Lecture 3: The Doctrine of the Trinity
Course: Understanding Theology
Lecture: The Doctrine of the Trinity
The Doctrine of the Trinity has been one of the most defining doctrines of the Christian faith when you compare it to other religions of the world. As Christians we even separate ourselves from Jews who believe, in one sense, in the same God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is, in fact, the God of Jesus Christ and the God of Paul and the God of Christian people. But in another sense, we understand the nature of God, especially with the revelation that has come to us in Christ, as the early church came to understand this, as a nature of a God who is one, yes one in His very essence as God, but three and not three deities, not three Gods, but three persons of the one Godhead.
This doctrine is, at one time, a very significant distinguishing doctrine of the Christian faith. In another sense, it is a doctrine that is crucial for us in understanding much other doctrine of the Christian faith. Let me give you just one example before we dive into the lecture material. Think, for example, of salvation as we think of that as Christian people. Do you realize that it must be a Trinitarian God who saves if there is to be salvation from sin for sinners?
Here is why. When you think of how salvation worked; it required that the Father send His Son into the world. Now, why that? Because the Son had to come who was both divine and human. He had to be divine so that the payment for our sin would be of sufficient value to pay for all of our sin, for all time. A payment was made in full. He had to be human so he would take our place in dying for sin. It required that the Son submit to the will of the Father and receive the wrath of the Father against His own Son so that God would be satisfied, propitiated is the word that is used in Romans 3, as His Son made the payment for our sin.
The Son who comes must live His life as a human being and He must live sinless and carry out the will of the Father every single moment of every day of His life. To do that the Holy Spirit comes upon Him so that He is empowered by the Spirit to live the life that He lived, to speak the things that He spoke, and perform the miracles that He did. He did so in the power of the Spirit so that He could go to the cross as obedient and sinless.
Here we have the doctrine of salvation, which requires the Father being the One who sends the Son and judges sin in the Son, the Son who comes, who is at one in the same time both God and man, and the Spirit who is God empowering the man Jesus to live the life that He lived. The Trinity is required for salvation to be true. This can be seen in other areas as well. The doctrine of the Trinity really pervades all of Christian doctrine, but it is one that Christian people have shied away from simply because of its complexity and in some cases it is beyond our comprehension fully to understand. Let’s devote ourselves to understand as best we can in the limited time we have what the doctrine of the Trinity affirms.
I. Scriptural Monotheism
It is a striking fact that both the faith of the Old Testament Jews and the faith of New Testament Christians was uniform and in full agreement in affirming monotheism, the belief that there is one and only one God. This is a remarkable thing in light of the fact that in both Old Testament cultural settings that surrounded Israel and in the New Testament, the cultural settings that surrounded the early church, you find a pervasive polytheism.
Most of the nations that surrounded Israel were polytheistic. The nations that surrounded the early church were polytheistic. The gods of the Canaanites, Baal and Ashtoreth, and the gods of Egypt and the gods of the Assyrians and so on; these were polytheistic cultures believing in a variety of different gods who had jurisdictional control and the like. And here is Israel in the midst of this polytheistic land affirming that there is one God. Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is one.” This is implied in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” No reference to verse 26, “Let us make man in our image,” can deny the monotheistic affirmation in the Pentateuch. This is not a plurality of deities. At best it is a veiled reference, a very premature reference, to the Trinity. Clearly this is the one God who is spoken of in the Pentateuch.
Then beyond that, take for example, in Isaiah 45:5-7 how strong is the affirmation that God alone is God. God through Isaiah writes in Isaiah 45:5, “I am the Lord,” that’s Yahweh “and there is no other; besides Me there is no God. I will gird you, though you have not known Me; that men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that there is no one besides Me. I am the Lord and there is no other, the one forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these.” So God alone is God. Echoed also in Isaiah 46:9, “Remember the former things long passed, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all my good pleasure.’” (Isa. 46:9-10). Clearly the Old Testament affirms that Yahweh alone is God.
When we come to the New Testament we find here an ongoing affirmation that God is one; there is only one God. For example, John 17:3, we read Jesus saying, “And this is eternal life: that they may know thee, the only true God.” So there is one God, not a plurality of deities. 1 Corinthians 8:6, “But there is only one God, the Father, of whom are all things.” 1 Timothy 2:5 states, “There is one God.” Look also at Romans 3:30 and James 2:19. It is very, very striking, it seems to me, that even in the New Testament where there might have been a temptation to affirm more than one deity when you have the Father and the Son, as we will be talking about in just a moment here, the Son who says things like, “Before Abraham was, I Am,” (John 8:58). This is a claim to deity. This is a claim to be identified with Yahweh of the Old Testament. Why not affirm that the Father to whom he prays and of whom he speaks is God and the Son is God? So you have got two deities. The early church never did this. The New Testament never did this.
It is a striking fact that in the midst of polytheistic cultures for both Old and New Testament believers and in the New Testament in light of the revelation of Christ who comes as God in human flesh, still there is the affirmation that there is one God and this never was compromised or challenged in the New Testament. In the early church there was absolutely no sentiment in going to the direction of a tritheism or a view that there is more than one deity. No, both Judaism and Christianity were resilient in their affirmation of there being one God. Monotheism was never questioned or compromised.
II. Scriptural Trinitarianism
While it is true that monotheism was never jeopardized or compromised and was always affirmed; it is also true that the New Testament church, particularly the early theologians of the centuries that followed the life and ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ, struggled very much to understand its monotheism, which by the way, remember I said they never gave up but they sought to understand it in light of the fact of the Father who sent the Son in the power of the Spirit and how in the world to make sense of this one God in light of Father, Son, Spirit.
A. Scriptural Affirmations of the Triune God
Let’s begin with just taking a look at some passages that early Christians noticed that led them to think in terms of something like the doctrine of the Trinity or at least what became the doctrine of the Trinity. Some of these passages are ones that actually affirm the oneness of God but raise a question. For example, John 17:3 that I quoted to you earlier, “And this is eternal life: that they may know thee, the only true God.” Do you remember how it goes from there? “And Jesus Christ whom thou has sent.” Here you have a verse that not only claims eternal life is connected with “thee, the only true God” but also with Jesus Christ whom God has sent. Who is able to give eternal life but God? Here is a verse that is claiming something that only God can do, namely give eternal life, it is the gift of God and Jesus Christ. Doesn’t that seem to put together Jesus at the same level as God?
Or, 1 Corinthians 8:6 similarly, “But there is only one God, the Father of whom are all things.” Then the verse continues, “And one more Jesus Christ from whom are all things.” Who can create? Only God can create. Here this verse says that creation comes from one God the Father and from Jesus Christ through whom are all things.
We know from other teachings in the New Testament that the Creator that is highlighted in the New Testament is, in fact, Jesus. For example, in John 1, “All things came into being by Him.” That is this word, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him,” by the Word, “and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.”
In Hebrews 1 likewise it is as one who is the radiance of the Father, this one who has come who was the creator of the worlds. Who can create but God alone? And yet here Christ is said to be creator. In a context in 1 Corinthians 8:6 where there is an affirmation of one God, this was very difficult to try to put together. Then on top of that, of course, you have numerous passages, which I won’t go into here because we’ll take time to look at this in another lecture, that support the deity of Christ and the deity of the Holy Spirit.
Just to give you an example, the deity of Christ, John 1:1 that I just mentioned a moment ago, “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God.” Here this indicates a distinction, a difference between the two. But then, “The Word was God,” this indicates identity. How do you put this together? How do you put together one God and yet Father and Son are God? What about the Holy Spirit?
You remember in Acts 5 where Peter confronts Ananias and Sapphira for the gift that they had given. They, of course, had lied about this and Peter says to them, “Why have you lied to the Holy Spirit about this; you have not lied to men but to God.” (Acts 5:1-11). By that he is equating lying to the Holy Spirit to lying to God, putting the two together. The early church looked at these passages and realized in time that Christ, in fact, is God; this is affirmed. We will talk more about that history in a few moments. The Holy Spirit is affirmed as God. Here you have the Father, the Son, the Spirit, each in time understood by early Christians to be deity and yet there is one God. How in the world do we do this?
One more factor let me mention to you, that clearly was part of the Scriptural background to the doctrine of the Trinity, were what are sometimes called triadic passages. They are not, strictly speaking, Trinitarian passages because there is no passage in the Bible that explains how God is one in essence and three in persons, which of course is what the doctrine of the Trinity ended up saying. There are passages that put the three persons together in a context of deity. Two of these, in particular, are the most important, I believe.
The first is Matthew 28:19 where Jesus has told his disciples beginning in verse 18, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and earth therefore go into all the world and make disciples of all peoples.” And then he says, “Baptizing them in the name,” singular, name, not names, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Here is a very important indication at the very baptism that is to take place of believers that the one God in whose name they are being baptized is the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which of course, puts together Father, Son, and Spirit in positions of equality. When it says the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, name, of course, refers to the identity of the being. One’s nature is wrapped up in one’s name. To be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is to indicate the one name of God, one nature of God, is manifest in Father, Son, Spirit.
The second triadic passage which is just enormously important is the very last verse of the book of 2 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians 13:14 where Paul ends this book with a benediction. In here he says, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” This is remarkable because a benediction is really a place where you say to another or to others, “May God be with you,” or “May God’s presence go with you.” But here, “May God be with you,” comes in the form, “May the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, the fellowship of the Spirit be with you.” Father, Son, Spirit becomes the benediction that announces the blessing of God, the presence of God with you. So, again, Paul puts this in a way that indicates clearly a Trinitarian implication from this triadic passage.
The early church, then, faced the Scripture passages, some of them, as I first mentioned to you that talked about the oneness of God, but in the very context of the them indicated something more complex than this. Jesus is connected with this one God, passages like John 17:3 and 1 Corinthians 8:6. They also encountered a host of passages that we don’t have time to look at right now but will in other lectures that refer to the deity of Christ and the deity of the Holy Spirit and realize we must account for the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit as God. Then they saw these triadic passages, which seemed to call forth the notion of the one God being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What did the early church do to resolve this question?
B. Brief History of the Doctrine of the Trinity
1. Christological Background. First thing that we need to understand in this doctrine is that what gave rise to the very questions that the early church dealt with was their longing and desire to answer the question, who is Jesus? This is behind so much of the hard work. Thoughtful, careful reasoning in the early church was to try to understand better this Savior, this Lord Jesus who had come and died for their sins. The one upon whom they had placed their hope they now called themselves after him. They were called Christians. How could they rightly do this and still affirm that, yes, Jesus is Lord but there is one God. Clearly it is the Christological background that gave rise to the questions that provoked thinking about this doctrine.
Sometimes people have asked, couldn’t the Jews have gotten the doctrine of the Trinity from the Old Testament? In retrospect you can look back and see indications of the Trinity in various places but it would be very difficult to get that, in fact, just really impossible to get the doctrine of the Trinity just from the Old Testament. When Jesus comes on the scene as the one sent from the Father, and nobody disputes the fact that the Father is God and then Jesus himself clearly speaks and performs miracles and does other kinds of activities indicating that he is God, this raises the question, how can we hold to one God? (Which again, the early church never gave up), and believe that both the Father and the Son are God. This gave rise to some theories that were proposed in the early church that are sometimes called Monarchian Heresies.
2. Monarchian Heresies. It was called monarchian because of the prominence of the Father as the monarch over all; the one from whom everything comes. There was a fear by these monarchians that if some kind of equal status is given to the Son and the Spirit as is given to the Father, then the monarchy of the Father is violated and destroyed. So these monarchians then proposed theories of who the Son and the Spirit are that upheld the monarchy of the Father. There are two of these forms that were proposed.
a. Dynamistic Monarchianism/Subordinationism. The main proponent of this view was Arius. Arius lived in the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth century. As far as we know he died in A.D. 336 and really proposed the main alternate which came to be known as a heretical view that stood against the orthodox view and he was refuted at the Council of Nicea that we will talk about in a moment.
Arius proposed that Jesus Christ was, in fact, a highly exalted being and had many extraordinary qualities. He had existed, in fact, long, long before the heavens and the earth were made and it was through Christ Jesus that the heavens and the earth were made. But Arius held that Jesus was, in fact, a created being. He was created by the Father and he was the Father’s tool for creating the world and redeeming the world, but Jesus was not Himself God. This is where the term subordinationism comes, that is, the very nature of Jesus was subordinate to the nature of the Father.
The Father had a divine nature. The Son, though, had a creaturely nature, a created nature, a finite nature. How was Christ able to do the things that He did and perform the miracles and so on? As Arius proposed this the dynamis, the power of the Father, resided within the Son so that he was able to do miraculous things that only God can do. This was not because He was God, it was rather because God’s power indwelt Him and enabled Him to do this. Hence, the term dynamistic monarchism, that is, this dynamis, this power (we get the English word dynamite from the Greek word) of the Father was resident in the Son that enabled Him to do this.
b. Modalistic Monarchianism/Modalism. The main proponent of this view was Sabellius. What Sabellius proposed is that, in fact, there is only one God and the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each is God. This is a very instructive thing in regard to the doctrine of the Trinity to realize. We have to be careful to be precise and thorough in our statement of Trinitarian belief, because, for example, just saying that there is one God and the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are God that will still allow for modalism as Sabellius proposed it.
What was Sabellius’ view? He viewed that the one God manifest Himself first as the Father; so the God manifest in the Old Testament was the Father. But, secondly, He was manifest as the Son, so in the incarnation the one God is no longer the Father but now he is the Son. And then after Christ ascended back to heaven he came again, that is the one God came again, and this time He came as the Holy Spirit. So while it is true that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God and there is one God according to the Sabellian view, it is true that the Father and the Son and the Spirit only exist as God successively not simultaneously.
The difference between those concepts is the difference between heresy and orthodoxy. In the Sabellian view, a heretical view, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit exist as God successively. It is first the Father, then the Son, then the Holy Spirit. But in orthodoxy, as we will see in a few moments, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist as God simultaneously, all three together rather than one at a time, as it were. What was a response to these views?
3. The Church’s Rejection of Monarchianism
a. Rejection of Modalism. On this particular score there was no formal declaration or church council or creedal statement that was produced to reject modalism. In fact, modalism was rejected by the majority of Christian people simply by their thinking carefully about what Scripture taught.
There are many passages that would indicate that the modalist view simply doesn’t work. For example, at the baptism of Jesus where you have the voice coming from heaven, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” You have the Son in the water being baptized and you have the Spirit descending as a dove. There you have Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together simultaneously. How can the modalist view account for this? The answer is, it cannot.
Or, just ask the question, to whom is Jesus praying through His life and ministry as we have it recorded in the Gospels? When He comes and prays to the Father, think of the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father if you be willing, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless not what I will but what you will be done.” Who is he praying to? Of course, this is not some kind of ventriloquism, divine ventriloquism, where the Son is actually praying to Himself. No, He is praying to the Father. He is empowered by the Spirit during the time of His life and ministry.
Do you remember in Luke 4 where Jesus read Isaiah 61 back at the synagogue back in Nazareth where he grew up? He read from that, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor,” and so on. You have the Spirit simultaneously residing within Jesus, empowering Him to perform His works and so on. So you have simultaneously Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These passages were sufficient to indicate to people the bankruptcy of Sabellianism or modalism as a viable biblical view. The Arian view, however, took a bit more to overcome.
b. Athanasius’ Opposition to Arianism. Athanasius was the one who opposed Arianism and is really the hero of this early church period in bringing to fruition the orthodox understanding of the relation of the Father and the Son as we now have it. Athanasius was a fourth-century theologian born at the very end, we think, of the third century but lived until A.D. 373. He was a bishop of Alexandria and much of his life was devoted to his opposition to Arianism or subordinationism.
Athanasius agreed with the Arians that God is one. This is the one place that they could be in agreement. They were both committed monotheists. Athanasius emphasized that if the doctrine of the Trinity is constructed properly it would not endanger monotheism because we would understand that God is one and we are not dividing the nature of God or the essence of God in various parts but rather understanding the whole nature of God, his infinite nature possessed by both the Father and the Son. Thus God has one undivided essence, Athanasius argued, and it would be wrong to speak of either a divided divine essence or more than one divine essence.
Athanasius proposed, then, on the basis of abundant Scriptural teaching that we have to uphold that the Father is God and that the Son is God. Athanasius was convinced that only one who is himself God can unite us with God and no matter how good, no matter how strong or powerful this divinely empowered man could be he couldn’t forgive sin and he could not bring reconciliation to God for humanity unless He was God Himself. Therefore, Athanasius was a strong supporter of the deity of Christ and of the necessity of understanding the one essence of God being possessed by both the Father and the Son.
c. Council of Nicea. This resulted, then, in the Council of Nicea that met in A.D. 325, meeting for the sole purpose of settling this dispute between Arius and Athanasius and to try to bring together the church in a consensus view on how we should understand the nature of Christ in relation to the Father. There were actually three main groups of people who were present at Nicea. Athanasius was there and those who supported his view of the one God whose one undivided essence or nature is shared by both the Father and the Son equally and fully.
You had also the Arian party was there, who argued that Jesus was, in fact, a created being and was subordinate in nature to the Father. But then there was another group that was there who were followers of Origen. Origen had passed away long before, 75 years, roughly, before the Council at Nicea. Origen in some of his writings had proposed a view of Christ in which Christ was like the Father, very similar to the Father, so the followers of Origen at the Council of Nicea played a role of trying to provide a mediating position between Arius and Athanasius. They thought that perhaps their view could prevail because it was the balanced view between the two extremes of the Arians and the Athanasians.
It is interesting that the followers of Origen then proposed that a word be used of Christ and His nature in relation to the Father and that word was that Christ should be understood as homoiousios. That meant that He was of a similar ousios, similar nature, like nature. In other words, that Christ was very, very much like the Father and so they hoped that that would satisfy Athanasius and his group as being a close-enough statement of Christ’s relationship to the Father to be acceptable.
But Athanasius rejected this term and proposed instead that the term homoousios. You drop the “i” out of it. H-o-m-o instead of H-o-m-o-i. So homoousios would be used instead. In other words, that Christ was of the same nature or identical nature. We use the word “homogenized” milk. That is where you take the parts and you mix them together so it is one thing, so Christ’s nature is the same as the nature of the Father. This ended up then being what was affirmed in the Nicean Creed was that Christ had not a similar nature to the Father but the same nature as the Father.
In the end, Athanasius’ view prevailed. After heated debate, the council finally adopted the Athanasian position and made it the standard for the church; it has been so ever since. The creed that came from this council called the Nicean Creed reads in part, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one substance.” There it is, homoousios, “of one substance with the Father.” In this creed the term homoousios is used and it unmistakably denoted that the very essence of the Son was identical to the essence of the Father. They shared together one undivided essence.
This did not end the discussions about the Trinity because there was one glaring omission at this point and that is the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Nicean Creed ended after a very long statement about the Son. It then ended simply by saying, “And we believe in the Holy Spirit.” That is all it said. It did not have anymore that followed that in the A.D. 325 Nicean Creed. What happened is that in the next fifty years the Arians, you remember Arius himself died in 336, but his followers continued the battle, as it were, but now they focused on the Spirit and were arguing that the Spirit of God, the words used in the Bible for the Spirit are the ruah adonai, the Spirit of the Lord, in the New Testament, the pneuma. In both cases those words can be translated as “breath” or “wind” as well as “spirit.”
The Arians proposed that the Spirit of God in the Bible is nothing other than the Presence of God. It is sort of like it is parallel to “the hand of the Lord” or “the arm of the Lord” or “the power of the Lord.” Those are all different ways of expressing God’s presence in accomplishing something. Likewise is the ruah of the Lord, or the pneuma of the Lord. The Spirit of the Lord is like His hand or His presence at work.
d. Council of Constantinople. A group of theologians arose, again, eastern theologians who endeavored to give clear articulation to the deity of the Holy Spirit, and these formed together in a council that was called at Constantinople in A.D. 381. Those who met for this council were, of course, the Arians, that is, Arius was not there because he had passed away, but the Arian group who denied that the Holy Spirit was, in fact, a person or was deity, and was, in fact, just the symbol for the presence of God.
Then the orthodox group that was there were a group of eastern theologians that have been called the Cappadocian Fathers. There are three of them, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus. These three were the champions of this Council at Constantinople. Actually, Gregory of Nazianzus was probably the most forceful of the three theologians and he wanted very badly to use in the statement that would come on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit from this council, he wanted to use the word, homoousios, just as it had been used of the Son.
As the Son was homoousios with the Father, so the Spirit would be homoousios with the Father and the Son. There would be good theological reason for doing so but Basil and Gregory of Nyssa believed that they might, in fact, risk losing the vote when it came, if, in fact, they pressed for homoousios. So instead Basil and Gregory of Nyssa used different wording to support the deity of the Holy Spirit. Here is the wording that was finally used that was added to the Nicean Creed, most of our churches, if we read the Nicean Creed, in fact, read the Constantinople version of it that came from 381 because it has the Holy Spirit article included as well.
It reads as follows: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the life giver who proceeds from the Father who is to be glorified with the Father and the Son and who speaks through the prophets.” It is interesting, even though homoousios is not used there, clearly implications of deity are made from this statement. When it says, “we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord.” To use the word “Lord” is to use a term that is only rightly used of God. Jesus is Lord. The Father is Lord of all, yes. Here the Holy Spirit is affirmed as Lord, so clearly that is an ascription of deity. Then it says He is “the life giver.” Only God can give life. Only God can create, breathe into people the breath of life.
The Cappadocians had in mind here Genesis 2:7 where God breathed into Adam and he became a living soul. They likened that to the Spirit proceeding from God that brings life. The Holy Spirit as God is the one who gives life. Then they said “who proceeds from the Father.” The statement here is indicating that He is God because only God proceeds from God. Just as the Son was begotten of the Father from all eternity, so the Spirit proceeds from the Father from all eternity. They wanted to avoid using the word “begotten” of the Spirit because the Son is the only begotten of the Father. Well, it’s not going to work is it to have the Son the only begotten and the Spirit as begotten?
So they had to come up with a different term to use and the term they chose actually came from a reading of John 15:26 where Jesus says, “The Spirit when He comes who proceeds from the Father, He will speak to you and bear witness of Me.” They took from that verse that notion of proceeding and understood by it that only God proceeds from God, so the Holy Spirit is God. Then who is to be glorified with the Father and the Son? Obviously, only God is to be worshipped, God alone deserves glory. God declares in Isaiah 42:8, “I will not share my glory with another.” Here you have Father, Son, and Spirit who share in the worship and glory that is due to God alone.
Even though they chose not use the word homoousios fearing that that might not pass, they did use language that clearly affirmed the deity of the Holy Spirit. Let me make just one more comment here in relation to the Holy Spirit before we move ahead to Augustine and that is to mention that this notion of proceeding from the Father ended up being quite a controversial thing in the church. The western church added a phrase to the Nicean Creed that the eastern church rejected. That phrase was, “And the Son.” As the Constantinople Creed read, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the life giver who proceeds from the Father,” in the west they added the phrase right there, filioque, or, “and the Son.” This was adopted in 589 at the Senate of Toledo and became an accepted western way of understanding the third article of the Nicean Creed and it was rejected by the east; and still is rejected by the east.
The reasons for this are quite complex. There is a lot that is involved in it. I think it comes down fundamentally to a difference between seeing the monarchy of the Father in the eastern tradition as indicating parallel, begetting of the Son and proceeding of the Spirit, verses in the western view, there is a sense in which the Father, Son, and Spirit stand all in a, sort of, hierarchical relationship. I will say more on this in a moment where the Son is under the Father but the Spirit is under both the Son and the Father. That is meant to be communicated even in part by adding the filioque that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.
4. Augustine on the Trinity
He lived from 354 to 430. He spent nineteen years of his life, basically from A.D. 401 to 420, writing a very dense volume on the doctrine of the Trinity. In some ways, that sort of crystallized this doctrine for the church. Augustine proposed that there really were no analogies to the Trinity that worked well. Many had been tried. He went through a lot of them as he talked about these in his volume on the Trinity. One of the closest ones he felt that worked was the concept of love where you have love, you have a lover, and you have a beloved. He saw the lover as the Father, the beloved as the Son, and love, the relationship between the two, the lover and the beloved, as the Holy Spirit and proposed this.
He also toyed with the idea of the mind as being an analogy of the Trinity. In the end, he proposed that none of them work in exactly the way that they ought to in order to convey the Trinity and that is because there is nothing like the Trinity in existence apart from God himself. There is only one who is at one in the same time, one in essence but three in persons.
Here is a definition of the Trinity that I will close this section with that is Augustinian in nature. I read his treatise on the Trinity and I could not find in it anywhere a complete definition but I took parts of what Augustine proposed and put together what amounts to a composite definition of the Trinity that I believe is faithful to Augustine and in keeping with what he taught.
The Trinity should be understood then as this: God’s whole and undivided essence belongs equally, simultaneously, and fully to each of the three persons of the Godhead. Notice in this that the definition excludes Arianism, modalism, and also, if one were to try to go the route of tritheism or tripartite theism it won’t work. God’s whole and undivided essence belongs equally to the three persons of the Godhead. That, obviously, rejects Arianism because Arian holds that only the Father has the essence of God but not the Son and not the Spirit. Here the undivided essence belongs equally to all three. God’s whole and undivided essence belongs simultaneously to the three persons of the Godhead. Obviously, that contradicts modalism, the Sabellian view that God is manifest successively as Father, Son and Spirit but here it is simultaneous.
God’s whole and undivided essence belongs fully to each of the three persons of the Godhead. This, then, eliminates what might be called this tripartite theism. Like taking a pie and dividing it into three separate pieces, all equal, but nonetheless, each of them only one-third of the pie and this avoids the notion that the Father is one-third God, the Son is one-third God, and the Holy Spirit is one-third God. No, the fact is the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, and the Holy Spirit is fully God. The whole and undivided essence belongs equally, simultaneously and fully to each of the divine persons of the Godhead.
C. Immanent and Economic Trinities
1. Immanent Trinity. It is the notion of the Trinity when viewed as God in himself, God in se, that is, in Himself and apart from creation. We hold as Christian people that God did not have to create the world. There was nothing incumbent upon Him to do it. He did not need the world, He was not lacking. He wasn’t hankering for something that He did not have. No, He was self-sufficient. He possessed everything within His own being and had no need of the world but yet He created.
A good question is, Who is God apart from creation? What if God had never created? Who is God then? Of course, the immanent Trinity is the affirmation of the reality of the one God; Father, Son, and Spirit who exists as God apart from creation. The early church went the route of understanding the relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit in the form of the Father begetting the Son eternally and the Father spirating or causing the Spirit to proceed from Him, then of course as the western tradition added, and from the Son from all eternity.
I hold the view along with many evangelicals today that the notion of the eternal begetting of the Son and the eternal proceeding of the Spirit is a concept, which is not clearly taught in Scripture. It is possible. It is a concept that, in fact, could be true but the Scriptural support that is given by these early theologians, the Cappadocians for example, simply doesn’t warrant, it seems to me, the notion of eternal begetting. In the New Testament the passages that refer to the Son as being the only begotten of the Father are passages about his incarnation, that he came in His incarnate state as the only begotten of the Father, not as an eternal begetting that has taken place.
Secondly, the notion of eternal begetting is a very difficult one to conceive in light of the fact that begetting seems to imply or entail the beginning of something whereas eternal indicates, obviously, that He has always existed. It is very difficult to understand exactly what this can mean then, eternal begetting. My own view of this (of course I share this along with many evangelicals today) is that whether the doctrines, the classical doctrines of the eternal begetting eternal procession are right or wrong, nonetheless, it still looks that we need to look a little more carefully and closely at the notion of the relations of the immanent Trinity together.
One thing that I have found helpful is to realize that the relations of the Trinity is a social relationship. The Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are persons in social relationship together. It looks clear from Scripture that the relationship within the Trinity, this is apart from creation and before creation, marks an authority and submission relationship in the very Trinity itself which then is reflected in the economic Trinity that we will talk about in a moment, that is, the Trinity of God expressing himself in the created order. It looks that, in fact, the Son is the Son of the Father eternally. What does Son and Father convey if not authority and submission to that?
It is interesting that Jesus talks about himself coming into the world and He says the Father has sent me into the world to perform this work. Obviously then, the submission to the Father predates, as it were, the incarnation. The very sending of the Son into the world is an act of the authority of the Father and the submission of the Son. That’s followed by, or mirrored by, you might think of it, the very authority and submission of the Father and the Son in their relationship as the Son takes on human flesh. In the immanent Trinity, I think we should understand a relationship of equality of essence and yet an immanent functional distinction between or among the members of the Trinity. This gets reflected then in the Economic Trinity.
2. Economic Trinity. The Economic Trinity are the triune persons of the Godhead in relation to the creation that He has fashioned; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit respectively in their roles as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in relation to the created order. Here it very clear that there is both equality of essence (Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I Am,” John 8:58. He says, “I and the Father are one,” John 10:30) between the Father and the Son and the Spirit but there is also clearly in the economic relationship, that is, God in relation to creation, there is clearly an authority submission relationship.
Over and over again we hear Jesus saying, “I have come to do the will of my Father.” “It is my meat or my food to do the will of my Father.” “The things that I speak I do not speak on my own, I speak what the Father has taught me to.” “I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” If you want to look at one passage that in particular is rich with those statements, take a look at John 8 and particularly the verses that lead up to Jesus’ famous statement that, “If you follow in my steps you will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” in verse 32. But the verses that lead up to that, verse 28, “I do nothing on my own initiative,” Jesus says. “I speak the things as my Father taught me, I always do the things that are pleasing to him,” verse 29.
Especially remarkable in light of His statement about knowing freedom is that, in fact, the freest life is the life that seeks to do the will of God period. Rather than thinking that freedom is what I want to do, freedom for Jesus was clearing doing what the Lord, what the Father wanted him to do. In the state to come, in the eternal state, in 1 Corinthians 15, we clearly have the indication that when Christ has finally conquered everything and brought it to subjection under His own feet, He will then take the created order, subject to Christ, and will hand it to the Father and subject himself to the Father for all of eternity in the future.
In 1 Corinthians 15:28 we read this, “When all things are subjected to him,” that is to Christ, “then the Son himself also will be subjected to the One,” that is the Father, “who subjected all things to him so that God may be all in all.” We see in this clearly the manifestation of the relationship of the Father and Son in the created order as one of authority and submission. What about the Spirit in this? You remember in John 16 where Jesus spoke of the Spirit’s coming and he said of the Spirit that he will not speak on his own initiative but what he hears he will speak. “He will glorify me,” He said. “For he will take of mine and will disclose it to you,” in John 16:13-15. Clearly Jesus sees the Spirit as subordinate to the Son. The Spirit comes not to do his own will but to carry out the will of the Son, not to speak his own words but to speak the word of the Son and so glorify the Son.
What we see then is that there is, in fact, a connection between the immanent and the economic trinities. The economic Trinity, the relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to the created order is a mirror reflection of the immanent Trinity. The relationship of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit in themselves apart from creation that there, in fact, is consistency in this. In this I would affirm what Karl Barth affirmed in much of his doctrine of God that God in his revelation is the same as God in himself. If this is not the case, how can we have confidence in knowing the one true and living God? In this case it means that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in their relationship of authority and submission reflects in the created world the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit apart from creation in the immanent Trinity.