A Summary of the Holy Trinity

If covenantal thinking forms the architecture of Reformed faith and practice, then the doctrine of the Trinity is its foundation. As seen throughout The Christian Faith, this doctrine is not merely one among many, but is proclaimed in the church’s message of salvation and structures all Christian theology, liturgy, prayer, and praise.

Biblical-Theological Development of the Doctrine
Just as faith in Yahweh and no other is the foundation of Old Testament faith and practice (e.g., Deut. 6:4), so New Testament believers affirmed and carried on this faith in the uniqueness of the God of Israel (e.g., Eph. 4:6). At the same time, Jesus called this one God his Father in an exclusive sense and claimed to bear the same divine character and authority. His followers confessed him as Lord and trusted him for salvation, all the while rejecting pagan polytheism. The Bible clearly testifies, in the context of strict monotheism, to both the full divinity and distinct personality of the Son (e.g., John 1:1–3) and the Spirit (e.g., Matt. 28:19; 2 Peter 1:21). Long before the biblical dogma of the Trinity was formally refined, then, believers were trusting in and praying to the triune God whom it describes. We know God as our Father in his one and only Son; the Father directs us to his Son as our Lord; Jesus is the way to the Father and sends his Spirit into our hearts; the Spirit enables us to call on the Father through the Son. Christian worship is Trinitarian as well, reflected in baptism into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and in the New Testament’s liturgical forms and benedictions (e.g., 2 Cor. 13:14).

Historical-Theological Formulation
Though Christian Trinitarianism arose in the context of Jewish monotheism, it’s elaboration and defense came amid encounters with Greek objections.

The Emergence of Christian Trinitarianism
The historical development of Trinitarian dogma is a primary illustration that Christian theology is always done within a specific context, yet with an overriding concern for Scripture as its source and norm. The main cultural problem Trinitarian doctrine encountered was a philosophical privileging of the one (unity) over the many (plurality). Some, like Origen, believed that all plurality is a “fall” from unity and confessed the Son and the Spirit as truly God, but essentially derivative of and inferior to the Father. Others, like Arius, felt that any distinction in properties and names denotes a distinction in natures, and separated the Son and the Spirit from the one God, the Father. Still others, like Sabellius, saw plurality in God as a temporary self-presentation for the purposes of creation and redemption—apart from and above the economy, God is not Trinity. Against each of these ways of privileging unity over plurality in God, teachers like Athanasius and especially the Cappadocians developed increasingly nuanced ways of speaking about the essential unity and the personal plurality in God, so that both may be affirmed according to the integrity of the biblical witness. God is one “essence” in three “persons.” The persons, or “hypostases,” are not simply roles that the one God takes on or aspects of his character, but they are each distinctly and all together the one God. This catholic consensus emerged with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan (Nicene) Creed (381). Differences between Eastern and Western Trinitarian formulations are frequently over exaggerated, but in so central a doctrine every nuance can be significant. The Western, Augustinian tradition has sometimes had trouble maintaining a robust account of the distinct characteristics of all three persons in their individual existence and mutually shared activity. In both traditions, the common Trinitarian faith was affirmed, but with different accents and conceptual frameworks, often leading to tension on important points (such as the filioque).

Essential Attributes and Personal Properties
Calvin and the Reformed tradition received and developed the Trinitarianism of their forebears, against rising neo-Arianism and Unitarianism from the sixteenth century. Reformed theologians, though indebted to Augustine’s emphasis on the divine persons’ essential unity, also emphasized with the Cappadocians the personal distinctions of the divine persons. In this vein, Calvin’s insistence on each person’s essential self-existence (each is “autotheos,” as the one self-existent God), while affirming the Father as the personal source of his only begotten Son and the Spirit who proceeds from both, navigated between tendencies toward subordinationism on one hand and modalism on the other. With some variation in language and explanation, the Reformed after Calvin continued this twofold emphasis on essential unity and personal distinction. Especially significant was Reformed insistence that in every outward activity of the one God (toward creatures), the persons operate in distinct ways to accomplish their unified work, in accord with their intrinsic personal characteristics.

  • The beginning of all activity belongs to the Father.
  • The counsel or pattern belongs to the Son.
  • The efficacy belongs to the Spirit.

The Trinity in Modern Theology
Modern Enlightenment theology largely rejected or ignored classical Trinitarian theology until Hegel appealed to a radically recast view of the Trinity for his philosophy of “Spirit” realizing itself in the process of history. The twentieth century experienced a revival of Trinitarian theology in the wake of Karl Barth’s break with Protestant liberalism, and in many respects contemporary debates in Trinitarian theology still reflect the legacy of Barth and Hegel. Those following Barth’s trajectory tend to privilege the oneness of God, by so stressing the absolute subjectivity of God in self-revelation as Lord, that the genuine distinc­tiveness and mutuality of the three persons is undermined. Those following Hegel’s trajectory tend to privilege the plurality in God, by so distinguishing Father, Son, and Spirit in their identities, wills, and actions—sometimes even in essences—that the unity of God’s nature is endangered.

One and Many: Systematic-Theological Development: The following sections offer two guidelines for theological reflection on the Trinity. 

We Should Recognize that All of Our Definitions of Person in Relation to the Godhead Are Analogies. If traditional analogies for the Trinity—such as Peter, James, and John sharing in humanity—are taken univocally, they lead to either tritheism or modalism. But classical Trinitarians were very careful to make clear the analogical nature of all our knowledge of God’s being and to counter the partial potentially misleading aspects of Trinitarian analogies by appealing to the fullness of the revealed character of the triune God. We should neither accept or reject such important Trinitarian concepts as “person” by directly applying to God any existing human definitions. We must avoid univocity of concepts and language, both between our notions and God’s being and between God as he has revealed himself and God in his hidden majesty.

Our Formulations Should Acknowledge that the Three Persons Are Not Simply Relations but Distinct Subsistences with Their Own Incommunicable Attributes. While the Father, the Son, and the Spirit do not differ with respect to the divine essence and attributes they share, they possess personal characteristics that they do not share. Only the Father is unbegotten; only the Son is begotten; only the Spirit is spirated (breathed). In every external work of the Godhead, the Father is always source, the Son always mediator, and the Spirit always perfecter. The divine persons are not merely relations but persons in relation. It is not simply that the relations of begetting, being begotten, and being spirated are essential to the personal identities of Father, Son, and Spirit but also that the persons themselves are essential to each other’s identity. Each is an unsubstitutable agent who lives, wills, and acts in a distinct way that is never separated from the others. The covenant of redemption is the primary illustration of these points.

The Filioque
The variation between the East and the West became a formal schism (in 1054) with a debate that started in the sixth century and still continues, over whether the Spirit proceeds only from the Father or from the Father “and the Son” (filioque), as the West inserted into the Nicene Creed. Advocates of the Western position argue for the filioque from such texts as John 14:16 and Romans 8:9, where the Spirit is identified as “the Spirit of God” and “of Christ,” sent by the Son as well as the Father. Eastern advocates say that the Spirit is only ever explicitly said to “proceed” from the Father (in John 15:26 ESV, wording that is echoed in the unaltered Nicene Creed). The Reformed tradition has historically followed the Western view. Though this controversy deals with significant questions of the character of God’s unity and the relationship between the immanent Trinity (God in himself) and the economic Trinity (God in relation to us), the filioque question does not of itself threaten the ecumenical consensus on the Trinity.

(HT: A summary of Michael Horton’s, The Christian Faith, Chapter Eight)

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