Some thoughts on the Trinity (from Systematic I)

. Who is the God that Christians worship?[1] Simply put, Christians worship the Father-Son-Spirit God. Christians have always worshipped this God because this is the God that Jesus claimed to both be and reveal (Mt. 11:27).[2] This is the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament.[3] Christians worship the Father-Son-Spirit God.
Fairly quickly, the fact that there was something unique about this God caused controversy in and around the church. In claiming to be and reveal God, Jesus pushed against the human definitions of God found in the Greek and Jewish religio-philosophical language of the time. After Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, the church - filled with the Holy Spirit - sought adequate language to describe the truth revealed in Jesus about God.[4] Over the next several centuries, the church settled on the word Trinity to describe the Father-Son-Spirit God of their worship.

What it means that God is Triune.
. God is Triune. God is a Tri-unity, three-in-one, the Father-Son-Spirit God. The doctrine of the Trinity is the church’s best attempt to explain how there can be both unity and difference in God.[5] Thomas C. Oden explains: “The problem faced by the early Christian teaching was not whether Christ was God, but how, within the bounds of monotheistic faith, the unity of God could be maintained while holding equally to the deity of One who is distinct from God the Father” (The Living God, p. 216).
. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches God is one substance with three persons.[6] These words, ‘substance’ and ‘persons,’ lose some meaning when transported from Greek to English, so we need some explanation. What the early church communicated with the idea of ‘substance’ was that there is one God: the Son is God, the Father is God, and the Spirit is God (ie. The Father-Son-Spirit God). God is unified (they taught), but there is also real difference in the ‘persons’ of God. The Father is not the Son or the Spirit; the Son is not the Father or the Spirit; the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. In the Trinity, there is unity and difference, real relationship.
. The doctrine of the Trinity is unique and mysterious. Over the centuries, people have presented alternatives to this doctrine, but each alternative has led to error and has been labeled heresy by the church. Let’s examine these heresies and then, perhaps, it will become clearer why Christians believe this doctrine.


How the doctrine of the Trinity contrasts with ancient heresies.
. The doctrine of the Trinity holds that there is both unity and difference in the Godhead.[7] In the early church, people presented alternatives to this doctrine, either denying the unity of God or the difference within God. A few of these heresies were tri-theism, modalism, and subordinationism.[8]
. Tri-theism taught that Christians should worship three gods: that the Father was a god, the Son was another god, and the Spirit was a third god. This denies the essential unity of being (‘homoousion’) in the Godhead and introduces tension between the gods. If the three gods have three different beings, then none of them is free, for the other two check the god’s ability to act according to his character.[9] This also opens the door for a dualistic framework in which two gods – one good and the other evil – are locked in eternal combat.[10] Tri-theism was, therefore, considered inconsistent with Christian orthodoxy.
. Modalism taught that Christians should worship one God in three disguises, that difference and distinction in the Trinity was temporary, role-related, and mostly semantic. With a modalistic framework, one ends up with a God whose behavior is inconsistent (which disguise will God be wearing today - Angry Father or Loving Son?) and a God who lacked eternal relationship (meaning that God has improved or is improving as history progresses, making God both dependent on his Creation and less than perfect). Modalism was, therefore, considered inconsistent with Christian orthodoxy.
. Our third example of heresy is subordinationism, also known as Arianism. Subordinationism breaks with the unity of the Godhead in teaching that Jesus and/or the Spirit is not eternally God.[11] Jesus is considered either a created being adopted by God or something in-between God and humanity, neither fully God not fully human.[12] This view often stems from the belief that because the spiritual is good and matter is evil, God cannot interact with matter. Subordinationism was, therefore, considered inconsistent with Christian orthodoxy.

Why Christian teaching says “God is Triune.”
. Christian teaching stands in contrast to these other ideas and frameworks. Each of these heresies is an attempt to import a human philosophical system into the theological conversation. Christian faith, however, is called to be informed and reformed by the truth of God revealed in Christ by the Holy Spirit through the Sacred Scriptures. This is why Christian teaching says God is Triune: for relationship, from the Scripture, and following our calling.
. The doctrine of the Trinity proclaims loudly that in our relationship with Jesus we have a real relationship with God.[13] If Jesus were not God, his atonement would have no power to save;[14] we also would know nothing of God.[15] Christian faith, trusting in God, would not be possible if God had not intervened himself in Jesus Christ and revealed himself to us in him.[16]
Christians also hold to the doctrine of the Trinity because it is the best way to make sense of Scripture.[17] There are hundreds of instances throughout both the Old and New Testaments that point to the truth that there is a unity and a difference in God.[18] Jesus claimed to be united with the Father and yet different in a real way. Nowhere in Scripture will you find a clear teaching (in context) of tri-theism, dualism, polytheism, modalism, subordinationism, adoptionism, or Arianism.
. Lastly, Christians hold to the doctrine of the Trinity because we are called by God to worship him intimately and reverently. When Athanasius critiqued Arius’ theology, his critique was primarily that it was irreverent.[19] Each of the heresies undermines our ability to worship God. If we don’t know God, we can’t worship him. If we haven’t been freed from our bondage to sin, then we can’t worship him. If we can’t have faith that he will prove faithful, then we can’t worship him.
. Christians will always wrestle with the doctrine of the Trinity. It stands beyond our full comprehension, transcendent because it refers to the transcendent God. But we can understand enough of it to know God, experience freedom in Christ, and worship in Spirit and truth because this transcendent God has become immanent to us in history, especially in the work of Christ.

[1] Oden, The Living God
[2] See the Trinitarian structure of the Apostles’ Creed
[3] Contra Marcion
[4] Torrance, T., The Trinitarian Faith
[5] See the Quicunque Vult (5th Century)
[6] One ousia and three hypostases: Torrance, T., The Trinitarian Faith
[7] One could also make the case that there is unity, equality and difference in the Godhead, but the word ‘equality’ has become loaded with the idea of interchangeability. I will attempt to avoid its use because of the ease with which it is misunderstood and because I believe that the idea of unity can capture the essence of the equality of God.
[8] These three heresies touch the ideas of unity, difference, and equality. There are many other errors that crept into the early Church, but time does not allow a full treatment.
[9] Hughes, The True Image
[10] Marcion and Zoroaster’s theologies: Hughes, The True Image
[11] Torrance, T., The Trinitarian Faith
[12] A tertium quid – GodJesusHumanity
[13] Barth, “The Humanity of God”
[14] Torrance, T., The Trinitarian Faith
[15] Ibid.
[16] Barth, Dogmatics in Outline
[17] Oden, The Living God
[18] Ibid.
[19] Torrance, T., The Trinitarian Faith

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