Revelation 1:4--Greetings from the Trinity?
A Trinitarian friend brought this to my attention recently, and the more I thought about it, the more puzzled I became. We were talking about the greetings in the epistles, and he said that he had a greeting that ends all discussion on the Godhead: Revelation 1:4 "Grace and peace to you from him who was, and is, and is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the earth."
How could, he argued, all three [the One on the throne (presumably the Father), the seven Spirits or the Seven-fold spirit of God (presumably the Holy Spirit), and Jesus Christ Himself) distinctly send greetings if they are not distinct persons? While other greetings or benedictions can be explained in non-tripersonal terms, here we seem to have each three-fold component showing evidence of personhood by individually sending greetings. While I can understand a distinction being made between the Father and Son because of the incarnation, what about the additional greeting from the Holy Spirit?
If we are going to use this passage to count persons in God, then let's be literal. There is one on the throne, seven Spirits, and one Jesus. If I remember something about math this equals nine. If Trinitarians want to use the distinctions found in this passage to count persons, why don't they take the only numeral (seven) in the passage seriously, concluding that there are nine persons greeting us? Why are the seven Spirits not interpreted as seven distinct persons? It is not interpreted that way because it is inconsistent with Trinitarian doctrine. Other ways are sought to explain the "seven." Some translations have translated the phrase as the "seven-fold Spirit," even though the Greek literally says "seven spirits" [plural].1 While I would agree that it is probably acceptable to interpret the Greek as "seven-fold Spirit," that interpretation is based on theological considerations, not grammatical or syntactical considerations. We know from other passages that there is only one Spirit, not seven. It is the macro-teaching of Scripture that prevents us from concluding that there are seven persons of the Spirit.
If the macro-teaching of Scripture can inform our understanding of the "seven Spirits," altering our interpretation or even translation of the same, then the macro-teaching of Scripture should also inform us as to whether or not we should use this one passage to conclude that God is three persons. Seeing that we would not interpret this passage to mean that there are nine persons greeting us, neither do I find warrant from this passage to conclude that there are three persons greeting us. If God is three persons, evidence must be found for this on the macro-level.
The difficulty we encounter in Revelation 1:4 may be explained by examining the greetings found in the NT that say something similar to "Greetings from God, and the Father, and Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 5:20; Colossians 1:3; 3:17; James 1:27). Trinitarians are insistent that "God" and "Father" refer to the same person in these texts even though two distinct designations are given for that one person. They would never say there are three persons being referred to. Even in the modern translations it is common for Trinitarians to translate the first kai as "even," and translate the second kai as "and." While I believe this is a valid translation (and the preferred translation) because it is within the semantic domain of kai, it does not need to be translated this way. Why is it then? It is because of an already developed theology. Trinitarians and Oneness believers both recognize that "God" and "Father" refer to the same person, and thus the more infrequent meaning of kai (even) is chosen.
How Trinitarians choose to look at these passages comes from their existing understanding of the relationship of "God" and "Father." I could just as well, however, translate both kais as "and," making a distinction of personhood between "God" and "Father." What prohibits me from doing so?--the rest of Scripture! On the micro-level, just looking at the grammar of these particular texts I could say there are three different persons being referred to, without the mention of some fourth person called the Holy Spirit. On the macro-level, however, my error of thought would soon be revealed.
Revelation 1:4 should be approached in a similar manner to the greeting passages discussed above. On the micro-level, in isolation from other passages, it could possibly be translated and interpreted to refer to three distinct persons. The question is whether or not this conclusion would fit with the macro teaching of Scripture (See my article titled Why Be a Trinitarian?).
How to Do Theology
Is Revelation 1:4 a difficult passage? Yes, but there are just as many difficult texts for Trinitarians as there are for Oneness believers. The Godhead issue will not be solved by examining the evidence solely on the micro-level. We must first establish a Biblical foundation upon which to interpret difficult texts. We build that foundation through observing the Biblical data as a whole, not an isolated and difficult verse here and there. When it comes to the Oneness vs. Trinity debate we must ask ourselves which view is better supported by the larger picture of Scripture. While there may be verses which seem to indicate a Trinity of eternal persons on the micro-level, we would only be justified in concluding that God is indeed a Trinity if such an interpretation is supported on the macro-level. If Trinitarianism cannot be supported on a macro-level of exegesis, then we should not interpret particular verses within a Trinitarian construct.
Every theological system can be likened to a chain. There is no perfect chain. Chains have both strong and weak links. Choosing a good chain involves finding the chain with the greatest number of strong links and fewest number of weak links. The same applies in theology. Every theological chain has strong links, but even the best theological chains have weak links. To "choose" a good theological chain is not to find a theology with no difficulties, but a theology with the greatest strengths and fewest weaknesses. People, however, have the tendency to hold on to weakly supported doctrines simply because 3 out of the 100 links on the theological chain have yet to be broken (i.e. proven to be in error) by another theological system. The fact that 97 links have been broken is simply ignored. Just as it would be intellectually absurd to believe we have dismantled a theological chain of 100 links simply because we have exposed 3 weak links in it, it is also intellectually absurd to hold on to a theological chain with three remaining strong links simply because those three have yet to be broken. Every theological system is imperfect. Our goal cannot be to find the theological chain with no weak links, or to hang on to the chain that has that one unbroken link, but to find and adopt the chain with the greatest number of strong links, and the least number of weak links. As a good friend of mine once said, "I do not ask for a theology that solves all of my problems; rather I simply desire a teaching that makes the most sense of the biblical record and takes the whole text seriously." Ockham had a good razor!
Finding one verse that "sounds" Trinitarian does not discount the majority of the Biblical witness that argues against such a conclusion. Even heretics appeal to Scripture in support of their teachings. As Richard Rice said, "The Scriptures contain such vast and varied material that it is not difficult to surround an idea with biblical quotations. The crucial question is whether the idea is faithful to the overall biblical portrait of God." To judge any theological system, then, we must question whether or not it accurately reflects the Biblical teaching as a whole, or if it has merely found Biblical statements to support an unbiblical theology.
We must interpret the difficult passages in light of the macro teaching of Scripture even though our conclusions may not always be to our complete satisfaction, nor to the complete satisfaction of those of the opposing position. While I understand that hermeneutics is spiral in nature, interpretation on the level being discussed here must be done from the macro to the micro-level, not vice-versa. While we must grapple with the Biblical text on the micro-level, we can only do so after having established the Biblical teaching on God on the macro-level, and the macro-level of Scripture will not support the Trinitarian conclusions. If Trinitarianism is not assumed from the beginning there would be no reason to interpret Revelation 1:4 in the fashion your friend is interpreting it.
1. As does the Amplified Bible and New Living Translation.
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