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The Nature of
God (Part 1)

The Nature of God (Part 1)

by Richard Nichols

Published in
The Christian Informer
July, 1999


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Last updated:
September 2, 1999.

Because it is vastly important to possess a proper understanding of the nature of God we offer this study.  There is another reason for this article.  We feel a serious need for a study of this kind because recently some have displayed serious misunderstanding regarding God's nature.  To present this study we need to deal with two principles set forth in the Scriptures.  Those principles are the unity of God, and the Godhead.  (Please note -- We do not use the word "trinity" to signify a Roman Catholic dogma, but simply to indicate the Three in the Godhead).

THE UNITY OF GOD

By the unity of God we mean that there is but one God, and that the divine nature is indivisible.  The great emphasis in the Old Testament is that there is but one God (See Deuteronomy  4:35,39; 1 Kings 8:60; Isaiah  45:5,6; Zechariah 14:9).  This same truth is frequently taught in the New Testament (See Mark 12:29-32; John 17:3; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6; 1 Timothy 2:5).  The emphasis of Old Testament teaching in this regard seems to have been necessary because of a persistent tendency among the Israelites to idolatry.  It has been theorized that polytheism (the doctrine of many gods) may be an attempt by sinful men to get rid of their responsibility to God Jehovah.  By attributing the various activities of the true and living God to the separate wills of various gods, men may think they have avoided their accountability to the all knowing and all powerful God of the universe.  But according to Scripture there can be only one infinite and perfect being.  It seems that even polytheism cannot rest in the belief in many gods.  The Greeks believed in some Supreme Fate that ruled both gods and men.  Those who dreamed up these gods bestowed upon them the characteristics, frailties, faults, and failures of mortal men.

In the Old Testament we are presented with an undivided God in such passages as Deuteronomy 6:4, "Hear, O Israel: Lord our God is one Lord." Since the word Lord with capital letters stands in place of Jehovah in the K.J.V., it would translate, "Hear, O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah" (See also Mark 12:29).  This is teaching that God does not consist of parts nor can He be divided into parts.  Jehovah's being is simple; man's is compound, having both a material part (body) and a spiritual part.  When there is a separation of the two man dies (James 2:26).  But "God is a spirit" and is therefore not subject of such a division (John 4:24).  This unity is, however, not inconsistent with the conception of the Godhead; for a unity is not the same as a unit. Someone illustrated: "A unit, like a stone or a stick, is marked by mere singleness.  It admits of no interior distinctions, and is incapable of that inherent ‘trinality' necessary to self-knowledge and self-consciousness."

The failure to grasp these distinctions kept many Jews from accepting Christianity with its belief in the Godhead and of the deity of Jesus. The Ebionites were a sect of Judaizing teachers that arose in the church early in the second century.  They professed faith in Jesus Christ, but regarded Him as a mere man who had been endowed with supernatural powers at His baptism.  A belief in His deity seemed to them to be incompatible with the doctrine of one God.  Islam, and the modern Unitarian movement likewise fail to recognize this distinction and so regard God as a unit, rather than as the Godhead in unity.

THE TRINITY  --  THE GODHEAD

If you have had difficulty in understanding the nature of the Godhead, you are not alone.  The doctrine of the Godhead is not a truth of natural deduction; it is known only by revelation.  The ancient world had its "Triads," but they were only mystical and philosophical distinctions among its conglomeration of false gods.  All such ideas have no foundation in the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity; furthermore, they do not serve to explain nor do their false concepts confirm the Godhead. Although the doctrine of the Trinity is not discoverable by human reason, it can be rationally defended now that it has been revealed in Holy Scripture.

The word "trinity" itself does not occur in the Scriptures.  Its Greek form, TRIAS, seems to have been first used by Theophilus of Antioch (A.D. 181), and its Latin form, TRINITAS, was used by Tertullian (A.D. 220). However, the belief of three persons in the Godhead did not begin with these men, as we shall presently see.  By the Trinity we mean that there are three eternal distinctions in the one divine essence, known respectively as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  These three distinctions are three persons, and so we may speak of the tri-personality of God.

The true doctrine of the Godhead must thus be distinguished from both Tritheism and Sabellianism.  Tritheism denies the unity of the essence of God and holds to belief in three distinct Gods.  The only unity that this theory recognizes is the unity of purpose and endeavor.  But God is a unity of essence as well as of purpose and endeavor.  Sabellianism from the third century held to a Trinity of revelation, but not of nature.  It held that God, as Father, is the Creator and Lawgiver; as Son, He is the same God incarnate who fulfills the office of Redeemer; and as the Holy Spirit, He is the same God in the work of regeneration and sanctification.  You see, Sabellianism teaches that God merely manifests himself in three modes as distinguished from the Trinity of his being. Others speak of a threefold nature of God, in the same sense in which a man may be an artist, a teacher and a friend.  But, in reality, this is a denial of the doctrine of the Trinity, for these are not three distinctions in the essence, but three qualities in one and the same person.

The doctrine of the Trinity is, we grant, a great mystery.  Some regard it as an intellectual puzzle and a contradiction.  How can there be, they ask, one God and at the same time three persons in the Godhead? But Robert Flint said it very well -- it is "a mystery indeed, yet one which explains many other mysteries, and which sheds a marvelous light on God, on nature, and on man."  One's view of this doctrine affects every other part of, not only one's theological belief, but also his faith, work, and worship.  So this doctrine is not a mere burden on our intelligence, but we must believe it to have a true understanding of the world, and of life, of sickness, and of death.  Even men's philosophies have had difficulty with the conception of God as an absolute unity. Without a true concept of God many tend to reduce to the philosophy of, "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die."

But, as we have already said, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not really an outgrowth of speculation, but of revelation.  We could not know about this self-distinction in the Godhead if God had not revealed Himself in that character.  We must, therefore, turn to the Scriptures for the true doctrine of the Trinity.  We shall first consider the intimations in the Old Testament, then set forth some New Testament teaching.

INTIMATIONS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

Although, as we have said, the great burden of the Old Testament appears to be the unity of God, there are numerous intimations of a plurality in the Godhead, and some indications that this plurality is a trinity.  As for the intimations of a plurality, we may mention the plural nouns and pronouns applied to God, as in Genesis 1:1, 26; 3:22; 11:6, 7; 20:13; 48:15; Isaiah 6:8.  Despite the fact that in Genesis 1:1, 26; 48:15, 16 the name for God is plural (ELOHIM), the verb is singular.  The verb "come" (Vulgate, VENITE) in Genesis 11:7 is really in the plural.  We are told that it must, therefore, be addressed to at least two others. This can hardly be the angels, for God sends them, but never acts in union with them.  Neither is Genesis 1:26 addressed to the angels, for in the very next verse we are told that "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created He him."

JEHOVAH IS DISTINGUISHED FROM JEHOVAH

In Genesis 19:24 we read: "Then Jehovah rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from Jehovah out of heaven"; and in Hoses 1:7: "But I will have mercy upon the house of Judah, and will save them by Jehovah their God."

JEHOVAH HAS A SON

In Psalms 2:7 we read: "Thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee." By "this day" is here meant the eternal present; it refers to the eternal generation of the Son by the Father.  Jesus is not only called the Son of God (John 9:35; Romans 1:4), but also the only begotten Son (John 3:16,18) and His firstborn Son (Hebrews 1:6).  But He was a Son before He was "given" (Isaiah 9:6); for His "goings forth are from of old, from everlasting" (Micah 5:2); and He is called the "Mighty God" (Isaiah 9:6).

THE SPIRIT IS DISTINGUISHED FROM GOD

In Genesis 1:1 we read, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth"; and in verse 2, "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."  In Genesis 6:3: "Then the Lord said, My Spirit shall not strive with man forever."  For further examples of this distinction, see Num. 27:18; Psalms 51:11; Isaiah 40:13; 48:16; Haggai 2:4,5.

SCRIPTURES OF PRAISE SEEM TO INTIMATE A TRINITY

In Isaiah 6:3 the seraphim cry to one another: "Holy, holy, holy, is Jehovah of hosts"; Revelation 4:8: "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come."

THE AARONIC PRAYER

This prayer of the Old Covenant priests seems to intimate the same thing (Numbers 6:24-26).  It is as follows in the American Standard Version: "Jehovah bless thee, and keep thee: Jehovah make his face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: Jehovah lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace."  It should be observed that, although this is a threefold prayer, it is only One God that blesses.  This is evident from the next verse, which says: "So shall they put my name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them."

THE ANGEL OF GOD

"The angel of Jehovah," is a recurring phrase in the Old Testament. Strong says, "It seems in the Old Testament with hardly more than a single exception, to designate the pre-incarnate Logos, whose manifestation in angelic or human form foreshadowed His final coming in the flesh."  He finds this single exception in Haggai 1:13, where Haggai himself is the "messenger" of Jehovah (same word as "angel").  As "the angel of Jehovah" He appeared to Hagar (Genesis 16:7-14), to Abraham (Genesis 22:11-18), to Jacob (Genesis 31:11, 13), to Moses (Exodus 3:2-5), to Israel (Exodus 14:19; cf. 23:20; 32:34), to Balaam (Numbers 22:22-35), to Gideon (Judges 6:11-23), to Manoah (Judges 13:2-25), to David (1 Chronicles 21:15-17), to Elijah (1 Kings 19:5-7); He slew 185,000 Assyrians in one night (2 Kings 19:35); He stood among the myrtle trees in Zechariah's vision (Zechariah 1:11); and He defended Joshua the high priest against Satan (Zechariah 3).  In Genesis 18, one of the three "men" that appeared to Abraham is repeatedly represented as Jehovah (verses 13, 17, 20, 22-33).

THE TEACHING OF THE NEW TESTAMENT

As we have seen, in the Old Testament we are more or less confined to intimations rather then bold statements of the Trinity, but when we come to the New Testament we find this doctrine clearly set forth.  The Trinity is there in such clear representations that it can be easily seen.  The proof is in general statements and allusions, and also in that there are three that are recognized as God.

GENERAL STATEMENTS AND ALLUSIONS

We find these, first, in connection with the baptismal scene of Christ. The Lord Jesus, of course, was present; but we also note that the Spirit descended upon Him, and that a voice out of heaven declared, "This is my beloved Son" (Matthew 3:16,17).  Secondly, we see an allusion in the statement of Jesus that He would pray the Father to give them another Comforter (John 14:16, 17).  Thirdly, Jesus gave a pronouncement for baptism, which required the disciples to immerse believers into the name (singular) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Fourthly, this is clearly seen in the way in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are associated in their work (See 1 Corinthians 12:46; 1 Peter  1:2; 3:18).  And fifthly, we have the three pronounced in the apostle Paul's prayer -- "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen" (2 Corinthians  13:14).  This is certain proof that there are three that are recognized as God.  These are, of course, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Let us notice brief proof for this statement.

THE FATHER IS RECOGNIZED AS GOD

This is done so often that we do not need to present an exhaustive list of references.  Note, however, the following are samples: "Him the Father, even God, hath sealed," (John 6:27); "from God our father" (Romans  1:7): "God the Father"  (Galatians 1:1, 3); and many other similar expressions.

THE SON IS RECOGNIZED AS GOD

The importance of the doctrine of the deity of Christ can scarcely be overestimated.  Jesus Christ does not sustain the same relation to Christianity that other founders of religion sustain to the faiths which they have originated.  It is interesting to note that Buddha (B.C. 563-484), Confucius (B.C. 551-478), and Mohammed (A.D. 570?-632) are recognized by men primarily for their teaching, but Jesus Christ is significant because of His person, who He is.  He is indeed the focal point of Christianity.  Jesus himself emphasized this; He asked, "What think ye of Christ" (Matthew  22:41-46; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44). He had earlier asked the disciples the question, "Who say ye that I am?" (Matthew  16:15).  Was He merely the greatest, the holiest, the most perfect exhibition of godliness in humanity, the prototype man, the flower of the race, and the greatest of all teachers!  The inspired writers surely represent Him as every bit of this and much, much more. According to them He had --

THE ATTRIBUTES OF DEITY

Divine attributes are ascribed to all the Godhead, and manifested by the Trinity.  There are five distinctively divine attributes.  These are eternity, omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, and immutability.  The Trinity possess all.  We understand the possession of them in Jehovah. But Christ is eternal.  He was not only before John (John 1:15), before Abraham (John 8:58), and before the world came into being (John 17:5, 24) but He is "the firstborn of every creature" (Colossians 1:15), being in existence "in the beginning" (John 1:1; I John 1:1); and, in fact, "from the days of eternity" (Micah 5:2, marg.).  And as to the future, He continues forever (Hebrews 1:11; Isaiah 9:6; Revelation 1:11).  The Father's communication of life to Him is an eternal process (John 5:26; 1:4).

The Holy Spirit took part in the creation (Genesis 1:1,2); He was a creating force, "Thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created; and thou renewest the face of the earth" (Psalms 104:30).  Job said, "The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty had given me life" (Job 33:4).  There are many passages that show the divine attributes of the Holy Spirit, but the unique and intimate relationship of the Holy Spirit with the Son in His work on earth show the Spirit's deity.  The Holy Spirit came upon Mary and Jesus was conceived (Matthew 1:20,21).  It is said that Christ had the Spirit without measure (John 3:34).  He cast out devils by the Spirit (Matthew 12:28).  Christ spoke by the power of the Spirit, and through the Holy Spirit he gave commandments to His apostles (Acts 1:2).

[In our next study, Lord willing, we intend to continue in this study about God.  In this series we intend to discuss the Decrees of God.  -- R.N.]

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