first written around 1982.
Q. What was the view of first-century christians regarding the Trinity?
A. The what?
Seriously, the word never appears in the New Testament, and the doctrine as it is generally taught today is nowhere brought out explicitly. So the question should be, What does the New Testament teach about the nature of God, the relationship of Jesus Christ to God the Creator, and the nature and relationship to both of the Holy Spirit?
Let me pursue some thoughts on this matter.
First, it is easily seen that the New Testament writers all regard Jesus Christ as in some sense divine. This is not limited to the claim that God is his Father. If this were the whole thing, based on the merely biological miracle of the Virgin Birth, then although we would certainly have a hero supassing, say, Hercules as Jehovah surpasses Zeus (and that’s saying a lot), there are some other attributes of Christ, attributed to His divinity, which would remain unaccounted for. These include both His pre-existence (Before Abraham was, I am — John 8:58; he is before all things — Colossians 1:17; John 1:1; also by analogy to Melchizedek “having neither beginning of days nor end of life” Hebrews 7:3, etc.); his participation in the Creation (John 1:3, Col. 1:16, Heb. 1:2, etc.), and his participation in the glory of God (John 17:5, And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was; compare Isaiah 42:8, My glory will I not give to another).
Second, although the Bible affirms throughout that there is one God (or, perhaps, that God is one), certain intimations of plurality do occur, beginning in Genesis 1:27, when He speaks in the first person plural. The hebrew name Elohim is also a plural form. Isaiah 6:8 presents another hint of plurality.
Third, the Spirit of God is shown as being present both in creation (Gen. 1:2) and in all God’s dealings with men (2 Peter 1:21) and with Jesus himself (John 3:34). We also see that the Holy Spirit speaks (Acts 13:2), gives gifts ( 1 Cor. 12:8), has a will (1 Cor. 12:11), has a mind (Romans 8:27), leads men (Rom. 8:14), sends them forth (Acts 13:4). All these are things we would ordinarily expect to be done by a person.
Here you have the traditional arguments, and I believe them to be valid, so far. But as I read the Scripture, I cannot stop there.
There is nothing magical about the number three. Rev. 3:1 refers to seven Spirits of God. The mistake involved in the theological dogma of the Trinity is that it categorizes and crystallizes for human comprehension something that to those early believers was altogether dynamic, active and powerful. They were much too busy learning to participate in what God was doing to reduce him to numbers. That didn’t really happen for another couple of hundred years (Nicene Creed, 325 A.D.). So it behooves us to see what the Word does teach.
Backing up a bit, let me say that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with referring to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Such a formula is given in Matthew 28:19 with reference to baptism, and in the form of a benediction it appears again in 2 Corinthians 13:14. The mistake, again, lies only in limiting God to these, when the Word clearly teaches that we ourselves have the promise of being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and that this very thing is the purpose of the work of Christ, and of the present ministry of the Holy Spirit. The same God who, in Isaiah, declares My glory will I not give to another, has called us unto eternal glory by Christ Jesus. This is the thing for which Jesus prayed, That they may all be one; as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them. What glory? The glory which I had with thee before the world was. John 17: 21, 22, 25. Is this blasphemy? No indeed: or if it is, the New Testament is full of blasphemy. Everything that belongs to Christ belongs to us. We are heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ. He is the firstborn among many brethren. To him that overcometh will I give to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne —Revelation 3:21. The epistle to the Hebrews is a powerful effort to show, first, the divine nature of Christ (unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever) and next, how completely he, for our sakes, became a partaker of human nature (flesh and blood). For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren.— Hebrews 2:11. This is all so that we might become partakers of the heavenly calling.
I could go on like this all night, citing scripture after scripture, but I think you get my drift. So then, I do not dispute the creed-makers who claimed that Jesus Christ, though fully divine, became fully human without relinquishing his divinity (this being a hard notion, as they no doubt admitted, to comprehend); but I will submit that they missed out on the other side of the coin, namely, that because of him we, being fully human, are called to become (through the infilling of the Holy Spirit) fully divine, yet without relinquishing our humanity. This was is indeed the mystery, Christ in you, the hope of glory. St. Basil was perhapstoo dramatic when he said that man has been commanded to become God, but, rightly understood, he was not perhaps off the mark. Not as though (I should add) I had already attained, either were already perfect; but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
A high calling, indeed!