Category Archive: Theology – Trinity
“Belief in the Trinity is not a distant speculation; the Trinity is that blessed family into which we are adopted” — Austin Farrer, The Crown of the Year.
A few years back, Doug Wilson wrote this helpful comment about feminism and the Trinity.Â Here’s a little more than a paragraph to whet your appetite:
Unfortunately, many traditionalist Christians have assumed that feminism can be effectively opposed with something that might be called “not feminism.” A moment’s reflection should reveal the problem here. There are many things that are “not feminism” that are also “not biblical.” Take the Saudi view of women for just one example. Take rape for another.
Feminism is actually a Trinitarian heresy, but unfortunately many of the Christian world’s “not feminism” reactions are equally heretical.
To read the rest, click here.
Too often, our systematic theologies and even our Reformed confessions of faith begin with a generic and non-Trinitarian discussion of God and then include a section on the Trinity later, before going on to other matters.
So, for instance, the Belgic Confession has an article on God, who is described as “one only simply and spiritual Being,” who is “eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good” (Art. 1).Â Then there are several articles on God’s revelation (Arts. 2-7) before we get to a discussion of the Trinity (Arts. 8-11), and then we’re on to creation and providence and so forth.Â
While what the Belgic Confession says is true enough, its description of God in the first article is non-Trinitarian.Â It could even be a unitarian description, since it “defines” God without mentioning that He is three Persons.Â It emphasizes His oneness but doesn’t breathe a word about His threeness.Â By itself, it is sub-Christian.
Of course, this article of the Belgic Confession isn’t by itself.Â It’s accompanied by Articles 8-11, which are explicitly Trinitarian and Christian.Â But still, the structure of the Confession raises the question whether it’s possible or desirableÂ to discuss or describe the God of the Bible in generic terms without mentioning the fact that He is Triune.
The Westminster Confession of Faith starts with God’s revelation and then has a chapter entitled “Of God and of the Holy Trinity.”Â That’s better than the Belgic, but still in this chapter we hear first about the “one only, living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection,” and so forth.Â In fact, we have two subsections about “God” before we hear that “in the unity of the Godhead there be three persons.”
Again, the initial “definition” or description of God is non-Trinitarian.Â I don’t say that the Trinity is tacked on as an afterthought, but it doesn’t play any role in the basic description of God or of His attributes.Â That is to say, wisdomÂ and holiness and freedom and grace and mercy and goodness and truth and all those other things which the Confession ascribes to God are not presented in any Trinitarian way.
Much the same thing could be demonstrated from any number of systematic theologies.Â First, we hear about “God” and His attributes are presented.Â Then we hear that this “God” who has already been described and “defined” is also Triune.Â And then we go on to examine His works.Â The structure gives the impression, doesn’t it, that we can first know who God is and what He is like and then add to that knowledge the fact that this same God is also three Persons, but that additional information doesn’t inform or affect our consideration of God’s attributes.
But what if we started from the beginning, not simply with the one “God” but with the God of the Bible who is both one and three, equally one and three?Â What if we started with the Trinity and then understood and described all of God’s attributes in terms of the Trinity?
Consider the simple biblical statement that God is love.Â What would that mean for a God who is not triune?Â Perhaps we could say that a non-triune God could love His creation, but that love would depend on the existence of the creation.Â Without the creation, there would be no love and it would not be eternally true, then, that “God is love.”Â Only of our God, the triune God, can it be said “God is love,” for the Father has always loved the Son and Spirit, the Son has always loved the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit has always loved the Father and the Son.Â In our theology, therefore, the attribute of “love” must be defined and discussed in terms of the Trinity.
What about holiness?Â I’ve learned a lot in this regard from Peter Leithart, and my thoughts in this blog entry owe a lot to his reflections.Â They were sparked, in fact, by this old post on his blog:
I work on the assumption that all the attributes of God are Trinitarian, relational attributes. How does this work with an attribute like “holiness,” which, by most definitions, describes God as wholly un-related? The key is to notice that the language of holiness in Scripture describes things and persons claimed by God, or places where God is specially present. Holiness as a moral attribute describes a life in conformity with one’s being possessed, consistent with the claim that God has laid upon us. This can be applied to the inherent holiness of God: To say that the Father is holy is to say He is possessed by the Son and lives in conformity with that possession. Likewise, the Son is holy because He is possessed and claimed by the Father and lives in conformity with that claim. The Spirit is of both Father and Son, and thus is holy. There might also be some connection between notions of “holy place,” where God dwells in glory, and perichoresis, the mutual “dwelling-in” of Father, Son, and Spirit. Each person is “sanctified” by the indwelling of the other persons.
Leithart’s comments are a helpful start, but it seems to me that we need to do more work, not least in our systematic theologies, to make the Trinity central to all of our thinking about God.Â And if we ever write a new confession of faith or revise the old ones, let’s put the Trinity up front.
In the sermon, Jones meditates on the differences between a unitarian and a Trinitarian view of freedom.Â (By “unitarian” with a small “u,” Jones is referring, not to the Unitarian church itself, but to any form of theism that posits a God who is only one person, not three; more broadly, he’s also including the views of Christians who confess the Trinity but whose thinking and acting is actually not consistent with that confession.)
On a unitarian view, Jones asks, what is freedom?Â What is freedom for a God who is one person, not three?Â His freedom is the lack of obstacles that stand in his way.Â There’s no one else whose wishes and desires constrain him.Â He is able to do whatever he wants to do.Â He can live as he pleases without taking anyone else into account.Â One doesn’t have to look too far to find such views of freedom in the Western world.
But on a Trinitarian view, freedom is quite different.Â In fact, freedom and love are closely related.Â The Father’s freedom is his desire and ability to do good to His Son and Spirit.Â The Son’s freedom is His desire and ability to do good to the Father and Spirit.Â The Spirit’s freedom is His desire and ability to do good to the Father and the Son.Â And, because we’re caught up into that family by the Spirit as the children of the Father and, collectively, as the Bride of the Son, the freedom of the Triune God is the desire and the ability of each of the three Persons to do good to us.
On the unitarian view, I’m most truly free when I have no one else to stand in my way.Â My wife becomes a limitation on my freedom.Â My money isn’t mine to do with as I please; I’m obligated to use some of it for her and that restricts and limits my freedom.Â My boss is a limitation on my freedom because he compells me to come to work when he wants and not whenever I wish.Â The more other people are involved in my life, the less free I am to do what I want to do.
But on a Trinitarian view, the addition of more people to your life isn’t a restriction on your freedom but an opportunity for your freedom to flourish, because love is freedom and freedom is love.Â I suppose, though I don’t recall Jones saying it exactly this way, that I am most truly free when I’m free from seeing my wife as an obstacle to (or a tool for) my own self-gratification and instead delight in serving her.
Along the way, there’s some thought-provoking application in this sermon to the vision of freedom presented in a speech by George Bush and to the vision being sold in Iraq, not least through the American involvement there.Â Jones summons the church to think carefully about what we mean by “freedom” when we use the word in these political contexts.Â Are we presenting a unitarian view or a Trinitarian view?Â What are the results of the “freedom” we export?
Ever wonder why Scripture requires two or three witnesses to establish a matter?Â Here’s Gary North’s answer:
The Christian view of God is trinitarian.Â God is three Persons, yet also one Person.Â Each Person always has the corroborating testimony of the others.Â Therefore, God’s word cannot be successfully challenged in a court.Â Two Witnesses testify eternally to the validity of what the other Person declares.Â Each has exhaustive knowledge of the others; each has exhaustive knowledge of the creation.Â The truth of God’s word is established by Witnesses. â€” The Dominion Covenant: Genesis, p. 458.
North goes to discuss another instance of the principle of two or three witnesses:
The doctrine of the two witnesses also throws light on the New Testament doctrine of the rebellious third.Â In Revelation 8, we are told that a third of the trees are burned up (v. 7), a third of the sea becomes blood (v. 8 ), and a third part of the creatures and ships in the sea are destroyed (v. 9).Â A third part of the rivers are hit by the star from heaven (v. 10), and a third part of the sun, moon, and stars are smitten (v. 12).Â In Revelation 9, we read that angels in judgment work for a time to slay a third part of rebellious mankind (v. 15), to testify to the other two-thirds of the coming judgment, yet they do not repent (v. 21).Â A third of the stars (angels) of heaven are pulled down by Satan’s tail (Rev. 12:4).
Why these divisions into thirds?Â Because for every transgressor, there are two righteous witnesses to condemn him.Â God’s final judgment is assured, for in God’s court, there will always be a sufficient number of witnesses to condemn the ethical rebels (p. 458).
“The rebellious third” may not be the best name for what North is talking about; it’s more “the non-rebellious two-thirds,” who function as witnesses, but that’s a clunky term to use.Â Â North may be on to something here, and what he says is intriguing.Â In biblical history, however, there certainly seem to be times when more than a third of mankind is rebellious (e.g., during the time of Noah).Â I’m not sure how North’s thesis fits with that.Â But the division into thirds in Revelation and the judgment striking only one third may have something to do, as North says, with the two witnesses requirement.Â Grist for the mill….
I can’t recall who first started me thinking about the covenantal relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit.Â It may have been James JordanÂ or Jeff Meyers, but it was probably Ralph Smith‘s essay on “Trinity and Covenant” in Christendom Essays that helped most.Â But if I’d been reading the right stuff, it could have been C. S. Lewis.
I read a lot of Lewis when I was younger, but for some reason I didn’t read The Problem of Pain until recently.Â And this is what I found:
Being Christians, we learn from the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity that something analagous to “society” existsÂ within the Divine being from all eternity â€” that God is Love,Â not merely in the sense of being the Platonic form ofÂ love, but because, within Him, the concrete reciprocitiesÂ of love exist before all worlds and are thence derivedÂ to the creatures (p. 17).
And then, later on, when Lewis talks about how “union exists only between distincts,” he says this:
Even within the Holy One Himself, it is not sufficient that theÂ Word should be God, it must also be with God.Â The FatherÂ eternally begets the Son and the Holy Ghost proceeds: deityÂ introduces distinction within itself so that the union ofÂ reciprocal loves may transcend mere arithmetical unity orÂ self identity (p. 139).
That isn’t exactly how I’d put things.Â The language of God “introducing” distinctions doesn’t sound right to me, since it seems to imply that an undistinguished deity existed first before the Trinity.Â But I do like the last line: “the union of reciprocal loves may transcend mere arithmetical unity or self identity.”
And though it was from Jeff Meyers (I think) that I first learned that there is mutual sacrifice even among the members of the Trinity and that what Jesus did in giving Himself for us here on earth reflects what He has always done in giving Himself to and for the Father and the Spirit, I could have learned that from Lewis, too:
We need not suppose that the necessity for somethingÂ analogous to self-conquest will ever be ended, or thatÂ eternal life will not also be eternal dying.Â It is in thisÂ sense that, as there may be pleasures in hell (God shieldÂ us from them), there may be something not all unlikeÂ pains in heaven (God grant us soon to taste them).
For in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm notÂ only of all creation but of all being.Â For the EternalÂ Word also gives Himself in sacrifice; and that not onlyÂ on Calvary.Â For when He was crucified He “did thatÂ in the wild weather of His outlying provinces which HeÂ had done at home in glory and in gladness.”Â FromÂ before the foundation of the world He surrendersÂ begotten Deity back to begetting Deity in obedience.Â And as the Son glorifies the Father, so also the FatherÂ glorifies the Son (p. 140).
Beautiful stuff, and especially that quotation in the midst of it, which, by the way, was from George MacDonald.
Last weekend, one of my elders was talking to some Jehovah’s Witnesses who showed up at the door. In the course of the conversation, Dale made a great application of some of the things I’ve learned about the Trinity from men such as Jeff Meyers and Ralph Allan Smith.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses, of course, worship an idol, a god who is not triune, a hermit god (to borrow Doug Jones’s phrase). They also believe that God is eternal and that creation isn’t, and that God is love.
“Well,” Dale said (and I, of course, am merely paraphrasing him), “how can you have love without having an object of that love? On my view, as a Christian, God the Father always had His Son and His Spirit to love and they loved Him in return. But you say that God is love and that for eternity He was alone. So how can He be love without anyone to love?”
They admitted that they hadn’t ever thought about that. And though I had thought about the hermit god of Unitarianism being loveless and dull, I’d never thought about using this sort of argument in connection with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Good work, Dale!
Toward the end of his introduction to Charles William’s novels, Thomas Howard deals with Williams’ view of the City as a complex system of order involving a mutual exchange of gifts:
Williams derives his picture of the City from Saint John the Divine and from Saint Augustine. In its perfection of order and architecture it supplies us with a pattern (or what Williams also liked to call the “web” or “diagram”) of glory. Things must be intricately worked out and interwoven. In any earthly city there are one-way signs, yellow lines in the streets, traffic lights, bus schedules, commerce, taxes, laws, police, a council, a mayor, and so forth. Every item forms part of the pattern without which everything would tangle, break down, and grind to a halt. If one car ignores the yellow line you have a shouting, hooting traffic jam backed up for blocks. The life of any city depends entirely on its obedience to the imposed pattern. The paradox, of course, is that this imposed pattern is the guarantee of everyone’s liberty. The attempt to break free of the pattern results in chaos.The difficulty is that all earthly cities are imperfect patterns. Corruption, sloth, inefficiency, stupidity, cynicism, and violence mar the pattern. But this only throws the thing itself into starker relief. There is no life that does not depend on this pattern of “co-inherence” — of you and me mutually submitting to the rules — for its sustenance, and where this is flouted you find anger, sorrow, and ruin, which is what you find eventually in hell (pp. 37-38).
That may be worth thinking about the next time I’m sitting at a red light waiting, perhaps impatiently, for it to change. Impatience while driving is a species of pride: “Why doesn’t everyone submit to me and get out of my way?” But at a red light, what are we doing? We’re regarding others — the people with the green light — as more important than ourselves. And then we discover that they also are compelled to stop and we get to go because the traffic light imposes a system of mutual deference, mutual courtesy.
It seemed to Williams that here was a principle. Everyone, all the time, owes his life to others. It is not only in war that this is true. We cannot eat breakfast without being nourished by some life that has been laid down. If our breakfast is cereal or toast, then it is the life of grains of wheat that have gone into the ground and died that we might have food. If it is bacon, then the blood of some pig has been shed for the sake of my nourishment. All day long I live on this basis: some farmer’s labor has produced this wheat, and someone else’s has brought it to market, and so on. These in turn receive the fruit of my work when I pay for the product. Money is the token and medium of the exchange that takes place: here is the fruit of my labor, which you need, and with this I purchase the fruit of yours, which I need. It becomes very difficult to keep all this very sharply in focus in a complex modern society where face-to-face transactions rarely occur. But the principle of exchange is at work in international commerce as well as in the village farmers’ market. It is just harder to see. Williams coupled this idea of exchange with two other ideas, namely, “substitution” and “co-inherence,” but they all come to the same thing. There is no such thing as life that does not owe itself to the life and labor of someone else. It is true all the way up and down the scale of life, from our conception, which owes itself to the self-giving of a man and a woman to each other; through my daily life, where I find courtesies such as a door held open if I have a package; and laws obliging me to wait at this red light while you go, and then you to wait at the next corner for the other fellow; and commerce, in which I buy what your labor has supplied; right on through nature, with its grains of wheat planted and harvested and animals slaughtered for my food; to the highest mystery of all in which a life was laid down so that we might all have eternal life.
The point for Williams was that all life functions in obedience to this principle of exchange and substitution and co-inherence whether I happen to observe it or not, or whether I happen to be pleased by it or not. It presides over all life, so that to resist or deny it is to have opted for a lie. For Williams, hell is the place where such a denial leads eventually. To refuse co-inherence will reward me with solitude, impotence, wrath, illusion, and inanity. I will have reaped the harvest I have sown in my selfishness and egotism. I will have got what I wanted. I will be a damned soul.
On the other hand, the City of God is the place where we see co-inherence brought to blissful fruition. What we encountered in this mortal life as mere genetics, say, in our conception, or as agriculture in the bread we eat, or as law with its traffic lights and yellow lines, or as courtesy with doors being held open, or as economics with its buying and selling, or as theology with Christ’s sacrifice — all this is unfurled in the dazzling light of the City of God (pp. 25-27).
What Howard doesn’t mention (perhaps because Williams hadn’t noticed it himself) is that all of this interaction, which Williams saw in all of life and which is encapsulated in the image of “the City,” is an image of the eternal fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom gives Himself to the others, seeking their glory. So, to ask the question again, what are we doing when we wait at a traffic light? We’re taking part in a complex system of rules and procedures which compel mutual deference and courtesy but in which we, as individuals and as a society, begin to image to some degree the mutual deference, courtesy, love, and humility –” putting others ahead of ourselves — of the Trinity.
Tim has just published a new essay online: “Paradoxology: Thoughts on the Trinitarian Grounding of Human Faith.” I highly recommend it.
Tonight, I finished reading Heroes of the City of Man by Peter Leithart. It’s a very helpful introduction to Greek and Roman literature from a Christian perspective. He starts with classical epics — The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid — and then deals with Greek drama, covering a play each by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes, and Aristophanes. It took me a long time to read the book, since I was also reading the works he discusses, but it was well worth it. Here’s a quotation to whet your appetite:
Classical epic … leaves us with three fundamental theological options: Heaven rings with the petty squabbling of adolescent gods, which means the world is not under control at all, or heaven and earth are ruled by a heavenly Fuhrer, or things are governed by an impersonal and faceless power that grinds along, indifferent to humanity or justice. Take your pick: chaos, totalitarianism, or determinism. Whichever you choose, the world is a pretty grim place, with no hope for redemption….By contrast, the Bible proclaimed from the beginning that there is one God, Yahweh, who created the world good and rules all things. Violence and evil are not written into the fabric of creation but are due to sin and His righteous judgment on sin, and therefore there is hope of redemption from evil. Ultimate reality is not a gaggle of gods, nor an autocrat, nor an impersonal Fate. Rather, ultimate reality is Three Persons in an eternal communion of love. Above us is a God who is love, whose love overflows in creating a world He did not need and in redeeming a world that had turned from Him. Heaven is not a battlefield or a prison; it is a dance hall filled with song. And, one day, earth will join in (p. 21).