Summary: A sample of trinitarian controversy in church history and its application to Jehovah’s Witnesses and the book "The Shack".
I remember a less than flattering incident when I was young. My sister and I wanted to watch different programs on TV. I think she wanted to watch ‘The Patty Duke Show’ and I wanted to watch ‘Lost in Space’. This was before the days of remote controls. So we sat in front of the TV for a whole hour switching stations to-and-fro, arguing over which program to watch. It wasn’t a pretty sight!
Some fights aren’t worth having. Some fights are worth having. The aim of today is to look at two early Christian thinkers who understood God’s self-revelation and who competently defended the truth of the Trinity. And then we’ll apply their insights as we look at two examples of modern day trinitarian controversy.
First, though, we must be clear about what we are defending. For the most important truth in the universe is not a complicated truth. Paul lays out the core facts in 1 Cor 15, ‘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, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve’. The gospel is about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Everything we believe flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus. Everything we do flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus.
There are two sides, two book-ends, to this gospel. At the back-end are the activities of a triune God. The Father sends the Son who willingly dies as an atonement for sin. The Father raises the Son to head a new humanity. Then the Father and the Son send the Spirit into this world. The Spirit is the ‘Sanctifier’, the one who takes the death and resurrection of Jesus and makes this work count in our world. The engine room of the gospel is one God in three persons.
At the other end, at the front-end of the gospel, is the redemption of creation. The new heavens and the new earth. And caught up in this cosmic sweep are those who put their faith in Jesus. As Paul says in Rom 10:9, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’. Saved from what? Saved from the final destruction of this broken world. Saved from the condemnation of sin and the power of death. Saved for a new, eternal home so beautiful that its beyond description.
On that fateful day on a plain in Shinar, humanity collectively turned its back upon God. ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches for the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth’ (Gen 11:4). Not a name for God, but a name for ourselves. A world without God. Now there is conflict. Whose name will ultimately rule the world? The name of men and women? Or the name of the Lord who owns the universe and built it for his glory?
Here is the fodder for a good fight. But it’s not a fight between equals. For as Paul tells us in Colossians, the Lord Jesus has already ‘disarmed the powers and authorities, he has made a public spectacle of them, victoriously defeating them by the cross’ (Col 2:15). In this conflict the stakes are high, but the outcome is assured.
So the bell rings and its time for round one.
Irenaeus lived about 100 years after the crucifixion of Jesus (130–200 AD). He belonged to the generation after the Apostles—the age of early Christianity. Irenaeus is best known for his work ‘Against Heresies’ (180 AD). Don’t you love it? It’s catchy title and bound to win friends.
Irenaeus refers to false teachers this way:
’These men falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretence of [superior] knowledge. […] By means of specious and plausible words, they cunningly allure the simple-minded to inquire into their system; but they nevertheless clumsily destroy them’ (Adv. Haer. 1, Pref. 1).
Irenaeus is thinking particularly of Valentinus and the absurd ideas of his disciples. Valentinus taught that what is eternal, what is divine, cannot come in contact with what is material, what is earthy and solid. He taught that there is a huge gap between God and his creation. He said that the supreme being is irreversibly separated from this world.
If we following this thinking then the Lord Jesus Christ cannot be God. For how can he be when the divine and material are forever separate? Fully man but never fully God. According to Valentinus, the eternal Son wasn’t born a virgin and the divine-Christ was loosely connected to the human Jesus. The eternal Son did not suffer and die. In this form of Gnosticism, the Son is an inferior being, created by the Father and unable to reveal the truth about the Father.