Some Thoughts on the Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity is hard to teach, because there are so many ancient heresies to guard against and because, well … it’s complicated. But, the Scriptures present God as triune. That means we need to teach about Him. We need to teach Christians to know Him and love Him as He is; and He’s triune.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the doctrine of the Trinity; probably more than most pastors. That, and Christology, are my own hobby horses. Some people find joy in making complicated end-times charts. Others find fulfillment in being a Baptist fundamentalist. Still other Christians find their religious self-identity in a particular view of the doctrine of salvation. I like to study about who God is, and how He’s revealed Himself.

I just finished Millard Erickson’s God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity. It’s a very good book, but probably not the most engaging thing for the “average” Christians to read. It presupposes a lot of theological training. Erickson’s book is one of the most helpful works on the Trinity I’ve read. On balance, I’d say Carl Beckwith’s The Holy Trinity may have had a more formative influence on me, but this might be because I read it first. Beckwith is a good Lutheran, and Erickson is a irenic conservative Baptist, but they’ve both produced very fine works on this most important of doctrines.

As I think on the doctrine now, here is a non-exhaustive list of things (in no particular order) I think need to be emphasized if one wishes to teach the Trinity in a comprehensive way.

1: The “three foundations” James White mentioned in his excellent book The Forgotten Trinity

  • Monotheism; there is only one God
  • There are three divine persons
  • Each person is co-equal and co-eternal

I think the best way to do this is to walk through several passages of Scripture that support each foundation. The trick is to be comprehensive without being exhaustive.

2: The definitions of “Being” and “Person”

Both these terms have baggage, and were fought over during the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries. We need to consider how the great creeds seem to use these terms, but we shouldn’t be slaves to, for example, 4th century expressions of theological categories. In other words, just because the 4th century creeds may not have intended to convey a more modern concept of “personhood” which includes self-consciousness, this does not mean this modern definition of “personhood” is wrong!

The terms are “being” and “person” are good; but their proper definitions must always comport with Scripture. I am concerned with a kind of rote confessionalism that encourages an almost slavish devotion to old formulations of eternal doctrine. This isn’t a call to jettison historical theology; it’s simply a call to not be a slave to it.

3: The Trinity as a society of persons

This is Erickson’s term, and I like it. He wrote, “The Godhead is a complex of persons. Love exists within the Godhead as a binding relationship of each of the persons to each of the others,” (221). He explained:

… the fundamental characteristic of the universe is personal … The supreme person is indeed a person, with identity, thought, will and personality, with whom it is possible to have a relationship, conscious to both parties. This supreme being, however, was not content to remain solitary. He acted to create reality external to himself. This involved the creation of the material universe and all physical objects within it. It also involved bringing into existence other selves besides himself. These persons, to a large extent, exist for relationship with the creating and originating God. If, then, the most significant members of the creation are persons in relationship, then reality is primarily social. This means that the most powerful binding force in the universe is love.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 220-221.

This is good, but I think he could have brought more of the holiness attribute into play. God’s love is defined by His holiness. It doesn’t exist apart from it. I buy that God didn’t have to create creation (and, particularly, human beings), so clearly He desired worship and social interaction, so clearly He is social.

But, is “love” the best way to get this across? Probably. I struggle to express this without having to toss in caveats about how this isn’t narcissism on God’s part. He didn’t want us because of who we are; He wants us to worship Him because of who He is. In other words, we aren’t doing God any favors by being believers! God isn’t a harried middle-manager who’s “so happy to have us on the team,” so to speak.

4: Perichoresis as the guard against tritheism

I never heard about this doctrine at seminary; or, at least, I don’t remember. I first came across it in Carl Beckwith’s volume. Erickson echoes it here. Briefly, Erickson explains, “[p]erichoresis means that not only do the three members of the Trinity interpenetrate one another, but all three are intimately involved in all the works of God,” (235).

This is perhaps most clearly seen in Jesus’ promise about the coming of the Spirit, in John 14-16. In a recent sermon on that same passage, I described this interpenetration as an eternal, divine union between Persons. I was happy to see Erickson echo my own thoughts and state, “[t]he Godhead is to be thought of as less as a unity, in the sense of oneness of simplicity, than as a union, involving three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” (264).

The generic, conservative expressions of the Trinity (even in some theological texts) is often a functional tritheism. This doctrine of perichoresis was revolutionary to my own thinking, and I think it’s rightly the key to avoiding the charge of tritheism.

5: Analogies can be useful

There are lots of really bad Trinity analogies. Some theologians believe we should cast aside all attempts to make analogies, because they each inevitably fall short. Erickson disagrees, and sees them as useful symbols for pointing to a larger reality. Erickson explains:

It is simply not possible to explain it [the doctrine of the Trinity]unequivocally. What must be done is to offer a series, a whole assortment of illustrations and analogies, with the hope that some discernment will take place. We must approach the matter from various angles, ‘nibbling at the meaning’ of the doctrine, as it were.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 268.

What I’ve taken away from this is that some analogies are useful to get at different aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity.

  • for the idea of a composite union forming one entity, Erickson suggests the analogy of the brain, the heart and the lungs forming distinct but integral parts of a human body. Each is quite useless on its own, and by itself each could never be called “human.” But, combined together, we have a human being. Thus it is with the Persons of the Trinity; they do not exist and have never existed without each other. They are more than the sum of their parts.
  • for the concept of interpenetration as closeness of relationship, Erickson suggests a marriage.

6: There is no eternal subordination of function or nature

Most conservative evangelical pastors are taught that there is an eternal subordination of function in the Godhead. That is, Father, Son and Spirit are equal in power, glory, honor (etc.), but they have different roles in accordance with their functions. The Father is always “in charge,” as it were, because He has a particular role to play. This is why the Son always obeys the Father, etc.

Advocates for this position often reach to the analogy of complementarian marriage; men and women are equal before God, but the husband is in charge because he’s been assigned a superior role. There is equality in essence, but subordination in function.

I couldn’t agree less. I think this idea, variously called eternal functional subordination (EFS) or eternal subordination of the son (ESS), is terribly misguided. I disagree with EFS wholeheartedly. I’ve read Bruce Ware’s Father, Son and Holy Spirit (EFS) and I’ve read Erickson’s book against EFS. As far as I’m aware, only Erickson, Kevin Giles and D. Glenn Butner have written book-length works against EFS - the rest of the generically conservative evangelical folks seem to tilt towards EFS.

The issue of eternal generation is tied up with EFS; it’s advocates generally don’t hold to eternal generation. Interestingly, Erickson opposes EFS and dislikes eternal generation. J. Oliver Buswell Jr., who didn’t address the issue (‘cuz it wasn’t an issue in his day), presents Christ’s functional subordination as temporary and strongly suggests we get rid of eternal generation altogether. David Beale, a theologian and historian much closer to home, dedicated perhaps 30 pages of his historical theology to arguing against eternal generation. 

Speaking for myself, I don’t understand eternal generation and have never read an account by a theologian who seemed to understand it, either (including Beckwith, who is otherwise excellent). I think Shedd came close, but I forgot his reasoning one day after reading it - it’s very convoluted. It smacks of some kind of ontological subordination to me, no matter which way you slice it - and it doesn’t seem tied to the text. 

Erickson writes:

I would propose that there are no references to the Father begetting the Son or the Father (and the Son) sending the Spirit that cannot be understood in terms of the temporal role assumed by the second and third persons of the Trinity, respectively. They do not indicate any intrinsic relationship among the three. Further, to speak of one of the persons as unoriginate and the others as eternally begotten or proceeding from the Father is to introduce an element of causation or origination that must ultimately involve some kind of subordination among them …

There is no permanent distinction of one from the others in terms of origination. While the Father may be the cause of the existence of the Son and the Spirit, they are also mutually the cause of his existence and the existence of one another. There is an eternal symmetry of all three persons.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 309-310.

Erickson unpacked this at great length in his book examining EFS, Who’s Tampering With the Trinity, which I recently read and agreed with.

Now what?

I want to teach the Trinity in church one day, unpacking these concepts in a way average, ordinary Christians can understand. These concepts, mentioned briefly above, will likely form the backbone of what this teaching series will eventually look like. The problem, again, is how to be comprehensive without being exhaustive. I don’t think I can do that, right now.

So, for now, I nibble around the edges a bit, emphasizing what I can as the text suggests it. Right now, I preach a sermon on either the Trinity, or Father, Son and Spirit each time we observe the Lord’s Supper, which is monthly. In this manner, I’ll likely cover all of this eventually but I’d like to bring it all together in two sermon or two, one day. I don’t know if I can do that!

But, I can at least say that I’ve read (and continue to read) widely on the subject, and I’ve gotten to a point where I can accurately sketch out where I need to go. The latest three watershed revelations for me are that (1) the concept of perichoresis is extraordinarily helpful and biblical, (2) EFS is quite dangerous, and (3) the doctrines of eternal generation and the Spirit’s procession (i.e. some sort of taxis with the Godhead) are likely extra-biblical and can be dropped.

I plan to order Erickson’s book on God’s attributes, and his tome on the incarnation soon. It may not come as a great surprise that Erickson is my favorite theologian! I need to read Beckwith’s book again, and I plan to see what Moltmann and Brunner have to say about the Trinity, too. I also need to delve into the patristic authors more. There’s always more to read, but it’s always fun.

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There are 34 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

Look forward to more on this.  For my part, one thing I realized relatively recently is that if God is triune, all those changes in noun and verb forms in Genesis 1 make a lot of sense.  If He's not, then Moses needed to learn his Hebrew grammar.  It's not a proof of the concept, but it would be one part of an inductive justification.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

What do you mean? Without going too far down a dark road, I will say that Erickson wasn't talking about that kind of penetration. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

ScottS's picture

I have not done nearly as much reading in this area as you obviously have, so let me first humbly state I am certainly ignorant of some of the discussion and reasoning on some of these points. But I have two questions and one extra illustration.

Question 1

I don't get the significance of perichoresis. How is adding that term into the mix saying anything more about what the Trinity is than what the word Trinity itself already implies? So you gave Erickson's definition:

[p]erichoresis means that not only do the three members of the Trinity interpenetrate one another, but all three are intimately involved in all the works of God

I would have already assumed that because of Trinity. Additionally, the "unity" versus "union" distinction is lost on me, as I see the terms as synonyms. God is one God, who is a unity/union of three Persons; the Bible emphasizes at times the oneness and at times the distinctions of Persons.

So maybe I just need more clarification, but it seems to me perichoresis is just needlessly compounding the discussion with what is already inherent in the concept of the Trinity. However, maybe perichoresis is related to the EFS issue you discuss.

What I, as one trying to comprehend the Trinity, have trouble grasping is that while "all three are intimately involved in all the works of God," they are not equally involved in respect to their Persons (else they would not be distinct Persons), and so where lies the distinction of activity/expression between the Persons (eternally) and each Person's work in creation (temporally)?

Question 2

Regarding EFS, what specifically about it do you see as "terribly misguided" and "quite dangerous"?

(FYI, I'm in general agreement with you/Erickson about eternal generation, that it may "be understood in terms of the temporal role assumed by the second and third persons of the Trinity," though I disagree with Erickson about the mutual "cause of existence" of the Three, since I do not see them as every having been "caused" to exist in the eternal aspect; only in the temporal aspect.)

It seems clear there is some kind of "functional" distinction temporally; this functional distinction seems to have some everlasting aspect related to Christ's incarnation since the Son will be "subject" to the Father at the entrance into the eternal state (1 Cor 15:27-28). So the question is, if God exists "outside" of time, in eternity prior to their being a "linear" timeline for creatures to exist within (which I realize that is debated), yet part of God's eternal existence includes His actions within time, then in that sense, at least, their has always been (in God's mind) this eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. At least, that makes sense to me. What gets enacted temporally then also defines what God is/has always been eternally.

Illustration

While I agree no illustration can fully picture the Trinity, I did have an "ah-ha" moment a number of years ago when I first viewed this video about Abigail & Brittany Hensel, conjoined twins that have a very unique body where each controls "half" of it (so they must function in unity to accomplish anything like walking, driving, typing, cutting with a knife, tying knots, etc.), yet they are two separate "people" (who, when typing an email, sometime refer to themselves as the singular "I", since they are one being, yet distinct if they disagree). While I recommend watching the whole thing, if you only want to get a sense of the issues of whether they one or two, see especially 13:54-15:45 (school work allowed together or done separate?) and 27:00-32:00 (functional and mental unity and distinction), 39:40-40:40 (treated as one or two people in the workplace?), 42:20-43:08 (when they marry, do they marry one or two men?). P.S. There are videos which follow-up. Regarding workplace, they become teachers and each earn "half" the salary for the job.

Again, there are some issues with this illustration (the members of the Trinity never "disagree"), but the fact that it gives a real life picture of two persons in one being helps to make more clear (1) that such an idea is feasible and even able to be "concrete" (so Trinitarian theology is not just playing word games or dealing with abstractions with the idea of Trinity, Three-in-One, like some might accuse who hold that we are really tritheists; God has given an example in this one/these two young women) and (2) what the complexities are of distinction of persons compared to unity of essence/being can be.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

TylerR's picture

Editor

I don't have much time, but these are my quick thoughts in response to your questions:

1. Perichoresis

It's a biblical doctrine; all three Persons are equally involved in the works of the other. This is why, for example, Genesis says "God" created the heavens and the earth, but Hebrews says the Son did. What does this mean? It means God (in a triune sense) created creation. See also the discussions in John 14-16, here Jesus (in one breath - pun intended) says He'll send the Spirit, then switches to the first-person and says He's the one who will come to them. 

Basically, each Person is equally involved in every action. We shouldn't think of the other two sitting on the couch eating potato chips while the Spirit regenerates a sinner. The typical explanations of the Trinity emphasize the economic roles so much that the average Christian is (I believe) left with an explanation that is functional tritheism. Beckwith covers this in great detail, too. He believes that the reason why Scripture highlights one Person's actions over anothers is not that the other two are playing video games in the basement while the other works, but so that by highlighting one Person's actions, we can see the trinity. 

2. Illustration

Erickson uses these same conjoined twins in an extensive illustration, too!

I'll answer the rest later; must dash!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

This is an excellent article for normal Christians! Thanks.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

T Howard's picture

TylerR wrote:

What do you mean? Without going too far down a dark road, I will say that Erickson wasn't talking about that kind of penetration. 

Tyler, I don't want to derail this excellent topic. That statement just reminded me of the controversy that surrounded the explanation of the Trinity by either Jack Hyles or Jack Schaap. As I recall, one of them likened the trinity to marriage and the sexual union of man and wife.

TylerR's picture

Editor

That's not the "closeness" Erickson was going for, if that helps! 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

ScottS's picture

TylerR wrote:

1. Perichoresis

It's a biblical doctrine; all three Persons are equally involved in the works of the other. This is why, for example, Genesis says "God" created the heavens and the earth, but Hebrews says the Son did. What does this mean? It means God (in a triune sense) created creation. See also the discussions in John 14-16, here Jesus (in one breath - pun intended) says He'll send the Spirit, then switches to the first-person and says He's the one who will come to them. 

Basically, each Person is equally involved in every action. We shouldn't think of the other two sitting on the couch eating potato chips while the Spirit regenerates a sinner. The typical explanations of the Trinity emphasize the economic roles so much that the average Christian is (I believe) left with an explanation that is functional tritheism. Beckwith covers this in great detail, too. He believes that the reason why Scripture highlights one Person's actions over anothers is not that the other two are playing video games in the basement while the other works, but so that by highlighting one Person's actions, we can see the trinity. 

Okay, so this explanation of perichoresis shifted from saying the Persons are each "intimately involved" (in the original post) to being "equally involved." That I would have to disagree with.

While I can agree that all Three were intimately involved in creation, I do not believe they functioned equally in that process in their distinct Persons (only in the oneness of their essence). Neither do I believe the others are "sitting around" during the actions of another Person, but being intimately connected in actions does not mean they are equally involved. When Christ calls out "My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?" (Mt 27:46), one Person is being forsaken, the other is doing the forsaking, but it is not equal participation in the actions. Likewise, when the Son subjects Himself to the Father (1 Cor 15:28), one Person is being subject, the other Person is subjected to, and again, it is not equal participation by the Persons (yet it is the One God who is both forsaken/forsaking and subject/subjected to).

I don't want to derail on to Piper's article to much, but it was linked to in the comments, and so I wanted to comment, The article starts in a good place ("The personhood of each member of the Trinity means that each Person has a distinct center of consciousness"), but then IMO goes in the wrong direction here:

Person. In regards to the Trinity, we use the term “Person” differently than we generally use it in everyday life. Therefore it is often difficult to have a concrete definition of Person as we use it in regards to the Trinity. What we do not mean by Person is an “independent individual” in the sense that both I and another human are separate, independent individuals who can exist apart from one another.

What we do mean by Person is something that regards himself as “I” and others as “You.” So the Father, for example, is a different Person from the Son because he regards the Son as a “You,” even though he regards himself as “I.” Thus, in regards to the Trinity, we can say that “Person” means a distinct subject which regards himself as an “I” and the other two as a “You.” These distinct subjects are not a division within the being of God, but “a form of personal existence other than a difference in being” (Grudem, 255; I believe that this is a helpful definition, but it should be recognized that Grudem himself is offering this as more of an explanation than definition of Person).

I agree with Piper that a Person of the Godhead is not an "independent individual" who "can exist apart from one another" (the Three are dependent upon each other, at least so far as God is dependent upon Himself), but the problem is the second paragraph in relation to that.

I, as a human person, can "regard" myself as an "I," a "you," or a "he/him," yet I am not three-persons-in-one. I have "talked to myself" in my own mind in second or third person, and not in a psychologically schizophrenic way, but merely in a rational contemplation of how could "you" do that [Scott]? Or of Scott, "he's an idiot!" So such contemplation is not necessarily identifying of multiple persons. Nevertheless, yes, persons (and Persons) do distinguish themselves as "I" in relation to another person (the "you" or "he/him/she/her"), but that is not any different than how "person" is used "in every day life" (which Piper seems to state it is different). Additionally, by definition, a Person is an individual, distinct from another Person (as Piper had said, a "distinct center of consciousness," else we would not count Three, but only One Person in the Godhead). So the Godhead is Three individual/distinct Persons in a union of One Being.

I'm also not sure I like the terminology of the Persons as "unfolding" and being each "modes of existence" (that sounds a lot like modalism as well) that Piper mentions (though the modes comment Piper gets from Bavink).

For me, keeping forefront the idea of Person (an individual consciousness) who relates to other persons/Persons is enough to get the idea. They have the capacity for individual expression/action, but because of the intimate relation do so in perfect unity and harmony, all while functioning as a union of One Being. They are not modes, nor unfoldings, nor anything other than Three Persons eternally existent, eternally relating, eternally unified, and eternally One in essence.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

TylerR's picture

Editor

Scott, I notice that your two objections to perichoresis come from the incarnation, and don't speak to the larger nature of God's actions (in a triune sense) in history. The John 14-16 argument needs to be answered, along with the creation text I mentioned, earlier. Add to it, for example, the identity of the angel of Yahweh, who variously distinguishes Himself from Yahweh and also claims to be Yahweh.

I'm not denying the Persons are depicted as performing distinct actions. I'm just suggesting that, if we leave it there and emphasize the functional roles at the expense of the unity of action, you have a functional tritheism. Both unity and distinctness are true; we've historically focused on the latter instead of the former.

This is why Erickson and Beckwith see perichoresis as the guard against tritheism. Interestingly, I don't believe most evangelical systematics deal with this. It's a concept that was best articulated by the Cappodocian fathers; the two Basils and Gregory. I have yet to read their own writings on this; it's on my list for 2019.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

Scott, I conflated Erickson's discussion of the perichoresis with the doctrine of opera ad extra. I see little difference between these concepts, and believe they're basically saying the same things. Beckwith explains:

The acknowledgment that the works of the Trinity toward creation (ad extra) are undivided, meaning they belong equally and inseparably to the three persons, constitutes one of the broadest points of consensus among the Fathers. This theological commonplace became a maxim of orthodox trinitarian thinking throughout the tradition and was dubbed Augustine’s rule. At the same time, this scriptural acknowledgement raises potential problems.

You alluded to one of the problems, but Beckwith does an excellent job of addressing them. Basically, I think pastors should read and ponder Beckwith's book. It's better than Erickson, but they're both very, very helpful. 

Beckwith goes on:

Scripture makes clear that the Father creates, the Son creates, and the Holy Spirit creates. How should we understand this? Does it mean that the Father creates apart from the Son and the Spirit, the Son apart from the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit apart from the Father and the Son? Does it mean that each contributes to the work of creation such that one part is done by the Father, another part by the Son, and yet another part by the Holy Spirit? If either of these statements is true, then the church’s confession of the unity and simplicity of the Trinity would be false, and indeed we should say three gods. The Fathers explained these difficult questions by showing from Scripture that the works of the Trinity toward creation are inseparable and indivisible. This theological conclusion became known during the medieval period as Augustine’s rule: opera Trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt. This rule states that every action of the three persons toward the outside (ad extra), which is to say every external work or every work toward creation, is numerically one and proceeds from their unity of will and power. When the Father works, the Son and the Holy Spirit work also in the same act by the same power of their common nature.

Beckwith, Carl L.. Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics: The Holy Trinity (Kindle Locations 8846-8854).  . Kindle Edition. 

Etc, etc. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

ScottS's picture

Tyler, yes, my examples come from the incarnation. But the Persons do not change at the incarnation, so what is true in the period of the incarnation is true of the Persons eternally.

There is a logical reason, in my mind, why "both unity and distinctness are true" yet "we've historically focused on the latter instead of the former." It is in the Three Persons that there is distinctness, so when the Persons are being discussed, that is naturally the focus (even though they are unified); it is in the essence that there is Oneness.

Regarding creation, yes the triune "God" created. I would articulate it as the Father "spoke," and that Logos, the Son, is the Person "through whom also He [God] made the worlds" (Heb 1:2), while the Spirit helped shape it (Gen 1:2). But I would not see these as equal in actions with respect to Persons, just with respect to Being.

Regarding John 14-16, and more specifically Jn 14:15-18 and the switch from third "Him" to first "I," Christ comes to us (and we are placed into Him) through the Spirit's indwelling, so the Person of the Spirit is the medium of access to the Person of the Son in the spiritual realm, even as the Son is the medium of access to the Father (Jn 14:6; Heb 4:14-16; 10:19-22). That still keeps distinction, while explaining how both the Spirit and Christ come to a believer. Yet again, I would say they are not equal in actions with respect to Persons, but are with Being.

 

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

wcombs's picture

"I think this idea, variously called eternal functional subordination (EFS) or eternal subordination of the son (ESS), is terribly misguided. I disagree with EFS wholeheartedly."

Since this is the case, would you mind explaining how you interpret "the head of Christ is God" (1 Cor 11:3)?

Bill Combs

Bill Combs

Ed Vasicek's picture

Everyone, it is so good to discuss some of these truly major doctrines.  Most of us probably have questions or comments regarding the Trinity.  Part of the problem is that we are delving into details that first century believers would have viewed as a mystery (not that we are wrong to go into them; indeed, our discovering all we can about our Creator is part of what brings glory to Him).

But I have a question for comment.

I have heard the Trinity presented (by David Stern, Messianic Jewish authority) as the idea of One God Who Has Three Personalities.  If we are no longer talking about a being with a body, what is wrong with defining the Trinity this way?  Or, if there is a difference, what is it?

When we talk about God, we refer to Him as He. When we talk about the Persons of the Trinity, we refer to them as "they."  I think English grammar also illustrates the point.

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

....wouldn't Jesus be talking to Himself when He prays?  "Personalities" also seems to contradict the plural forms used in Genesis 1 and Psalm 110.  I'm seeing Stern's phrase as an elegant form of modalism at this point.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Scott: I never replied to all your questions. I'm traveling for work today, and I'll get back this evening.

Bill: Good question. I'll get back this evening, and I'll note what Erickson says about that, too. Briefly, while I travel, what do you think about EFS? 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ed Vasicek's picture

Bert wrote:

'm seeing Stern's phrase as an elegant form of modalism at this point.

Why is it modalism?  Modalism says God is one Person who essentially wears three masks.  If you have three distinct personalities that forever make up the One God,and there is no role-playing, how is that modalism?  I think that is a dismissal of his view without addressing it.

We usually associate persons with bodies.  But, since God in His essence has no bodies (other than the body the Son now has being melded to the human nature of Jesus), what exactly is the difference between a personality and a bodiless person?  I have pondered it for years and cannot discern a difference, but really want to do so -- if there is a difference.  So if anyone can explain the difference, I am all ears.

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

It's a modalism lite you have multiple personalities without a plurality of persons. In a nutshell, different aspects of the same person, or schizophrenia.  I can see why a messianic Jew would make that mistake, but it's still hard to reconcile with the passages which clearly indicate distinct persons of the Godhead.

Another note, to go with some of the question about there being a body or not, is to contemplate the "spirits in prison" who are waiting for their resurrection bodies--are they any less persons because of that?  So I don't know that because we don't have clear examples of the physical bodies of the Father and the Spirit, that this makes much of a difference in their personhood.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

wcombs's picture

Erickson says there is subordination with Trinity in "modes of operation." He cites 1 Cor 11:3 but does not discuss it. The people around me, at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, always called this the economic Trinity. But I suppose that is the same thing as eternal functional subordination. Anyway, it seems to me that 1 Cor 11:3 is fairly clear that there is an eternal subordination in the functioning of the Trinity, obviously not ontologically. It seems to me that Erickson admits as much in his discussion.

Bill Combs

wcombs's picture

Erickson says there is subordination with Trinity in "modes of operation." He cites 1 Cor 11:3 but does not discuss it. The people around me, at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, always called this the economic Trinity. But I suppose that is the same thing as eternal functional subordination. Anyway, it seems to me that 1 Cor 11:3 is fairly clear that there is an eternal subordination in the functioning of the Trinity, obviously not ontologically. It seems to me that Erickson admits as much in his discussion.

Bill Combs

TylerR's picture

Editor

Scott asked:

What I, as one trying to comprehend the Trinity, have trouble grasping is that while "all three are intimately involved in all the works of God," they are not equally involved in respect to their Persons (else they would not be distinct Persons), and so where lies the distinction of activity/expression between the Persons (eternally) and each Person's work in creation (temporally)?

The question is whether (1) you can really drive a wedge between the actions of the Persons and the Being, and (2) how to balance the "threeness" with the "oneness" aspect. This is the see-saw effect we've seen throughout all of church history with the Trinity; some emphasize the distinction and others the unity of action. To much either way distorts the picture. 

Scripture strongly suggests that each Persons acts when one acts. To drive a wedge between the actions of Being and Persons really leaves you with tritheism. At least, that's my opinion. I see the opera ad extra and perichoresis as important guards against the charge of tritheism. I need to read Beckwith again, and take notes. I also need to read the Cappadocian fathers, and take more notes. Then I need to read Grudem and Ware, and take more notes. Then, I need to stop taking notes and write my own paper. 

Bill:

As far as EFS goes, I believe the passages that are generally used to support EFS are actually referring to the temporary functional subordination of Christ during the incarnation. I believe EFS is a grave danger because its logical result is a functional Arianism. I don't think for one moment that Ware and Grudem advocate this, but their students (2+ generations removed) might. 

If there is something intrinsic and foundational about the taxis of the Trinity that makes Father superior to the Son, then you have a Son who isn't equal to the Father at all. You have an ontological subordination. EFS advocates claim otherwise, but how else can it be otherwise? Erickson explains the implications:

Authority is part of the Father's essence, and subordination ordination is part of the Son's essence, and each attribute is not part of the essence of the other person. That means that the essence of the Son is different from the essence of the Father. The Father's essence includes omnipresence, omniscience, love, etc., and authority over the Son. The Son's essence includes omnipresence, omniscience, love, etc., and submission to the Father. But that is equivalent to saying that they are not homoousious with one another.

Millard Erickson. Who's Tampering with the Trinity?: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate (Kindle Locations 1765-1768). Kindle Edition. 

To me, this is a problem. A big problem. You mentioned 1 Cor 11:3, and you're correct that Erickson doesn't do much with it. He suggests κεφαλή doesn't have to mean superiority, and cites Giles. I see this phrase appears 469 times in the LXX and the NT, so I haven't yet done a word study to confirm his assertion. Erickson suggests it might be better rendered "source" in 1 Cor 11:3, but that seems to create a knotty problem about how God could be the "source" of Christ! On first blush, I thought Erickson's explanation of 1 Cor 11:3 was weak. It's a problem, to be sure. 

However, if 1 Cor 11:3 is the best the EFS folks have, and I believe it is (without having Ware with me right now), then I don't think it's enough to surmount the problems it creates. EFS implies a distinction in nature; Father being superior to the Son. Again, EFS folks deny this, but on what grounds? In a work setting, for example, you and your boss may well be equal in the sight of God as human beings, but if someone asks, "who's in charge," you'll point to your boss. If someone asks Jesus, "who's in charge," will He really point to the Father? 

Yes, this is a rather pedestrian example, but I'm deliberately trying to take this out of the speculative realm and into practical life - how would one defend EFS against this very charge if a member of the congregation asks? If one cannot escape the idea that Jesus would point to the Father and say, "He's in charge" (in this example), then does the position have a fatal flaw? 

I haven't figured everything out. I will say that I have grave doubts about EFS, and think it's a problem. I'll also say I have more reading to do. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

wcombs's picture

"As far as EFS goes, I believe the passages that are generally used to support EFS are actually referring to the temporary functional subordination of Christ during the incarnation." This simply will not do. Paul in 1 Cor 11:3 is writing about 25 years after Christ has been raised and glorified. There is nothing in the context to indicate this is to be restricted to some temporary functional subordination during Christ's earthly life. Erickson says: "There is, to be sure, a subordination of the second and third persons of the Trinity to the first person with respect to what may be termed the 'modes of operation.'" (p. 302 of God in Three Persons). In support he cited 1 Cor 11:3 in the discussion. The idea that kephale means "source" has been thoroughly disproved (Grudem and others).

"In a work setting, for example, you and your boss may well be equal in the sight of God as human beings, but if someone asks, 'who's in charge,' you'll point to your boss. If someone asks Jesus, "who's in charge," will He really point to the Father?" Your whole discussion argues that you refuse to see the possibility of the distinction between ontology and function. 1 Cor 11:3 also says that "the head of a wife is her husband" (ESV). And, again, Paul says "the husband is the head of the wife" (Eph 5:23). Are you saying that the wife is inferior ontologically to the husband? Of course, you would not. You are arguing like the feminists do about Paul's use of "head" to mean authority over. They say that "authority over" must mean one is ontologically superior to the other, so they insist kephale means "source." In truth, the husband is ontologically (in being) equal to the wife, but is functionally over the wife. So also in the Trinity.

Bill Combs

RajeshG's picture

I believe that Revelation 3:12 is at least as important as 1 Corinthians 11:3 and maybe more so:

Revelation 3:12 Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is  new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.

More than 50 years after His enthronement at the right hand of the Father, the risen, ascended, and glorified Jesus of Nazareth emphasizes 4x in this statement that the Father is His God. We will never understand with any fullness the mystery of the Incarnation, and we must allow statements such as this to inform all our understanding about the relationship that will exist eternally between the God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth, and God the Father.

Larry's picture

Moderator

How did the Father send the Son if the Son was not functionally subordinate to the Father until after the incarnation? The whole idea of "sending" implies a functional subordination and it occurred before the incarnation. 

RajeshG's picture

Scripture reveals that God sent His Angel before the Israelites during the Exodus:

Exodus 23:20 Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. 21 Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him. 22 But if thou shalt indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries. 23 For mine Angel shall go before thee, and bring thee in unto the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites: and I will cut them off. 

This passage reveals that one Member of the Godhead sent another Member of the Godhead long before the Incarnation took place.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Not necessarily. Warfield suggests a sort of covenant whereby the three determine, together, to send Christ. It doesn't necessarily mean subordination.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

ScottS's picture

I've numbered these in brackets so I can interact below:

TylerR wrote:

[1] The question is whether (1) you can really drive a wedge between the actions of the Persons and the Being ...

Scripture strongly suggests that each Persons acts when one acts. To drive a wedge between the actions of Being and Persons really leaves you with tritheism. ...

[2] As far as EFS goes, I believe the passages that are generally used to support EFS are actually referring to the temporary functional subordination of Christ during the incarnation. ...

[3] If there is something intrinsic and foundational about the taxis of the Trinity that makes Father superior to the Son, then you have a Son who isn't equal to the Father at all. You have an ontological subordination. EFS advocates claim otherwise, but how else can it be otherwise? Erickson explains the implications:

Authority is part of the Father's essence, and subordination ordination is part of the Son's essence, and each attribute is not part of the essence of the other person. That means that the essence of the Son is different from the essence of the Father. The Father's essence includes omnipresence, omniscience, love, etc., and authority over the Son. The Son's essence includes omnipresence, omniscience, love, etc., and submission to the Father. But that is equivalent to saying that they are not homoousious with one another.

Millard Erickson. Who's Tampering with the Trinity?: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate (Kindle Locations 1765-1768). Kindle Edition. 

To me, this is a problem. A big problem. ...

[4] However, if 1 Cor 11:3 is the best the EFS folks have, and I believe it is (without having Ware with me right now), then I don't think it's enough to surmount the problems it creates. EFS implies a distinction in nature; Father being superior to the Son. Again, EFS folks deny this, but on what grounds? In a work setting, for example, you and your boss may well be equal in the sight of God as human beings, but if someone asks, "who's in charge," you'll point to your boss. If someone asks Jesus, "who's in charge," will He really point to the Father? 

So to the points above:

  1. I believe you can distinguish actions of Person from Being in the Trinity, else there would be no real distinction of Person. I guess the best way for me to describe it is that you have Three minds/wills that are in control of One Spirit's Being. The Father can will something distinct from the Son/Holy Spirit, and move the Being of God to act (and the Son/Holy Spirit will be in agreement with that act); likewise with the other two members who can also will something distinct, and act through the One nature, yet that the Father and other member would agree with. So to me, what is not necessarily "equal" in the action is the Motivator (the Will of the particular Person) that initiates the act of the Being. They are not one Will of one Person, but Three Wills of Three Persons in perfect unity with one another on what Each does. This, to me, is not tritheism, since all actions originate in the One Being, just by distinct Persons.
  2. Regarding "temporary functional subordination of Christ during the incarnation," you did not address my earlier point that if God exists eternally, outside of time (yet also fully within time; though maybe you believe otherwise on these two points...), even a "temporary" time of subordination would have an "eternal" ramification of the fact that the Son is subordinate to the Father in that eternal "now" that God exists in apart from time that includes all actions that occur within time as well. And then additionally, the Son from the time of incarnation remains eternally incarnate, so infinitely from point 0 of incarnation He would still be subordinate as the Godman (even if it could be proven He was not subordinate prior to incarnation).
  3. Here I disagree that it is necessarily an "ontological subordination," and the immediate problem I see with Erickson's statement is he is moving what is part of the Person (the will) to be considered part of the "essence," when by definition, the Trinity is Three Persons with One Essence, and it is in the Person that the will to choose (and the self-consciousness, the personal identification, the relation to other persons) exists. So it is the choice of the Son to submit to the Father, the choice of the Father to take the lead, the choice of the Spirit to be humble and exalt the Son and the Father over self, and essentially submit to both, etc. It is all a matter of will, not essence. They are still equal in all ways in essence, and only by free choice interacting as they do.
  4. I actually would say "Yes," Jesus in many circumstance would point to the Father to answer that question, though even in organizations, there are levels of authority, and so Christ could just as easily point to Himself with respect to any other human (Christ is in charge over all the rest of us), even if He is still "under" the Father, but He can also defer to the Father if that is who He would wish to focus on for authority (Jn 5:30; 1 Cor 15:27-28).

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

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