalities. Adventist periodicals, books, and correspondence from different parts of the world bear witness to that growth in understanding. Ellen White’s Trinitarian remarks are largely known, but statements from other Adventist authors are not.
In October 1890 Charles Boyd wrote, for example, that the church “is working by the direct command and agency of three distinct personages in heaven for the increase of the heavenly family.” In line with Matthew 28:19, he identified these three personages as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 5 Similarly, G. C. Tenney stated 14 months later that Adventists “understand the Trinity, as applied to the Godhead, to consist of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit.”6 In 1896 he added that the Bible spoke of the Holy Spirit “as a personality” and not merely as “an emanation from the mind of God.”7
About a year after the statement that the Holy Spirit is “the third person of the Godhead” was published in Ellen White’s Special Testimonies for Ministers and Workers (1897) and three months before its reappearance in The Desire of Ages (1898), R. A. Underwood conceded, “It seems strange to me, now, that I ever believed that the Holy Spirit was only an influence.” When he discovered that the Bible refers to angels, even the fallen ones, as spirits, he concluded that he “could understand better how the Holy Spirit can be a person.”8
Many others became aware of the subject through Ellen White’s Trinitarian remarks, as is evident in numerous articles and reports that quoted her remarks in subsequent years. 9 G. B. Starr stressed, for example, that “the Holy Scriptures everywhere attribute to Him [the Spirit] all the characteristics of a person” [and] “teach that there are three persons in the Godhead.” He argued, “Jesus through the Spirit of Prophecy gives to the Holy Spirit the position of the third person of the Godhead.”10
Adventists more and more resisted the idea that there was no Trinity, while also rejecting both modalistic and tritheistic views of the Trinity. 11 In 1910 S. N. Haskell, a close friend of Ellen White’s, wrote that “the Holy Spirit has a personality, and is represented as an intelligence.” He added, “It is evident that the Holy Spirit is one of the Trinity, and fully represents God and Christ.”12
Three years later F. M. Wilcox clarified to his readers the beliefs that Adventists held in common. Wilcox would become a longtime editor of the Review and Herald andone of the five original trustees of the Ellen White Estate chosen by Ellen G. White herself. He wrote, “For the benefit of those who may desire to know more particularly the cardinal features of the faith held by this denomination, we shall state that Seventh-day Adventists believe—1. In the divine Trinity. This Trinity consists of the eternal Father . . . ; of the Lord Jesus Christ . . . ; the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead, the one regenerating agency in the work of redemption.”13
Writing from South Africa, Herbert Edmed stated in 1914, “The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the God-head. . . . We must recognize that the Holy Spirit is not merely an influence; both the Old and New Testaments refer to Him as a real personality. God wants us to see in the Holy Spirit more than a saving, friendly influence; He is our personal Friend—a personal God.” 14
At Ellen White’s funeral in July 1915, A. G. Daniells, then president of the General Conference, reminisced about her life and work. Talking about her accomplishments, Daniells stressed that her writings set forth and exalted “the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead and Christ’s representative on earth, . . . as the heavenly teacher and guide sent to this world by our Lord to make real in the hearts and lives of men all that he had made possible by His death on the cross.”15
These few examples illustrate a great quantity of materials that confirm Adventism’s increasingly favorable attitude toward the idea of the oneness of three divine persons, from the 1890s to the 1910s. The narrative that it was not until the 1930s that this idea was introduced into Adventism could no longer be upheld.
A Personal Decision
I admired early Adventists for their openness to God, their desire to grow in faith and understanding, and their search for truth. Their continued study of the Bible led them to adopt the belief in three divine Persons who are so unified in their thinking, planning, and acting that They are truly one. After five years of studying this subject in the Bible and of tracing the journey of these early Adventists, I followed their footsteps and accepted the biblical doctrine of the Trinity.
Most of my friends from then chose paths that led them away from the church, from each other, and even belief in God, because their methodological doubt and critical attitude permeated all areas of life. To be so opinionated and set in one’s ways that one becomes immune to hard evidence is a dangerous path. Adventists who focus on other Adventists in this critical way stifle their own and the church’s usefulness in proclaiming the gospel to those who yearn for it. They frustrate God’s fundamental purpose for raising up this church: to proclaim the gospel to the whole world, sharing the message of salvation with people in need of salvation.
- Ellen G. White, Life Sketches (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1915), p. 196.
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), p. 671.
- Ellen G. White, Special Testimonies, Series B, no. 7 (1905), p. 63, in Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 615.
- Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 105.
- Charles L. Boyd, in Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, Oct. 15, 1890, p. 315.
- [G. C. Tenney], in Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, Dec. 15, 1891; pp. 378, 379; cf. idem., in Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, Apr. 1, 1892, p. 112.
- G. C. Tenney, in Review and Herald, June 9, 1896, p. 362.
- R. A. Underwood, in Review and Herald, May 17, 1898, p. 310.
- See D. Kaiser, “The Reception of Ellen White’s Trinitarian Statements by Her Contemporaries (1897–1915),” Andrews University Seminary Studies 50, no. 1 (2012): 25-38.
- G. B. Starr, in Union Conference Record, Dec. 31, 1906, p. 2.
- Robert Hare, in Union Conference Record, July 19, 1909, p. 2.
- S. N. Haskell, in Bible Training School, Dec. 1, 1910, p. 13.
- [F. M. Wilcox], in Review and Herald, Oct. 9, 1913, p. 21.
- Herbert J. Edmed, in South African Missionary, May 19, 1914, p. 3.
- A. G. Daniells, in Review and Herald, Aug. 5, 1915, p. 7.
Denis Kaiser is an assistant professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
Looking At The Uncreated One
His uniqueness and mystery
How can rational creatures come to understand the nature of the Uncreated One, whose mode of existence is radically different from theirs? If we dare to say something about Him, it is only because He has previously spoken to us, unveiling dimensions of His nature and actions that assist us in grasping the wonder of His power and love. Therefore, whatever we may say concerning the Holy One, the Unique One, will be a restatement of His special revelation to us followed by our reverential silence before the Uncreated One.
His Creativity and Oneness
What we know about God has been revealed mainly through His actions that exhibit His nature and character. When we open the Scriptures, the first character we encounter is God, displaying the power of His creativity: “In the beginning God created” (Gen. 1:1). 1 Creation is the most fundamental divine activity on which the rest of His activities are dependent. There was nothing before this absolute beginning, yet He was already there; He was and is the Uncreated, and consequently absolutely different from the cosmos.
The mode of His existence finds no parallel within creation. His presence at the beginning shows that He is the Eternal One—He was before the beginning; He is self-sufficient—existing before there was anything else and being by nature the very source of His own existence; and He is all-powerful—no one assisted Him in the creation of the cosmos. He is also a loving Creator who produces what is “good” or “very good” for His creatures (verses 18, 31).
God’s creative activity leaves no room for polytheism. Before the beginning He stands alone, by Himself, to speak the cosmos into existence through His effortless Word. Since He created everything there is, He is obviously the exclusive Lord over creation; the only God in the cosmos. The rest of the Scriptures will reaffirm this fundamental theological truth about the mystery of the oneness of the Creator (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:5; Gal. 4:20; James 2:19). He is one in action, will, and nature, and there is no other God apart from Him. To the Israelites He said: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” (Deut. 6:4). His oneness is about His singularity and uniqueness with respect to creation and the worship of His creatures.
The nature and complexity of God’s oneness becomes accessible to our limited comprehension through the biblical testimony of a plurality within the very nature of the one God. The dynamism of God suggests to us that within the mystery of His divine nature there is a profound interaction of selfless love that requires differentiations within the Godhead.
Perhaps there is a hint to this mystery when the biblical text uses the plural of “God” accompanied by a verb in the singular (“God [’ elohim, “gods”] created [“He created”]”)—a plurality and yet one. More precisely to the point is Genesis 1:26: “Then God [’elohim] said [He said], ‘Let Us [plural pronoun] make [verb first person plural] man in Our [plural] image; according to Our [plural] likeness.” Here the plurality within the Godhead is emphasized, but in verse 27 we are back to the oneness of God (“God [’elohim] created [third person singular] man in His [third person singular] own image”). We have one God but within the mystery of this oneness there is a plurality. The reference to God and to the “Spirit of God” in the work of Creation points to a plurality. The New Testament will look into the activity of the Uncreated One at the beginning and will explicitly identify the creative word of God in Genesis 1 with the Son of God (John 1:1-3).
In the Old Testament God continues to reveal His oneness within a plurality 2 by speaking in binary terms. For instance, we read about God and the Angel of the Lord, contextually identified as divine (e.g., Gen. 16:7-14; Ex. 3:2-7; Judges 6:11-24), and in another case God announces the coming of the Messiah called “Mighty God” (Isa. 9:6). We also find passages in which there is a plurality of three. In some passages the Messiah, the Spirit of the Lord, and the Lord Himself are mentioned together working for the salvation of God’s people (Isa. 11:1-3; 42:1). In other cases the Lord announces that He will send the Messiah with His Spirit (Isa. 48:16).
The New Testament also testifies to the oneness of God within a plurality. In some cases we find references to God and His Son, Jesus Christ (John 1:1, 18; 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Rev. 1:1), while in others we find what is called a Trinitarian formula. These are found in apostolic greetings (1 Peter 1:20; Rev. 1:4, 5), expressions of thanksgivings (2 Thess. 2:13, 14), blessings (2 Cor. 3:13), exhortations (Rom. 15:30), instructions (Gal. 4:6), and visionary experiences (Rev. 5:6, 7). The most well known is the baptismal formula: “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
By speaking about one God in a plurality of three persons, the biblical revelation is telling us that God’s nature is infinitely more complex than anyone or anything we may call “one.” Yes, He is one, but the nature of God’s oneness is infinitely beyond that of any creature. We can only affirm the mystery of the One God in a plurality of persons.
Father and Son
The arrival of the incarnated Son of God clarified much more what the Old Testament had taught about the nature of God. New Testament writers, like us today, struggled, attempting to find the right terminology to express differentiation and equality within the members of the Godhead.
With respect to the Son of God, John tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God” (John 1:1). The text describes the relationship between God and the Word before Creation, and long before the incarnation of the Son. The passage is obviously attempting to demonstrate that there is differentiation of persons within the Godhead. The phrase “the Word was with [ pros, “in the company of”] God” means that divine revelation allows us to distinguish one from the other.
However, such differentiation does not imply independence from each other, but that it operates within a coexistence characterized by a deep and mutual communion and fellowship between the two of them. 3 John immediately adds, “And the Word was God” (verse 1). In an almost imperceptible way the apostle moves from differentiation within a circle of love to equality. The Word is fully divine. The divinity of Jesus is clearly affirmed in the context of differentiation of persons within the mystery of inter-Trinitarian relationships. The Son belongs to the mystery of the one God. This is affirmed throughout the New Testament.
John tells us that the Son is the only and unique God who was in profound fellowship with the Father and who came to reveal to us the loving character of God (John 1:18). When Thomas sees the resurrected Lord, he exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Paul and Peter, among others, testify to the fullness of the deity of Christ (e.g., Rom. 9:5; Heb. 1:8; Titus 2:13; 1 Peter 1:1). The saving power of Christ is located in the fact that He, like the Father, has life in Himself. His divinity makes efficacious His sacrificial death, and thus reveals the loving character of God to the cosmos.
Only God can fully reveal Himself to His creation (Heb. 1:1), and only such a God can save repentant sinners. In Philippians Paul narrates the experience of the Son of God who throughout eternity existed as God (Phil. 2:6), chose to become human and died on a cross (verses 7, 8); then the Father exalted Him. This cosmic experience of the Son of God will result in the final resolution of the cosmic conflict when all creatures will bow and confess “that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (verse 11).
Father, Son, and Spirit
The titles “Father” and “Son” make it easier to differentiate between members of the Godhead than the title “Holy Spirit.” The nouns used in the Hebrew ( ruakh) and Greek languages (pneuma) for “Spirit” also mean “breath, wind” and could easily give the impression that they designate impersonal objects.
In fact, “Spirit” is sometimes associated with divine power, but what is amazing is that God’s Spirit acts like a person and is clearly identified as such—He is not literal breath or wind. For instance, the Spirit experiences grief (Isa. 63:10; Eph. 4:30), makes decisions (Acts 15:28), speaks (Matt. 10:20), teaches (John 14:26), and comforts (Acts 9:31).
The Spirit of God possesses attributes that identify Him as divine. He is eternal (Heb. 9:14), omnipresent (Ps. 139:7, 12), omnipotent (Acts 1:8), omniscient (1 Cor. 2:10, 11), and is consequently identified as God (Acts 5:3, 4). By using the word “Spirit,” the work of the third member of the Godhead is illustrated by reference to the “wind,” which is actively present throughout the world, to establish that God is personally present throughout creation, sustaining and preserving it.
Since the Spirit did not become human, He remains as mysterious as the Father, making it more difficult for us to visualize Him. Here Jesus provides a useful insight. He informed the disciples that He will ask the Father to send them “another Helper,” referring to the Spirit (John 14:16). The Greek word, parakletos, also means “comforter, advocate, counselor.” Jesus refers to the Spirit as a personal being who, during our pilgrimage, stands by us to speak for us and to sustain and guide us.
Jesus also distinguishes the Spirit from the Father and Himself. In John 14:16, 17 we find the three members of the Godhead mentioned together: “I [Jesus] will ask the Father . . . another Helper . . . the Spirit of truth.” The Spirit is differentiated from Jesus in that Jesus asks the Father to send “another Helper,” indicating that He is a helper too but not the same as the Spirit. In this passage the Spirit is also different from the Father in that the Father sends Him (see also verse 26).
The Greek verb pempo, translated “to send,” designates the action of dispatching “someone, whether human or transcendent, usually for the purpose of communication.”4 This verb is used by Jesus to refer to the Father as the one who sent Him to this world (e.g., John 4:34; 5:30; 12:44, 45; cf. Gal. 4:4). Both Jesus and the Spirit, who were in eternal and mutual fellowship with the Father, were sent by the Father at the appropriate time to accomplish different aspects of the plan of salvation.
Throughout eternity God was one in the mystery of three persons existing in a most profound fellowship of love and communion. There is no hint in the Bible of an eternal hierarchical order among the three. Such a relationship would certainly take us into the realm of tritheism. This God, the Uncreated One (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), brings the cosmos into existence. In order to free creation from the invading power of sin, the Son becomes human and brings about a new creation. The Spirit, the One who was always present within creation sustaining it, now transforms sinners into saints and sustains them. In the performance of His saving work the Uncreated One displays the mystery of His nature as love.
- Scripture quotations in this article are from the NASB, the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
- For much more on this topic, see Jiří Moskala, “Toward a Trinitarian Thinking in the Old Testament,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 21 (1210):245-275.
- On the meaning of the Greek preposition pros, see, Murray J. Harris, Propositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament: An Essential Reference Resource for Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), pp. 190-192.
- Walter Bauer and Frederick W. Danker, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 794.
Angel Manuel Rodríguez, now retired, is a former director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
God’s Everlasting Gobstopper
We need a God who can’t be explained or trivialized.
Who and what is God? Religions, philosophers, scientists, writers, and romantics have all attempted to explain Him. After all the arguments and all the proofs are presented, most Bible-believing Christians would end up agreeing with two basic statements about Him: (1) God is mystery, and (2) God is love. Yet today debate springs up as Seventh-day Adventists attempt to provide more precise definitions of God.
People of the Book
Throughout its history our church has attracted scholars and academics. Biblical proof texts combined with a coherent macronarrative have marked our evangelistic efforts before there was even a church. Logic, clarity, definition, and certainty provide a siren call of control in a world of chaos. We can explain the why, where, how, and when of humanity’s existence. We understand theodicy. We have doctrines. We “have been entrusted with the very words of God” (Rom. 3:2).
Indeed, truth brightens the path of the searching soul. But trusting in mere human knowledge, limiting ourselves to rational explanations of Bible facts, threatens to overintellectualize and supplant a gospel that at its core is inseparable from faith and personal commitment. Is it possible that we sometimes exchange faith in God and His Word for a false security in some idiosyncratic understanding of cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)?
As I look back on my life, I see this tendency in myself: the tendency of trusting my mind and my ability to understand. Unfortunately, this tendency sways toward a precipice that lies close beside the narrow way: to walk by sight, not by faith. Irony stands tall for those of us who claim a belief system that rests on faith. Sadly, I, and others like me, are not the first to careen toward this precipice.
John Harvey Kellogg, mental genius, physician, inventor, innovator, author, thought leader, philanthropist, and giant of the early Seventh-day Adventist Church, fell victim to the belief that he could understand God. He dwelled on where the person of God resides. He created postulates about the Godhead, and even attempted to use examples in nature to explain God. With an awareness of his own genius compared to others, Kellogg attempted to answer the question What is God? Over time, and despite years of prayer and pleading from those closest to him, his own rationale, intellect, and pride became the governors of his life. Kellogg eventually left the church while clutching to pantheistic beliefs.
It is notable that the Bible has much to say about the essential unknowability of God. A few minutes of searching a concordance uncovers scriptures—Job 26:14; 42:1-6; Psalm 139:6, 17, 18; 145:3; 147:5; Isaiah 55:9; and Romans 11:33-36—that clearly tell us God is a mystery. He is incomprehensible to His creation.
Our Multidimensional God
To further illustrate the point, let’s take an object lesson from Edwin Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. The story is written from the point of view of a two-dimensional square who lives in a world named Flatland, in which every object is two-dimensional.
Through the course of the tale, the square encounters a sphere who comes from a three-dimensional world. The square cannot truly conceive of sphere or his world. The sphere makes many attempts to explain himself to the square, but to no avail. The sphere even attempts to reveal himself to the square by passing through his world. Yet the square cannot comprehend the sphere. True, the square sees aspects of the sphere, but despite all the sphere’s efforts, the square cannot discern or understand three-dimensional space or what it means to be a sphere.
This crude example captures the essence of our dilemma with God. As David Asscherick illustrated in a series of sermons entitled “This Is My Church?” delivered to students at Andrews University in March 2014, the very words we use to describe God—omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, omnibeneficence—are mere reminders of the fact that He is a mystery that our finite minds cannot comprehend. When deconstructed, our descriptions of Him will always fail of clarifying His nature, or genius or power or saving love.
For example, to be omnipresent is to be everywhere at once. Yet as we are trapped in space and time, we cannot imagine being in two places at the exact same time. We lack the words and experience to even begin to portray this single aspect of God accurately. In the context of our analogy, we are two-dimensional objects attempting to understand a three-dimensional world. We see slivers of truth, but completely fail to understand the subject in its totality.
Perhaps this is why Christ asked, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). Of all the things the Word could attempt, He did not attempt to explain in detail the nature of God, but to reveal His character, leaving us with the confidence of the Father’s solicitude, because “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9).. Scripture does not attempt to reduce God to the limits of our descriptions and understanding. Instead, the Bible, like nature and our personal providences, provides evidence that God is love, and for this reason, is entirely worthy of our trust.
Always the Same, Always Changing
Do you remember the “everlasting gobstopper” from the children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? It was a candy that could be enjoyed forever without ever growing smaller or disappearing. This infinite candy also regularly produced new flavors to experience.
The path of faith to which God’s elect are called is like this everlasting gobstopper. For the redeemed, His mystery is part of God’s gift to us. Referring to those who are saved, Ellen White wrote: “And the years of eternity, as they roll, will bring richer and still more glorious revelations of God and of Christ.”1
Faith is the key to the birthright that we lost in Eden. Faith unites us with angelic hosts and with other created worlds as we peer into the mystery of love. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor 2:9, KJV).
- Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 678.
Greg Milton is a director of project management for Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta, Georgia. He and his wife, Luiza, attend the Atlanta North Seventh-day Adventist Church.