The Key to the Trinity: The Name Above Every Name

We’re discovering that Christ is the key to getting through our difficulties with the doctrine of the Trinity. The largest such difficulty – one we’ve already spent several articles on – is the objection that the whole triunity doctrine is a human invention that doesn’t come from Scripture.

In my own wrestling with this question, as I have looked long and hard at Christ in various Bible passages, I have often felt like I was part of a shoal of small fish corralled by circling dolphins. The dolphins represent individual features of the Bible passage I’m studying. Each time I try to dart away, a feature from the text comes swimming along and herds me back into the column. And the column they corral the Church into is the confession of the triune God.

For an example, plunge with me into the deep waters of Philippians 2:5-11. Immediately elements of the text begin to confront us. Verse 5 urges us to adopt the mindset of Christ, a mindset that is made visible in 2:6-8 and is divinely endorsed in 2:9-11. As we gaze at the mesmerizing phrases encircling us, we notice that many of them can be sorted into two groups.[1]

Christ and God Are Distinct

One set of features in the text shows that Jesus is distinct from God. In the second half of the passage, God highly exalts Jesus by giving Him a name (v9). The God who exalts Jesus is distinguished from the Jesus He exalts. And when the next verses say that every knee will bow to Christ and confess Him as Lord “to the glory of God the Father” (v11),[2] they again establish a distinction between the Lord Jesus and God.

We must not minimize this distinction. The word “God” never refers to Christ in this passage. Furthermore, in 2:5-8 we don’t read of God the Father humbling Himself or becoming obedient – only Christ. And in 2:9-11, it’s not Christ who bestows a name on the Father, but the other way around. Even the universal acclamation of Jesus as Lord is ultimately done to the glory of God the Father.

For anti-trinitarians, these features distinguishing Christ from God prove that God is not triune. They’ll concede that the passage speaks highly of Christ – every knee will bow to Him – but the final phrase keeps Christology in check, showing that the Father alone is the one true God. What they fail to reckon with is the second set of features in the text.

Christ and God Are the Same

If the first group of features distinguishes Christ from God, the second group points out the oneness between Christ and God:

Like God, Christ exists eternally:existing in the form of God” (2:6; my emphasis).[3]

Christ is in nature God. Note the NIV’s right rendering of verse 6a: “Who, being in very nature God.”[4]

Christ is equal with God: He “did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited” (v6). The sense is not that equality with God was within His reach, but (unlike Adam) He refused to grasp for it. Rather, equality with God was something He always had, but He did not consider it “something to be used to his own advantage” (NIV). Equal with God, the only thing He “grasped” for was to take the form of a servant, come as a man, and give His life on the cross (vv7-8).

From 2:6-8, then, we get Christ’s pre-existence, divine nature and equality with God. But 2:9-11 goes even further, for it identifies Christ as Yahweh, and it does so in two ways. First, the language of every knee bowing and every tongue confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord comes straight from Isaiah 45:23. In this chapter Yahweh repeatedly says that He is God and that “there is no other God” but Him (45:21-22). It’s in this context, in which Yahweh declares His exclusive sovereignty more emphatically than anywhere else in the Bible, that He then says: “Every knee will bow to me, every tongue will swear allegiance” (45:23). The fact that Paul says that every knee will bow to Christ and every tongue confess Him as Lord means he is directly identifying Jesus Christ as Yahweh.[5]

Second, Paul says that God has given to Jesus “the name that is above every name” (2:9). In Paul’s Greek, this is “the name-that-is-above-every-name Name.”[6] Coming from an ex-Pharisee, there can be no doubt which name this is. It is the name Lord/Yahweh, as verse 11 confirms: “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

This second group of elements in the text, then, emphasizes the oneness between Christ and God. He is pre-existent, eternal, equal with God, in nature God, and He is Himself Yahweh.

Corralled Into Confessing the Trinity

So one set of features in the text distinguishes Christ from God; another identifies Christ as God. We must believe both sets. And watch what happens when we do.[7]

We think: “Maybe Jesus is just another mode of God.” But then verses 9 and 11 come swimming along to say: “You can’t go there. Jesus is distinguished from God the Father.”

“Well, then, if He’s distinguished from God, He must be inferior to God.” But then phrases from 2:6-8 and 2:9-11 chase us back, reminding us that Jesus is eternally equal to God and is Yahweh Himself.

We’re running out of options. But we’re creative, so we come up with one more: “If Jesus and God are distinguished yet equal, then there must be two Gods.” Quickly, multiple phrases herd us back, phrases such as “form of God” and “equality with God” (which both imply that there is only one God), and the strictly monotheistic text of Isaiah 45 (from which Paul quotes).

Chastened, we confess: “Then there’s only one remaining way to put all this together. There must be two distinct Persons – the Father and the Son – existing eternally in one God, each the same in terms of nature, but distinct in terms of mutual relations.”[8]

Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity is not man-made; it’s what the Church was corralled into confessing after years and years of Scripture swirling around her, putting her in her place.

[1] Wesley Hill, Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 88. I owe much to Hill’s work on this passage.

[2] Scripture quotations in this article are from the CSB unless otherwise noted.

[3] Hill, 89-90.

[4] Gordon D. Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 377-79.

[5] David S. Yeago, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma: A Contribution to the Recovery of Theological Exegesis,” Pro Ecclesia III, no. 2 (1994): 156-57.

[6] Fee, 397.

[7] The following is influenced by N.T. Wright, quoted in Yeago, 156-57. Yeago’s article is very helpful for those who doubt the Trinity is scriptural.

[8] See Hill, 99-110, who notes that the designation “Father” implies the Son, 97.