Have you ever had a conversation with someone who claims to be a Christian and then you come to find out in the midst of conversation that they have a little different view of the nature of God.
For example, when a Jehovah’s Witness (JW) claims that Jehovah is God and Jesus is something in-between God and man. Or when a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormonism) claims that God the Father and Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith and revealed God’s true nature, which is different from the Bible or any Orthodox understanding of the Trinity (Orthodoxy is doctrine based on the Bible that Christians from different backgrounds have agreed upon for 2000 years).
I have had dozens of conversations with people who are unorthodox in their understanding of God and I have discovered a common thread in their line of thinking. They pretty much divide into two camps: (1) those that do not give primal authority to the Old and New Testaments in their development of their doctrinal views; and/or (2) those that claim their version of Scripture is correct and other versions are insufficient.
What I am about to write is deep but necessary for Christians to know so that we do not look foolish when we interact with people who hold unorthodox perspectives. What I have found is that Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are trained well in their belief systems and in how to respond to specific issues, which Orthodox believers in Christ might point out as theological distinctions that divide. The result is that sometimes Mormon or JW missionaries or common folk from these two religions can run circles around Christians because we do not have sufficient training in Theology, Apologetics, and Orthodoxy.
My friends, the answer “You’re wrong” without being able to show a person from Scripture how their beliefs are unorthodox will not do. Likewise, the answer “I don’t know” without an attempt to research this information on your own will also not do. My friends, we need to know this information for our own edification and so that we can witness to people with confidence that our beliefs line up with the Orthodox Christian beliefs based on Scripture that have been held since the time of the Apostles.
What I am about to write might seem basic to some, but it is of paramount importance concerning our faith and is worth dividing over (i.e., this is why we should not worship in a Mormon Church or go to a Jehovah’s Witness service or a Unitarian / Universalist Church or align ourselves with any religious group that does not have an Orthodox understanding of the nature of God). We can and should befriend these people, witness to these people, love these people, and develop a good reputation with these people, but we need to make sure we do not compromise Orthodoxy for the sake of these relationships.
The first issue people tend to attack concerning the Trinity is the issue of God the Father and Jesus having the same essence. In short: (1) JWs believe Jesus is a watered down version of God. He is not the God but a god; (2) Mormons believe God the Father has a physical body but that his nature / essence is different from that of God the Son and God the Spirit; (3) Universalists, etc. basically believe God is Spirit and that everything is God.
So what is the Orthodox perspective on the Trinity and the Nature of God?
The earliest Christians devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). Apostolic Authority was necessary for a New Testament writing to be considered Scripture. In other words, an Apostle of Jesus or an Apostle’s secretary had to have written down the New Testament book for it to be considered “Authoritative” and inspired by God. The different Christian Creeds written throughout history were not Scripture, but they were based on Scripture so that Christians could point to one, short document that encapsulated the Orthodox Christian beliefs that the majority of Christians believe based on Scripture.
For the sake of space, in short, each of these Creeds has some type of statement related to the nature of God. Now those statements were based on the following Scriptures. While the following Scriptures do not use the word “Trinity”, they do speak of God’s nature in different members of the Trinity.
Philippians 2:5-11 says about the nature of Jesus – 5 “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
– Key word – “He [Jesus] existed in the form of God” – “form” in Greek is “morphe” = “The outward display of the inner reality or substance. Here it refers to the outward display of the divinity of the preexistent Christ, in the display of His glory as the image of the Father.” (Cleon Rogers. The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament. P. 451).
In Classical Greek the word “morphe” = “essence” or “essential character” or “the essential make up of a thing / person.” “The outward appearance cannot be detached from the essence of the thing. The essence of the thing is indicated by its outward form.” (Colin Brown. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 1. P. 705.)
In Koine Greek (New Testament Greek) the word “morphe” = “the essential nature of a thing” or “being” or “essence” or “…the essential nature of Christ is defined as divine in nature…existing ‘in’ divine substance and power…surrounded by divine glory and to have had the same form as God… It is said of this divine mode of existence that Christ existed in it in the past…his pre-existence prior to the incarnation… Christ’s mode of being was essentially changed… Christ’s mode of existence in his earthly life is described as that of a servant” (Colin Brown, p. 706). In short, Jesus was in the divine form, and then added human flesh thus taking on another form, and as the rest of Philippians 2:5-11 states, Jesus was raised from the dead by God the Father to the glory of God the Father thus displaying the glory He had prior to adding human flesh (see also John 17).
In summary, Jesus has had the same “essence” as God the Father from eternity past.
– Theological Implications – the reason the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, the Athanasian Creed, etc. all the way down to Grace Church’s doctrinal statement speaks of Jesus and God the Father having the same nature comes from Philippians 2:6, John 1:1-18, and Hebrews 1:3.
Remember, the authors of the creeds were basing their beliefs on the authority of the New Testament written in Koine Greek. They would have taken Greek terms and translated the ideas of the New Testament into Latin as they wrote the Creeds. For example:
– Nicene Creed – 325 AD (revised at Constantinople in 381 AD) states about the nature of Jesus – “And [we believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made…”
Substance = “homoousios” in Latin, which means “of the same substance as the Father” and which is translated the idea that Jesus had the same “morphe” or “nature” or “essence” as God the Father from eternity past (Wayne Grudem, “Systematic Theology” p. 244.)
– The Chalcedonian Creed – 451 AD, states about the nature of Jesus – “…our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead…truly God…consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead… begotten before all ages of the Father…God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ…”
Consubstantial = “consubstantialis” in Latin, which means having the same nature / essence / substance or “morphe” as God the Father (see Philippians 2:6 – also, see Wayne Grudem, “Systematic Theology” p. 557).
– The purpose: of each of the creeds was to more accurately define Doctrine based on Scripture (i.e., to establish Orthodoxy) so that the Church was united concerning the correct interpretation of Scripture. This was done because many were coming up with unorthodox views that were not based in Scripture but based in philosophy or theology. The refinement was necessary to be united about what the Scriptures teach.
Hebrews 1:3 says about the nature of Jesus – 3 “And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,”
– Key Words – “He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature…”
(1) Radiance of His glory = the word “radiance” is “apaugasma” = the reflection of Yahweh’s Shekinah glory. Like the rays that reflect the brightness of the sun (Cleon Rogers, p. 516).
(2) Exact representation = one word in Greek, “karakter” = an impression from a stamp, like on a coin. The idea is to have the exact reflection or character of that which a thing represents (Cleon Rogers, p. 516).
(3) Of His nature = “hupostasis” in Greek = “essence” or “substance” or “nature” or “reality” (Cleon Rogers, p. 516).
– Theological Statement – the author of Hebrews is explicitly stating that Jesus has the same essence and nature as that of God the Father.
John 1:1-3, 14, 18 says about the nature of Jesus – 1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being… 14 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.”
– Key word – “the Word was God” – “Word” in Greek is “logos” = “…the presence and action of God (Yahweh) breaking into human history with power and authority.” (Mark Driscoll & Dr. Gerry Breshears. “Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe.” Pp. 210-211). This is what God did in Jesus (see John 1:14).
In Classical Greek “Logos” = “…the intelligent force behind all we see. The Greeks believed all things were interrelated by the Logos, which brought harmony to life & death, good & evil, light & darkness. Therefore the Greek Philosophers believed the goal of human history was to pursue the study of wisdom & knowledge to understand the Logos…” (Driscoll & Breshears, p. 211).
The Greek philosophers had an incomplete understanding of the Logos and therefore some concluded the “Logos” was an intermediary between God and man (Phlio, Jewish Historian – see Driscoll & Breshears, pp. 211-212).
In the Greek Translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint or LXX) the “Logos of God” was a description given to Yahweh. It was a way for Jewish people to avoid taking the LORD’s name in vein (i.e., instead of saying “Yahweh” the Jews would say, “The Word of God” – see Mark Driscoll & Dr. Gerry Breshears, p. 210-211).
– Theological Statement – John is explicitly stating that Jesus is God, always was God, was involved in creation, and existed in the beginning with God (John 1:1-3). John is also saying that the pre-incarnate “Logos” took on human flesh in the person of Jesus (John 1:14). And finally, that the “Word” / “Logos” is the only begotten of God (John 1:14 & 18) and the explanation of God to humanity (John 1:18).
John 1:14 & 18 says Jesus has – 14 “…glory as of the only begotten from the Father… 18 No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”
– Key Word – “only begotten from the Father” – “only begotten” is “monogenous” in Greek, which means “only” or “unique”. “The word emphasizes the unique relationship that the Father has to the Son.” (Cleon Rogers, p. 177).
– Theological implication – no other being, angel or human, has the same relationship to God the Father as does God the Son. In other words, Jesus is “consubstantial” with the Father (see the Chalcedonian Creed above).
– Key Words – in verse 18 it says Jesus is “…in the bosom of the Father…” – “bosom” is a Hebrew idiom “expressing an intimate relationship between a parent and child” or “intimate fellowship” or is an expression of a “position of honor” bestowed upon Jesus by God the Father (Cleon Rogers, p. 178). For example, Jesus is described as being “at the right hand of God.” This does not mean God has a literal right hand, which is what Mormons believe this verse teaches. Rather, “at the right hand” is also a Hebrew idiom expressing a position of honor.
– Key Word – “He [Jesus] has explained Him [God the Father].” The word “explained” is “exegesato” in Greek = “to explain” or “to rehearse facts” or “to explain divine secrets.” “Only the Son, who has the very nature of God, is able to give an authentic exposition of God to man.” (Cleon Rogers, p. 178).
– Theological Implications – Jesus is explicitly described by John as very God in nature, with a unique relationship to God the Father in position and essence that no other being has ever had, and therefore when the “Logos” took on flesh He did it with a purpose, to explain the secrets of God to humanity.
Again, I write this blog post so that you can scratch the surface of the depth of theology concerning the Nature of God in the person of Jesus. There is much more I could write, but that would be called a book. So for now: (1) teach yourself these doctrines by reading Scripture and good books; (2) teach your children and grandchildren these concepts, but simplify them when they are young so that they don’t think God and theology is boring; (3) use these concepts in conversation with people concerning the nature of God and Jesus Christ so that truth can be known; and (4) if someone asks you a question that you do not know the answer to, just say, “I don’t know, but I will find out.”