Theology Simplified

The Doctrine of the Trinity

The term “trinity” doesn’t appear in Scripture—many theological terms don’t—but what is meant by such is often translated as “Godhead.” The word translated as “Godhead” appears in Acts 17:29; Romans 1:20 and Colossians 2:9. Some translations give us “divine nature” or “deity” in the place of “Godhead.” Nevertheless, it speaks to the nature of God. When we think about God, our minds usually think immediately of the Father, sometimes relegating the Son and Spirit to lesser forms of God. Scripture is clear that God is one in various passages (e.g., Exod. 20:2–3; Deut. 6:4; Gal. 3:20; James 2:19). Even Christ rebuked Satan and said that God alone was to be served (Matt. 4:10). Thomas referred to Jesus as his Lord and God (John 20:28). Stephen prayed to Christ (Acts 7:59), as did Paul (1 Cor. 16:22). Did these worship or serve another god? Not at all.

Jesus is depicted as a deity, God Himself (Phil. 2:5–11; Heb. 1). What’s fascinating is the language of Hebrews 1: Christ is the exact imprint of God (1:3). When you look upon Jesus, you’re looking at God. In Hebrews 1:8, God is quoted from Psalm 45:6, and there He addressed Jesus as “God” and in verse ten—a quotation from Psalm 102:25—as “Lord.” God the Father addresses even the Son as God and Lord. Jesus’ preaching similarly garnered Him charges of blasphemy for this very reason (John 8:53–59). The Pharisees and other religious leaders didn’t understand that Jesus God was before them, nor could they conceive of it. We barely understand it ourselves because it’s one of those profound mysteries. The Holy Spirit is also addressed as “God.” When Ananias lied about the proceeds of sold land, Peter told him that by lying to the Holy Spirit he had lied to God (Acts 5:3–4). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Lord (Acts 5:9) and God (1 Thess. 4:8). Often do we read about the work of the Holy Spirit included in praises to God (Acts 4:24–25; 2 Cor. 13:14; Heb. 3:7–11).

Fascinating to add to this is the fact that the Great Commission commands that disciples be baptized into the name (singular) of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. How interesting it is that three names are listed when Christ commands a single invocation. All three are present at Christ’s baptism (Matt. 3:16–17), and they are mentioned in a few verses in the New Testament (e.g., Gal. 4:6). Deity is worthy of worship (Ps. 18:3), and Jesus even taught that the Son should be honored as the Father (John 5:23).  While more questions may arise than can be answered, this is one of the most profound doctrines of Christianity.

The Doctrine of the Incarnation

Since God created humanity in his image (Gen. 1:26–27) and since Christ took on the flesh in which the image of God resided (Phil. 2:5–8), the model was manifested as God initially intended for mortal man through Christ’s incarnation—His taking on flesh. Furthermore, because of Christ, humanity can once again return to commune with God through Him and live the truly human (Christian) life. Paul wrote that Christ was made to know sin so that in him Christians might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). Though Christ was rich, he became poor for humanity’s sake so that through his poverty Christians might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus validated humanity by taking on flesh and being made lower than the angels.

A few centuries after Christ, a skeptic of Christianity rebutted the very doctrine of the Incarnation: Celsus believed that the incarnation implied a change in the deity, and he used a quote from Plato when Plato had said that it was hard to find out the maker and father of the universe. Origen, one of the earliest Christian theologians was explaining that if God wanted to be known, he would make himself known. The incarnation, to Origen, was how God made himself known to the world, and Origen argued that Plato would have rejected all gods to worship the true God had he lived to see him. For humanity to know God, humanity could not rely solely on nature, as many philosophers had done in antiquity. The divine revelation gave what was lacking, and for humanity to understand God fully, humanity must have needed to encounter God in a way that he could comprehend the Divine. The incarnation, in addition to nature and scripture, was a source of knowledge used to explain God. Since understanding God is no easy task, God made the job easier by appearing in the flesh like Christ. 

Years after Origen, theologian John Chrysostom contended that for God to associate with people meant that God did not diminish his honor but raised people from their disgrace to glory. Christ’s incarnation gave humanity the opportunity to rise above the reality of the carnal nature saturated with the shame of sin. John the Apostle wrote, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor the will of the flesh nor the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13). When man’s knowledge of God grew to such a degree, he could receive God incarnate and thus become born of God and be worthy of being called God’s child through faith.     

The Doctrine of Atonement

“Atonement” is a word that means “reconciliation.” From the time of humanity’s fall, measures were enacted to reconcile humanity to God. For Adam and Eve, they constructed leaves to cover themselves, but this was inadequate. God would provide them with garments of skin, requiring the first ever sacrifice in the Bible (Gen. 3:21). We see two important truths in this: 1) humanity can never adequately cover the shame of their sins, and 2) God requires blood sacrifice in order to accomplish our atonement. Thereafter, sacrifices became a part of Israel’s history after the Exodus. Each of the sacrifices would eventually lead to the offering of Jesus on the cross. His blood has atoned for our sins and when we clothe ourselves with Him (Gal. 3:27), we are then reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. Just as Adam and Even needed to be clothed to cover their sins, so we too need the same, and God provides the garment (metaphorically speaking) in Jesus (cf. Isaiah 61:10).

The means of accomplishing our atonement have often been debated, but one thing Scripture is clear about is that legal terms surround the doctrine. “Transgression” is one way to refer to our sinning before God, and it had to do with crossing over a legal border. Judgment is what all will face in the end, which gives us the visual of a courtroom. Jesus Himself is our advocate (1 John 2:1), pleading our case. I’m always hesitant to say that Jesus died to satisfy the wrath of God, because that makes God sound like one of the Greek gods who must be appeased. However, God’s system of justice is perfect, so sin demands a penalty to be paid.

I much prefer to look at atonement through the incarnation, something we discussed in last week’s article. When we look at the incarnation, we conclude that God took on flesh in the form of His beloved Son. God then took upon Himself the crucifixion and all it entailed for our salvation. Rather than seeing it as a Son having to suffer to appease His angry Father, we can view atonement as God becoming something He’s not to suffer for us so that we wouldn’t have to suffer. He quite literally took our place to satisfy the holiness and justice of God.

The Doctrine of the Resurrection

In churches of Christ, we typically hear end-times sermons through the guise of judgment, so that verses such as Hebrews 9:27 are the subject of preaching, and the order of death and judgment are paramount. However, there’s much more to the story of what God has in store for humanity than just death and judgment—thought those are rather prominent. Before a judgment occurs, there is the resurrection.

Tucked in an elongated passage in 1 Corinthians 15:35–55 is a robust theology of resurrection. Corroborating passages detail that all the dead will be raised (Dan. 12:2; Acts 24:15), but those who’ve done well to life and those who’ve done evil to condemnation (John 5:28–29). We also read about the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:23; Phil. 3:20–21).  What we know about these is not only what Paul wrote, but by looking at Christ’s resurrection, we have a few clues about our bodies. In Matthew, Jesus is recognized and touched (Matt. 28:9–10, 17); in Mark, Christ appears in another form (Mark 16:12); in Luke Jesus is unrecognizable (Luke 24:15–16), but then recognized and vanishes (Luke 24:30–31). He is also mistaken as a spirit (Luke 24:37) but eats in front of His disciples (Luke 24:43). In John, He is recognized and touched (John 20:15–17, 27) but at another point is unrecognizable (John 21:4).

Paul, however, presents a picture of contrasts between what we are now and what we shall be at the resurrection: corruption versus incorruption (1 Cor. 15:42), dishonor versus glory (v. 43), weakness versus power (v. 43), and natural versus spiritual (v. 44). There’s also living versus life-giving (v. 45), earthly versus heavenly (vv. 47–48), and mortal versus immortal (v. 54). On the whole, our future existence in our resurrected bodies is far higher than how we now exist.

In the order of the end things, our resurrection would come before judgment, but for those who’ve already died, they somewhat have a clue as to what their judgment will be (cf. Luke 16:19–31). Paul goes so far as to say that we seek a resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:2). If we are so clothed with it we aren’t naked (1 Cor. 15:3). We do not want to be unclothed (disembodied) but covered with the heavenly bodies God has for us. If, when we die, we go to Paradise, Abraham’s Bosom, Heaven, why isn’t that good enough? Why the resurrection body? There appears to be some difference that they understood between being a spirit without a body and having the heavenly body. The key may be that being a disembodied spirit still is death, but the resurrection body is actual life (v. 4b). Paul doesn’t speak of the bliss of the soul without a body, but of the union of the soul with the glorified body.

The Doctrine of Scripture

At the base of Mt. Sinai, Moses spoke all the words of the law to Israel after which he wrote the words of the LORD, offered sacrifices, and read, once more, the book of the covenant in the hearing of all the people (Exod. 24:4–8). This inaugurated the first covenant God had made with Israel, so from the beginning, Scripture has played a central role in the life of God’s people. We could expect no less as God’s people of the new covenant. So vital was Scripture to God’s people that Moses invoked a seven-year cycle at the end of which the law was to have been read before all the people (Deut. 31:10–13).

The seven-year reading would not only serve as a covenant renewal for God’s people, but it also was to remind them of their duty to God and His to them. When Ai fell during the conquest, Joshua renewed the covenant by having the law read (Josh. 8:34–35). Archaeologists and scholars date the conquest to around 1400 BC, and the Bible next records a public reading of the law in the reign of King Josiah which was in the second half of the seventh century (640–608 BC). For nearly eight hundred years, the seven-year reading appears to have been neglected. This is an argument from silence, so one could easily rebut this premise, but when we observe the generation after Joshua’s (cf. Judg. 2:10) until Josiah’s, there’s more unfaithfulness to God than there is faithfulness thus demonstrating the importance of Scripture in the life of God’s people. The neglect of the Scriptures resulted in practices that parted from God’s covenant and resulted in expulsion from the promised land, sadly.

After God’s people returned to the promised land to rebuild, we observe a reading of Scripture to Israel in Nehemiah 8. From then until the time of Jesus there was more fidelity than not and that sets the stage for the importance of Scripture in the life of the church. The New Testament reveals that as new writings surfaced by the hand of the apostles, they attained a status of Scripture (cf. 2 Thess. 2:15; 2 Peter 3:15–16). One can only presume that since the first covenant entailed Scripture that the second would too. These letters were circulated among the churches of Christ thus giving them a universal acceptance as Scripture (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Peter 3:15–16; Rev. 1:4).

What makes Scripture holy and not just a writing? It’s that the Holy Spirit so moved the authors to records the words contained therein (2 Peter 1:20–21). This makes them, therefore, divine writings rather than human inventions, because Scripture is literally “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). We who are Christians accept this by faith and look to the Scriptures alone as our only rule of faith and practice, just as the earliest Christians did.

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