A Hermeneutic upon the Godhead

It is usually eschatology that is deemed to be the litmus test of a person's hermeneutic; yet ultimately it is not our understanding of the end times but our understanding of the Godhead that is crucial. The question that Jesus challenges us with is 'What think ye of Christ?'[1] not 'When is the church raptured?' Peter was blessed because he perceived the Jesus was the Christ the Son of the Living God[2] not because he had solved the riddle of Ezekiel's temple.

Of course the nature of the Godhead is fairly well understood and agreed within conservative Christian circles. In fact one might define conservative Christian circles as being those with a good understanding and agreement regarding the Godhead. However a brief reading of any dictionary or commentary upon the subject will show that the subject is so well considered that a term such as 'Christ' rapidly branches out into a vast array of titles and subjects. This is helpful in immersing a believer in the sound doctrine that has already been gleaned by other brethren using a good hermeneutic.

Notwithstanding the aim of this essay is to take a more primitive approach. Rather than assuming the end-game, however sound that may be, my goal is to build an understanding of three titles: Christ, God and Holy Spirit. Hopefully this understanding will be based upon simple and clear biblical definitions that could then be used as building blocks towards a richer and fuller theology.

The dictionaries are unanimous in declaring that Christ is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew word 'Messiah'. That natural first step in understanding this word is thus to go to the Old Testament and see what it says about the Messiah. The answer is interesting. Whilst Messianic prophecy pervades the old testament from the Pentateuch onwards[3] the word Messiah only occurs twice; both times in Daniel 9. The two facts that Daniel therefore unequivocally associates with the Christ are the exact time of His arrival[4] and that He will be killed for the benefit of others[5]. It is fascinating that whilst the Jewish theology of the Messiah was well developed[6] one of the two actual facts that had been told had been completely overlooked or rejected. Even Peter who was granted the revelation that Jesus was the Christ[7] clearly would not accept that Messiah should be cut off[8].

Eastman and the American Tract Society Dictionary also point out that Christ means the 'anointed one' and that therefore He was the anointed prophet, priest and king. Whilst this is clearly true I am not sure whether the is giving us our theology or our theology is allowing us to over-read the meaning of the title. The use of Messiah in John 1:41 and even John 4:25 where it is used by a Samaritan suggests that the had become associated with a particular office. Therefore at least the first meaning of the word has to be taken as titular rather than descriptive. In fact for the purposes of evangelism Paul's use of Christ[9] is tied exactly to the definition of the word used in Daniel.

The word God, at least within the KJV is rather less controversial. It is a rendering of the Hebrew 'elohiym' and some other variants of that word. It is a plural which can refer to gods but more commonly where the plural renders the word as a superlative. Some claim that the plural is indicative of the multiplicity (ie. trinity) within the Godhead. Smith's Bible Dictionary states that the word means strength or power of effect. That said I am again a little nervous of deriving too much from the etymology as the term clearly has a titular nature. To my knowledge the Bible does not directly define elohiym[10]; however God Himself defines the meaning of "Y@hovah 'el" in Ex 34:6-7 "The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation" Personally I side with the ATSD in noting that the word God is first used; and very frequently so in the creation narrative. Perhaps God as creator is the safest simple definition.

A much more controversial term is Jehovah which is rendered 'God' in many Bibles, Jehovah in some and as lord in the KJV. The question is whether this refers to the Father or the Son. The American Tract Society states that the name of God is Jehovah and that his position or office is Elohim. Easton side-steps the question and simply notes that Jehovah is rendered "LORD" in the KJV. Smith considers Jehovah to denote the one true God as it is never used to refer to false gods. The issue of course is that Jehovah is really a third person variant of "I AM" which is a that Christ lays first claim to. On the basis of this there are those that take Jehovah to be the pre-incarnate Christ. However the first ten occurrences of Jehovah[11] all appear in the compound expression Jehovah Elohim which becomes an ugly compound if viewed as a list of people. I don't honestly know the answer to this one other that to suggest that Jehovah is possibly the name of the Godhead and that Messiah and Elohim are essentially offices within 'that'.

The Holy Spirit is another word that is developed much more fully in the New Testament than the Old. In fact it is a much rarer expression in general with forty one of the ninety five occurrences appearing in the book of Acts. However there are three references in the Old Testament which are quite suggestive. In Psalm 51:11 we see the psalmist asking that the Holy Spirit should not be taken from him. Is 63:10 has the Holy Spirit being grieved and then Is 63:11 the Holy Spirit appears to be indwelling those that are brought out of Egypt.

The dictionaries again have a very developed view of the Spirit citing His personality and deity and His active participation in many forms of divine behavior. These are certainly true but a scan of the verses containing the expression Holy Spirit in the Matthew are suffice to point a very similar picture. Firstly we find that the Spirit was the active agent in the conception of the Messiah[12]. We find that the reception of the Spirit is one of the Messiah's transforming characteristics[13]. As in the Old Testament we find that grieving the Spirit is a heinous sin[14]. Finally we see that the Holy Spirit is one of the names that converts are to be baptized under[15]. Mark adds the notion that the Spirit prompted the words of Holy men of old[16] and would do so for the disciples[17]. Luke agrees with the preceding but then notes five times[18] that the Spirit can indwell people.

John adds the interesting angle that the Holy Spirit was not received until the Lord was glorified[19]. This is a little strange given the witness of the Isaiah and Luke. The only reasonable explanation I can think of is that there was some distinction as to the degree of Spirit allocated within the various dispensations. This could tie in with the prophecies of the Spirit coming that appear to suggest there would be a time when it would come in abundance[20].

In this brief description we have seen that the Messiah is the name given to Him that would come and then be rejected. This was rendered Christ in the New Testament and was used by Paul in the Old Testament meaning. God is a rendering of Elohim and refers to the father as seen in his creatorship and other characteristics. It was suggested that Jehovah appears to refer to both father and son and thus may be a name that applies to the whole trinity. Finally the Holy Spirit was seen as one that indwells believers and yet that is co-equal with father and son.

Ultimately it is the fate of any writer on the subject of the Trinity that they will do a woefully inadequate job of capturing even a piece of the glory that exists. This essay aimed to be primitive and to define major terms from the verses in which they were used. I hope that some of the insight gleaned enhances our appreciation of this major subject to some extent.


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