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The Trinity – A Contemporary Review (Part 1/2)

Isaiah 42:1-9 John 1:1-18

Last year, my Senior Minister, Rev. Dr. John Dickson, asked me to give a talk for Trinity Sunday. The thoughts I am sharing here stem from that presentation. John generously offered this opportunity because I’m preparing a doctoral thesis in the area of Trinitarian metaphysics exploring musical and analogical representations of the Trinity, and that touchy intersection of philosophy and theology. It needs be said that the reason I am researching this area is because the unique Christian Triunity presented such an anomaly at the time of my spiritual conversion and remains a confluence of mystery and revelation. Many mature Christians I know openly wrestle with intellectual aspects of Triunity, yet in grace and faith, trust the Lordship of our Triune God in practice. Since the Trinity embodies the challenge of converging divinity and humanity, of Creator engaging with Creation, the Trinity has been the source of doctrinal conversations more or less since Christianity bifurcated from Judaism. Probably no question you will ask is new, yet every Christian needs to work out their reality in relation to the Triune idea. I am not claiming insights or expertise here either, but I am thrilled if two outcomes can be achieved: firstly, that we think and feel more about our Triune God Who is unique in Christianity and why God revealed Himself in that way to us; and secondly, that we translate its implications into our lives, especially in terms of the action of the Holy Spirit. PART 1: THEORY Challenge and Mystery Starting with the difficult reality, the Trinity is a Perplexing idea: God Who becomes incarnate and interacts in the created order is a unique phenomenon! A relational and Triune God is not found in any other theistic religion. For example, in traditional Hebrew cosmology, there is a gulf between the Creator and Creation. The Creator God does not enter into the universe of His Creation, much less become human and experience the flaws of Fallenness – pain, suffering, temptation, mortality, hunger, tears, sorrow, servitude, ageing, etc. The Bible also confirms that it is appropriate that we cannot fully comprehend the mystery of our glorious God’s nature (we would probably be disappointed and disrespectful if we came close). “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the LORD. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.” (Isaiah 55:8) The mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:26-27) Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2) This is the one who came by water and blood — Jesus Christ ... And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. (1 John 5:6) We are also told that there is a future (or eschatological) complete revelation of God. We can look forward to knowing the transcendent God fully. We can have faith in this promise because of Who is saying it. We are told the Spirit testifies and the Spirit is truth. ... in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets. (Revelation 10:7 ESV) The Doctrine of the Trinity The doctrine – or principle of truth – of the Trinity is a theologoumenon: a doctrine deduced from scripture rather than being explicitly stated in it (in contrast to an exegetical doctrine). Some would say it is ‘opinion’ or a ‘position statement’ rather than revealed information. The term ‘Trinity’ does not appear in the Bible. At first you might be suspicious ... of this ‘man-made’ human idea ... John M. Frame states (Frame, J.M. Systematic Theology. P & R Publishing, 2013, 423): “Far from being abstruse philosophical speculation, the doctrine of the Trinity attempts to describe and account for something biblically obvious and quite fundamental to the gospel ... Scripture testifies from beginning to end that God is one; but is also presents three persons who are God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit ... This fact is difficult to understand, but it is quite unavoidable in Scripture and central to the biblical gospel.” When I come to the essential core ideas of the Trinity, I hope to show that the statement of belief (or doctrine) is nonetheless founded firmly in Biblical testimony.

Confidence in the Doctrine of the Trinity

We can also have confidence that there has been nearly 2 millennia of discourse about Trinitarian doctrine by experts, leading theologians, scholars, and church leaders, who have debated in order to accurately describe the orthodox truth about the Trinity that concurs with the Bible. It is hardly a new ‘problem’ and the theologians who have refined and debated the details of our doctrine include some of the finest minds in church history.

I am going to give a super-brief history of the Trinitarian idea. I am including this overview to indicate very roughly the duration and intensity of discussion that has formed the doctrine we acknowledge in the Apostles’, Athanasian and Nicene Creeds that are common to all Orthodox, Roman, Eastern and Reformed Christian denominations, i.e. to the collective and global Church.

  • A.D. 33 – 100 Apostles' experience of the Trinity The Apostles witnessed Jesus’ Baptism, the Great Commission, Jesus’ frequent reference to Father and his Sonship, and the coming of Spirit indwelling at Pentecost (documented in Acts 2).

  • AD. 50 Christians in the Early Church articulate the Trinity Explaining the Trinity began as Christians refuted Jews who could not accept Deity of Christ Jesus.

  • AD. 130 – 200 Iranaeus opposed Gnosticism. Gnostics could not accept divine incarnation & humanity of Jesus.

  • A.D. 160 – 220 Tertullian opposed modalism & subordinationism. First to coin terms ‘trinitatis’, Persons & Substance.

  • A.D. 256 – 357 Arius claimed that the Father was superior to Son & Spirit. Subordinationism/Sabellianism/Arianism.

  • A.D. 295 – 373 Athanasius: Christ is the image of God. Integrates Trinity & Salvation. Grace of humanity partaking in divine nature. Mutual indwelling of Three Persons.

  • A.D. 340 – 400 The Cappadocians. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory of Nazianzus: We know God from His works. Recognised deity of the Spirit.

  • A.D. 354 – 430 Augustine. Consubstantial Father, Son & Spirit. Perichoretic relations - inner life of the Trinity. A.D. 362 Council of Alexandria.

  • A.D. 381 – 451 Niceno-Constantinople Creed. Origin of Modern Nicene Creed - Council of Constantinople. Incarnate Son is revelation of Triune Godhead. Son consubstantial with the Father.

  • 1033 – 1109 Anselm of Canterbury.

  • 1225 – 1274 Thomas Aquinas. Re-Articulation of Augustine. Summa Theologica. Divergence of Eastern & Western Church.

  • 1559 Calvin. Back to Biblical evidence in his Institutes. Christ as Mediator. Eternal procession of Holy Spirit. Return to orthodoxy of Church Fathers (the Cappadocians).

  • 1886 – 1968 Karl Barth. Revitalisation of Reformed Biblical orthodoxy, inspiration for C20th Trinitarian revival. Importance of differentiation between the Persons. Son as mediation. Eternity & Time. Personhood of the Spirit. Unity of Church & Lordship in Communion.

  • 1913 Thomas F. Torrance. Hybrid of Biblical revival & return to Church Fathers. Revelation through Jesus. We know God through saving actions. Personal nature of God. Dynamic indwelling relations of the Persons of the Trinity.

  • 1928 Jürgen Moltmann. Wrote The Crucified God. Collision of God & the world. Relates salvific history & suffering. Reciprocity among the Persons of the Trinity. God reveals his Son.

  • 1928 Wolfhart Pannenberg. Wrote Systematic Theology. Critical of Augustinian metaphysics. Emphasis on Trinitarian relations. Infers social implications of Immanent Trinitarian relations.

  • 1980 Colin Gunton & John Zizioulas. Divine personhood. Undivided Trinity present & active in the Son. Subordination & obedience of Son in incarnate history (Economic Trinity) is an act of grace, while there is equality of Persons in the Eternal Triune Godhead (Immanent Trinity).

The need to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity and many subsequent discussions to refine it, arose mostly to rectify heretical misunderstandings and false teachings. Hellenistic, Roman, and Hebrew metaphysical views struggled with Incarnation. Qualities of God did not permit human suffering or weakness, but were characterised by omnipotence, eternity, and greatness that were directly challenged by Jesus’ humanity and humility: the suffering servant. The God of Hellenic and Hebrew cosmology had no interaction with Creation but remained in distant heavenly realms, aloof and uninvolved with His creatures. Even the cultic system of sacrifices to please the Semitic God or Greco-Roman pantheon of gods, required mediation by the priesthood and common people had no contact with the LORD. The early church, apostles and Christians, who were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus, and the revelation of the Holy Spirit indwelling in believers at Pentecost, had a very good intrinsic understanding of the Trinity, evident in the mature Trinitarian concept in Paul’s letters and the gospel and letters of John. The early Christians witnessed the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist when God the Father spoke from heaven, the Spirit descended to anoint the ministry of Jesus in the form of a dove, and John recognised Jesus as the promised Messiah. To his disciples, Jesus in his adult ministry frequently spoke of God’s paternity, of his Sonship, and his claim to the eternal Kingdom of God. In healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, preaching salvation to the poor, and forgiving sins – Jesus gave indications of his Divinity. And Christ demonstrated his obedience by graciously giving up his life, acting under the direction of the Holy Spirit: Jesus’ whole life is revelation of God’s relational Triune nature. Hence, it was a response to Jews who couldn’t accept the Deity of the Jesus Christ, and to Gnostics who could not accept the humanity of God incarnate, that led to efforts to explain the Triunity of God. Other common ‘mistakes’ were subordinationism (which says that the Son is submissive in an inferior way to the Father) and modalism (which distinguishes the three Persons of the Trinity without adequately acknowledging the concurrent unity, consubstantiality or mutual interrelations of the Persons of the Godhead). In summary, these errors represented an unwillingness to accept the principle of One God in Three Persons – three distinct and different substances with a singular unifying God nature, Who operate cooperatively. Athanasius was important in explaining the Son’s incarnation, becoming human whilst fully God, enduring suffering as obedience out of love, an act of loving grace to enable human salvation. The reconciliation of His people to God shows His relational activity towards Creation whilst preserving the freedom of God’s will. Salvation was not a necessity: it was a choice. The Cappadocian Fathers recognised the deity of the Spirit, giving equal credence to the 3rd Person. Together with the Councils of Constantinople and Nicea, they were in large part responsible for establishing the basis of the modern Creeds, or belief statements. Calvin’s important contribution during the Reformation was to explain the mediating role of Jesus Christ, the new High Priest, such that no magisterium, clergy, human priesthood, or interpreters were needed to mediate access to God. Jesus’ sacrifice was once for all, and hence the Spirit, who perfects the work of the Son, in making God known to humanity together with Christ, mediate access to the Father. Christ, as the Son incarnate mediates between the divine heavenly, eternal realm and earthly creation, bridging the gap between humanity and Deity. Access to the Father is exclusively through the mediation of the Son whose Spirit is indwelling: Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6 NIV) Karl Barth in the C20th inspired a revival of Trinitarian debate chiefly by insisting that we return to Biblical scripture for the truth about the Triune nature of God, with emphasis on relations more than the Persons of the Godhead and a focus on implications for the life of the Church – i.e. ways in which the loving, reciprocal relations of God’s inner life should influence communion in the Church body – the attitudes we have towards one another based on God’s love for us.