Having a specific plan is always a huge benefit when you’re forced to navigate troubled waters. Indeed, it’s hard to even get launched if you don’t know which direction it’s best to go when a gale starts blowing.
It’s one of the reasons so many Christians have difficulty engaging the world Jesus has sent them into as ambassadors. The cultural waters they find themselves in are stormier by the day, and many believers—battered by the squall—stay tied to their mooring for fear of being swamped by the tempest just beyond their anchorage.
Weathering the Storm
There is a way out, though, a fairly simple approach to get you through the breakers and out into open water—a navigational game plan that is extremely safe, surprisingly straightforward, and amazingly effective.
Simply put, the key to navigating effectively with others in choppy spiritual waters is to use questions. Carefully placed queries are the foundation of a tactical game plan that will keep you from getting capsized.
The basic plan is simplicity itself. [i]
Step one has a single purpose: Gather information. What precisely is the complaint, the objection, or the challenge your friend is offering? Step two: Find out the specific reasons—if he has any, and if he can articulate them—for holding the contrary view he’s advancing.
These two steps provide you with a kind of map you can use to navigate dangerous waters. The moves are gentle and non-confrontational, compelled by a genuine curiosity and a desire to understand. Step three is more advanced: Make a point—but always try to use questions when you do.
This last phase of the plan is where verbal sparring is more likely to begin since you’re taking the initiative—though in a careful, shrewd way—to offer a contrary opinion or to point out a weakness or a flaw in the other’s view.
This is the point where Street Tactics—a refinement of the final phase of that basic plan—enter in. For most of this year, I’ve been giving you a primer on this approach in STR’s bi-monthly issues of Solid Ground.[ii]
Street Tactics involve having a specific set of questions at the ready to keep you in the driver’s seat of a conversation when you’re engaged with a critic of Christianity on a particular topic. Though encounters like these are somewhat “head-to-head” affairs, our tactical maneuvers are meant to provide safety for you in the conversation while encouraging the objector to think more carefully about his complaints or consider problems he may not have been aware of.
My pattern in this tutorial series has been to provide insight on the weaknesses of a challenge then offer a specific line of questions in the form of mini-dialogues that you can use to get started addressing that weakness in an amicable, yet incisive, way.
In this Solid Ground, I’d like to answer some confusions about a theological matter you may have struggled to deal with in the past, then provide sample, question-guided mini-dialogues to help you navigate that issue when it comes up in conversations with others.
Our focus will be on a somewhat technical (though vital) point of theology—the Trinity. It’s a huge speed bump for many, especially atheists, Muslims, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. These all reject the Trinity, but they object to it on different grounds.
The Trinity: Two Too Many
Atheists and skeptics think the Trinity is absurd. Muslims protest, pointing out that Jesus never said, “I am God. Worship me.” Jehovah’s Witnesses are strict unitarians on biblical grounds, and Mormons, though they affirm Scripture, are polytheists, regarding the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as distinct gods.
Since the charge of contradiction is so common, I’ll tackle that first. Here’s how one objector put it:
According to the celestial multiplication table, once one is three, and three times one is one, and according to heavenly subtraction if we take two from three, three are left. The addition is equally peculiar, if we add two to one we have but one. Each one is equal to himself and the other two. Nothing ever was, nothing ever can be more perfectly idiotic and absurd than the dogma of the Trinity.[iii]
We might sympathize with this agnostic’s concern (the Trinity is a bit weird, after all), but the inaccuracies and distortions in this statement are legion—none of the declarations reflects a correct understanding of the doctrine. It’s a “straw man,” an easy-to-defeat distortion of the authentic view.
A basic definition might clear things up. A contradiction is a structurally simple thing, in logical terms: A = non-A. When we affirm one thing and simultaneously affirm its negation, we have contradicted ourselves.
If, for example, I said there is only one God but then claimed there were three separate, distinct, and individual gods, that would be a contradiction. This is not the Christian position, though. The first half is classical Christian theology, but the second half is the Mormon view.
If I said God subsists in three distinct persons but then claimed God is a perfect unity—one nature and only one person, that would be a contradiction. This is not the Christian position, though. The first half is the Christian view, but the second half is the Muslim view.
However, if I said there is only one who is God by nature, and the one God subsists in three distinct persons who equally share the divine nature—one individual divine being with three distinct centers of consciousness—that would not be a contradiction. That would be strange, but it would not be contradictory.
Do not miss a critical element in resolving difficulties like these: Precision matters. Getting basic concepts correct is vital. What specifically do critics mean by “contradiction”? What precisely do Christians mean by “Trinity”? Clearing up this confusion is crucial. It’s the goal of our first tactical question—some form of the query “What do you mean by that?”
Properly understood, the Christian view simply is not contradictory. Period. This doesn’t make it true, of course (that must be established on separate grounds), but clearly it doesn’t fail because of incoherence, and that’s the issue here.
The stumbling block for many is the three-in-one notion. It seems problematic on its face. However, not all three-in-ones are contradictions. A single triangle has three angles (a “tri-angle”). It also has three sides, so it’s three in one twice. No one balks at this concept, though. One family can have three members: Dad, Mom, and little Johnny. No problem there, either.
These are not illustrations of the Trinity, mind you. It’s just a way of parrying this objection by giving examples of three-in-ones that are not contradictions. As long as the first claim is not negated by the second claim—that is, as long as the precise way that a thing is three is different from the way it is one—there is no conflict, no inconsistency, and no incongruity.
Here is how I would manage the discussion.
“The Trinity doesn’t make sense.”
“Really? Why not?”
“It’s an absurd contradiction.”
“Oh? What exactly is the contradiction?” [Note my initial requests for clarification.]
“Because you can’t have three in one. It’s a contradiction. You have three gods and one God at the same time. That’s nonsense.”
“You’re right. That would be nonsense if it were what we believed.[iv] I think I see the confusion. Let me ask you a question. How many people in your family?”
“Four. My wife, and me, and our two kids. Why?”
“So you have four people in your family? You have four in one? Impossible. That’s a contradiction. If you can’t have three in one, how can you have four in one?”
“Because a family is one thing and the people who make up that family are another thing. They’re not the same, so there’s no contradiction.”
“Exactly. That’s my point. As long as the one (one family) is different from the four (four people), you’re in the clear. Right?”
“The same with the Trinity. When Christians talk about the Trinity, they mean one thing (one God) is different from the three things (three persons). Do you see how that’s not a contradiction?”
“Well, you’ve got a point, but that doesn’t make it true.”
“You’re right. It doesn’t. But it does show it’s not contradictory, right?”
“I am God. Worship Me.”
As for Jesus never uttering the precise words “I am God. Worship me,” there is a point here. As far as the record reveals, he never uttered those exact words—or anything that, to our ears, is equivalent. But why is that significant?
If I said, “Here are my daughters, Annabeth and Eva,” but never said the exact words “I am a parent,” would it make sense to charge I never claimed to be a dad? Hardly. I can affirm I’m a parent in a host of unmistakable ways.
The fact is, there are multiple ways to make an assertion. In Jesus’ case, he said plenty of things that made his divine claim clear. Remember, Jesus wasn’t speaking to “our ears.” He was speaking to first-century Jews. His claims, in Jewish parlance, were unmistakable.
By calling God his Father and saying he was the Son of God, Jesus was asserting equality with God, a clear claim to deity. The Jews, to their ears, understood it perfectly: “You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God” (Jn. 10:33).[v]
That kind of claim was blasphemy, a capital crime[vi] (the same as it would be in Islam, by the way), which is why the Jews sought to kill Jesus a number of times, yet he eluded them. They eventually succeeded, though, and blasphemy was the precise reason the Jewish court had him executed:
“Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” And Jesus said, “I Am….” Tearing his clothes, the high priest said, “What further need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy….” And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death. (Mk. 14:61–65)
Note, he was not condemned for claiming to be Messiah. The Jews expected a deliverer, so it could hardly be a crime to claim to be the Promised One. Jesus’ blasphemy was saying he was the son of the blessed one—God, himself.
Again, this doesn’t prove Jesus was God, but it’s clear he made the claim—in multiple ways, on multiple occasions. To unpack that point, here’s how a conversation might look.
“Where did Jesus ever say, ‘I am God. Worship me’? He never did.”
“Well, I think you’re right about Jesus not using those exact words. But let me ask you a question. Is that the only way someone could claim to be God? Could Jesus claim to be God using other words?”
“How could he do that?”
“As a Muslim, what other words would indicate to you that someone was claiming divinity? What if someone used the sacred Jewish name for the eternal God and applied it to himself?”
“Did Jesus do that?”
“Yes. He said, ‘Before Abraham was born, I am.’[vii] That’s God’s name for himself right out of the burning bush in Exodus 3:14. What if one of his closest followers claimed he created everything that was ever created?”
“Where is that?”
“That’s in John 1:3. What if Jesus never said, ‘Worship me,’ but he readily received worship from others?”
“That would be pretty bad.”
“Well, you can find that in Matthew 14:33. Jesus walked on water then calmed the storm, and the disciples in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘You are certainly God’s Son!’ There are half a dozen verses like this in the New Testament.[viii] One last thing.”
“Do you know why Jesus was executed?”
“Well, he made the Jews mad.”
“He sure did. You can read in the historical account of his trial about why they were angry. Jesus was sentenced to death for blasphemy, for claiming to be the Son of God—which the Jews clearly understood as a claim to deity.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“So, one, being identified as the omnipotent creator of everything that ever was created, two, applying to himself the unique, holy name for God (a name the Jews wouldn’t even pronounce, it was so sacred), three, receiving worship from men, and four, being executed for blasphemy for claiming to be the Son of God—is it fair to say that’s pretty close to saying, ‘I am God’?”
A Solution, Not a Problem
Answering the complaints about the Trinity for Bible believers like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons is a little more complex, but not much. The basics aren’t really difficult.
This is not the place for a full biblical defense of the Trinity,[ix] but in a certain sense the solution is remarkably simple. First, have a clear understanding of what Christians mean by the Trinity—what the basic elements are—and, second, take an honest, straightforward, unbiased look at Scripture.
On the biblical side, I have always maintained that the Trinity is a solution, not a problem. Here’s why. The doctrine of the Trinity is the only way of understanding what the Word says about God that doesn’t reduce Scripture’s statements about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to a mass of contradictions.
First, a definition. James White offers a concise characterization: “Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three coequal and coeternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”[x] Put most simply, there is one “what” and three “whos.”
Notice three critical pieces of the definition. First, there is only one who is God by nature. Two, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are personally distinct from each other. Three, each of them is fully God. To prove that the Trinity is biblical, then, we simply show that each of these elements is taught in the text.
In actual practice, the process occurred in reverse. Early Christians noticed the basic elements in the writings then formulated the Trinity as an explanation that harmonized the texts, providing a solution to the apparent problem.
Here’s how those details play out.
Early Christians were monotheists because Judaism was monotheistic. The doctrine, foundational to Hebrew theology, is found famously in Deut. 6:4, the great Sh’ma Yisrael: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” That’s the first piece. [xi]
The idea that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons is so obvious in the text, it’s one of the chief reasons people reject the Trinity. The three are present in distinct forms at Jesus’ baptism, for example (Lk. 3:21–22). Also, in the upper room, Jesus says that when he goes away, he will send the Spirit—who is from the Father—and the Spirit will testify about him (Jn. 15:26). That’s the second piece.
Finally, each of the three persons of the Trinity is either called God, has characteristics unique to God, or exercises divine prerogatives. For example, God is Creator, yet the Word (who became Jesus) created all things ever created (Jn. 1:3, 14). Jesus forgives sins that only God can forgive (Mk. 2:5–12). The Spirit is omnipresent (Ps. 139:7–9) and is eternal (Heb. 9:14)—both characteristics unique to God. Peter said that lying to the Spirit is lying to God (Acts 5:3–4). And on and on. Passages like these are legion. That’s the third piece.
These are the three pieces we draw on in conversation to help a critic see that the Trinity is a solution, not a problem. Here’s a dialogue focusing on a unitarian[xii] (such as a Jehovah’s Witness).
“I know you object to the Trinity because it’s not scriptural, but could you please tell me exactly why?”
“Because the Bible teaches there’s only one God.”
“No you don’t. You’re Trinitarian.”
“Right. But believing in one God is part of the definition of the Trinity. No problem for me. Why is that a problem with you?”
“But you think the Father, Son, and Spirit are all God. That’s three gods, not one.”
“Hmm…. So what, precisely, is your understanding of the definition of the Trinity?”
“That the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all God. That’s three gods.”
“Actually, our view is a little different from that. Our view is that the one God has three separate centers of consciousness, but each equally shares the divine nature, so each is equally God—one ‘what’ and three ‘whos,’ so to speak.”
“But that doesn’t make sense. Who did Jesus pray to if he’s God? Nobody prays to himself.”
“You’re right. Jesus didn’t pray to himself. He prayed to the Father.”
“So you admit that Jesus is different from the Father.”
“Of course I do. That’s part of the definition of the Trinity.”
“Don’t you see how confused that is?”
“Confused? Didn’t you just tell me you agreed with me so far?”
“Well, you said you believe the Bible teaches there is only one God, right?”
“So do I. You also agree that Jesus is so different from the Father that they can both talk with each other, right?”
“Then, so far we are in complete agreement on what the Bible teaches. Are you with me?”[xiii]
“Sure. But you also believe Jesus is God.”
“Right, but what if I could show you this is also something the Bible teaches?”
“But it doesn’t.”
“Can I give you one example? Who is the creator of everything that’s ever been created?”
“Jehovah. Isaiah 44:24: ‘I, the Lord, am the maker of all things, stretching out the heavens by Myself and spreading out the earth all alone.’”
“Right. I agree. Good verse: ‘I, the Lord…by myself…all alone.’ By the way, when John talks about the Word in the beginning of John 1, who is he talking about?”
“He means the one who was born as Jesus: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,’ John 1:14.”
“Exactly. But John also says in that same passage that the Word created all things that were ever created: ‘All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being’—John 1:3. Have you read that before?”
“So if the Bible teaches that Jehovah is the creator, and it also teaches that a different person, the Word, is Creator, then you have a contradiction. So how do you solve that problem?”
“I’m not sure.”
“This is why the early church used the word ‘Trinity’: three distinct persons all sharing the same single divine nature. It’s a solution, not a problem.”
This same basic tactical pattern of questions can be used to draw attention to many of the other ways the Bible reveals Jesus’ divinity—he is called God, he receives worship, he is the only savior, he is consistently referred to as the Lord, etc., etc.—and also for the divinity of the Holy Spirit.
Remember your basic strategy for addressing the challenge of the Trinity: The Trinity is a solution, not a problem. It’s not a contradiction, but rather an elegant explanation to resolve what otherwise would be an intractable biblical difficulty.
[i] I provide a more comprehensive treatment of the tactical approach in Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, 10th Anniversary Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).
[iii] Robert Ingersol, “The Foundations of Faith,” The Works of Ingersoll, Vol. 4, 1895, 266.
[iv] Notice, I go out of my way to affirm anything I can agree with. It’s tactically sound, and it’s also good manners.
[v] See also John 5:18, John 19:7, Mark 2:5–7, and John 8:56–59.
[vi] Leviticus 24:16.
[vii] John 8:58.
[x] James White, The Forgotten Trinity (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1998), 26.
[xi] See also Isaiah 43:10, 44:6, 45:5, and 45:21b, 22.
[xii] A unitarian holds there is one God and he is a unity, that is, is only one person.
[xiii] I call this little review “narrating the debate.” Find more details on this technique in Tactics, 10th Anniversary Ed., 93.