Thursday, October 20, 2005

Is "God" in the Old Testament the Father or the Trinity?

If the purpose of theology is to make us better readers of Scripture (which I believe), then this is one area where the opposite seems to be the case. The interface between the Trinity and the Old Testament wreaks havoc on the intelligibility of both. The doctrine itself is entirely absent (I'm not one of those who would attempt to "prove" the Trinity from the OT, let alone the New) and hence an imposition on the text. But the OT too loses intelligibility, at least if one is trying to read it in Christian terms (which is not necessarily the only way to read the OT, but must be at least a way).

The nub of the problem is this question: Is "God" in the OT the Father or the whole Trinity?

Option #1: God is the Father

The advantage to this formulation is that it quickly solves the problem by relegating all trinitarian interpretation to the NT. The God of the OT, the one who brought Israel out of Egypt, is the Father of Jesus Christ. The intelligibility of the text is protected against the imposition of later doctrinal developments.

The disadvantage to this formulation is that the doctrine of the Trinity is rendered unintelligible. The whole purpose of the doctrine of the Trinity is to ensure the divinity of the Son and the Spirit, who must be divine in order to bring us salvation and revelation. If the Son is not “there” in the OT, then he is not really “there” in the eternal triune God. Jesus ends up being one historical manifestation of one God, not the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity.

Option #2: God is the Trinity

The advantage to this formulation is that a robust doctrine of the Trinity is maintained. God in the OT is the eternal triune God acting in time with his people Israel. The fatherhood of God is not just a metaphor for the being of God, but is linked to his eternal fathering of the son. The incarnation is not some questionable add-on, but the fulfillment of his eternal design.

The disadvantage to this formulation is obvious: the triune God is nowhere to be found on the pages of the OT text. Only forced exegesis finds the Trinity in the OT. So those who hold this position are cornered into talking about the Trinity being “hidden” during this time. Theological problems abound as well, for the Son becomes detached from his historical incarnation and thus his human particularity can be questioned.

What do you think?

Which one is better?
Which one is worse?
Is there a way to hold on to both?
Is there a third option?

5 comments:

Brian Cooper said...

Hey John! I ran across your blogsite recently and have enjoyed chewing on the hearty morsels of meat that you've tossed us. On that note... I enjoyed your article today. My response would be that it can be both. If we believe that scripture is a revelation of God interpreted by humans, then we also have to understand that the revelation was interpreted through the human author's historical context, culture, and presuppositions of who God was. You can imagine in the beginning years if God told them that He was the ONLY God and oh wait... He was actually three persons as well. It's one thing to hear it, and another to experience it. The disciples in the NT experienced all 3 persons of the triune.

Now, if scripture was a revelation of God "written" by God, then I think we would have some serious theologicial issues. So, perhaps this becomes more of an issue of a persons view of scripture: is it an issue infaliability or innerancy? As someone who believes in the infaliability of scripture, I don't have a problem with the OT authors having a limited understanding of God and recording their understanding of who HWHY was. One thing I do hold to is that God is immutable. Therefore I agree that God didn't suddenly explode into 3 persons at the birth of Christ.

So, in conclusion I believe that due to the immutability of God, the trinity has always existed as 3 persons in one and the limited knowledge of the triune is the cause of a limited understanding of the trinity. How would the knowledge of the Son and the Spirit benefit them if it was not yet time for them to manifest? It probably would have confused things all the more. Again, someone that believes in an inspired and inerrant view of scripture might disagree with me, but they may have a harder time trying to explain how the trinity is seen in the OT.

Ken Schenck said...

Would you resist playing the question out through my categories? Original meaning, God is an "underdeveloped" concept that is neither the Father nor the Trinity. He is mostly the King of the gods who apportioned Israel as His particular inheritance (Deut. 32), only perhaps truly monotheistic in 2 Isaiah. Christian meaning, we might find various instances amenable to one or another of the persons or the whole. It's the church's choice and it matters not what the original meaning was when we are reading it through these glasses.

How would this response violate or not violate the rules of the question?

Keith.Drury said...

You never cease to amaze me by how you ask pertinent questions from street-level that send one skurring to theology to answer...

glenn said...

Interesting.

At first I would say that the doctrine of the Trinity in the OT is not necessarily an "imposition" as it is a "deduction" from the corpus of Scripture.

Of course, to the mind of the typical monotheistic Jew in that time, any notion of a plurality (whether in being, nature, person, or essence) of God would be unacceptable.

There is indication, however, that some under OT revelation understood a greater theology than others: I would have to include the Psalmist (Psalm 110) and Isaiah in this number.

To them (and others) was a revelation of a being who was co-equal to God. From the perspective of NT revelation, we can, from their statements, at least see references to the Trinity in the OT.

I would suggest that God in the OT was the Father. We should generally concede that Jesus' referral to the God in OT workings and Scripture was to the Father. This does not go to say that neither the Son nor the Spirit existed in the OT, but that the primary revelation of God in the OT was as the Father.

As for Ken's comment, I guess I can appreciate his attempt to escape the proposed dichotomy . . . but theologically I wouldn't even go there.

Anonymous said...

John 8:54 is pretty decisive isn't it...?

My Father, whom you claim as your God. In other words the First person of the Trinity is the one Jews call "God".

But the same question applies to the New Testament. Can you name one place in the NT where "God" means The Trinity? No, it either means the Father or (rarely) Jesus.

The whole idea of "God" being a triune *Person* is rank Western trinitarianism slouching toward moadalism.