Monday, April 11, 2016

The Doctrine of the Trinity

The Doctrine of the Trinity

            There is a constant and persistent temptation in Christian circles to pine for the days gone by.  Whether this is an unhealthy yearning for the pure Christianity of the reign of the religious right, an overwhelming urge to sit in a pub with Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin while they wax poetic over proper and pure theology, or head back to the time of Augustine because those guys had everything down.  The most pervasive example of this is the longing to return to the time of Acts 2 church purity.  This misguided nostalgia misses the blemishes that have filled every age of church history and, in doing so, misses the consistent work of the Spirit of God in and on his people.  While this nostalgic position assumes that the early church enjoyed flawless and full theology, actual history highlights how difficult a road the brothers and sisters in the early church walked as they sought to properly understand the Scriptures and worship God.  The doctrine of the Trinity is a perfect example of this.  Rather than floating down from heaven engraved on stone shamrocks, this doctrine was formulated over many years and through much adversity. The doctrine of the Trinity has been under constant and consistent assault throughout the history of the church because of its status as proper representation of God and the blessing it is to believers.  
The Scriptural basis for Trinitarian theology is clear even if it is not explicit.  Deuteronomy 6:4 is well known and critical for a proper understanding of God, the Scriptures, and everything else. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one,”[1] makes clear that there is not a pantheon of gods; there is not a multitude.  There is one God, and he alone deserves all worship.  Orthodox Christian theology does not allow for any deviation from this truth and presents none as it affirms God’s revealed word.  Jesus Christ, as the eternal Son of God, is God.  The Gospels are filled with proclamations of this, as are the epistles.  The Old Testament is filled with allusions towards this truth as well.  The writings of John have the most explicit affirmations of Jesus’s deity, beginning with the first verse.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14).  The third Person of the Trinity is also presented in Scripture as God.  There are multiple verses that point out the divine characteristics possessed by The Holy Spirit, but the most explicit reference to his deity is in Acts 5:3-4: “But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” This is why B.B. Warfield helpfully argued that the doctrine of the Trinity is “purely a revealed doctrine;” it is revealed throughout the entirety of the New Testament.  “That this doctrine underlies the whole New Testament as its constant presupposition and determines everywhere its forms of expression is the primary fact to be noted” and that “the whole mass of the New Testament is evidence for the Trinity.”  He notes more extensively that,
The fundamental proof that God is a Trinity is supplied thus by the fundamental revelation of the Trinity in fact: that is to say, in the incarnation of God the Son and the outpouring of God the Holy Spirit. In a word, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are the fundamental proof of the doctrine of the Trinity....when we go to the New Testament for evidence of the Trinity we are to seek it, not merely in the scattered allusions to the Trinity as such, numerous and instructive as they are, but primarily in the whole mass of evidence which the New Testament provides of the Deity of Christ and the Divine personality of the Holy Spirit.[2]

            Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all persons of the Godhead.  This is why baptisms are performed in all three names. (Matthew 28:19-20).  Yet, while affirming the unique natures of the Father, Son, and Spirit, it is essential to not forfeit the truth the truth of Deuteronomy 6:4 that God is one. There are a multitude of other texts that could be used to show the three-in-oneness of the God of Scripture, and, while never explicitly stated, the Biblical case for God as triune is solid ground.
            Early church formulations on the Trinity were not as uniform as a nostalgic view of the first centuries would lead one to believe.  The doctrine of the Trinity was a source of conflict and clarification.  While not universal by any means, the early church did have numerous Trinitarian witnesses.  Polycarp expressed his Trinitarian understanding of God at the most pressing time of his life.  As he was being martyred, he cried out for all to hear,
“O Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you . . . I bless you because you have considered me worthy of this day and hour . . . I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom to you with him and the Holy Spirit be glory both now and for the ages to come. Amen.”[3] 

            Justin Martyr echoed this worship of the triune God.  In response to the charge of atheism for refusing to worship the pantheon of pagan deities, Justin writes, “Hence are we called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness … But both Him, and the Son …and the prophetic Spirit, we worship and adore.”[4]
            Athenagoras was a church father who died around 185.  Not much is known about him, and what is known is often debated.  However, it is agreed that he was one of the great apologists of the second century.  He answered the charge of atheism leveled against Christians in much the same manner that Justin did.
That we are not atheists, therefore, seeing that we acknowledge one God...we acknowledge also a Son of God ...The Holy Spirit Himself also, which operates in the prophets, we assert to be an effluence of God, flowing from Him, and returning back again like a beam of the sun. Who, then, would not be astonished to hear men who speak of God the Father, and of God the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,and who declare both their power in union and their distinction in order, called atheists?[5]
            As Ignatius traveled from Antioch to Rome at the beginning of the second century to be martyred, he wrote letters.  In his letter to the Ephesians, he encouraged the Christians that they “stones” prepared “beforehand for a building of God the Father, being hoisted up to the heights through the engine of Jesus Christ, which is the Cross, and using for a rope the Holy Spirit[6].  Trinitarian formulas can be found not only in the works of Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Ignatius, Athenagoras, but many other early church leaders as well.
            But these statements did not constitute a consensus or preclude controversies over the doctrine.  Early opponents were vocal and forceful.  They proved a threat with which to be dealt, not just against pure doctrine but to the health and unity of the church as a whole.  The great, explicit rejections of Trinitarianism can be grouped under the headings of Monarchianism- Dynamic (especially if extended to include Arianism and Ebionism) and Modalistic.
            Berkhof rightly states the impact of Monarchianism: “While the great heresy of the second century was Gnosticism, the outstanding heresy of the third century was Monarchianism.”[7]  The leading proponents of Dynamic Monarchism were Theodutus of Bynzantium and, later, Paul of Samosatus, Bishop of Antioch from 260-272.  Dynamic Monarchianism was essentially “a new form of ebionism” that argued that Christ was,
“the subject of a special influence or ‘dynamis’ of the one monarchia which came to reside in the man Jesus... For (Paul of Samosata) only a matter of degree marked the difference between Jesus and other men. Jesus entered progressively into such an ethical relationship with God that he became the more penetrated with the divine ousia (see Substance) until ‘out of man he became God’.[8] 

            Ebionism, Dynamic Monarchianism, and Arianism all denied the Trinity by way of denying the deity of Christ.  This was different than the Monarchianism of Sabellius and his followers.  Modalistic Monarchianism was a variation of Theodutus's and Paul's Dynamic denial of the Trinity.  Modalism taught that the unity of God precluded the existence of a triune deity.  Instead, it argued that God revealed himself at different times in different modes.  He chose to present himself as Father and then as Son and then as Spirit, but he was never three person and one essence. 
            Monarchianism proved to offer significant threats to the health of the church and presented substantial challenges to the orthodox understanding of God and Scripture.  However, these challenges were answered by ardent defenders of the truth.
            It has been argued that Tertulian “enlarged the doctrine of the Logos into a doctrine of the Trinity.”[9]  Tertullian emphasized that the Logos of Christian theology was an actual, independent Person.  He also saw the Son as a lesser, derived being.  Berkhof points out that while Tertullian often ventured too close to subordinationism, the fact that he affirmed a triune God (even if his affirmation is flawed in many ways) is not debatable.
Origen contributed much to the Trinitarian debates.  He used the word hypostases to help distinguish the threeness of God's persons and the oneness of his essence.  Origen speaks of “three hypostases, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
            The creeds of the church have been formulated in answer to certain heresies.  The Nicene and Athanasian Creeds both address Trinitarian issues.  The Nicene Creed affirms belief in “one God, the Father Almighty” and “in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God” who is  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, by whom all things were made,” as well as in “the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified.”[10]
            The Athanasian Creed offers an explicit and detailed affirmation of the Trinity.  It speaks of the “catholic faith” as, at least in part, the faith that worships “one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity” while “Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.”[11]  It continues in its defense of the doctrine of the Trinity by showing that in the Godhead, the Father the Son, and the Holy Spirit is “all one” with “glory equal” and “majesty coeternal.” For “(s)uch as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.”[12]  The framers of the Athanasian Creed were careful to not sacrifice the unity of God in defending his triune nature:
And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord; And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.[13] 

This is the God who is to be worshipped, the God who has “Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity.”[14]  This doctrine is a doctrine crucial to salvation, so much so that: “He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.”[15]
            Apart from the ecumenical creeds, the work that had the greatest effect on the doctrine of the Trinity would have been, in the eyes of many, Augustine's De Trinitate.  Through fifteen books and hundreds of pages, Augustine offers a clear and forceful defense of the doctrine of the Trinity articulated in the Athanasian Creed.  Before apologizing to the reader for his abundance of words, Augustine offers a prayer that begins based on one of the most explicit Trinitarian references in the Bible, the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:
O Lord our God, we believe in Thee, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. For the Truth would not say, Go, baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, unless Thou wast a Trinity. Nor wouldest thou, O Lord God, bid us to be baptized in the name of Him who is not the Lord God. [16] 

Augustine acknowledge the probability that he included words that needed to be ignored and forgiven, but he provided the church with a robust, well defended argument in favor of the Trinity that is still reaping benefits over 1500 years later.
            As tumultuous as the culture proved to be during the middle Ages, the Great Schism, the Reformation, the settling of the West, and the Enlightenment, the doctrine of the Trinity remained relatively unscathed.  The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church displayed significant theological (and practical) flaws, but their respective positions on the triune nature of God stood firm.
Numerous voices throughout these times affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity in great degree.  Peter Abelard offered a defense of the Trinity that, though shaky, was still affirming.  Berkhof speaks of Abelard's Trinitarian conviction when he writes,
Abelard spoke of the doctrine of the Trinity in a way that caused him to be charged with Sabellianism. He seemingly identifies the three Persons in the divine Being with the attributes of power, wisdom, and goodness. The name of Father stands for power, that of Son for wisdom, and that of Holy Spirit for goodness. While he also uses expressions which seem to imply that he distinctions in the Godhead are real personal distinctions, he employs illustrations that clearly point in the direction of Modalism.[17]
            Thomas Aquinas is regarded widely as one of the greatest minds of church history.  He wrote voluminously on many subjects, including the Trinity: “The name Trinity in God signifies the determinate number of persons. And so the plurality of persons in God requires that we should use the word trinity; because what is indeterminately signified by plurality, is signified by trinity in a determinate manner.” [18]
            In chapter 13 of his Institutes (appropriately entitled “In Scripture, from the Creation Onward, We Are Taught One Essence of God, Which Contains Three Persons”), John Calvin wrote of the Trinity that,
God also designates himself by another special mark to distinguish himself more precisely from idols. For he so proclaims himself the sole God as to offer himself to be contemplated clearly in three persons. Unless we grasp these, only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God. [19]

            English Puritans roundly affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity.  John Owen offers a “Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity,” by in part saying, “God is one;—that this one God is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost;—that the Father is the Father of the Son; and the Son, the Son of the Father; and the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of the Father and the Son; and that, in respect of this their mutual relation, they are distinct from each other.”[20]
            Francis Turretin represents the Continental Reformed affirmation of the Trinity when he writes, “The absolute consideration of God (as to his nature and attributes) begets the relative (as to the persons). Here we are occupied with the adorable mystery of the Trinity, which neither reason can comprehend nor example prove, but the authority of divine revelation alone proposes to be received by faith and adored with love.”[21]
            Herman Bavinck echoes Turretin's emphasis on the necessity of God's revelation in understanding and embracing the true doctrine of the Trinity: “Now, over against all those who want to base the doctrine of the Trinity on rational grounds, we must undoubtedly maintain that we owe our knowledge of this doctrine solely to God’s special revelation. Scripture alone is the final ground for the doctrine of the Trinity.” [22]
            Louis Berkhof wrote extensively on the Trinity.  In his Summary of Christian Doctrine, he wrote,
The Bible teaches that, while God is one, He exists in three Persons, called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These are not three persons in the ordinary sense of the word; they are not three individuals, but rather three modes or forms in which the Divine Being exists. At the same time they are of such a nature that they can enter into personal relations… The real mystery of the Trinity consists in this that each one of the Persons possesses the whole of the divine essence, and that this has no existence outside of and apart from the Persons.[23]
            J. Gresham Machen represents a 20th century, American defense of the doctrine of the Trinity by showing how the triune God operates in the redemption of his people: “All three persons of the blessed Trinity are according to the New Testament active in redemption; and all three therefore may be the object of faith when redemption is accepted by sinful men.”[24]
            This is an extremely small sampling of the abundant support of the doctrine of the Trinity found in theological writings over the past 2000 years.  Many modern theologians have joined in this chorus, attempting to reach the masses with this beautiful truth through writings aimed at the popular level.  J. I. Packer wrote in his Concise Theology that, “the Trinity must be acknowledged as a biblical doctrine: an eternal truth about God which, though never explicit in the Old Testament, is plain and clear in the New.[25]  R.C. Sproul added a volume to his Crucial Questions booklet series to answer the question, “What is the Trinity?”  He does so because, “(t)he concept of the Trinity has emerged as a touchstone of truth, a non-negotiable article of Christian orthodoxy...When we confess our faith in the Trinity, we affirm that God is one in essence and three in person.” [26]
In saying that the doctrine of the Trinity enjoyed a relative consensus for a good portion of the last 1500 years would be misleading if it is not attached with the caveat that aspects and implications of this doctrine have been, and continue to be, debated.  Procession, subordination, economic vs ontological Trinity, and other critical aspects are often at the forefront of serious discussion and scholarship.  And, if B.B. Warfield is correct when he posits that the entirety of the New Testament is evidence for the Trinity in that it is evidence for the deity of the Son and the Spirit, then the doctrine of the Trinity has been under constant and pervasive attack since the time of Christ's appearing and will be until he returns.  Assaults against the deity of Christ and the person of the Spirit are manifold and are perpetually waged against orthodoxy from within and without the walls of Christendom.
            The doctrine of the Trinity fills the pages of Scripture.  Throughout the Old Testament, the astute reader can find numerous road signs marking the eternal fellowship of the divine nature.  The New Testament clearly reveals what the Old Testament alluded to throughout.  The teaching of the church from well before Nicaea saw God as three-in-one, even if the nuance of this truth was debated over and struggled with.  Teaching throughout the ages has reinforced this doctrine as true and necessary, as well as pastorally beneficial.  While threats remain and should always be guarded against, this great truth about the great Lord of all, is a truth to be treasured, enjoyed, and protected.

[1] All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted, Standard Bible Society, 2001.

[2]. Benjamin B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Biblical Doctrines, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), pp.146–147.
[3]. Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), pp. 237–239.
[4]. Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), p. 164.
[5]. Athenagoras, “A Plea for the Christians,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. B. P. Pratten, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), pp. 133–134.
[6]. J. B. Lightfoot with S. Ignatius and S. Polycarp, The Apostolic Fathers, Part II: S. Ignatius, S. Polycarp: Translations, Second Edition., vol. II (London; New York: Macmillan and Co., 1889), p. 546.
[7]. Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1949), p. 81.
[8]. Sinclair B. Ferguson and J.I. Packer, New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), pp. 440–441.
[9]. Berkhof, p. 69.
[10]. Historic Creeds and Confessions, electronic ed. (Oak Harbor: Lexham Press, 1997). Digital
[11]. Ibid.
[12]. Ibid.
[13]. Ibid
[14]. Ibid
[15]. Ibid
[16]. Augustine of Hippo, “On the Trinity,” in St. Augustin: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Arthur West Haddan, vol. 3, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), p. 227.
[17].  Berkhof, pp. 98–99.
[18]. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.). Digital.
[19]. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1 & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), p. 122.
[20]. John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), p. 377.
[21]. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), p. 253.
[22]. Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), p. 329.
[23]. Berkhof, p. 42.
[24]. J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith? (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1925), p. 87.
[25]. J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993). Digital.
[26]. R. C. Sproul, What Is the Trinity?, vol. 10, The Crucial Questions Series (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2011), p. 2.