The Book of Genesis opens with the words: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (my trans.). Since God is eternal, what “beginning” can the text be discussing? Certainly not God’s. God is always existing, which is a concept absolutely inconceivable to us finite creatures who know only beginnings and endings, breakings down and startings up, all of which are limited by time. Obviously, then, the “beginning” Genesis describes is ours—the book commences with the creation of our world. Its opening tells us nothing about pre-creation other than to affirm the fact that God was already there. If it did tell us more, it would have begun in an entirely different way, say, “Long ago, before anything was created, the Great Triune God forever lived in perfect love, peace, and unity in an eternal day without morning or evening, constantly communicating that perfect love among the persons of the Godhead. Verily, this is what the Trinity was like before there was creation and incarnation . . .” and then a lot of details.
Jesus once commented to Nicodemus, “If I spoke to you about earthly things and you do not believe, in what way can I tell you about heavenly ones that you will believe?” (John 3:12, my trans.). John seems to adapt and echo this statement in his first letter 4:19, when he asks how someone can presume to love God, acting commensurately with the heavenly realm, when that person does not act in a holy manner within the earthly sphere. We fallen humans have not acted responsibly with the information we have about our own world and, therefore, are not made privy to much information about the heavenly world. Specifically, we are on a need-to-know basis. We need to know what saves us from eternal and temporal destruction and helps us live lives pleasing to God which are helpful, not lethal, to those who share this planet with us. As for information beyond the salvific and practical, God does not choose to tell us much about pre-creation, eternity before there was time. Our knowledge is finite. Nearly everything we know for certain is post-creational. This includes nearly all our information about Jesus. We meet the persons of the Trinity at creation and specifically learn about the One whom we call the Second Person of the Trinity in the incarnation, when God takes on human flesh and becomes God-Among-Us.
The incarnation implements the plan of the Trinity to redeem humanity from the death row of its sins. Jesus takes our place on the execution scaffold and pays our penalty. Those who lose the truth of the substitutionary atonement, as I wrote elsewhere,1 lose a central aspect of Christianity and open a door to all sorts of horrors, since, as the great Nigerian theologian Tokunboh Adeyemo explained, “There can be revelation without salvation but not salvation without revelation.”2 The sacrifice of Jesus means for us that no one needs to give sacrifice or to be sacrificed for salvation. When that fact is lost, a swarm of often lethally competing systems of religion converge on those seeking atonement. And the degree of sacrifice each system demands for that atonement appears to me to depend on how much of the Bible’s true knowledge of Christ’s sacrifice the system has adopted.3
The fact is, since the vast majority of what we know about Jesus is in the Bible,4 as well as the direct and specific revelation about God of which we can be certain (supplemented with the general revelation of nature [Rom. 1:19–20]), we must be content with what God has revealed to us, and God has limited our knowledge to our post-creational experience of God dealing with humanity.
Extrapolating information about relationships within the Trinity from the temporary subordination of God to Godself in the incarnation and casting that back into pre-time, pre-creational history is purely speculative. What we might call a neo-Platonic infection within the thought processes of some gentile theologians in the early church posited an eternal stratification within the Trinity. That is to say, the three divine faces or personalities or persons (prosōpon) were imagined to be relating in a kind of totem pole structure within the Godhead. But such a conclusion is the product of purely human reasoning and does not in any way tell us anything necessarily revelatory or reliable about the eternal nature of God. In fact, since such a structure posits an eternally superior or inferior place of each divine person, it appears, then, to describe an immutable part of each’s essence, leading some to suppose each must contain primary and secondary deity (or be primary and secondary deities). Origen fell into this error, describing Jesus Christ as “God,” but not “the God,” and therefore deserving a secondary degree of honor below that of the Father (see his Homily in Isaiah 4.1).5 One begins to lose one’s understanding of the monotheistic nature of One God with three co-substantial and co-equal personalities for a three-Gods-in-tandem triumvirate.
But, in point of fact, we know so little about God in what God has chosen to reveal to us that we do not even know God’s real name—what God calls Godself. God refuses to answer Moses’ direct question about God’s name, simply self-identifying as “I Am or Will Be Existing that I Am or Will Be Existing” (Exod. 3:14) (the form in Hebrew is the qal imperfect [sometimes called “future”], which indicates incomplete action). The theophany or angelic messenger who wrestles with Jacob at Peniel answers the human’s request for a specific name by demanding why he needs to know (Gen. 32:29). In a similar way, terms Jesus uses for himself and the One who sent him, “Father” and “Son,” are not proper names, per se, but descriptive terms. Although Jesus was naturally born, he was not the product, as are the divine children in so many pagan myths, of an anthropomorphic god copulating with a human. Instead, Mary was “taken hold of ” (epilambanō) and “overshadowed” (episkiazō) spiritually by the non-corporeal Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). God the creator is the heavenly parent of all humanity, the “father” who not only created humanity, but also through whom humans inherit God’s realm. So, Jesus, as the perfect second Adam (1 Cor. 15:45–49), comes to do what the first human did not do: obey God perfectly—and, even beyond that, to redeem humanity on the cross. So these terms, “Father” and “Son,” which we use as names, describe God’s dealing with humanity: the main truth that God wants us to know. They are a mnemonic device. What we need to know about God we learn ultimately through Jesus’ teaching and example among us: God created us; God redeems us; it is our job to thank God for that redemption and live in its new paradigm, acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. The rest is vain imaginings (in the biblical sense of unreliable and fleeting).
Can we learn anything at all about the eternal Godhead during the incarnation, the temporary subordination of the Second Person of the Trinity as Jesus Christ, the Son of God? Absolutely. Jesus reveals much about our calling to follow him, the first human heir of God’s reign, wherein we become heirs as well. We see perfect obedience displayed, perfect piety, perfect love, as the Son’s works honor the Father and the Father exalts the Son. What we know about healthy relationships comes from watching Jesus in action, studying his teaching, glimpsing the earthly display of the Trinity in mutually supportive actions.
This is the task of this issue of Priscilla Papers: to take a scholarly yet practical look at ways we can understand and apply what we understand about the Trinity to our lives together as humans who have become joint heirs with Christ.
Dr. Gary Deddo begins with an enlightening discussion on why the Triune God made us gendered beings in the first place and what we can learn about our relationship with one another from the example of the divine love in the Trinity. Pastor Patrick Franklin expands on this theme, exploring the topic of gifting in a “Trinitarian framework” as it resolves conflict between the genders, helping all Christians minister cooperatively in a reflection of the perfect cooperation in the Trinity. Then, Reveremd Pam Morrison focuses in on the Holy Spirit’s movements in history, showing how gifts of ministry have been given continually by God both to men and women. Next, Adam Omelianchuk includes us in a lively Internet debate over the nature of the Trinity and the light that sheds on the question of equality or inequality among humans. While one doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to write for Priscilla Papers, our first book reviewer, Dr. Jewel Hyun, a nuclear physicist who is now engaged full-time in ministry, examines an exciting new book: Global Voices on Biblical Equality, which explores the international impact of egalitarian theology and service. Minister Mark Mathis, a 2 008 Gordon- Conwell Theological Seminary graduate with a background in working with at-risk youth, comes next with a review of Kristina LaCelle-Peterson’s Liberating Tradition, which is also making a significant new contribution to egalitarian scholarship. Finally, Cherokee poet Teresa Two Feathers Flowers is welcomed back to our pages with her prayer for the Holy Spirit’s anointing—a prayer that resonates with all of us providentially blessed heirs of God’s reign.
P.S.—We at Priscilla Papers are extremely delighted to rejoice with our dear sister Megan Greulich, whose critical review won this year’s first place award and whose issue on domestic abuse in our outstanding e-journal E-Quality won the fourth place award from the Evangelical Press Association. We are also very grateful at Priscilla Papers to have ourselves won a first place award for Glen Scorgie’s outstanding interview with egalitarian statesperson Gilbert Bilezikian. Thank you, EPA, for your perspicacity in acknowledging our joint efforts to serve Christ’s reign by mobilizing the entire church to serve our Lord without reservation or hesitation.
- See “Christ’s Sacrifice as Apologetic: An Application of Heb 10:1–18,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 2 (June 1997): 189–97.
- Tokunboh Adeyemo, Salvation in African Tradition (Nairobi, Kenya: Evangel, 1979), 11.
- For a further exploration of competing views of Jesus in non- Christian religions, please see my article “Global Views of the Messiah,” Doon Theological Journal 3, no. 1 (January 2006): 21–41.
- For a summary of what else is available, see F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1974).
- J. N. D. Kelly contains a helpful discussion of this position in his Early Christian Doctrines, 2 nd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1960), 129–33, esp. 131–32.