I. THE FIRST POINT OF THE VISION—CONCERNING THE DIVINE TRINITY
A. The Revelation in the Bible—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit
My burden is not to give you lessons one after another; rather, my burden is to give you a secret so that you will have something to apply when you go out to preach the gospel by door-knocking. The secret is the revelation and vision of God. Beginning with this message we will use one scene after another to speak about the revelations of God and explain the visions that we have seen therein. The Bible contains God’s revelations, but you need to see them. Once you see them, they become visions.
The first scene of the revelation in the Bible is the Triune God—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. When Christianity was first brought to China, the missionaries translated their biblical knowledge and some theological doctrines into Chinese. It was not an easy task in those early days. The Bible does not have the expression the Triune God; the earliest Chinese translation of the term Trinity was san-wei-i-t’i, that is, “three persons, one substance.” Hence, before we speak about the revelation of the Triune God, we need to know the history of the development of Christianity in China.
The Doctrine of “Three Persons, One Substance” in Chinese Christian Theology
In A.D. 431 the Council of Ephesus condemned the sect of Nestorius as heretical. However, this sect gained many believers in Syria and was protected by the Persian Empire. In the seventh century, during the Tang Dynasty, Nestorianism spread into China. At the same time, it spread also to southern India and became the origin of Christianity in India. The missionaries who brought Nestorianism to China concentrated their activities mostly in the region of Sian, the capital at that time, and they preached primarily to the officials and scholars. Nestorianism was received by several emperors, and a number of temples were built. Today there is still a Nestorian tablet with an inscription that contains the phrase ch’ing feng, which literally means “clear breeze,” denoting the Holy Spirit. This implies that Nestorianism did not have much knowledge of the truth. Later, the flourishing of Buddhism influenced some of the emperors who prohibited the activities of Nestorianism and destroyed its temples. Eventually, due to its lack in truth and life, Nestorianism vanished.
In the sixteenth century during the Ming Dynasty, Catholicism spread to China. The Catholics rendered the Holy Spirit as the Holy God and rendered God as the Lord of Heaven; this brought in some difficulties in translation. Later, the Western missionaries went to the Orient. Generally, the translations put out by the various denominations were about the same, and even some of the expressions were the same as those used in Catholicism. It was then that the term Trinity was translated into Chinese as san-wei-i-t’i, which literally means “three persons, one body (substance).” I was born, educated, and reared in Christianity, and I also memorized the doctrine of san-wei-i-t’i. Yet I did not understand what it was all about, nor did I know whether the word t’i refers to a group of people as a corporate body, to the physical body, or to a body with a shape. In 1958 while I was traveling in Greece, I saw a painting in an Eastern Orthodox Church of a man with a body and three heads who looks like a monster. When I saw that, I felt that it corresponds with the phrase “three persons, one body” that I read in my youth.
Until this day I still do not fully understand what the phrase “three persons, one body” refers to in Chinese theology. The most important statement in Chinese theology about the Trinity is that there should be “neither the confounding of persons nor the dividing of the body (substance).” The “persons” are the three Persons in the Godhead—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. That there should be no confounding of persons means that the Father is the Father, the Son is the Son, and the Spirit is the Spirit; there should be no confounding of the three. Furthermore, the “body (substance)” is one and cannot be divided. This is the primary significance of the doctrine of the Trinity in Chinese theology.
(The Revelation and Vision of God, Chapter 1, by Witness Lee)