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If ever there was a doctrine that is distinctive of Christianity it is the doctrine of the Trinity – the teaching that God is one in being and essence yet three in persons, that there is one God and that he subsists in three persons. As Martin Luther summarized it, “We believe the divine majesty to be three distinct persons of one true essence.” It is, in fact, the leading mystery of the Christian faith, and difficult as it is to comprehend, it is a doctrine on which professing Christians of virtually all denominational labels agree – and have agreed since the very beginning.
Nor is it a doctrine of mere isolated importance: it is a doctrine that shapes the whole of the Christian faith and devotion. We Christians revel in the fact that God has saved us, and when we set out to explain what that means we cannot avoid speaking of God as Father, Son, and Spirit – that the Father in grace sent his Son on a mission of rescue, that the Son came and accomplished our redemption, and that the Spirit, being sent by the Father and the Son, has drawn us to Christ, uniting us to him so that we may enjoy, in him, all the benefits of his saving work. Indeed, by the Spirit the Triune God himself has come to indwell us, to make us his, and to secure us for himself in love forever. When we are baptized, we are baptized into the name (note the singular) of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. When we pray, we pray to the Father in the name of the Son and by the enablement of the Spirit and thereby worship the Triune God. When we sing, we sing praise to the one God who has saved us, and yet when we itemize that saving work we speak distributively of the work of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God [the Father], and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14) are “with us” in joyful realization of the saving work of each, together, for us. We praise the Father for sending his Son; we praise the Son for coming to us in his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and eventual return; we praise the Spirit for shedding abroad in our hearts this wonderful sense of the love of God for us, causing us to know in experience that we are sons of God in Christ; and we praise the Three in One. Clearly, this doctrine is much more than mere abstract truth of isolated significance.
And yet it is a doctrine that is ultimately impossible to grasp fully. It is, after all, the leading mystery of our faith. And it is here, perhaps more than at any other place, we are reminded that when we come to study and learn about God, we are in over our heads. Here we are brought to realize that God is like no other and that he is beyond the bounds of our finite minds. We may know him truly, for he has revealed himself to us. But we cannot grasp him fully. And so we learn to bow in humble adoration of his greatness and glory.
Here, then, is a doctrine designed to make us worship. Thus, we pursue this study as an end in itself, so that we may worship God more adequately and attribute to him more of the praise he deserves from us. And we pursue this study for our own sakes also, that we may revel more fully and more joyfully in the wonder of who he is and what he has done for us.
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.”
In this section we introduce the doctrine of the Trinity. The biblical teaching on the Trinity embodies four essential affirmations (see the ESV Study Bible for more detail):
As you begin studying the trinity, the quiz below will help you determine whether your beliefs line up with the historic Christian views of the doctrine.
Now that you have tested your knowledge of the doctrine, the following Scripture passages, videos, articles, and books will help you correct or enhance your understanding of the trinity.
Matthew 11:27; 28:19; 1 Corinthians 8:4–6; 12:4–6; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 1:3–14; 4:1–6; 1 Peter 1:1–2
See chapter 6
See chapter 6
The seeds that that developed into the full flower of New Testament trinitarian revelation are already planted in the Old Testament. Elohim, the living God, creates by speaking his word and sending his spirit. The world comes into being by a threefold cause. Similarly, yhwh, the covenant God, makes himself known to, saves, and preserves his people by his word and spirit. In the angel of the Lord, whether created angel or the Logos, God, specifically his word, was uniquely and powerfully present. Similarly, the spirit of God is the principle of all life and well-being as well as of holiness and renewal. A threefold divine principle underlies creation as well as re-creation and sustains the entire economy of Old Testament revelation.
These Old Testament ideas were further developed in intertestamental Judaism. Divine Wisdom is hypostatized and, under Greek philosophical influence, Philo fused Plato’s doctrine of the ideas, Stoic logos-doctrine, and the Old Testament doctrine of wisdom into a single system. However, based on metaphysical dualism keeping God and world separate, Philo regards the Logos as a necessary intermediary being, a mediator between God and the world. In Jewish theology this developed into a complex angelology that increasingly diverged from the Old Testament, which is not dualistic and does not consider logos as immanent reason. In addition, the intermediate beings in Philo and Jewish theologies have no soteriological significance, no connection with the Messiah; the significance of the spirit of the Lord is virtually neglected. While this development shares language with the New Testament, its world of ideas is quite different.
The true development of the trinitarian ideas of the Old Testament is found in the New Testament. In the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the one true God is revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three are identical with those who revealed themselves to the Old Testament saints in word and deed, prophecy and miracle. The threefold principle in operation in creation and salvation is, however, made more clear in the New Testament. All salvation, every blessing, and blessedness have their threefold cause in God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The New Testament revelation is trinitarian through and through.
Scripture also gives us insight into the relations between the three persons of the Trinity. God the Father is the Creator, the father of his people, Israel, and supremely the father of his Son, the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Father is preeminent in creation and redemption, the first in the divine economy. From this the Arians wrongly infer that the Father alone is God; a claim found nowhere in Scripture. On the contrary, the names given to Christ reveal the immanent relations of the triune God. Thus, Logos points to the one who is able to fully reveal God because from all eternity God communicated himself in all his fullness to him. He is also the Son of God in a metaphysical sense; by nature and from eternity he is elevated above angels and prophets. He is the “firstborn” and “only begotten” as the full image of God, who from all eternity bears a unique relation to the Father. He is not a creature, but is and was and remains God, who is over all, blessed forever. The Spirit is God as the immanent principle of life throughout creation; he is holy because he is God. He is both divine and personal. Finally, as Christ is related to the Father, so the Spirit is related to Christ. As the Son witnesses to and glorifies the Father, so the Spirit witnesses to and glorifies the Son. By the Spirit we have communion with no one less than the Son and the Father themselves.
Scripture does not provide a fully developed trinitarian dogma but gives us its essential ingredients. The Apostolic Fathers do little more than cite Scripture though they exalt the Son and avoid both the Docetic and Ebionite heresy. Faced with the challenge of Gnosticism, apologists such as Justin Martyr clearly teach the divinity of the Son, though he does not clearly express the immanent relations between Father and Son. Certain influences of Greek philosophic thought find their way into Justin’s formulations and were later rejected by the church. Opposition to Greek philosophic influences is particularly strong in Irenaeus, the great opponent of Gnosticism, with its idea of God as “depth” and its notion of the logos as the immanent principle of the cosmos. It is Tertullian who more clearly distinguished the persons of the Trinity while maintaining the unity of God. He was the first to deduce the Trinity of persons from the very being of God rather than from the person of the Father. Origen took it the next step by conceiving the immanent Trinity totally as an eternal process within the divine being itself, though he subordinates the Son to the Father by deriving the Trinity from the person of the Father.
At Nicaea, the church did not follow Origen but repudiated subordinationism and affirmed the full deity of the Son. The challenge was now to maintain the true unity of the Godhead. Elaborating and developing the doctrine of the Trinity to completion fell to Athanasius, the three Cappadocians, and Augustine. For Athanasius the Trinity is eternal; Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three from eternity. At the same time all three persons are of one essence and have the same attributes. In the main this teaching of Athanasius is affirmed by Basil and the two Gregories and clarified with more names, illustrations, and analogies. In the West, it was Hilary and especially Augustine in their respective treatises De trinitate who vigorously defended the doctrine. Augustine does not consider the Father but instead the one, simple, uncompounded essence of God as the source of the Trinity. This essence dwells equally and fully in each person. By noting many analogies of the Trinity in creation, Augustine connected the doctrine of God with the cosmos.
Opposition to the dogma of the Trinity comes from outside (Jews and Muslims) and from within Christianity itself. The confession of the Trinity is the heartbeat of the Christian religion. All error is traceable to a departure from this doctrine: to a denial of the unity in order to preserve threeness (Arianism) or to a formulation of unity that fails to maintain threeness (Sabellianism). Arianism was subordinationist and adoptionist; the Logos was created but a perfect creature who became, as it were, a God. The opposite view, that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are only different names or modes of the one God came to expression as monarchianism, patripassionism, and modalism. Both errors appealed to Scripture and made use of Greek philosophy to advance their arguments; both positions continued to have influence in the church and theology.
Arianism has appeared in various forms of subordinationism, in Socinianism and in full-blown Unitarianism. Jesus, though exemplary, is an ordinary person, though a great one. Neither the Holy Spirit nor grace is necessary for salvation. Sabellianism retains the divinity of the Son and Spirit but absorbs them into the one divine being so that proper distinctions between them disappear. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one and the same person or being, three modes of activity or revelation of the one divine being. The work of the triune God was seen, as in Joachim of Fiore and David Joris, as taking place in three successive periods, each one associated with one person of the Trinity. It was, however, especially Michael Servetus who devoted all his intellectual powers to repudiate the church’s doctrine of the Trinity. Gnostic and theosophical speculations can be found in the trinitarian thought of Jakob Böhme, Zinzendorf, and Swedenborg. Such theosophical thinking paved the way for radically philosophical interpretations of the Trinity in Kant, Spinoza, Schelling, Hegel, and Strauss.
Properly to defend Scripture’s teaching, the church found it necessary to use language that went beyond Scripture. This affirms the Christian’s right of independent reflection and theology’s right to exist. Confusion between Greek-speaking and Latin-speaking churches on various terms for the being (unity) of God and the diversity of persons (threeness) accompanied differences in challenges faced by orthodox Christianity in East and West. Terminological disputes have been frequent in the church, particularly concerning the notion of “person.” Boethius provided the influential definition of person as an individual rational being, potentially leading to tritheism and a loss of divine unity. In the modern era “personality” is attributed to heroic human qualities and often denied to God. We must not lose sight of the important point: In the dogma of the Trinity the word “person” simply means that the three persons in the divine being are not “modes” but have a distinct existence of their own. The divine being is tripersonal. Thus, settled Christian dogma teaches that in the one being of God there exist three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who each fully share the divine essence yet differ in personal attributes. The Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten or generated, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father (and the Son).
The name “Father” is the preferred description of the first person. “Father” is not a metaphor derived from the earth and attributed to God; “unbegotten” is not to be taken in contrast to creatures but as an inner trinitarian relation. The Father is eternally Father; the Son was generated out of the being of the Father from eternity. It is God’s nature to be generative and fruitful. To deny this is to leave one with an abstract, deistic view of God. The generation of the Son is spiritual; it does not create division and separation. Therefore, the most striking human analogy is thought and speech. Just as the human mind objectivizes itself in words, so God expresses his entire being in the Logos. For God to beget is to speak, and his speaking is eternal. The Son is begotten out of the very being of the Father; from eternity the Son is “very God of very God.” The personal property of the Holy Spirit is “procession.” Both the deity and personality of the Spirit have been contested. It is true that these do not confront us as forcefully in Scripture as do the deity and personality of the Father and the Son. Yet the profound religious significance of making the same confession about the Spirit did become increasingly clear to the church. There is no salvation or communion with God apart from the Holy Spirit. Only if the Holy Spirit is truly God can he impart to us the Father and the Son. He who gives us God himself must himself be truly God. Those who deny the deity of the Holy Spirit cannot maintain that of the Son. The Trinity completes itself in the divine person of the Holy Spirit.
Gradually, however, an important difference developed between the East and the West in the doctrine of the Trinity. The East teaches that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son, but not that the Spirit is also from the Son and receives his existence from him. Unlike Augustine, who posited the unity of the Trinity in the divine nature, the East did not go beyond the church fathers who sought the unity in the person of the Father. Eastern objection to the term filioque is a last lingering remnant of subordinationism and tends to a dualistic separation of orthodoxy and mysticism.
The immanent relations of the three persons in the divine being also manifest themselves outwardly. All God’s outward works are common to the three persons and indivisible. There is, however, an appropriation of properties and works to each person. The Father works of himself, through the Son, in the Spirit. All the works of God ad extra have a single author. Yet, all things proceed from the Father, are accomplished by the Son, and completed in the Spirit. In an economic sense, the work of creation is more specifically assigned to the Father, redemption to the Son, and sanctification to the Holy Spirit. In the history of revelation, the economy of the Father was especially that of the Old Testament, that of the Son began with the incarnation, and that of the Holy Spirit began on the day of Pentecost.
From the beginning of the church’s reflection on the Trinity, attempts have been made to elucidate it by illustrations and prove it by arguments. The number three plays an important role in Scripture and in the polytheistic lore of nonbiblical peoples. Numerous trinitarian analogies have been found in the natural world and on a higher level. Augustine and especially medieval thinkers also developed logical analogies. In modern philosophy triplicity even achieved formal dominance in the work of Kant and the dialectical method of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. Some sought to go beyond analogy to positive arguments for the Trinity from the nature of thought or of love. Augustine found clear imprints of the Trinity in human consciousness and reason and especially in the self-knowledge of the human soul as memory, intelligence, and will, but he still considered these only a posteriori evidence not a priori proof. Augustine’s favorite analogy comes from love itself: Lover, Beloved, and Love. Theosophy in the person of Jakob Böhme and the philosophy of Schelling posited a plural All-Oneness that unites the oneness of Deism and the allness of pantheism. God is subject (will), object (idea), and the identity of both subject and object. Here theogony and cosmogony join: in God’s self-revelation to his creatures he at the same time becomes manifest to himself.
Though modern philosophy with its speculation again brought the trinitarian dogma into favor, the church and theology generally assumed a reserved attitude toward these philosophical construals of the Trinity. Analogies at best are a posteriori evidences, and even then the mystery of the Trinity must be honored. Scripture alone is the final ground for the doctrine of the Trinity. Analogies have some value since they remind us that the creation itself shows imprints of the triune God. The arguments also have some value in demonstrating that belief in the Trinity is not irrational. Though grace is superior to nature, it is not in conflict with it. The thinking mind situates the doctrine of the Trinity squarely in the full-orbed life of nature and humanity.
The doctrine of the Trinity makes God known to us as the truly living God, over against the cold abstractions of Deism and the confusions of pantheism. A doctrine of creation—God related to but not identified with the cosmos—can only be maintained on a trinitarian basis. In fact, the entire Christian belief system stands or falls with the confession of God’s Trinity. It is the core of the Christian faith, the root of all its dogmas, the basic content of the new covenant. The development of trinitarian dogma was never primarily a metaphysical question but a religious one. It is in the doctrine of the Trinity that we feel the heartbeat of God’s entire revelation for the redemption of humanity. We are baptized in the name of the triune God, and in that name we find rest for our soul and peace for our conscience. Our God is above us, before us, and within us.
(Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2004). Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2, Baker Academic, pp.256–260)
If the Christian faith were merely the invention of human minds, then surely there would be no doctrine of the Trinity! There is nothing even remotely like it in any other religion. It is a doctrine that the church holds out of necessity as it seeks to comprehend and express the truth of God as he has revealed himself to us. And though this doctrine is so central to all that is Christian, it is not a doctrine that is expounded, as such, in any given verse of Scripture. It is a doctrine that must be constructed from many biblical passages 1) because of its complexity, and 2) because it was not revealed all at once but gradually over redemptive history. The revelation of God as one yet tri-personal culminates in the incarnation and Pentecost: in the words of Warfield, “Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are the fundamental proof of the Trinity.” It was left to the church only to receive this revelation and then to learn to state it with precision and clarity.
God is One
God revealed himself to Israel as the creator of all that is, and he demanded of them a corresponding exclusive loyalty. All the nations around Israel acknowledged multiple gods, but Israel was called to recognize that Yahweh as the creator, the one who is distinct from and who rules above all else. The prophets emphasized monotheism – that Yahweh alone is God and continued to call Israel to exclusive loyalty to him. Nothing of this changes when we come to the New Testament but is re-emphasized repeatedly.
Even before New Testament times the rabbis often puzzled how to understand those Old Testament passages that reflect multiple persons within this one God – the plural pronouns (“Let us make man in our image”), the angel of the Lord who is himself recognized as divine and yet distinct from God, and so on. Looking back from the later Christian perspective the early church theologians and on through to the Reformers and beyond, it has been customary to see in these passages a pre-incarnate appearance of God the Son. Indeed, Jesus himself makes one such connection with regard to Isaiah’s vision (Jn. 12:41). Clear as this connection may seem to us, after our Lord’s incarnation, it was virtually impossible to discern beforehand. “It was the incarnation that made inescapable what had, of course, been there from all eternity but was only hinted at in the earlier biblical record: God is one in being but also tripersonal” (p.13).
What is perhaps first striking when we read the Gospels is Christ’s announcement with him the Kingdom of God – God’s grand, climactic self-revelation – has dawned. This is significant, for it is only God who can give the kingdom (Lk. 12:32; Mt.21:43). Accordingly, the Gospels are marked by repeated references to Jesus’ deity, both in his own claims (e.g., Mt. 11:25-27) and his actions (e.g., his authority over Satan and his bringing in of the Kingdom of God). His claims to deity are especially prominent in the Gospel of John – his repeated “I Am” claims and his claims to have come from the Father and to have shared in his glory before the creation of the world, being some of the most prominent.
Along with the Son the Father and the Holy Spirit also are spoken of in the Scriptures in divine and yet personal terms. These three are personally distinct, with an “I – you” relationship, and yet together are the one and only God. From eternity they have enjoyed the fellowship of one another. The Father sent the Son to save the world. And the Father and the Son sent the Spirit to indwell the people of Christ. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are the one saving God.
The Trinity Defined
In the early fourth century Arius mounted an assault on the doctrine of the Trinity by his denial of the full deity of the Son. This heresy was answered at the Council of Nicea (325). Arius’ heresy was answered primarily in the council’s affirmation that Christ is of “the same substance” (homoousious) with the Father, that he shares in all the Father’s nature as God. To this affirmation was added that the Son was “begotten and not made.” This was important in that what is begotten is of the same nature with the one who begets; that is to affirm again that Christ shares the same deity as the Father.
In short, affirming the full deity of the Son (and the Spirit) preserves a genuine doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine was affirmed as the teaching of Scripture, and the Christian church has recognized it as such throughout her history.
Christians also affirm the personal distinctions of Father, Son, and Spirit. This is against the ancient heresy of modalism – the teaching that the three are not personally distinct but merely that God reveals himself sometimes as Father or Son or Spirit.
Connections to Practice
In Ephesians 1:3-14 the apostle Paul famously demonstrates how the centrally important doctrine of the Trinity shapes the Christian gospel. God the Father is the author of our salvation, the Son is the means of our salvation, and the Spirit is the agent of our salvation. The Father chose us to salvation, he achieved our salvation through the redeeming work of the Son, and by the Spirit he brought us to faith in Christ and sealed us as his forever. Viewed from our own experience, the Spirit of God illumined our minds to see our sin and to look to Christ for the redemption that he accomplished, and by him we are brought into fellowship with God from whom we had been alienated by our sin.
Moreover, the Holy Spirit gives us both the status and the experience of being God’s children, and this, in turn, shapes our concept and practice of prayer. The Spirit ministers to us a true sense of God’s fatherly love, and we, in turn, call him “Father,” and pray with an assurance of his loving favor.
Christian theologians regularly emphasize that the doctrine of the Trinity is something we can know only from Scripture, yet they also point out that God did not reveal himself as triune from the very beginning. We may see hints of it in the Old Testament, but not until the New Testament is this doctrine entirely clear. Moreover, the way the doctrine appears in the New Testament reflects a revelatory act that preceded its writing.
Thus the revelation of God to Israel culminated in the revelation of God coming to save his people. It was not clearly revealed to Israel that this coming of Jehovah to redemption was one with the coming of the anointed King; as it was not clearly revealed to Israel that the anointed King was one with the atoning Servant. It required the fulfilment to weave together all the threads of the great revelation into one marvelous portraiture. But it was clearly revealed to Israel that God was its Saviour, and that he would visit his people in his compassion, and that he would redeem them from all their iniquities. In this hope Israel rested, and by it Israel lived: and resting in and living by it Israel laid its ear to the ground and listened with beating heart for the voice crying, “Prepare ye in the wilderness the way of Jehovah, make level in the desert a highway for our God.” Oh, the pity of it, that when at last the long expected voice went booming out from the water of Jordan, Israel’s ear was holden that it should not hear; and it failed to recognize in the “Behold, the man!” of the Roman governor the “Behold your God” for which it had so long been waiting. But verily it was he who came, as a mighty one, and his arm has ruled for him, and he has fed his flock like a shepherd, and gathered his lambs in his arms, and carried them in his bosom, and gently led those that give suck. And it is his voice and none other, that is crying down the ages, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else.” (B. B. Warfield)
1998 Westminster Lectures on Biblical Theology
1998 Westminster Lectures on Biblical Theology
1998 Westminster Lectures on Biblical Theology
1998 Westminster Lectures on Biblical Theology
The Old Testament does not occupy itself with how Israel thought of God. Its concern is with how Israel ought to think of God. To it, the existence of God is not an open question; nor his nature; nor the accessibility of knowledge of him. God himself baa taken care of that. He has made himself known to his people, and their business is not to feel after him if haply they may fumblingly find him, but to hearken to him as he declares to them what and who he is. The fundamental note of the Old Testament, in other words is Revelation. Its seers and prophets are not men of philosophic minds who have risen from the seen to the unseen, and, by dint of much reflection, have gradually attained to elevated conceptions of him who is the author of all that is. They are men of God whom God has chosen, that he might speak to them and through them to his people. Israel has not in and by them created for itself a God. God bas through them created for himself a people,
God’s Revelation of Himself to Israel; Not Israel’s Notions of God
If we are to attend at all to the Old Testament’s own conception of the matter, therefore, it is a mistake to look into the Old Testament for lsraelitish ideas about God. What it professes to give us is God’s revelation of himself to Israel. We may, of course, discern here and there, tucked away in some corner or other, certain ideas about God which are of human invention. These we are given to understand, are, for the most part, inheritances from a less instructed past. or borrowing from uninstructed neighbors; and it is the very purpose of God’s revelation of himself to eradicate them from the heart of Israel, and to supplant them by the image of himself, the only true God. And no doubt Israel was a very stiff-necked people, slow of heart to believe all: that was spoken by the prophets, slower still of mind to assimilate the entirety of their message and to frame its lire and thought upon it. And therefore these evil inheritances and borrowings repeatedly appear in the background of the successive revelations, supplying often their occasion, often conditioning their form and their course. It is quite possible to gather them together and make a show of them openly, in contrast with the revelations of Goa. Thus we may form some conception of what the native thought of the Israelites was, and what we should have got from Israel bad not God intervened to teach it what he really is, and how he would have his people think of him.
Similarly, today, a curious inquirer might doubtless uncover some very odd, some very gross, some very wicked notions about God. lurking in the minds of these or those Christians. But, it would be unfair to look upon these strange, perhaps unworthy, notions of God as the God of Christianity, merely because they have been or are entertained by some Christians, so it would be unfair to think of those inadequate or debasing ideas of God which some Israelites betray clinging to their minds, as the God of Israel. The Christian God is not the God which some Christians have imagined for themselves; not even the God which all true Christians believe in; nor even the God whom the best of Christians intelligently worship. For who has availed to know him to perfection? The Christian God is the God of the Christian revelation. And the God of Israel is not the God which some Israelites have fancied to be altogether like unto themselves, or, mayhap, something indefinitely less to be admired than themselves; but the God of the Israelitish revelation. He must be sought, therefore, not in the thought of Israel, but in his own self-disclosures through his prophets.
The Unity and Personality of God the Basis of His Revelation
At the center of the conception of God which was revealed to Israel lay the great fact of the divine unity. “Hear, 0 Israel, Jehovah our God is one Jehovah” – so ran the fundamental confession; and in its stirring announcement, it came at length to be considered, that the whole religion of Israel was summed up. And little wonder. By the passionate conviction of the divine unity which was wrought into Israel’s very soul, the Israelite was protected from at least the worst of the debasements of the heathen about him, with their gods many and lords many, each rivaling the others in iniquity. But we must bear in mind that the monotheism of Israel was, ever concrete, never abstract. The real emphasis fell, after all, therefore, upon the high and austere Theism, which formed its foundation-stone. The God of Israel was before all else and before all else a Person. Here it is that the center of the center of the revelation of God to Israel lies; and there is no period in the life of Israel reflected to us in the pages of the Old Testament where the personality of God has not already been made the unwavering conviction of its heart. There was, therefore, no temptation in Israel to think of God as some vague “ground of being”, the substrate of all that exists; or as the undefined, perhaps undefinable, “principle of the moral order of the world”. Over against themselves He stood, another Self, capable of communion with them aa Person with persons; talking with them, concerning himself for them, showing himself their friend. They met with him walking in the garden in the cool of the day: they talked with him in the door of the tent; they reasoned with him and were sure he was open to their appeal. They looked to him to act, as persons do, under the influence of motives, and to be governed as persons are, by rational considerations.
The Uniqueness of God in His Holiness and Power
So vivid an anthropomorphism might easily, it may be conceived, bring with it its own dangers. Israel’s safeguard from these lay in the intense reverence with which it bad been taught to think of its God. “Who is able to stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?” they asked in trembling awe; “who is like Thee among the gods, glorious in holiness. fearful in praises, doing wonders”? The sense of the uniqueness of God was as strong in Israel as the sense of his unity. As he alone was God, there was none like him-he was the only one of his kind. In the awful majesty of his Being there was nothing which could even represent him; Israel was forbidden therefore to form any similitude of God. If, then, God was a Person, it was not aa a person among other persons that he was to be conceived. He was a Person infinitely exalted above all other persons. Like them in all in which the life of a free spirit ‘consists, he was immeasurably removed from all the weaknesses which belong to humanity.
Of course one element in the incomparable glory of this great Being was his almighty power. There was nothing beyond his accomplishment. All that exists was the work of his hands; and all that he has made he upholds and governs. As for men, he had made them all, and he had made them for himself, and he did his pleasure among them. None could dispute his rule; none withstand his will. No Israelite was permitted to imagine that there was anything too hard for God or that there was a limit beyond which he could not advance. His, in Robert Browning’s phrase, was “the will that can”. The heavens belonged to him to their utmost heights; the earth and all that therein is. It lay thus at the very basis of the revelation of God to Israel that he is the Omnipotent Person, in whose glorious will is found the ultimate account of all that comes to pass.
The Exaltation of God in Righteousness and Mercy
But of course Israel was not permitted to imagine that it was his might alone which made God God; that it was the irresistibleness of his will which constituted his majesty. Israel knew perfectly well that it is not bare strength which exalts a person. And Israel found the unapproachable greatness of God not in the mere fact that he has a resistless will, but in the nature of that will which none can resist. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right”? – that was from the beginning the sure plea with which every Israelite approached his God. If he was the embodiment of all power, he was also the very impersonation of all that was right, of all that ·was faithful, of all that was true. Exalted in judgment, the holy One was sanctified in righteousness; just and righteous was he who bas commanded his testimonies in righteousness and very faithfulness. Those who looked up to him in awe because he was so great, looked up to him in love also because he was so good. If men might not always perceive the righteousness of his acts, that was not because their righteousness admitted of doubt, but only because men are so blind. They knew beyond the possibility of mistake that whatsoever he should do would be right; and if they knew beyond the possibility of mistake what was right, they knew what he would do. Righteousness, always, and everywhere, therefore, he would reward; wickedness he would unfailingly rebuke. Nor was it a narrow conception of righteousness which the Israelites were taught to attribute to their God. And certainly it was no harsh one. He whose Name was “the Lord, the Lord, a God full of compassion and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and sin: and that will by no means clear the guilty” – such a God was assuredly not that “hard God” who the modern poet (but no ancient prophet) tells us “dwelt at Jerusalem”. The God of Israel was not only a God who commanded and saw to it that he was obeyed. He was a God who loved and attracted love.
The Culmination of God’s Revelation in His Grace in Redemption
ln a word, the God of Israel was the God of grace; and it is here that we at last reach the real heart of the revelation of God to Israel. He certainly made himself known as the God of nature. He was the maker of the heaven and the earth; and all that is his workmanship and all that he has made he governs in all its movements. He made himself as certainly known as the God of history; the courses of human life run only in channels of his appointing. But he made himself known above all things as the God of Israel, who had chosen Israel to himself out of the purity of his unmotivated love, —not for anything good he had seen in Israel by which he might have been moved to love it, but solely that he might do good to Israel, and out of Israel create a people capable of responding to him in grateful devotion. For of what other people was it ever heard that God went to redeem it unto himself for a people, and to make him a name, and to do great things for it and terrible things? Of course, the great deliverance from Egypt rose in Israel’s mind when it thought of God as its Redeemer. But it would be a mistake to suppose that Israel’s thought of God as Redeemer was absorbed in the thought of this national deliverance to the exclusion of all else. Rather this stood out before it as the symbol of the unearned goodness of its God. In it Israel saw but a thrilling proof that the need of man is the opportunity of God. Knowing itself as the redeemed of the Lord it knew its God as the redeeming God, the good God who with outstretched hand and bared arm delivers his people from destruction, and saves it from its distress. The proclamation to Israel of a redeeming God was in its essence thus the proclamation of a God who saves from sin; and it is distinctly over against a quickened sense of sin that the God of Israel made himself known aa the God of grace who visits his people with salvation.
The Consummation of God’s Revelation in Christ as Redeemer—Suffering Servant, and Anointed King—Rejected
Thus the revelation of God to Israel culminated in the revelation of God coming to save his people. It was not clearly revealed to Israel that this coming of Jehovah to redemption was one with the coming of the anointed King; as it was not clearly revealed to Israel that the anointed King was one with the atoning Servant. It required the fulfilment to weave together all the threads of the great revelation into one marvelous portraiture. But it was clearly revealed to Israel that God was its Saviour, and that he would visit his people in his compassion, and that he would redeem them from all their iniquities. In this hope Israel rested, and by it Israel lived: and resting in and living by it Israel laid its ear to the ground and listened with beating heart for the voice crying, “Prepare ye in the wilderness the way of Jehovah, make level in the desert a highway for our God”. Oh, the pity of it, that when at last the long expected voice went booming out from the wastes of Jordan, Israel’s ear was holden that it should not hear; and it failed to recognize in the “Behold, the man”! of the Roman governor the “Behold your God”! for which it had so long been waiting. But verily it was he who came, as a mighty one, and his arm has ruled for him, and he has fed his flock like a shepherd, and gathered his lambs in his arms, and carried them in his bosom, and gently led those that give suck. And it is his voice, and none other, that is crying down the ages, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else.”
Source: Benjamin B. Warfield, “God’s Revelation of Himself to Israel” in The Sunday School Times, August 4, 1907. Republished in The Bible Student and Teacher Vol.7, Number 4 (Oct. 1907).
Virtually all Christians acknowledge that there is no single passage of Scripture that is given to defending or explaining the doctrine of the Trinity, as such. Yet Christians of all stripes also agree—indeed, they insist—that Scripture does, in fact, teach this doctrine. Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant—all heartily confess the Trinity. So just what are the biblical essentials that make this doctrine so obvious? That is the question we take up in this section.
Though you won’t find the word Trinity in the Bible, the concept is biblical. This doctrine emerges when all of Scripture is surveyed and three essential elements come together. First, there’s only one God. Second, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons. Third, each of these persons is fully God.
Element #1: From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible clearly affirms monotheism—that there is only one God. Every morning the faithful Jew would repeat a prayer known as the Shema: “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Dt 6:4). Isaiah also speaks with clarity that there is no God but one (Is 43:10; 44:6; 45:5; see 1Co 8:4). Jesus too affirms this belief when explaining the greatest commandment (Mk 12:29).
Element #2: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are clearly distinguished from each other by the way they interact with one other in personal ways. For example, at Jesus’s baptism, as the Holy Spirit descends on the Son, the Father says, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased” (Lk 3:22).
Element #3: All three persons of the Trinity are fully God. The Father is repeatedly called God (1Co 8:6; 1Pt 1:3). Paul writes, “Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:3). The Son is called God on numerous occasions (Jn 1:1; Rm 9:5; Ti 2:13–15; Heb 1:8; 2Pt 1:1). For instance, Thomas boldly calls Jesus, “My Lord and my God” (Jn 20:28). Finally, in the inception of the church, Ananias and Sapphira dropped dead after lying to the Holy Spirit since they had “not lied to people but to God” (Acts 5:1–4).
Therefore, if there is only one God, and if the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons, and if all are affirmed to be fully God, then the only explanation that makes sense of all the biblical data is the Trinity. ~ CSB Apologetics Study Bible for Students
Meanwhile, the nearest approach to a formal announcement of the doctrine of the Trinity which is recorded from Our Lord’s lips, or, perhaps we may say, which is to be found in the whole compass of the New Testament, has been preserved for us, not by John, but by one of the synoptists. It too, however, is only incidentally introduced, and has for its main object something very different from formulating the doctrine of the Trinity. It is embodied in the great commission which the resurrected Lord gave His disciples to be their “marching orders” “even unto the end of the world”: “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19).
In seeking to estimate the significance of this great declaration, we must bear in mind the high solemnity of the utterance, by which we are required to give its full value to every word of it. Its phrasing is in any event, however, remarkable. It does not say, “In the names [plural] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost”; nor yet (what might be taken to be equivalent to that), “In the name of the Father, and in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Ghost,” as if we had to deal with three separate Beings. Nor, on the other hand, does it say, “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” as if “the Father, Son and Holy Ghost” might be taken as merely three designations of a single person. With stately impressiveness it asserts the unity of the three by combining them all within the bounds of the single Name; and then throws up into emphasis the distinctness of each by introducing them in turn with the repeated article: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Authorized Version). These three, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, each stand in some clear sense over against the others in distinct personality: these three, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, all unite in some profound sense in the common participation of the one Name.
Fully to comprehend the implication of this mode of statement, we must bear in mind, further, the significance of the term, “the name,” and the associations laden with which it came to the recipients of this commission. For the Hebrew did not think of the name, as we are accustomed to do, as a mere external symbol; but rather as the adequate expression of the innermost being of its bearer. In His name the Being of God finds expression; and the Name of God—“this glorious and fearful name, Jehovah thy God” (Deut. 28:58)—was accordingly a most sacred thing, being indeed virtually equivalent to God Himself. It is no solecism, therefore, when we read (Isa. 30:27), “Behold, the name of Jehovah cometh”; and the parallelisms are most instructive when we read (Isa. 59:19): ‘So shall they fear the Name of Jehovah from the west, and His glory from the rising of the sun; for He shall come as a stream pent in which the Spirit of Jehovah driveth.’ So pregnant was the implication of the Name, that it was possible for the term to stand absolutely, without adjunction of the name itself, as the sufficient representative of the majesty of Jehovah: it was a terrible thing to ‘blaspheme the Name’ (Lev. 24:11). All those over whom Jehovah’s Name was called were His, His possession to whom He owed protection. It is for His Name’s sake, therefore, that afflicted Judah cries to the Hope of Israel, the Saviour thereof in time of trouble: ‘O Jehovah, Thou art in the midst of us, and Thy Name is called upon us; leave us not’ (Jer. 14:9); and His people find the appropriate expression of their deepest shame in the lament, ‘We have become as they over whom Thou never barest rule; as they upon whom Thy Name was not called’ (Isa. 63:19); while the height of joy is attained in the cry, ‘Thy Name, Jehovah, God of Hosts, is called upon me’ (Jer. 15:16; cf. 2 Chron. 7:14; Dan. 9:18, 19). When, therefore, Our Lord commanded His disciples to baptize those whom they brought to His obedience “into the name of …,” He was using language charged to them with high meaning. He could not have been understood otherwise than as substituting for the Name of Jehovah this other Name “of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”; and this could not possibly have meant to His disciples anything else than that Jehovah was now to be known to them by the new Name, of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The only alternative would have been that, for the community which He was founding, Jesus was supplanting Jehovah by a new God; and this alternative is no less than monstrous. There is no alternative, therefore, to understanding Jesus here to be giving for His community a new Name to Jehovah and that new Name to be the threefold Name of “the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Nor is there room for doubt that by “the Son” in this threefold Name, He meant just Himself with all the implications of distinct personality which this carries with it; and, of course, that further carries with it the equally distinct personality of “the Father” and “the Holy Ghost,” with whom “the Son” is here associated, and from whom alike “the Son” is here distinguished. This is a direct ascription to Jehovah the God of Israel, of a threefold personality, and is therewith the direct enunciation of the doctrine of the Trinity.
We are not witnessing here the birth of the doctrine of the Trinity; that is presupposed. What we are witnessing is the authoritative announcement of the Trinity as the God of Christianity by its Founder, in one of the most solemn of His recorded declarations. Israel had worshipped the one only true God under the Name of Jehovah; Christians are to worship the same one only and true God under the Name of “the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” This is the distinguishing characteristic of Christians; and that is as much as to say that the doctrine of the Trinity is, according to Our Lord’s own apprehension of it, the distinctive mark of the religion which He founded.
From “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 2 (Biblical Doctrines), 153–155.
It is in the discourses recorded in John, however, that Jesus most copiously refers to the unity of Himself, as the Son, with the Father, and to the mission of the Spirit from Himself as the dispenser of the Divine activities. Here He not only with great directness declares that He and the Father are one (10:30; cf. 17:11, 21, 22, 25) with a unity of interpenetration (“The Father is in me, and I in the Father,” 10:38; cf. 16:10, 11), so that to have seen Him was to have seen the Father (14:9; cf. 15:21); but He removes all doubt as to the essential nature of His oneness with the Father by explicitly asserting His eternity (“Before Abraham was born, I am,” Jn. 8:58), His co-eternity with God (“had with thee before the world was,” 17:5; cf. 17:18; 6:62), His eternal participation in the Divine glory itself (“the glory which I had with thee,” in fellowship, community with Thee “before the world was,” 17:5). So clear is it that in speaking currently of Himself as God’s Son (5:25; 9:35; 11:4; cf. 10:36), He meant, in accordance with the underlying significance of the idea of sonship in Semitic speech (founded on the natural implication that whatever the father is that the son is also; cf. 16:15; 17:10), to make Himself, as the Jews with exact appreciation of His meaning perceived, “equal with God” (5:18), or, to put it brusquely, just “God” (10:33). How He, being thus equal or rather identical with God, was in the world, He explains as involving a coming forth (ἐξῆλθον, exḗlthon) on His part, not merely from the presence of God (ἀπό, apó, 16:30; cf. 18:3) or from fellowship with God (παρά, pará, 16:27; 17:8), but from out of God Himself (ἐκ, ek, 7:42; 16:28). And in the very act of thus asserting that His eternal home is in the depths of the Divine Being, He throws up, into as strong an emphasis as stressed pronouns can convey, His personal distinctness from the Father. ‘If God were your Father,’ says He (8:42), ‘ye would love me: for I came forth and am come out of God; for neither have I come of myself, but it was He that sent me.’ Again, He says (16:26, 27): ‘In that day ye shall ask in my name: and I say not unto you that I will make request of the Father for you; for the Father Himself loveth you, because ye have loved me, and have believed that it was from fellowship with the Father that I came forth; I came from out of the Father, and have come into the world.’ Less pointedly, but still distinctly, He says again (17:8): ‘They know of a truth that it was from fellowship with Thee that I came forth, and they believed that it was Thou that didst send me.’ It is not necessary to illustrate more at large a form of expression so characteristic of the discourses of Our Lord recorded by John that it meets us on every page: a form of expression which combines a clear implication of a unity of Father and Son which is identity of Being, and an equally clear implication of a distinction of Person between them such as allows not merely for the play of emotions between them, as, for instance, of love (17:24; cf. 15:9 [3:35]; 14:31), but also of an action and reaction upon one another which argues a high measure, if not of exteriority, yet certainly of exteriorization. Thus, to instance only one of the most outstanding facts of Our Lord’s discourses (not indeed confined to those in John’s Gospel, but found also in His sayings recorded in the Synoptists, as e.g., Lk. 4:43 [cf. || Mk. 1:38]; 9:48; 10:16; 4:34; 5:32; 7:19; 19:10), He continually represents Himself as on the one hand sent by God, and as, on the other, having come forth from the Father (e.g., Jn. 8:42; 10:36; 17:3; 5:23, et saepe).
It is more important to point out that these phenomena of interrelationship are not confined to the Father and Son, but are extended also to the Spirit. Thus, for example, in a context in which Our Lord had emphasized in the strongest manner His own essential unity and continued interpenetration with the Father (“If ye had known me, ye would have known my Father also”; “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father”; “I am in the Father, and the Father in me”; “The Father abiding in me doeth his works,” Jn. 14:7, 9, 10), we read as follows (Jn. 14:16–26): ‘And I will make request of the Father, and He shall give you another [thus sharply distinguished from Our Lord as a distinct Person] Advocate, that He may be with you forever, the Spirit of Truth … He abideth with you and shall be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I come unto you.… In that day ye shall know that I am in the Father.… If a man love me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him and we [that is, both Father and Son] will come unto him and make our abode with him.… These things have I spoken unto you while abiding with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you.’ It would be impossible to speak more distinctly of three who were yet one. The Father, Son and Spirit are constantly distinguished from one another—the Son makes request of the Father, and the Father in response to this request gives an Advocate, “another” than the Son, who is sent in the Son’s name. And yet the oneness of these three is so kept in sight that the coming of this “another Advocate” is spoken of without embarrassment as the coming of the Son Himself (vs. 18, 19, 20, 21), and indeed as the coming of the Father and the Son (ver. 23). There is a sense, then, in which, when Christ goes away, the Spirit comes in His stead; there is also a sense in which, when the Spirit comes, Christ comes in Him; and with Christ’s coming the Father comes too. There is a distinction between the Persons brought into view; and with it an identity among them; for both of which allowance must be made. The same phenomena meet us in other passages. Thus, we read again (15:26): ‘But when there is come the Advocate whom I will send unto you from [fellowship with] the Father, the Spirit of Truth, which goeth forth from [fellowship with] the Father, He shall bear witness of me.’ In the compass of this single verse, it is intimated that the Spirit is personally distinct from the Son, and yet, like Him, has His eternal home (in fellowship) with the Father, from whom He, like the Son, comes forth for His saving work, being sent thereunto, however, not in this instance by the Father, but by the Son.
This last feature is even more strongly emphasized in yet another passage in which the work of the Spirit in relation to the Son is presented as closely parallel with the work of the Son in relation to the Father (16:5 ff.). ‘But now I go unto Him that sent me.… Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is expedient for you that I go away; for, if I go not away the Advocate will not come unto you; but if I go I will send Him unto you. And He, after He is come, will convict the world … of righteousness because I go to the Father and ye behold me no more.… I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when He, the Spirit of truth is come, He shall guide you into all the truth; for He shall not speak from Himself; but what things soever He shall hear, He shall speak, and He shall declare unto you the things that are to come. He shall glorify me: for He shall take of mine and shall show it unto you. All things whatsoever the Father hath are mine: therefore said I that He taketh of mine, and shall declare it unto you.’ Here the Spirit is sent by the Son, and comes in order to complete and apply the Son’s work, receiving His whole commission from the Son—not, however, in derogation of the Father, because when we speak of the things of the Son, that is to speak of the things of the Father.
It is not to be said, of course, that the doctrine of the Trinity is formulated in passages like these, with which the whole mass of Our Lord’s discourses in John are strewn; but it certainly is presupposed in them, and that is, considered from the point of view of their probative force, even better. As we read we are kept in continual contact with three Persons who act, each as a distinct person, and yet who are in a deep, underlying sense, one. There is but one God—there is never any question of that—and yet this Son who has been sent into the world by God not only represents God but is God, and this Spirit whom the Son has in turn sent unto the world is also Himself God. Nothing could be clearer than that the Son and Spirit are distinct Persons, unless indeed it be that the Son of God is just God the Son and the Spirit of God just God the Spirit.
From “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 2 (Biblical Doctrines), 149–153.
When we turn from the discourses of Jesus to the writings of His followers with a view to observing how the assumption of the doctrine of the Trinity underlies their whole fabric also, we naturally go first of all to the letters of Paul. Their very mass is impressive; and the definiteness with which their composition within a generation of the death of Jesus may be fixed adds importance to them as historical witnesses. Certainly they leave nothing to be desired in the richness of their testimony to the Trinitarian conception of God which underlies them. Throughout the whole series, from I Thess., which comes from about 52 a.d., to II Tim., which was written about 68 a.d., the redemption, which it is their one business to proclaim and commend, and all the blessings which enter into it or accompany it are referred consistently to a threefold Divine causation. Everywhere, throughout their pages, God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit appear as the joint objects of all religious adoration, and the conjunct source of all Divine operations. In the freedom of the allusions which are made to them, now and again one alone of the three is thrown up into prominent view; but more often two of them are conjoined in thanksgiving or prayer; and not infrequently all three are brought together as the apostle strives to give some adequate expression to his sense of indebtedness to the Divine source of all good for blessings received, or to his longing on behalf of himself or of his readers for further communion with the God of grace. It is regular for him to begin his Epistles with a prayer for “grace and peace” for his readers, “from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ,” as the joint source of these Divine blessings by way of eminence (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; 2 Thess. 1:2; 1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Philem. ver. 3; cf. 1 Thess. 1:1). It is obviously no departure from this habit in the essence of the matter, but only in relative fulness of expression, when in the opening words of the Epistle to the Colossians the clause “and the Lord Jesus Christ” is omitted, and we read merely: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father.” So also it would have been no departure from it in the essence of the matter, but only in relative fulness of expression, if in any instance the name of the Holy Spirit had chanced to be adjoined to the other two, as in the single instance of 2 Cor. 13:14 it is adjoined to them in the closing prayer for grace with which Paul ends his letters, and which ordinarily takes the simple form of, “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Rom. 16:20; 1 Cor. 16:23; Gal. 6:18; Phil. 4:23; 1 Thess. 5:28; 2 Thess. 3:18; Philem. ver. 25; more expanded form, Eph. 6:23, 24; more compressed, Col. 4:18; 1 Tim. 6:21; 2 Tim. 4:22; Tit. 3:15). Between these opening and closing passages the allusions to God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are constant and most intricately interlaced. Paul’s monotheism is intense: the first premise of all his thought on Divine things is the unity of God (Rom. 3:30; 1 Cor. 8:4; Gal 3:20; Eph. 4:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; cf. Rom. 16:22; 1 Tim. 1:17). Yet to him God the Father is no more God than the Lord Jesus Christ is God, or the Holy Spirit is God. The Spirit of God is to him related to God as the spirit of man is to man (1 Cor. 2:11), and therefore if the Spirit of God dwells in us, that is God dwelling in us (Rom. 8:10 ff.), and we are by that fact constituted temples of God (1 Cor. 3:16). And no expression is too strong for him to use in order to assert the Godhead of Christ: He is “our great God” (Tit. 2:13); He is “God over all” (Rom. 9:5); and indeed it is expressly declared of Him that the “fulness of the Godhead,” that is, everything that enters into Godhead and constitutes it Godhead, dwells in Him. In the very act of asserting his monotheism Paul takes Our Lord up into this unique Godhead. “There is no God but one,” he roundly asserts, and then illustrates and proves this assertion by remarking that the heathen may have “gods many, and lords many,” but “to us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we unto him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we through him” (1 Cor. 8:6). Obviously, this “one God, the Father,” and “one Lord, Jesus Christ,” are embraced together in the one God who alone is. Paul’s conception of the one God, whom alone he worships, includes, in other words, a recognition that within the unity of His Being, there exists such a distinction of Persons as is given us in the “one God, the Father” and the “one Lord, Jesus Christ.”
In numerous passages scattered through Paul’s Epistles, from the earliest of them (1 Thess. 1:2–5; 2 Thess. 2:13, 14) to the latest (Tit. 3:4–6; 2 Tim. 1:3, 13, 14), all three Persons, God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, are brought together, in the most incidental manner, as co-sources of all the saving blessings which come to believers in Christ. A typical series of such passages may be found in Eph. 2:18; 3:2–5, 14, 17; 4:4–6; 5:18–20. But the most interesting instances are offered to us perhaps by the Epistles to the Corinthians. In 1 Cor. 12:4–6 Paul presents the abounding spiritual gifts with which the church was blessed in a threefold aspect, and connects these aspects with the three Divine Persons. “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are diversities of ministrations, and the same Lord. And there are diversities of workings, but the same God, who worketh all things in all.” It may be thought that there is a measure of what might almost be called artificiality in assigning the endowments of the church, as they are graces to the Spirit, as they are services to Christ, and as they are energizings to God. But thus there is only the more strikingly revealed the underlying Trinitarian conception as dominating the structure of the clauses: Paul clearly so writes, not because “gifts,” “workings,” “operations” stand out in his thought as greatly diverse things, but because God, the Lord, and the Spirit lie in the back of his mind constantly suggesting a threefold causality behind every manifestation of grace. The Trinity is alluded to rather than asserted; but it is so alluded to as to show that it constitutes the determining basis of all Paul’s thought of the God of redemption. Even more instructive is 2 Cor. 13:14, which has passed into general liturgical use in the churches as a benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” Here the three highest redemptive blessings are brought together, and attached distributively to the three Persons of the Triune God. There is again no formal teaching of the doctrine of the Trinity; there is only another instance of natural speaking out of a Trinitarian consciousness. Paul is simply thinking of the Divine source of these great blessings; but he habitually thinks of this Divine source of redemptive blessings after a trinal fashion. He therefore does not say, as he might just as well have said, “The grace and love and communion of God be with you all,” but “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” Thus he bears, almost unconsciously but most richly, witness to the trinal composition of the Godhead as conceived by Him.
The phenomena of Paul’s Epistles are repeated in the other writings of the New Testament. In these other writings also it is everywhere assumed that the redemptive activities of God rest on a threefold source in God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit; and these three Persons repeatedly come forward together in the expressions of Christian hope or the aspirations of Christian devotion (e.g., Heb. 2:3, 4; 6:4–6; 10:29–31; 1 Pet. 1:2; 2:3–12; 4:13–19; 1 Jn. 5:4–8; Jude vs. 20, 21; Rev. 1:4–6). Perhaps as typical instances as any are supplied by the two following: “According to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:2); “Praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude vs. 20, 21). To these may be added the highly symbolical instance from the Apocalypse: ‘Grace to you and peace from Him which is and was and which is to come; and from the Seven Spirits which are before His throne; and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth’ (Rev. 1:4, 5). Clearly these writers, too, write out of a fixed Trinitarian consciousness and bear their testimony to the universal understanding current in apostolical circles. Everywhere and by all it was fully understood that the one God whom Christians worshipped and from whom alone they expected redemption and all that redemption brought with it, included within His undiminished unity the three: God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, whose activities relatively to one another are conceived as distinctly personal. This is the uniform and pervasive testimony of the New Testament, and it is the more impressive that it is given with such unstudied naturalness and simplicity, with no effort to distinguish between what have come to be called the ontological and the economical aspects of the Trinitarian distinctions, and indeed without apparent consciousness of the existence of such a distinction of aspects. Whether God is thought of in Himself or in His operations, the underlying conception runs unaffectedly into trinal forms.
From “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 2 (Biblical Doctrines), 156–161.
We are constantly pointed to 1 Cor. 8:6, to be sure, as in some way supplying a warrant for supposing an unexpressed subordinationism to be hidden beneath the surface of all of Paul’s equalizations of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. It is exceedingly difficult, however, to see how this passage can be made to supply such a warrant. It lies open to the sight of all, of course, that in it the one God the Father and the one Lord Jesus Christ,—who are included in the one only God that, it is understood by all, alone exists,—are differentiated by the particular relations in which the first and the second creations alike are said to stand to them severally. All things are said to be “of” God the Father and “through” the Lord Jesus Christ; Christians are said to be “unto” the one and “by means of” the other. These characterizations are of course, not made at random; and it is right to seek diligently for their significance. It would doubtless be easy, however, to press such prepositional distinctions too far, as such passages as Rom. 11:36 and Col. 1:16 may advise us. Perhaps it would not be wrong to say that they are to be taken rather eminently than exclusively. What it is at the moment especially important that we observe, however, is that they concern the relations of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ ad extra and say nothing whatever of their relations to one another. With respect to their relations to one another, what the passage tells us is that they are both embraced in that one God which, it is declared with great emphasis, alone exists. We must not permit to fall out of sight that the whole passage is dominated by the clear-cut assertion that “there is no God but one” (verse 4, at the end). Of this assertion the words now particularly before us (verse 6b) are the positive side of an explication and proof (verse 5, γάρ). And the thing for us distinctly to note is that Paul explicates the assertion that there is no God but one by declaring, as if that was quite ad rem, that Christians know but one God the Father and one Lord Jesus Christ. There meets us here again, we perceive,—as underlying and giving its force to this assertion,—the precise formula we have been having under consideration. And it meets us after a fashion which brings very strikingly to our attention once more that, when Paul says “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” he has in mind not two Gods, much less two beings of unequal dignity, a God and a Demi-god, or a God and a mere creature,—but just one God. Though Christians have one God the Father and one Lord Jesus Christ, they know but one only God.
The essential meaning of the passage is wholly unaffected by the question whether in the words, “There is no God but one” at the end of verse 4, we have Paul’s own language or that of his Corinthian correspondents repeated by him. We may read the verse, if we choose,—perhaps we ought to,—“Concerning the meats offered to idols, then, we are perfectly well aware that, as you say, there is no idol in the world, and there is no God but one.” Still, the assertion that there is no God but one rules the succeeding verses, which, introduced as its justification, become in effect a reiteration of it. “There is no God but one, for—for, although there are indeed so-called Gods, whether in heaven or on earth,—as there are Gods a-plenty and Lords a-plenty!—yet for us there is one God the Father … and one Lord Jesus Christ.…” Obviously this can mean nothing else than that the “one God the Father and one Lord Jesus Christ” of the Christians is just the one only God which exists. To attempt to make it mean anything else is to stultify the whole argument. You cannot prove that only one God exists by pointing out that you yourself have two.
We are referred, it is true, to the declaration that the heathen have not only many Gods, but also many Lords, and we are bidden to see in their one God the Father and one Lord Jesus Christ a parallel among the Christians to this state of affairs among the heathen. And then we are further instructed that it is only fair to suppose that Paul felt some difference in grade between the Gods and the Lords of the heathen and, in paralleling the two objects of Christian worship with them respectively, intended to intimate a discrimination in rank between God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. On this ground, we are then asked to conclude that Paul does not range the Lord Jesus Christ here along with God the Father within the Godhead, but adjoins Him to God the Father as an additional and inferior object of reverence, placed distinctly as “Lord” outside the category of “God.” This whole construction, however, is purely artificial and has no standing ground in the world of realities. There is no evidence that the heathen discriminated between the designations “God” and “Lord” in point of dignity to the disadvantage of the latter; this, at the end of the day, has to be admitted by both Johannes Weiss and W. Bousset, who yet urge that Paul must be supposed to presuppose such a distinction here. Paul, however, intimates in no way at all that he felt any such distinction on his part; on the contrary he includes the “Gods many” and “Lords many” of the heathen without question in their “so-called Gods” on equal terms. Least of all is it possible to separate off “one God the Father” from its fellow “one Lord Jesus Christ,” linked to it immediately by the simple “and,” and make the former alone refer back to the “There is no God but one.” Paul obviously includes both “God the Father” and “the Lord Jesus Christ” within this one only God whom alone he and his readers alike recognize as existing. It would void his whole argument if Jesus Christ were conceived of as a second and inferior object of worship outside the limits of the one only God. The thing which above all others the passage says plainly, is that the acknowledgment by Christians of “one God the Father and one Lord Jesus Christ” accords with the fundamental postulate that “there is no God but one.” And that can mean nothing else than that God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ together make but one God. So far from this passage throwing itself athwart the implications of the repeated employment by Paul, as by others of the writers of the New Testament, of the formula in which God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are conjoined as the one object of Christian prayer and source of Christian blessings, it brings a notable support to them. It supplies what is in effect an explicit assertion of the fact on which this formula implicitly proceeds. It declares that the one God of the Christians includes in His Being both “God the Father” and “the Lord Jesus Christ.” Christians acknowledge but one God; and these are the one God which Christians acknowledge.
B. B. Warfield, “‘God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ'” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 2 (Biblical Doctrines), 227–230.
The classical doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that there is one God who exists in three distinct persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Typically this is stated as God having his existence in one substance and three persons.
There is mystery here. But it is the mystery in the light of which clarity is brought to all of our thinking about God, creation, providence, and redemption. Like the light of the sun we cannot gaze into it without danger; and yet it is the light in which we are able to see everything else more clearly. As Augustine wrote: ‘In no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.’[i]
The purpose of this appendix is not to provide an exposition or defence of the classical doctrine of the Trinity but the more modest one of underlining the extent to which the joint work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit undergirds and permeates the teaching of the New Testament.
What follows then simply collates a number of New Testament passages under various headings to demonstrate how deeply into the warp and woof of the gospel the presence of the Trinity is woven, in frequent references to the joint work in the believer of two or all three persons in the Trinity.
In classical orthodox Christianity the language of ‘substance’ and ‘persons’ has been used. This is not itself biblical language but the church has never seriously managed to improve on it. The point in this appendix is not to expound, explain, or defend this particular language but to show that only when we read the New Testament through trinitarian lenses can we make sense of its message. And since our fellowship in the Spirit is with the Father and the Son (1 John 1:3) it is tremendously important for our growth in sanctification that we learn to live, serve, and worship in a Trinity-conscious way.
1. Statements reflecting on the relationship of the Father and the Son
2. Statements reflecting on the Father’s and the Son’s relationship with the Spirit
3. Statements reflecting the foundational and pervasive nature of God in his trinitarian interaction with his creation.
(i) Baptism (Luke 3:21).
(ii) Temptations (Luke 4:1-12).
(iii) Ministry (Matthew 12:25-28).
(iv) Crucifixion (Romans 8:32; Hebrews 9:14).
(v) Resurrection (Romans 1:3ff; 1 Peter 3:18).
(vi) Ascension and Pentecost (John 14:15-17; 15:26).
4. The Trinity is seen as essential to the accomplishing of redemption and to its application:
Source: Sinclair B. Ferguson, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification (Banner of Truth, 2016), Appendix 1. Used here with permission.
[i] On the Holy Trinity, trans. A. W. Haddon, revised and annotated by W. G. T. Shedd: The Works of St Augustine, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff (reprinted Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), III.19.
§ 1. Preliminary Remarks
The doctrine of the Trinity is peculiar to the religion of the Bible. The Triad of the ancient world is only a philosophical statement of the pantheistic theory which underlies all the religions of antiquity. With the Hindus, simple, undeveloped, primal being, without consciousness or attributes, is called Brahm. This being, as unfolding itself in the actual world, is Vishnu; as returning into the abyss of unconscious being, it is Shiva. In Buddhism we find essentially the same ideas, in a more dualistic form. Buddhism makes more of a distinction between God, or the spiritual principle of all things, and nature. The soul of man is a part, or an existence-form, of this spiritual essence, whose destiny is, that it may be freed from nature and lost in the infinite unknown. In Platonism, also, we find a notional Trinity. Simple being (τὸ ὀν) has its λόγος, the complex of its ideas, the reality in all that is phenomenal and changing. In all these systems, whether ancient or modern, there is a Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis; the Infinite becomes finite, and the finite returns to the Infinite. It is obvious, therefore, that these trinitarian formulas have no analogy with the Scriptural doctrine of the Trinity, and serve neither to explain nor to confirm it.
The design of all the revelations contained in the Word of God is the salvation of men. Truth is in order to holiness. God does not make known his being and attributes to teach men science, but to bring them to the saving knowledge of Himself. The doctrines of the Bible are, therefore, intimately connected with religion, or the life of God in the soul. They determine the religious experience of believers, and are presupposed in that experience. This is specially true of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is a great mistake to regard that doctrine as a mere speculative or abstract truth, concerning the constitution of the Godhead, with which we have no practical concern, or which we are required to believe simply because it is revealed. On the contrary, it underlies the whole plan of salvation, and determines the character of the religion (in the subjective sense of that word) of all true Christians. It is the unconscious, or unformed faith, even of those of God’s people who are unable to understand the term by which it is expressed. They all believe in God, the Creator and Preserver against whom they have sinned, whose justice they know they cannot satisfy, and whose image they cannot restore to their apostate nature. They, therefore, as of necessity, believe in a divine Redeemer and a divine Sanctifier. They have, as it were, the factors of the doctrine of the Trinity in their own religious convictions. No mere speculative doctrine, especially no doctrine so mysterious and so out of analogy with all other objects of human knowledge, as that of the Trinity, could ever have held the abiding control over the faith of the Church, which this doctrine has maintained. It is not, therefore, by any arbitrary decision, nor from any bigoted adherence to hereditary beliefs, that the Church has always refused to recognize as Christians those who reject this doctrine. This judgment is only the expression of the deep conviction that Antitrinitarians must adopt a radically and practically different system of religion from that on which the Church builds her hopes. It is not too much to say with Meyer, that “the Trinity is the point in which all Christian ideas and interests unite; at once the beginning and the end of all insight into Christianity.”
This great article of the Christian faith may be regarded under three different aspects: (1.) The Biblical form of the doctrine. (2.) The ecclesiastical form, or the mode in which the statements of the Bible have been explained in the symbols of the Church and the writings of theologians. (3.) Its philosophical form, or the attempts which have been made to illustrate, or to prove, the doctrine on philosophical principles. It is only the doctrine as presented in the Bible, which binds the faith and conscience of the people of God.
§ 2. Biblical Form of the Doctrine
A. What that Form is
The form in which this doctrine lies in the Bible, and in which it enters into the faith of the Church universal, includes substantially the following particulars.
1. There is one only living and true God, or divine Being. The religion of the Bible stands opposed not only to Atheism, but to all forms of polytheism. The Scriptures everywhere assert that Jehovah alone is God. (Deut. 6:4.) “The Lord our God is one Lord.” “I am the first, and I am the last; and besides me there is no God.” (Is. 44:6.) “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well.” (James 2:19.) The Decalogue, which is the foundation of the moral and religious code of Christianity, as well as of Judaism, has as its first and greatest commandment, “Thou shalt have no other God before me.” No doctrine, therefore, can possibly be true which contradicts this primary truth of natural as well as of revealed religion.
2. In the Bible all divine titles and attributes are ascribed equally to the Father, Son, and Spirit. The same divine worship is rendered to them. The one is as much the object of adoration, love, confidence, and devotion as the other. It is not more evident that the Father is God, than that the Son is God; nor is the deity of the Father and Son more clearly revealed than that of the Spirit.
3. The terms Father, Son, and Spirit do not express different relations of God to his creatures. They are not analogous to the terms Creator, Preserver, and Benefactor, which do express such relations. The Scriptural facts are, (a.) The Father says I; the Son says I; the Spirit says I. (b.) The Father says Thou to the Son, and the Son says Thou to the Father; and in like manner the Father and the Son use the pronouns He and Him in reference to the Spirit. (c.) The Father loves the Son; the Son loves the Father; the Spirit testifies of the Son. The Father, Son, and Spirit are severally subject and object. They act and are acted upon, or are the objects of action. Nothing is added to these facts when it is said that the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct persons; for a person is an intelligent subject who can say I, who can be addressed as Thou, and who can act and can be the object of action. The summation of the above facts is expressed in the proposition, The one divine Being subsists in three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. This proposition adds nothing to the facts themselves; for the facts are, (1.) That there is one divine Being. (2.) The Father, Son, and Spirit are divine. (3.) The Father, Son, and Spirit are, in the sense just stated, distinct persons. (4.) Attributes being inseparable from substance, the Scriptures, in saying that the Father, Son, and Spirit possess the same attributes, say they are the same in substance; and, if the same in substance, they are equal in power and glory.
4. Notwithstanding that the Father, Son, and Spirit are the same in substance, and equal in power and glory, it is no less true, according to the Scriptures, (a.) That the Father is first, the Son second, and the Spirit third. (b.) The Son is of the Father (ἐκ θεοῦ, the λόγος, εἰκὼν, ἀπαύγασμα, τοῦ θεοῦ); and the Spirit is of the Father and of the Son. (c.) The Father sends the Son, and the Father and Son send the Spirit. (d.) The Father operates through the Son, and the Father and Son operate through the Spirit. The converse of these statements is never found. The Son is never said to send the Father, nor to operate through Him; nor is the Spirit ever said to send the Father, or the Son, or to operate through them. The facts contained in this paragraph are summed up in the proposition: In the Holy Trinity there is a subordination of the Persons as to the mode of subsistence and operation. This proposition again adds nothing to the facts themselves.
5. According to the Scriptures, the Father created the world, the Son created the world, and the Spirit created the world. The Father preserves all things; the Son upholds all things; and the Spirit is the source of all life. These facts are expressed by saying that the persons of the Trinity concur in all acts ad extra. Nevertheless there are some acts which are predominantly referred to the Father, others to the Son, and others to the Spirit. The Father creates, elects, and calls; the Son redeems; and the Spirit sanctifies. And, on the other hand, there are certain acts, or conditions, predicated of one person of the Trinity, which are never predicated of either of the others. Thus, generation belongs exclusively to the Father, filiation to the Son, and procession to the Spirit. This is the form in which the doctrine of the Trinity lies in the Bible. The above statement involves no philosophical element. It is simply an arrangement of the clearly revealed facts bearing on this subject. This is the form in which the doctrine has always entered into the faith of the Church, as a part of its religious convictions and experience.
To say that this doctrine is incomprehensible, is to say nothing more than must be admitted of any other great truth, whether of revelation or of science. To say that it is impossible that the one divine substance can subsist in three distinct persons, is certainly unreasonable, when, according to that form of philosophy which has been the most widely diffused, and the most persistent, everything that exists is only one of the innumerable forms in which one and the same infinite substance subsists; and when, according to the Realists, who once controlled the thinking world, all men are the individualized forms of the numerically same substance called generic humanity.
B. Scriptural Proof of the Doctrine
No such doctrine as that of the Trinity can be adequately proved by any citation of Scriptural passages. Its constituent elements are brought into view, some in one place, and some in another. The unity of the Divine Being; the true and equal divinity of the Father, Son, and Spirit; their distinct personality; the relation in which they stand one to the other, and to the Church and the world, are not presented in a doctrinal formula in the Word of God, but the several constituent elements of the doctrine are asserted, or assumed, over and over, from the beginning to the end of the Bible. It is, therefore, by proving these elements separately, that the whole doctrine can be most satisfactorily established. All that is here necessary is, a reference to the general teachings of Scripture on the subject, and to some few passages in which everything essential to the doctrine is included.
The Progressive Character of Divine Revelation
1. The progressive character of divine revelation is recognized in relation to all the great doctrines of the Bible. One of the strongest arguments for the divine origin of the Scriptures is the organic relation of its several parts. They comprise more than sixty books written by different men in different ages, and yet they form one whole; not by mere external historical relations, nor in virtue of the general identity of the subjects of which they treat, but by their internal organic development. All that is in a full-grown tree was potentially in the seed. All that we find unfolded in the fulness of the gospel lies in a rudimental form in the earliest books of the Bible. What at first is only obscurely intimated is gradually unfolded in subsequent parts of the sacred volume, until the truth is revealed in its fulness. This is true of the doctrines of redemption; of the person and work of the Messiah, the promised seed of the woman; of the nature and office of the Holy Spirit; and of a future state beyond the grave. And this is specially true of the doctrine of the Trinity. Even in the book of Genesis there are intimations of the doctrine which receive their true interpretation in later revelations. That the names of God are in the plural form; that the personal pronouns are often in the first person plural (“Let us make man in our image”); that the form of benediction is threefold, and other facts of like nature, may be explained in different ways. But when it becomes plain, from the progress of the revelation, that there are three persons in the Godhead, then such forms of expression can hardly fail to be recognized as having their foundation in that great truth.
2. Much more important, however, is the fact, that not only in Genesis, but also in all the early books of Scripture, we find a distinction made between Jehovah and the angel of Jehovah, who himself is God, to whom all divine titles are given, and divine worship is rendered. As the revelation is unfolded, such distinction becomes more and more manifest. This messenger of God is called the word, the wisdom, the Son of God. His personality and divinity are clearly revealed. He is of old, even from everlasting, the Mighty God, the Adonai, the Lord of David, Jehovah our Righteousness, who was to be born of a virgin, and bear the sins of many.
3. In like manner, even in the first chapter of Genesis, the Spirit of God is represented as the source of all intelligence, order, and life in the created universe; and in the following books of the Old Testament He is represented as inspiring the prophets, giving wisdom, strength, and goodness to statesmen and warriors, and to the people of God. This Spirit is not an agency, but an agent, who teaches and selects; who can be sinned against and grieved; and who, in the New Testament, is unmistakably revealed as a distinct person. When John the Baptist appeared, we find him speaking of the Holy Spirit as of a person with whom his countrymen were familiar, as an object of divine worship and the giver of saving blessings. Our divine Lord also takes this truth for granted, and promised to send the Spirit, as a Paraclete, to take his place; to instruct, comfort, and strengthen them; whom they were to receive and obey. Thus, without any violent transition, the earliest revelations of this mystery were gradually unfolded, until the Triune God, Father, Son, and Spirit, appears in the New Testament as the universally recognized God of all believers.
The Formula of Baptism
4. In the formulas of Baptism and of the Apostolic Benediction, provision was made to keep this doctrine constantly before the minds of the people, as a cardinal article of the Christian faith. Every Christian is baptized in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. The personality, the divinity, and consequently the equality of these three subjects, are here taken for granted. The association of the Son and Spirit with the Father; the identity of relation, so far as dependence and obedience are concerned, which we sustain to the Father, Son, and Spirit respectively; the confession and profession involved in the ordinances; all forbid any other interpretation of this formula than that which it has always received in the Church. If the expression, “In the name of the Father,” implies the personality of the Father, the same implication is involved when it is used in reference to the Son and Spirit. If we acknowledge our subjection and allegiance to the one, we acknowledge the same subjection and allegiance to the other divine persons here named.
The Apostolic Benediction
In the apostolic benediction a prayer is addressed to Christ for his grace, to the Father for his love, and to the Spirit for his fellowship. The personality and divinity of each are therefore solemnly recognized every time that this benediction is pronounced and received.
5. In the record of our Lord’s baptism, the Father addresses the Son, and the Spirit descends in the form of a dove. In the discourse of Christ, recorded in the 14th, 15th, and 16th chapters of John’s Gospel, our Lord speaks to and of the Father, and promises to send the Spirit to teach, guide, and comfort his disciples. In that discourse the personality and divinity of the Father, Son, and Spirit are recognized with equal clearness. In 1 Cor. 12:4–6, the Apostle speaks of diversity of gifts, but the same Spirit; of diversity of administration, but the same Lord; and of diversities of operations, but the same God.
It is not to be forgotten, however, that the faith of the Church in the doctrine of the Trinity, does not rest exclusively or principally on such arguments as those mentioned above. The great foundation of that faith is what is taught everywhere in the Bible of the unity of the Divine Being; of the personality and divinity of the Father, Son, and Spirit; and of their mutual relations.
Source: Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol.1, pp.442–448.
The Father is therefore always the Father, the first person, He from whom in the being of God, in the counsel of God, and in all the works of creation and providence, redemption and sanctification, the initiative proceeds. He gave the Son to have life in Himself (John 5 :26), and He sends out the Spirit (John 15 :26). His is the election and the good pleasure (Matt. 11:26 and Eph. 1:4, 9, 11). From Him proceed the creation, providence, redemption, and renewal (Ps. 33:6 and John 3 :16). To Him in a special sense the kingdom and the power and the glory accrue (Matt. 6:13). He particularly bears the name of God in distinction from the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Christ Himself as Mediator calls Him His Father, not only, but also His God (Matt. 27:46 and John 20 :17) and Christ is Himself called the Christ of God. In a word, the first person of the Divine being is the Father because “of Him are all things” (1 Cor. 8:6).
If God is the Father, the inference is that there also is a Son who received life £rom Him and who shares His love. In the Old Testament the name of son of God was used for angels, for the people of Israel, and particularly too for the theocratic king of that people. But in the New Testament this name takes on a far profounder meaning. For Christ is the Son of God in a very peculiar sense; He is highly exalted above angels and prophets (Matt. 13 :32; 21 :27; and 22 :2), and He Himself says that no one can know the Son except the Father, and no one can know the Father except the Son (Matt. 11 :27). In distinction from angels and men, He is the Father’s own Son (Rom. 8 :32), the beloved Son in whom the Father is well pleased (Matt. 3 :17), the only-begotten Son (John 1 :18) whom the Father gave to have life in Himself (John 5 :26).
This very special, this unique, relationship between Father and Son did not develop in time by way of the supernatural conception of the Holy Spirit, or of the anointing at baptism, or of the resurrection and ascension – though many have maintained this – but is a relationship which has existed from all eternity. The Son who in Christ assumed human nature was in the beginning with God as the Word (John 1 :1), then already had the form of God (Phil. 2 :6), was rich and clothed with glory (John 17:5, 24), was then already the brightness of God’s glory and the express image of His person (Heb. 1 :3), and precisely therefore He could in the fulness of time be sent out, given, and brought into the world.14 Hence, too, the creation (John 1:3 and Col. 1:16) and providence (Heb. 1 :3) and the accomplishment of the whole of salvation (1 Cor. 1 :30) are ascribed to Him. He is not, as creatures are., made or created, but is, instead, the first-born of all creatures: that is. the Son who has the rank and rights of the first-born over against all creatures (Col. 1 :15). Thus He is also the first-born of the dead, the first-born of many brethren, and therefore among all and in all He is the first (Rom. 8:29 and Col. 1 :18). And even though, in the fulness of time, He assumed the form of a servant, He was nevertheless in the form of God. He was in all things like unto God the Father (Phil. 2:6): in life (John 5:26), in knowledge (Matt. 11:27), in strength (John 1 :3 and 5 :21, 26), in honor (John 5 :23). He is Himself God, to be praised above all else into eternity.111 Just as all things are of the Father, so they are also all through the Son (1 Cor. 8:6).
Both, Father and Son, come together and are united in the Holy Spirit and by means of the Spirit dwell in all creatures. True, God is according to His nature a Spirit (John 4:24) and He is holy (Isa. 6 :3); but the Holy Spirit is clearly distinguished from God as Spirit. Just as, in a comparative way of speaking, man is a spirit in his invisible nature and also possesses a spirit, by means of which he is aware of himself and is self-conscious, so God is a Spirit by nature and also possesses a Spirit, a Spirit which searches the depths of His being (1 Cor. 2:11). As such the latter is called the Spirit of God or the Holy Spirit (Ps. 51 :12 and Isa. 63 :10-11). And this is done in distinction from the spirit of an angel or of a human being or of any other creature. But, although He is distinguished from God, from the Father and the Son, He stands in the most intimate of relationships with both. He is called the breath of the Almighty (Job 33 :4), the breath of His mouth (Ps. 33:6), is sent out by the Father and the Son (John 14:26 and 15 :26), and He proceeds from both, not from the Father alone (John 15:26) but also from the Son, for He is also called the Spirit of Christ or the Spirit of the Father (Rom. 8 :9).
Source: Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, 1956, Eerdmans, pp. 252–254.
The Trinity is easy to misunderstand, and therefore it is easy to marginalize the doctrine as non-biblical doctrine or as philosophical speculation. But instead of a marginalized doctrine, the Trinity should be seen as foundational to Christian theology (19). Part 1 of this book will investigate the trinitarian contours of every book of the New Testament as well as the Old Testament roots of the Trinity. It should be said that the word “Trinity” as well as key concepts such as homoousios do not appear in Scripture; nevertheless, this “precision of language does not import something foreign into the biblical texts, but faithfully articulates the content of those texts” (20). This book will use the words “Trinity” and “trinitarian” in relation to the biblical text. This usage is not an attempt to smuggle in fourth century doctrine on first century texts; rather, it is a way to “speak of the triadic contours of the text that lead—inexorably—to the doctrine of the Trinity” (20).
Part 2 will focus on how the Trinity affects our practical lives. Though the contributors to this book come from various theological perspectives, they are all in agreement that the Trinity is a “non-negotiable aspect of the one catholic and apostolic faith” (20). The doctrine of the Trinity is necessary both for the faithful interpretation of Scripture and for everyday life.
NEW TESTAMENT FOUNDATIONS
The Trinity and the Gospel of Matthew
Matthew’s gospel has both a high Christology and strong teaching of the activity of the Holy Spirit. This chapter looks first at the Father in Matthew, then divine Christology, and finally the Holy Spirit as he relates to the Father and the Son. Matthew’s depiction of the Father is clearly the covenantal God of Israel (Matt 1:1). He is the God of Old Testament Scripture (Matt 6:25–33). He has no rivals in his supremacy (Matt 4:10).
How does Matthew describe Jesus? Remarkably, Jesus “is placed on the Creator side of the Creator-creature distinction” (29). Matthew shows this most explicitly in Jesus’ prayer in 11:25–27. Verse 27 says that no one knows the Son except the Father, and it goes on to show that Jesus can reveal the Father. Jesus has a crucial role in the revelation of salvation, which shows that he is no mere creature; he is one with the Creator. Matthew also depicts Jesus as the divine Son (14:33) and as Immanuel (1:22–23).
Matthew depicts the Spirit in close relation with both the Father and the Son. At Jesus’ baptism, it is the Spirit of God who rests on Jesus (3:16), and Jesus casts out demons by the Spirit of God (12:28). Similarly, it is the Spirit who is responsible for Jesus’ conception (1:18, 20), and the Spirit gives Jesus the power he needs for his messianic ministry (3:11).
Finally, the Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20) is Matthew’s clearest depiction of the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus’ followers are to baptize new disciples in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The word name is singular, yet there is an article before each person of the Trinity. This passage displays both the unity and the distinctness of the persons of the Trinity. This passage is not only one of the clearest depictions of the Trinity in Matthew, but also in the whole Bible.
The Trinity and the Gospel of Mark
There is a common scholarly opinion that Mark’s gospel has a low Christology, but the link between Jesus and God is actually stronger than many recognize. Additionally, though it is true that there are few references to the Holy Spirit, those references do point towards both a divine and a personal status of the Holy Spirit.
Mark’s gospel was written to a Gentile audience, and perhaps for this very reason it contains strong assertions toward the belief in the one God of Israel (46). The most significant passage is Mark 12:32, which contains the only explicit citation of the Shema (Deut 6:4) in the New Testament. “The monotheistic outlook of Mark’s Gospel could hardly have been stated more forcefully” (47).
Though at first it appears that God “takes a back seat” in Mark, God’s profound and strategic work are seen in three strategically placed scenes. First, God speaks at Jesus’ baptism (1:11) and he speaks a second time at the transfiguration (9:7). Finally, the passive verb ēgerthē (“has been raised”) indicates that it is God who raised Jesus from the dead. “Thus Jesus has not been forsaken (cf. 15:34), but has finally been vindicated and authorized by God” (50).
Christology in Mark is often studied just in terms of the titles given to Jesus, but Mark’s Christology is actually much richer than just the titles given to Jesus. For example, Mark opens his gospel by quoting three Old Testament passages: Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3. What is evident in these quotations is that Mark depicts Jesus doing the things that YHWH did in the Old Testament. Mark follows this pattern throughout his gospel (i.e. Mk 2:1–12; 4:36–41; 7:1–23).
Though there are only six explicit references to the Holy Spirit in Mark, they are key points (58). For example, the reference to the “unforgivable sin” as blaspheming the Holy Spirit (3:29) indicates that the Spirit is a personal being. The ministry of the Holy Spirit depicted in 13:11 shows the intimate relationship between the Spirit, Jesus, and God: Jesus has the best knowledge of the Spirit’s future activity, and the Spirit’s activity is similar to the activity of God in Exodus 4:10–17 and Jeremiah 1:6–10.
The Trinity and Luke-Acts
Alan J. Thomson
The triune God is the foundation of Luke’s encouragement to Theophilus in his two-volume work. Believers such as Theophilus needed assurance, and “Luke outlines evidence that Jesus is the incarnate Lord who accomplishes the saving purposes of his Father by the power of the Spirit” (68). Luke’s gospel depicts God as the God of Israel who keeps his promises (e.g. to Abraham, 1:55, 73, and David, 1:32–33, 69; 2:4, 11). Jesus is both Lord and Son. There are often places where he is called “Lord” that clearly mean he is God (e.g. 1:6, 8–9, 11, 19, 26, 37–38, 46–47). He is also depicted as the unique Son of God. For Luke, “the designation ‘Son of God’ can be understood as synonymous (though not completely interchangeable) with ‘Christ’ (4:41), reflecting 2 Samuel 7:14 and Psalm 2:7” (76).
Luke provides clear evidence that the Holy Spirit is God. He is “the Sprit of the Lord,” (4:18), yet he is distinct from the Father (3:22). The primary purpose of the Spirit in Luke’s gospel is the role of empowering people to speak (e.g. 1:41–45; 12:12). The Spirit’s interaction with Jesus is most clearly seen in the Spirit’s empowerment of the human life of Jesus (80).
Acts continues to develop the theme that God, as promised, has fulfilled his saving purposes (81). Jesus is the sovereign Lord in salvation (16:14) and the one with divine power (1:23–24). Acts shows in many places that Jesus is Yahweh, the true God of salvation (85). There is also clear evidence that the Holy Spirit is God. To lie to the Holy Spirit is to lie to God (5:4). In sum, Luke shows that the “incarnate Lord Jesus has ascended and now reigns at the right hand of the Father, so that God’s saving rule continues to be accomplished among the nations by the Lord Jesus through the Spirit who was promised by the Father and sent by the Son” (90).
The Trinity and the Gospel of John
John’s gospel has played a major role in formation of the doctrine of the Trinity. The John’s magisterial prologue harkens back to the creation account of Genesis 1, functioning as a reaffirmation of Jewish creational monotheism. Yet John also introduces the Word who was both “with God” and “was God.” These simultaneously true statements provide significant insight into the relationship between God and Jesus, the Word. Jesus is uncreated, and through him, all things were created (1:3).
John depicts Jesus’ sonship as eternal. This point is seen most clearly in John 17, which is the counterpart to the prologue. The focus on glory in John 17 is connected to the eternal love the Father has for his Son. The last occurrence of the word “glory” appears in John 17:24, which is linked to its first appearance in John 1:14, and both times the word refers to the intense love between Father and Son.
A strong case for the deity of Christ in John’s gospel can be seen in the “I am” sayings. There are two series of sayings, with seven sayings in each series. The first set is easily recognizable in English because the words “I am” followed by a noun are always present (e.g. “I am the bread of life;” “I am the light of the world.”) The second series is less recognizable in English, because the Greek words are rendered differently such as “I am he” or “it is I.” Nevertheless, these seven occurrences all use the Greek egō eimi, which is a reference to the Old Testament divine name, YHWH.
Compared to Jesus, there is much less about the Spirit in John’s Gospel. There are two main roles: first, outside the farewell discourse (John 13–16), the Spirit is mostly associated with life and power. Within the farewell discourse, the Spirit functions as the Paraclete or “the Spirit of truth.” The Spirit is the successor of Jesus when Jesus returns to his Father (16:7). Similarly, the Father sends the Spirit at the request of Jesus (14:16, 26). Therefore “the Spirit is God in ways different from the Father’s way of being God and the Son’s way of being God, but belongs no less integrally to the identity of the one God” (117).
Paul and the Trinity
Together with John’s gospel, Paul’s letters provide some of the richest material on trinitarian theology in the New Testament. There are at least three places where Father, Son, and Spirit are explicitly present together: 1 Corinthians 12:4–6, 2 Corinthians 13:14, and Ephesians 4:4–7. What is remarkable about these three passages is that none of them are in the “theology proper” sections of Paul’s letters, but rather in the “practical” sections (119).
In fact, a closer look at Paul shows that his trinitarian theology is immensely practical. Understanding trinitarian relations can bring assurance of salvation. Ephesians 3:14–19 shows all three persons of the Trinity at work in bringing salvation to the believer. Similarly 2 Thessalonians 2:13b–14 “highlights the past electing work of God, the present sanctifying work of the Spirit and the prospect of sharing the future glory of Jesus Christ” (124). Similarly, Romans 8:26–27 provides strong encouragement from trinitarian involvement in prayer.
Paul shows that the Trinity also serves as the foundation of true Christian fellowship. This point is evident in Paul’s benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14, as well as in Paul’s opening prayer in Ephesians 1:17. Finally, Paul’s exhortations for holy living are also often embedded in trinitarian thought, such as in Titus 3:4–8a. “Repeatedly, and to great effect, when Paul deals with matters of pastoral concern, he cannot help but mention the united and collaborative work of God, Christ and the Spirit, three divine identities, who together constitute one God” (134).
Hebrews and the Trinity
Jonathan I. Griffiths
The writer of Hebrews “calls for allegiance to the One God of Israel and makes him known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (135). This chapter focuses on the three persons of the Trinity in relation to revelation and redemption, the two central themes of the book of Hebrews. Hebrews begins by showing that God’s revelation is given “in” God’s Son, who is the “exact imprint of his nature” (1:3). The immediate focus on Jesus’ supremacy to angels is probably connected to the tradition that God delivered the Law at Sinai through angels (cf. Acts 7:38, 53; Gal 3:19). Hebrews develops this theme by quoting from Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14, two passages that reveal the Father speaking to the Son (1:5). Hebrews extends this focus on revelation to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in Hebrews 3:7–11 and 10:15 where the author claims that the Holy Spirit is speaking through the words of the Old Testament.
The theme of Jesus’ divine sonship is continued in the other main theme in Hebrews, redemption. Hebrews 2:10 and 5:7–10 both refer to the Son being “perfected” through what he suffered. The context of Hebrews reveals that the Son was not imperfect with a need to be “perfected,” but rather that he was able to function as the great high priest who can relate with others who suffer. In this sense the Father is the one “perfecting” the Son, who, in turn, willingly receives the work of the Father on his behalf. Finally, the “eternal Spirit” in 9:14 should be seen as a reference to the Holy Spirit, which provides a condensed statement of how the three persons of the Trinity function in the redemption of the believer.
The Trinity and the General Epistles
Brandon D. Crowe
James stands out as a letter that thoroughly focuses on Jewish monotheism. In addition, James refers to both the Father and Jesus as Lord (see 1:27, 3:9, 5:10–11 and 1:1, 2:1, and 5:7, respectively). “By identifying Jesus as Lord, James is claiming that Jesus is exalted in the highest heavens with God himself” (157). Compared to James, 1 Peter provides a fuller treatment of all three divine persons. First Peter 1:1–2 gives a trinitarian greeting and presents salvation as a trinitarian blessing. The Son became incarnate and suffered on the cross (2:24; 5:1), trusting himself to his Father (2:23). Moreover, the Holy Spirit inspired the work of the prophets (1:12), and he is the sanctifier of believers (1:2).
Second Peter stands out because it contains “some of the most explicit language in the New Testament identifying Jesus as God” (164). Jesus is identified as both God and Savior in 1:1. Though Peter often describes the Father and Jesus as having similar functions, 2 Peter 1:3 shows a clear distinction between the two persons. Father, Son, and Spirit show up together in 2 Peter 1:16–21 in the discussion of the transfiguration.
The Johannine epistles (1–3 John) are similar to John’s gospel in that they emphasize the unity of the Father and the Son. First John 4:11–13 shows the triune God at work in our salvation: God’s love for his people is manifested in his sending of his Son as a sacrifice for sins, and the Spirit provides assurance that believers truly belong to God. Finally, all three divine persons are mentioned in Jude, and it is especially encouraging to be reminded that believers’ prayers are offered in the Holy Spirit (Jude 20).
An Apocalyptic Trinitarian Model:
The Book of Daniel’s Influence on Revelation’s Conception of the Trinity
Benjamin L. Gladd
This chapter seeks to “argue that the book of Daniel provides a rough blueprint or model for John’s conception of the Trinity” in the book of Revelation (175). Though Daniel’s message is cryptic, it contains, in seed form, all the essential elements of a robust understanding of the Trinity. First, just as with Daniel, Revelation depicts God as the source of revealed mysteries. In Daniel, God reveals mysteries of future events to many people, including pagan kings (e.g. Dan 2:1–13). Similarly, Revelation opens with a vision of the things that “must soon take place” (Rev 1:1). Yet Revelation goes one step deeper, showing that Christ is the revealer of mysteries: “Christ does more than simply mediate the revelation; he is the supreme ‘witness’ and plays some role in the source of God’s revelation (1:2)” (180).
Though the Spirit is often overlooked in the Old Testament, Daniel portrays the Spirit as the one who illuminates God’s plan for the end times. It is the book of Daniel that coins the term “mystery,” and the book insists that it is the Spirit’s role to bring understanding to God’s mysteries. This theme is picked up with the seven spirits of Revelation 1:4–5a. In Revelation the number seven refers to the concept of perfection or completeness. So the concept of “seven spirits” refers to the perfect work of the Spirit (singular) who speaks the word of God to the churches in Asia Minor (e.g. 2:7a; 2:17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).
The Trinity and the Old Testament:
Real Presence or Imposition?
Mark S. Gignilliat
The previous chapter looked at Daniel as a theological antecedent to Revelation. Are there more hints of the Trinity in the Old Testament? This chapter specifically looks at the revealed divine name of the Old Testament, YHWH. Is YHWH one of the three persons of the Trinity, or is YHWH the Godhead itself, the essence of the triune God?
There are two enigmatic texts that shed some light on this important question. The first is the account of Jacob wrestling the man by the river Jabbok (Gen 32:22–32). Who is this “man” who wrestles Jacob? Is he an angel? Is he God himself? Hosea 12:4–6 gives the answer. The man who wrestles Jacob is a mal’āk, an angel or a messenger, which indicates that this figure is both an angel and YHWH himself (206). Therefore the divine name “refers to the divine Godhead in its fullness, the divine essence equally shared by the three persons” (207). YHWH is not the Father; rather, he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christians should beware of too eagerly imposing meaning onto the text of Scripture, yet these two texts provide evidence of the seedbed of trinitarian thought that is further developed in the New Testament.
Summary by Mark Baker
As stated earlier in the book, the doctrine of the Trinity refers to three persons. Denying this part of the doctrine has resulted in heresies like modalism, Sabellianism, and Patripassionism. A more recent version of this same error is the Oneness or the “Jesus Only” position. But, rather than focus primarily on these aberrations, it is better to turn our attention to what the Bible teaches. First, the three persons are three distinct persons, such that the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Spirit. Perhaps one of the clearest examples comes from Matthew 3:16–17, the baptism of Jesus, in which the Spirit of God descends like a dove, the Father’s voice shouts from the heavens, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” All three persons were present at once. The Father speaks, the Holy Spirit descends, the Son is standing in the water. The rest of the Scriptures maintain this distinction between the three persons. Nevertheless, it is important not to misuse passages. Some have cited John 14:9–10 to claim that Jesus and the Father are the same person. In that text, John writes: “Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works.” Some insist that Jesus is saying “I am the Father” when he says “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” This interpretation, however, ignores the words that follow in which Jesus explains that the Father works through Jesus, not that they are the same person. Another closely related doctrine is that of the person of Jesus Christ—one person with two natures.
Christians believe that Jesus is both fully man and fully God. The Scriptures teach both, but they do not explain it as fully as we would probably like. One example comes from the prayers of Jesus; He was not talking to himself while He was praying, but He was praying to the Father. Yet, Scripture refers to Christ as the “Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8). Thus, we see the human side praying to God and the divine reference to Christ. Christians have struggled with exactly how to understand this doctrine because Scripture does not provide much more guidance on the matter. An early church council, the Council of Chalcedon in A. D. 451, formulated this doctrine more carefully to explain precisely what is meant by this doctrine, and what is not meant. This council helped come up with the language that Christ’s nature is not mixed together so that He is not truly divine or truly man. Rather, He is both concurrently because He has both natures.
A Closer Look
The biblical testimony to the doctrine of the Trinity is clear: the three truths of this doctrine are without a doubt the teachings of Scripture. The passages considered throughout this book demonstrate as much. The faith described in the NT is an implicitly Trinitarian faith. It is woven throughout the warp and woof of the fabric of the NT such that to deny it would mean a denial of so much of the NT. But, there is more to consider with the doctrine of the Trinity, and this chapter will provide “a closer look” at this important doctrine for those who wish to study it further. To consider this matter, an expanded definition of the doctrine is required. First, there is in the divine Being but one indivisible essence (ousia, essential). Throughout Church History, more precise language was chosen to describe “Being” because we are so tempted to think very physically given that we are physical beings. We want to think of something we can weigh on a scale. But, again, language breaks down. Second, in this one divine Being there are three persons or individual subsistences, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The term “subsistences” is used because when we read “three persons,” we are tempted to think of three persons standing in front of us—perhaps like the Three Stooges (Larry, Curly, and Moe). As funny as this thought may be, we should try to be more “wise guys” by considering what this term actually refers to. When the term “person” is used to describe the Trinity, it speaks of personal distinctions in the divine Being. Third, the whole undivided essence of God belongs equally to each of the three persons. What this means is that God is not limited and finite like a creature is. Fourth, the subsistence and operation of the three persons in the divine Being is marked by a certain definite order. What this more precise language refers to is what each person does. They have different roles throughout Scripture, though there is one God with three persons. Fifth, there are certain personal attributes by which the three persons are distinguished. This point is closely related to the fourth point; it refers to maintaining a distinction between the persons because of their relationship to one another. For example, the Father generates, the Son bears the relation of the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. Sixth, the church confesses the Trinity to be a mystery beyond the comprehension of man. This statement does not mean that this doctrine is inherently contradictory or irrational, as some have claimed. Rather, there are some things that are beyond our full understanding because the Lord has not chosen to explain it fully. The problem, if there is one, is with us; our understanding is limited. Nevertheless, the Scriptures clearly affirm this doctrine. It can be seen in the Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20). Baptism is to be done in the name (sg.) of the “Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is explicitly Trinitarian. As the hymn writer says it: “Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty! God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!”
Summary by Benjamin Montoya
This book treats the doctrine of the Trinity from a variety of angles. Letham examines biblical texts, explores the development of the doctrine in history, offers theological analysis, and also examines the role the doctrine should play in the life and worship of the church. This is a multi-faceted and competent treatment of an essential doctrine of the Christian faith.
Table of Contents
PART ONE: BIBLICAL FOUNDATIONS
Chapter 1 Old Testament Background
Chapter 2 Jesus and the Father
Chapter 3 The Holy Spirit and Triadic Patterns
Excursus: Ternary Patterns in Ephesians
PART TWO: HISTORICAL DEVLEOPMENT
Chapter 4 Early Trinitarianism
Chapter 5 The Arian Controversy
Chapter 6 Athanasius
Chapter 7 The Cappadocians
Chapter 8 The Council of Constantinople
Chapter 9 Augustine
Chapter 10 East and West: The Filiqoue Controversy
Chapter 11 East and West: The Paths Diverge
Chapter 12 John Calvin
PART THREE: MODERN DISCUSSION
Chapter 13 Karl Barth
Chapter 14 Rahner, Moltmann, and Pannenberg
Chapter 15 Returning East: Bulgakov, Lossky, and Staniloae
Chapter 16 Thomas F. Torrance
Chapter 17 The Trinity and Incarnation
Chapter 18 The Trinity, Worship, and Prayer
Chapter 19 The Trinity, Creation, and Missions
Chapter 20 The Trinity and Persons
Appendix 1 Gilbert Bilezikian and Bungee Jumping
Appendix 2 Kevin Giles on Subordinationism
Old Testament Background
Jesus and the Father
The Holy Spirit and Triadic Patterns
The first chapter of Genesis reveals a God who creates relational beings, and he himself is a being with internal relationships. The mention of God’s Spirit in Genesis 1:2, as well as the “let us make” of verses 26-27, are expressions of plurality in oneness that will be made explicit as God’s special revelation develops. Psalm 33:6 states that God created by his word and breath: if it wasn’t for the generation of the Word, there would be no creation. Appearances of the special angel of the Lord, as well as other theophanies, point to plurality in the one God. Israel’s covenant faith was completely monotheistic, so any hint of plurality in God was not polytheistic. The personhood of the Spirit is not made explicit in the OT, but the foundation for the NT understanding of his full personhood is laid down therein. Likewise, the coming Messiah was identified with divine titles and attributes, but the significance of these OT texts was not fully understood until the incarnation of the Son of God. So the doctrine of the Trinity is not made clear until the revelation of the NT, but the foundation for it was laid, and material for its construction is found in the OT.
Jesus Christ is the realization of OT prophecies and expectations. As the Son of God, Jesus relates to the Father in an entirely unique way. During his earthly life and ministry, Jesus showed an awareness of the special, non-transferable relationship that he and the Father shared. To see the Son was to see the Father, and Jesus always pleased and obeyed the Father. He claimed to be equal with God, and even took upon himself the divine name “I AM.” His contemporaries understood the magnitude of his claims and attempted to kill him for blasphemy. Jesus took upon himself divine titles and claimed divine prerogatives. The rest of the NT also ascribes full deity to Christ, giving him divine titles and also teaching that divine functions (e.gs. creating, judging, saving) will be done by Jesus. He is explicitly referred to as “Lord” and “God.” Jesus was worshipped by followers who were monotheistic, thus confirming that his followers believed that there was one God who existed in an internal plurality of persons. Although Jesus of Nazareth was born in time and space, the Son of God who became incarnate was eternally pre-existent.
The fullness of Christ’s deity—held together with the oneness of God—is made crystal clear in the NT. Both Father and Son are linked together in common ascriptions of praise. This explicit binitarianism is not contradictory to trinitarianism: in fact, it is not only compatible, it is a step in the fuller Trinitarian direction. God’s revelation focuses on Father and Son, but the Spirit is mentioned hundreds of times, even though many of these instances show him performing quietly in the background. Nevertheless, what the Spirit does is essential, and he is also identified as both personal and fully divine. Jesus is filled with and led by the Spirit, and he teaches his disciples about the vital ministry the personal Spirit will discharge when he is sent to earth after Jesus returns to the Father. Paul links the Spirit with the Father and Son in triadic formulas that mark the Spirit as being the third person of the Trinity. The simple fact that the Spirit can be blasphemed shows that he is both personal and divine. Over and over again the triadic pattern of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is found in the NT (although, importantly, the order of their names is varied depending on context). The Father sends the Son, and the Father sends the Spirit in Jesus’ name in response to the finished work of Christ. There is no doubt that the doctrine of the Trinity is not based on a few ambiguous Bible verses—on the contrary, it is based on numerous explicit texts as well as deeply embedded patterns developed across the canon.
Summary by Steve West
Believing and confessing that God is Father, Son, and Spirit is one thing. It can be quite another to explain it with precision—and still another to answer all the attending questions. Just what, then, do we mean when we affirm that God is one? And how is this one God three? In what sense is God one? And in what sense is he three? Is each Person fully equal to the others? Or is the Father superior? What is the relation of the three Persons? What is it that makes them distinct … and yet one? Just how do we explain this mystery?
That the New Testament church believed in God as Trinity is reflected on virtually every page of the New Testament, but it fell to the church of the following centuries to put it all together in precise theological statement. And the statement they eventually gave has been enthusiastically embraced by the entire church of all the centuries. It is the development of this doctrine in the teachings of the early church and beyond that occupies our attention in this section.
It is in this intimacy of relation between the doctrines of the Trinity and redemption that the ultimate reason lies why the Christian church could not rest until it had attained a definite and well-compacted doctrine of the Trinity. Nothing else could be accepted as an adequate foundation for the experience of the Christian salvation. Neither the Sabellian nor the Arian construction could meet and satisfy the data of the consciousness of salvation, any more than either could meet and satisfy the data of the Scriptural revelation. The data of the Scriptural revelation might, to be sure, have been left unsatisfied: men might have found a modus vivendi with neglected, or even with perverted Scriptural teaching. But perverted or neglected elements of Christian experience are more clamant in their demands for attention and correction. The dissatisfied Christian consciousness necessarily searched the Scriptures, on the emergence of every new attempt to state the doctrine of the nature and relations of God, to see whether these things were true, and never reached contentment until the Scriptural data were given their consistent formulation in a valid doctrine of the Trinity. Here too the heart of man was restless until it found its rest in the Triune God, the author, procurer and applier of salvation. ~ B. B. Warfield
It is in this intimacy of relation between the doctrines of the Trinity and redemption that the ultimate reason lies why the Christian church could not rest until it had attained a definite and well-compacted doctrine of the Trinity. Nothing else could be accepted as an adequate foundation for the experience of the Christian salvation. Neither the Sabellian nor the Arian construction could meet and satisfy the data of the consciousness of salvation, any more than either could meet and satisfy the data of the Scriptural revelation. The data of the Scriptural revelation might, to be sure, have been left unsatisfied: men might have found a modus vivendi with neglected, or even with perverted Scriptural teaching. But perverted or neglected elements of Christian experience are more clamant in their demands for attention and correction. The dissatisfied Christian consciousness necessarily searched the Scriptures, on the emergence of every new attempt to state the doctrine of the nature and relations of God, to see whether these things were true, and never reached contentment until the Scriptural data were given their consistent formulation in a valid doctrine of the Trinity. Here too the heart of man was restless until it found its rest in the Triune God, the author, procurer and applier of salvation.
The determining impulse to the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity in the church was the church’s profound conviction of the absolute Deity of Christ, on which as on a pivot the whole Christian conception of God from the first origins of Christianity turned. The guiding principle in the formulation of the doctrine was supplied by the Baptismal Formula announced by Jesus (Mt. 28:19), from which was derived the ground-plan of the baptismal confessions and “rules of faith” which very soon began to be framed all over the church. It was by these two fundamental principia—the true Deity of Christ and the Baptismal Formula—that all attempts to formulate the Christian doctrine of God were tested, and by their molding power that the church at length found itself in possession of a form of statement which did full justice to the data of the redemptive revelation as reflected in the New Testament and the demands of the Christian heart under the experience of salvation.
In the nature of the case the formulated doctrine was of slow attainment. The influence of inherited conceptions and of current philosophies inevitably showed itself in the efforts to construe to the intellect the immanent faith of Christians. In the second century the dominant neo-Stoic and neo-Platonic ideas deflected Christian thought into subordinationist channels, and produced what is known as the Logos-Christology, which looks upon the Son as a prolation of Deity reduced to such dimensions as comported with relations with a world of time and space; meanwhile, to a great extent, the Spirit was neglected altogether. A reaction which, under the name of Monarchianism, identified the Father, Son, and Spirit so completely that they were thought of only as different aspects or different moments in the life of the one Divine Person, called now Father, now Son, now Spirit, as His several activities came successively into view, almost succeeded in establishing itself in the third century as the doctrine of the church at large. In the conflict between these two opposite tendencies the church gradually found its way, under the guidance of the Baptismal Formula elaborated into a “Rule of Faith,” to a better and more well-balanced conception, until a real doctrine of the Trinity at length came to expression, particularly in the West, through the brilliant dialectic of Tertullian. It was thus ready at hand, when, in the early years of the fourth century, the Logos-Christology, in opposition to dominant Sabellian tendencies, ran to seed in what is known as Arianism, to which the Son was a creature, though exalted above all other creatures as their Creator and Lord; and the church was thus prepared to assert its settled faith in a Triune God, one in being, but in whose unity there subsisted three consubstantial Persons. Under the leadership of Athanasius this doctrine was proclaimed as the faith of the church at the Council of Nice in 325 a.d., and by his strenuous labors and those of “the three great Cappadocians,” the two Gregories and Basil, it gradually won its way to the actual acceptance of the entire church. It was at the hands of Augustine, however, a century later, that the doctrine thus become the church doctrine in fact as well as in theory, received its most complete elaboration and most carefully grounded statement. In the form which he gave it, and which is embodied in that “battle-hymn of the early church,” the so-called Athanasian Creed, it has retained its place as the fit expression of the faith of the church as to the nature of its God until today. The language in which it is couched, even in this final declaration, still retains elements of speech which owe their origin to the modes of thought characteristic of the Logos-Christology of the second century, fixed in the nomenclature of the church by the Nicene Creed of 325 a.d., though carefully guarded there against the subordinationism inherent in the Logos-Christology, and made the vehicle rather of the Nicene doctrines of the eternal generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit, with the consequent subordination of the Son and Spirit to the Father in modes of subsistence as well as of operation. In the Athanasian Creed, however, the principle of the equalization of the three Persons, which was already the dominant motive of the Nicene Creed—the homooúsia—is so strongly emphasized as practically to push out of sight, if not quite out of existence, these remanent suggestions of derivation and subordination. It has been found necessary, nevertheless, from time to time, vigorously to reassert the principle of equalization, over against a tendency unduly to emphasize the elements of subordinationism which still hold a place thus in the traditional language in which the church states its doctrine of the Trinity. In particular, it fell to Calvin, in the interests of the true Deity of Christ—the constant motive of the whole body of Trinitarian thought—to reassert and make good the attribute of self-existence (autotheotṓs) for the Son. Thus Calvin takes his place, alongside of Tertullian, Athanasius and Augustine, as one of the chief contributors to the exact and vital statement of the Christian doctrine of the Triune God.
Source: B. B. Warfield, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity”
The Arian Controversy
In the era after the closing of the NT canon, the deity of Christ was a doctrine that was studied in-depth and defended by the church. Great attention was paid to the baptismal formulation in Matthew 28:19. Obviously, the earliest Christians and church fathers did not formulate their doctrines of Christology and the Trinity with the nuance of later councils. They were often responding to Gnosticism and other heresies. Irenaeus discussed the Son and Spirit in reference to creation, their pre-existence, and the fact that each is fully God (and there is only one God), but he did not clarify their relationships with one another. Such a view could lead to modalism, subordinationism, or orthodox trinitarianism. Tertullian argued vehemently against modalistic interpretations of the trinitarian data, and he was the first to use the word “trinity” [trinitas]. He argued that there is one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Tertullian’s formulations can seem at times to drift towards a subordinationist understanding, but this subordinate position concerned the internal relationships of the trinity. Origen placed a strong accent on the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son by the Father. The Father has eternally willed the existence of the Son who shares his essence. Each person in the Trinity works together in creation, providence, and salvation. Origen’s formulations were not as precise as the later articulated orthodoxy, but he was not an Arian. Origen believed that the Son had always existed.
Arius taught that the Son had not existed eternally (unlike the Father). He believed that the Son was the first creation of the Father, created ex nihilo. The Father and Son did not share the same substance. Arius himself was actually not a prominent person in the Arian controversies, but his name is forever linked with this position that was condemned by the church. Arians continued to argue that God only became a Father when he created the Son. It was the Nicene Creed of A.D. 381 that set forth the orthodox view that the Father and Son are of the same substance and that the Son was begotten but not made. The Nicene Creed did contain some ambiguities, and some of its language generated interpretive problems. Later formulations would be more exacting and precise in definitions and terms. At that time, ousia and hypostasis were often used as synonyms (their distinctive meanings of “substance” and “person” emerged over time). Debates swirled around whether the Son was of the same substance as the Father, or merely of a similar substance.
Athanasius’ theology is fundamentally Trinitarian. He held that the Father created through the Word. Salvation and redemption come through God incarnate in the person of his Son. Because the Son is fully God and fully man, his work provides for our deification (union with God). Athanasius argued strenuously that the Son participates in all the fullness of the Father, sharing the identical nature. Whatever the Father has, the Son has. Relationally, the Son is begotten but not made, eternally generated of the same substance as the Father. The language of “begetting” must be understood analogically: God doesn’t beget the way that people do. The Father has eternally been the Father and the Son has eternally been the Son. The Son is the “whole God” in terms of essence—the only way that the Father and Son differ is in terms of their relationship with each other. In regards to the full Trinity, the Spirit is indivisibly united with the Father and the Son. All three persons of the Trinity are identical in nature, but exist in a perichoretic harmony relationally. Although they discharge different functions, all three persons do so in agreement and unity. Athanasius was enormously influential, and his teaching that there was one God in three persons was formative for subsequent doctrinal formulations.
Summary by Steve West
Now that we have investigated the biblical teachings concerning the Trinity, and now that we have listened to the discussion of the church in this regard, we are in a position to state the doctrine clearly ourselves and answer attending questions. Just what is meant when we say God is one and three? Just what are the relations of the three Persons? Does the historical revelation of God as triune reflect God he is “in himself”? Do God’s outward works reflect the relations of the three eternally? Is Christ is subordinate to the Father? And if so, is the same true of God the Son eternally? These important questions deserve careful attention. And you have probably noticed already that Christians have a distinct vocabulary when talking about the Trinity. Accepted terminology—a Trinitarian “Grammar”—has developed over the centuries to aid our understanding. These are the kinds of issues we address now in this section as we bring together what we’ve learned so far.
Scripture also gives us insight into the relations between the three persons of the Trinity. God the Father is the Creator, the father of his people, Israel, and supremely the father of his Son, the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Father is preeminent in creation and redemption, the first in the divine economy. From this the Arians wrongly infer that the Father alone is God; a claim found nowhere in Scripture. On the contrary, the names given to Christ reveal the immanent relations of the triune God. Thus, Logos points to the one who is able to fully reveal God because from all eternity God communicated himself in all his fullness to him. He is also the Son of God in a metaphysical sense; by nature and from eternity he is elevated above angels and prophets. He is the “firstborn” and “only begotten” as the full image of God, who from all eternity bears a unique relation to the Father. He is not a creature, but is and was and remains God, who is over all, blessed forever. The Spirit is God as the immanent principle of life throughout creation; he is holy because he is God. He is both divine and personal. Finally, as Christ is related to the Father, so the Spirit is related to Christ. As the Son witnesses to and glorifies the Father, so the Spirit witnesses to and glorifies the Son. By the Spirit we have communion with no one less than the Son and the Father themselves. ~ Herman Bavinck
Of all the doctrines of the Christian faith honored in name and neglected in practice by evangelicals, the Trinity probably has no rival. Ask any evangelical if he believes in the Trinity, and you will almost certainly receive a strongly affirmative answer. Ask what difference the doctrine makes, and you might well be greeted by embarrassing silence.
Two Common Errors: Modalism and Tritheism
Prayer is often a good measure of someone’s theology. Our guard tends to drop a little when we pray. The words we speak reveal our theology at its most instinctive level. Most of us will have heard (perhaps some of us have even spoken) prayers that thank God the Father for dying on the cross at Calvary. The intention may be good, but the theology is awful. It is what theologians call patripassianism, the notion that God the Father suffered for us. It is a type of modalism, the idea that God is one but has morphed over time from Father to Son to Holy Spirit. It fails because it simply cannot make sense of the New Testament’s teaching on the interpersonal relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. After all, if the Father is, in a sense, the Son, then to whom is Jesus talking in his high priestly prayer in John 17?
Modalism is not the only heresy into which evangelicals can accidentally fall. There is the opposite problem of tritheism, the idea that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are so separate that they can even be thought of as being in opposition to each other. Perhaps one common manifestation of this relates to the notion of atonement. Evangelicals know that God is angry against sin and that Christ takes the punishment for our sin upon his own shoulders. Yet sometimes this can be understood in a way that raises problems for the doctrine of God. It is not uncommon to hear Christians, and sometimes even pastors, speak as if God the Father is angry with sin in such a way that he has to be persuaded by his Son, on the basis of the latter’s sacrifice, to look with kindness and mercy upon us.
This latter view is problematic because it fails to see two basic biblical truths. First, the plan of salvation is the plan of God the Father, and thus it cannot be the case that Christ is somehow in opposition to him. Indeed, is that the obvious implication of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane (Luke 22:42)? Second, the New Testament points clearly toward the fact that Jesus is God: he forgives sins, which only God can do (Luke 5:20-21; cf. Ps. 103:3); he considered it not robbery to be equal with God (Phil. 2:6); and he was the Word made flesh (John 1:14). The importance of this is that it has to be the case that both Father and Son will the same thing. They are not two gods, each struggling to impose his will upon the other. They are one God, united in saving purpose.
We might also add confusion over the role of the Spirit at this point. How many prayers are addressed to the Spirit? How many worship services seem preoccupied with talking and singing about the Spirit? Pardon the pun, but sounding so spiritual does not really capture the role of the Spirit, as we shall see. More correctly, we should remember that the role of the Spirit is to witness to Christ. Like a flashlight in the dark, the Spirit illuminates the Savior. When looking for something in a darkened room with a flashlight, we do not typically talk about the flashlight but rather about what the flashlight is illuminating. Indeed, we would typically only talk about the flashlight in such circumstances if it was not working or we did not have one. That has serious implications when we apply it to constant talk about the Spirit.
Does It Really Matter?
Of course, one of the responses to this will be: What difference does it make? So what if my prayers are worded a little loosely, or if I think of God the Father and God the Son as being in some opposition to each other? Does it change how I live as a Christian? There are a number of responses to this.
First, it is important to understand that we ought to have appropriate and accurate thoughts of God. God has revealed himself to be and to act in a certain way. We are to strive to conform our thoughts of God as closely to his revelation as is possible. That is one reason why we listen to good preaching, read good books, and meditate upon Scripture’s teaching. As Christians, we want to know the God we worship so we might worship him better.
Second, there are actually some immediate practical benefits that come from a proper Trinitarian understanding of God. For example, think of how it enhances prayer. The Bible teaches that Christ is the One who intercedes for us. If we think of Christ and the Father as being in some kind of opposition to each other, then the success of Christ’s prayer always depends upon his persuasive powers and the willingness of the Father to be persuaded. Perhaps today the Father will listen to Christ, but tomorrow he might change his mind. That serves to undermine our own confidence in our prayers. Our prayers are tenuous enough anyway, without adding a further weak link in the prayer chain by misunderstanding the relationship between the Son and the Father.
If, however, Father and Son are one God and will precisely the same things, then we know that the Son’s intercession must succeed. When he prays to his Father, he is merely asking for that which the Father desires to give him. What tremendous practical confidence that gives to believers when they come to the Lord in prayer. As Christ takes our prayers, perfects them, and presents them to the Father, he asks for nothing that the Father is not already eager to grant in abundance. The Spirit also plays his role. As the bond of union with Christ, he is intimately connected to our prayers, and—as Paul so beautifully yet mysteriously states—he too intercedes for us in our weakness. The same applies to his prayers: as he is God with the Father and the Son, he joins them in the holy confluence of intercession and divine will.
Trinitarianism is very trendy among theological academics, both evangelical and liberal, yet it has to grip the imagination of typical believers. While the language of Trinitarianism is common among evangelicals, the importance of it for piety and everyday practice is perhaps not so obvious. Yet the usefulness of the doctrine, both in making sense of Scripture’s teaching and in forming the foundation of a healthy Christian life, especially in terms of prayer, is incalculable. Pastors and preachers need to spend time reminding and teaching, by precept and pious example, the importance of the doctrine for even the humblest Christian.
*This article was first published in Modern Reformation and is reproduced here with permission.
The term “grammar,” when used by theologians, refers to the ways in which we should speak about a certain doctrine. It includes the definition of terms, but it isn’t limited to that; its sense is more encompassing, more like parameters for the kinds of speech we can and cannot use about a particular theological topic. When it comes the doctrine of the Trinity, we find the most refined grammar there is in Christian theology. From the pro-Nicenes of the fourth century through medieval theological reflection that culminated with Aquinas, we have been handed a set of rules regarding speaking about the Trinity. While what I mention below is not exhaustive, it should give the reader a sense of the kinds of parameters the Christian Tradition, through serious exegetical reflection on Scripture, has passed down to us.
This list is certainly not exhaustive, but hopefully it gives the reader an idea of what we mean by “grammar” and how that applies to the Trinity. You might also check out Luke Stamps’ post on “The Grammar of the Trinity,” as well as Gilles Emery’s books introducing the Trinity and explaining the Trinitarian theology of Aquinas.
 Because of how interrelated these terms and concepts are, I have not tightly distinguished between grammar and vocabulary below. Instead, I have tried to organize this list based on 1) what terms and/or grammatical rules are most basic and 2) which terms and/or rules are naturally grouped together. In general, if there are two terms listed together, that should be taken as a grammatical rule. I have also included English, Greek, and Latin terms together when they are synonymous, listing English first and then Greek and Latin in parentheses with the appropriate language designated by “Gk” and “Lat” respectively. I’ve also listed any other relevant synonyms in English at the end of the entry.
 Some of what I say below is adapted from one of my blog posts, found here: https://secundumscripturas.com/2016/12/06/rightly-dividing-trinitarian-grammar/
 For more on this, see my post on taxis here: https://secundumscripturas.com/2016/06/20/we-talkin-bout-taxis-nyssa-on-order-in-the-trinity/
 Gilles Emery, The Trinity: An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God (Thomistic Ressourcement 1; trans., Matthew Levering; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011).
 Gilles Emery, The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (trans., Francesca Aran Murphy; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
No one has ever seriously argued the point, but some seem to assume that the doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrine merely abstract, a doctrine for theologians only and a doctrine that has no great bearing on Christian worship, life, and devotion—that there is little of “practical” value to the average Christian. But nothing could be further from the truth. This doctrine, distinctive of Christianity itself, is foundational to and has direct bearing on the way we perceive our faith and our salvation, and it is the shaping factor of Christian worship. Here we explore some of those implications.
To the great One-in-Three,
Eternal praises be,
His sovereign majesty
May we in glory see,
And to eternity
Love and adore!
Table of Contents
Introduction: Here Be Dragons?
1. What Was God Doing Before Creation?
2. Creation: The Father’s Love Overflows
3. Salvation: The Son Shares What Is His
4. The Christian Life: The Spirit Beautifies
5. “Who Among the Gods Is Like You, O LORD?”
Conclusion: No Other Choice
Reeves’ Delighting in the Trinity is about “growing in our enjoyment of God and seeing how God’s triune being makes all his ways beautiful” (9) by learning about who God is and what he has done as Father, Son, and Spirit, and how this sets him apart as an eternally loving and good God.
Here Be Dragons?
Reeves explains that many Christians think the doctrine of the Trinity is cold and scientific when it is actually warm and devotional. He claims that “God is love because God is a Trinity” (9). Therefore, learning about the Trinity will actually help Christians love others better in practical ways. Though the Trinity is a mystery, that does not mean we cannot know true things about the Triune God; the concept of the Trinity is not dangerous but beautiful. Though the word Trinity is not in the Bible, it is a biblical idea. Furthermore, the Trinity is not a secondary doctrine but is essential for orthodoxy and salvation because it is the Triune God who loves and saves. Without the Trinity, Jesus is not God and thus not able to save. Those who push back against this doctrine show that they are not starting with who God really is but who they thought God was. God as only one essence and not three Persons is an entirely different kind of god, as seen for example in Allah, the god of Islam.
What Was God Doing Before Creation?
Reeves explains that though it is legitimate to define God as the Ruler of creation based on what is shown in natural revelation, making this his primary identity implies that he would have always had a creation to rule over. Furthermore, if God is primarily a Ruler then this does not leave much room for relationship because it makes God primarily the punisher of the one who breaks his rules. Thus, it is significant that God is something even more basic than the Creator— he is most fundamentally a Father. This is seen in what God did before creating the universe, namely, love. Even before creation, God has always been a Father, which is someone who “gives life,” “begets children,” (24) and loves. This shows that God has always been loving because the only way God could love is if he has someone to love. Thus, God the Father is the eternal Father of the eternal Son, who is also God. Furthermore, the Father loves the Son by the Spirit. In Reeves’ words, “it is all deeply personal: the Spirit stirs up the delight of the Father in the Son and the delight of the Son in the Father, inflaming their love and so binding them together” (29). This is seen in passages like Matthew 3:16-17, Romans 5:5, and Genesis 1.
One mistake that people often fall into when thinking about the Trinity is modalism, which states that God is one Person with three modes. This cannot be correct because once God is in one mode, he could not be in another mode, which then twists many biblical ideas like the believer always being in Christ and the believer always being indwelt by the Holy Spirit. However, tritheism, which states there are three gods, also cannot be the proper way to explain the Triune God. The best way to understand the Trinity is as a fellowship wherein each Person is distinct but not separate from the other two Persons. Some analogies like an egg or shamrock leaf represent modalism, but a proper understanding of the Trinity finds its best analogy in human relationships. Reeves claims that a basic proclamation of the gospel must include the Trinity because Jesus is the Son of God and the one anointed by the Spirit (i.e., the Messiah). Reeves concludes that to conceive of God in any way other than a Trinity is to conceive of a different God than the God of the Bible.
Creation: The Father’s Love Overflows
A dilemma created in other religions is that if their god is all-loving and eternal, he must have had something to love that was eternal, but creation is not eternal. In Christianity, God is able to be both all-loving and eternal because he is triune. Furthermore, this makes sense of why God would want to create the universe. In Reeves’ words, “single-person gods, having spent eternity alone, are inevitably self-centered beings, and so it becomes hard to see why they would ever cause anything else to exist” (41). However, a Triune God is inherently giving and thus would naturally want to create a universe.
The Son is the firstborn, or model, for creation in that he shows how the Father who “loves to have an outgoing Image of himself in his Son [also] loves to have many images of his love” (43). The Father created through the agents of his Son and Spirit, and he created for the Son as an outflow of his love for him. The Son is the heir and goal of creation, and the Spirit is the completor of creation.
In contrast to Gnosticism, Christianity claims that God created a world that was originally very good because God is good, and thus makes sense of the existence of good. Furthermore, it makes sense of the existence of evil as something neither created by God nor eternally existent, by claiming that God created human beings with free wills who turned away from God. Reeves concludes that the “eternal harmony of the Father, Son, and Spirit” explains the phenomenon of the universe itself (59); the universe exists because God is a loving Trinity.
Salvation: The Son Shares What Is His
Though God made a good creation, Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying him, not just in their behavior by eating the fruit, but in their heart by choosing to love themselves instead of God. They were created to turn their love outward, but turned their love inward. Thus, Adam and Eve’s sin is not merely defined as rule-breaking but also relationship breaking. However, God chose to respond to their failure to love him by loving them in order to restore their relationship. He did this by sending his Son to die on the cross for sin.
The Father does not hog glory selfishly, but “gives it, freely and fully to his Son,” and the Son then shares that with believers. Jesus is their High Priest in that he is a true human being, makes a sacrifice for the people, and mediates between the people and God. These functions of a high priest in the Old Testament are demonstrated by Jesus’ prayer as recorded in John 17. In this prayer, Jesus asks the Father to unite him and the people. Thus, believers are able to call God their Father and are treated by God as his children. If this were not true, then salvation would look very differently—not as entering into God’s family, but remaining at arm’s length from God.
Though it is impossible for finite human beings to understand God, he has given us his incarnate Word (Jesus Christ) and written Word (the Bible) to show us who he is. The incarnate Word is not about God, but is God; God shares himself in Christ. Just as the Son makes the Father known through himself, so does the Spirit make the Son known through God’s written Word, the Bible. Thus, Christ is the message of the Bible. This means that when reading the Bible, one should not primarily ask how it applies to oneself but what it says about Christ. Reading the Bible must not be a purely intellectual exercise but must be viewed as a way fo communing with Christ.
The Christian Life: The Spirit Beautifies
In the Nicene Creed, the Holy Spirit is described as the one who gives life. Because of sin, human beings are spiritually dead and cannot become spiritually alive unless the Spirit gives them new hearts so that they can love God, which is truly living. The Spirit makes believers alive not by giving them an abstract thing, but by giving them himself. This was one misunderstanding of the Roman Catholic church that the Reformers opposed—when Sadoleto argued that salvation by grace alone makes people stop seeing the need for good works, Calvin replied that God’s grace is not a thing but rather God’s giving of himself so that a person is made to know God and will thus want to please him. The Spirit shares his “own life” which is “the life of fellowship with the Father and Son” (90). By communing with Christ through the Spirit, believers become more like him, which is what it means to be godly. The Spirit even gives believers the mind of Christ, who loves the Father. Reeves summarizes, “in our love and enjoyment of the Son we are like the Father; in our love and enjoyment of the Father we are like the Son. That is the happy life the Spirit calls us to” (95). Overall, serving this God is different than serving any other kind of god; it does not consist only of external behavior but primarily internal affections.
The doctrine of the Trinity is not unnecessary clutter, but is necessary in order to have a God of love who is in relationship with his people. This is what “makes the Christian life beautiful” (102). An important part of this beauty is the concept of being part of the family of God. Even though his children turned against him, God the Father still loves them and thus sent his Son to die so that their relationship could be mended. The family of God is both one and many—they are united but are still unique individuals. Furthermore, this family is not inward-focused but outward-focused; it is on a mission to share God’s love with others. Love naturally flows out of a person so that they want to share it; if someone truly loves God, they will share that with others.
“Who Among the Gods Is Like You, O LORD?”
The popular New Atheism movement has argued against the Christian God as one who is primarily a power-hungry Ruler, but the Christian God is primarily a loving Father. It is not surprising that the rise of atheism has often coincided with challenges to the doctrine of the Trinity, because no God is better than a God who is not all-loving. Thankfully the God of the Bible is all-loving and thus worthy of worship.
God as triune affects everything that one can say about him. For example, God’s holiness is often portrayed as prudish or undesirable but it is the most beautiful thing about God. God’s holiness means he is set apart not from a perfectly good creation, but a creation that has become sinful, and thus his holiness reflects his goodness from another angle. Because God’s love is good, he is holy. Another example is God’s wrath, which would be horrifying if he was not triune. Thankfully, God’s wrath is related to his love—he hates evil because it is opposed to love. Finally, this is true of God’s glory. He does not want glory because he is illegitimately selfish but because all glory already belongs to him, and this glory is in itself a light that gives life to everything it touches. God’s glory is not opposed to his love because “his glory is not about taking but giving” (124). Thus, though God gives love, he also gives judgment in order to protect love. Overall, God’s glory as good rather than selfish is seen in the fact that his glory is shown most clearly in Christ, who humbled himself to become a servant and to die on a cross for sinners.
No Other Choice
Reeves concludes that it is important to know who God really is because everything in a believer’s life is shaped by his view of God. Knowing who God really is as a loving Father has practical consequences for the Christian life that will bring about reformation.
Summary by Jenny-Lyn de Klerk
The Mystery of the Trinity
Scott R. Swain
“The doctrine of the Trinity is the most sublime truth of the Christian faith and its supreme treasure” (213). The Trinity gives us the identity of the God of the Bible and it illuminates the works of God: the Father’s purpose in creation, the Son’s incarnation, and the Spirit’s indwelling. The Trinity is singular; nothing else in creation is like it. No other threesome, such as the threefold form of ice, water, and vapor, can adequately express the triune nature of God. Furthermore, the Trinity is self-interpreting; only the Scriptures can reveal the identity of the Godhead.
Matthew 11:25–27 helps us appreciate the inner workings of the Trinity. It begins with the Father. The word “Father” harkens back to God’s role in the Old Testament as the father of Adam (Gen 5:1–3; cf. Luke 3:38) and of the Davidic king (2 Sam 7:14). It also shows its new significance as the Father of Jesus. The Son, likewise, receives all things from his Father and therefore shares in his divine sovereignty. Unlike the human “sons” of God, Jesus is eternally begotten by the Father. The Spirit is the Spirit of both Father and Son. He “eternally receives the one divine essence from the Father and the Son by ‘spiration’ or by being ‘breathed out’” (219). This doctrine is wonderfully attested in the Scriptures and also confirmed in works of the early church such as the Nicene Creed.
The Trinity and Prayer
Carl R. Trueman
Christians are often tempted to marginalize the doctrine of the Trinity. But the Trinity is actually one of the most practical doctrines for Christians. The point of this chapter is that trinitarian theology is key for correct thinking and practice of prayer. Prayer is “the most intimate point of practical communion between the believer and God, and that intimacy is itself rooted in the action of God in Christ towards God the Father through the Holy Spirit” (223).
The key connection between prayer and the Trinity comes with Christ’s office of high priest. There are three points of explanation here: first, Christ’s priesthood reveals God’s sovereignty in salvation (Heb 5:4–6). Second, Christ’s priesthood reveals the three divine persons at work. Jesus was sent by his Father and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Amazingly, the same Spirit that empowered Jesus is the Spirit that aids the believer in prayer (Rom 8:26). Finally, Christ’s mediatorial work as the high priest itself is prayer. Therefore “Christ’s trinitarian priesthood should fill Christians with confidence and be an encouragement to all those who fear God to approach him” (226).
There are also three practical points of application that should be mentioned. Pastors and church leaders should consider incorporating robust trinitarian theology in their church services. There are many ways this can be done, but the recitation of the Nicene Creed serves as a prime example. Second, the practice of carefully thought out public prayer can model this rich connection between prayer and the Trinity. It takes thought to make sure public prayers are organized by the Scriptural relationship between the three divine persons, but it bring great edification to the church. Finally, individual Christians should also take responsibility of understanding what is happening when they pray. It is an amazing privilege to come before the triune God through prayer!
The Trinity and Revelation
Mark D. Thomson
The connection between revelation and the Trinity is immediately evident: knowledge from the Trinity can only come from revelation; it is impossible to know the Trinity through general revelation. Yet the connection goes deeper than this initial point of contact: “all true human knowledge of God is in reality a subset of the triune God’s knowledge of himself: partial and subject to our epistemological limitations, but nonetheless real and true” (241).
This point leads to two major questions. First, how strong is the connection between revelation and the Trinity? The New Testament reveals a strong—even necessary—connection. Anyone who knows the Father has received revelation of the Father from the Son (Matt 11:27; cf. John 14:6). “Apart from God’s eternal triune nature… the whole idea of divine revelation would begin to unravel” (255). Second, how does God’s triune nature shape the doctrine of revelation? This answer again shows a strong connection. God is not ashamed of his trinitarian nature. When God reveals himself, he reveals himself through himself. God’s revelation is not the revelation of something other than himself. God speaks, and when he speaks, he speaks through his Son, by the power of the Spirit.
The Trinity and Worship
Worship should be prescribed by Scripture and focused on the triune God. Though all of life can be considered “worship,” Scripture does section out a specific time and place for the unique act of worship before the living God (e.g. 1 Cor 14:25; Acts 8:27). God himself is the object of Christian worship, and only God reveals how he is known and how his creatures relate to him. Specifically, God relates with his people through covenant, and one of the primary expressions of worship in the new covenant is baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19–20).
The New Testament itself gives a pattern of trinitarian worship. John 4:23–24 reveals that God’s people worship in spirit and in truth, which, given the context of John’s gospel, indicates the involvement of the Holy Spirit and Truth incarnate, Christ. From God’s perspective, “the worship of the church is the communion of the holy Trinity with us his people” (273).
The vibrant life of the Trinity can be expressed in the format of the church service itself. God’s Word, including the public reading of God’s word should be emphasized. The church should also respond to the Word through singing and the Lord’s supper. It is no surprise that the songs of the church, from ancient to modern, often resound with praise to the triune God, and these songs, together with other ordered liturgical elements, can aid a congregation in a rich time of worshipping the triune God.
The Trinity and Preaching
Christian preaching is, by necessity, trinitarian. But Christian preaching will be better and more powerful when it is intentionally trinitarian. Intentional trinitarian preaching begins with the point that when God communicates, he communicates about himself. Jesus, the preexistent Son, is the Word. Any God can speak. What sets the triune God of the Bible apart is not that he can speak, but that he must speak. God’s own communication, then, creates the foundation for Christian preaching: “since God in his speaking does not merely give information about himself, but actually gives himself, so the Christian preacher can know that he is about much more than the transferal of information” (294).
Preaching is not just meant to be a reminder of Scripture passages, nor is it merely teaching new information about the Bible. God’s communication is about himself, and preaching is one of the primary ways that believers can encounter the living Christ. Preachers should labor to let the Trinity undergird their preaching in a holistic way. It is not enough to simply slip the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit in every sermon. “God the Father is an eternal preacher,” and he preaches God the Son through the ministry of God the Holy Spirit. “When by the Spirit a preacher holds out God’s Word, he proclaims more than a message: he participates in the divine life, wielding the very power of God to raise dead sinners to enjoy the loving life of God” (307).
Summary by Mark Baker
About the Author
John Owen (1616-1683) was an English theologian and is considered one of the greatest European theologians to have lived. He was educated and taught at Oxford, was a chaplain in Cromwell’s army, and a pastor.
In this practical book that is rooted in deep theological truths, Owen urges believers to commune with each distinct member of the Trinity. In the first main section, it is shown how believers are to have fellowship with the Father in love. The second main section concerns communion with the Son in personal and purchased grace. The third section is about communing with the Spirit as a Comforter. Each section shows not only the way that the distinct member of the Trinity communes with the believer, but also shows how the believer is to respond in communion as well.
Part I: Communion with God in General and the Father in Particular
Chapter 1: The Saints Have Communion with God
Chapter 2: This Communion is with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Chapter 3: Distinct Communion with the Father
Chapter 4: Implications of Having Communion with the Father
Part II: Communion with Christ
Chapter 1: The Fellowship the Saints Have with Jesus Christ
Chapter 2: The Way Believers Have Fellowship with Christ
Chapter 3: The Way Believers Have Fellowship with Christ- As a Husband to His Bride
Chapter 4: Communing with Christ as Our Husband Creates “Consequential Affections”
Chapter 5: Other ‘Consequential Affections”: Mutual Valuing. Compassion.
Chapter 6: Purchased Grace- Its Fountain
Chapter 7: Purchased Grace- Its Nature
Chapter 8: Of Communion with Christ in Our Acceptance with God
Chapter 9: Of Communion with Christ in Holiness
Chapter 10: Of Communion with Christ in the Privileges of Adoption
Part III: Communion with the Holy Spirit
Chapter 1: The Foundation of Our Communion with the Holy Spirit
Chapter 2: The Effectual Work of the Spirit in Believers
Chapter 3: Various Things In Which Believers Commune with the Spirit
Chapter 4: Consequences of Communion with the Spirit
Chapter 5: Contempt Shown Towards the Spirit
Chapter 6: Preparation to Commune with the Spirit
Chapter 7: How Believers Respond to the Spirit in Communion with Him
Chapter 8: Particular Directions for Communion with the Spirit
The Saints Have Communion with God
Naturally, because of sin, no one has communion with God. Yet, through the person and work of Christ we have spiritual communion with God (Eph. 3:12). Thus, for sinners “to have fellowship with God, the infinitely holy God, is an astonishing dispensation.” Through union with Christ by faith, we have this communion with God which Owen defines as “his communication of himself to us, with our response to him of that which he requires and accepts, flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him.” In glory, this communion is perfect and complete but as pilgrims it is initial and incomplete, yet producing a ‘farther longing’ after God and his salvation.
This Communion is with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Owen now discusses the manner and matter of this communion. First, we have distinct communion with each person of the Trinity which consists considerably in receiving their testimony (1 John 5:7). We have this access to God through Christ, in the Spirit, and to the Father. Yet, much of our communion also consists of our ‘moral and instituted worship of God.’ As we look in faith and love to the Father, He gives testimony of His Son which we receive by faith (1 John 5:9). Faith, hope, and love are also distinctly directed to the Son (Rev. 1:5, 6; 5:8; etc.). Our lives and worship are also to be directed to the Spirit. All of the above, Owen urges, reveals that we have distinct communion with each member of the Trinity.
One of the primary ways that God communes with us is through teaching. Owen begins by quoting John 6:45 where Jesus states that believers will be taught by the Father. By his teaching and the drawing of the Spirit, we are brought to a knowledge of Christ who will also teach us. Scripture also shows that the Spirit will teach us ‘all things’ too (John 14:26). Because there is distinct communication from each member of the Trinity, we are called to have distinct communion with each One. It is important for Owen, in light of these truths, to know that the Father is the ‘original authority’ of this communication and communion, while the Son purchased these realities with his redemption, and the Spirit gives them their ‘immediate efficacy.’
Distinct Communion with the Father
Owen begins this chapter with some observations that are necessary to understand our communion with God. First, when Owen states that we have distinct communion with each Person of the Trinity, he does not exclude the others due to the common and undivided essence they share (esp. in light of the ‘Trinitatis ad extra’ theological distinction). Also, when we are communing distinctly with One member the others are all influencing and enabling us.
With these points in view, Owen moves towards explaining our communion with the Father in his ‘free, undeserved, and eternal love.’ Though full of wrath towards our sin, in the Gospel he is “revealed peculiarly as love, as full of it unto us.” The Father is love in nature (essence) and in name (1 John 4:8) which is why his love preceded and caused the work of Christ for us. His love is both a love of good pleasure and destination as well as a love of friendship and approbation and is the foundation of all of the grace we receive and experience.
Next, Owen urges believers “to complete communion with the Father in love” which, he says, requires two things: that we receive this love from him by faith and that we suitably respond to it in our lives. We receive the Father’s love when we look to Christ alone and are led to the Father through him. We also respond to God’s love by loving him: “God loves, that he may be beloved,” Owen states. It is in this mutual love that we have fellowship with him.
Moving forward in understanding the Father’s love, Owen shows how our response of love is both like and unlike the Father’s love for us. There are two ways that our love is alike. First, they are both a love of “rest and complacency.” Owen quotes Zeph. 3:17 which reveals the Father’s love- a love of rest and delight. Internal delight cannot but respond with an outward demonstration of affection towards his people. We respond similarly as is shown in Ps. 73:25 and 63:3. Second, our love is similar in that they both can only be communicated in and through Christ. The Father communicates all of his love to us through Christ and our love “is conveyed to him through the Son of his love.” Our love, though, is also very different. God’s love to us is a love of overflowing bounty flowing as a spring from his own heart. Our love is that of duty, like a child, responding in gratitude. “He adds to us by his love; we nothing to him by ours.” Owen is quick to add four things that our love to the Father consists of: rest, delight, reverence, and obedience. Through these we have communion with the Father.
In concluding the chapter, Owen discusses how the Father’s love is antecedent to ours and ours is a consequence of his. We love him because he first loved us (1 John 4:10; Rom. 5:8). “The love of God is like himself- equal, constant, not capable of augmentation or dimunition; our love is like ourselves,- unequal, increasing, waning, growing, declining.” His love is immutable and unchangeable yet our experience of its fruits and manifestations may vary- sometimes feeling full of strength and faith and other times full of weakness and fear.
Implications of Having Communion with the Father
Here, Owen exhorts readers to understand and apply what has just been stated. We are to look on the all sufficient, eternal, and glorious Father as love and to know that his love is eternal, free, unchangeable, and distinguishing between believers and the world. This love should be looked upon in order to receive it individually and to let that same love produce the fruit of love in our hearts for him. Owen calls us to daily consider this so that we will not have harsh thoughts of the Father, which is the aim of Satan to produce in us. Owen then considers a few objections that believers may have in their understanding of God’s love and ends with reminding us that considering God’s love endears our hearts to him as we grow in knowing the “eminency and privilege” of communing with God the Father.
Communion with Christ
The Fellowship the Saints Have with Jesus Christ the Son of God.
In this section, Owen seeks to declare that we have fellowship with the Son and what this fellowship consists of. First, scripture declares we have fellowship with Christ (1 Cor. 1:9) and Christ himself declares his desire for fellowship (Rev. 3:20). Here, Owen enters into a discussion of the Song of Songs to help us better understand Christ’s passionate and eminent love for his people. This loving fellowship of Christ with his people consists of believers experiencing Christ’s sweetness and delighting in his love while knowing the safety and comfort of his presence.
The Way Believers Have Fellowship With Christ
Next, Owen moves to his second intention which is to describe how the saints have fellowship with Christ. The first foundation of all our fellowship with Christ is grace (Jn 1:14ff; 2 Cor. 13:14; etc.). This grace can be understood as the grace of his personal presence, his free favor and acceptance along with the fruits of the Spirit. Owen states that the last two should be considered ‘purchased grace,’ because we only experience them in light of what Christ has done for us.
Owen now wants to elaborate on the ‘personal grace’ of Christ, showing both what it is and how it enables us to have immediate communion with him. Owen begins negatively- this personal grace is not the glorious excellence of his Deity considered apart from his office as mediator, nor the simple outward appearance of a man, but, positively, “the graces of the person of Christ as he is vested with the office of mediation.” These graces should make Christ the greatest desire of the believer. Owen, again, moves to an exposition of the Song of Songs to show how Christ’s deity and humanity, his shed blood for sinners, and his kingship all work together to reveal Christ’s beauty to the believer.
Three things, for Owen, highlight Christ’s personal excellency. First is his fitness to save which comes from the union of his two natures in one person and the various consequences of that reality. Next is his fulness to save since the Father communicated the fulness of the Spirit to him in order to rescue sinners and last is his ‘excellency to endear’ because in all things he is completely suitable to answer the needs of desperate sinners. These three realities urge Owen to pastorally exhort the reader to pursue the ultimate Beloved rather than lesser beloveds and to find a greater righteousness in Christ than in our own works.
The Way Believers Have Communion – As a Bride with Her Husband
Not only should believers consider how they have fellowship with Christ, but also the way in which they have fellowship. One of the main ways scripture describes our relationship with him is as a bride to a bridegroom. This relationship with his bride is one in which he greatly delights in as it entails two primary aspects: a mutual giving to each other and mutual affections for each other. In giving themselves to each other, Christ fully gives himself to the soul of the believer and the believer fully embraces and receives Christ, submitting to his reign in his life. This willing embrace of Christ entails that the believer considers him as having far more excellence than any other lesser beloveds.
Some of Christ’s Excellencies Proposed to Draw Our Souls Closer to Him
Because Jesus is ‘the Lord our Righteousness’ he is excellent, first, in the glory of his deity (Jer. 23:6) which makes his love towards sinners eternal, unchangeable, and effectual. Second, he is desirable in his humanity as the unspotted, sinless Lamb of God who is the source of the fulness of grace sinners need. Lastly, he is desirable because he is both God and man in one person which made him fit to bear the curse, to be the source of all grace for believers, and to be their Mediator. In his person he is also exalted and invested with all authority, possessing a kingdom that is glorious and eternal.
All Wisdom is Found in Christ and This Also Makes Him Desirable
All knowledge and wisdom is to be found in and from Christ alone. As our Mediator, he is not the essential wisdom of God (he is as the eternal Son of the Father), but he is the wisdom of God “as he is crucified.” There is a worldly wisdom that consists of civil wisdom to order affairs and also the ability to learn but these are not the source of true wisdom. The sum of true wisdom can be given in three heads: knowledge of God, ourselves, and the ability to walk in communion with God. All these are to be sought and found in Christ. First, knowledge of God can be found in creation and providence but various aspects of his character cannot be known through these means but can only be known through Christ, such as his love for sinners and his pardoning grace. His vindictive justice, patience, his wisdom in managing all things for his glory, and his all-sufficiency “clearly shine only in him” and cannot be found in creation. In light of this, there is no saving knowledge of any of God’s properties outside of Christ. To receive the saving knowledge of these properties it was required that they be manifested, that God exercise these properties “to the utmost” on behalf of believers, and that God- through these properties- is powerfully able to draw believers to himself to that he will be their God.
The second part of true wisdom is the knowledge of ourselves which consists of understanding sin, righteousness, and judgment (Jn. 16:8). This can only come about by the work of the Spirit who, first, convicts us of sin by revealing four realities through the cross: it reveals the severe penalty that is due to sin and the unique Person of the Son who alone could bear that penalty, it reveals man’s impotence to redeem himself, it reveals that the cross is the source of the death of sin in believers, and it reveals God’s glory by displaying his extravagant grace.
The Spirit also convicts us of righteousness. Sinners need a righteousness that will answer the two dilemmas of their guilt and their inability to keep the law, and this is provided in the gospel- Christ removes sin through expiation and grants righteousness through imputation. Lastly, the Spirit also convicts us of the truth and manner of judgment. The truth of judgment is confirmed in Christ by his death and resurrection and the manner of it is that Christ himself will be the judge which will bring consolation to believers and terror to unbelievers.
The third part of wisdom is the skill of walking with God. For this, six things are required. First, God and man must be reconciled and only then can they ‘walk’ with one another. Second, there must be acquaintance- a passionately pursued knowledge of God rather than an ignorance of his true character. Third, there must be a way to walk and this way is Christ himself who is “the medium of all communication between God and us.” Fourth, we must be given strength to walk which comes from Christ who is our strength. Fifth, even though God is a consuming fire of holiness, because of Christ we can have confidence and boldness in communion with God as we walk with him. Sixth, those who walk together must have the same goal and that is for God to be increasingly glorified in and through Christ.
Communing with Christ as Our Husband Creates “Consequential Affections”
In order to help believers have a response of deep affection for God, Owen now shows that God’s love to them consists of four things: delight, valuation, compassion, and bounty. First, Christ’s delight flows to believers in love and joy as he considers every day as his wedding day (Is. 62:5; Zeph. 3:17). There are two primary things that Christ delights to reveal to his bride: himself and his kingdom. As he communicates himself, believers see the beauty and glory of his face in the gospel and are changed into his likeness. As he reveals his kingdom, the Spirit reigns in believer’s hearts. Because believers belong to Christ’s kingdom, he delights “to communicate his secrets to them”- secrets of his goodness, mercy, will, kingdom, etc. He also delights to enable believers to communicate their minds to him which requires the effectual work of the Spirit, a way to approach God with our desires which is given in the gospel, and boldness. The Spirit works these things in us as he himself reveals our own needs, supplements our insufficient expressions in prayer with his own groans, and guides our prayers by the promises and precepts of God’s revealed will.
With Christ’s delight shown to the saints, they return by delighting in him. Again, the Songs of Solomon are portrayed as displaying how the saints respond in delight. Because they delight in him, they take great care to keep his company, they are impatient if he is absent and desire ever increasing nearness to him, and they are especially perplexed if he has seemed to withdraw. If the last of these is the case, believers can search their own hearts for the cause of his absence or search the promises of Scripture for his presence. If these more private duties do not seem to work, the believer must act with resolution and diligence to pursue him in the ordinances of public worship. If all these means fail, a believer must simply wait until he returns. This is the conclusion of the first ‘consequential act’ of marital affection as believers commune with Christ- he delights in them and they delight in him.
Other ‘consequential affections”: Mutual Valuing. Compassion.
The second great ‘consequential affection’ of the believer’s marriage to Christ is the mutual valuing of one another. This should be considered first, absolutely, and then in respect to others. When considered absolutely, believers must understand that everything Jesus endured as Mediator was for them, which includes his incarnation, his becoming a servant and emptying himself, and his obedience to death on a cross while enduring the wrath of God. Next, considered in comparison to others, Jesus values believers more than anything else in the world. He considers believers his garden, his inheritance, and non-believers as a wilderness, his enemies. Believers, in return, value Jesus above all things or people (Ps. 73:25), even above their own lives or their own supposed righteousness.
Again, we continue to see that Christ values believers because everything he suffered was for them. Because of this, he promises to preserve and never lose any of those who genuinely claim him as their Savior. The part of believers is to respond by giving up sin in order to have Christ alone, and also to be willing to give up good things (peace, family, freedom) if it means having him.
A third great affection on the part of Christ is pity and compassion towards believers as they go through various temptations and afflictions. First, he is compassionate to us in our temptations by being tender and giving his assistance to us like a shepherd with his sheep. Christ gives this ‘seasonable help’ by working within us a “strong habitual bent” against sin, by “a strong impulse of actual grace,” and by taking the temptation away or giving strength to endure it. Christ even uses temptation to help believers know themselves better as to what is actually inside them. However, even if the believer is overcome, he shows mercy and pardon. Second, Jesus shows us compassion in our afflictions (Is. 63:9) by interceding to the Father for our relief and promising revenge against our enemies. Believers respond to Christ’s pity and compassion towards their temptations and afflictions with “chastity unto Christ, in every state and condition,” (2 Cor. 11:2, 3). This chastity consists of believers keeping their affections and esteem set supremely on Christ alone and nothing else, of cherishing the Holy Spirit whom Christ has given as our Comforter, and by faithfully and joyfully attending the institutions of public worship.
The fourth way Jesus evidences his love to the saints is by way of bounty- his rich and plentiful provision that he makes for them. In everything he does for believers- giving wisdom, forgiveness, grace, etc.- it is by way of abundance. Believers respond in two ways. First, they follow after holiness in obedience to Christ, knowing that Christ is the author of their faith and their obedience is only accepted in him. They do this also because the law is now in their hearts and they are constrained by the Father’s love shown through him to live in faithfulness to him. Not only do they seek to follow after holiness, but to abound in the fruits of holiness.
Purchased Grace- Its Fountain
Purchased grace is any righteousness and grace which Christ procured through his work as Mediator. First to be considered are the sources or causes of this purchased grace which are the obedience of his life, the suffering of his death, and his continued intercession.
Owen now explores the intention and influence of Christ’s obedient life. To begin with, his obedience entails his complete conformity to the will of God and his complete fulfilling of the entire law of God. This obedience came from that habitual righteousness within Christ, by virtue of his human nature’s union with his divine nature, which led to actual outward actions of obedience. He fulfilled whatever the law required and also fulfilled the unique requirements of the Mediator that were given by the Father (John 10:18).
Believers, then, have communion with Christ through God’s free acceptance of them in light of what Christ accomplished as their Mediator. His active and passive obedience for them is reckoned to them in justification. The implications for this are significant for believers. They know that only in him was the law actively, perfectly fulfilled and this was done for those who would look to him by faith and are justified. His active obedience answers Adam’s active disobedience (Rom. 5:18-19) and his passive obedience of suffering and death pays the penalty for transgressions. However, it is important to know that all of Christ’s obedience was a ‘doing’ and therefore all of it is in some sense ‘active.’ Believers, then, have communion with Christ in purchased grace because of the obedience of his life.
They also have communion with him in purchased grace, next, because of the suffering of his death, especially as it was the paying of a price for redemption, the giving of a sacrifice for atonement, and the enduring of a penalty for satisfaction.
Purchased grace, lastly, comes from his continual intercession for the saints where he continually presents to the Father his once-for-all sacrifice for sinners and faithfully asks and effectually gives the Holy Spirit in order that sinners might receive and enjoy this purchased grace so as to have communion with Christ.
Purchased Grace- Its Nature
The nature of purchased grace is acceptance with God, sanctification from God, and privileges with and before God. The first to be dealt with is our acceptance with God which is brought about by removing the guilt of sin and providing the righteousness of Christ through faith. Second, purchased grace also consists of sanctification where defilement is removed and cleanness is bestowed. Defilement is removed by the “habitual cleansing of our nature,” taking away the pollution of our actual transgressions, and removing defilement from even our ‘best duties.’ The cleansing that is bestowed has its foundation in the death of Christ. This cleansing is given through Christ bestowing the Spirit on believers in order to indwell them, by giving believers a ‘habitual principle of grace,’ and by giving the needed strength for the performance of every spiritual duty. Lastly, the nature of purchased grace also consists of the privileges believers have to stand in God’s presence. These privileges are adoption and all the various gospel benefits that flow from acceptance with God. These three topics will be discussed in the following chapters.
Of Communion with Christ in Our Acceptance with God
Understanding the source and nature of the purchased grace, now it is important to understand uniquely how believers have communion with Christ in light of their acceptance with God. In light of what Christ did and suffered, communion is brought about through the declaration of the gospel and the sending of the Spirit to regenerate and grant faith to the elect.
Here, Owen considers a significant objection, namely, that if Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers by faith, why should they strive to obey at all? Rightly understanding our obedience “is of great importance as to our walking with God.” Owen, therefore, offers multiple “gospel grounds” to encourage believers to obedience and communion with Christ. First, God’s will is for our sanctification. Secondly, our holiness and obedience is a particular end of the redemptive work of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Third, holiness is important because of its purposes for God, ourselves, and the world. It glorifies the Father, Son, and Spirit. It restores the created honor of believers as they become like their Father in heaven and reflect more of the image of God in their lives. It gives them peace because with sin there is no peace. It makes them fruitful. The purpose of obedience that others can see in believer’s lives is that it can bring conviction to them and it can help to lead others to conversion.
Holiness is also necessary because those accepted by God and able to be in his presence should “with all diligence cleanse themselves from all pollution.” It is necessary because holiness is the natural consequence of a new heart and nature. Owen also shows that holiness is necessary because of its importance in the new covenant as the way believers enter into heaven- not as a ground, cause, or condition of their justification but as “the way appointed by God for us to walk in for the obtaining of salvation.” The new covenant also shows that obedience is an evidence that believers have received grace and an expression of our gratitude to God.
Still, however, believers know that their acceptance by and communion with Christ is only because of his perfect righteousness imputed to them. This is a deep conviction in their heart because they know their own righteousness falls short. They therefore rejoice in the righteousness God has provided and see this transaction of imputation as displaying God’s infinite wisdom and fulness of love. Because of this perfect righteousness, Christ himself is honored by the Father, the angels in heaven, and by his saints all over the world. They honor him because it brings God glory to do so.
Not only do believers commune with Christ by rejoicing in the righteousness he has provided, but also by bringing their sin to him so that they can receive his righteousness and grace by faith. It is healthy for believers to keep a sense of the guilt of sin alive within them, along with actively searching their hearts for sin to confess. As they do so, they remember that Christ died for their sins and they take their burdens to Christ and his cross. From the cross they, by faith, take his righteousness that he provides (2 Cor. 5:21). This taking of our sin to him actually honors Christ and endears the saints to him.
In sum, believers have communion with Christ as they approve of and rejoice in the righteousness he has provided for them and by actually bringing their sin to him in order to receive his righteousness and grace.
Of Communion with Christ in Holiness
In sanctification, there are ‘peculiar actings of the Lord Christ’ and there are the duties of saints. First, consider the acts ascribed to Christ in sanctification: he prays for and sends the Spirit into the heart of believers, working a new habit of grace which changes our whole being- its faculties and affections- so that believers will obey. This new habit is brought about by the Spirit but is different from the Spirit’s indwelling because the habit is ours. This habit is capable of increasing or decreasing and only comes to us in light of Christ’s work and the Father bestowing all grace upon Christ in order that he might ask the Spirit to take what is his (Christ’s) and give it to believers.
In this reception of the Spirit, believers are passive and hold no communion with Christ. However, in receiving the indwelling of the Spirit along with habitual and actual grace, believers then have communion with Christ. Knowing that Christ alone purges them from sin, they look to Christ as the giver of the Spirit and of the grace that will sanctify them and make them holy.
Thus, in communion with Christ, believers seek out the Spirit of holiness to dwell in them, a habit of holiness to be infused within them, and actual assistance to be faithful in genuine obedience to the Lord.
Of Communion with Christ in the Privileges of Adoption
The third area where we have communion with Christ is the purchased grace of adoption- the authoritative translation of a believer by Christ from the family of Satan into the family of God and the giving of all the privileges of belonging to that family. There are five requirements for this adoption: First, that by original right they belong to another family than the one into which they are being adopted. Believers originally belonged to the family of sin and Satan. Second, that there is another family into which they can be adopted. This is the great family of God where believers have Christ as their brother and God as their Father. Third, there must be an authoritative legal transaction and this is given in and through the gospel (John 1:12). This legal transaction is declared to angels and to Satan, as well as the conscience of the person adopted. The believer is then actually grafted into the family of God and given a new name. Lastly, the believer is freed from the old family and given all the rights of the new one. The believer, then, experiences a new spiritual liberty from the old family, especially from the law and sin. The freedom is from obligations to the ceremonial law along with the rigor, terror, and consequences of the moral law such as the curse and death.
There is also freedom in the family of God. Where the Spirit is there is liberty and believers’ obedience comes from the power of new life and is done with love, “giving them joy and sweetness in it.” In Christ, God is seen as their Father and now their obedience is, to them, desirable and not terrible. The motive of this obedience is love, the manner of it is willingness, and the rule for it is the law of liberty- which Christ has rendered “sweet, tender, and useful…helpful as a rule of walking in the life they have received, not the way of working for the life they have not.”
Another privilege of adoption, after freedom, is having a title or right. As a proper right, it respects the spiritual interest in the administration of the family of God here, in the present world, which is the ordinances of the church and the dispensation of the Spirit to make them effectual. The nature and privileges of the church show that membership into its family belongs only to those who have been adopted by faith. Believers also have a proper title to the future fulness of their inheritance in heaven which makes them, even now, heirs of the promise, of righteousness, and of salvation. They also have a ‘consequential right’- a right to all the things God has portioned them in this world, stewarding them faithfully for his glory and anticipating the reality that one day they will inherit the entire world.
The last privileges of adoption are boldness in our access to God and the disciplinary affliction that God brings, in love, to conform us to his Son (Heb. 12:3-6). Both of these have been discussed in Owen’s other writings.
Communion With the Holy Spirit
The Foundation of Our Communion with the Holy Spirit
The foundation of our communion with the Spirit consists of his mission- being sent by Jesus to be our comforter. As such, he was promised both as a Spirit of sanctification and of consolation.
First, the fountain or source of his coming must be understood. He proceeds from the Father and the Son and this procession is twofold- in respect of substance and personality and in respect of the work of grace. This book only deals with the latter, the ‘economical proceeding’ to carry on the work of grace. In being sent by the Father and the Son, because the Spirit himself is God, he also comes willingly, condescending to us in order to make Christ’s work effectual. Second, he is given freely, sent with authority, and poured out lavishly on believers. Third, he is received as a Spirit of sanctification and consolation by believers. The faith by which believers receive the Spirit is a faith that rests on the promise of the New Covenant to give the Spirit to those who trust in Christ. This faith, enabled by the Spirit of supplication, asks in prayer for the Spirit of consolation. This faith also notices and cherishes the Spirit’s inner workings within the heart. Fourth, and last, the Spirit is said to abide in believers forever. Though he will always be with and within believers, he may have purposes for not comforting them at times. Other times, he may offer comfort but the believer doesn’t receive it. However, the Spirit will never absolutely leave a believing soul without consolation.
The Effectual Work of the Spirit in Believers
After considering where the Spirit comes from and how he is given, now his specific work within believers is considered. Fifth (number four was in last chapter), the actions of the Holy Spirit must be considered- both the manner of his acting as well as what it produces in the believer’s heart in which they have communion with him. To begin with, what the Spirit does, he does effectually, bringing about his purposes. This effectual work is divided and distributed among believers as the Spirit wills and whatever he gives us a gift of God’s grace. It is the effects of this work through which believers have communion with him. Owen, in closing this chapter acknowledges that he will, from this point, speak of the Spirit as the Comforter and will omit discussion of the Spirit as sanctifier as he has dealt with that in other works.
Various Things In Which Believers Commune with the Spirit
In this chapter, Owen briefly outlines nine ways believers have communion with the Spirit. One of the first ways believers have communion with the Spirit is when he brings to remembrance what Jesus taught (John 14:26) He comforts believers by revealing and illumining the words and promises of Christ to his people and thereby giving peace to their hearts. A second general work of the Spirit to comfort believers and in which they have communion with him, is when the Spirit glorifies Christ (John 16:14) by pointing believers to the benefits of the New Covenant. Next, the Spirit also sheds God’s love abroad in believer’s hearts, effectually persuading them of his love while also working, fourth, to bear witness to our adoption (Rom. 8:16).
Another significant comfort is the Spirit’s sealing of believers which consists in the “effectual communication of the image of God” to believers. Its purpose is to express an irrevocable confirmation of God’s promises as well as distinguish believers as his and keep them safe. The Spirit is also an earnest, down-payment to believers (2 Cor. 1:22) of the fulness of what is to come. As an earnest from God, the Spirit is given as a ‘choice part’ of the fulness of the Spirit that will come in glory. On the part of believers, the earnest acquaints believers with the love of God and the inheritance they are to receive. The Spirit further comforts believers by anointing them which Owen sees as being taught by him, especially concerning conviction of sin, sanctification, and consolation. The Spirit further comforts believers as a spirit of adoption and as the Spirit of supplication.
Consequences of Communion with the Spirit
A first consequence of communion with the Spirit is that believers possess comfort or consolation- the composing and contentedness of the soul as it rests in God’s grace, even in hard circumstances. This consolation is abiding, strong, and precious. A second consequence of communion with the Spirit is peace which is rooted in the previous consolation. A third is joy- and this joy can be immediate, simply from the Spirit’s presence, or mediate, as the Spirit points us to the benefits of God’s grace in Christ. Lastly, the Spirit works hope in believers as they commune with him.
Contempt Shown Towards the Spirit
Historically, in the church, Satan has tried two opposite extremes to denigrate the person and work of the Spirit. One the one hand, public worship becomes so formal and dependent on the ordinances alone, that the Spirit is not needed or is even derided. On the other hand, some claim that the Spirit doesn’t need to work through scripture or public ordinances of worship and everyone lays claim to new and private, immediate revelations. These two extremes are clearly opposed to Scriptural teaching and will not be dealt with at length.
Preparation to Commune with the Spirit
Believers are led to commune with the Spirit as they learn to rightly value his work as a Comforter towards them. To raise our hearts for this task, there are three things to be considered:
First, the Spirit’s consolations are useful in our afflictions, as we bear the burden of sin, and in the course of obedience. Second, he comforts us among these realities by communicating to us the love of the Father and the grace of the Son. Lastly, the principle which is the motivation and source of the Spirit’s work toward us in consolation is “his own great love and infinite condescension.
How Believers Respond to the Spirit in Communion with Him
Scripture outlines three ways of responding to the Spirit, all of which are stated negatively but have their positive counterparts. In light of this, believers are not to grieve him as he dwells in us; they are not to quench him as he seeks to work within us; and they are not to resist him as he works through gospel ordinances.
We can grieve the Spirit, who is “concerned in our good and well doing,” by falling short of the holiness we’re called to. Positively, believers should, in light of their union with Christ and the presence and power of the Spirit in their hearts, passionately pursue Christ-like holiness. Believers are also cautioned not to quench the Spirit as he seeks to burn away the dross and sin inside our hearts. Positively, then, they are called to be “careful and watchful to improve” all of the works of the Spirit in their hearts. Last, believers are not to resist the Spirit as he works through the ordinances. Positively, the posture of believer’s hearts to the ordinances should be humble submission and joyful reception of the grace God gives through them.
Particular Directions for Communion with the Spirit
Before discussing particular directions about communion with the Spirit, some cautions and clarifications are necessary. First, as the divine nature is the reason and cause of all worship, it is impossible to worship one Person of the Trinity without worshiping the whole Trinity. Second, as believers pray and invoke the Father through the Son, they invoke every Person of the Trinity because every person is God. Third, as believers worship the Spirit for any reason, they are also led to worship the entire Trinity. Fourth, believers are called to distinctly worship the Spirit.
The formal reason for distinctly worshipping the Spirit is not in his role as Comforter, but in his being God. The reason he can be a comforter is because he too is God and we must understand this and rejoice in this by faith. They are also to commune with him through responding to him with praise and thanks, as they pray for him to continue to carry on the work of sanctification, and as they ask the Father to give and send him, just “as children do of their parents for daily bread.” We commune with him even through humbling ourselves before him because we’ve grieved, quenched, and resisted him.
Anyone who is not interested in the Spirit will have no true and lasting comfort, peace, joy, or hope.
 The language has been updated. Emphasis Owen’s.
‘As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you’:
Toward a Trinitarian Mission Theology
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (3:16). John’s entire Gospel is pervaded by this divine mission: God the Father in his love sending Jesus, his Son, to save all those who believe in him for eternal life. The Spirit, too, is shown to play an important part in Jesus’ mission as well as in the mission of his followers, jointly witnessing with them (15:26–27) and empowering the community’s proclamation of forgiveness and salvation in Jesus (20:22–23).
The present chapter1 seeks to demonstrate the following dual thesis: (1) John’s mission theology is an integral part of his presentation of Father, Son and Spirit; and (2) rather than John’s mission theology being a function of his trinitarian theology, the converse is in fact the case: John’s presentation of Father, Son and Spirit is a function of his mission theology.2 After a brief summary of John’s references to theos, God, and his presentations of Father, Son and Spirit, with particular attention to their role in mission, we will discuss the way in which John’s trinitarian theology culminates toward the end of the Gospel in several strategic references to mission involving the persons of the triune Godhead. Hence, it will be shown that Father, Son and Spirit all contribute to God’s mission to the world. We will then discuss the implications of John’s presentation of the triune mission for the mission of the church.
Apart from three major references to Jesus as theos in John 1:1, 18 and 20:28, the usual referent of theos is God the Father. On the whole, God as a character remains in the background; references to God’s actions are limited to his loving the world (3:16) and sending (3:17) and approving of his Son (6:27); to his hearing righteous prayer (9:31; 11:22); and to his glorifying the Son (13:32).
References to God’s nature or essential attributes, stating that God is eternal (1:1, 2), invisible (1:18), true (3:33; 17:3), spirit (4:24) and the only God (5:44; 17:3) accentuate God’s difference or otherness. Overall, God is the great Given, Known, Accepted and constant Assumed in the controversy concerning Jesus whose support is sought and invoked by both sides in the escalating debate.
As mentioned, in three exceptional instances the referent of theos in John’s Gospel is not the Father, but Jesus. While various Christological titles (including ‘Son of God’) are applied to Jesus by his followers, the most striking designation for Jesus in the Gospel is the term theos, which occurs in the opening and closing verses of the prologue and in the final pericope of the Gospel proper (20:28). This literary inclusio, whereby Jesus is affirmed to be God at the beginning and at the end of the Gospel (and nowhere else in those terms) is startling in that it takes a designation, theos, which is universally applied to the God of the Hebrew Scriptures in the entire body of the Gospel, and changes the referent to Jesus.
Remarkably, this is done without any sustained attempt at adjudicating the issue of how the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus can both be called theos.3 The major exception is found at the inception of the Gospel, where the Word, himself theos, and theos are said to have existed eternally in close fellowship with one another.
At the same time, even the risen Jesus still refers to the God of the Hebrew Scriptures as ‘my God’ in 20:17 and earlier in the Gospel affirms that the Father is greater than he (14:28). This hints at a resolution of an apparent ditheism: while there is more than one referent of theos in this Gospel, these two persons sustain a complementary relationship most frequently described in the Johannine narrative as that of ‘Father’ and ‘Son’.
While the notion of God as Father is not common in the Hebrew Scriptures, in John’s Gospel ‘Father–Son’ is the dominant, controlling metaphor for Jesus’ relationship with God. The two persons of God the Father and the Son are thoroughly and inextricably intertwined. Jesus derives his mission from the Father and is fully dependent on him in carrying it out. The imagery of ‘father’ and ‘son’ plainly draws on Jewish cultural expectations related to father–son relationships, especially those pertaining to only sons.4
The emphasis on the Father as the one who sent Jesus and who witnesses to him portrays him as the Authorizer and Authenticator of Jesus. Emphatically, it is Jesus himself who refers to God as ‘the’ Father and in close to twenty instances even as ‘his’ Father. ‘The Father’ is Jesus’ natural, almost unselfconscious, way of referring to God.
The identification of Jesus as the ‘Son’ is at the very heart of John’s Christology. While the term logos (the Word) is limited to the prologue, and Jesus is repeatedly addressed as kyrios (‘sir’ or ‘Lord’) and rabbi (teacher), it is the term ‘Son’ (huios) that pervades the Gospel, both absolutely and in combination with various Christological titles applied to Jesus. This includes references to Jesus as God’s ‘one-of-a-kind Son’ (3:16, 18; cf. 1:14, 18) or as the ‘Son of God’ (1:34?; 1:49; 3:18; 5:25; 10:36; 11:4, 27; 19:7; 20:31). It also encompasses Jesus’ self-references as the ‘Son of Man’.5 Finally, there are eighteen references to Jesus as ‘the Son’, virtually always in relation to God ‘the Father’.6
When compared with ‘Father’ language in John’s Gospel, references to God as Father are more frequent than references to Jesus as the Son. Strikingly, Jesus affirms his unity with God the Father in purpose, mission and divinity (10:30). In the context of the remainder of the Gospel, this unity is said to form the basis for the unity of Jesus’ followers in their mission to the world, whose purpose, in turn, is said to be the world’s coming to recognize and believe that the Father sent Jesus (17:11, 21–23; cf. 20:21). This firmly establishes the thesis of this chapter that Jesus’ relationship with the Father is presented within the larger purview of mission.
As developed at length elsewhere,7 John represents Jesus’ mission in three distinct yet related ways: (1) Jesus as the sent Son; (2) Jesus as the eschatological shepherd-teacher. (3) Jesus as the one who comes into the world and returns to the Father (descent–ascent). Jesus’ work in the Fourth Gospel is described in terms of ‘signs’ performed as part of his ministry to ‘the Jews’ (John 1 – 12) and of ‘works’ performed ‘from the Father’. Everything Jesus says and does is presented under the rubric of revelation of God and of his glory, including even the cross itself.
With regard to the first aspect of his mission, Jesus’ mission as the sent Son significantly entails the gathering of the new messianic community and its commissioning for its mission to the world (20:21). As mentioned, in this respect Jesus’ union with the Father forms the basis for believers’ union in their mission, which places the Father–son relationship under the rubric of mission as well. Especially in the farewell discourse, it becomes clear that the disciples are taken into the love and unity of the persons of the Godhead as responsible agents and representatives of Jesus the sent Son.
With regard to the second aspect of Jesus’ mission, Jesus as the eschatological shepherd-teacher, this accentuates his role as the messianic shepherd and teacher who gathers the new messianic community, cleanses it (viz. the footwashing and removal of Judas the betrayer in 13:1–30) and prepares it for its mission. This aspect is evident especially in Jesus’ ‘Good Shepherd’ discourse (ch. 10) and in his commissioning of Peter at the end of the Gospel (ch. 21). Against the backdrop of an entire set of OT messianic images and expectations, Jesus’ mission is presented as part of an eschatological framework that shows him as inaugurating the messianic age at which ‘all’ will ‘be taught by God’ (6:45; cf. Isa. 54:13). Jesus’ mission of gathering God’s children into ‘one’ community (11:52) continues after his ascension as the new messianic community, indwelt by Father, Son and Holy Spirit is formed into a community whose love is a magnetic force to a watching world (13:35; 17:20–23).
With regard to the third aspect of Jesus’ mission, Jesus as the one who comes into the world and returns to the Father (descent–ascent), this marks out Jesus as uniquely being the Word coming into the world (the incarnation, 1:14) and being sent by God on a mission, accomplishing this earthly mission and as returning to his sender (e.g. 13:3; 16:28; 17:4; cf. Isa. 55:11–12). While the first aspect, the mission of the sent Son, focuses more on the horizontal dimension, the third, Jesus as coming into the world and as returning to the Father, lays more stress on the vertical dimension of Jesus’ descent and ascent.8
There is no need to trace the narrative outworking of these motifs here. Since ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ language are inextricably intertwined in John’s Gospel, this has already been done in the respective chapters on the ‘Father’ and the ‘Son’ above. Suffice it to say that Father, Son and Spirit are shown to be united in the messianic mission of the Son, distinct in personhood yet one in purpose, actively collaborating to bring about the new people of God whose identity is centred on faith in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. This new people of God, in turn, on the basis of their identification with Jesus and their commission from him, are sent on a mission to the world overseen by the exalted Jesus and empowered by the Spirit.
As mentioned in the chapter on the Spirit in John’s Gospel above, undisputed references to the Spirit in the first half of John’s Gospel are relatively few. In every case where the Spirit is clearly in view, the reference relates to the Spirit’s role in Jesus’ ministry. The Spirit rests on him (1:32–33) and does so to an unlimited degree (3:34). His words are life-giving and Spirit-infused (6:63), and the Spirit is to be given only subsequent to Jesus’ earthly ministry (7:39). This sets up the pattern, demonstrated above, of the Spirit’s resting and remaining on Jesus, which in the second half of the Gospel is transferred to believers in Jesus.
While thus John’s treatment of the Spirit in the first half of the Gospel largely resembles that of the Synoptics, his adoption of a post-exaltation vantage point leads to a vastly enhanced portrayal of the Spirit in the farewell discourse. As discussed in chapter 5 above, references to the Spirit in the second half of John’s Gospel increase dramatically in both number and prominence in keeping with the Spirit’s pivotal role in the disciples’ mission subsequent to Jesus’ departure and return to God the Father. Specifically, the Spirit is referred to as the Spirit of truth (14:17; 15:26; 16:13) and as the Holy Spirit (14:26; 20:22; cf. 1:33) as well as by the adumbration parakletos or ‘helping presence’ (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7).
Significantly, reference to the Spirit is repeatedly part of a trinitarian pattern that presents God the Father, Jesus and the Spirit jointly (or in relationship to one another) at work in the lives of believers. Jesus’ reference to the Spirit as ‘another parakletos’ in 14:16, for example, indicates that the Spirit’s presence with the disciples will replace Jesus’ encouraging and strengthening presence with them while on earth (cf. 14:17). When the Spirit comes to dwell in believers, it is as if Jesus himself takes up residence in them (14:18). This relieves a primary concern for Jesus’ first followers in the original setting of the farewell discourse: Jesus’ departure will not leave them as orphans; just as God was with them through Jesus, he will continue to be with them through the Spirit. The Spirit’s role thus ensures continuity between Jesus’ pre- and post-glorification ministry.
Once sent by Jesus, the Spirit will have several important roles in the lives of believers. These include reminding them of all that Jesus taught his followers (14:26); bearing witness to Jesus together with believers (15:26); convicting the world of sin, (un)righteousness and judgment (16:8–11); and guiding believers in(to) all truth and revealing what is yet to come (16:13).
In all of these functions, the ministry of the Spirit remains closely linked with the person of Jesus. Just as Jesus is the Sent One who is fully dependent on and obedient to the Father, the Spirit is sent by both the Father and Jesus (14:26; 15:26) and focuses his teaching on illuminating the spiritual significance of God’s work in Jesus (14:26; 15:26; 16:9).
Particularly significant for John’s trinitarian mission theology is the final reference to the Spirit at Jesus’ commissioning of his followers (20:21; cf. Matt. 28:18–20; Luke 24:46–49), which climaxes the characterization of Jesus as the sent Son. Here the disciples are shown to be drawn into the unity and mission of Father and Son. In a clear allusion to Genesis 2:7, where God breathes his Spirit into Adam at creation, constituting him as a living being, at his commissioning of his disciples Jesus constitutes them as the new messianic community in anticipation of the outpouring of the Spirit subsequent to his ascension (20:22).
Father, Son and Spirit: The three persons of the Godhead united in one mission
As mentioned in chapter 6 above, in his Gospel John presents the relationships between the Father, the Son and the Spirit with a view toward their role in salvation history. Thus it is always the Father who is the sender of the Son, never vice versa, and it is the Father and the Son sending the Spirit, never the Spirit sending the Father or the Son. The sending of the Spirit, in turn, occurs by salvation-historical necessity only after the Son’s return to the Father. This shows that the roles exercised by the three persons of the Trinity are not interchangeable.
The two-part format of the Gospel with chapters 1–12 presenting the earthly mission of Jesus and chapters 13–21 anticipating the mission of the exalted Jesus subsequent to his departure back to his pre-existent heavenly glory also carries an important theological, trinitarian message. In the first part, Jesus is shown to claim a unique relationship, and, in fact, equality, with God (e.g. 5:18). The second part moves beyond the vindication of Jesus’ claim through the resurrection and shows the unity of the triune Godhead in their mission to the world, extended through Jesus’ followers (chs. 17; 20:21–22).
In this way, the Gospel’s presentation of the Father as the one who sent Jesus as well as of John’s Christology and pneumatology can be shown to issue ultimately in missiology. Thus, rightly understood, theologically speaking John’s presentation of the Trinity is not a mere exercise in ontology as an end in itself but is made subservient to mission: the Spirit-enabled demonstration to the world that the Father sent the Son, offering the world forgiveness of sins and eternal life upon faith in the Messiah.
The Trinity and the church’s mission
The study of the portrayal of the Father, the Son and the Spirit in John’s Gospel has demonstrated that the three persons of the Godhead are involved in one great mission, the revelation of God to humanity and the redemption of humanity for God. Not only are the three persons of the Godhead united in this mission, the presentation of Father, Son and Spirit in John’s Gospel (John’s trinitarian theology) is clearly missiologically constrained. Rather than being one of several aspects or implications of John’s trinitarian theology, mission was shown to be the nexus and focal point of John’s presentation of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, individually and in relation to one another. Hence it can truly be said, not only that John’s mission theology is trinitarian (which in and of itself is a very significant statement), but that his trinitarian teaching is part of his mission theology: a truly revolutionary insight.
The insight is revolutionary, because, if heeded, it calls the church to focus its major energies on acting on and acting out her Lord’s commission, ‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you’ (20:21), in the power of the Spirit, rather than merely engaging in the study of God or cultivating personal holiness (as important as this may be within the larger framework presented here). The insight is revolutionary also because a proper understanding of John’s trinitarian mission theology ought to lead the church to understand its mission in trinitarian terms, that is, as originating in and initiated by the Father (the ‘one who sent’ Jesus), as redemptively grounded and divinely mediated by Jesus the Son (the ‘Sent One’ turned sender, 20:21), and as continued and empowered by the Spirit, the ‘other helping presence’, the Spirit of truth.
What is more, not only is John’s mission theology trinitarian in nature; it is universal in scope. A comparison with Luke’s two-volume work, the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, may prove instructive at this point. In essence, Luke, in his first volume, provides an account of the saving mission of Jesus culminating in his substitutionary cross-death and his resurrection. Yet, as Luke is careful to show, this is only the beginning. In his second volume, Luke consequently narrates the coming of the Spirit (in fulfilment of Jesus’ promise; cf. Luke 24:48–49; Acts 1:4–5) and the church’s Spirit-empowered witness ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).
It is our contention that John’s salvation-historical outlook is much the same as Luke’s, but that John accomplishes in one volume what Luke does in two.9 This lends John’s Gospel a virtually unparalleled theological compactness and coherence. In John’s presentation, the Son is the focal point of the missio Dei in that he is the sent Son from God the Father, himself God, who also, together with the Father, becomes the sender of the Holy Spirit, who thus empowers Jesus’ followers for their universal witness. The universal scope of this witness is underscored by several means:
Coupled with the emphatic presentation of Jesus as sharing the identity of Yahweh, the one and only true God, the compelling message of John’s Gospel is that there is no other god besides the One who is ‘the way and the truth and the life’, the one who unequivocally stated that ‘no-one comes to the Father except through me’ (14:6). John’s Gospel thus follows Isaiah’s teaching that because there is only one God there can be only one Saviour (Isa. 43:11; 45:21). Anyone, therefore, who has not believed in Jesus the Christ and Son of God must urgently be implored to place his or her faith in Jesus, for there is no other way of salvation, and God’s wrath continues to rest on those who refuse to believe (3:36) and prefer their own moral darkness over the ‘light of the world’ (3:19–21). John (the Baptist’s) witness still rings true today: ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him’ (3:36; cf. 6–9, 1:15).
The question arises, then, ‘How is the church to engage in its mission, particularly (for our present purposes) in Johannine terms?’12 Several answers may be given.
1. Mission is spiritual warfare. As John makes clear, believers are not to ‘engage’ the world but rather must ‘overcome’ both the evil one (1 John 2:13–14) and the world (16:33; 1 John 4:4–5). Although the whole world lies under the power of the evil one (1 John 5:19), this world order is merely temporary and will pass away (1 John 2:17). It is already ‘the last hour’ (1 John 2:18). Judgment upon the spirit of the antichrist, who is at work in false teachers, has already been secured (12:31; 1 John 2:18; 4:1–6; 2 John 7; cf. Rev. 12).
Believers’ victory in this spiritual contest is assured because Jesus ‘the true light’ has overcome the darkness and opposition of the world (1:9; 1 John 2:8) through his death on the cross (12:31; 16:33) and through his resurrection on ‘the first day of the week’ (20:1), the day that now marks the dawn of the new creation. Believers, by virtue of their spiritual birth, have thus become ‘sons of light’ (12:36) and heirs of the promise that ‘everyone born of God overcomes the world’ (1 John 5:4; cf. 1 John 2:12–14). Consequently, as they pursue their mission (which is really the exalted Jesus’ mission carried on under the auspices of the Holy Spirit [John 14:15–18; 15:26–27; cf. Matt. 28:20; Acts 1:1]), believers must be mindful that they are children of God who are born of God (John 1:12–3; 3:3, 5; 8:31–59; 11:52; 1 John 3:1–2, 9–10; 4:4, 6; 5:18–19); that they possess the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:20, 27); that their sins have been forgiven in Christ (John 20:22; 1 John 1:9; 2:1); and that they have eternal life and their salvation is eternally secure (John 3:16–17; 5:24; 20:30–31 etc.; 1 John 5:11–12).
Moreover, as they proclaim God’s love for the unbelieving world in Christ (John 3:16), believers must not love ‘the world’ as a domain currently controlled by Satan (1 John 2:15–17; 5:19). They also must keep themselves from idols (1 John 5:21).13
2. Mission aims at the redemption of creation. As the preceding point suggests, the church’s spiritual conflict is not with creation per se, but with ‘the prince of this world’ (12:31; 14:30; 16:11) and his anti-trinitarian system (16:1–3; 1 John 2:22) that tyrannizes the world through ‘the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life’ (1 John 2:16 AV; cf. 1 John 3:8b). Creation itself is the object of the triune mission of salvation (3:16–17; 12:47; 1 John 4:14). The Father sent his Son because he loved the world that he had made (1:3, 10; 3:16).14 He gave his Son ‘authority over all people [lit. “flesh”]’ (17:2) because he wished to redeem the fallen, physical creation from its bondage to darkness and death into the light and life of the trinitarian kingdom (1:5; 5:21–29; 10:10; 17:3; cf. Rev. 11:15).15 Even in his dying hour, Jesus displays his concern to preserve the orders of creation as he commits his mother to the care of her new son, the Beloved Disciple (19:26–27; cf. 1 Tim. 5:8). The point to be emphasized is this: John is no proto-Gnostic who lacks concern for things like ‘flesh’ and ‘family’. He is instead ‘a theologian of creation’;16 better: a theologian of the trinitarian renewal of creation. The church’s mission should reflect this concern as well.17
3. Mission proceeds in word and deed. In the light of the preceding discussion, the church’s missionary proclamation must be characterized, first, by the announcement that Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father, has come in the flesh (1:14; 1 John 1:7; 4:2; 2 John 7). The Son did not assume a mere phantom spiritual existence as the Docetists held. God’s Son became flesh to redeem and renew God’s fallen creation through the power of the Holy Spirit. The church’s missionary proclamation must, second, include the good news that Jesus made atonement for the sins of ‘the whole world’ (1 John 2:2; cf. 1 John 4:10). Contrary to those who conceived of religious experience merely in terms of esoteric divine revelation, the assertions of Christ’s full humanity and his sacrificial atonement provide an effective counter to the notion that the gospel might merely mediate a higher knowledge of the divine or a more profound spiritual union with God. The gospel concerns God’s plan to deal with sin, the world’s deepest problem, by providing salvation and forgiveness through his Son’s propitiatory death (cf. John 20:23; 1 John 1:9; 2:1). The assertions of Christ’s full humanity and sacrificial atonement also reinforce the previous point, that the triune mission field is not simply the renewed intellect or the sanctified heart but is instead the entire cosmos (3:16; 17:2).
According to John, the scope of creation and redemption is the same: ‘all things’ (1:3; 3:35). A fully fledged, trinitarian theology of creation and redemption, centred in the incarnate Son’s saving mission, is thus indispensable to the church’s faithful proclamation of the gospel. According to John, God’s love is to be proclaimed not only in word but also in deed. Following a more general Johannine pattern, John’s teaching regarding deeds of mercy focuses almost exclusively on believers’ love for fellow-believers (see 1 John 3:16–18).18 This focus has an important missional dimension of its own. Jesus promises that, as believers learn to share the sacrificial love of God with one another, the world will come to know that the Father sent the Son (13:35; 17:21, 23).19 Nevertheless, the impetus of John 20:21, built as it is upon the analogy of Jesus’ mission from the Father, must include loving ‘the world’ through deeds of mercy as well (cf. 3:16). Action in the face of neighbourly need, whether that neighbour lies in or outside the household of faith, is one of the true marks of God’s indwelling love (1 John 3:16–18; cf. Luke 10:25–37). The rest of the NT confirms this teaching (e.g. Matt. 5:43–47; Rom. 12:17–21;1 Pet. 3:9–12).20
4. The shape of Jesus’ mission determines the shape of the church’s mission. Because the church’s mission is an extension and continuation of Jesus’ mission, the particular shape of Jesus’ mission is relevant to the present discussion. The first aspect of Jesus’ mission, that he is sent from the Father to the world, teaches us that there is a centrifugal dimension to mission. The church’s mission proceeds from the sending Son to the world in the power of the Spirit. The second aspect of Jesus’ mission, Jesus’ role as the eschatological shepherd-teacher, teaches us that there is a centripetal dimension to mission. Jesus gathers his sheep from the world into his fold through the witness of his Spirit-empowered church (cf. 6:35–65). The third aspect of Jesus’ mission, that he comes into the world and returns to the Father (descent–ascent), emphasizes the transcendent origin and power of the church’s mission. Whereas the first two aspects of Jesus’ mission find analogies in the church’s mission, the last aspect does not. This reminds us that the church’s mission to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth and to draw all peoples into the triune fellowship is wholly dependent upon the unique mission of the Son who descended to die and ascended to reign that he might baptize his people with the Holy Spirit (1:33).
Keeping all three aspects of Jesus’ mission in mind will protect the church from various forms of reductionism with respect to its missionary endeavour. First, the community that focuses too exclusively on the centrifugal dimension of mission and ignores the centripetal dimension, which includes building a community characterized by worship, sound doctrine and loving fellowship, will not ultimately have an alternative way of life to offer the world (cf. 13:35). Second, the community that focuses too exclusively on the centripetal dimension of mission at the expense of the centrifugal dimension, which includes John’s expansive trinitarian vision for the transformation of the entire cosmos, will eventually domesticate the gospel to the service of its own private or local ends. Third, the community that ceases, in both its centrifugal and centripetal dimensions, to depend wholly upon the spiritual power of the incarnate and ascended Son will quickly become a community that, when it comes to matters of eternal consequence, ‘can do nothing’ (15:5). Jesus gave his disciples spiritual authority to execute their mission (20:22), thereby authorizing them to forgive and retain sins (20:23), shepherd Christ’s flock (21:15–17) and bear witness to his person and work (20:21). The church thus continues the apostolic mission through analogous activities21 under the power of the same Spirit, not that of the sword.22 This does not limit the scope of the church’s mission,23 which is universal, but it does limit the means of the church’s mission, which are spiritual.
5. Pneumatology must not override Christology in the church’s missiology. In its effort to remain faithful to the full, trinitarian thrust of the Bible’s (including John’s) teaching on its mission as an extension of the missio Dei consisting of Father, Son and Spirit, properly related, the church must take care to maintain a proper understanding of the taxis (order) and intra-trinitarian balance between the persons of the Godhead. That is, God the Father must be understood as the Creator and sovereign Ruler of the universe, who in his love initiated the Son’s redemptive mission, a mission carried out by the Son in his perfect obedience and continued in the sending and witnessing activity of the Spirit.
Some, such as the Pentecostal theologian Amos Yong, have problematically elevated pneumatology over Christology.24 In the conviction that the inclusion of the filioque clause25 in the Nicene Creed has caused the Western Church to unduly subordinate the Spirit to the Son, Yong contends that a diminishment of the Spirit has improperly weakened the recognition of the Spirit’s work in non-Christian faiths. Invoking Irenaeus’ metaphorical depiction of the Son and the Spirit as the two hands of the Father, Yong sets out to explore how the Spirit’s ‘hand’ might be discerned in non-Christian religions.
How, then, is one to discern this movement of the Spirit? According to Yong, this is to be done on the basis of a threefold criterion: discerning divine presence, divine absence and divine activity. Yet as writings such as John’s Gospel or 1 John, to go no further, make clear (e.g. John 14:6; 1 John 4:1–3), it is only Christology that provides a proper criterion for evaluating proper truth claims. Jesus is ‘the truth’ (14:6). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit ‘of truth’, the one who bears witness to and confirms the truth of Jesus (16:13–15). Indeed, the Spirit has no other message (cf. Gal. 1:6–9; 3:2, 5–6).
For this reason it is inadequate, even fallacious, for Yong to demand that the particularity of the ‘Word made flesh’ in Jesus (John 1:14) be balanced by the universality of the ‘Spirit poured out on all flesh’ per Acts 2:17, for this dichotomous way of putting things wrongly severs the salvation-historical connection between the Spirit being given on the basis, and only on the basis, of Jesus dying on the cross and rising from the dead (as is the thrust of Peter’s message at Pentecost; Acts 2). As Vanhoozer states, ‘The Spirit may blow where, but not what, he wills.’26 Without a particular, crucified and risen Jesus, there is no outpouring of the Spirit, and as the book of Acts makes clear, reception of the Spirit was contingent on reception of the saving message of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In fact, as John states, ‘the world cannot accept’ the Spirit (John 14:17), and ‘every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God’ (1 John 4:3).
In the end, Yong does not advance ‘beyond the impasse’ between exclusivist, inclusivist and pluralist paradigms but himself remains firmly as holding an inclusivist perspective. His work serves as an important reminder that the church’s missiological thinking must be deeply grounded in a careful understanding of the trinitarian teaching of Scripture. This means more than merely to affirm that there are three persons in the Godhead; it also entails apprehending the intratrinitarian relationships in proper balance to each other, so that one person of the Godhead (in Yong’s case, the Spirit) is not unduly pitted against, and elevated over, the other.27 If so, the results can be disastrous and heretical in that they rob Jesus of his glory as the Father’s ‘one-of-a-kind Son’ apart from whom no one comes to the Father (1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 14:6).
6. The Triune God is the Alpha and the Omega of the church’s mission. Just as the triune mission flows from the triune love (3:16–17), so every missional manifestation of the church’s love for the world emerges from the ‘deeper, more fundamental reality’ of God’s love (cf. 1 John 4:7–21).28 In order to accomplish their mission, Christians must therefore continue to grow in their knowledge, trust and adoration of the triune God. ‘Love comes from God’ (1 John 4:7) and only those who abide in the love of the triune God will be able to take his love to the world.
The church’s mission not only flows from and through the love of the triune God; it also flows to the love of the triune God. The Father, after all, seeks worshippers (4:23). The Father sent the Son to make his great and holy name known to his people (1:18; 17:6). The church’s mission therefore ultimately consists in reaping a worldwide harvest of worshippers (4:35–38) gathered by the Son, through the Spirit, to serve and adore the ‘Holy Father’ (17:11; cf. Isa. 6:3; 66:19–21; Rev. 22:3–4).
One day the church’s mission will be consummated in trinitarian worship (Rev. 22:1–5). This means that, even now, as the church engages in the worship of the Holy Trinity, she engages not simply in the means of her mission, but in the very end of her mission: the gloria Dei.29
As we have sought to demonstrate in this chapter, John’s trinitarian teaching has not merely important theological implications; it also has great practical relevance for the way in which the church goes about fulfilling its missionary task. Belief in the Trinity is not merely needed on the intellectual, cognitive level as part of subscribing to an orthodox Christian creed; it is that very triune God who is rightly the ground, energizing force, and goal undergirding the Christian mission. The love and power of the triune God at once send us out and draw us in. Perhaps it is at the end of this volume on the Trinity and John’s Gospel that we are able to read the concluding commissioning statement in John’s Gospel within its proper, full trinitarian, context encapsulating the Johannine mission theology: ‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. . . . Receive the Holy Spirit.’
1 The present study builds on ch. 8 in Köstenberger and O’Brien 2001. The following sections draw on and summarize the findings in chapters 2–6 above.
2 The point pertains to the order of knowing, not to the order of being. The triune identity is revealed through the triune missions. But the triune missions flow from, through and to the eternal Trinity. See chapter 10 below.
3 See the discussion in chapter 1 above.
4 See esp. Köstenberger 1998b: 96–121.
5 1:51; 3:13, 14; 5:27; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 9:35; 12:23, 34 (2); 13:31.
6 3:17, 35, 36 (2); 5:19 (2), 20, 21, 22, 23 (2), 26; 6:40; 8:36; 14:13; 17:1 (2).
7 Köstenberger 1998b.
8 Cf. e.g. the ‘bread of life’ in ch. 6 or the ‘Son of Man’ in the lifted-up sayings, 3:13; 8:28; 13:32.
9 Though note the elegant and skilful way in which Luke uses the ascension as a unifying theological and literary element between his two volumes: Luke 9:51; 24:50–51; Acts 1:9–11.
10 See Croteau 2002.
11 Cf. Köstenberger 2004c: 141.
12 Some of the following material is adapted from Köstenberger 1995a: 124–127. See also on 128–136 the comments on the missiological import of the book of Revelation.
13 For further development of John’s ‘mission as warfare’ theme, see Rev. 7. See also Bauckham’s discussion of this theme in the book of Revelation in 1993: 66–108; and the study by Bandy 2007.
14 Carson classifies this love as ‘God’s salvific stance towards his fallen world’ in distinction from ‘God’s particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect’. See Carson 2000: 17–18.
15 Indeed, as is commonly noted, ‘life’ signifies for John what the Synoptic Gospels refer to as ‘the kingdom’.
16 N. T. Wright 2003: 667.
17 For further reflections on this theme, see C. J. H. Wright 2006, esp. part 4.
18 Carson (2002: 58–64) provides a very helpful discussion of the Johannine focus upon believers’ love for fellow-believers.
19 Consider the powerful gospel witness of the Anglican Church of Rwanda, where families of those murdered in that country’s terrible genocide sit reconciled in the same pews with many of the murderers.
20 See Carson 2002: 46–57.
21 The church’s mission is only ‘analogous’ to that of the apostles because the apostolic mission was in many ways unique and foundational. Consider Bauckham’s comments on the missions of Peter and the Beloved Disciple according to John 21:15–25: ‘Although both can serve from time to time in the narrative as representative disciples, models for all Christians, the overwhelming emphasis is on the special roles which their personal discipleship of Jesus enables them to play in the church. In the Beloved Disciple’s case, this is his witness as author of the Gospel’ (2006: 400).
22 Cf. Jesus’ encounter with Pilate in 18:33–38. Jesus’ point is not so much that his kingdom is located in heaven and not upon the earth (cf. 17:2) but that his kingdom originates from heaven (‘My kingdom is not of this world’) and therefore that his kingdom does not operate according to the ways of the world (cf. 2 Cor. 10:4–5). See Ridderbos 1997: 594–595.
23 On the Gospel’s relationship to ‘spiritual’ and ‘political’ spheres, together with implications for the church’s mission, see the illuminating discussion of O’Donovan 1996: 82–119, 211–242.
24 See the helpful and appropriately critical reviews by Tennent 2003, 2004; and Womack (with Horrell) 2005.
25 We will discuss the ‘dual procession’ of the Holy Spirit in the next chapter.
26 Vanhoozer 2002: 233. Cf. Yong 2003: 192.
27 As Chandler (2005: 195) rightly notes, Scripture ‘does not subordinate the Son’s mission to that of the Spirit but, instead, gives the Spirit to the world in order that the Father and Son might be glorified and may be made known (John 15:26)’. Chandler also observes, correctly in our opinion, that Yong’s proposal lacks adequate criteria for distinguishing between the Holy Spirit and the work of demons in non-Christian religions (ibid.).
28 Carson 2000: 39.
29 For further reflections on the ‘means’ and ‘end’ of the church’s mission, see Piper 2003: 17–43, esp. 21–22.
Taken from Father, Son and Spirit by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Scott R. Swain. Copyright (c) Andreas J. Köstenberger and Scott R. Swain 2008. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com. You may see the book here.
About the Author
Fred Sanders (PhD, Graduate Theological Union) is professor of theology at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute. A popular blogger and speaker, Sanders has authored numerous journal articles and written or contributed to several books, including The Triune God.
In this book, Sanders explores the doctrine of the Trinity, showing that it is essential and practical. He demonstrates how all of our Christian life is rooted in the Trinity, and how salvation is an irreducibly Trinitarian reality. Sanders clearly shows how the ultimate reality of the Trinity stands as the necessary presupposition of creation and redemption. Evangelicals need to grow in their self-conscious awareness of how the Trinity is necessary for all of theology and life.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Evangelicals, the Gospel, and the Trinity
Chapter 1 Always Already Trinitarian
Chapter 2 Compassed About by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Chapter 3 Within the Happy Land of the Trinity
Chapter 4 The Eternal Life of These Three
Chapter 5 Lost in the Fullness of God
Chapter 6 So Great Salvation
Chapter 7 The Shape of the Gospel
Chapter 8 Behold What Manner of Love
Chapter 9 Into the Saving Life of Christ
Chapter 10 Anchored in Jehovah: Experience and Assurance
Chapter 11 Hearing the Voice of God in Scripture
Chapter 12 Praying with the Grain
Chapter 13 What Makes Christian Prayer Possible
Evangelicals, the Gospel, and the Trinity
Evangelicals must embrace the doctrine of the Trinity as of central importance. Today, too many believers are uncomfortable with the doctrine or neglect it. The gospel, however, can only be Trinitarian, and the Trinity is at the heart of the gospel. Far from being superfluous or impractical, the doctrine of the Trinity is essential for evangelical theology. In evangelical churches we tend to forget the Trinity, and we also tend to be very shallow—these things are not unrelated. We need to recapture and explore the truth that the Trinity is foundational to the gospel, and the gospel is deeper than we can fathom. Evangelicals must not only hold to biblical truth, we must know which doctrines are primary and require emphasis. Too often evangelicals emphasize one doctrine (like the cross) without locating it in a proper theology, but doctrines are not comprehensible unless they are seen in balance with the rest of God’s revealed truth. Emphasis must not degenerate into reductionism. Reductionism misses the fact that the entire revelation of God and his work of salvation is Trinitarian; the Trinity is the presupposition behind the doctrine of salvation. As a result, evangelicals are Trinitarian, and we need to be self-conscious about understanding and articulating the doctrine of the Trinity. This book will focus on evangelical thinkers, not because there is nothing helpful in other traditions, but to show that evangelicalism throughout history—at its best—has provided rich reflection on the Trinity. Of course there are giants in the first 1500 years of the church, and their work underlies informed evangelical theology, but the focus won’t be on the development of the doctrine throughout all of church history. Even before an evangelical Christian begins to engage in deep theological reflection, they are swimming in Trinitarian waters.
Always Already Trinitarian
The doctrine of the Trinity is not cobbled together by proof-texting—in fact, we find that when we think deeply about the Trinity it is because we are already immersed in the reality of what the Triune God has revealed and accomplished. Nicky Cruz was converted through the ministry of David Wilkerson. Cruz went from being a violent gang leader to a minister. He testifies that growing in his knowledge and experience of the Triune God revolutionized his Christian life. He is not an academic theologian, but he has learned to grow in his appreciation of the reality of the Triune God—a reality that was already present in the original gospel message that he received. Evangelicals don’t deny the Trinity, but they need to see that they are already immersed in it. Regrettably our talking about the Trinity usually reduces to a doctrinal formulation and comment that it’s not logically contradictory. We need to ask three questions: “Is it biblical?” “Does it make sense?” “Does it matter?” Usually the way we approach the first two questions makes the last one irrelevant or impossible to answer well. Rather than trying to piece together a mental project to vindicate a doctrine, we need to start with our experience of the Triune God. The gospel and the Trinity presuppose each other, so we have a background of rich truth to work out in understanding the Trinity. We must avoid the extremes of subjectivism and rationalism. In history, some have relegated the doctrine to the sidelines as tertiary, while others have warned against trying to probe its mystery or worried that they have not understood it. It has often been seen as mere words and tradition, affirmed but irrelevant for our lives.
Compassed About By Father, Son, And Holy Spirit
When we don’t see that the Trinity is essential for the gospel, we tend to view it as a secondary issue. As Christians we are interacting with the Trinity; we are already immersed in the Triune God, but we don’t think about this reality. We already know the Trinity, but we might not know that we know. We need to bring into the foreground what is tacitly in the background of our salvation and theology. Michael Polanyi has helpfully articulated the importance of tacit knowledge for our ability to learn and formulate our understandings of reality. As Christians, we find that we already know a lot about the Trinity in the background, and that this knowledge is necessary for us to make connections and explicit affirmations about the doctrine of the Trinity. Christians know more about the Trinity than we can say. Many churches can deepen in their understanding of the Trinity by examining their liturgies. Non-liturgical churches can go deeper by simply meditating on any of their key doctrines, since all of them are goldmines for Trinitarian thought. Salvation itself requires the work of every member of the Trinity, so anyone who is saved has experienced the Trinity. Our evangelical practices are likewise based on an experiential relationship with the Triune God.
Within the Happy Land of the Trinity
God is the ultimate fact and reality, and he is triune. Without creation and without saving anyone, God is God. He has always been perfectly holy, content, and fulfilled in his internal love relationships. Susanna Wesley was not a trained theologian, but she provides a beautiful example of how reflecting on the nature of the triune God proves how infinitely perfect and happy he has been eternally, and how his acts of creation and redemption can only be motivated by pure grace and love. He is not dependent on anything external to himself, even for relationship. Creation and redemption, then, presuppose the background of the Trinity. Behind all that God does is the ultimate reality of what God is—take away creation and God is still God, but take away the Trinity and God doesn’t exist. It is biblical to distinguish what God does from who he is, and the latter is always the ground for the former. When we consider salvation, we are led back to Jesus, to the incarnation, and into the Trinity. Our personal salvation ultimately flows out of the gracious choices of the infinite, triune God. We need to learn how to be so God-centered that we rejoice in his being, not just his works. God the Father reveals what he thinks about the Son—not just his Son’s works but his Son’s person—and this shows us the mutual joy, love, and delight that exists amongst the three persons of the Trinity. God speaks so that we can overhear his triune conversations, and we are to enter into them with rejoicing and wonder. We are not to use our imaginations to speculate and fill-out all the details of God’s inner life, since such a mode of existence is unfathomable. Yet, we are to rejoice in the perfect blessedness of God’s triune being.
The Eternal Life of These Three
God has eternally been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; there was never a time when he was not triune. The Son of God pre-existed his incarnation. It is not wrong to say that the person of Jesus Christ is pre-existent. The eternal Son of God took on humanity and a human name in time. Christ is the second person in the Trinity, and he was the Son before he came into the world. God did not become a Father when the Son became incarnate—the relation of Father and Son is eternal. Too often people think about God’s fatherhood in relationship to believers or all of creation; it is critical that we realize that God is primarily the Father of the Son. We do not know as much about the Spirit as we do the Son, but we know enough to identify him as the third person of the Trinity, and we experience his work in salvation and our Christian lives. God’s being is incomprehensible to us, but we are not to be agnostic about him—he has revealed himself to us so that we can know him truly. There was never a time when God became the Father of the Son, but for all of eternity the Father has begotten or generated the Son and breathed out the Spirit. It is essential to recognize that God exists for himself before he exists for us, and we need to adore him for who he is, not merely for what he has done for us. God doesn’t need anything outside of himself in order to find perfect satisfaction. He is perfectly fulfilled and satisfied in his internal love and glory sharing. He creates and redeems not because he lacks, but because he chooses to love and bless.
Lost in the Fullness of God
Evangelicals are gospel people, and we want to know how doctrines are related to the gospel. The central point of this book is that the Trinity is the gospel, since God saves us into a relationship with himself, the living, Triune God. Our view of the gospel is too small because our view of God is too small. Ephesians 1:3-14 is a 202 word sentence (in Greek) that praises God for all of his salvific blessings. This one massive sentence is shaped by a Trinitarian outline, since all gospel blessings flow from the Trinity. We start with our own experience (where else can finite minds begin?), but we need to see that our experience actually starts outside of ourselves, back in the nature of God. The gospel reorients us away from ourselves to God. When we realize that the gospel is God-sized, we will marvel in fresh ways at both God’s work and God’s being. Throughout history, evangelicals at their best have recognized and rejoiced in this truth. God calls us to be lost in his fullness, swimming in an ocean of being that is unfathomable. Both Wesley and Spurgeon were captivated by the biblical expression that Christ Jesus saves to the uttermost—the gospel is enormous. An individualistic gospel that is just about our lives is too small, but the biblical gospel of God’s grace is limitless.
So Great Salvation
The writer of Hebrews warns us not to neglect the great salvation we have been offered. Sadly, many evangelicals todays are reducing the gospel and not paying attention to its greatness. Salvation is a gift, and it is our job to explore it, understand it, and value it properly. The gospel suffers neglect when we focus on one feature at the expense of minimizing others, or when we simply fail to see how the parts fit into a coherent whole (both of these failures are plaguing evangelicalism). We live in a decadent culture where a real need is to integrate what is disintegrating. Some have reduced Christianity to nothing more than a series of doctrinal precepts, while others have made it all about religious duty and social action, while still others have made it about emotional responses and ecstatic experiences. The gospel can’t be reduced to our head, hands, and heart, even when these three things are taken together. The gospel is far more than the sum total of our lives—it is the divine life of God intersecting with us. God gives us himself in the gospel. His grace reflects his character and the gift of salvation is utterly amazing, because in grace God gives us nothing less than himself. God loves us so much he gives us not just forgiveness or blessings: he gives us his Son. The gospel isn’t about receiving various blessings from God, it is being given the blessing of God himself.
The Shape of the Gospel
When we talk about the “economy of salvation,” we are referring to the biblical concept that God has a plan and a well-ordered design that he is executing and accomplishing. The economy of salvation shows us who God is—his goal is self-revelation. In the gospel, God reveals himself through his Son. In the economy of salvation, we see God as he is, working as he wants, designing reality just as he likes it. At the center of the economy of salvation is the Father sending the Son and the Spirit to accomplish salvation. In the life of Jesus, we see that everything he did was by the will of the Father and in partnership with the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is present from the very beginning of Jesus’ life (the Spirit is responsible for the conception), and Jesus is filled and led by the Spirit during every moment of his earthly life. Even his resurrection, ascension, and ongoing work in the church age is done through the power of the Spirit. In the economy of salvation, the Son and Spirit have sometimes been compared to the Father’s hands: one God in united purpose, but distinct in persons. The Son, not the Spirit, becomes incarnate, and the Spirit indwells believers. There are many things that each person does that are unique to them, but all of their efforts are coordinated and accomplish the Father’s plan. It can be helpful to look at the differences between salvation being accomplished and salvation being applied. The Son leads in accomplishing, and the Spirit leads in applying. If the Son didn’t accomplish salvation there would be nothing to apply, but without the Spirit’s application none would be saved. (It is important to realize that every person of the Trinity is working in all of the Trinity’s works, but some members take the lead or are most eminently at work in specific instances.) The work of the Son and Spirit must be distinguished to be united—it is a twofold economy. The Father ordains our redemption, the Son accomplishes it, and the Spirit applies it. God the Father sends the Son and the Spirit to achieve his wise and gracious plan. Salvation is Trinitarian.
Behold What Manner of Love
The Father loves us but is not sent to us; he loves us by sending the Son and the Spirit, and they love by being sent. Nevertheless, the Father is with us through them. The Son did not become the Father’s Son in the incarnation, nor was his divine nature changed. He lived in his human nature as the Son. It is true that God became flesh, but we must see that it was God the Son who became flesh. If we stop with his deity without seeing his sonship, we miss his identity. The Father stands in eternal relation to the Son by generation, and to the Spirit by spiration. In salvation, these relationships are extended to people, with the Father sending the Son and the Spirit to fallen human beings. Thus in the gospel we have the triune God—the doctrine of the Trinity is not an abstract logical puzzle, but rather at the very heart of salvation! Because Christ is the Son, we can be united with him and adopted into sharing sonship with him. The Holy Spirit places us in the position of adoption and makes us sons. He continues to work in us to shape us into the image of the Son. The Son became a man so that men could become sons of God. Sharing in Christ’s sonship is a deep mystery—one where Creator and creature are never to be confused—and represents the deep things of God and the gospel. Our thinking and language must be guided by Scripture, but the reality of adoption and our intimacy with God are astonishing and can hardly be expressed. If this union is not seen as Trinitarian, confusion will be the only result. Adoption is the highest blessing of our salvation, and evangelicals at their best throughout history have affirmed this truth.
Into the Saving Life of Christ
It is a false dichotomy to assume that salvation is either Christ-centered or Trinity-centered. We can’t grow in our knowledge of Christ without seeing him in relation to the Father and the Spirit, and the same is true about understanding salvation. There is a sense in which Jesus lives in us, but the NT puts the emphasis on the Spirit being the one who indwells us—ignoring this reality while talking about “Jesus living in our hearts” is a problem in evangelicalism. Every saving blessing flows from our union with Christ, and it is the Father who sent the Son to become incarnate, and it is the Spirit who unites us with him. We fall into deficient soteriologies when we fail to see how salvation is necessarily Trinitarian. It is not just a matter of Jesus’ love for me today, or my ritual observances of sacraments—it is about the work of the Triune God. The life and ministry of Francis Schaeffer was radically overhauled when he came to realize the depths of the Trinitarian shape of the gospel. Schaeffer discovered that the gospel is necessary for daily life, and that it is irreducibly triune. In his Basic Bible Studies, Schaeffer set out biblical data for God’s triunity, and also explained how the entire Trinity is involved in our salvation and sanctification. Having a personal relationship with God means having a personal relationship with the Trinity. Schaeffer taught constantly that accepting Christ is sufficient for salvation, but accepting Christ leads us to Trinitarian realities and experiences for the rest of our time.
Anchored in Jehovah: Experience and Assurance
When we learn about the Trinity and our salvation, we do not begin to experience things we haven’t experienced before, we come to understand realities that have always been true. We will go on to new and fresh experiences in our faith as we walk with God, but evangelicals can reduce almost everything to the ambiguous category of “experience.” Our lives and experiences are too small to contain the living, infinite God. The greatest reality is the Trinity; the second is the economy of salvation that links us with the Triune God. Christians have tried to find assurance of salvation in multiple places: their feelings of faith, biblical propositions, God’s decrees, justification, etc. The question for all of these proposals, however, is whether we know they apply to us (e.g. “Do I believe strongly enough?” “Am I really justified?”). Assurance is difficult when we look inward, but when we look out to the Trinity and realize that each person in the Trinity is working and desiring to save, our assurance finds a proper home.
Hearing the Voice of God in Scripture
Evangelicals have always had a high doctrine of Scripture, and this doctrine can only be upheld when it is founded on the doctrine of the Trinity. Adolph Saphir in the 19th-Century wrote a very helpful work on the relationship between the living God and Scripture. He warned against confusing doctrine with God himself, and taught that God draws near to us through the instrument of his Word. Scripture is not a record of what God said in the past, it is his living voice today. The Father draws us to Christ through the Holy Spirit opening the Scriptures—we do not worship a book, but the Bible is instrumental in the Trinity’s work in us. Philip Mauro wrote the chapter “Life in the Word” for the Fundamentals. He pointed out that the Scripture is the unique source of life for dead sinners, as it is alive and teaches sinners how they can have life through the Son and by the Spirit. There are many hymns that celebrate the revelation of God in the Scriptures. The written Word reveals the incarnate Word. It is God’s voice, and the Spirit is necessary to benefit from it. Scripture comes from the Trinity, reveals the Trinity, and the Trinity is at work in and through it.
Praying with the Grain
Prayer is a Trinitarian exercise, even when we don’t understand it. The Father knows what we need, our mediator is the Son, and the Spirit guides us and prays for us. We pray to the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit. The grain of prayer is from the Holy Spirit, through the Son, to the Father. This is how prayer works structurally, and we are to grow in our self-conscious awareness of it. We pray in the name of Jesus because it is only in his identity and work that we can approach God. The way into the Father’s presence is opened by the Son, and the Spirit guides us into it. When we realize the Trinitarian shape of prayer, it can help us pray, since we understand what we are doing and how it is possible. Prayer is one part of our spiritual life, and our spiritual life is located in the Trinity. In prayer we address the Father because the Son has shared his sonship with us. We must not try to pray in our own strength or on the basis of our own merits. We must not pray on the basis of how we feel from one moment to the next. We must pray on the basis of God’s invitation and our status as adopted sons united with the Son by the Holy Spirit. There is an objective, Trinitarian backdrop for our prayers.
What Makes Christian Prayer Possible
In the Trinity, the Father stands in relation to his Son, and they communicate in the bond of the Spirit. As a result, the Father’s plans are made in communication with the Son. When we are united to the Son, we also are given access to address the Father. Unitarian concepts of God have no way of accounting for how it is that the infinitely wise God would listen to finite sinners, but in Trinitarianism it is based on our union with the Son. We are to pray to the Father, in the name of the Son, through the power of the Spirit. The NT does record a few prayers to Jesus, and it isn’t wrong to address the Spirit as a divine person, but the grain is to the Father, in Christ, by the Spirit. Even if we are unaware of it, there is an order of mediation built into prayer. The Spirit works in us to glorify the Son and direct attention to him. C. S. Lewis argued that the Trinity is essential and practical for prayer. He shows that it is entirely plausible that we could not fully comprehend God’s triunity, without being forced to believe it is contradictory. We may be able to understand why we can’t fully understand it, but we must move to entering into the threefold life of God. Lewis points out that we pray to God, as God is inside of us prompting us, and God is the bridge to himself—this only makes sense given the Trinity. Whenever we pray the three persons of the Trinity are with us. Lewis rejects modalism, and spends significant space discussing the eternal generation of the Son, anchoring the economy of salvation in God’s triune nature. We need to enter into the life of the Trinity, and we do so by virtue of our union with the Son. When we share the gospel we must tell it in its Trinitarian form—mere Christianity is Trinitarian. In the end we experience the glory and delight of God’s inner life. We must not be content to splash in the shallow end—we are called into the Trinitarian depths of God.
Summary by Steve West
On the Trinity
About the Author
Athanasius (296-373) is most notable spending his theological career defending orthodoxy from Arianism. Being exiled five times during the Arian controversy, Athanasius became Athanasius contra mundum, able to withstand the continuous onslaught of politicians and fellow bishops. Born around the city of Alexandria to a family with some wealth, he received a secular education in the classics as well as in Christianity under, possibly, Peter of Alexandria and Alexander of Alexandria. Seeing persecution from the Roman government first-hand, Athanasius’ faith was much more than another philosophy, though his grasp of Platonism would influence his writings and interpretation of Scripture. Additionally, Athanasius spent considerable time with Antony, the illiterate desert monk. Antony guided Athanasius’ early spiritual formation and was the safe-haven for the exiled bishop on numerous occasions.
Athanasius writes to Serapion to address the heretical group, the Tropici, who deny the deity of the Holy Spirit by stating He is a created being subordinate to the Father and Son. Athanasius compares the group to the Arians who considered the Son to be a created being subordinate to the Father. Although Athanasius’ audience has rejected the Arians, they have embraced the Tropici. He compares the two groups as both blaspheming the Godhead with their denials.
The prooftext used by the Tropici is in Amos where God says, “I am He that establish thunder and create spirit and declare unto men His Christ, that makes dawn and mist, that ascends to the high places of the earth” (Amos 4:13). Athanasius points out the text simply has ‘spirit’ without the article or with any qualifier. Therefore, the passage could be interpreted in an orthodox sense, but they choose to interpret it as ‘Holy Spirit’ because either “out of love of contention or because [they] have been poisoned by the Arian serpent’s sting” (1.3). Athanasius counters their ‘evidence’ by stating nowhere else in Scripture is the Holy Spirit simply referred to as ‘spirit.’ When the Holy Spirit is referenced, Scripture includes ‘Holy’, ‘of God’, or some other qualifier which denotes Deity.
Athanasius then continues his argument against the Tropici noting how his audience link the Holy Spirit with the Son, yet still call the Holy Spirit a creature while maintaining the Son’s Divinity. They commit a logical fallacy, because how could the Holy Spirit and Son be linked and still separate substances? In addition, the passage in Amos refers to God creating man’s spirit not the Holy Spirit, and, as Athanasius suggests, it alludes to the Incarnate Word re-creating the spirit in man as promised in Ezekiel. Taking the allegory further, Athanasius interprets the thunder to mean the disciples, James and John who are ‘sons of thunder’. Thus, rather than pointing to the Holy Spirit as a created being, the passage is Messianic and declares the new spirit and unshakable law found in Christ.
Further evidence of the Holy Spirit’s divinity is found in how Jesus spoke of Him. When speaking of angels, He says ‘the angels’ in the plural, but when giving the Holy Spirit, He says ‘the Holy Spirit.’ He promises “the Holy Spirit”, not an angel, who is “the Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father” (John 15:26).
Moses made the same distinction when the Lord promised to send an angel before the people into the Promised Land. Moses did not want an angelic creature, but God Himself to go with the people. Because God granted Moses his request, Isaiah wrote it was God’s Spirit who led the people. If the prophets acknowledged the link between the Father and the Spirit, then the Tropici should also. Athanasius sums up the orthodox position as this:
For the holy and blessed Triad is indivisible and one in itself. When mention is made of the Father, there is included also his Word, and the Spirit who is in the Son. If the Son is named, the Father is in the Son, and the Spirit is not outside the Word. For there is from the Father one grace which is fulfilled through the Son in the Holy Spirit; and there is one divine nature, and one God ‘who is over all and through all and in all’.
Although Athanasius feels he has sufficiently countered the heretical claim, he continues to refute their arguments by moving on to another of their statements. The Tropici argue if the Holy Spirit is not a creature nor an angel, then He would also be a son which would make Him a brother with the Word. But, if He is the Word’s brother, then Jesus could not be ‘the only begotten Son’. Thus, the Holy Spirit must be creature.
Athanasius refutes this claim by reminding the heretics God is not like man. The nature of humans is that a son grows to be a father and may have many brothers. They are many parts of a race of multitudes. However, God is forever One, and His nature is undivided. The Father is not divided to make the Son, but rather both eternally exist as One Godhead who is Father “in the strict sense, and the Son a son in the strict sense” (23). Scripture calls the Father, ‘Father’, the Son, ‘Son of the Father’, and the Spirit, ‘Spirit of the Son.’ Their titles denote their Trinity in Unity which leads to Athanasius’ next point that the Holy Spirit could not be ranked with the Triad if He were a creature. The Triad is one God, not a compilation of beings. Just as the Arians could not understand the indivisible Triad by making the Son a creature, the Tropici have done the same with the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, the fault of the Tropici and Arians is that they want to know ‘how He is’, when Christians are only told to believe ‘that He is.’
Synthesizing excerpts of John, Paul, and a line from the deuterocanonical book, Baruch, Athanasius uses water and light to illustrate the Oneness and diversity of the Triad. The river of God is full of water, and the Son is called the fountain. Christians are called to drink of the Spirit who is the same water and fountain. Similarly, the Father is light and, as Paul writes, the Son is the radiance of the light. The Spirit is the same Spirit of the Son in whom Christians receive wisdom and revelation by enlightened hearts. Christians cannot separate the Father, Son, and Spirit any more than someone could separate light, radiance, and illumination, or wisdom from the wise.
Even further, Athanasius sees their heresy as more than academics. By calling the Spirit a creature, they deny Holy Spirit’s ability to save. Just as only the spirit of man knows the things which are in him, so only the Holy Spirit knows the things in God. He is able to sanctify by the nature of His Divinity. If He is another creature, then He would be subject to creation and sanctification just like all other creations. Instead He is the seal of Christ, which has the form of Christ, placing a seal on Christians for salvation. And, through this seal, Christians are said to be “partakers of God.” Just as 1 Corinthians 6:19 states, “Know ye not that ye are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” Or, as John states in 1 John 4:13, “Hereby we know that we abide in God and He in us, because He hath given us of His Spirit.” How could Christians partake of the Divine nature if the Divine nature did not abide in them through the Holy Spirit?
Athanasius’ second letter is in response to his audience who desire an abridged version of his arguments against the Arians and the Tropici. The second epistle focuses on the Arians while the third focuses on the Tropici. The Arians are like the Sadducees who think “there is nothing greater or beyond themselves”, and “nothing can be unless they understand it” (47). They countered the inspired Scriptures with their human reason which created their corruptible opinions. Athanasius posits his counter-argument as, “If God is Fountain and Light and Father, it is not lawful to say that the fountain is dry, or that the light has no ray, or that God has no Word; lest God be without wisdom, reason, or brightness. As, therefore, the Father is eternal, the Son also must be eternal” (47).
He continues by showing how the Scriptures give the same divine attributes to the Father and the Son. The Psalms declare, “The heavens declare the glory of God”, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”, and the “sea saw and fled.” The Creation serves the Creator, and the Gospels show how Creation bowed to Jesus’ control. Also, all creatures demonstrate their subjection to change: some angels fell from their ranks in heaven, Adam transgressed, and nature can be altered. But contrary to heaven and earth which will perish, Paul declares in Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, yea and forever!” (50).
The Council of Nicaea recognized the heresy of the Arians and confessed the Son is one in essence with the Father. That essence is incorruptible, incapable of alteration, eternal, and omnipotent. Thus, the orthodox faith is in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit just as Jesus told His disciples to ‘make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’
The primary Scriptural argument from the Arians is in Proverbs 8 where Wisdom, who is interpreted to be synonymous with Christ, is said to be ‘created’ as the first work. Athanasius argues that when Wisdom is said to be created, it refers to the Incarnation event comparing it to John 1 in which “the Word was with God and was God”, but later “the Word was made flesh.” The second main argument is when Jesus states that not even the Son knows when the hour of the end will come. Just as Proverbs spoke of the Son as a man, so too does Jesus speak as a man who does not know the hour.
Athanasius begins the third epistle by defending his choice to use the second letter to argue against the Arians instead of the Tropici. He draws attention to the similarities of the two heresies by noting John 16 where Jesus states the Spirit “shall not speak from Himself, but what things soever He shall hear, these shall He speak.” Jesus then breathed on the disciples saying “receive the Holy Spirit” which demonstrates the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son just as the Son proceeds from the Father—all three having the same substance of Divinity. When the Arians called the Son a creature, they broke the chain of Divinity, just as the Tropici break the chain by calling the Spirit a creature. The Triad is one in substance and authority over all creations, and therefore the Son nor Spirit could be a creature. They would have been made from nothing in the same manner as the rest of Creation, but instead they are eternal with the Father having the same substance as the Father. Just as the Son cannot be a creature because He is begotten by the Father, so too the Spirit cannot be a creature because He is from God as well.
The Scriptures testify to the divine attributes of the Spirit further by stating, “The Spirit of the Lord hath filled the world” (Wisdom 1:7), or “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?” (Psalm 139:7). The Spirit cannot be contained in any particular area, because he shares in omnipresence with the Father and Son. Likewise, just as all things were made by and through the Son, all things maintain their living through the Spirit. Psalm 103 states “Thou shalt take away their spirit, and they shall die and return to their dust. Thou shalt put forth they Spirit, and they shall be created, and thou shalt renew the face of the earth.” Therefore, in the acts of creation, the Spirit demonstrates His Divinity. Athanasius writes, “The Father creates all things through the Word in the Spirit; for where the Word is, there is the Spirit also, and the things which are created through the Word have their vital strength out of the Spirit from the Word” (64). The Psalms, again, aid Athanasius’ argument as Psalm 32 declares, “By the Word of the Lord the heavens were established, and by the Spirit of His mouth is all their power.” Even the grace given by the Father is shared and experienced through the Father, Son and Spirit as seen in Paul’s prayer for the Corinthians. 2 Corinthians 13:14 states, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” When Christians join with the Holy Spirit, they experience the grace of the Word which is the love of the Father.
In this last, and shortest, epistle, Athanasius reiterates the ceaseless arguments from the Tropici that have already been proven false. Instead of offering redundant proofs, Athanasius decides to answer their questions with questions of his own, just as Jesus did to the Pharisees with their malicious questioning.
First Athanasius questions their adherence to the Scriptures. If they judge their beliefs in light of Scripture, then Athanasius has already won by his previous letters. If they deny the truth of Scripture, then they should no longer call themselves Christians. But if they do share in Christian belief of the validity of the Scriptures, then they should answer from Scripture.
They should consider how Isaiah speaks of the Spirit of God. If the Spirit is a separate creature from the Word, and all things were made by the Word, and “Thou shalt send forth they Spirit and they shall be created” (Psalm 104), then God created the world through two persons, both the Word and Spirit. If so, how can Paul say “One God…of whom are all things, and one Lord through whom are all things” (1 Corinthians 8:6)?
They should consider how the Son is called the “image of the invisible Father,” (Colossians 1:15) and the Spirit is an image of the Son in that the Father sends the Spirit in the name of the Son, just as the Son is sent in the name of the Father. If the Spirit follows the Son as the Son follows the Father, then the Father is a grandfather, if the Spirit is a creature. But the Holy Spirit is never called ‘Son’, only ‘Holy Spirit’ and ‘Spirit of God.’ Rather the Son is “an offspring proper to the essence and nature of the Father,” (71) and the Spirit is “of God and is in God” not “alien to the nature of the Son nor to the Godhead of the Father” (71). He is not outside the Son. If Christians have the Son, they have the Holy Spirit, because it is through the Holy Spirit Christians receive the ‘Spirit of sonship’ and ‘Power of God and the Wisdom of God.’
Athanasius concludes by offering a warning that Christians should retain the proper names for the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Spirit, without attempting to add or alter titles. The Holy Trinity is incapable of alteration and is known in one Godhead. There is one faith and one baptism given by one Godhead which is in Trinity.
Summary by Justin Powell
On the Holy Spirit is the 42nd Volume in the Popular Patristics Series. It is a classic text written by St. Basil the Great (330-379), generated to defend the full deity of the Holy Spirit. Basil presents evidence from Scripture and tradition to support the deity of the Holy Spirit, and he answers objections against the doctrine.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 On the necessity of the inquiry into the most minute matters in theology
Chapter 2 On the origin of the heretics’ examination of words
Chapter 3 That the logic-chopping with words is from pagan wisdom
Chapter 4 That the Scriptures do not observe this use of words
Chapter 5 That “through whom” is said of the Father and “from whom” of the Son and the Spirit
Chapter 6 A reply to those who declare that the Son is not with the Father, but after the Father, in whom there is equality in glory and honor
Chapter 7 Against those who say that “through whom” and not “with whom” is fittingly predicated of the Son
Chapter 8 On the manifold meaning of “through whom,” on the sense in which “with whom” is better, and on the way in which the Son takes a command and is sent
Chapter 9 Distinct thoughts on the Holy Spirit following the teaching of the Scriptures
Chapter 10 Against those who say that the Holy Spirit must not rank with the Father and the Son
Chapter 11 That those who deny the Spirit are transgressors
Chapter 12 Against those who say that baptism in the Lord is sufficient even by itself
Chapter 13 A rendering of the reason why the angels are associated with the Father and the Son by Paul
Chapter 14 The objection that some were baptized into Moses and believed in him; and the reply to this, in which is also a consideration of types
Chapter 15 A reply to their objection that we are baptized also into water, and a treatment of baptism along the way
Chapter 16 That the Holy Spirit is indivisible from the Father and the Son, in every thought, in the creation of intellectual substances, in the economy on behalf of men, and in the awaited judgment
Chapter 17 Against those who say that the Holy Spirit is to be numbered not with the Father and the Son, but under them; and in this exposition there is also a general summary of the faith concerning the pious way of numbering [one] with [another]
Chapter 18 How, in confessing three persons, we maintain the pious dogma of the monarchy; and along the way, a refutation of those who assert that the Spirit is sub-numerated
Chapter 19 Against those who say that the Spirit is not glorified
Chapter 20 Against those who say that the Spirit is neither in the rank of a slave nor in that of a master, but in that of free men
Chapter 21 Witness from the Scriptures that the Spirit is called Lord
Chapter 22 A proof of the Spirit’s communion in nature from the fact that like the Father and the Son, he is beyond comprehension
Chapter 23 That to recount the Spirit’s properties is to glorify him
Chapter 24 A refutation of the absurd position of those who do not glorify the Spirit from the additional fact that some creatures are glorified
Chapter 25 That Scripture uses the word “in” in place of “with” and that “and” has the same force as “with”
Chapter 26 That “in” is spoken of the Spirit in as many was as “and” is found
Chapter 27 Whence the word “with” began and what sort of meaning it has, and also a treatment of the non-scriptural customs of the Church
Chapter 28 That the Scripture speaks of men as ruling with Christ, but our opponents do not grant the same things of the Spirit
Chapter 29 An enumeration of the illustrious men of the Church who used the word “with” in their writings
Chapter 30 Explanation of the present state of the churches
Dear Amphilochius, it is very important to try to discover truth and to be precise with all of our words about God—as you yourself try to do. Teaching is required for knowledge and wisdom, and teaching requires words; words are made up of syllables, so teaching requires paying attention to the smallest parts of language. “Yes” and “no” are very small words that make enormous differences, and this teaches us to be meticulous with all theological words. Nevertheless, heretics and pagans can resort to logic-chopping about words which leads to great error. Some try to use biblical language to demonstrate that all things are from the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit, with the implication that the three persons are of different natures. Their position is destroyed not only by logic but also by Romans 11:36, which applies all the different prepositions to the Father. In fact, the Bible contains numerous texts where “from,” “through,” and “in” are applied to all three of the persons of the Trinity: this reality destroys the argument that the different words indicate different natures.
Some insist that the Son comes after the Father and is subordinate to him, but the Son has always existed with the Father from the very beginning. The Scriptures reveal that Christ is the very glory and full image of God. Whoever has seen the Son has seen the Father, and all are to honor the Son as they do the Father. The Father and Son share glory, and they are both to be praised together in doxology. Christ is described in many different ways (e.g. shepherd, door, rock, etc.), and these words indicate his functions rather than his nature. Christ serves us and the Father, but as a voluntary act of love, not as a forced slave. He is not a slave-like instrument, but the one who brings about all of the Father’s creative will. Unless the Son is infinite in knowledge and perfection at the beginning, he will never be so, since infinity cannot be reached by accumulation and growth.
The Holy Spirit is a pure, infinite, true, righteous, and immaterial being. The Holy Spirit communes with our spirits, giving us every grace and leading us into every blessing. Some say that the Spirit is not of the same rank as the Father and Son, but their names are joined together in Matthew 28:19. Faith and baptism go together, and we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To reject this faith is apostasy. Denying the Spirit is a denial of Christ and the Father. Angels will be witnesses on the Day of Judgment, but they are not life-givers like the Spirit. There is a sense in which the old covenant Israelites were baptized into Moses and drank from the rock of Christ, but these were types and shadows, pointing forward. When the Spirit is mentioned in baptism, it is not a type pointing forward, but rather the full reality. The two baptisms are not to be compared as equals. God taught us by easy object lessons at first, so that he could lead us into the deeper mysteries in due time.
The water in baptism symbolizes cleansing, and our submersion symbolizes burial and death (all in union with Christ). Some cavil by saying that the water’s role does not make it divine, so the Spirit doesn’t need to be divine either, but this is manifestly folly. The Spirit is the one who really removes sin and who causes the fruit of holiness to be produced. Death is symbolized by the water, but life is given by the Spirit. John the Baptist baptized with water, but Christ baptized in the Holy Spirit. It is through the Spirit that we are united with Christ, adopted by the Father, and prepared for eternal glory.
The Holy Spirit is indivisible from the Father and the Son. Acts indicates that lying to the Spirit is lying to God. God’s Spirit distributes spiritual gifts to the church. There is perfect harmony in the Trinity. Even the good angels are only holy because the Spirit communicates holiness to them. No creature can see the Father apart from the agency of the Spirit, and it is the Spirit who leads them to praise and glorify the Father. Jesus said that he cast out demons by the Spirit of God. Jesus breathed on his disciples and told them to receive the Spirit, and the Spirit is foundational in the establishment of the church and for its continued existence and operation. Those who grieve the Spirit will be cut off, and those who sow to please him receive eternal life.
Some people are asserting that the Spirit is numbered under the Father and the Son, which means that he is inferior. This is an incredibly illogical assertion. Not only is there no basis for it in reason, it would also make the Son inferior to the Father. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all listed together, without the numbers of “one, two, three” assigned to each member. When we count the persons of the Trinity, we are not dividing the substance or ranking them. There is only one God; there is no second. The Spirit shares in the glory of the Godhead. Everyone who blasphemes the Spirit cannot be forgiven. Holiness is part of the Spirit’s essential nature, so he is not made holy but he makes others holy. The Spirit is given many glorious names and titles, showing his worth and nature. His works are so great and numerous that they cannot be counted. It is impossible to ascribe too much glory or honor to the Spirit. God’s Spirit can be grieved, resisted, and honored. He fully comprehends the mind of God. This means that he is not a mere slave of the Father, but equal to him. If he is created than he is a slave to God, but if he is uncreated he must share in God’s kingship over all things. The Spirit is expressly called “Lord” in the Scriptures, which leaves no doubt about his identity and nature.
Just like the Father and the Son, the Spirit is beyond comprehension. Yet we are given the ability to recognize and receive him. He is infinite and worthy of infinite honor. The Spirit co-exists with the Father and Son, and he is omnipresent (unlike the angels and all other created things). It is true that human beings are given glory, as are the sun and the moon, and yet some want to forbid any glory being given to the Spirit. The glory given to created things differs from the glory of God, and the Spirit is connected with the latter. Creation lives but it is the Spirit who gives life; creation is good but only because it shares in the goodness of the Spirit.
Some hopelessly suggest that we are not commanded to give glory to the Spirit with the Father and Son, but rather we are to give glory to God in the Spirit. This linguistic argument fails to support their distinction. We find all three persons of the Trinity joined by different conjunctions in different places. “And” and “with” can communicate the same reality (e.g. “Paul and Timothy went…” is the same as “Paul went with Timothy…”). Every believer is baptized in the Spirit; every part of the church is in him. The Spirit is the place where people are made holy. The Spirit exists in us, communicating grace. In worship, the Spirit cannot be separated from the Father and Son—we worship in the Spirit.
We must not neglect all of the traditions and teachings of the church, even those that are not explicitly mentioned in Scripture. There are many mysteries that the church instructs us about that are not found directly in the Bible. Both the Scriptures and our church traditions ascribe proper glory to the Holy Spirit. If even people are God’s co-workers and heirs, why should the Spirit be excluded from participation in God? It is impossible for us to honor the Holy Spirit as much as he deserves. Our ancient fathers in theology interchanged conjunctions and prepositions when it came to ascribing glory to God and the Holy Spirit—they did not engage in linguistic hair-splitting the way some do today. We should honor these traditions and receive them. The fathers worshipped the Spirit, as is the custom of people all over the world. The church is being tossed like a ship at sea, and is being attacked by many foes. Such is the tumult that is hard to hear the voice of wisdom, and it is very difficult to maintain a virtuous disposition. There is much more to learn and say, but for now this will have to suffice.
Summary by Steve West
The Council of Constantinople
Those in the line of Arius placed the Father above all other things in terms of being, whereas orthodoxy placed the triad of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together as above all things. Basil the Great wrote a treatise entitled On the Holy Spirit that defended the full deity of the Spirit. Basil referred to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as having the same ousia (substance), but being three in hypostasis (person). In earlier times, ousia and hypostasis had been used as synonyms, so this was an important development in vocabulary. God is one in essence, but three in terms of persons. Gregory of Nyssa also used the distinction between substance and person—God is divided in persons but without separation in essence. All three persons are to be worshiped. Gregory of Nazianzus guarded against subordinationism by insisting that the Son and the Spirit depended on the Father in terms of personhood, but not for their essential nature, which was identical deity. The Son added human nature to his full deity in the incarnation, but at no time was he less than fully God. Gregory argued that the Spirit had the same essence as the Father and Son, but the unique aspect of his personhood was his procession in the Godhead. These three Cappadocian fathers all agreed that the Holy Spirit was the third person of the Trinity, and that every person in the Trinity was identical in ousia.
The exact origin and time of composition of the Creed of Constantinople (A.D. 381) is debated. It is sometimes considered a mere expansion of the Nicene Creed, but this is an oversimplification. The major addition to the Creed of Constantinople is in its treatment of the Holy Spirit. It identifies the Spirit as worthy of worship, uniting him with the nature of God. The Spirit is said to proceed from the Father, and he cooperates and works with the Father and Son. Each person of the Trinity is the whole of God. The divine being is shared by the three persons (consubstantiality), and the three persons mutually contain one another. There is an irreversible taxonomy of the persons: the Father generates the Son and the Spirit proceeds. In the future, the issue of the Spirit’s procession would play a role in the division of the church into East and West.
Augustine’s writings on the Trinity have been highly influential, and he is indebted to Tertullian. He identifies God as existing in three unchangeable persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and notes that they are co-eternal and equal in nature. Crucially, the Son is of the same substance as the Father. Because the persons cannot be separated, neither can their works, even though their works can be distinguished. Augustine maintains that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. They all have an identical essence, but differ in whether they send or are sent, beget or are begot, proceed or emit. Augustine searched for triads in creation that might hint at the Trinity, and he found some imperfect analogies. He envisioned the Spirit existing as the love between the Father and Son. His teaching on the unity of essence but difference in relations was clear. The persons were united and their works inseparable.
East and West: The Filioque Controversy
East and West: The Paths Diverge
A massive fissure split the church into East and West in 1054 A.D. There were many complicated issues involved, but one flash-point was the addition of the filioque clause to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. The original text had stated that the Spirit proceeds from the Father, but the inserted clause added the idea that the Spirit also proceeded from the Son. There was no debate that the Spirit proceeded from the Father, but Western theologians believed that several verses in the Gospel of John also taught that the Spirit proceeded from the Son. Augustine had taught that the Spirit proceeds from the shared love of both the Father and Son. Some Eastern theologians believed that the idea that the Spirit proceeded from both Father and Son compromised the distinction in person between Father and Son. More importantly, many thought this level of theologizing was too speculative about the inner-reality of the Godhead. Western theologians have argued that the economic Trinity functions in accordance with the ontological Trinity, so that the roles of the three persons teach us about God’s metaphysical nature. Today, many theologians find fault with both Western and Eastern arguments about the filiqoue clause (and, of course, there are many defenders of both positions as well). The Spirit is eternally emitted as the Son is eternally generated, and the Father is monarchical.
Anselm argued that the roles of the three persons of the Trinity were not arbitrary: the Father or Spirit could not become incarnate. The persons cannot be identical with each other in relation, although they are one in essence. Anselm also maintained the importance of analogy: begetting and procession in God are not identical to such things in creation. Richard of St. Victor followed Augustine by arguing that God is one and he is love, but love requires expression in a personal context. To be love and fully content, God must exist in a community of persons. Perfect love requires equality and trinity. Aquinas believed that natural reason could not teach us about the Trinity—this was the domain of revelation. God’s divine simplicity requires oneness in essence, but the Scriptures distinguish three persons who share that essence. Aquinas paid careful attention to the relations of the persons. In the East, some theologians were highlighting the ineffability of God and warning about undue speculation. Nevertheless, they could agree that the Bible taught clearly that there was one God in three persons. John of Damascus articulated the doctrine of perichoresis, i.e. the mutual indwelling of the three persons. Photius argued against the filoque clause by maintaining that the properties of the persons were not interchangeable, so the Spirit could not proceed from both the Father and the Son without confusing the Son and Father together. Amongst other arguments, Photius also insisted that the sending of the Spirit in time was irrelevant for eternal procession from the Son. Some theologians continued to struggle between formulations that were modalistic and formulations that were subordinationist.
For John Calvin, the doctrine of the Trinity was at the center of his theology. Rather than engaging in abstruse philosophical speculation, Calvin focused on biblical exegesis. The Institutes shows his concern with the full deity of both the Son and Spirit. He insisted that each person in the Trinity was fully and eternally God. The Son and Spirit are autotheos, “God of himself,” and the only distinctions are in terms of personal relations, not essence. There is a taxonomy and order in the persons, but they are identical in substance. The Father is the principal beginning, and the Son is eternally generated. Calvin agreed with the filioque clause. Each person mutually indwells the others, and the wholeness of God is in each one. Calvin believed that only Scripture was authoritative, but he did note the continuity between his thought and the thought of the Fathers.
Rahner, Moltmann, and Pannenberg
After the Enlightenment, reflection on the Trinity no longer occupied a place of prominence in theology. Karl Barth’s work, however, recaptured a dominant interest in the Trinity. Early on, Barth insisted that Scripture is required for the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Trinity was central to Barth’s theology of God. There is only one God, and the persons are not interchangeable. Although some have charged Barth with being a unipersonal modalist, this is not accurate. Like Augustine, Barth maintains that the word “person” is not univocal when used of God and creatures. God is three in one way and one in another. Barth worked hard to avoid both modalism and tritheism. He held to perichoresis. Barth is right that there are not three personal centers of self-consciousness—which would be tritheism—but in later writings he was too reticent about the use of the word “person” as an accurate description of what God’s threeness consists of. He held to both the economic and ontological Trinity. Like Augustine, Barth saw the Spirit as the bond of love between Father and Son. Barth consistently opposed modalism, although some of his statements seem to lead in that direction.
Karl Rahner set forth the very important argument that the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and vice versa. The Trinity is not an abstract doctrine, but vital for the accomplishment of salvation. Our experience of the Spirit and Son teach us about the Trinity itself. Rahner fought against tritheism more than modalism; as a result he was uncomfortable with the word “person,” but his alternatives were not more accurate. God, in salvation, reveals himself as triune. Moltmann placed the Trinity at the center of his theology of the cross. At the cross the distinction between Father and Son is evident. In his reflections on love and world history, Moltmann makes God dependent, in some ways, on the world; he is led into panentheism. God is a changing God, and his Trinitarian relationships are not subject to taxonomy. Each person is a separate subject, so the Trinity is a fellowship of three subjects. God’s power is the power of love. Wolfhart Pannenberg engages in far less speculation than Moltmann. He looks to history and argues that Jesus’ deity is established by the resurrection. Instead of philosophizing, we need to look at how God has revealed himself in Christ. The Son is distinct from the Father, and the Father would not be the Father (nor the Son be the Son) without each other. There is a marked mutuality in relations. The Spirit reveals his own deity by teaching us to call the Son “Lord.” Each person is mutually dependent, but in differing ways. The Father’s monarchy exists through the Son and Spirit. In Pannenberg’s thought, the Father is not primary—all three persons are primary. His thought is tritheistic at many points, even though he tries to assert the oneness of God.
Returning East: Bulgakov, Lossky, and Staniloae
Thomas F. Torrance
In the 20th Century, Eastern theologians began to draw on more Western insights. Sergius Bulgakov approached the Trinity from the perspective of interpersonal relations. Rather than beginning with God’s revelation down to us, Bulgakov moved from human experience to God. He eschews tritheism, positing the Trinity as an eternal movement of love and perichoresis. Bulgakov thought that a lot of theologizing had relied too much on Aristotelian categories (like substance), rather than biblical ones like Glory and Wisdom. God’s ousia is Wisdom and Glory. The hypostases in God are not his ousia. God’s ousia belongs equally to all three persons, but in unique ways. Bulgakov’s view of God’s relation to the world is panentheistic. Human beings as the image bearers of God are compatible with him, thus making the incarnation possible. Vladimir Lossky strongly criticized Bulgakov, arguing that Bulgakov wrongly posited God as a person in three hypostases. Lossky’s theology was apophatic—he believed we could not know God in his essence, and that God transcended his revelation. In the Trinity, essence and persons are equally ultimate. We cannot access God’s essence or hypostases now, yet we can by the experience of deification. God can put his energies in us. Christ’s work brings about the deification of human nature, and it is the Spirit who achieves this through inward grace. Like all other Eastern theologians, Lossky upheld the monarchy of the Father. Lossky’s doctrine of the divine essence falls outside of historical orthodoxy. Dumitru Staniloae believed that apophatic theology should be rational and could lead to deeper understandings of God through negations. God infinitely transcends his attributes. The intra-Trinitarian love of God is essential for salvation. God exists in perichoretic relations, where each of the three persons are mutually open in love.
It is difficult to exaggerate the influence of Thomas F. Torrance’s theologizing about the Trinity. He placed the doctrine of the Trinity at the heart of our knowledge of God and salvation. We cannot know God apart from his revelation and saving work. Christ is essential for the knowledge of God, and anything short of a Trinitarian knowledge of God is unbiblical. Worship and the doctrine of the Trinity belong together. There is an intrinsic unity of the divine persons, and the three persons are the one God. Torrance thinks that Rahner’s axiom about the economic and immanent Trinity is acceptable if it is taken as an indicator of who God is in himself. He believes that the NT witness that Christ is of the same substance as the Father is critical. God is one being in three persons, and the three persons are one being—this unity in plurality and plurality in unity must not be separated. Perichoresis entails that every person is fully all of God. Although no work is above criticism, Torrance’s work is superb.
The Trinity and Incarnation
The Trinity, Worship, and Prayer
Both Western and Eastern approaches to the Trinity have created some problematic understandings and doctrinal formulations. It is necessary that we recognize that unity and plurality are equally ultimate in God. The three persons are the same substance, they indwell each other, they are irreducibly different, and there is a taxonomy in their relationships with the Father at the head. Although many scholars think that monogenes should be translated as “one and only,” a good case can be made for the older rendering of “begotten.” Neither the Son nor the Spirit are subordinate in their essence, but the begetting and proceeding applies to their personal relations. Only the Son could become incarnate, because it is the nature of the relationship of Father and Son that the Father sends and the Son goes. The functions of the economic Trinity in salvation do teach us about their ontology and taxonomy. The Son submits to the Father, but not in a servile way as an inferior. Perichoresis and the full deity of the Son rule out an improper subordinationism. The Son submits eternally to the Father; this is part of their relationship, but it is not predicated on differing natures. Every member of the Trinity is involved in all of their works through mutual indwelling, but each person also plays unique roles.
Unfortunately, the Trinity has often been a marginalized study in theology, rather than being at the center of our understanding of God. Since worship is God-centered, it must be Trinitarian. Many Christian hymns and songs could be sung by Jews or Muslims—many others are binitarian, but not Trinitarian. We can only know God as he reveals himself to us, and he has revealed himself as triune. As a result our worship must be Trinitarian: from the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit. We praise God for salvation, and salvation is accomplished by the Trinity. We have a relationship with God mediated by the Son, and we are to adore and honor one God in three persons, and the three in one. The perichoretic relations of the three persons in unity needs to be recognized, and our worship must be formulated in ways that go beyond monadic monotheism or generic theism. There is a great need for more explicitly Trinitarian thinking, prayer, teaching, and worship.
The Trinity, Creation, and Missions
The Trinity and Persons
In creation, the triune God makes a diverse and fertile world, and he creates people in his image. The world God makes contains great variety in ordered unity. The personal nature of human beings and the world of diversity in unity reflects God. Although the OT does not develop the doctrine of the Trinity, when OT texts are read with a canonical hermeneutic, it is clear that certain OT passages are Trinitarian; it is essential to read texts in light of the whole Bible. What is hinted at in the OT is made explicit in the NT. God’s full image is in the Son, and a weaker image is reflected in creation. All things are for the glory of the Trinity, and creation and redemption are inextricably joined together. Although there are no trinities in the created world, there are features of the world that reflect God’s nature and being. The created order reflects the Creator, especially in its unity in diversity and diversity in unity. Islam has unity in God but no diversity, whereas other religions and postmodern philosophy have scattered diversity outside of any coherent unifying reality. Postmodern thinking has led to incoherence and differences that are so absolutized they rule out truth, communication, and objective morality—nothing can hold the diversity together, and nothing can allow for evaluations and standards to be universal. Only the Holy Trinity and his personal revelation of love and salvation can benefit the human race and make sense of the world.
Although it is difficult to define exactly what a person is, personhood is essential for love. We are persons created in the image of God, and since God is transcendent and incomprehensible, we will never be able to fully know ourselves. The Son of God perfectly reveals what it is like to be a divine person. The incarnation and relationship between Father and Son is our starting point for understanding the Trinity’s personal relations. We don’t start with the oneness of God and proceed to the three persons, nor with the three and proceed to the oneness, as if the unity or plurality were more important. Our ultimate hope in salvation is union with Christ. We are created to live in relationship with God. Union with the incarnate Christ, and being indwelt by the Spirit are momentous realities. These present realities await a future glorious consummation. The love of God is essential for all of our experience: it reveals God’s nature and also teaches us how to live and love in response to him.
Summary by Steve West
About the Author
Stephen R. Holmes (PhD, King’s College London) is senior lecturer in systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.
In this book, Holmes surveys the doctrine of the Trinity as it has developed throughout church history. He traces the evidence to show that there has been great continuity throughout the centuries with the classical doctrine of the Trinity, and that the reformulations of the last century depart from this widely shared consensus of doctrinal orthodoxy.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 “The history that God is”: Studying the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Twenty-First Century
Chapter 2 “In your light, we see light”: The Trinity in the Bible
Chapter 3 “Always with him are his Word and Wisdom”: Early Patristic Developments in the Doctrine of the Trinity
Chapter 4 “From the ousia of the Father”: The Fourth-Century Debates 1
Chapter 5 “The Godhead is by nature simple”: The Fourth-Century Debates 2
Chapter 6 “Understood by a few saints and holy people”: The West and Augustine
Chapter 7 “Distinction in the persons but unity in the nature”: The Medieval Doctrine of the Trinity
Chapter 8 “By the testimonies of the Scriptures or by manifest reason”: Anti-Trinitarianism from the Reformation to the Eighteenth Century
Chapter 9 “A transformation which will go back to its very beginnings”: The Doctrine of the Trinity since 1800
“The history that God is”: Studying the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Twenty-First Century
During the twentieth century there was a resurgence of interest in the doctrine of the Trinity. A great deal of this contemporary theological reflection has, however, departed from the orthodox view held throughout the history of the church. In the nineteenth century many liberals had rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, and many conservatives maintained it but did not seem able to show its relevance. Karl Barth was enormously influential, and he saw the doctrine of the Trinity as identifying God and grounding revelation. For Barth, the unknowable God reveals himself in Christ: God reveals God by God. Barth’s theological formulations—although they are debated on all sides—helped bring a renewed focus to the importance of the Trinity. Karl Rahner argued that the economic Trinity reveals the immanent Trinity. John Zizioulas focused on the concepts of personhood and relationality. For Rahner, the interiority of the divine life and relationships is seen in the specific acts that the persons of the Trinity perform economically. The Trinity is essential for understanding the doctrine of salvation. Zizoulas believed that the Trinity was to be understood primarily not in terms of ontology, but in personal and relational categories. “Substance” exists in personal form, not in abstraction. Zizoulas argued that the Father freely chooses to generate the Son and breathe out the Spirit—the Trinity is not a brute fact, but a personal reality. Many have built upon Zizoulas’ work and have been led towards social and community concerns, basing their social ethics and ecclesiology on God’s inner relations.
Building on Barth and Rahner, Wolfhart Pannenberg argued that the economic Trinity shows us the immanent Trinity, and this entails that God is tied to creation and history. God is in some sense dependent on the world. In his sovereignty, God chose to link his life with eschatological becoming. Moltmann was consciously radical in his theology, and placed the cross at the center of the doctrine of the Trinity, suggesting that God becomes the Trinity through the cross. This seems to make the Trinity contingent. Moltmann tried to remove all hierarchy in the Trinity with an appeal to perichoresis. Robert Jenson is steeped in the Lutheran tradition, and he argues that as the human nature of Christ can share in divine attributes, so the divine can share in the human. He argues that it is best to understand the Trinity in terms of narrative: the Trinity is a story. In the triune God of history we behold the history of God—Jenson is rigorously applying Rahner’s Rule. Today, many are trying to apply their understanding of God as a community to shaping church relations and societal structures. It is interesting to see how diverse the conclusions are, however, about what the Trinity entails about the structure of churches. Sometimes political ideology shapes the doctrine of the Trinity, rather than vice versa.
“In your light, we see light”: The Trinity in the Bible
In the early church, texts used to support the doctrine of the Trinity were as readily drawn from the OT as from the NT. Patristic exegesis used different rules from what are common today, so the contemporary student can sometimes fail to understand the reason behind the claims of Patristic interpreters. Nevertheless, there is a growing sympathy with postmodern hermeneutics and the idea that a text can carry different (and legitimate) significances for different interpreters. The NT shows that certain writings were accepted as authoritative, and the canon was recognized by the church from a very early time (well before any formal declaration concerning canonicity). Scripture settled arguments, and sometimes the church had a theological position for which they required biblical support. Some tried to find the gospel and Christ in the OT, and moved to a hermeneutic of allegory. Proverbs 8 and Wisdom 7 were taken to show the generation of the Son by the Father, since Wisdom was identified with the Logos. Isaiah 53 has long been a text that Christians turn to in order to find Christ in the OT, but the Fathers latched on to textual details to argue it taught the virgin birth and the Son’s eternal generation. They also found Christ and the Trinity in many tiny details in the Psalms. It is important for us to realize that in the OT, monotheism was not as much about the number of deities as it was about full commitment to the Lord alone. Goldingay has argued that the OT does contain hints of plurality in God, and that this does not run against the OT concept of monotheism. It does not seem illegitimate to read the OT and find Trinitarian meanings. During the Intertestamental period, texts began to direct attention to figures who were like semi-divine mediators. Angels and other beings were never to be worshiped, but in the NT Jesus was. This doxological response to Jesus drove theological reflection on monotheism and how he fitted into it. Contemporary defenders of the Trinity tend to read the NT proof texts just as the Fathers did, with the interpretation that the Son is identified as God in a variety of ways. It would take centuries to work out theologically the church’s exegesis and doxology.
“Always with him are his Word and Wisdom”: Early Patristic Developments in the Doctrine of the Trinity
From the earliest times of the church, God was named in a threefold way. Sometimes the false impression is given that the doctrine of the Trinity was a fourth-century invention. Although new technical formulations were made at that time, there was continuity with earlier data and interpretations. The earliest Christians worshiped the Trinity—in the fourth-century this reality was given a theological formulation. In the writings of the Apologists we see a wrestling with the meaning of logos, as well as with the concept of the Son’s generation; he is, however, identified clearly as God. Irenaeus battled Gnosticism, and he argued that matter was not evil, since God made it through his two hands (i.e. the Son and the Spirit), and the Son who is God united himself with matter in the incarnation. The image of God’s hands is an analogy, and Irenaeus regarded both the Son and the Spirit as divine persons, not merely as appendages. Hippolytus interacted with modalists and tried to refute them by examining the eternal relation between the Father and Son. Tertullian’s theology of the Trinity is massively influential in the development of the doctrine. He posits one monarchical God existing three times over; God is Trinity. He provides the formulation of God being one substance and three persons. Tertullian’s involvement with Montanism and continuing authoritative prophecy caused him to push past just the Father and Son to a consideration of the Spirit. Origen insisted that there were not two Gods, but both the Father and Son were God. There was never a time when the Son was not. Origen distinguishes the Father and Son, but insisted they are the same nature. Still, there are points in his theological discussions when Origen seems to teach subordinationism.
“From the ousia of the Father”: The Fourth-Century Debates 1
Arius’ assertion about the Logos “there was a time when he was not” generated incredible controversy, even though Arius himself was insignificant. People did not claim to be followers of Arius, but their opponents would accuse them of being so. The reason Arius is seen as an arch-heretic is because Athanasius traced the argument back to him. Arius contended that the Father created the Son. Matters escalated into the calling of a Council, and the Creed of Nicaea affirmed that the Son is homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father. The Creed’s terminology lacked theological precision and did not foreclose future controversies. Athanasius rejected the common position that the Son was the mediator between God and the material world, which made the Son something less than God. He held that the Son is of the same substance of the Father and that they do the same works. Controversies continued to flourish around issues of God’s oneness, the relation of Father and Son, differentiation, and subordination. The homoiousian party argued that the Son was of a similar ousia but not identical. Many rejected ousia as unhelpful terminology. How divine simplicity related to plurality in the Godhead was a contested issue. Division and confusion were rampant in the fourth-century doctrinal discussions.
“The Godhead is by nature simple”: The Fourth-Century Debates 2
Eunomius argued that God’s nature is unchanging and unbegotten, and since the Son is begotten, he can only be of a similar ousia: he must be of a different substance. The Son is begotten of the will of God, not of his ousia. God gives the Son glory and the Son is far above every creature. Different in essence, Father, Son, and Spirit are united in activity. Eunomius claimed that God’s identity was as the Ingenerate. Whereas Eunomius used language univocally, Basil of Casarea and Gregory of Nyssa argued human concepts were analogical with the divine reality. Basil cited Scripture to show that different names and titles can be applied to God who is one substance, and argued that Eunomius had illegitimately latched on to one name alone. Gregory used the concept of infinity to reject the idea of any hierarchy in the divine being. He insisted that no name adequately describes God’s ineffable essence—it is his works that are described for us. Gregory argued that God is one, simple, undivided being; that there are no degrees of divinity between Creator and the creation, and; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinguishable and each are God. This is not tritheism because God’s acts are indivisible (which reveals his indivisible nature). The main issue was really whether the monarchy belonged to the Father alone, which would make the Son infinitely lower, or if the Son should be named alongside the Father as an equal.
Gregory of Nanzianzus provides a pro-Nicene articulation of the issues. He argued that holiness and piety are required for knowing truth. Monarchy does not demand monadic oneness but can be discharged with plurality. The Son is generated and the Spirit is spirated from eternity, not by the necessity of physical, causal emanation but by the necessity of the Father’s perfect will. They are from the Father but not after the Father in time. “Unbegottenness” is what distinguishes the Father, not what makes him deity. There are titles of Christ that apply both before and during his incarnate state, and others that only apply after the incarnation takes place. Once we accept the full deity of the Son, allowing for plurality in God, it is not difficult to admit the Spirit as deity, too. Although individuals would continue to argue and disagree, the Creed of 381 (republished in 451 at Chalcedon) established the orthodox view of the church. Through John of Damascus’ work of compilation, we know that this view of the Trinity was also the received, orthodox view in the East.
“Understood by a few saints and holy persons”: The West and Augustine
Between A.D. 200 to 350, opposing modalism was the main preoccupation of Latin Trinitarian theology. Although Augustine dominates the Western view of the Trinity, before his work, Hilary of Poitiers provided arguments that tried to show the wide compatibility of doctrinal formulations between West and East, as well as provided a defense of the Son’s full deity. Jesus does things that only God can do, and is named and titled accordingly. The Son does not have a beginning point in time, and he shares the same essence as the Father. Hilary’s main contribution was more detailed exegesis than had been offered before.
It is difficult to exaggerate Augustine’s influence on Trinitarian thought in the West. Today there are many scholars who are suggesting that his formulations are inadequate, and even that they run against the Creed of Nicaea and received orthodoxy—this latter view lacks proof. Augustine maintained that there was an inseparability in the divine works, and a reciprocity in generation (the Father is the Father because of generating the Son, and the Son is the Son because he is generated by the Father). He held that divine simplicity required that everything that God is he is necessarily and eternally. The Father is the monarchy, and the Son and Spirit are eternally his co-equals. Augustine’s work, like Hilary’s, is focused on detailed exegesis with his theological concepts, endeavoring to show that his theology is more harmonious with the texts than his opponents.’ Augustine’s work De Trinitate developed over years, and is more like a brief on topics than a coherently structured monograph. The Son and the Spirit are both God from God and therefore cannot be less than the fullness of God’s perfections. When we read Augustine, we find the best interpreter of Cappadocian Trinitarianism. For five hundred years after Augustine, the West passed on traditional understandings with very little creativity and development. There were some fresh and nuanced thinkers, but even then they kept within the traditional bounds.
“Distinction in the persons but unity in the nature”: The Medieval Doctrine of the Trinity
It was a disagreement concerning the nature of the Trinity that was the occasion for the divide between East and West. But it was not on the basis of the filioque, since the Western church had held for centuries that the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son. The issue was the pope’s authority and the right to change a creed. Anselm was one of the first to defend the filioque. He believed that East and West were united on all Trinitarian points except the Spirit proceeding from both Father and the Son. Anselm argued that the Spirit is clearly sent by the Father and Son, and this economic relation reveals ontological relations. Anselm proposes various arguments for his view of the Trinity, not all of which demonstrate a secure grasp of the issues or are logically compelling. Thomas Aquinas distinguished between what can be said about God’s common ousia and what can be said about the separate hypostases. In large part, Thomas assumes the doctrine of the Trinity is true and presents proof texts in support. He believes language used about God is analogical. Since God’s existence is identical with his essence, whatever he generates or whatever proceeds from him must be so too. Aquinas viewed God as dynamic. He also believed that there were no working analogies to help us understand what the being of God is like—the doctrine of the Trinity is what we can say about God, but we cannot know him exactly as he is. In the East, some thinkers were open to the filioque. Gregory of Palamas distinguished between divine essence and energies, and his construct was so influential that some believe it was the West’s rejection of it that really perpetuated the schism. By and large, the medieval period in both East and West carried along Patristic Trinitarianism, with ongoing discussion concerning whether the Spirit proceeds from just the Father or from both the Father and Son.
“By the testimonies of the Scriptures or by manifest reason”: Anti-Trinitarianism from the Reformation to the Eighteenth Century
Luther was well read in Medieval theology and understood the points of Trinitarian debate. Like Aquinas, he did not believe we could know God’s essence as he is, but he was convinced that the Trinity was revealed in Scripture. His hermeneutic was that a text should be interpreted in the way that most honors Christ. Calvin accepted the received tradition and believed it was taught in Scripture. In later editions of the Institutes he spent more time defending it and arguing for the deity of the Son and Spirit (partly in response to Servetus). Calvin believed that the Son and Spirit were God in themselves; they did not receive deity from the Father.
Although Servetus did not attract many followers, he was part of a school of thought that persisted down through the years. They held that the Trinity was a philosophical construction that was not supported by Scripture, and it was Scripture that was authoritative. Arian and Socinian views were developed. Homoian theology and subordinationism were maintained by some. This rejection of classical orthodoxy was rooted for many in the authority of Scripture, since it was held that Trinitarian theology was unbiblical. Others, however, rejected the doctrine on the basis of rationality, not exegesis. Many, of course, believed that it was both unbiblical and irrational. Deism was not a large movement numerically, but it was very powerful and influential. Some wanted to reject tradition and argued that the Bible could not be an authoritative guide in religion—pride of place was given to human experience and rationality. Voltaire argued that the doctrine of the Trinity was both unbiblical and irrational (and many others concurred). Natural theology rather than revelation was accepted, and this led to monotheism not Trinitarianism. Despite these challenges, orthodoxy remained strong and continued to be upheld.
“A transformation which will go back to its very beginnings”: The Doctrine of the Trinity since 1800
In terms of Christian history, the years from 1800 to the present should all be considered contemporary. Theology in the Post-Kantian world has been working through the same problems for over two hundred years. At the start of the nineteenth century, Coleridge and Hegel applied their genius to developing accounts of the Trinity. Of the two, Hegel alone has had much lasting impact. Coleridge’s theology was clearly shaped by previous Christian theology and Scripture, not pure rationalism. Hegel argued that God brings the world into his own life, arriving at a higher synthetic relation. The major division is not Creator-creation, but Father-Son. Schleiermacher has been criticized for barely touching on the Trinity, and for having it attached almost as a brief afterthought in The Christian Faith. He was very open that he wasn’t proposing a doctrine of the Trinity, but that it was important for others to do so. Schleiermacher did not find the doctrine to have utilitarian and practical benefit, especially the way it had been formulated previously, and with the way it had become a matter of speculation. Charles Hodge, from the conservative wing, likewise did not pay much attention to the doctrine. Drawing on Isaak Dorner, P. T. Forsyth argued that theology must be concerned with moralizing dogma, not metaphysics. Dorner had argued that God needed to be regarded as an absolute person rather than as an absolute substance. Part of personhood was freedom of choice, so God willed to be good. Today, the position that the orthodox view of the Trinity was based on alien Greek philosophical categories is widespread, but it is often assumed without argument. There was great continuity in the doctrine of the Trinity from A.D. 400 to 1800, and there is still a great amount of theology that upholds the classical position. Current revisionistic formulations are out of step with Christian tradition.
Summary by Steve West
About the Author
Donald MacLeod served as professor of systematic theology at the Free Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh for more than thirty years. He is author of The Person of Christ and most recently Christ Crucified.
The word “Trinity” is nowhere the Bible; nevertheless, the doctrine is taught throughout the Bible. Throughout Church History, theologians have argued for this doctrine. This doctrine has also influenced all parts of theology beginning with how we understand God, how we relate to one another, what life in the church looks like, and the relevance of the doctrine of the Trinity to the Christian life. This doctrine, however, has received its fair share of attacks from cults and other world religions like Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The doctrine, however, remains strong in the face of these challenges.
Table of Contents
Part 1 One God: Three Persons
Chapter 1 Evidence from the Bible
Chapter 2 The First Christian Thinkers
Part 2 Trinitarian Religion
Chapter 3 Our Understanding of God
Chapter 4 Our Attitude to Human Beings
Chapter 5 Our Life as the Church
Chapter 6 The Trinity and the Christian Life
Part 3 Under Attack
Chapter 7 Judaism and Islam
Chapter 8 Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses
One God: Three Persons
Evidence from the Bible
Although the word “Trinity” is nowhere in the Bible, the concept is. The doctrine can be defined as follows: God is one; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are distinct persons. These concepts are taught throughout the Bible. The word “Trinity” is our way of summarizing the teaching of the Bible.
The Old Testament teaches us first, that God is one. Perhaps the most commonly cited verse for this point is Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Most of the other world religions at the time of the writing of this book were polytheistic, believing in many gods. The God of the Bible reveals himself as monotheistic. Second, the OT teaches that God is more than one. For example, the very Hebrew word used most often for God’s name is a plural term, Elohim. This does not mean that the grammar itself teaches the Trinity; rather, the grammar points to it. Repeatedly God will use plural pronouns to refer to Himself when we would expect singular pronouns, e.g., “Let us make man in our image” (Gen 1:26). Similarly, there is a character in the OT known as “the angel of the Lord” who is distinguished from the Lord in the OT (Gen 16:11) but is also identified with the Lord in the OT (Gen 31:11–13). The OT itself does not flesh out the doctrine of the Trinity clearly for us; rather, it hints at it. The NT, however, tells us more.
In the NT, the Trinity is revealed in several ways. First, it is seen in salvation: each person contributes to it. Second, the Trinity is presupposed. It is in the background without ever being explained fully. They also do not use the theologically specific terms that we use like Trinity, person, essence, nature, and substance; those developed throughout Church History to clarify what was meant and to distinguish the doctrine and the meanings of those terms from what was not meant in response to heresy. Third, the unity of God is re-emphasized in the NT (James 2:19). Some examples of texts will help illustrate these points. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus explains that Christians should be baptized in the name (singular) of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (three persons). The plural “names” would have been expected, but Jesus carefully presents the doctrine of the Trinity. Also, in John’s Gospel, he explains, “the Word was God,” meaning that Jesus himself is God. Similarly, Paul also refers to the Trinity in his letters as he writes texts that show that Jesus is God (Phil 2:6).
The First Christian Thinkers
Our understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity has become clearer throughout Church History. Early Christians, however, found themselves with a wide variety of understandings. They had each part of the doctrine as explained above, but they struggled with how to fit all the puzzle pieces together. The first Christian thinkers clarified the doctrine. First, Tertullian laid the foundations for the doctrine of the Trinity to be formulated as we know it today. He wrote in response to gentlemen named Praxeas, who fathered the belief known as Patripassianism – the idea that the Father himself suffered at the cross. Tertullian responded with the following points. First, he emphasized the unity of God, that there is one God. Second, Tertullian asserted that the Father and the Son are distinct persons. Third, Tertullian coined and worked out the terminology that we use today to explain this doctrine. He used the word “Trinity” to describe God as a tri-unity and “person” to distinguish between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Another early Christian thinker was Athanasius. He is to be remembered most for his defense of the deity of Christ. There was a presbyter by the name of Arius that argued that there was a time when Christ did not exist. Athanasius played an influential role in the formation of the Nicene Creed that eventually wrote against the teachings of Arius, or what would become known as Arianism. Arian believed that Christ was more special than just any regular human, even willing to call him “like God,” but that is not enough. True Christianity worships Christ because He is God. Athanaisus argued, “If our Savior is neither God nor the Word nor the Son then let the Arians no longer be ashamed to think and talk as pagans and Jews do.”
The doctrine of the person of Christ and the Trinity has received further clarity since that time. Since the time of Nicea, the creed of Constantinople applied the same language that was applied to Christ, that He is God, also the Holy Spirit. John of Damascus would play a role; he helped clarify how we distinguish between the person of the Godhead from each other. John Calvin would go on to bring further clarity to the doctrine of the Trinity. He emphasized that the Holy Spirit and Son are equally God and, thus, that each person of the Godhead is equally God.
In sum, what has happened with Christian thinkers is that they have brought together the strands of this doctrine to clarify what is and is not meant. But, this doctrine also matters for our lives, as the following chapters will reveal.
Our Understanding of God
When we think of something that applies to our lives, we usually think only in relation to our neighbors—practically helping them with something or another. But, loving God is also a practical matter. To love God, we must know him. The doctrine of the Trinity helps us know God better. First, this doctrine reminds us that God is a mystery. In Christianity, God’s mysteriousness comes at the core of Who He is as Trinity. Second, the doctrine of the Trinity reveals that God has fellowship with Himself in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Third, the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that God is independent. Contrary to some popular thought, He did not need to make us because He was lonely; rather, He was perfect and sufficient apart from creating us. Fourth, this doctrine reminds us that God is complete. Specifically, He is happy in a perfectly happy way. There is peace, harmony, and fulfillment with God that can be found nowhere else. This doctrine is also relevant in other areas of our lives.
Our Attitude to Human Beings
The doctrine of the Trinity is relevant for our attitude toward other human beings. First, we learn that God planned to create human beings; they are unique and important in creation because God made them differently than He did the other creatures. Second, human beings are made in the image of God. Although humans are fallen beings because of the Fall in Genesis 3, they are still made in the image of God (Gen 9:6, Jas 3:9). This truth has several implications. First, we are equal worth regardless of race. We all have the same first parents. Second, this doctrine puts a premium on individuality. Just as something distinguishes the persons of the Godhead from one another, God has so created us that we are different from one another. Third, we are made for fellowship. God has made us in His image, He has eternal and perfect fellowship, and He has made us to experience the same. Although people may try to find fulfillment in their independence, perhaps as they move away from home to go to college, they are designed for fellowship. They are designed for a shared life. That is why living as a hermit cannot be a goal for a human. It goes against how we were made. God has put community in the fabric of our world—in the home, marriages, etc. He has also intended us to share life together in the church, as the next chapter will consider.
Our Life as the Church
Our life in the church should be one of fellowship that God wants us to have. First, we are supposed to imitate God’s unity in the church. We become one in Christ and thus should be in the church. Second, we are united in nature. We should all be hungry and thirsty for righteousness (Matt 5:6). Third, we should be united in love, as God is. On the reverse, we cannot claim to love God if we do not love the brother in front of us (1 John 4:20). Fourth, we ought to be united in ministry. The Trinity is united in ministry as they each serve in various roles. We need to learn from that. It is all too easy to rebuke and criticize one another; nevertheless, we are called to serve one another. Fifth, we should be united in fellowship. Fellowship means sharing or having in common. The Bible calls Christians to share every: the work of evangelism, giving and receiving, gifts, one another’s burdens, and much more. Consider the Lord’s Supper—a shared meal. In sum, we are called to reflect the fellowship that God has. Now, that does not mean we lose our individuality any more than each person of the Trinity does. Nevertheless, it means that we live as one body. This doctrine, though, also has relevance for our individual lives, as chapter 6 will reveal.
The Trinity and the Christian Life
The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit, God himself, dwells in believers. This Spirit is the same One who raised Jesus from dead; He is powerful, to say the least. This truth has several implications. First, we should know that we are securely guarded; although many things will seek to corrupt us, the Holy Spirit is invincible. Second, there is true power within us because the Holy Spirit is powerful. We live and depend on His power in our lives. He is the One Who strengthens us. Third, we never can escape from the presence of the Holy Spirit. In the New Covenant, believers are sealed with the Holy Spirit, such that we cannot lose him, or have him depart as He did in the OT. Another important truth for us as individuals is that we are adopted in the family of God. We are heirs of God and, thus, co-heirs with Christ (Rom 8:17). We share in the same benefits that Christ does because we are children of God. Third, the doctrine of the Trinity is also relevant to us as individuals for evangelism. Although this connection may not be obvious, it matters; we are supposed to teach the doctrine of the Trinity to the nations. Recall that the doctrine is in the Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20). Finally, the doctrine of the Trinity is also relevant for worship. We worship the triune God. We praise and honor each member of the Trinity.
Judaism and Islam
Many people have attacked the doctrine of the Trinity. First, Judaism has rejected it for several reasons. They cannot accept Jesus as the Messiah because of the shameful death He died. They also do not believe He was the Son of God. They wanted Christ to be a political king, not the suffering servant that He was. They also stumble on the fact that Christ came for the whole world, not just the Jews. They think that He was disrespectful of their traditions as He regularly contradicted the Jewish leaders of His day. In other words, everything that the NT teaches about Jesus being the Messiah, the Christ, Jews reject.
Islam has also rejected the Trinity. They follow the teachings of Mohammed in the Koran. He writes, “If the People of the Book [the Bible] believe and fear God, we shall expiate their sins and introduce them into gardens of delight: and if they observe the gospel and that which has been revealed to them from their Lord, they shall eat both from above and from under their feet.” The Koran speaks of the Lord, but its teachings about Him contradict the NT. They believe He was a prophet, but not God.
Christians have to stand firm on the Bible’s teaching on the Trinity because that is how God has revealed himself. After we have caught a glimpse of the beauty and mystery of the Trinity, we cannot turn away to false teachings or rejecting the Trinity, as so many do.
Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses
Mormons reject the doctrine of the Trinity. Although Mormon’s claim that their theology is the Bible and the Bible is their theology, they deny the deity of Christ. They claim that He is no more divine than the rest of us. Rather, they teach that men become gods after this life, that there are many gods, and that the Father is the Son, similar to Patripassianism mentioned above. Thus, the faith of Mormonism is not faith in the Christ of Scripture. Christians, then, must reject the teachings of Mormonism.
Finally, Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the Trinity, that is, how Jehovah has revealed Himself to us in the Bible. They deny the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit; they do so in their very translation of the New Testament in their New World Translation. They insist that John meant that the “Word was a god” rather than the “Word was God.” But, their translation is inconsistent with itself as they regularly translate phrases like that differently elsewhere when it fits their theology better to do so.
In the end, Christians need to remain strong in their belief in the Trinity because God has shown Himself to be such. Although we may never fully understand it or the terminology associated with it, we need to continue to teach it boldly.
Summary by Benjamin Montoya