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