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The Struggle of Scholars to Find the Triune God

Anthony Buzzard

“The phrase Son of God indicates Jesus’ importance but by picturing him as a truly obedient Israelite, not as the second Person of the Trinity.”[1]

“A complex structure has been erected upon the systematic misunderstanding of biblical language of sonship…Indeed, to be a ‘Son of God’ one has to be a being who is not God!”[2]

“After the third century anyone who at that time still kept to the original sense of [‘only-begotten Son’] and refused to acknowledge the new interpretation was branded a heretic.”[3]

Theological literature and particularly evangelical apologetic writing in support of the Trinity attempts to make its case against an increasing volume of opposition from solid exegetical and lexical fact and the historical examination of the Bible. The best that such apologetics can do is assemble a few isolated verses, mostly from John’s gospel and a handful from Paul. It can find no text in Scripture with the word “God” meaning a triune God. And little attention is paid to the plain unitarian statements of Jesus recorded by John. Paul’s constant affirmation of the God of his Israelite heritage does not deter the determined Trinitarian. The obviously unitarian concept of God presented by the Old Testament is bypassed. Some employ fanciful methods, including the redefinition of simple words, in an attempt to make the Hebrew Bible a Trinitarian book. Language is thus insulted and those who support the Jewish custodians of Old Testament Scripture and the Jewish monotheistic heritage are appalled and rightly offended.[4]

The overwhelming mass of unitary monotheistic statements about God as the Father of Jesus are given scant attention, while a few ambiguous texts are advanced in favor of Jesus being “God.” Their weight, however, is slight compared with the obvious description of God across the range of Scripture as a single divine Person. A very occasional use of the word “God” for Jesus is parallel to the occasional use of “God” for important human agents such as Moses. Altering the unitary monotheistic creed of the Hebrew Bible on the basis of two (for certain) references to Jesus as “God” involves an unfair treatment of the biblical data.

If the Church is serious about being rooted in Jesus, it would be wise for believers to return to the creed of Jesus and the theology of Jesus. A failure to attach ourselves to Jesus by believing him and his teaching would seem to open the doors to widespread deception. Perhaps this is why Jesus warned that the majority of “Christians” would one day be disappointed to find out that they were sailing under false colors (Matt. 7:22-23).

A clear picture of the real Jesus as a devoted worshiper of the One God of Israel is now coming to the public’s attention from various quarters. Karl-Heinz Ohlig, a distinguished German Roman Catholic systematic theologian supports our thesis:

There is no indication that Jesus would have understood the “Father”…differently than the monotheistic God of Judaism…Jesus himself stood in the tradition of Jewish monotheism…His thinking and acting were geared towards this One God by whom he felt himself to have been sent and to whom he felt close, so that — again following early Jewish practice — he called him Father…If it is certain — and there seems to be no getting around this assumption — that Jesus himself knew only of the God of Israel, whom he called Father…by what right can a doctrine of the Trinity then be normative?[5]

This question could not be more pointed. Professor Ohlig’s candor is refreshing. As a historian he knows that the Trinity did not “fall from heaven” in New Testament times. It was a painful and lengthy development, and it left the Church with a legacy which separated it from its Jewish founder. Ohlig concludes his masterly account of the problems the Church faces promoting a view of God and the Son which has no roots in the New Testament:

The doctrine of the Trinity thus appears to be an attempt to combine monotheism, monism and polytheism, hence all of the important world-religious and advanced cultural conceptions of God…Perhaps the fascination of the doctrine of the Trinity can be explained by the fact that it seeks to combine the merits — in a suspenseful way — of all of the conceptions of God which have been mentioned: the warmth and the potential for hope that the monotheism awakens; the rational plausibility of a final immanent principle as well as the communicative and social liveliness of polytheism…“the middle between the two opinions” [Gregory of Nyssa], between polytheism and Jewish monotheism[6]…What the religious scholar is able simply to state, however, signifies at the same time a question for theology about the legitimacy of such a construct. If it is certain — and there seems to be no getting around this assumption — that Jesus himself knew only of the God of Israel, whom he called Father, and not of his own later “deification,” by what right can a doctrine of the Trinity then be normative?…How…can one legitimize doctrinal development that actually first began in the second century?…No matter how one interprets the individual steps, it is certain that the doctrine of the Trinity, as it in the end became “dogma” both in the East and — even more so — in the West, possesses no Biblical foundation whatsoever and also has no “continuous succession.”[7]

Ohlig was preceded by other historians of dogma who call our attention to the very great difficulty in justifying the rather obvious pagan tendencies of the Church since the second century. Paul Schrodt writes:

The world of the second century was marked in its philosophy and religion by a strong syncretism [mixing of alien systems of thought]. The highest expression of this tendency was, of course, Gnosticism. Within its dualism between spirit and matter, cosmological speculations and progressive emanations (Aions) from the highest God linking via these aions to matter, there was found also a place for a revised Gospel of salvation through Christ… With the Church this hellenization has remained and is to be found first amongst the apologists of the second century…The Church’s monotheism always retained a certain heathen, philosophical pluralistic coloring. This strange coloring of the doctrine of God began with the taking over of the heathen-philosophical notion of Logos, which in the heathen background had a different meaning. In John’s gospel the Logos is tied to the notion of “teacher” and “teaching.” In the philosophy of that time it was, on the contrary, only one Aion of the Most High God. It was in this last meaning that the apologists [Justin Martyr and others] read Philo’s doctrine of the Logos into Scripture.[8]

But Jesus was far removed from those later developments and compromises with paganism. William Barclay, known for his sober scholarship and painstaking analysis of the biblical texts, comments on Jesus’ exchange with the Jewish scribe in Mark 12:28-34:

This scribe came to Jesus with a question which was often a matter of debate in the rabbinic schools. In Judaism there was a kind of double tendency. There was the tendency to expand the law limitlessly into hundreds and thousands of rules and regulations. But there was also the tendency to try to gather up the law into one sentence, one general statement which would be a compendium of its whole message.[9] Hillel was once asked by a proselyte to instruct him in the whole law while he stood on one leg. Hillel’s answer was, “What thou hatest for thyself, do not to thy neighbour. This is the whole law, the rest is commentary. Go and learn.”… For answer Jesus took two great commandments and put them together. (i) “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.” That single sentence is the real creed of Judaism…It was the sentence with which the service of the synagogue always began and still begins…(ii) “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”…The new thing that Jesus did was to put these two commandments together.[10]

Barclay reminds us that the Shema “is the declaration that God is the only God, the foundation of Jewish monotheism.” He then notes that “When Jesus quoted this sentence as the first commandment, every devout Jew would agree with him.”[11]

What has happened, then, is that the Church’s affirmation of God as three in one is an obstacle and offense to every devout Jew. Jesus’ description of God has been discarded and replaced with an “improved” creed which rightly offends Jews and ought to alarm Christians who claim devotion to Christ.

The startling fact emerges from this evidence that Jesus’ creed did not and, since he remains the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8), does not match the Trinitarian creed so beloved by his modern disciples. This would seem to call for a deliberate inquiry by churches of all denominations. Something could be systematically wrong with the traditional Christian doctrine of God as Trinity.

Buzzard, Anthony (2007). The Titanic Struggle of Scholars to Find the Triune God in the Bible. In, Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian (pp. 93-97). Restoration Fellowship.


[1] E.P. Sanders and Margaret Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels, SCM Press, 1991, 272.

[2] Colin Brown, “Trinity and Incarnation,” Ex Auditu 7, 1991, 92, 88.

[3] Adolf von Harnack, cited in Karl-Josef Kuschel, Born Before All Time? The Dispute over Christ’s Origin, Crossroad, 1992, 49.

[4] The plural ending on Elohim provides no support of any sort for the idea that God is more than one. The Messiah is not plural, but he is called Elohim. Moses was Elohim to Pharaoh (Exod. 4:16; 7:1) but Moses was not plural. Four “us” texts, which say nothing about a triune Godhead, are advanced against the evidence of 20,000 singular verbs and singular personal pronouns designating the One God as not triune, but a single Person. No verse hints at God being “one Thing” or “one What.”

[5] Karl-Heinz Ohlig, One or Three? From the Father of Jesus to the Trinity, Peter Lang, 2003, 31, 121, 129, emphasis his.

[6] So also Harnack observes that the Christian conception of God as developed by church fathers was “the midway point between the polytheism of the heathen and the monotheism of the Jews” (Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1983, 1:702). But was this the monotheism of Jesus, or a rather obvious compromise with paganism?

[7] Ohlig, One or Three? 129-130, emphasis his.

[8] Paul Schrodt, The Problem of the Beginning of Dogma in Recent Theology, 64. Schrodt is discussing the views of Friedrich Loofs.

[9] Cf. Mark 1:14, 15 as a compendium of the whole point of the Christian faith: Repentance with a view to belief in God’s Gospel about the coming Kingdom of God (see also Luke 4:43).

[10] The Gospel of Mark, Westminster John Knox, 1975, 293-295.

[11] Ibid., 295.

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