Does God Have ‘One’ Or ‘Three’ Minds?
This question is a spin-off from debates about the Trinity. According to Christians the word ‘God’ refers to the ‘three-in-one’ nature of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus God is frequently (if not controversially in the opinion of some) conceived as a ‘community’ or ‘communion’ of persons – a ‘social Trinity,’ if you will.
This might lead one to conclude that each ‘person’ within the godhead must have a mind of his own. For in the New Testament we read of ‘the mind of the Lord’ (Rom 11:34; 1 Cor 2:16); ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2:16); and ‘the mind of the Spirit’ (Rom 8:27).
Hence we might surmise that God, understood in Trinitarian terms, must have multiple ‘centres of consciousness’ (at least three!). Yet Christians, like Jews, believe in only one God (Deut 6:4) and so distant themselves from this notion – at least in theory.
In early Christian thought, notably in the West, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were never viewed as ‘autonomous subjects’ within the godhead. Such an idea would destroy the absolute monotheism upon which scriptural belief about God is based. God is one!
Indeed the use of the word ‘person’ when applied to members of the Trinity has been problematic precisely because it assumes their relative independence. God, however, is not a ‘person’ in the sense that Eric Clapton arguably is. The members of the Trinity do not think different thoughts, ‘collaborate’ on projects or come to agreement on courses of action to take.
Some who have sought to navigate a path through these treacherous theological waters have ended up in heresy (all heresy results from an attempt to dilute paradox or mystery).
Sabellius (c. 215AD), for instance, argued that the three persons of the Trinity are different ‘modalities’ in which the one God might successively appear to humans: first as God (the Old Testament), then as the Son (the Gospels), and finally as the Holy Spirit (Pentecost).
The problem with this is that it denies the reality of the Trinity.
For Sabellius the ‘Son’ is a persona that God adopts, or a ‘mask’ that he wears at a particular moment (i.e. the incarnation), but which he can discard as he moves onto the next phase of salvation history (i.e. when he comes as the ‘Holy Spirit’ at Pentecost).
But if, like Jews, Christians insist that God is ‘one’ and can therefore have only ‘one mind’—what are we to make of the actions of the Son of God and of the Holy Spirit who appear to operate as ‘persons’ or ‘agents’ in their own right?
The answer is their actions derive from their union with the Father and with each other.
Jesus was adamant that he never acted alone (John 5:19), and that it was always the Father who worked through him (John 14:10). The Spirit, moreover, was sent from the Father to empower Jesus in his ministry (Mark 1:9-11; John 14:26).
Nobody acts alone in the Trinity. When Father, Son and Holy Spirit work it is the work of the one Lord God. The union of the three is not a consequence of their ‘coming together’ but an expression of their eternal oneness.
An intriguing passage in Romans 8:9-11 confronts us with the mystery of the godhead. Writing to Christian believers in Rome Paul says:
But you are not in the flesh you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
I have highlighted in bold several overlapping nouns or expressions which give us a glimpse of how Paul comprehended the Trinity.
Note the following:
- Paul first says that the Roman believers are in the Spirit.
- He defines this more particularly as being in or possessed by the Spirit of God/God’s Spirit.
- Paul then equates the Spirit of God/God’s Spirit with the Spirit of Christ.
- He next adds that to have the Spirit of God/Spirit of Christ is to have Christ…in you.
- Paul in turn equates this with being indwelt by the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead.
- The latter is also referred to as he who raised Christ from the dead.
- Paul concludes by saying his Spirit (i.e. the Spirit of the one who raised Christ from the dead) dwells within the Roman fellowship.
What are we to make of this? It seems massively confusing. Superficially speaking it is difficult to know who’s doing what! Who specifically, in this dense cluster of verses, are we talking about: the Holy Spirit? Jesus? or God? Are these terms interchangeable? Indeed are the saving activities of each member of the Trinity distinguishable at all? Is it possible that Paul is just playing with words—using them willy-nilly without any nuance? Or might he be pointing to some greater, deeper truth about God’s nature?
A close look at these verses suggests that Paul is referring to the one, indivisible activity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the life of the believer: Thus (1), (2), (5) and (8) emphasise the role of the Holy Spirit; (3) and (4) focus on Christ; while (6) and (7) refer to the Father.
Yet although each member of the Trinity is singled out they are all simultaneously involved in doing the same thing!
To be indwelt by the Holy Spirit is to be indwelt by Christ whose indwelling presence is available to us because the Spirit of the Father raised him from the dead.
The Holy Spirit moreover is none other than ‘God’s Spirit’—i.e. ‘the Spirit’ (sent) from and therefore belonging to God the Father who is also linked with ‘the Spirit of Christ.’ In verse v4 the ‘Spirit of Christ’ is referred to simply as ‘Christ.’
A careful reading of this passage will make plain that Paul is not talking about the activity of ‘three minds’ or multiple ‘centres of consciousness.’
Rather there is a union of nature, mind and purpose in the one God denoted by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
‘God’s Spirit (i.e. the Father’s Spirit),’ ‘the Holy Spirit,’ and ‘the Spirit of Christ’ are not different, distinct or separate ‘beings’ come together. That would be tri-theism. They are ‘one’ God.
The mystery of the Trinity is that it is holy and undivided.
Jesus said to Thomas ‘he who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9) Elsewhere in John’s gospel he says ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10:30). Moreover Jesus is known in scripture as ‘The Word of God’—God’s self-expression (John 1:1; Heb 1:1-3).
When God ‘thinks’ or ‘speaks’ it is Jesus, the Son of God, who articulates the mind of God—he is the very word or words that God utters. But it is through the Spirit of God that Christ’s message or word from the Father is interpreted to humans and thus becomes living and vital.
Knowing Christ, according to Paul, is only possible through the Spirit who both comes from and is sent by God. However this Holy Spirit is none other than the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of the one who was raised to life, glorified by the Father and released to indwell believers.
The expression the ‘Spirit of Christ’ means that (as with the Father) the Spirit comes from, has been sent by, and belongs to Christ himself—in other words it is Christ’s very own Spirit that lives within us and imparts everlasting life to us.
Yet this can only happen, Paul relates, because the Father’s Spirit raised Christ from the dead.
Rom 8:9-11 is thus far from confused or contradictory. Rather it is carefully and cautiously crafted. Paul is writing out of a Jewish background and context of strict monotheism. For the Jews there is only one God.
Somehow Paul has to make sense of Christ in the light of his strict monotheistic beliefs.
In the person of Jesus, Paul and the early Christians experienced the salvation that God promised Abraham, Moses and the prophets.
How could this be if Jesus was just a man or at most a prophet?
The experience of deliverance in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit caused the church to redefine—or better still—to expand its understanding of the word ‘God.’
For the church, as for all Jews, there was only one God. However the church could no longer speak of God without reference to Jesus and the Spirit. To do so would not only have been to diminish but also to deny God’s fullness and reality.
Everything that God had promised in the Old Testament in terms of redemption were realised in Christ’s death and resurrection and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. These were acts of God. Hence Paul’s bold statement in 2 Cor 5:19 that ‘God was in Christ.’
But in the Graeco-Roman world there was always the danger that Jesus might be seen as just ‘another god.’ How could Paul guard against this? In Rom 8:9-11 salvation is seen to flow from the Father through the Son in the Spirit.
But this is not the work of ‘three minds’ clubbing together to deliver humanity from sin. There is but one God.
The action of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the seamless, undivided action of the one Lord. But for Christian believers ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Phil 2:11) and ‘the Lord is the Spirit’ (2 Cor 3:17).
In this confession the concept of God has been broadened—or brought to completion or fulfilment. God, at last, is fully revealed, fully disclosed, in the activity of the Son and of the Spirit.
The mystery of the Trinity is that while we may speak of the ‘persons’ of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are not referring to different ‘subjects’ or ‘individuals’ that might exist autonomously or independently of each other.
Neither do they ‘think’ or ‘act’ separately or differently. The members of the Trinity are constituted by their mutual relationships.
Father and Son, in this case, owe their ‘identity’ to each other (i.e. there can be no Father without the Son, and no Son without the Father).
Although in his incarnate life Jesus had many personal choices and decisions to make as an autonomous human being he nevertheless perfectly embodied his Father’s will in everything he did and said.
Jesus brought his human will into complete alignment with his Heavenly Father’s even when human nature might have tempted him to make decisions or take action in self-interest.
The mystery of the Trinity is not something that can be explained—not even by analogy, for there is nothing in human experience with which to compare it.
We cannot therefore hope to grasp how the single ‘mind’ of God can belong to three ‘persons’ who are not persons in the conventional sense of the word!
In Rom 8:9-11 Paul does not explain God’s triune nature—he simply takes it for granted and glories in it.
The doctrine of the Trinity, like all good theology, is rooted in experience not theory.
The first Jewish believers in Christ knew that there was only one God. When they experienced salvation in Jesus and were filled with the Holy Spirit they were compelled to believe this was a ‘first order’ experience of God—because only God can bring redemption.
The paradox of the Trinity didn’t concern them so much as being true to their experience.
They could point to Christ’s life, death and resurrection and say ‘that was God!’ and to their subsequent experience of the Spirit and say ‘that was God too!’
The mechanics, the theory, the philosophy if you will, of how God might be Father, Son and Holy Spirit—three-in-one, one-in-three—does not appear to have taxed the minds of the first Christians.
Nowhere in the pages of the gospels or epistles does any writer seek to explain, argue for, or for that matter give an apologia for the mystery of the Trinity. It is simply accepted because it was the only way that Christians could comprehend their startling encounter with God in Christ.
In this vein we must acknowledge our complete ignorance of how God can be one yet Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The glory of Christian theology is to revel in this mystery not to explain it.
However reflection on the mystery of the Trinity brings us deeper in to God, enriches our understanding of salvation, and causes us to worship the Lord with greater awe and reverence.
- How would you define a ‘person’ and in what ways does God fit or not fit into your definition?
- ‘Jesus is God.’ What’s wrong with this statement?
- What are the dangers of viewing the Trinity as a ‘community?’
- Does the doctrine of the Trinity have any practical value for Christians?