Category Archives: Trinity

The More Things Change…

I’ve been teaching through various fundamental doctrines in Bible study at my church and right before the New Year we started in on the Trinity. The first class was an introduction, noting differences between the Trinity (who/what God is) and the doctrine of the Trinity (how we speak about who/what God is). The second class started in the beginning, in the book of Genesis, noting how God creates through his Word and Spirit. We noted features of the text that make sense for Trinitarians but not so much for non-Trinitarians. The third and fourth classes looked at the Angel of the LORD and the ways in which he is identified both as the LORD and as distinct from the LORD. Again, this is something that makes sense for the Trinitarian and not the non-Trinitarian.

But in all of this I’ve been hammering home the point that I reject the idea that there is no doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible as such. I’ve read that innumerable times throughout the years. The idea is that we don’t find fourth-century Trinitarian terminology in the Bible so we don’t have the doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible. Some are more generous and say that we find a doctrine of the Trinity in the NT because the NT was written after the Incarnation of the Son and the pouring out of the Spirit, but it was only hinted at in the OT at best. I reject these sentiments. Vehemently.

I don’t take fourth-century articulations to be the standard by which we judge everything else. I take the fourth-century for what it is, and likewise the NT for what it is, and before that the OT for what it is. In every instance we have a particular view of God, but if God is Trinity–and God is Trinity–then every witness to God in the Christian Scriptures is a witness to the Trinity. I can’t fault the OT for not saying what the NT says any more than I can fault the NT for not saying what the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers said. We don’t fault the early fathers for not saying what the medieval scholastics said, do we?

In any event, I was looking for a scan of a book chapter I sent someone a few years back and I found it in an email where I said the following:

I guess the standard answer to the question you raise would be an appeal to progressive revelation. It took the Incarnation of the Son and the giving of the Spirit to the Church for us to have all of the pieces in place to then formulate a formal doctrine of the Trinity. Plenty of folks suggest that God didn’t completely reveal himself as Trinity in the OT because of the rampant polytheism that surrounded Israel. It would have been all too easy for Israel to mess up God’s multi-personality and fall into worshipping multiple gods, or so the argument goes. I’d say that the OT gives us plenty to ponder concerning God’s multi-personality. The way that his Word and Spirit are depicted; or the enigmatic Angel of the Lord that is at once YHWH and an agent of YHWH; and those seemingly out of place plural pronouns and verbs that refer to God. Taken cumulatively it’s enough to get us asking some good questions.

And that’s where I’d differ from the standard answers usually offered. I think the OT forces us to ask questions that can only be correctly answered by speaking of the Trinity. We’re only able to get a doctrine of the Trinity in the NT because the OT already contains it. The NT simply assumes, builds upon, and makes clear what is already there. One thing that I often remind people about is how the Patristic writers’ arguments for the Trinity were exegetical. These early Christians formulated what most people consider “the doctrine of the Trinity” (i.e., Nicene Trinitarianism) from a close examination and interpretation of the Scriptures (especially the OT).

So I’d say that it was both hinted and revealed in the OT. We just have to allow for it to have been hinted and revealed in precisely the way that it was and not impose a later doctrine as the standard by which we judge the OT revelation. In other words, it doesn’t work to set 4th century Nicene Trinitarian theology as the standard and then say that the doctrine of the Trinity is absent from the OT (or even the NT) because they don’t use the language or arguments of 4th century theology. Likewise, I’d argue that the Son was revealed before the Incarnation in the NT. He was revealed in various theophanies; in God speaking to the Israelite King; as the Word through which God created; etc. This is why Jesus can walk with the disciples on the road to Emmaus and explain to them all of the things that the Scriptures said concerning him. They were prophetic, to be sure, but not merely in the sense of foretelling future events. They also spoke to a present reality in Israel’s life.

It seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same.

B”H

Gregory the Theologian on Athanasius

“He was the first and only one, or with the concurrence of but a few, to venture to confess in writing and with entire clearness and distinctness the unity of Godhead and essence of the three Persons and thus to attain in later days, under the influence of inspiration, to the same faith in regard to the Holy Spirit as had been bestowed at an earlier time on most of the Fathers in regard to the Son.”

Oration 21.33 as quoted in Athanasius (The Early Church Fathers), 24.

B”H

 

Gregory the Theologian on the Divine Monarchy

29.2. The three most ancient opinions concerning God are Anarchia, Polyarchia, and Monarchia. The first two are the playthings of the children of Hellas, and may they continue to be so. For Anarchy is a thing without order; and the Rule of Many is factious, and thus anarchical, and thus disorderly. For both these theological positions tend to the same thing, namely disorder; and thus to dissolution, for disorder is the first step to dissolution. But Monarchy is that axiom which we hold in honor. It is, however, a Monarchy that is not limited to one person, for it is possible for unity, if at variance with itself, to come into a condition of plurality; but we hold it to be made out of an equality of nature and a union of mind, and an identity of motion, and a consilience of its elements to unity (a thing which is impossible for created natures) so that though it is numerically distinct there is no severance of essence involved. Therefore Unity having from all eternity arrived by motion at Duality, found its rest in Trinity. This is what we mean by Father and Son and Holy Spirit. The Father is the Begetter and the Emitter; though without passion, of course, and without reference to time, and not in a corporeal manner. The Son is the Begotten, and the Holy Spirit the Emission; (I say this since I do not know how else this can be expressed in terms that wholly exclude material conceptions). But we shall not venture to speak of “An overspill of goodness,” as one of the Greek Philosophers dared to say, as if God were like a wine-bowl filled to overflowing, saying this in plain words in his oration on the First and Second Causes. Let us never look on this matter of divine generation as being involuntary, like some natural overflow, hard to be retained, for it is by no means fitting to our conception of the Godhead. Therefore let us confine ourselves within our proper limits, and speak of the “Unbegotten” and the “Begotten” and that which “Proceeds from the Father,” as in one place God the Word himself expressed it.

Oration 29 as reproduced in The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, 699.

B”H

On the Monarchy of the Father (with a bit about divine aseity thrown in for good measure)

I’ve been studying Trinitarian theology for a long time. One thing that always seemed self-evident was the doctrine of the monarchy of the Father. The Fathers of the church spoke of God the Father as principle (arche), source (pege), and cause (aitia). The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed refers to the Son as God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, and the Holy Spirit as proceeding from the Father (I reject the filioque for a number of reasons). It seems a given that the monarchy is a well established doctrine. 

I can remember early in my studies reading many an author who subscribed to Theodore De Régnon’s paradigm, which basically asserts that the Eastern tradition used the three divine Persons as its starting point for Trinitarian theology while the Western tradition began with the one divine essence, but the reality is a bit more complex than that. Nonetheless, even if we grant these starting points it still seems as though the doctrine of the Father’s monarchy is uncontroversial.

So here is how I understand the doctrine in its simplest form. The divine essence (ousia) is found in the Father’s person (hypostasis). The Father is Father from all eternity and begets the Son by an eternal generation so that all that the Father has (to include the divine essence) the Son has also. Likewise, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father by an eternal procession so that all that the Father has (to include the divine essence) the Spirit has also.

This means that from all eternity the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have shared the divine essence equally since the Father has never been without the Son and the Spirit. There is both an asymmetrical personal relationship and an essential equality in such an understanding of the Trinity. This essential equality allows us to speak of any divine Person as God because whatever the divine essence is exactly, they all have it.

This is one of the things I found problematic with a recent presentation by Dr. Beau Branson on the subject. He argues that the one God just is the Father and that the one God is simply one Person of the Trinity. I think this is mistaken for the reason stated above. I’ll grant that God as a title is generally reserved for the Father in the New Testament. I have no problem with referring to the Father as God and the Son and Spirit as Son and Spirit. But titles aren’t the issue. The issue is whether or not the Son and Spirit can be said to be God.

The answer is yes. It’s quite appropriate to refer to the Son and the Holy Spirit as God because the same divine essence that is found in the Father’s person is shared with the Son and the Spirit from all eternity. Each divine Person has never been without it. Each divine Person is as much God as the Father is God. Branson says that they’re of the “same species.” He says that the title God can be predicated of Son and Spirit but is only proper to the Father. Branson appears to believe in three divine beings, which as far as I can tell, is tritheism, but claims that there is only one God, the Father. His view is idiosyncratic. And trust me, I’ve tried to be as charitable as possible when listening to his presentation.

He also lays a lot at the feet of divine aseity, which he ascribes to the Father alone on the basis of the Son’s generation and the Spirit’s procession. If the Son is eternally begotten and the Spirit eternally proceeds then each is from the Father, which in turn means that each is not “from self” (a se). But the Father, Branson supposes, is a se since he is neither begotten nor proceeds. The problem with this as I see it is that divine aseity makes no sense as a personal property since the Persons of the Trinity have existed from all eternity. There is no Father without Son or Spirit.

Aseity has to be something proper to the divine essence, which I’d agree is grounded in the Father’s person, but has been shared with Son and Spirit from all eternity. This might not sound like a big difference, but it is. Divine aseity is rightly ascribed to any divine Person on the basis of their eternal existence. No Person of the Trinity has come into being therefore each Person of the Trinity is a se. But this does no violence to a doctrine of the Father’s monarchy. Nor does it necessitate some kind of “egalitarian” view of the Trinity. There is still plenty of room for order (taxis) within the Trinity.

That’s my spiel…

B”H

Home Library/Office Tour

I wanted to do this for a while. I had some time today. One day I’ll get a good camera and give this thing some real production value.

B”H

Help a Brother Out

UPDATE: Several kind folks sent along copies of the article. Thank you all! 

The other day Denny Burk referenced the article “The Obedience of the Eternal Son,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 15/2 (2013): 114-34. Does anyone have a copy of this article that they could pass along? I’d greatly appreciate it. Thanks!

B”H

One Brief Thought on the Recent Eternal Functional Subordination Kerfuffle

I’ve typed plenty on the debate over eternal functional subordination over the years. Much of what I’ve said can be found in book reviews. Some can be found in dedicated posts to one point of the discussion or another. I’ll leave it to interested readers to search my blog and find all that I’ve said. But I want to repeat something since I keep reading the word “Arian” being used with reference to those who affirm some kind of eternal functional subordination, or eternal authority-submission structure, or eternal asymmetrical order of relation, etc.

If it’s “eternal” then it ain’t “Arian.” It’s really that simple. Arians believed the Son to be a created being. Plain and simple. Yes, he was created “before” time (wrap your head around that one) but the Father existed “before” that. No one who believes that the Son has from all eternity been obedient or submitted to the Father is an Arian because they all believe that for as long as their has been a Father to obey/submit to, there has been a Son who obeys/submits.

That’s my spiel. And a huge thanks to Seumas Macdonald for his roundup of posts on the recent discussion. It saved me a lot of time and energy!

B”H

Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience

Leithart, Peter J. Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2015. Pp. ix + 165. Paper. $17.99.

With thanks to Brazos Press for this review copy!

As I sit here at my desk thinking about what to write concerning Peter Leithart’s latest offering, I’m struck by how the end of the book has completely reshaped my view of its beginning. To start, I had assumed that this would be one kind of book and yet it ended up being another. I expected an apologetic for how “God has left traces of his Trinitarian being in his work of creation” (CCC 237), which I got, but not in the way that I thought I would.

Leithart spends 8 chapters talking about the physical world, personal relationships, time, ethics, love, music, logic, and language while employing the terminology and concept of perichoresis, i.e., “interpenetration” or “mutual indwelling.” It’s not until the 9th chapter that he really turns his attention to God and even there it’s not so much to speak about God qua God, but rather believers being in God. Well and good. Really good in fact.

But as I read through the book, taken by Leithart’s way with words, I couldn’t help but think, and write in the margins, that the things he was describing fell short in every way of the perichoretic relationship that exists in the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And then I arrived at the postscript. Leithart had anticipated my objections; he said so right there in the final pages of the book. And yet he didn’t go back and revise the main contents before publication in order to allay my concerns. He left things as they were, waiting to address the issues that were so bothering me right at the end.

And now I can’t think about the book the same way I did while working through it from the beginning. It seems that Leithart was correct when he said, “there can be no present unless past and future inhabit it” (62). In the present of the past I viewed Leithart’s descriptions with suspicion. But in the future of the now past and then present he had anticipated all that I would disagree with and had an answer ready and waiting. Once that future became present I could no longer view the past in the same light. But all of these moments converged; they all inhabited one another.

Leithart tells us that we inhabit the world just as the world inhabits us. Things are what they are in relation to other things and without some sort of mutual indwelling nothing could ever be what it really is. This goes for parents and children; husbands and wives. It’s true of property and owners or the way we treat others. Language, music, and everything else all the way down the line until we get to the Creator of it all, the God who is Trinity.

Paul told the Romans that God’s invisible qualities have been clearly seen and understood in and by his creation (Rom 1:19-20). Leithart has taken the time to get us thinking about how this is so. For years I’ve been leery about using certain (really any) analogies to describe the Trinity. I once wrote a book (never published because it was ultimately unpublishable) in which I panned the use of love, time, the universe, a family, or even eggs as analogies for the Trinity.

But I see those analogies in new light now. I’m still not convinced that they’re helpful in making sense of how God can be both one and three simultaneously, but perhaps they help to make clear, even if just a bit, how Father, Son, and Spirit can inhabit the same divine space. Leithart has helped me to understand that even if the analogies aren’t a perfect match (if they were then they wouldn’t be analogies) they can still help us say and know something of God. He rightly says that “there is no impropriety in calling God Rock, Sun, Father, or in suggesting that there are analogies between father-son relations and the eternal relation of the Father and Son” (152).

Past redeeming Trinitarian analogies for me, Leithart has got me thinking about the relationships I have with things I hold dear. For example, as I sit down to “get into” the word of God, the word of God “gets into” me. I bring certain presuppositions to the text, which influences my interpretation of the text, and yet the text manages to shape, refine, and at times completely overhaul those presuppositions. On the rare occasion that I read a Bible with notes or commentary I see how the comments illuminate the text while the text illuminates the comments.

The sermons I’ve preached have all been inhabited by my experiences but also by the books that I’ve read, other sermons I’ve heard, conversations I’ve had, or thoughts that I’ve pondered. And while it might not seem obvious how interpenetration works in such an instance I’d just say that as I’ve read, conversed, thought, and experienced, I’ve always had in mind, even if subconsciously, that this thing or that would make good sermon fodder. My sermons inhabited all of these things, even if in nuce.

But the real game changer has not been the redemption of Trinitarian analogies or even me thinking about how I inhabit the world and the world inhabits me. It’s in Leitharts all too brief comments on perichoresis in John’s Gospel; particularly Jesus’ high priestly prayer where he prays that his disciples be one “even as” Father and Son are one. I’ve discussed this passage with Unitarians aplenty and they’re quite fond of pointing out how the oneness that exists between Father and Son can’t be a oneness of substance or nature based on this passage. If it were then we’d also share in the divine nature and the Trinity would be a much larger number. And yet we are described as partakers of the divine nature. We are called into a relationship that has existed from eternity. It is “in Christ,” to use Paul’s language, that we can be one with each other and with Father and Son. Leithart brings this out much more clearly that I have, and he does so with an eloquence of speech that I simply do not possess.

So I’ve said all this to say that you should read this book. I can think of no plainer way to say it. Read this book. That’s all.

An Observation

I received an email the other day from a young man who was thinking about starting a blog and one of the things he asked me was whether or not I could recommend anyone dealing specifically with the arguments of Biblical Unitarians (i.e., Socinians). Unfortunately, no one these days really pays them much mind, which in turn means that no one is really addressing their arguments. On the one hand I get it; they’re a very small faction that you’re likely to encounter only on the internet. On the other hand, there are people who have written books challenging the claims of Oneness Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, so it would be nice to have something else to add to the mix.

I noted that if he wanted anything substantial he’d have to go back to 17th century English theologians like Edward Stillingfleet, John Edwards, and William Sherlock. I also noted how none of them was without fault because they all suffered from the same basic shortcoming with regard to operating according to their opponents’ rationalism. The Socinians of their day denied the Trinity because it didn’t make sense and so these theologians argued (sometimes quite exhaustively) that it did make sense. The problem was that they tried to make sense of the doctrine according to the canons of their opponents and in turn veered off toward one heresy or another.

This, of course, is something that James Anderson notes in his Paradox in Christian Theology. The desire to make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity is laudable (it’s also doable, but it must be done from a biblical perspective, with Scripture as the ultimate authority; not various philosophies), but make too much sense and you end up with heresy. It’s also no coincidence that Anderson ended up being the one modern author I recommended on the topic as I think his defense of paradox is quite helpful in dealing with the rationalistic objections of Socinians.

But I’ve said all this to say that from my observation modern theolgoians and apologists just don’t seem to really care about Socinianism. Why this is I couldn’t say, but it is nonetheless. It would be nice if the next generation of apologists who specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity would take more notice of Socinianism. It would save interested readers the trouble of having to sift through verbose 17th century English authors!

B”H

The Foundation of Communion with God: The Trinitarian Piety of John Owen

McGraw, Ryan M., ed. 

The Foundation of Communion with God: The Trinitarian Piety of John Owens

Profiles in Reformed Spirituality

Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014. Pp. xviii + 149. Paper. $10.00.

Amazon | Reformation Heritage Books

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With thanks to Cross Focused Reviews and Reformation Heritage Books for this review copy!

The Foundation of Communion with God is a slim volume of select readings of arguably the greatest Puritan theologian of all time, John Owen. Expertly introduced by Ryan M. McGraw—who has written more substantially on Owen’s theology elsewhere—the reader learns of Owen’s life, scholastic career, and pastoral ministry before being introduced to the order of the readings in this book, which are well thought out and have a definite logical structure.

The readings themselves, 41 in all, are divided into 3 sections. The first, “Knowing God as Triune” contains the bulk of the book and establishes Owen’s focus on communion with the Trinity. It is here that he speaks most eloquently about grace, faith, redemption, and the believer’s relationship to God, especially as expressed in worship. We also get glimpses of his refutations of 17th century Socinians, which is music to the ears of the modern apologist. Funnily enough, Owen’s apologetic doesn’t proceed along the lines of rational argumentation, which would fall in line with what his opponents were doing, but rather he focuses on the goodness of God that can only be experienced if God is Trinity. We would all do well to stop treating the Trinity as a mathematical problem to be explained and instead focus on the relational aspects of Christian faith.

The second section, “Heavenly Mindedness and Apostasy” places emphasis on public worship and the ways that believers can both cultivate and destroy it. Owen saw neglecting what God has appointed for worship and adding to or changing what he has appointed as the two major ways to destroy worship and so apostatize from the faith. Bare observance of ordinances apart from faith in the gospel was also worthless, for it was in these ordinances that God communicated his grace. Attending to the outward rituals without an appreciation for the inward spiritual realities earns the reward of self-satisfaction but nothing more. The opposite is also the case; saying that one relishes the inner aspects of worship without any outward manifestation rings hollow. It is in this section that we see Owen’s heart for worship and what it truly means to speak of his piety.

The third section, “Covenant and Church” most directly addresses the church’s worship under the New Covenant. It’s worship wherein we have access to the Father through Christ and by the Spirit. It’s in this covenant that we truly appreciate each person of the Trinity and the respective roles assumed in the covenant of redemption. Owen’s view on ministers and ministry was that the ministers were there to bless the church in various ways, namely by putting the name of God on the church, by preaching the word, and by applying the word. All of this is done with an authority given to the office but rooted in Christ. The minister and the people experience preaching similarly but differently. The minister is to preach to himself first and apply the word to his own life. Preaching apart from faith and application is useless. The people encounter the Spirit through the preaching of the word.

Much more could be said but saying it would be to reproduce this gem of a volume in near entirety. It’s compact but it packs quite the punch. My one complain about Owen’s theology (or at least the one I’ll register here) is that his cessationist view of the gifts of the Spirit make his overall views on spiritual worship seem somewhat anemic. Is the Spirit encountered in the preaching of the word, prayer, singing, service, etc.? Absolutely! But there is a tangible encounter with the Spirit that many miss out on because they think for some odd reason that he’s stopped acting in and among his people the same way that he did in the beginning.

But like I said, this is my one complaint with this volume, which is otherwise excellent. The readings have been smartly chosen, and given the length of each reading (a couple of pages), this would serve as a wonderful devotional. It’s almost perfectly suited as a lenten devotional with its 41 chapters. The appendices are short and helpful. The first one addresses how to read Owen and where to get started on reading him. The second is a chronological list of Owen’s works and the third is a select bibliography of works about Owen. In all I think that those who long for something a bit deeper in worship would do well to read this book. The Trinity is the center of the Christian life and yet we wouldn’t be able to tell by how most Christian living is carried out. Material like this serves as a helpful reminder.

B”H