The Nature of God in MJT

MAPPING MESSIANIC JEWISH THEOLOGY: A CONSTRUCTIVE APPROACH
Richard Harvey, Paternoster, 2009

This is our Messianic Jewish Musings survey of chapter 4 of Richard Harvey’s newly published study. MJT stands for Messianic Jewish Theology. See here to find MMJT on Paternoster and here to find it on amazon.

The following excerpt from the introduction to Harvey’s fourth chapter captures a great deal of what follows in his rather detailed survey of MJT on the nature of God. I will abridge Harvey’s comments as noted by the ellipses, but I include his remarks at length because they are so informative:

Messianic Jews have yet to develop a full ‘Doctrine of God’, for three reasons. First, Messianic Jews work without a developed theological and philosophical tradition, whereas ‘mainstream’ Judaism and Christianity have centuries’ worth of systematic and philosophical reflection about ‘God’, worked out in diverse historical contexts, upon which they can draw. And whilst the 19th an 20th century forbears of the modern Messianic movement such a Joseph Rabinowitz, Paul Levertoff and Jacob Jocz were concerned with such issues, their works are not generally referred to by contemporary Messianic leaders.

Secondly, Messianic Jews have focused on issues relevant to their own particular apologetic, pastoral and cultural needs. Where Messianic Jews have discussed God, the emphasis has been on the Trinity and the Incarnation . . .

Thirdly, the task of investigating both Jewish and Christian theological traditions, then synthesizing them creatively and coherently into a new theologoumenon is a challenge. It is relatively easy to map the theological trajectories of Judaism and Christianity, demonstrating points of comparison, similarity, contrast and mutual influence or contra-distinction. But there have been few attempts to construct a doctrine of God that produces a coherent statement from a study of the two traditions.

Harvey, in his survey of Messianic documents concerning the nature of God makes the following observations:

(1) When Messianic groups use a doctrinal statement, these are always aligned with Christian views of God and are careful to be orthodox. (Note: Doctrinal statements are more common in Messianic organizations tied to support from Christian organizations and are not a Jewish phenomenon.)

(2) A few have used Christian ideas and Hebrew terminology in a simple attempt to synthesize the two streams.

(3) In a number of studies of the nature of divine revelation, most are reflective of Reformation, Protestant, and evangelical ideas. One unpublished study, the lectures of Mark Kinzer for Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, also reflects a wider array of concerns, including historical critical views of the Bible, the role of tradition and community, and the priority of halakha (practice) over aggadah (story).

(4) A few studies attempt to correlate the Trinity to Jewish concepts (more below about this).

(5) A few studies treat the doctrine of God in light of special Jewish concerns, such as Louis Goldberg’s reflections on the problem of the Holocaust and the nature of God (in God, Torah, Messiah, the posthumous book of his theological writings edited by Rich Robinson of Jews for Jesus and available here).

(6) In his conclusion, Harvey suggests that the doctrine of God is an area in need of much work in MJT. Most studies take the common ground between Judaism and Christianity for granted, but do not get into the nuances of difference, variety, and so on. Harvey lays out a few requirements for a fuller MJT on this topic.

Some MJT Reflections on Trinity in Light of Jewish Traditions
At different levels of complexity, a few Messianic writers have tackled the topic of God’s unity with a view to bridge Jewish and Christian conceptions.

Arnold Fruchtenbaum has written about Maimonides’ use of yachid rather than echad, when formulating his Thirteen Principles of Faith in Judaism. Fruchtenbaum argues that yachid is a stricter kind of unity used by Maimonides in preference over the Biblical word echad in order to more clearly exclude the Christian idea of a Triune God.

David Stern has discussed avoiding the errors of unitarianism (one God, undifferentiated) on the one hand and tritheism (three gods, related) on the other. Stern argues that there is not a need to get too specific in answering the mysteries of God’s plural nature, but to accept it as revelation.

Louis Goldberg has argued that the Hebrew Bible does not rule out the plural nature of God and cites Rashi on Metatron in Exodus 23:20 (Metatron is a late rabbinic conception of the angel of the Lord). Goldberg argues that there is room, even in strictly monotheistic writings for a complexity in God’s unity.

Mark Kinzer, in an MJTI lecture for “The Shape of Messianic Jewish Theology,” speaks of differentiation within the Godhead. God’s creation is characterized by unity in tension with differentiation (for example, man and woman). Kinzer argues that the man/wife relationship is an analogy to the God/Messiah relationship. We should expect to see differentiation in God’s nature and realize God’s own complex nature is reflected in the diverse unity of his creation.

In Harvey’s fifth chapter, dealing with the nature of Yeshua (Christology in Christian theological terms), he will explore the writings of Tsvi Sadan, an Israeli Messianic scholar who explores kabbalah as a paradigm for understanding a differentiated unity of God. (Note: while many have a knee-jerk reaction against kabbalah, it should be noted that some aspects of kabbalah are very closely related to Biblical texts).

Discussion Starters
What Messianic descriptions of the Trinity have you heard and found wanting?

What is your take on the idea of Trinity (please, no dissertations)?

Is the concept of Trinity compatible with Judaism?

Is Judaism’s view of God characterized by deliberate protection against any concept of plural unity in God’s nature?

How has the issue of the Trinity impacted your community or someone you know? Has it been a source of controversy?

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Book Reviews, Christian, Judaism, Mark Kinzer, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Theology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Nature of God in MJT

  1. I’ll start off the discussion by telling a story. I was once in a group of MJ rabbis who said they were concerned about liberalism in some of the directions MJ is taking. They wanted to devise a statement on several topics including the Trinity and the divinity of Messiah. As the discussion started, one rabbi said he saw the Father as God in his ultimate kingship, the Son as God in his role as redeemer, and the Spirit as God in his role as revealer.

    I paused about thirty seconds. No one corrected him. I spoke up and said this is not the doctrine of the Trinity, but is what has long been known as modalism. I found it ironic that these leaders who were outspoken against the spectre of liberalism were unable to articulate theology.

    Derek Leman

  2. rebyosh says:

    Derek:

    Great post!

    Tersely, IMHO the biggest frustration is the tendency (as both you and Harvey point out) to simply use “Christian ideas and Hebrew terminology in a simple attempt to synthesize the two streams.”

    The result is not a truly Messianic JEWISH understanding of G-d. Rather it is the same common Messianic MO of simply taking Christian ideas, pracices, and culture and “covering it with a Tallis” and calling it Jewish.

    However, there are those like Kinzer, Harvey, and others (icluding many from the past already cited above) who have truly attempted(ing) to approach this issue from a knowledgable and informed understanding.

    So I have faith that in time we will truly be able to come closer to an understanding of G-d which is both credible and informed.

  3. I am with David Stern on this – “not a need to get too specific in answering the mysteries of God’s plural nature, but to accept it as revelation.”

    Yeshua said that “I and my Father are one” and “you have seen me, you’ve seen the Father” – I am not wracking my brain beyond that and advise others to do the same. That, combined with the “seven spirits of G-d” mentioned in Revelation 1:4; 3:1; 4:5; and 5:6 usually puts an end to many would-be Trinity discussions.

  4. christian4moses says:

    Like I told you in person, I have great reservations about the compatibility of the Trinity with Judaism not to mention simply the Incarnation.

    We have discussed this together to some extent on my blog so I wont be bringing forth any arguments.

    I have to admit that the more I study Patristic thought leading up to Nicea (which I have only recently started), the more I think I have very little understanding of how exactly the Trinity ‘works’. And the more I wonder how many people that affirm it actually have an idea what they are affirming.

    It is highly complex and the issues that come into play are in my opinion, purely Hellenistic and have very little to do with Judaism. I know that Judaism has not been isolated from Hellenism but think there is quite a big difference in the underpinnings of both systems of thought.

    Having said that, I do feel I have spend quite some time studying NT Christology (albeit as a layman) and think that authors such as James Dunn, Maurice Casey, James Crossley and James McGrath paint a picture that is much more ‘Jewish’ and [therefore] I would say much more appealing.

    Lastly, I wonder why Messianics are going out of their ways to establish the Jewish background for NT sayings and Paul to make them seem more pro-Torah (which perhaps they are), but when it comes to the Incarnation, seem to accept it at face-value.

    Blessings,

    Daniel

  5. siseleanor says:

    Hi, Daniel. From my own point of view it is because you cannot separate the incarnation from Yeshua’s ministry and teaching, death and resurrection. It wasn’t an isolated component – it is intrinsic to the outpouring of grace that is the whole story of Yeshua, it only makes sense as part of the whole. Seeing the Trinity as in a mysterious way mirrored in the unity of family, and of achdus among am Yisroel and wider human community, and in the body of Christ, I don’t find I am left uncomfortable with Trinity as a Jew. But it is a mystery more easily experienced and lived than analysed, perhaps, both on an individual spiritual level and in our limited human attempts to live out achdus, unity.

    Derek, I am puzzled by your saying doctrinal statements are not a Jewish phenomenon – our rov stressed very strongly Yigdal, the Thirteen Principles of Faith, (Rambam). I remember him labouring the point we really should recite it every day. The only place I found a comparable situation was in the church was with the Apostle’s Creed and the Anglican prayerbook, used daily only by the most devout.

  6. siseleanor:

    Yes, but . . . Maimonides is an exception to many things Jewish. He is a paradox. He is a liberal venerated by the Orthodox. He is a philosopher whose philosophical ideas found acceptance because of his Talmudic/halakhic mastery. The thirteen principles are a rare exception and even they are quite different from Christian creeds.

    Derek Leman

  7. tiqun says:

    This is a question that most certainly merits more thinking.

    personally, i don’t speak about it a lot because i do have problems with the concept of trinity. as a messianic Jew i’m a heretic for my jewish friends, and i don’t do the trinity thing, i’m an heretic for my christian friends, too – and for a good deal of messianics as well i guess. if i had to decide of for or against trinity, i admit that i would reject the concept as i do not find it explicitly in the scriptures, and certainly not in the Tanakh. the whole idea and the conflicts during which the term and idea was forged have nothing jewish, imo.

    with this comes another issue: praying to Yeshua, which is something i cannot do -something which which nobody arounds me seems to be able to understand. for me, HaShem is One and there is only HaShem, and only him i pray to, only HaShem is G-d – all else is, though not outright idolatry (“Jesus-latry” as a friend called it), shituf. note: i am not saying that Messiah was a mere more than good man – but the idea of trinity makes me very uncomfortable.

    a friend of mine tries to approach this via kabbalah, and seems to have found some interesting things; he still has yet to find the time to explain them to me…
    the whole things needs to be approached newly, from a jewish point of view – not just coating standard evangelical doctrine with jewish terminology.

    still a lot of work ahead for all of us MJ’s…!

  8. Tiqun:

    I’ve sometimes worked for a while with one-sided solutions also, though not on this issue.

    If I might prod gently here, let me say that worship of Jesus can be a problem in a common Christian culture of God-is-reduced-to-Jesus. There is such a thing as Jesus-olatry when Christians speak only of Jesus as God. It should be clear from Yeshua’s own practice that this is not how he would commend worship.

    Yet, the worship of the lamb is a theme in Revelation and is mentioned in Philippians 2 and many other places. I think a mature MJ must include worship of Yeshua.

    As far as the Messianic unitarianism you are suggesting (and I’m guessing you are open to rethinking), I don’t think you are using all the evidence of the sacred texts. Forget about Trinity and whether three is the magic number for God’s differentiated unity or not. I’m not hung up on the number three (though Matt 28:19 is a good example of Trinity).

    But I think you will run into problems saying Messiah is not divine. I don’t think you do justice to the apostolic teaching. Daniel (Christian4Moses) can differ with me on this, but I’ll leave it here for now.

    Meanwhile, Judaism is more than diverse enough on these matters to allow for a differentiation and plurality in the nature of God. The Lubavitch are able to negotiate a divine Schneerson with monotheism. Kabbalah is able to speak of emanations. The Shekhina/memra/word of God/metatron/angel of Hashem and similar ideas suggest complexity, not unitarianism.

    Derek Leman

    • tiqun says:

      the thing is i think he’s divine, but i don’t know how to “stick the things together”. for sure i am open to rethinking, as a matter of fact fact i’m trying to learn and figure things out on this one. hopefully, i’ll be able to understand some, whether it by discussing things with the Lubavitch, or kabbalah, or simply let it stand as amystery than human mind cannot fully grasp. what i wrote before is not a definite point of view, rather where i have been in the past and am now, moving on to discover more.

      part of it is maybe just a reaction to the “extreme” Jesus-only, Jesus-only-God worship where i lack G-d himself being worshipped.

      i know that strict unitarism doesn’t quite work exactly either…

  9. judeoxian says:

    I’ll just answer them in the order you asked, and I’ll try to keep it short.

    What Messianic descriptions of the Trinity have you heard and found wanting?

    I’m open but skeptical of kabbalistic explanations of the Trinity. Not that I’m paranoid of kabbalah, but I’m skeptical of Messianics’ understanding of kabbalah. From what little I’ve read regard kabbalah, the sefirot are not “persons” in the theological sense, but emanations of God’s attributes. To me, this, mixed with Yeshua and the Spirit, would just create a mystical form of modalism. Yet, I readily acknowledge that I could be way off in my understanding of kabbalah.

    Second, is the explanation that persona originally meant “mask.” Well, it was used that way in Greco-Roman theater, but not by the Church Fathers. Again, this leads to nothing but modalism. God putting on another mask.

    Another one is that people are “body, soul, and spirit” and that God is “Father, Son, and Spirit.” (Unless you only believe people are “body and soul.”) This is faulty because it makes each person of the Godhead only a part of God, that when added together, equals us God. So “God” becomes something (or someone) other than “Father, Son, Spirit,” a sort of fourth person, like Voltron.

    Yet another, a pastor says, “To you, I’m a pastor, to my wife, a husband, and to my kids, a father. That’s what God as Father, Son, and Spirit are like.” Nope, but that’s a great explanation of modalism.

    The only illustration of God’s nature that I find somewhat satisfactory, and carefully share, it the one used by Tertuallian in the early 3rd century. He used the sun as an illustration of the relationship of the members of the Godhead. The star itself is like the Father (source), the rays of light are like the Son (radiance), and the heat of the light is like the Spirit (action).

    What is your take on the idea of Trinity?

    First and foremost, I affirm the Trinity (per the Nicene Creed), not because it exhaustively explains the nature of God, but because it guards the eternal mystery of his essence. With that being said, there are three primary reasons I affirm it. First, I believe it is what the Scriptures teach (especially in the Greek). Second, the Creed was hammered out and refined over literally hundreds of years (so lots of voices). Third, it has been at the center of Christian theology since then (whether Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant). Also important to me, is that the majority of Messianic Jews accept the Trinity when they come to faith in Yeshua.

    Is the concept of Trinity compatible with Judaism?

    I would say yes. The center of the Trinity is the Shema, just as it is in Judaism. In the Incarnation, the Word of God became flesh in a Galilean Jew. At the general resurrection of the dead, the King of Israel will sit on his throne in Jerusalem to judge the nations.

    Though I don’t have the time to go into all of it, I don’t think the Trinity is incompatible with the 13 Principles of faith either.

    Is Judaism’s view of God characterized by deliberate protection against any concept of plural unity in God’s nature?

    I don’t think so. Maybe to a small degree.

    When Judaism looks at Christianity, the typical Jew don’t look at it from “high theological” perspective (plurality vs. unitary Godhead). Rather, Christianity is generally characterized as worshiping a man. Which, if Christianity thought Yeshua was just a man, then those perspectives would be justified.

    In those cases where Jewish scholars have interacted with Christian theology (such as Phinchas Lapide), a trinitarian Godhead has been acknowledged to be an acceptable form of monotheism for Gentiles, but not the pure monotheism required for Jews.

    We have to come to terms with the fact that this topic is unavoidable because of how central it is in defining who we are. It is not an abstract “angels on the head of a pin” discussion. Rather, it touches on foundational issues like “Who is God you worship?” “What is an is not idolatry” and already mentioned above, “Who do we pray to?” These are not peripheral issues, but absolutely central to who we are.

    Our identity crisis in the Messianic movement, I think, stems from a superficial treatment of issues such as these.

    In the future of the Messianic Jewish movement, I would like to more, like Daniel K, asking hard questions, interacting with modern scholarship, and becoming familiar with the history of this doctrine in the Church Fathers and in Judaism. For starters though, I think many just need to be educated about what exactly the doctrine of the Trinity is (without the poor illustrations I listed above).

    Paul Phillip Levertoff dedicated his life’s work to this issue. He saw the doctrine of the Trinity expressed within the Jewish doctrine of the Shekinah. Unfortunately, his work “Christ and the Shekinah” has been lost. It is my hope that we can recover what he lost, and from there articulate a distinctive theology that is both uncompromisingly Messianic and authentically Jewish.

    So much for keeping it short :)

  10. judeoxian that was very good. As a Christian I affirm the trinity but what I find is that most Christians (including myself) don’t have a very strong grasp of it and would find it hard to explain. In fact most explanations are probably quite close to what the early Church would have condemned as heresy. I remember a few years ago listening to Perry Stone teach on the Trinity and he said that he preferred the word Tri-unity rather than Trinity. I most admit I liked that. I doubt if anyone will ever be able to satisfactorily explain the Trinity this side of Eternity, although this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t explore it. After all in studying the Trinity we are studying God which will bring us closer to God in my view.

  11. judeoxian says:

    @ Peter – Trinity and Tri-unity are essentially the same word. Both come from the Latin trinitas, a term first used by Tertullian in reference to God (c.200).

    @ Peter and Derek – Thank you for your kind words

    Grace and peace

  12. Pingback: Jewish POV: Messianic Judaism | Derech HaTorah

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