This September, I will be speaking on the Reformation 500 tour in Europe. We will begin in Berlin Germany and finish in Geneva Switzerland. We will also arrive in Wittenberg only days from the actual 500th year anniversary. For more information you can view the video below or visit the website here: 500th Anniversary of the Reformation Tour.

What Is the Relationship Between Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility? – “The relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is not instantly obvious, and at first glance it seems paradoxical. But Scripture offers us considerable insight into how these twin truths harmonize within the plan of redemption.”

Facebook plans customizable filters for nudity and violence – This is something to keep a close eye on.

$5 Friday: The Cross, the Covenants, & the Love of God – Some good books from Ligonier for only $5.

5 Steps to Serving Children with Autism, ADHD, and Attachment Disorders – Some good wisdom here for ministering to children (and families) who struggle with disorders.

Expositional Imposters – Mike Gilbart-Smith explains seven pitfalls that hinder true exposition.

Every component of worship, every week? – Jesse Johnson takes a look at the means of grace and takes on the frequency question.

On My Shelf: Life and Books with Joel Beeke – Take a look at what Joel Beeke is reading.

A Free Seminary-Level Course on the Reformation – Take Carl Trueman’s course for free – thanks to the generosity of Professor Trueman and The Master’s Seminary.

Twitter starts putting abusers in “time out” – This may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who defines the word abuse.

Theology Word of the Week:  Trinity

Trinity. The Christian doctrine of God, according to which he is three persons (see Hypostasis) in one substance or essence. The doctrine of the Trinity is sometimes attacked as being insufficiently monotheistic, but Christians have always denied this. The doctrine developed in the early church because it was the only way in which the NT witness to Jesus and to the Holy Spirit could be adequately accounted for. Far from being a covert invasion by pagan philosophical and religious influences, it would appear that the doctrine of the Trinity has survived against precisely these temptations, which have occasionally threatened to push the church into a practical and even a theoretical unitarianism.

The appearance of the Trinity in the NT raises the familiar problem of later interpolation, but although this has certainly been the case in 1 Jn. 5:7, it does not appear to be true elsewhere. Even the words of Jesus in Mt. 28:19, though they are frequently attacked as spurious, bear the authentic hallmark of the most primitive Trinitarianism, which was connected with baptism. Similar early Trinitarian theology appears in 2 Cor. 13:14, the famous ‘Grace’, which is peculiar in that the person of Christ is mentioned first. There are however a large number of indirect references to the Trinity, of which Gal. 4:6 may be cited as perhaps the most primitive. It is also apparent from what is said in Acts 8 and elsewhere, that Trinitarian baptism goes back to the earliest days of the church, when it was felt that baptism in the name of Christ alone was insufficient.

Whether the Trinity appears in any form in the OT has been much debated. Scholars have often noted the apparent personification of the Word and of the Spirit of God, but these are generally believed to fall short of personal existence in the NT sense. Nevertheless it is worth bearing in mind that for many centuries it was believed that the appearance of the three men to Abraham (Gn. 18) was an instance of the epiphany of the Trinity, a view which goes back in part to the pre-Christian exegesis of Philo.

The main passages of the Bible which have been used in the construction of Trinitarianism are to be found in John’s Gospel, especially chs. 14–16. Nevertheless, it must be borne in mind that the fathers of the church made great use of the Pauline Epistles as well, so that to erect an opposition between John and Paul on this score is highly misleading.

Trinitarian speculation begins in the 2nd century, with Athenagoras (fl. c. 177), who defends the doctrine as an essential part of the church’s faith (see Apologists). It was expounded at length by Tertullian, who was largely responsible for the method and vocabulary which the Western tradition now uses. Tertullian argued that there was one God, in whom could be found three persons. His thought was influenced by what is known as economic Trinitarianism, the belief that God the Father brought forth his two hands, the Son and the Holy Spirit, to serve as mediators in creating the world. This approach related to the three successive phases of God’s dealing with the world from creation onwards. The economy (Gk. oikonomia; cf. Eph. 1:10; 3:9) was this ordered plan of God. Human history could be divided into three periods, each of which belonged to a different person of the Godhead. The OT was the age of the Father, the gospel period the age of the Son and the time since Pentecost the age of the Holy Spirit. This view was unsatisfactory because it tied the Trinity to the time and space framework, and because it lent itself to modalism, the belief that the one God appeared to man in three different modes. As creator he appeared as the Father, as redeemer he appeared as the Son and as sanctifier he appeared as the Holy Spirit. These views, which were a form of Monarchianism, were later attributed, somewhat unfairly, to Sabellius, a 3rd-century heretic, and are now known as Sabellianism.

In reality, Sabellius held a doctrine which was more subtle than this. His view was apparently designed to overcome the objection to modalism, that it made the Father suffer and die on our behalf (patripassianism). Sabellius posited two poles of opposition and attraction in God—the Father and the Son. Both became incarnate in Jesus Christ, but on the cross they separated, as the Son cried out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ However, the love of the Father could not endure this separation, and so he brought forth the Holy Spirit as a kind of glue, to weld the Son back to him. This teaching appears extraordinarily crude, but it contains elements which returned in later Western Trinitarianism. Chief among these are the link between the Trinity and the atonement, and the tendency to regard the Holy Spirit as in some way impersonal and inferior to the Father and the Son.

Western Trinitarianism was matched by its Eastern rival, which is associated with the name of Origen. Working quite independently of Tertullian, Origen developed a doctrine of the three hypostaseis of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which were revealed to share the same divine ousia (essence). Origen arranged these in hierarchical order, with the Father as God-in-himself (autotheos), the Son as his exact image, and the Holy Spirit as the image of the Son. He insisted that this order existed in eternity, so that there could be no question of saying that there had been a time when the Son had not existed. But he also maintained that the Son had always been subordinated to the Father in the celestial hierarchy.

This view was later questioned by Arius, who argued that a subordinate being could not be co-eternal with the Father, since coeternity would imply equality. He was countered by Athanasius and others who replied that the Son was indeed co-eternal with the Father, but not subordinate to him, except in the context of the incarnation. Classical Trinitarianism developed in earnest after the Council of Nicaea (325). There it had been stated that the Son was consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, but soon afterwards this key term and the doctrine it embodied were widely rejected in favour of compromise formulae, such as homoiousios, ‘of a similar substance’. Athanasius, almost alone in the East, but after 339 with the support of the West, battled for an understanding (reflected in homoousios as he read it) which would make the Son numerically identical with the Father. The Son was not to be regarded as a part of God, nor was he a second deity; he was simply God himself, in whom the fullness of divinity dwelt (Col. 2:8) and in whom the Father himself was to be seen (Jn. 14:9). Eventually his viewpoint was secured, but not before controversy had broken out over the Holy Spirit.

This controversy concerned the biblical evidence for the Spirit’s divinity. Many assumed that because he did not have a ‘personal’ name, like the Father and the Son, he must be an inferior being. This was countered first by Athanasius and then by Basil of Caesarea, who argued at great length that the Holy Spirit was God because Scripture called him the Lord and life-giver, said that he proceeded from the Father (Jn. 15:26), and gave him the honour of being worshipped alongside the Father and Son.

Basil’s theology was declared orthodox at the Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople, 381), since which time it has been the basis of Trinitarian theology in the Eastern Church. In the West however, there was considerably more speculation, much of it based on Basil’s work and associated with the name of Augustine. Augustine inherited Tertullian’s theology, which he explored at length in his masterly work on the Trinity, De Trinitate, composed between 399 and 419.

In this work Augustine developed his doctrine of Trinitarian relations, which was to become a major element of difference between his thought and that of the Cappadocians. The Greeks generally thought in terms of causal origins for the persons of the Trinity. The Father was unbegotten, the Son begotten, and the Holy Spirit proceeding. As a result, unbegottenness, begottenness and procession became the distinguishing marks of the persons in relation to each other.

Augustine did not reject this way of thinking, but modified it considerably. For him, the one primordial God was not the Father, but the Trinity. The different persons found their cause not in some generation or procession, but in an inherently necessary interior relationship with each other. He developed this view by using a number of analogies, of which the most significant are mind and love. A mind knows itself because it conceives of its own existence; what is more, it must also love its self-conception. A lover cannot love without a beloved, and there is of necessity a love which flows between them but which is not strictly identical with either. From this, Augustine deduced that God, in order to be himself, had to be a Trinity of persons, since otherwise neither his mind nor his love could function.

The implications of this way of thinking were manifold and far-reaching. Causality was eventually replaced altogether by pure relations, existing of necessity in the very being of God. The Holy Spirit was likewise seen to be the fruit of the mutual love of Father and Son, the bond of unity which tied the Trinity together and revealed its essence, which was spirit. This in turn made it necessary for Augustine to affirm that the Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son (a Patre Filioque), whereas the Eastern tradition had affirmed a procession from the Father only. This was to provoke great controversy in the Middle Ages, and to contribute to the eventual separation of the Eastern and Western Churches. To this day it remains as a characteristic feature of Augustinian theology.

After Augustine, the West generally accepted his teaching without question, though in practice it was elaborated considerably. The most significant figure in the Middle Ages was Richard of St Victor (d. 1173; see Victorines). Richard argued for a social Trinity, in which the relationship of the persons was paradigmatic of human society on earth. His views were not given serious consideration until quite recently, but modern research is re-establishing him as a major medieval theologian.

At the Reformation, the traditional Western doctrine was reaffirmed, but John Calvin began a new development of thought in the work of the different persons. The Cappadocians had stated that the works of the Trinity outside the Godhead (ad extra) were undivided, i.e. the God who created the world was the Trinity. But Calvin, following Anselm, who had stressed the fact that the atonement was a work of God inside the Trinity (ad intra), said that Christians are admitted, through the Holy Spirit, to participation in the inner life of the Godhead. We are sons of God, not as Christ was, by nature, but by the grace of adoption. As a result of this, the Reformed tradition witnessed an explosion of works dealing with the work of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, in a depth which had previously been unknown.

The doctrine of the Trinity suffered eclipse in the deistic atmosphere of the 18th century, when many theologians became Unitarians. By the time of Friedrich Schleiermacher it had become an embarrassment, and the way was open to dismiss it as a philosophical construction by the early church. In the 20th century, however, thanks largely to the work of Karl Barth, the doctrine of the Trinity is once more at the centre of the church’s concerns. Basing himself on the Word of God as the principle of all theology, Barth reworked Augustine, and spoke of a revealer, of the thing revealed, and of revelation as the constituent elements of the Trinity. Like Augustine he was uncomfortable with the term ‘person’, and for this he has been criticized, especially from the Eastern standpoint.

Barth’s revival of Trinitarianism has borne fruit in all the churches, and the classical doctrine has been restated in different ways by Roman Catholics such as Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan, by Protestants such as Jürgen Moltmann and Eberhard Jüngel, and by Orthodox such as Vladimir Lossky (1903–58) and Dumitru Staniloae (b. 1903). There has been intense discussion of the Filioque cause in the context of ecumenical relations, and it seems certain that the doctrine of the Trinity will be explored even further in the near future. Whether this will add anything of permanent value to the traditional deposit, however, remains to be seen. [1]


  1. Sinclair B. Ferguson and J.I. Packer, New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 691–694.

 

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