Messed Up American Theology: Who Is God?

Who Is God?  Since a majority of Americans don’t believe even some of the basic teachings of the Bible, the only conclusion is that American theology is messed up.  And I mean really basic stuff.  Like critical things about Jesus.  Not surprisingly, they don’t really know about the Holy Spirit either.  And while I say not surprisingly, it’s very sad.  If the theology is messed up, so are we.

Who is God?Six in 10 Americans say religious belief is a matter of personal opinion. For 7 in 10 Americans, such religious beliefs include one true God existing in three persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

That’s from Lifeway Research.  The survey is from 2018.  The trend is going the wrong way.  American’s beliefs are straying further and further from what the Bible says.  So here in 2019, the numbers are probably even worse.

Messed Up American Theology: The character of God

One section of the survey is about the “character” of God.  Even though this is a survey about theology, the common usage definition of “character” is important.  It is, after all, about what people think.  Common usage.  dictionary.com defines character as:

character:  noun

  1. the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.
  2. one such feature or trait; characteristic.
  3. moral or ethical quality:  a man of fine, honorable character.

OK – that all makes sense.  It works for common usage.  As we’ll see, it works for American’s messed up theology as well.

Is He really three persons in one true God?

The survey says:

A majority of Americans (70 percent) believe there is one true God in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Eighteen percent disagree. Twelve percent are not sure. This has remained consistent since researchers began asking the question in 2014.

The survey says mostly true.  Maybe that sounds like good news to you.  At least it’s more than half.  But there’s a problem with that number.  It’s off by at least 5%.  Sure, 5% doesn’t sound like much.  But it’s messed up.  Do you know why?

According to other surveys, approximately 75% of Americans claim to be Christian.  However, only 70% believe in what’s known as the triune God – One God in three persons.  That means at least 5% of those who call themselves Christians don’t believe something very basic about their religion.  Let’s see why that’s so important.

The Great Commission

I’m not going to get into The Great Commission here.  If you’d like to read more about it, please check out The Great Omission from The Great Commission.  The important point here is part of what Jesus told His followers to do:

Mt 28:19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Just to be clear, Jesus Christ is the namesake of the Christian religion.  And Jesus told His followers to baptize people in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus clearly believed in the Trinity of God.  Therefore, Christians should also believe in that same Trinity.  If not, what does that make Jesus?

Here’s a scenario.  Someone asks you about who God is.  The question – “Do you believe that the one true God is made up of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?”  You’re a Christian.  You answer no.

Why do you say no?  Don’t you know that’s what the Bible says?  Or do you know, but you just don’t believe it?  People who reviewed the Lifeway survey results feel it’s some of both.  Either way, it’s messed up when a Christian responds “no” to that question.

God the Father

We turn again to something Jesus, the namesake of Christianity, said.

Mt 6:5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Mt 6:9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“ ‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,

Mt 6:10 your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.

Christians believe Jesus is the source of our salvation.  Jesus gave us The Lord’s Prayer.  He uses the word “Father” four times in the passage above.  He also references the father with the word “your” three times.  That’s seven references to God the Father in six verses.  That’s something to take note of.  Clearly, Jesus believes the Father is important.  And since it’s Jesus speaking, clearly there’s some difference between Him and the Father.

We cannot understand that difference.  But that doesn’t make it any less real.  Or less important.  Knowing about God the Father is important for us.  Otherwise, Jesus would not have made the point so clear, here and in other passages.  Please see this series for a deeper look at The Lord’s Prayer.

God the Son

Do all Christians believe Jesus is the Son of God?  That depends who you ask.  For instance, Jehovah’s Witness claims to be a Christian religion.  Read for yourself at Are Jehovah’s Witnesses Christians?| FAQ – jw.org.  However, the very same page goes on to list reasons why JW beliefs are different from “other religious groups that are called Christian”.  One of those differences is that they don’t believe in the Trinity.  They believe only in Jesus as the Son of God.  They don’t believe in the Father or the Holy Spirit.

Interesting.  Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in God and don’t believe in the Trinity of God.  The only way this is possible is if Jesus is not God.  And that’s exactly what they believe.  They do not believe Jesus is God and they do not believe the Holy Spirit is God.

What they claim is that they are Christian.  But reality shows they cannot be Christian because of the way they twist Scripture to make it appear to say something that it does not actually say.  They ask questions of people they speak to.  But they don’t provide answers.  Rather, they leave it to the other person to come to their own conclusions after pointing out more verses taken out of context.

Perhaps this Jehovah’s Witness thing accounts for the 5% difference noted above?  Sorry, but it does not.  In most surveys about Christianity, JW is not counted as Christian.  So that 5% does not include them.  We still have a problem with Christians and their view of God versus what the Bible says.

Did Jesus say He was God?

Jesus was notoriously vague on the question of whether He was God.  Up to a point.  If you look for the words, “I am God”, you won’t find them.  But if you look to see if Jesus was God, you might find that.  Here’s what I mean.

The Claims of Jesus About Himself

Jn 8:48 The Jews answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”

Jn 8:49 “I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. 50 I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”

Jn 8:52 At this the Jews exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that if anyone keeps your word, he will never taste death. 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”

Jn 8:54 Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. 55 Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and keep his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

Jn 8:57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”

Jn 8:58 “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” 59 At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.

Did you see it?

Here’s a hint.  It’s when Moses stood next to the burning bush.  From when God was giving him the task to rescue the Israelites from Pharaoh.

Ex 3:11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

Ex 3:12 And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

Ex 3:13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

Ex 3:14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”

Ex 3:15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.

Do you see it now?

God calls Himself “I AM”.  Actually, that’s just the English translation of Yahweh:

Strictly speaking, Yahweh is the only ‘name’ of God. In Genesis wherever the word šēm (‘name’) is associated with the divine being that name is Yahweh. When Abraham or Isaac built an altar ‘he called on the name of Yahweh’ (Gn. 12:8; 13:4; 26:25).

In particular, Yahweh was the God of the Patriarchs, and we read of ‘Yahweh the God (Elohim) of Abraham’ and then of Isaac and finally ‘Yahweh, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’, concerning which Elohim says, ‘this is my name for ever’ (Ex. 3:15). Yahweh, therefore, in contrast with Elohim, is a proper noun, the name of a Person, though that Person is divine.

As such, it has its own ideological setting; it presents God as a Person, and so brings him into relationship with other, human, personalities. It brings God near to man, and he speaks to the Patriarchs as one friend to another.  [1]Manley, G. T., & Bruce, F. F. (1996). God, Names of. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 421). Leicester, … Continue reading

Here it is.  In Exodus, God says His name is I AM WHO I AM, which is to say He always was and always will be.  John tells us in his Gospel, Jesus told the Jewish people that even before Abraham, Jesus was.

Of course, Jesus was often referred to as the Son of God.  He never denied it.  He only acknowledged it once, at the very end.

Jesus Before Pilate and Herod

Lk 22:66 At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them. 67 “If you are the Christ,’” they said, “tell us.”
Jesus answered, “If I tell you, you will not believe me, 68 and if I asked you, you would not answer. 69 But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.”

Lk 22:70 They all asked, “Are you then the Son of God?”
He replied, “You are right in saying I am.”

Jesus clearly admits He is the Son of God.

At this point, you may still not be convinced.  Maybe Jesus is the Son of God, but is He God?  Let’s keep going.

God the Spirit

Now we consider God the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit.  And we turn to the words of Jesus again.

Jesus Promises the Holy Spirit

Jn 14:15 “If you love me, you will obey what I command. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”

Jn 14:22 Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”

Jn 14:23 Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

Jn 14:25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

God the Father will make the Holy Spirit available after Jesus returns to Heaven.  It completes the Trinity of God.

At least, it completes it if we allow the Holy Spirit to teach you (us) all things and will remind you (us) of everything I have said to you (us).  There’s the thing.  When we fail to accept the Holy Spirit, we also fail to understand what the Bible teaches.  It’s not much more than a bunch of nice stories.  Or maybe horrible stories.  We might even understand some parts, but not really get the whole point.  We’re left with ideas and personal feelings about who God is, but we really don’t have even a basic grasp.

Who is God? – One God, one person or One God multiple persons?

The concept of the Trinity of God is hard.  It’s God.  Why should we expect it to be easy?  I’d be disappointed, and very skeptical, if I could understand everything about God.  He must be far more than I can comprehend.

There are three more clues to give you.  Remember in Genesis when it says:

Ge 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

Oh.  There’s the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.  The Holy Spirit makes His first appearance right in verse 1 of book 1 of the Bible.

Ge 3:15 And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”

This is part of the curse on the Serpent because He tricked Eve and Adam into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Jesus is the one who will crush the serpent’s head.  Jesus is the one who’s heel will be struck by the serpent.

Now we have all three members of the Holy Trinity.

But still, there’s one clue left.

Ge 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Yes, back to verse 1.  Here’s the Hebrew word that is translated “God”:

430 אֱלֹהִים [ʾelohiym /el·o·heem/] n m p. Plural of 433; TWOT 93c; GK 466; 2606 occurrences; AV translates as “God” 2346 times, “god” 244 times, “judge” five times, “GOD” once, “goddess” twice, “great” twice, “mighty” twice, “angels” once, “exceeding” once, “God-ward + 4136” once, and “godly” once. 1 (plural). 1A rulers, judges. 1B divine ones. 1C angels. 1D gods. 2 (plural intensive—singular meaning). 2A god, goddess. 2B godlike one. 2C works or special possessions of God. 2D the (true) God. 2E God.  [2]Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

It’s plural.  One God, singular.  But also plural.  One God – three persons.

Conclusion – Who is God?

At the beginning, we read the Lifeway survey result.

A majority of Americans (70 percent) believe there is one true God in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Eighteen percent disagree. Twelve percent are not sure. This has remained consistent since researchers began asking the question in 2014.

Remember, that means at least 5% of those calling themselves Christians disagree that there is one true God in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  That’s hard to understand.  None of the passages above are obscure.  Anyone who attends church regularly should hear all of them.

The one possibly obscure reference above is the part about “God”, Elohim, being plural.  I honestly don’t know why that isn’t talked about more.  Perhaps it’s out of fear that people will think Christianity is polytheistic.  That Christians believe in multiple “gods”.  Of course, that’s wrong.  We do believe in One God.

But the failure to adequately explain the One God multiple Persons of God teachings in the Bible may lead to basic misunderstandings of who God is.  Given that the Bible gives us these three persons of the Trinity, there must be a reason.  When we read the Bible we do see three different functions.  Three different ways for God to interact with His people.  Even different across time.

And we see a hierarchy of sorts.  The Father at the top.  The Son doing the will of the Father.  And the Spirit to help and teach us.  Ignoring the Trinity ignores those functions and interactions.  While we never will understand God, this prevents us from learning things that we really should know.  It limits what God can do through us.

It’s so sad that our theology is messed up.  It limits what we can do for The Great Commission.  And that hurts everyone.  Even into future generations.


More articles in this series will follow.  Use the subscribe block at the top of receive emails when new articles are published to this site.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

 

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