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The Worldwide Church of God

Acknowledging the "Plain Truth" About the Trinity

by Alan W. Gomes

from the Christian Research Journal, Spring/Summer 1994, page 29. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.

Since Herbert W. Armstrong's death in 1986, cult apologists have watched the 100,000-member Worldwide Church of God (WCG) move "tentatively in the direction of orthodoxy."[1] As Ruth A. Tucker observes, "I can't recall a movement that has made change from the top down in similar circumstances."[2] Though Christian apologists to this point have not been "ready to issue a clean bill of theological health"[3] to the WCG, that time may be soon approaching if the present trajectory of doctrinal change continues.

The WCG leadership has instituted changes on a wide range of issues, touching matters both practical and theological.[4] Of all the changes taking place, the most remarkable is their new position on the Trinity. To appreciate fully the magnitude of the changes, some only months old, it will first be helpful to examine Armstrong's position on the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the Incarnation.


Armstrong assailed the doctrine of the Trinity as pagan-inspired.[5] In his attack he sounds much like the Jehovah's Witnesses. Armstrong's positive teaching, however, has little in common with the Watchtower.

Armstrong seems to start out on a much more orthodox footing, ascribing both deity and eternality to Christ. Speaking of Christ as the Word in John 1:1, Armstrong states: "The Greek word [in John 1:1] is 'Logos.'...who co-existed with the Father from eternity -- who always existed -- who is one with the Father...the 'WORD,' who was the ETERNAL...the very GOD Himself -- HE WAS MADE FLESH."[6] In direct contradiction to the Watchtower position, Armstrong even applies the title "Yahweh" to Jesus.[7]

The "Family of God" -- Armstrong Style

From this seemingly good beginning, Armstrong quickly dashes our hopes when he introduces the odd notion that the Godhead is a "family."[8] In classic WCG theology, this "family" is described as "open," and not "intractably closed" like the Trinity.[9] In eternity past there were only two members of this family: the Father and the Son. During the three days Jesus was dead, there was only one member. After Christ was raised there were again two. At the Resurrection, when Christians become God (not gods but God), they are added to the "God family." There is but one family (i.e., God), but the family can have many members.[10]

All true Christians will be "born again" at the Resurrection, when they will become God. The Christian will actually be God, "even as Jesus was and is God, and His Father, a different person, also is God."[11] Armstrong's doctrine should be distinguished, at least semantically, from the Mormon doctrine of plurality of gods. Unlike Joseph Smith or Brigham Young, Armstrong does not speak of more than one God, but of many members in the one God family. Yet, the differences between this and polytheism appear more semantic than real.

What about the Holy Spirit? In classic WCG theology, the Holy Spirit is not a person but is variously described as a "force," a "power," the "mind," or the "very essence" of God. Armstrong denied that the Holy Spirit is "a distinct person as is the Father or Christ."[12]

The Incarnation in Armstrong's Teaching

Armstrong states that Jesus lost his divinity in the Incarnation and was converted (Armstrong's word) into a human being.[13] Armstrong takes the expression "the Word became flesh" in the literal sense of conversion into flesh, not in the sense of the Word assuming an additional, human nature. The Word, now fully and exclusively human, could die on the cross and make redemption for our sins.[14] Though the Word experienced metamorphosis into human flesh, he can still be called God because he is the same person with the same will, simply transformed from a spirit nature into corporeal humanity.

When Christ died, he literally ceased to exist. Armstrong regarded death as the cessation of existence; he (like the Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists) denied the existence of an entity called the soul, which survives the death of the body. But in a bizarre way, Armstrong's "God family" view allows him to answer the common Watchtower objection, "If Jesus is God, then who ran the universe while God was dead?" His answer: "God the Father -- God in the First Person -- still reigned in His Heaven...."[15] "If there was no FATHER in heaven while Jesus Christ lay dead," Armstrong tells us, "then all life everywhere had come to an end!"[16]

Orthodox Trinitarianism, Version 1.0

In June of 1993 some landmark meetings on the doctrine of the Trinity took place at the WCG headquarters in Pasadena, California. These conferences involved high-ranking directors, teachers, administrators, and Ambassador College faculty.[17] In a three-part series of articles in the Worldwide News, current WCG president Joseph Tkach explained the new teaching on the Godhead. (Note that the Worldwide News is not a public relations piece but is intended for members only.)

Even before these meetings, church leaders had already abandoned Armstrong's "God family" doctrine. Indeed, Tkach himself compared "the idea of more than one being in a family or hierarchy of gods" to "the concept that the polytheistic nations surrounding Israel taught"[18] -- more than a little ironic when one recalls that in the past it was the doctrine of the Trinity that the WCG considered pagan! Also, before the meetings the church had affirmed the full and unique divinity of the Father and the Son, while continuing to deny the personhood of the Holy Spirit.[19] Thus, the personhood of the Holy Spirit remained the final stumbling block.

The WCG appears to have finally removed this stumbling block, though they are quite sensitive about their mode of statement. On the one hand, Tkach now unambiguously states that "the Holy Spirit is personal."[20] Tkach provides a catena of citations -- ones often cited by Trinitarians -- to demonstrate the personality of the Holy Spirit. These passages show that the Holy Spirit speaks, wills, sends, and so forth.[21] Yet, the WCG still does "not use the pronoun 'he' when speaking of the Holy Spirit"; they continue to use the pronoun "it."[22] Additionally, even though the members of the Godhead are personal, the WCG is reluctant to use the term person in reference to the three, preferring instead the Greek term hypostasis.

In Search of Just the Right Word

Tkach identifies a problem with the word "person" as applied to the Godhead. It most naturally suggests three separate beings: "The ordinary meaning of the word 'Person' is misleading when it is applied to God. It gives the impression that God has limits, and that his threeness lies in his being three separate individuals -- which is not the case ..." (emphasis in original).[23] Thus, the term "person" is unsuitable for the members of the Godhead, since the word "is easily misunderstood by the average person when referring to God, unless it is accompanied by an explanation that 'Persons' in the Godhead should not be thought of in the same way as 'persons' like you and me...."[24]

Tkach points out that the original Latin word persona did not have the same connotation as the English word "person." The Latin persona carried the sense of a "mask" worn by the actors in a play. This concept, though not subject to the tritheistic interpretation suggested by the English understanding of person, nevertheless is misleading in a different way: "It is misleading because the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not mere roles being played by God, and because an actor can play only one role at a time, quite unlike God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all the time...."[25]

Yet, God is certainly personal. It would be a serious error to describe God as impersonal. Tkach states: "On the other hand, God does interact with us in a personal way. It is wrong, therefore, to say that God is impersonal" (emphasis in original).[26] Thus, even though the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are personal, the "extra baggage"[27] carried by the term "person" makes it necessary to seek other vocabulary to express the position.

The Holy Spirit: "He" or "It"?

Granting that the Holy Spirit is personal, Tkach asks, "Why do we not use the pronoun 'he' when speaking of the Holy Spirit?"[28] "The answer," he responds, "is a matter of grammar, not a matter of whether the Spirit is personal."[29] Tkach explains:

I shall comment momentarily on the validity of this argument. At this point, it is sufficient to note that the ascription of "it" to the Holy Spirit does not mean what it formerly did in WCG theology -- that the Holy Spirit is impersonal. Though Tkach did not draw the parallel, it is a bit like the King James translators who rendered the neuter pronoun "it" in reference to the Holy Spirit, though they themselves did not mean to undermine the personhood of the Holy Spirit, rightly understood. Also, note that when the Holy Spirit is described by the term "Counselor," then the WCG does indeed use the pronoun "he" to refer to him.[32]

Hypostasis -- A Better Term than "Person"?

Tkach proclaims that the Worldwide Church now uses the Greek term hypostasis in preference to the English word "person": "Our teaching is that God is one Being, existing eternally in three hypostases: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."[33] Unlike the term "person," the word hypostasis is used biblically in a Trinitarian context. Hebrews 1:3 states that the Son is the "brightness [apaugasma] of his [God's] glory and the express image [charakter] of his person/being [hypostaseos]."

The relationship between the Son and the Father expressed in this verse is as the relationship between brightness and glory, Tkach explains. In good Patristic[34] fashion (though without mentioning any such writers), Tkach says, "One cannot simply have radiance without the source of radiance, or a source of radiance without the radiance itself. Yet we distinguish between God's glory and the radiance of that glory. They are distinct, without being separate...."[35]

Now, what of the word hypostasis itself? How is it to be translated? Tkach observes that some versions translate this as "being," while others render it as "person." He defines hypostasis as follows: "The word means 'standing under' in literal terms. It refers to that which 'stands under,' or that which makes something what it is. Here's a good definition of hypostasis: 'That without which something cannot be.' It could be called 'the ground of being.'"[36] In the next paragraph Tkach concludes: "This is the word we have chosen to use of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is a biblical term and it does not confuse God's nature with the created order. Our teaching is that God is one Being, existing eternally in three hypostases: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."[37]


I believe the Worldwide Church of God is to be commended for producing an explanation of the Trinity which, in the main, addresses the concerns of thoughtful Trinitarians. It is thoroughly Patristic in vocabulary (though not by design), and apparently in intent, affirming one God who exists eternally in three hypostases: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, a few critical observations are in order.[*]

Hebrews 1:3 and Trinitarian Language

While Tkach has rightly understood the meaning of hypostaseos in Hebrews 1:3, he has missed the obvious fact that hypostasis so defined does not provide him with the linguistic handle he needs to speak of the personal distinctions in the Godhead. Tkach defines hypostasis as "that which makes something what it is."[38] This is one of the correct definitions of the word hypostasis, and is the one to be adopted in translating Hebrews 1:3.[39] But hypostasis thus defined describes the divine being, not the personal distinctions within that being. The final form of the Trinitarian formula used by the Christian church affirms "one ousia [i.e., 'being'], three hypostases." In this formula the word hypostasis carries the sense of an individual instance of an ousia, that is, a person. The definition Tkach gives for hypostasis -- "that which makes something what it is" -- is the equivalent of ousia (Greek) or substantia (Latin) as used in the official Trinitarian formula, not the equivalent of hypostasis as used in that same formula. Yet, contrary to his definition and to its use in Hebrews 1:3, Tkach wishes to use hypostasis for distinguishing the Trinitarian persons.

The range of meaning for the word hypostasis posed challenges to the early Fathers who used it in Trinitarian discussions. The Nicene Creed of A.D. 325 explicitly anathematizes those who speak of the Son as a "different hypostasis or ousia" from the Father. Here the terms are precisely synonymous and refer to the divine being itself, not to the personal distinctions. The Creed of A.D. 325 provides no word to express the distinctions in the Godhead. In this sense the Nicene formula was a bit of a "theological halfway house," awaiting further refinements. Later, the Cappadocian Fathers used the word hypostasis to express the distinctions in the Godhead.[40] At the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381, the previously mentioned anathema was removed and the standard formula became "one ousia, three hypostases."

Tkach is hamstrung by his insistence on using purely "biblical language" (that is, words found verbatim in the Bible) to describe the Trinity. Unfortunately, the biblical use of hypostasis does not serve the purpose he requires. Indeed, in Hebrews 1:3, it is the words apaugasma ["radiance"] and charakter ["express image"], not hypostaseos, which more properly describe the Son as a personal distinction in the Godhead. If we were to hold Tkach to his "biblical" definition of hypostasis, then he has certainly taught tritheism in affirming three hypostases in the Godhead. However, because Tkach specifically denies tritheism, it seems to be a case of imprecise thinking rather than of tritheistic intent.

Thus, Tkach has affirmed the correct formula, but for the wrong reason. He could easily avoid this problem by recognizing that the issue is not whether the words used are "biblical," but whether that which is expressed by them is. Recall that the Arians (whom Tkach regards as heretical) attacked the orthodox for using "unbiblical" expressions such as homoousios ["same being"] to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son.[41] Meanwhile, the "biblical" Arians referred to Christ by the biblical phrase "only begotten" -- which they defined as "created." Yet, which party reflected faithfully the teaching of Scripture?

Personal Pronouns and the Holy Spirit

For the sake of discussion, let us grant Tkach's thesis that we should translate pronouns precisely according to their gender. What then of John 16:13-14, which Tkach passes over in silence? In this passage the masculine pronoun ekeinos, translated "he," is used with the neuter noun pneuma (Spirit), here stressing the personality of the Holy Spirit. As Leon Morris cogently observes, "The conjunction, ekeinos, to pneuma ['he, the Spirit'] noteworthy, with the masculine pronoun in immediate juxtaposition to the neuter noun. It emphasizes the fact that John thought of the Spirit as personal."[42] It would seem that John was willing at times to bend the rules of Greek grammar to make the point that the Holy Spirit is a person.

The WCG's decision to continue referring to the Holy Spirit as "it" will certainly generate misunderstanding. Since the word "it" in English connotes impersonality, the WCG will give the impression Tkach explicitly says they wish to avoid. Indeed, if "the ordinary meaning of the word 'Person' is misleading when applied to God,"[43] is it not equally misleading to speak of the personal Holy Spirit as "it"? Will WCG writers provide a tortuous (and linguistically flawed) discussion of grammatical gender at the beginning of every publication referring to the Holy Spirit as "it"?


The WCG's newly revised statement on the Trinity is certainly a step forward. It has adopted the proper and well-established Trinitarian formula: one God in three hypostases. In using the term hypostases to denote the persons in the Godhead the church stands in the centuries-old tradition of historic Christian orthodoxy. Unfortunately, while the use of hypostasis is fine, the attempt to base it on Hebrews 1:3 involves difficulties. Also, the church now affirms the personhood of the Holy Spirit, which is a vast improvement -- even if WCG leaders are overly solicitous about their choice of pronouns. These are problems that may be overcome if there is a willingness to continue additional refinement.

[*] Editor's note: On April 14, 1994 the Christian Research Institute held a promising initial meeting with officials of the Worldwide Church of God. In that meeting the WCG officials brought to our attention a recently revised booklet in which the church now affirms that it is acceptable to use the term persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, if "one understands that Person must not be confused with the way humans are persons." (God Is..., [Pasadena: Worldwide Church of God, 1992, 1993].)


1 Randy Frame, "Worldwide Church of God Edges toward Orthodoxy," Christianity Today, 9 November 1992, 57-58. See also Alan W. Gomes and Kurt Van Gorden, "Special Report: The Worldwide Church of God in Transition," Christian Research Journal, Spring 1992, 35; Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, The Deceivers: What Cults Believe, How They Lure Followers (San Bernardino, CA: Here's Life Publishers, 1992), 277-78; Ruth A. Tucker, Another Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 215-16; Watchman Expositor 10, no. 7 (1993), the entire issue; James Walker, "Update on Worldwide Church of God," Watchman Expositor 10, no. 8 (1993):19-21; and James Walker, "Doctrinal Changes at the Worldwide Church of God," Watchman Expositor 8, no. 5 (1991):1, 5.
2 Mark A. Kellner, "Mainstream Moves May Split Worldwide Church of God," Christianity Today, 8 November 1993, 63. In actuality, the JOURNAL knows of at least one recognized (though smaller and lesser known) cult that moved toward orthodoxy prior to the WCG. See "Holy Order of MANS Sect Changes Name, Joins Eastern Orthodox Church," Christian Research Journal, Summer 1988, 27.
3 Frame, 57-58.
4 Worldwide Church of God, "Summary of Doctrinal Statements and Recent Changes Within the Worldwide Church of God: Comments from Pastor General Joseph W. Tkach and Topics from Current Church Literature" (paper presented at the 1991 Tanner Lecture Series, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1991); Statement of Beliefs of the Worldwide Church of God, Fall 1992 edition; James K. Walker, "Worldwide Church of God Accepts Trinity Doctrine," Watchman Expositor 10, no. 7 (1993):3.
5 Herbert W. Armstrong, Just What Do You Mean -- Born Again? (Pasadena, CA: Ambassador Press, n.d.), 13.
6 Herbert W. Armstrong, "Why Christ Died -- and Rose Again!" The Plain Truth, April 1963, 9-10.
7 Ibid., 10.
8 Herbert W. Armstrong, "Millions Do Not Know What Christ Really Was!" The Plain Truth, November 1963, 11-12; cited in Paul N. Benware, Ambassadors of Armstrongism: An Analysis of the History and Teachings of the Worldwide Church of God (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1975), 45.
9 B. McDowell, "Is the Holy Spirit a Person?" Tomorrow's World, September 1970, 31.
10 Armstrong, Born Again? 16-21.
11 Herbert W. Armstrong, Why Were You Born? (Pasadena, CA: Ambassador Press, n.d.), 21-22.
12 David J. Hill, "Why Is God the Father Called a Father?" Tomorrow's World, September 1970, 28; cited in Benware, 43.
13 Armstrong, "Why Christ Died," 10.
14 Ibid., 40.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid., 10.
17 Joseph W. Tkach, "Personal from...Joseph W. Tkach: Why We Believe in One God," The Worldwide News, 3 August 1993, 1.
18 Ibid., 3. See also K. J. Stavrinides, "Does Elohim Refer to a Family of Divine Beings?" The Worldwide News, 3 August 1993, 4.
19 Statement of Beliefs of the Worldwide Church of God, Fall 1992 edition.
20 Joseph W. Tkach, "Personal from...Joseph W. Tkach: One God," The Worldwide News, 31 August 1993, 3.
21 Tkach, "Why We Believe," 3; Tkach, "Personal from ...Joseph W. Tkach: The Biblical Teaching on the Holy Spirit," The Worldwide News, 17 August 1993, 5.
22 Tkach, "The Biblical Teaching," 5.
23 Ibid., 3.
24 Ibid.
25 Ibid.
26 Tkach, "One God," 3.
27 Tkach, "Why We Believe," 6.
28 Ibid.
29 Ibid.
30 The word "another" actually refers back to "Comforter," not to "Jesus," as Tkach erroneously states.
31 Ibid.
32 Tkach, "The Biblical Teaching," 5.
33 Tkach, "One God," 1.
34 The word patristic refers to the early church fathers and their writings.
35 Tkach, "One God," 1.
36 Ibid.
37 Ibid.
38 Ibid.
39 See Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 1957 ed., s.v. "hypostasis."
40 The term "Cappadocian Fathers" refers to Gregory Nazianzus, Gregory Nyssa, and Basil the Great.
41 The orthodox described Jesus as homoousios to the Father, meaning that they are the very same God.
42 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, volume in The New International Commentary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 699, n. 26.
43 Tkach, "The Biblical Teaching," 3.

End of document, CRJ0175A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"The Worldwide Church of God: Acknowledging the 'Plain Truth' about the Trinity?"
release A, February 28, 1995
R. Poll, CRI

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Copyright 1995 by the Christian Research Institute.

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