Lecture 13: The Trinity
Course: Systematic Theology I
Lecture: The Trinity
IV. Trinity in Unity
A. Scriptural Monotheism
B. Scriptural Trinitarianism
1. Scriptural Affirmations of the Triune God
2. Brief History of the Doctrine of the Trinity
a. Christological Background
b. Monarchian Heresies
c. The Church's Rejection of Monarchianism
1) Rejection of Modalism
The rejection of Modalism occurred as Christian people read their Bibles and considered this proposal. It was just so apparent to the Christian community that this could not be the case. It didn't require a council to meet and defeat it. For example, the Baptism of Jesus; how do you account for this? Who was Jesus praying to in the Garden of Gethsemane? If we have only the Son in a Modalistic understanding, then who is the Father to whom he is praying? This must be some kind of spiritual ventriloquism. No, we have Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So Modalism was rejected by the church just through the Christian community reading the Bible and coming to this conclusion that it could not be.
2) Athanasius' Opposition to Arianism
Arianism is another thing altogether. The Arian view (the Subordinationist view) required a lot of effort from the Church to answer the question of the relationship of Jesus to the Father and affirming the deity of the Son while maintaining the deity of the Father. Arius proposed, if you affirm the deity of both, you have left monotheism. There is no way you can claim the deity of the Son and the deity of the Father and claim that there is one God. It is nonsense, he said. How did the Church respond to this challenge of affirming monotheism and yet affirm that the Father is God and the Son is God? This was a huge and difficult problem.
Athanasius was the key person who defended what became the orthodox view on this point. He is the hero in this story of the battle with Arianism. Arius was a very charismatic and convincing speaker and writer. He had quite a following. There was a large group of Arians who were advocating the view that Arius proposed, namely that we ought to honor Jesus because he is the greatest of God's creatures, and it was through the Son that the Father has accomplished so much. We do honor him as the one who died for our sins, but we do not recognize the Son as having the same nature as the Father, being divine himself. This cannot be the case. It was Athanasius who proposed a way of thinking of the Son as equal to the Father and yet as a distinct person from him.
3) Council of Nicea (325)
This was settled finally at the Council of Nicea. At this council there were actually three main positions represented: The Arians were arguing that the Son was a created being and had a different nature, a created nature, a finite nature, different than the Father. Athanasius was arguing that the Son had the same nature as the Father. Then there was a middle position that was argued at Nicea. This was presented by followers of Origen (who had long passed away over a century before). Followers of his picked up elements in Origen's writings in which Origen spoke of the Son in terms of his great similarity to the Father. The likeness of the Son to the Father was language that Origen used. So the followers of Origen proposed what they hoped would be a middle position that would solve this problem. It would unite the Athanasius crowd and the Arius crowd and bring them together.
Just a comment here. Beware of the notion that the truth resides in the middle. Beware of thinking that if we can we just find the balanced view, the middle view between two positions then we know that we have the truth. It is just not the case; that is not necessarily true. Sometimes the middle view is the true view, sometimes it is the case. But you don't know it is the true view just because it is the middle view. That is really totally irrelevant to its truthfulness. Plus the whole notion of middle is kind of silly anyway isn't it? Middle, between what? So you are talking about two views, and here is the middle one. What if, on the broader scope of things you find out that actually there are all these views over here, too? How middle is it anymore? This whole notion of a middle view is quite contrived anyway. The main point I want make for you and this little lesson from history is Jesus, when he told us how to be free, did not say, you shall know the middle view, the balanced view, and you shall be free. He said you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.
So Origen's followers proposed a middle position that they hoped would satisfy both sides. They used this term ''homoiousios'' of the Son in relation to the Father. ''Homoi'' meaning "similar," and ''ousios'' meaning "nature." The followers of Origen proposed this notion that he was of a nature very similar, very, very much like the nature of the Father. In saying this, there is no way this could ultimately satisfy Athanasius and his followers. No matter how similar something is, if it is not identical, or if it isn't the same, then it is qualitatively different. If God is infinite and this nature is not infinite, if God is self-existent and this nature is not self-existent, if God is eternal and this nature is not eternal, then it is not God. This did not satisfy Athanasius for a moment. In fact he proposed instead that the term that ought to be adopted is ''homoousios'' which means same nature. ''Homo'' means same (homosexual is same sex, homogenized milk is the same milk; it's not cream and the skim part; it is not two kinds; it is blended together so when you pour it out, it is all the same thing; that is homogenized milk). You are probably aware of the fact that the creed that was actually drafted at Nicea utilized this language in which the Son was affirmed as the same nature with the Father. This is just read a portion of the Nicene Creed that was adopted:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father,
One substance with the Father, ''homoousios'' is used of the Son.
There was a third article of the Nicene Creed on the Holy Spirit. We had an article on the Father, an article on the Son (the portion above), and the third article on the Holy Spirit that read: And we believe in the Holy Spirit. Period. That was it. That will come into play later.
At Nicea the Arians lost, and for that matter the followers of Origen lost, and Athanasius won. What sort of reasons did the Arians propose? For example the terms for Spirit in Old and New Testament respectively ''ruach'' and ''pneuma'' are neuter terms which you wouldn't necessarily associate with a person. We know in these languages masculine and feminine are used of all kinds of things that are things and not persons. Nonetheless, you don't find persons spoken of with neuter terms. Shouldn't we think of Spirit, the Arians argued, not as a personal being but as simply the presence of God manifest. In a similar way shouldn't the ''ruach adonai'' (the Spirit of the LORD) be the same as the hand of the LORD, the eyes of the LORD, and the strong right arm of the LORD, that is, God's presence manifest, seeing, acting, protecting. Both ''ruach'' and ''pneuma'' are translated "breath," so why not see God's breath as very similar to God's hand or God's eyes, rather than seeing this as a personal divine being, they would argue. This would solve any further problem of complicating our monotheism by adding yet anther God. Here we have essentially two, say the Arians; we've got God the Father, and we've got God the Son. This avoids, at least, adding a third deity to the Christian faith, they argued.
4) Council of Constantinople (381)
This was a harder one to fight for the church and because of that another council was called. The heroes of this particular Council at Constantinople were not the Latin theologians, like Athanasius from the Western Church, but here it was Eastern Church theologians. This plays into something else that happens later in regard to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The Cappadocian Fathers, three of them in particular, are the ones who really championed the deity of the Holy Spirit. There was Basil the Great (I don't think he called himself that but others gave him that particular name), Gregory of Nyssa, (Basil and Gregory of Nyssa were brothers) and Gregory of Nazianzus. It is interesting when you read the history of this you realize politics shape doctrinal statements. Personalities shape doctrinal statements. It is just unavoidable. Both are involved in this dispute and what came as a result at the Council of Constantinople.
This was a harder case to make than the deity of Christ. For the deity of Christ Athanasius could line up all kinds of texts that were very compelling. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. There is this notion of distinction and identity" (Jn 1:1). "I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am" (Jn 8:58). "I and the Father are one" (Jn 10:30). Philippians 2, in regard to the Kenosis, "he was in very nature God" Paul uses the term ''morphe,'' meaning "in the form" of God with his very nature. There were lots of texts that supported the deity of the Son.
There are texts, and I believe it is a compelling case, which support the deity of the Holy Spirit, but admittedly, it isn't as overwhelming of a case that can be made. The Cappadocian Fathers argued, number one, the Spirit is a person. It is wrong to think of the Spirit of the LORD like we do the hand of the LORD, or the eyes of the LORD. It is wrong to do that because unlike those other metaphors that are used, the Spirit of the LORD is clearly spoken of in personal terms. You don't grieve the right hand of the LORD; you don't grieve the eyes of the LORD, but you can grieve the Holy Spirit. You grieve a person. Think of Acts 5:4; Peter tells Ananias that you have not lied to men but have lied to God when you have lied to the Holy Spirit. How do you lie to a hand or to an eye or to some kind of impersonal power like electricity? Try to lie to electricity, to a light that is in the room. You can't do it. You lie to a moral agency. A moral agency is personal. When we get to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit I will present a lot of data for both the personhood and deity of the Holy Spirit. So the Cappadocian Fathers argued for the personhood of the Spirit.
They also argued for the deity of the Spirit in passages like the one in Acts 5:4 where Peter said to Ananias, why have you lied to the Holy Spirit about this, you have not lied to man but to God. In another instance, Paul uses of the metaphor of the temple in relation to the Spirit. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and in Jewish terms, what is the temple? What a rich metaphor to use of the residency of God, the place where God dwells, and now he affirms that of our bodies; that is astonishing. He specifically indicates that we are a temple of the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 2:12, Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit who knows the thoughts of God. No one can know the thoughts of God, except God.
So a lot of arguments were put forward for the deity of the Holy Spirit. He is personal and divine, and yet, they were fearful, especially Basil and Gregory. They were fearful that the case was not strong enough to persuade people to use the same language that had been used at Nicea (''homoousios'') now of the Spirit. To say the Spirit was ''homoousios,'' the same nature as the Father, they feared they would lose. Gregory of Nazianzus, on the other hand, was the brash, bold, bull-in-the-china-shop type figure who was so committed to the truth that the Holy Spirit is God, he insisted to the other two that they seek to have adopted the term ''homoousios'' concerning the Spirit, just as it had been adopted of the Son under Athanasius' leadership. Basil and Gregory of Nyssa said, no we don't think they will buy it; we don't think we will win. We think that we will come out of this and lose the vote. Gregory of Nazianzus was so ticked about this he up and left. He left the Council of Constantinople in the middle of the meeting and didn't return. You should read the correspondence that he wrote to these brothers, Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, charging them with cowardice and failure to uphold the truth. He was really upset about this.
What happened was Basil and Gregory went with their strategy to use different terminology that would not be objected to, terminology which had the effect of affirming the deity of the Holy Spirit, even though it didn't use the stronger straight forward term ''homoousios''. That is what they did, and at Constantinople they won the vote and the council expanded the third article from Nicea. At Nicea in 325 the third article said, we believe in the Holy Spirit, period. Now it gets expanded at Constantinople and it reads as follows:
And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
Think about these phrases one at a time.
"And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord." Who is the Lord overall? God. Their strategy here was not to affirm deity straight on as homoousios would but to affirm deity by entailment, by inference, by implication. If this is true then certainly it follows he is God. They had in mind 2 Corinthians 3:18 where Paul says we are being transformed into the same image of Christ from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. They had in mind there that this is God who does this but it is referred to as the Lord who is the Spirit.
So he is Lord, Life-giver. "And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life." Who can give life, physical life or eternal life? God is the only one who can give life. So again, by implication it affirms deity.
"Who proceeds from the Father..." I will come back to this one because this one is complicated.
"Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified;" Remember Isaiah 42:8 where God says, I will not give My glory to another. God alone is to be glorified. God alone is to be worshiped and honored. Here they affirm of the Spirit, the same worship, adoration, and honor that is to go to God alone. So, clearly by inference it indicates the deity of the Holy Spirit.
They sought language that would be acceptable and did affirm the deity of the Holy Spirit while avoiding, in their view, a term that might have caused their proposal to be voted down.
Let me back up and say something about this one phrase that is in here. "Who proceeds from the Father." It is an interesting phrase for a couple of reasons. Let's look again, in regard to the Son, at the second article at Nicea.
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father,
With the phrase, "begotten of the Father," there was a conviction at Nicea that the relationship between the Father and the Son was one of begetting. He was the only begotten of the Father. When you come to Constantinople and ask what shall we use to describe the relationship of the Father and the Spirit and if you already said that the begetting of the Son is unique, and he is the only begotten, then you can't use begotten. You can't say that the Son is the only begotten of the Father and then in the third article say that the Spirit is begotten of the Father. That is nonsense. So you have to come up with other terminology. This was actually provided by Gregory of Nazianzus before he bailed on the council deliberations. He proposed that we take the term from John 15:26 and use it. This is what describes the relationship of the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Jn 15:26 When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify about Me,
There it is. "Who proceeds from the Father..." So Gregory of Nazianzus said, instead of using the term "begetting," lets use the term "proceeding." We ought to think of it this way: the Father's relation to the Son is one of eternal generation or eternal begetting; those are used synonymously in the language they invoked. And the relation of the Father and the Spirit is one of eternal procession, or sometimes eternal spiration is used as well. But procession is the key term, the term most commonly used. One the hand we have eternal generation and on the other hand we have eternal procession. The actually ontological conception of eternal generation and eternal procession are nearly identical. What they were affirming of the Son is that the Son has his very being in the Father eternally and the Spirit has his very being in the Father eternally, and yet the terms differ in order to affirm the uniqueness of the begetting of the Son. This utilizes biblical language where he is spoken of as ''monogenes'' (only begotten) of the Father. So the term "only begotten" and the term from John 15:26, "proceeding from the Father," were terms that were utilized that were distinctive of these two persons of the Trinity in relation to the Father.
One more thing that is interesting about this discussion of proceeding from the Father is that the 381 Constantinople statement says, "who proceeds from the Father." It doesn't say more than that. As we will see in a few moments one of the biggest theological rifts in the history of the church has been on whether or not to affirm that Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son, which was added later. I want you see here that at 381 the "and the Son" was not in it.
d. Augustine (354-430) on the Trinity
Augustine was not yet a Christian in 381 when the Council of Constantinople met. He became a Christian in 386 and became bishop at this small North African city of Hippo in 395. So he was totally oblivious to all this that was going on in 381 and all the discussion that was taking place. Nonetheless, he had a role of becoming one of the most influential theologians in the history of the church. One of his areas of enormous influence was on the doctrine of the Trinity. I think it is accurate to say and fair to say, there is no post-Canonical theologian who has had a bigger influence on the church than Augustine. He was the bridge person between the end of the early church era, the early church fathers, and the medieval church. He was the bridge person who launched so much of what became medieval Christianity, including certain aspects of Roman Catholicism and their views. But he was also the figure that the Reformers cited more often than any other early authority other than apostolic witness or biblical testimony. Augustine was greatly influential on the Reformers. All the way up to the Reformation, and then in the Reformation, Augustine exerts enormous influence on Calvin, Luther and others through his writings.
One of the areas was the doctrine of the Trinity. Augustine wrote a lengthy treatise, ''De Trinitate,''; my Doctoral seminar students read it and it is an incredible piece of work. It is not easy reading, but it is worth it. It is filled with incredible, ingenious ways of thinking and understanding the complexities of the Trinity. He wrote this between 399 and 419. He set for the church the standard view on the Trinity.
One of the things that he proposed in that has been adopted ever since, is that we should use the term "person;" ''persona'' is the term he used in Latin, but in English it comes across as person to indicate the three simultaneous manifestations of the Trinity. Augustine did not come to this term ''persona'' because he was convinced it was such a great term. In fact Augustine came to this very begrudgingly, realizing that there was no term that he could think of that conveyed well what the doctrine of the Trinity needed to convey. He picked the term person because it was the least bad term he could find. Please understand that "person" is filled with possible misunderstandings. When you are talking about three persons, you are taking about three centers of consciousness, three different wills, maybe conflicting ideas and different sets of emotions and desires. Do we have three persons in the Godhead who have three different minds, three different wills, three different purposes, three different visions and goals? No, Augustine says that would be wrong, but we have, in the Trinity, three persons in so far as these are personal beings. They do have minds, emotions and wills. These are persons, not abstract representations. These are personal representations, but they are representing the one undivided essence or nature of God in three unique ways, three distinctive ways. So as Augustine would talk about it, it is true that the Father is God, the Son is God and Holy Spirit is God, but it is not true that the Father is the Son or that the Son is the Spirit. All three are divine, but all three are not identical. They have identical essence, but they have distinctive personal characteristics that distinguish Father, Son, and Spirit. But those distinguishing characteristics, said Augustine, do not have to do with the nature of God. At the level of nature, they are identical. At the level of nature, the essence of the Father, Son, and Spirit share an identical nature. So the differences of the Father, Son, and Spirit cannot be at the level of nature. Yet Father, Son, and Spirit are different. Father is not Son, and Son is not Spirit. This is what Augustine struggled with. How do we articulate what distinguishes Father, Son, and Spirit. Do you see the problem? What unites them was clear; nature or essence is what unites them. By the way, it isn't a uniting or equality of essence that is like dividing a pie into three equal parts. It is not as though the Father, Son, and Spirit have equal essence in so far as they each share an equal portion of the one divine essence. No. It is rather that the Father, Son, and Spirit share the one undivided essence; each is fully God. It is not that each is equally God because each has same portion of the divine essence; each is equally God by sharing the totality of the divine essence.
By the way, as soon as you see that, you realize where most of the analogies for the Trinity break down. They break down in one of two places, and Augustine has chapters in his treatise on the Trinity devoted to analogies of the Trinity that he felt were in one way or another unworkable but perhaps helpful to finite minds in certain ways.
For example Peter, James, and John are all humans; they are equally human and they are three persons. Is this an analogy of the Trinity? No, because their equality of humanity is not the same as the Father, Son, and Spirit's equality of divinity. What is the difference? They do not share the same nature. They have the same kind of nature but they don't have the same nature. Let's just take Peter; he is one guy. He is simultaneously a son, father, and uncle. Does that do it? He has one nature. That one nature is manifest simultaneously, one at the same time; there he stands: one nature who is father, son, and uncle. Is that like the Trinity? No, those three are three relationships of one person. Peter is one person as well as one nature. What those father, son, and uncle realities are realities of the relationship of the one person Peter, with three other individuals. He has a father, he has children or a child, and he has a nephew or a niece. How could Peter as father, son, and uncle be like Jesus at the baptism where the voice comes from heaven, Jesus is in the water and the Holy Spirit descends? It is not the same thing. Here is where the difference is, what you have in the Trinity is three simultaneous personal expressions of the one undivided essence. The fact is that there are no analogies in human existence that match the Trinity. There is nothing that works.
Here is another analogy that is often given of the Trinity. What about a triangle? You have one thing, one substance that is only what it is, that is, its substance is defined by virtue of its threeness. If it weren't three it wouldn't be triangle. So you have one substance that is simultaneously three, one in three; is this like the Trinity? It isn't. If it is, then the side "a," "b," and "c" have to be equivalent to Father, Son, and Spirit. The problem is that the nature of triangularity is not the nature of "a." The nature of triangularity is not the nature of "b," but in the Trinity the nature of God is the nature of the Father; the nature of God is the nature of the Son; the nature of God is the nature of the Holy Spirit. So that won't work. This is actually is an analogy of a tripartite understanding of God. Not Trinitarian, tripartite. This is like the pie divided into three parts. These are quite similar analogies. You divide the pie into three parts, each 1/3 of it. Each is 1/3 of the nature of the triangle, and together you have the whole triangle.
What about water? That is often times proposed as an analogy of the Trinity. You have water molecules that are manifest in three forms, as solid, liquid, and vapor. Is that the Trinity? No, that is Modalism. This is a great, great illustration of modalism. If you want to understand the Sabellian view, this is it. You have water molecules that are either solid or liquid or vapor. I know there is this point where you have all three together, the triple point. My understanding of this is what you don't have is the identical molecule that are simultaneously the three. What you have is collection molecules where in the grouping of them you have some solid, some liquid, and some vapor. So that is not the same; it is just that they happen to be close together. But what you don't have is the same H20 molecule simultaneously. That is what you would have to have to make this work.
We just don't have anything that quite fits the doctrine of the Trinity. Augustine was aware of this. So he took the notion of person as the best way to explain this concept of personal expression. When asked what distinguishes Father, Son, and Spirit, he gave two answers to this. Essentially one is an ontological answer, and the other is relational.
The ontological answer is that the Father is distinct from the other two because he is unoriginate. He is unbegotten; he is non-proceeding. Nothing originates the Father. The Son is originate qua, as he is eternally begotten. The Spirit is originate qua; he is eternally proceeded. The Father alone is unoriginate. The Son derives his being eternally, catch the point, eternal begetting, eternal generation. The Son derives his being through the process of eternal generation. The Spirit derives his being through the process of eternal procession. One answer that Augustine gave to what distinguishes them is an ontological one. That is, it has to do with their very being; what constitutes the being of the Father, Son, and Spirit by nature. It is not Subordinationist for Augustine, insofar as the nature that is begotten is the identical nature of the Father. The nature that is proceeding is the identical nature of the Father. He uses the analogy of a human generation. I have children, and those children possess equal nature with their parents. The difference is that they don't share the identical natures of their parents. That is what constitutes the uniqueness of this. Both the fact that it is eternal, and the fact that it is the identically, one nature of the Father that is shared fully with the Son. One numerically identically same nature of the Father shared with the Spirit. Ontologically he sees the Son as dependent upon the Father and the Spirit dependent upon the Father for being.
This then leads him to a relational distinction as well, insofar as the Father, Son, Holy Spirit should be viewed in a relationship in which the Son submits to the Father and the Holy Spirit submits to the Son and to the Father, it is hard to draw it quite correctly because it is actually a submission at one and the same time to the Son and the Father. Part of his reason for thinking so is the ontological fact that there is this eternal ontological dependence of the Son and the Spirit on the Father. It is also partly owing to what he sees in Scripture that the Son does the will of the Father. He was sent into the world to fulfill the will of the Father. Over and over again in Scripture you see evidence that the Son yields to the Father. Jesus said, when the Spirit comes he will glorify me; he will not speak on his own initiative; he will take of mine and disclose it to you (Jn 16). The Spirit likewise is subordinate to the Son in role or function. This leads him to conclude then that there are relational differences. For example, even though redemption is the work of God, more precisely redemption is the work of the Father who sends the Son to pay for sin, who goes to the cross in the power of the Spirit. You have this Trinity of persons accomplishing this act. So the Son does something that the Father does not do, and the Spirit does something that the Son does not do. Each contributes to the act of redemption, but each contributes distinctively in it. The same thing could be said of creation and so many other things.
Let me give to you, as a last item from Augustine, a definition of the Trinity which I have culled. When I read his ''De Trinitate'' I kept looking for the perfect definition, and to my knowledge, he doesn't give at any one place a holistic definition of the Trinity. I will call this an Augustinian definition because I have culled from Augustine what he intends to say about the Trinity.
God's whole and undivided essence belongs equally, simultaneously, and fully to each of the three persons of the Godhead.
It is very important in crafting Trinitarian definitions that you say enough. The word simultaneous in there is huge. Without it you could have Modalism. The Sabellian view argues that the whole undivided essence is found in the Father, Son, and Spirit. The difference is that it is successive instead of simultaneous. The Arian view would deny equally. So it is important to have, "the whole and undivided essence belong equally;" each is an equal sharer in the whole undivided essence. "Fully" indicates that this isn't divided up. It is possessed in total, fully. It is very important to think carefully because this is an area where the line between orthodoxy and heresy can be crossed just by carelessness with language. The same thing is true when we talk about the kenosis, the emptying of Christ. I wonder how many times preachers have preached heresy from the pulpit just because of carelessness in the kinds of things that were said about Philippians 2. So we have to be very careful in this.
3. Immanent (Ontological) and Economic Trinities
I find the term immanent confusing in so far as we talk about God's immanence meaning his nearness to us, that is immanence compared to transcendence. But that is not what it means here. Immanent Trinity is the Trinity considered within the Godhead, apart from creation. The Ontological Trinity is the relationship of the three persons together, apart from creation. This is a valid distinction. God exists eternally as God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit whether he creates the world or not. Shouldn't God be considered apart from creation? Who is God in himself, apart from the created order; that is the Ontological Trinity. How do we think of the Father, Son, and Spirit in and of themselves apart from creation? Ontological or Immanent Trinity are the terms used for that. Economic Trinity is the Trinity, the Father, Son, Holy Spirit in relationship to creation. How does God as Father, Son, and Spirit relate to the created order? How do we understand that particular reality?
There is a movement today (which won't surprise some of you if you know something about contemporary theology) to reduce the Ontological or Immanent Trinity to the Economic. If you know the drift in theology generally is to go from below instead of from above. Have you heard of Christology from below? You start with the human Jesus. Pannenberg was insistent upon this. He said, you cannot start with Christology from above with the deity of Christ first, even though John starts there (John 1:1 is before you have John 1:14). The Word was God and the Word became flesh. You can't do this, says Pannenberg. The drift in theology is to go from below, to look at the lowest common denominator as it relates to human existence. There is a tendency now, in contemporary Trinitarian discussions to essentially reduce the Ontological Trinity to the Economic.
Think of the implications of this. If that is the case, it requires that there be a creation. If there is no other God than the Economic Triune God, then the creation really becomes a necessity for God to be God. If our understanding of God is at the Economic level first and foremost, it skews everything. What I want to do is back up and be quite traditional on this and say, we ought to think of God first in and of himself apart from creation. And then ask the question, how does this God who exists eternally, self-existently, self-sufficiently, in himself, apart from creation, then relate to the created order that he made? It seems to me that the Ontological and then the Economic is the order we ought to follow.
If you start with the Ontological Trinity, the first question you have to face is what to make of this notion of the Father being the unoriginate and the Son eternally begotten and the Spirit eternally proceeding. I have my own assessment of this, and I am not alone in this by any means. I think the majority of Evangelicals have come basically to this same understanding. Not all, by any means, but I would say most have. That is that this whole conception is ultimately speculative and is not grounded in biblical teaching. I am not claiming that it is wrong; I am claiming that it is a philosophical way of conceiving of this relationship; it is not born out by biblical teaching. If you look at the only begotten teaching of Scripture, it's clear that this has to do with the incarnation. God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son into the world (Jn 3:16). This is the incarnation. The ''monogenes'' is the uniquely begotten Jesus of Nazareth. I challenge you to look and see if there is a basis in Scripture's teaching about the ''monogenes'' the only begotten of the Son, see if there is a basis for biblically affirming eternal begetting. I don't see it.
Certainly this is the case also with the proceeding. John 15:26 says, the helper will come who I will send to you who proceeds from the Father. What is that talking about? What is Jesus referring to? Pentecost. This is Pentecost; this is not the eternal proceeding of the Spirit from the Father. It is talking about a time after the Son has ascended to the right hand of the Father. Remember Acts 2:33 where Peter says, "Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured forth this which you both see and hear." So there Jesus is talking about that kind of proceeding which proceeds from the Father. The Father sends him through the Son to the world. This is historical.
In my judgment, the begetting and the proceeding are historical and not eternal, biblically. Therefore we err in contriving a doctrine that just doesn't say what the Bible says about this. It is especially confusing because it uses biblical language (only begotten, proceeding), but in a way that the text doesn't warrant.
The second comment I want to make about this is that the whole notion of eternal begetting appears internally contradictory. It looks like an oxymoron. Begetting seems to entail beginning. How do you not have beginning with begetting? How do you not have it? Yet it is eternal begetting, so you must deny the beginning of what seems to require a beginning in begetting. I draw the conclusion that the notion itself is perhaps (I am trying to be generous here because this is orthodoxy. This has been around a long time and it has been affirmed by a lot of people) nonsense to affirm this. I want to give it the benefit of the doubt and if there is some defense for it, I believe that it would have to be a philosophical one, not biblical. But I am open to that, and I don't want to throw it off the table, but I want to say I can't affirm it on the same grounds that I affirm other things about this doctrine of the Trinity.
So what can you say about the Ontological Trinity? You ought to say, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are eternal. They are co-eternally God. They share the one undivided eternal divine nature. I think the whole notion of accounting for the origination of the Son and the Spirit was where the mistake was made. Just affirm they are not originate. Why not say Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not originate? What you affirm of the Father, affirm of all three and avoid this problem of trying to explain the origin of what has no origin. That is where I would go with that.
This is still the Ontological Trinity, I think Augustine was right on track in terms of relationship of the three. That is, that there is in the Trinity a hierarchy of relationship. Gilbert Bilezikian and other egalitarians who hold that there is no distinction between gender as it relates to ministry position or in the home, really don't like this notion of there being a hierarchy in the Trinity because of the analogy. If God has this internal hierarchy and he creates man in his image, male and female, it certainly does at least give implicit support for the notion of male headship in a hierarchy of human relationships. I think that is absolutely right. It is attested to clearly in the Bible. So they don't like this notion, and they try to egalitarianize (I think I just coined a word) the Trinity. If you look carefully at what Jesus says, his statements about his submission to the Father do not relate merely to what he does on earth during the incarnation. He also says, I came out of heaven to do the will of my Father. What does that imply? Back then, before the incarnation, my very becoming incarnate was in obedience to the will of the Father. This implies that there is an authority/submission relationship between the Son and the Father in eternity past before creation. What does 1 Peter 1:20 say of Christ? "For he was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared..." Before the foundation of the world he was the one chosen by the Father to come (Acts 2:23 says, "This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God...") So it looks very clear that this is true in the eternal relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In terms of Economic Trinity, then, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do their work in this world in ways that fit their relationship with one another. This is why, going back to what we talked about earlier, we pray to Father in the name of the Son by the prompting, leading and power of the Holy Spirit. There is something Trinitarian about this that ought not to be violated in terms of our understanding of prayer. Think of even the honor we give to Christ. Philippians 2 how does that paragraph end?
Phil 2:9 For this reason also, God highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, Phil 2:10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, Phil 2:11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
In 1 Corinthians 15, all things are summed up in Christ. He has defeated everything including death. What does he do? He hands it over to the Father. The one who subjected all things to him was not himself subjected to Christ is what Paul says. Christ hands it over to the Father that God may be all in all. So the point of this is to say in eternity past, in relationship here, and in eternity future God manifests himself in relationship to us as he is in himself with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in a relationship of authority and submission. This has huge implications in understanding the world God has made. Should it surprise us that there are authority and submission relationships, by God's design, in the world he has made that reflects who he is? No surprise. The spirit of our age is to buck authority and resist the notion of any kind of difference. Complete equality across the board is the spirit of our age. It is not of God. We've got to think hard about this. The whole notion of authority and submission as it relates in our sphere reflecting the very nature of God is huge.