Response to Acts17Apologetics: The Trinity in Red Letters (A Reply to Yusha Evans)


This is an intriguing video because it is a Trinitarian Christian responding to a Muslim cleric who suggested that Muslims are in serious trouble if it can be shown from Jesus' words (the “red letters”, as they are often colored to set them apart) that he taught the Trinity to his disciples. I am unfamiliar with Yusha Evans, and only know a little about Anthony Rogers from Acts17Apologetics. I take issue with many things taught in Islam, including aspects of their Christology, but I also disagree with the doctrine of the Trinity. As I have no dog in this fight, it will be interesting to see whose beliefs align closer with Scripture.

Yusha: Read the Red Letter edition of the Bible, read only the red, leave everything out; if you can find Trinity in that, then we have a serious problem.

I agree, Yusha. If God the Son did not find it important to teach his disciples about his own Triune nature, then at the very least, there is no excuse for Christians to use the doctrine of the Trinity as a litmus test for orthodoxy. I wonder what Anthony thinks about that.

Anthony: A serious problem indeed. To spell it out, if Jesus taught that God is Triune, then it would mean Mohammad was a brazen huckster, the Qur'an is a piece of pagan propaganda, and Allah is a false deity on the level of Ba'al and Zeus. In short, it would mean that Islam is a pernicious lie.

Before really getting into it, what if it can be proved that Jesus did not teach the Trinity? Is the antecedent true? Would the lack of a clearly-defined doctrine of the Trinity from the Second Person of the Trinity prove that Muhammad was actually a prophet, the Qur'an is the word of God, and Allah is the God of Abraham? I won't personally be getting into that here. I am not a Muslim, and I do not accept Muhammad as a prophet. Nor do I believe Allah is the God of Abraham. However, Anthony has painted himself into a precarious position with his statement. If he cannot prove that Jesus taught the doctrine of the Trinity to his disciples, then according to his own words, Islam must be true.

Anthony: When it comes to discerning the teaching of Jesus on the Trinity, there are at least three problems that need to be noted on Yusha's methodology—a methodology, by the way, that he naively picked up from other Muslim apologists like Ahmed Deedat and Zakir Naik, two of the most unqualified individuals ever to try their hand at interpreting the Bible.

Brother Anthony, you're off to a horrible start. Before even getting into the errors in the methodology of Yusha's argument, you open with an argumentum ad hominem. You don't even attack Yusha, but rather two other Muslims who aren't even part of this discussion. Their qualifications as theologians have zero bearing on Yusha's challenge or the argumentation behind it. Is the Bible the domain of trained theologians alone? Ought not laity and even unbelievers study the text for themselves? And what qualifications are necessary to study the Bible? The only thing that comes to mind is having a grade school reading comprehension level in whatever language of the Bible you own, and a dictionary to help with all the words you don't know.

Anthony: Well in the course of exposing these problems, two things will come to light: First, it will show why Muslims are so anxious to adopt such an obviously flawed methodology, and second, it will show that Jesus did, in fact, teach the doctrine of the Trinity. The first problem, which should be obvious, is if you can't trust the black letters, then you can't trust the red letters either. If you can't trust what the apostles said—the so-called “black letters”—then you can't trust what Jesus said—the so-called “red letters”. After all, the ones who gave us the black letters are the same ones who gave us the red letters.

Let me stop you again, Anthony. This is your second logical fallacy in the span of less than a minute. This time, we're dealing with a strawman argument. Yusha never said we can't trust the red letters. His premise (at least as far as this video goes) is that we CAN trust the red letters AND the black letters, but since Trinitarians claim Jesus is God the Son, then his words ought to carry more weight than the words of anyone else in the Bible. If Jesus taught the doctrine of the Trinity, then it is undeniably true. If he did not, then we must ask ourselves why the God-man never thought it necessary to explain to his disciples that he is, in fact, the God-man. (Had Jesus been more clear about his identity, Peter never would have made such heretical statements as he did in Acts 2:22-36.)

Anthony: Second, the red letters tell us to believe the black ones; that is, Jesus, in the Gospels, tells us to listen to the apostles—the men who walked with him, witnessed his words and deeds, and on whom he poured out his spirit to lead them into all truth and empower them to preach and record his words for all ages. So when Muslims say to believe the red letters but not the black letters, even though the red letters tell us to believe the black letters, they're basically giving with one hand what they're taking away with the other. They're pretending to believe the words of Jesus, but only when Jesus' words agree with what they already believe want to believe, which isn't the black letters.

While you are correct that Jesus authorized his disciples to teach on his behalf, and even appointed some to be his apostles (that is, his ambassadors or emissaries), you are again misrepresenting Yusha's challenge. He did not say we should only believe the red letters and ignore the black. He said if Jesus taught the doctrine of the Trinity, Muslims are theologically in error. He is not “pretending” to believe the words of Jesus. His premise is that Jesus' words are true and accurately recorded, so if he believed in and taught the Trinity, then we should be able to find it in what he said.

Anthony: Third, without the black letters, the red letters often the context necessary to understand the red letters. When a Muslim says he only believes the red letters and tells you to ignore the black letters, what he's asking you to do is to ignore the fundamental consideration that distinguishes sound interpretation from illegitimate interpretation—that is, context.

Once again, you're the only one talking about ignoring the black letters. Yusha didn't say we should ignore the black letters. He only said we should be able to find the Trinity within Jesus' words themselves if it were true. If Jesus were God the Son, then we should expect him to say so—and explain what that means to a strictly monotheistic Jewish audience. To suddenly go from believing in one God who is unipersonal to suddenly believing in a tri-personal God requires some rigorous theological reconstructive surgery. Since the Trinity cannot be derived from the Tanakh, it subsists on wholly novel revelation in the apostolic Scriptures. Yusha's entire argument is that Jesus should be the one to explain this first, since he himself is supposedly one of these persons who was, up to this point, veiled under the absence of divine revelation.

Anthony: Following this methodology, if we take a passage like John 2, and we look only at the red letters, this is what we end up with: “Take these things away; stop making my Father's house a place of business. … Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” As you can see, without the black letters, we don't know what's going on in this account. We don't know what “these things” are that are to be taken away, or why they're to be taken away. We don't know what house is being referred to, who the Father his house is, or even who's speaking about these things, his father's house, or the temple that he says will be raised up.

Strawman again. I can't tell if you just misunderstood Yusha's statement, or if you're intentionally trying to obfuscate it, but either way, I'm quite sure Mr Evans is not saying we should ignore the context of what's going on surrounding Jesus' words. That would be foolish, since then we'd only ever get one side of the story. No, when Yusha talks about the black words, he's referring to the apostolic writings.

And even then, I doubt he'd deny it if Paul or Peter, or John or James clearly taught the Trinity. He might, I presume, say those texts were tampered with, but I don't think he'd deny the fact that it is taught in the Christian Scriptures. His point, as I've said, is that God the Son himself should be the primary source of revelation on this doctrine if it is true, and we should be able to find it clearly delineated in his words.

Anthony: However, when the black letters are restored, not only does the story make sense, but it becomes painfully obvious why Muslims want to do away with the context. Because the context shows that Jesus taught some of the necessary building blocks for the doctrine of the Trinity.

Will you provide us with any examples now? It is still hard to think that God the Son wouldn't take advantage of his three-and-a-half-year1 spotlight moment to explain to his closest followers who he is. These were his best friends, whom he even called “brothers” (can we say that God has brothers??). They were the first to believe his message and teach it to others. So why would God the Son merely teach us “building blocks” for a doctrine that is so vital to salvation (cf. John 8:24)?

There is no point for me to type out everything Anthony says as he reads out the black letters from John 2. This whole thing is just one long strawman argument. We are five minutes into this video, and thus far Anthony has failed to provide an example of Jesus teaching the Trinity, or even giving us a single “building block” of the doctrine.

Anthony: In context, it's clear that “my Father's house” is a reference to the temple in Jerusalem, the place where God dwelt in a special manner in the midst of his covenant people.

Was the God who dwelt in the temple in the Tanakh only God the Father, or was it the entire Trinity? Or were only God the Father and God the Holy Spirit in the Temple? I ask, because Jesus calls the temple “my Father's house”, which implies (though not emphatically demands) that it was not his house. If Jesus was also present in Solomon's temple, then why wouldn't he simply say, “Do not make my house a house of trade?” Anthony may have a perfectly logical answer to that, and I'm not even saying there isn't one. But this is the kind of question you need to ask when you try to read the Trinity into the Tanakh.

Consider the astronomically monstrous implications. If God the Father was the only member of the Godhead to inhabit Solomon's temple, then nearly every instance of God speaking in the Tanakh would only be the Father, since so much of God's words were in the context of the temple. Let's take that even further back. Why would God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have been in the tabernacle but not the temple? If the temple was only the house of God the Father, then the same should be said of the tabernacle. Going back even further, there's no reason to think that the Son or the Holy Spirit were speaking to Moses at all, since the same God who gave Israel the Torah also took up residence in the tabernacle.

Do you see how ridiculous this is, Anthony? If the temple was only the house of Jesus' Father, then that's a massive blow to the Trinity doctrine.

Anthony: Moreover, since fatherhood and sonship are correlative concepts, you can't have one without the other, in calling God his own Father, Jesus was identifying himself as the son of God.

I have no problem with this statement. I don't know how Mr Evans feels about it, but there is nothing biblically wrong with saying Jesus is the son of God. The angel Gabriel told Mary that Jesus would be called the son of God because of his conception by God's spirit (Luke 1:35). It says nothing about his ontology, but only on his genesis.

Anthony: And the sonship that he lays claim to here must be understood in the highest sense. That is, he isn't simply claiming to be God's son by grace or adoption, but by nature.

Really, Anthony? How do you know that? Besides Luke 1:35 explicitly stating Jesus is the son of God because he was conceived (created as a baby) by God's spirit, we also have Luke 3:38, which calls Adam the son of God. Was Adam ontologically equal with God? Could we refer to Adam as God the Son as well?

Anthony: In other words, he's claiming to be the divine son of God or second person of the Trinity.

That is an astounding leap of logic you did there. Are you trying out for the debate team at the Olympics? This is 100% pure eisegesis. How does “son of God” equate with “second person of the Trinity”? You haven't explained that yet.

Anthony: This is evident, not only from the fact that he refers to the temple as “my Father's house” in a way that assumes he has special authority over the affairs of the temple, but because he goes on to refer to his own body as a temple, and so of himself as incarnate deity, the reality or embodiment of what the temple stood for and pointed to, and goes on to say that if his body is destroyed, he will, by his own power and authority, raise it up again in three days.

I don't necessarily dispute that Jesus had a measure of authority over the temple, but he was not a priest of the earthly temple (Hebrews 8:4). That was and still is the domain of the sons of Aaron (Ezekiel 44:15). Just because the Sadducees (Hebrew: Zadokim) of Jesus' time were corrupt doesn't mean he had the authority to remove them from service. Any Jew who was filled with zeal for the temple could have done what he did. That fact that none did is quite telling of the spiritual state of Israel at that time.

You say that Jesus calling the temple his body makes him incarnate deity. So what does that make you and me (1 Corinthians 6:19)? Are we also in the Godhead? That certainly is the implication of Jesus' words in John 17:22-23, where he said, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

Um… when did Jesus say that he would resurrect himself “by his own power and authority”? Let's look at his exact words again: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). As far as I can tell, this is the only place in the Bible that speaks of Jesus raising himself from the dead. Otherwise, it is always said that God raised him from the dead (e.g., 1 Peter 1:21). The New Testament frequently makes a distinction between God and Jesus, almost as if they weren't essentially the same…

As for him doing it in “his own power and authority”, that defies Jesus' own oft repeated testimony: “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me” (John 8:28). Jesus was constantly deferring all the authority and accolades to God. I don't dispute that this one time he said he would rebuild the temple of his body, but by his own words throughout the Gospels (especially John), he said he did nothing except by the power of God.

Here's another thought: Maybe the temple he was speaking of rebuilding was the entire assembly of believers, not merely his body. Yes, the text says it was the temple of his body. However, other texts speak of him being the chief cornerstone (e.g., Mark 12:10-11). This is just speculation, but perhaps he had the greater temple of God's people in mind, not just his own body. I wouldn't be dogmatic about that, though. At any rate, the point remains that even though Jesus said he'd raise himself up this one time, his entire testimony was that God was doing everything through him.

Anthony: Later in John's Gospel, Jesus goes on to speak of the Holy Spirit, and does so in a way that presupposes both his personhood and deity. For example, with a view to the completion of his work on the cross, by which he would not only purchase salvation for sinners but procure the work of the spirit, who would take the saving benefits of Christ and apply them to his people. Jesus said he would do the following when he ascended back into heaven.

You say Jesus presupposes the “personhood and deity” of the holy spirit. While it is true that this is one of the only places in the Bible where the holy spirit is referred to as “he”, it is most often referred to as “she” or “it”. You see, ruach in Hebrew is feminine, and pneuma in Greek is neuter. Parakletos (helper) is masculine, so at best it seems this “third person” is… confused.

What do you mean in saying, “[He] would take the saving benefits of Christ and apply them to his people”? That's not what Jesus said in John 14. Jesus said the spirit would cause them to remember everything he taught them (John 14:26). Did the spirit remind you, Anthony, of what Jesus said in John 20:17? In case not, here it is: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Did you know Jesus has a God—and it isn't himself? (See also Revelation 3:12.)

Anthony: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another helper, that he may be with you forever; that is the spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it dose not see him or know him, but you know him because he abides with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17).

Before going any further, I have a couple of questions to ask you about this passage before you put your Nicaean spin on it.
  1. If the spirit of God is a separate person from Gods the Father and the son, then is the spirit of Elijah a separate person from Elijah?
  2. Since the words ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek can also carry the meaning of “wind” or “breath”, to the point that translators occasionally use those words interchangeably with “spirit” in the same verse, would it be wrong to refer to the holy spirit as God's set-apart breath?
    • For reference, consider Genesis 2:7 and Luke 23:46. In the Genesis verse, the word used is ruach, but they are essentially interchangeable. In Luke, Jesus could be said to have given up his breath or his spirit.
  3. Why is the holy spirit never given a name? The Father is given a name (Yahweh), although that is said by Trinitarians to also apply to the Godhead whenever they want it to. The son is given a name (Jesus). Why is the holy spirit left out? Stuffy titles without names are insulting to a God who wants to be known personally by his people. Even if you call your own father “Dad” exclusively, you still know he has a name. But when we refer to Jesus as “the Son”, that is itself kind of insulting. He calls us his friends and brothers. Would you refer to your brother as “the son of the father”? More importantly, what is the holy spirit's name?
  4. When John refers to the “spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6), are these two conflicting persons of some level of deity? Is the spirit of error a living, independent person?
  5. Jesus abode with his disciples, but he never dwelt within them. If the spirit is a person just like and the same as Jesus, then how does the spirit dwell in them when Jesus never did?

Anthony: Several things are of note here. First, this passage has three persons in view, the Father, the son, and the spirit. That the spirit is a person follows, among other things, from the fact that he's referred to as “another helper”, which means he is like Jesus, comparable to him. And he will fill the place made vacant by the son ascending bodily into heaven. He will be for the disciples all that Jesus had been for them when physically present on earth.

In what way does this passage have three persons in view? The Trinitarian term “person” is not derived from the Bible. In the ESV, the word “person” appears 200 times. It never refers to a multipersonal being. Every time you read the word “person” in the Bible, you can be confident that it is speaking of a single individual, synonymous with a single human being. I know some Trinitarians throw out phrases like “Three Who's, One What”,2 but that is not a Scriptural idea either. Every person is a human being. Every human being is a person. If we are going to use a well-defined English word to mean something it never means in any other context—even within the same body of text—then we need to clearly define our terms within the text in question. The Bible doesn't do this, so you cannot speak of “three persons” and mean “one being”.

That said, John 14 ONLY speaks of “three persons” IF you assume a priori that the Father, the son, and the holy spirit are all distinct persons of the Godhead. If you, rather, understand the Father to be God alone (John 17:3); Jesus to be a man especially chosen by God and attested by miracles (Acts 2:22); and the holy spirit to be God's set-apart, invisible presence in the world (John 4:24); then you will not read “three persons” into the text.

Anthony: Second, it also follows from what Jesus says that the spirit is a divine person. This follows first of all from the fact that the spirit is given a divine title, the spirit of truth, which means that he's the origin and source of truth; and second, from the fact that the spirit possesses the divine attribute or quality of omnipresence. As Jesus said, “He will be with you forever, and you know him because he abides with you and will be in you.” The spirit was presently abiding with the disciples, and in the future, no matter how far apart they would be, the spirit would indwell them.

How is “spirit of truth” a divine title? As we saw before, John contrasts this phrase with “spirit of error”, and I doubt you'd say that is referencing the third person in some sort of demonic Antitrinity.

I touched on this briefly before, but God's spirit is his invisible, active presence in the world. Just like wind is invisible but moves trees, and breath is invisible but moves our chests, God's spirit is invisible but moves his creation. In fact, at Creation, God breathed his spirit/breath of life into the 'adam, and he became a living being/soul. The concept of a disembodied spirit existing as a personal force outside of someone is a very Platonic idea. You'll never find that in Scripture. Now the disciples apparently believed in this idea (e.g., Matthew 14:26), but that doesn't make it correct. The Bible never speaks of personal spirits existing apart from their bodies. In fact, from Genesis 2:7 and Ecclesiastes 12:7, we can deduce that life/soul = body/clay + breath/spirit.

Moving forward, it's quite a leap to say, “He's the origin and source of truth.” Where did you find that in the Bible? God is the source of truth, and God's spirit can reveal truth to us, but you'll be wasting a lot of hours searching for a definitive statement which says something like, “The Spirit of truth is a unique person in the Godhead and is the source of truth.” Does that mean the Father isn't the source of truth? What about the son?

You said earlier, “He's referred to as ‘another helper’, which means he is like Jesus, comparable to him.” Now you say, “The spirit possesses the divine attribute or quality of omnipresence.” When does the Bible ever say Jesus is omnipresent? If the spirit of God, as our parakletos, is supposed to be an equal with Jesus in form and function, then why isn't it another man? The closest example to Jesus exhibiting something akin to omnipresence is when he apparently walked through a locked door post-resurrection (John 20:19), but Philip did basically the same thing (Acts 8:39). I realize that one of those was an act of will while the other was rather involuntary, but who's to say we won't have that same ability in our resurrected bodies? When God does a miracle through someone, it does not make that person God.

Anthony: In fact, since the persons of the Trinity are inseparable, Jesus also said, in the same context, that the indwelling of the spirit would also involve the indwelling of the Father and the son.

Where does the Bible say the persons of the Trinity are inseparable? I'm guessing since the concepts of “Trinity” and “persons” aren't in the Bible, their inseparability also won't be found there. But please, surprise me.

The Father indwells everyone? Why send his spirit if he can do it? The son indwells everyone? Did Jesus cease to be a man when he ascended into heaven? Did he ascend to heaven as a man, only to descend again as a spirit? And if so, then how does his second coming have any relevance to us whatsoever?

Let's see your proof text.

Anthony: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him” (John 14:23).

Perhaps, and this is just a hunch, but maybe Jesus is talking about at the end of the age. Jesus will return to us and make his abode with us during his kingdom, but God himself will not live among mankind until the new creation is complete (Revelation 21:3). God's presence (manifested in his spirit) is omnipresent, but God himself does not personally dwell in the sphere of his creation because of our sin.

Anthony: These examples are only the tip of the iceberg of what Jesus and his apostles taught about God. But for the time being, these examples are sufficient to prove that Jesus did teach the doctrine of the Trinity, and therefore…

Yusha: We have a serious problem.

Don't worry, Yusha, you're in the clear for now. There is no proof in the red or black letters that Jesus or his followers taught the doctrine of the Trinity. But they did unambiguously teach that Jesus is the human son of God, not born through physical action but by the power of God's spirit creating life within Mary. It also teaches that at the climax of his teaching, Jesus was put to death because he challenged the false religion promulgated by the Pharisees. But God proved his message true by bringing him back to life again.

The red letters contain the words of life. Jesus came to bring the hearts of Israel back to God by obedience to his commandments. As the future king, Jesus reinstituted the Torah as the law of the land, which if a man does them, he shall live by them (Leviticus 18:5). Jesus demonstrated to us what happens when a man is completely sold-out for God and obeys him completely. Jesus never sinned, as you agree, so his life gives us hope to trust God to forgive us when we sin, so we can try to follow him again. Our works don't save us, but our works prove the faith we have in God to save us. If we remain in him, then we will be raised to new life at the resurrection of the dead, to live forever with God.

NOTES:

  1. I do not believe the ministry of Jesus lasted three-and-a-half years. While I don't endorse everything he says, Michael Rood puts forward a compelling argument for a one-year ministry spanning from a few months before Passover to Passover the following year. I recommend everyone read The Chronological Gospels to see this perspective.
  2. “When speaking of the Trinity, we need to realize that we are talking about one what and three who's. The one what is the Being or essence of God; the three who's are the Father, Son, and Spirit. We dare not mix up the what's and who's regarding the Trinity.” (The Forgotten Trinity, 27)

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