This post began as a response to questions from Viola Larson about how I understand the relationships between Jesus, God, and the Trinity.  As I was writing my response, I decided to post it as a main blog entry rather than as a comment to a previous post.  So, this is not just to Viola, but to anyone who is still reading this blog.  But thank you, Viola, for your good questions that compel me to flesh out my thoughts on these issues.

Jesus is definitely part of the Trinity.  But, the paradox of the Trinity is that though the Trinity is one, each person of the Trinity has a distinctive character and relates to humanity in a different way.  If there was not some differentiation between the three persons of the Trinity, the whole concept would be meaningless.

If Jesus was simply YHWH of the Old Testament enfleshed, it would make no sense for Jesus to pray to God or talk about God the Father as a distinct reality.  God the Father and Jesus are not exactly the same thing—yet in a trinitarian sense they are both part of the Godhead.  That’s why this is truly a paradox.  What’s more, I don’t think there is an orthodox trinitarian theology that suggests that Jesus and God are the exact same thing.  Again, that would strip the concept of the Trinity of all its meaning.  (For a fascinating study that does in fact assume that Jesus is the embodiment of YHWH, with all of YHWH’s history, check out Jack Miles’ Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.)

As for the question of worship, I think the idea that the persons of the Trinity are distinct and relate to us in different ways is key.  It makes perfect sense to me, and in no way questions the divinity of Jesus, to suggest that we can (and perhaps should) relate to Jesus in a different way than we relate to God (the Father, Creator, or whatever qualifier you want to use).  In fact, it may just be that what we learn about God in the divinity of Jesus is that there is an aspect of the trinitarian Godhead that especially and profoundly abides in humility, meekness, weakness, and a complete redefinition of power.  If we supplant that with the kind of adoration, praise, and attribution of power that had previously been reserved only for YHWH, then it seems that we are ignoring an important and vital aspect of the revelation of God in Jesus.

Again, it makes perfect sense to me that we would relate (in worship or otherwise) to the three persons of the Trinity in different ways.  To this point, how many hymns or songs lavish the Holy Spirit with the kind of praise that is directed to God (or Jesus)?  There are plenty of hymns that talk about the Holy Spirit or invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit.  But I’m hard pressed to think of one that praises the Holy Spirit (other than the doxology or the Gloria Patri, which are two of our only truly trinitarian worship songs).  When was the last time you heard a praise band or traditional church choir sing praises to the Holy Spirit like we heard directed at Jesus at Triennium?

Given all of this, if I were to try to express in greater detail what feels idolatrous about worshiping Jesus in the ways I’ve identified, it is that we are taking the kind of worship once directed only to YHWH (i.e., in the book of Psalms) and focusing it on an expression of God’s self-revelation who intentionally avoided that kind of praise or exaltation.  If Jesus had wanted to make himself a walking God among humans, if Jesus had wanted to be adored and worshiped as a king or God on earth, he could have easily done that.  Instead, he took every opportunity to avoid those very things.

I realize, of course, that even some of the earliest Christians began worshiping the resurrected Jesus in this way.  But its within the realm of possibility to suggest that they got it wrong too and missed the point that Jesus was trying to make in his life and death.  It wouldn’t have been the first time that Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand what he was trying to do.

At the same time, I’m sure there were early Christians that did not worship Jesus in this way but were nonetheless faithful followers of Jesus that believed he was the Messiah.  Take Jesus’ brother James, for example.  Given what we know about James from biblical and non-biblical sources, I can’t imagine him worshiping Jesus in this way.  I suspect that he continued to worship God in the temple, while fully believing that his brother was the Messiah.  (What James thought about Jesus’ divinity is not clear to me.)

In the end, more than anything I guess I’m wanting more balance in our worship.  I’m willing to include Jesus worship as long as we are sure to include the full gospel story of Jesus and other ways of worshiping all three persons of the Trinity.  But I think I will continue to be uncomfortable worshiping Jesus in this way for the reasons I’ve been trying to articulate.  And I don’t find anything heretical about suggesting that we relate to the three persons of the Trinity in different ways.  I don’t find anything heretical about suggesting that it is more appropriate to focus on the divinity revealed in Jesus’ human humility and weakness and to relate to this aspect of divinity in a way that corresponds to such humility.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

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  1. I may post this on my blog but if I do I will send them over here:

    Thank you John,
    You have given me a good day because I can delve into my favorite subjects Christology and the Trinity. You have also raised some important points about the humility of Jesus and how that relates to the Trinity. And another subject that I have noticed turning up often in post-modern Christian conversations is about the seeming lack of attention to the Holy Spirit.
    I think that I would first start with the symbol of the Trinity that you have with your posting. In actuality the symbol contradicts your words about the Trinity and I believe that here is the beginning of misunderstanding. (And here I am writing about your thought that Jesus is ‘part’ of the Trinity.) The symbol is meant to show three things:
    1. That God is One
    2. That God is known in three distinct persons
    3. That each person is fully God

    The point here is that no person in the Trinity is a ‘part’ of the Trinity, but all are the Trinity, otherwise there are three gods. The other important point concerns your thought that each person of the Trinity relates to humanity in a different way. I believe that is turned around. Each person of the Trinity relates to each other in a different way, that is, the Father begets the Son, and the Son is begotten, while the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. (That is the great distinctiveness of the Trinity.)

    But toward humanity all, both one and three, are involved in creating; all are involved in the redemption of humanity. And all of that focus of both creation and redemption is on and through the Son. I am thinking here of Colossians 1:15-20. For instance all things hold together by the “beloved Son.” He made peace through the blood of his cross. All things are created through him and for him. Etc.

    And what of YHWH? Is YHWH not both one and three? And isn’t each person fully the one God? So didn’t YHWH take on flesh? (I know that is a mystery.) But consider, “For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in him …” (Col 1:19a) or “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained him,” (John 1:18) which reinforces “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14)

    Now about both the humility and the worship of Jesus Christ. It is certainly true that what we know of God we know through Jesus Christ. And Jesus was humble. But it is Jesus who defines that humbleness. He is the one who took the time to set little children on his lap and bless them. But he also chased the money changers out of the Temple with a whip. He called some people really bad names. And he allowed many to worship him, including Thomas and the woman who broke the jar of perfume and poured it over him. He did not discourage the children who shouted “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.”

    What he did do was turn worldly values upside down. Leaders were to be servants. Those who considered themselves sinners and turned to God were forgiven. Those who thought they were righteous because of their works were not forgiven. Little children were important. One should always take the low seat not the high and important one. Etc.

    So it is how we see Jesus in the Biblical text that shows us how we are to understand God. As Thomas Torrance writes, there is no God behind Jesus Christ. And it is in worshipping Jesus that we worship Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    The Holy Spirit is, as Dale Brunner writes, the shy member of the Trinity. He writes, referring to John 14:26; 15:26; 16:8f., 13f., “The work of the Holy Spirit is the honoring of Jesus Christ. The work of other spirits is the honoring of themselves or other realities. We are not necessarily in the presence of the Holy Spirit when we are in the presence of a great deal of talk about the Holy Spirit. But wherever a Church or a person centers thoughtfully … on honoring the person, teaching, and work of Jesus Christ, there, we may be quite sure, we are in the presence of the Holy Spirit. For the Spirit’s work is the thoughtful honoring of Christ.”

    Brunner goes on to point out that the other members of the Trinity are also shy; each one pointing to the other. But then he concludes by asking where we should focus our attention. Brunner points out that by doing a proper constant exegesis of the scripture using Jesus Christ as our focus we will always be Trinitarian.

    For instance you mention Psalms as praise to God, and this is how Bonhoeffer, who did write about the humility of God, writes about one particular psalm: “The much –disputed Psalm 45 speaks of love to the Messianic King, of his beauty, his richness, his power. Upon marriage to this King the bride is said to forget her people and her father’s house (v. 10) and to pay homage to the King. For him alone she is said to adorn herself and to be led to him with joy. That is the song and prayer of the love between Jesus, the king, and his church which belongs to him.”

    I realize I have gone on far too long. But just one more thought. Jesus is not just an expression of God’s revelation. He is God’s revelation.

  2. John

    Actually the latest Presbyterian Hymnal includes a bunch of hymns to the Holy Spirit, a lot more than previous hymnals. One is simply called “Spirit.” Of course if one hangs around with Pentecostals 0ne will hear a lot more singing to the Holy Spirit.

    As to your earlier post about Jesus and blood it seems to me that talking about Jesus and blood would be a recognition of his humanity not his divinity. Yet the early Christological controversies were about the divinity of Jesus in part because of his atoning death (can the death of one human being provide enough atonement to the whole world, etc.)

    Also I’ve always been a bit nervous about assigning particular tasks to particular persons of the Trinity. Which person is creator? The gospel of John, to say nothing of Colossians speaks of the Word or Jesus as the one through whom and for whom the Creation was made. The Holy Spirit (Gen. 1) is at the very least hovering over the waters of chaos.

    Are Jesus and the Father part of the power that gives the Church the courage to continue?

    In other words, as Viola has pointed out, Jesus is fully divine and the one true visible revelation of the Godhead. Again from Colossians and also 1 John.

    I would suggest that there is a great deal that we can learn from the early Trinitarian and Christological controversies. And as the Council of Chalcedon suggests by its negatives

    “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ . . .”

    After at least 50-75 years of arguing about what it meant to say that Jesus was fully divine and fully human it has seemed to me for a long time that the Council of Chalcedon has said, “We aren’t entirely sure how to talk about Jesus’ divinity/humanity but we are sure what it isn’t! A bit of humility on our part is needed too. Maybe the when God speaks at the end of Job we all need to take a hint and admit that there are things we know and others that it is impossible to know!

  3. My comment relates to your brief mention of James, the brother of Jesus: “What James thought about Jesus’ divinity is not clear to me.” I, too, am fascinated by the question. We know that Paul and James contended over the question of Gentiles and Torah observance, but I suspect differing christologies may also have been in play. Would James have seen the developing Pauline, high christology as a Hellenistic corruption of traditional Hebrew religion?

    Sorry for the blatant self promotion, but these themes figure prominently in my recently released work of historical fiction entitled, “A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle.” The novel has received high marks for its historicity by critical scholars, and early readers praise its readability and humanizing of familiar characters lifted from the pages of the New Testament. The novel “demythologizes the historical Paul” according to one reader, a retired pastor.

    If interested, click on my name.

  4. John, I commend you for the thoughtful responses you have put forward. But, I would suggest that most of your ideas are not that new. They are simply variants of Arianism, filtered through a 19th century scholastic lens.

    Should Jesus be worshipped like God? I think this is a good answer:

    Rev 5:11-13 “Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. {12} In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” {13} Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!””

    ‘Nuff said.

  5. John,

    The topic of the Trinity will surely be revisited in the years that come as the Church changes and adapts to its new reality. Personally I think there is much wrong with it. It either goes to far, or stops too short. Not sure which.

    Along the lines of how James saw Jesus, I would say that there is a significant clue in the early polemics in the Church. It is a fundamental article of Jewish faith to repeat the Shema (Deut 6:4) at the beginning of every prayer. It is what defines Judaism. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one,”

    Why then was the early conflict between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians about circumcision, and not about the divinity of Christ? There is no polemic recorded in Acts or the writings of Paul over the divinity of Christ.

    The answer is as simple as it is shocking. They did not yet think of Jesus as God.

    He was lots of things. He was the first born of the Resurrection. He was the second Adam. God raised him from the dead. (He did not raise himself). He was our brother. As his followers we all became sons of God through him. He was the Christos, the Anointed one. He was the Passover lamb. He was the suffering servant. He was the Son of God, the real one, not like the Roman emperors who ever since Alexander the Great also called themselves the Son of God. He was alive. He was our lord and master, but not yet God.

    I think the transformation does take place in biblical times, however. My impression is that Paul, Mark, Matthew and Luke/Acts do not make him the same as YHWH. That gets us to about 70 AD. Given where Revelation leaves off from history and becomes fanciful, I would say by about 80 AD, we see Jesus variously portrayed as the Lamb of God, and the Word of God, and the Alpha and Omega. Could still just be metaphor, but I think it’s a clear theological transition beginning to emerge. And the Gospel of John plays with “I am” too much to ignore. When is that, about 100 AD? 120 AD? Hard to tell.

    So I would say that as far as Jesus was concerned, both before and after his death and resurrection, and as far as the first generation of Christians was concerned (the first 50 years after his resurrection and through the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple), we have a very different view of the divinity of Christ than portrayed in any interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity. But as the Church continued to process the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and as the Church moved away from its Jewish roots and established itself among a largely polytheistic population, a view of Jesus and the Holy Spirit began to evolve as different manifestations of the same deity, or perhaps even as multiple deities, and only then did the necessity of a doctrine that reaffirmed the single nature of God, while not taking away the now accepted divinity of Christ, become clear.

    I think we would do much better to recognize that Jesus is alive, that we are accountable to him every hour of every day as he is our boss, that he is the perfect mediator between us and God, but that he is also more like us than like God. Only then can we dare to hope to be like him. And this is what Jesus asks us to be as his disciples and what Paul exhorts us to be as imitators of Christ.

    Maybe we should worship God, learn from the Holy Spirit, and just follow Jesus. Not too many Christians take the time to figure out what it means to follow Jesus. Certainly not in the Evangelical community. It is easier to worship than to follow.

  6. There may be another issue here that is connected to theology but not entirely theology. Part of what John has talked about was the expression of theology through emotions (particularly about the blood of Jesus) by some of the youth at the triennium.. This has been an issue among the Reformed in America (and even going back to Scotland) for a long time. If one goes back to the first great awakening in New England and the Middle colonies one of the points of contention was the expression of emotion in a wide variety of ways in reaction to being “revived.” If one looks at Pentecostals in the 20th century and compare their expressions of emotion to that of the people who were revived in the 18th and 19th centuries one would find everything from speaking in tongues to being “slain in the Spirit. back then. Oddly those being revived and Pentecostals would have felt at home with each other. Jonathan Edwards records this in one of his texts on revivals. Those who followed Edwards sometimes insisted that the road from unsaved to saved exhibited certain emotions in a particular order. Edwards rejected the order but came close to saying that the person who was beginning to show signs of being of the elect had all of those emotions from depression to elation.

    Part of the issue for the Reformed was worrying about whether one was of the elect or not. I remember reading about a woman in a congregation in New England who was depressed for years. There being no shrinks in those days various pastors visited her and tried to provide comfort. One pastor met with her, talked with her and said to her that her feelings of depression were a sign that the Holy Spirit was pressing on her heart to lead her to salvation. This meant that she was one of the elect. The woman stopped being depressed that very day!

    The same types of expression of emotion were evident in the second great awakening. And these expressions of emotions were at least in part a basis for splits in the Presbyterian Church during both awakenings. In both of the awakenings some saw these expressions of emotion to be required of for the “saved.” What John described, particularly the connection between Jesus’ death and singing was par for the course during the revivals. Just check out the hymns from those times. “There Is a Fountain Full of Blood: And “Washed in the Blood.” Emotional connection between the crucifixion and revival was expected. Others saw these as something that could not be controlled so that it could not be from God. In both awakenings those who favored the expression of emotions during the revivals looked to those who disapproved and decided that they were unconverted. Gilbert Tennant preached a sermon on “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry.” Further, (and worse from the view of the opponents of the revivals) pastors attracted people from other “parishes” by their preaching of revivals, something that just wasn’t done.

    The truly curious things that grew out of both awakenings was the connection between the expression of emotion, salvation, and social righteousness. These were not split until the last 19th century.

    I wonder if expression of emotion might not have been part of the reaction of some (bo0th for and against that expression) at the Triennium.

  7. Bob,
    You bring up some very interesting thoughts-on the blood of Christ and revivals of the past. I think it is a fascinating subject. And it touches me personally. More about that later. But I have to think of the Welsh revival. A song that grew out of that revival became the great Welsh hymn “Here is Love”:
    Here is love, vast as the ocean
    Lovingkindness as the flood
    When the Prince of Life, our Ransom
    Shed for us His precious blood
    Who His love will not remember?
    Who can cease to sing His praise?
    He can never be forgotten
    Throughout Heav’n’s eternal days

    On the mount of crucifixion
    Fountains opened deep and wide
    Through the floodgates of God’s mercy
    Flowed a vast and gracious tide
    Grace and love, like mighty rivers
    Poured incessant from above
    And Heav’n’s peace and perfect justice
    Kissed a guilty world in love
    I always think that at times like this when people seem to be particularly needy and everything is in flux that we need a revival that will send us back to the roots of our faith.
    I became a Christian trying to become a Baptist. Funny, I know. Someone had encouraged me to go to the front on an alter call to be baptized by immersion. I had been praying, as a young teen, that God would show me what he wanted me to know about the Bible, which I read all the time but didn’t understand. I thought being a Christian meant doing good works. When the preacher asked me Do you believe the blood of Christ cleanses you from all sin. A light went off in my head. My yes that night was not really to the preacher but to the Lord. I will never forget that night.

  8. John, one other comment” you said “What’s more, I don’t think there is an orthodox trinitarian theology that suggests that Jesus and God are the exact same thing.”

    If you had said that that Jesus and the Father are not the same thing I might agree with you. If Jesus is one person of the Trinity (and therefore God, as said in the Nicene Creed ) we run into the language about Jesus being God. The use of the word homousios instead of homoiousios suggest that Jesus in God, of one being with the Father. Therefore we can’t say that Jesus and God are different things. That was Arius’ belief and rejected by the Council of Nicea. We might say that Jesus is the human and visible image of God (Colossians 1) but Arius said then we also say that Jesus is created and not of one being with the Father. I agree that Jesus and the Father are not the same thing. But they are of the same being. (BTW I think part of the problem is the use of Greek philosophy specifically Platonism. Hebrew thought doesn’t follow that philosophy).

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