Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©1996, 2006, 2010, 2016
The Trinity: modeling the unknowable
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usually well intended, but fall short.
They promote views of the Trinity which are heretical. Nothing in creation can have the same nature as the Creator.
Analogies either confuse the persons of the Godhead as if they were the mere actions or offices of one person, or they divide up his divine being destroying his absolute essential unity.
Putting this into clear language was one of the problems the early church faced. The challenge is to limit our understanding of the Trinity to what God has made clear, and to avoid theorizing about how the independent ideas of Scripture are connected to fit them into our normal experience and within our own ability to conceptualize. The “Trinity” is a model drawn from what God says about things we can’t know fully.
The “Monarchians” or the modern”Unitarians” deny the triune nature of God. Today the Jehovah’s Witness cult is very vocal in rejecting the idea of the Trinity. It attacks a misstated form of the doctrine implying that Trinitarians believe in three different gods. It clearly denies the full divine nature of the Son and the Holy Spirit. They claim that Jesus is a created being and is not the same as the Almighty God Jehovah.
“Modalism” attempts to explain the Trinity as if it was one God expressing himself in three different ways. It suggests that sometimes he expresses himself sometimes as a “Father”, or a “Son”, or a “Spirit of Holiness”. This is a common confusion that continues today – even among some who call themselves evangelicals.
Many attempts to illustrate the Trinity fall into the error of modalism. For example: they might say that the godhead is like water. It can exist as a liquid, as a solid (ice), or as a gas (water vapor). The claim is that all three are water. But these states of water are not like the Trinity. God does not transform himself from one person to the other but is all the time, altogether, all three persons. The distinction of the persons in God is not one of changing states of being.
“Dynamism” claimed that Jesus was at his birth just a man. The divine reason (“logos”) came upon him at his baptism. The Holy Spirit was imagined to be merely another way of describing the divine influence.
Some modern critics suggest that as Jesus grew up he experienced an illusion of divinity. It that made him wrongly believe that he was God.
By failing to distinguish between “person” and “essence”, they imagine three God’s acting like a “Divine committee”. This is a view the Jehovah’s Witnesses often present as the position of the Trinitarians. It’s an unfair caricature of the historic position of the Christian church, and was condemned as heresy.
Some compare the Trinity to fire having a flame, giving off both heat and light. But God is not presented in the Bible as three different things combining to form a unified idea or mere appearance. God’s substance, power and glory are shared by all members of the Trinity as individual persons distinguished from one another only in ways God has revealed.
The formulation of the doctrine shows how a theological statement ought to emerge from God’s revelation alone. The goal of the church in its early disputes was not to create a doctrine, but to limit what we say to an expression of what is found in the Scriptures.
Westminster Confession. 1:6 says that what we accept as the truth of God “… is either expressly set down in Scripture or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture:unto which nothing at any time is to be added…”
One of the clearest simple statements of the doctrine of the Trinity is in the Westminster Larger Catechism: Answer #9, “There be three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one true, eternal God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory; although distinguished by their personal properties.”
The doctrine of the Trinity was not made known in its fullness from the beginning. Revelation is progressive. But it’s also self consistent. Everything God has made known agrees with what he eternally is. By the principle of the analogy of faith we put together each statement about the Godhead and compare with God’s whole presentation of the matter in Scripture.
The idea of the Trinity was intimated in the Old Testament, but not fully revealed. Plurals concerning the works of God do not prove the Trinity, but are consistent with this doctrine. God often seems to address himself, and the various persons of the Godhead speak to one another. This reflects the doctrine which becomes evident when the whole of Scripture is considered.
Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; …”
Genesis 6:3 “Jehovah said, ‘My Spirit shall not strive with man forever”
Isaiah 61:1 “The Spirit of the Lord Jehovah is upon me…”
Not many openly defend the idea of multiple god’s from Scripture. Passages need to be taken out of context or translated in strained ways to support such arguments. The unity of the Godhead is made very clear in the following direct statements:
Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!”
1 Kings 8:60, “so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God; there is no one else.”
Isaiah 44:6, “Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel And his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last, And there is no God besides Me.’ ”
1 Corinthians 8:4, “… there is no God but one.”
Divine attributes are credited to three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The incommunicable attributes: infinity, eternality, immutability. By definition these can’t be communicated to anything created. That which possesses them is properly called “God.”
The Father is God
That the Father is God has not been much questioned. God in Scripture is often spoken of in terms of “Father”. This term communicates to us that God oversees his creation as a father does his own household. He is Creator and Sovereign head over all. He is specially the Spiritual Father only of those redeemed.
The Son is God
Jesus Christ is God the Son clearly stated in Scripture both directly, and by having the incommunicable attributes.
Isaiah 9:6,7, “unto us a son is given…and His name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God …”
John 1:1, “… the Word was GOD”
John 20:28 Thomas said, “my Lord, and my GOD”
Romans 9:5, “… Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever.”
John 1:3, “all things came into being through him; and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.”
Colossians 1:16-17, “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities– all things have been created by Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”
John 8:58, “… before Abraham was born, I am.”
John 17:5, “and now glorify thou me together with thyself, Father, with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.”
Revelation 1:8 and 22:13, “I am the Alpha and the Omega”
The Holy Spirit is God
Divine perfections and actions are also attributed to the Holy Spirit.
Psalm 139:7ff, “Where can I go from thy Spirit …”
1 Corinthians 2:11, “… the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God”
The Spirit’s divine nature can also be seen when we compare some Old and New Testament passages
Acts 28:25-26, “And when they did not agree with one another, they began leaving after Paul had spoken one parting word, ‘The Holy Spirit rightly spoke through Isaiah the prophet to your fathers, saying, “Go to this people and say, ‘You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; And you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive;'”‘”
Isaiah 6:8-9, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’ And He said, ‘Go, and tell this people: “Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.” ‘ ”
and compare ….
Hebrews 10:15,16, “And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them After those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws upon their heart, And upon their mind I will write them,’ ”
Jeremiah 31:33, “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”
Lying to the Holy Spirit is equated with lying to God in Acts 5:3-4. He is active in the regenerating work of God upon the fallen human heart, which is called the “renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
Together the three persons share in: creation, preservation, regeneration, judgment, revelation, miracles, and the divine ministry to the saints. They all receive worship, honor and glory.
Individually they each communicate with one another and reveal one another to man.
There are Biblical references directly identifying Jesus with the Jehovah of the Old Testament. In most English translations the upper-case “LORD” represents the Hebrew word YHVH [יהוה]- translated Jehovah.
Joel 2:32 “And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the LORD Will be delivered; For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem There will be those who escape, As the LORD has said, Even among the survivors whom the LORD calls.”
In the context of Acts 2:21 and 4:12 Jesus is the one being spoken of. directly linked with Jehovah in salvation.
Acts 2:21 “And it shall be, that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Acts 4:12 “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.”
Isaiah 43:10, “You are My witnesses,” declares the LORD, “And My servant whom I have chosen, In order that you may know and believe Me, And understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, And there will be none after Me.”
Acts 1:8, “but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
In 1931, at a convention in Columbus Ohio, the followers of Russell and Rutherford adopted the name
“Jehovah’s Witnesses” based on this text in Isaiah 43:10. Yet Jesus clearly appropriates this exclusive
position to himself at his ascension (Acts 1:8).
John the Baptist was sent to prepare a way in the wilderness for Jehovah.
In John’s gospel it clearly identifies this reference by Isaiah to the preparation of the way for Jesus.
Isaiah 40:3, “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.’ ”
John 1:7, “He came for a witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him.”
John 1:23, “He said, ‘I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as Isaiah the prophet said.’ ”
The Saviorship of Jesus was the exclusive domain of Jehovah in the Old Testament references. The meaning of “Immanuel” is “God with us.” Jesus is understood as God in the same sense that Jehovah is God.
Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”
Matthew 1:21-23, ” ‘And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.’ Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” ‘ ”
Isaiah 43:11 “I, even I, am the LORD; And there is no savior besides Me.”
Acts 4:12, “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.”
Early church councils were called to clarify what the Bible taught about the internal relationships between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The term “Trinity” was coined to represent the facts presented in Scripture. The doctrine was not invented by the councils. The creeds were formulated to carefully articulate what Scripture taught unambiguously, and to rule out heretical speculations that introduced inconsistencies into the Christian faith.
The “sonship” of Jesus (filiation): Jesus is truly God and bears a relationship to God the Father represented by the term “son”. This implies that, while they are of the same substance, there is a difference in “subsistence” – the mode in which the substance exists with regard to the Son. He is not just a mode of expression of the Father, nor is he a different being from the Father. Both share the same attributes, essence, intelligence, will, and power. The generating of the son from the Father is eternal and is not related to the origin of his essence or being. It’s related only to his subsistence. This presents a subordination with neither inferiority nor posteriority.
John 1:18 “No man has seen God at any time, the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”
John 5:26 “For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself”
Within the Trinity the three subsistences interact with one another in a way that sustains the revealed fact that they all equally know all things eternally so there is no need to inform one another. These interactions sustain an eternal inter-subsistential dynamic which does not produce a change of any kind in the immutable God.
The Gnostics imposed pagan Greek ideas on the relationship of Christ with God the Father. They presented him as an “emanation” from God. This made him not God in his entirety, perhaps not really human, but taking on the illusion of humanity.
Those who tried to join the ideas of Plato with Christianity (Philo, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Theophilus) saw the Logos, as merely an idealization of God being manifested in the world. As such, God in nature was the logos. This is little more than pantheism where the distinction between the Creator and the creature is obscured.
Origen said the Son was a distinct person from the Father but his generation was eternal. But – he made the error that this means the Son derives his existence eternally from the Father and may therefore be considered a creature rather than the one true Creator.
The Sabellians (early 3rd century: Praxeas, Noetus, Beryll, Sebellius) denied any distinct persons in the Trinity. Saw the Father, Son and Spirit as mere different “modes” of expression. (modalism)
Arius took Origen and Sabellius to the point of denying that Jesus was “God” in the same sense as the Father. They said he was not eternal, was created, and was not of the same substance with the Father.
This is the basic position taken by the Jehovah’s Witness cult today. Condemned as unbiblical at the council of Nicea in 325 AD. Clarification at the council of Constantinople (381 AD) the Athanasian Creed was adopted which also clarified the procession of the Holy Spirit.
The “procession” of the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is also presented in Scripture as one of the “persons” of the godhead. He is the “third” in subordination but is still not inferior to either the Father nor the Son. He is said to be sent by, or to “proceed from” both the Father and the Son.
John 15:26 “When the Intercessor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness of Me”
The term “god” is sometimes used in a more general sense with reference to other beings. None are attributed the incommunicable divine characteristics by God’s word. The term “god” is applied to angels (Psalm 97:7), earthly leaders (Psalm 82:1,6), Satan in his attempt to usurp the authority of God (2 Cor 4:4). These reflect the common way the term was used in the extant languages then. The contexts present no confusion to the reader that these would be understood to be of the same substance, ability or authority as the God who made all things for his own glory.
God explains his infinite and perfect knowledge of our actions in terms we can understand. It is said that God “sees” and “hears” us. This does not mean he has physical eyes and ears. He uses the accepted term “God”, but clarified the uniqueness of the True God’s attributes.
We must keep in mind that the purpose of revelation is to put truth into terms that have meaning to us who perceive things by physical senses. It is directly stated that God is spirit.
(Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.)
Questions for Review and Thought
1. Explain the basic teaching of the Monarchians and the Modalists concerning the Trinity.
2. Is the doctrine of the Trinity consistent with how God presents himself in the Old Testament? (give examples)
3. What evidence in Scripture assures us that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all three one God?
4. How can it be shown that Jesus and Jehovah are not different beings?
5. Why is the doctrine of the Trinity so difficult to articulate?
6. In what way is God the Son subordinate to the Father? does this imply inferiority of the Son to the Father?
7. What were the teachings of the following concerning the relationship of God the Son with the godhead: the Gnostics, the Platonizers, Origen, the Sebellians, and the Arians?
8. What councils clarified the biblical doctrine of the Trinity?
9. Is the word “god” always used in the same sense in the Bible?
10. How are we to understand expressions that appear to present God as having physical attributes?