An Evangelical Statement on the Trinity
We believe that the sole living God who created and rules over all and who is described in the Bible is one Triune God in three coeternal, coequal Persons, each Person being presented as distinct yet equal, not as three separate gods, but one Godhead, sharing equally in honor, glory, worship, power, authority, rule, and rank, such that no Person has eternal primacy over the others.
A theological commentary
Athanasius, the defender of the Nicaean Creed, correctly explained the faith once delivered to the saints.
Objecting to attempts of his day to reduce Jesus Christ (and the Holy Spirit) to secondary (and tertiary) status in being, authority, and power, Athanasius pointed out that, had his opponents understood Jesus “to be the proper offspring of the Father’s substance, as the radiance is from light, they would not every one of them have found fault with the [Nicaean] Fathers; but would have been confident that the Council wrote suitably” (3.9.39).1 Therefore, our guidance in constructing this statement comes from the Bible and the helpful explanations of Athanasius, from whose insights we draw the list of equal attributes at the end of our statement. For Athanasius, equality of attributes is the proof for equality of substance (being). Lose the first and one loses the second. So he declares of the Christ, “This is why He has equality with the Father by titles expressive of unity, and what is said of the Father, is said in Scripture of the Son also, all but his being called Father.”2
Athanasius illustrates his position by citing Bible verses in which Jesus claims to possess all the Father possesses, for example, being named “God,” “the Almighty,” “Light,” making “all things” and doing “whatsoever” the Father does, “being Everlasting” with “eternal power and godhead.” He also notes parallel Scriptures in which the Son and the Father are described with the same terms: “being Lord . . . through whom [are] all things,” being “Lord of Angels” and “worshipped by them,” “being honoured as the Father, for that they may honour the Son, He says, as they honour the Father; being equal to God, He thought it not robbery to be equal with God,” “being Truth,” “Life,” being “The Lord God” and “The God of Gods,” who forgives sins, being “the King of glory,” as “David in the Psalm” states “of the Son” (3.20.49) and “God” verifies, “My glory I will not give to another” (3.21.50).
Athanasius concludes, “If then any think of other origin, and other Father, considering the equality of these attributes, it is a mad thought” (3.21.50).3
Therefore, maintaining an understanding of the equality of the attributes of each Person of the Trinity is, for Athanasius, necessary to maintain a proper confession of each Person’s equality of substance. Reduce one’s belief in the equal status of the attributes of any of the Persons of the Godhead and one has eliminated one’s proof of the existence of the Trinity, having reduced one’s understanding of the doctrine to an ascending relationship of three gods in tandem. Arius made such a mistake when he declared, “Thus there is a Three, not in equal glories. Not intermingling with each other are their subsistences. One more glorious than the other in their glories unto immensity” (2.2.15).
Instead, having established the equality of the Father and Son’s glory and other attributes in these quotations from the De Synodis, Athanasius proceeds to the question of rank in Epistulae quattuor ad Serapionem, explaining, “But of such rank [taxis] and nature the Spirit is having to the Son, so the Son has to the Father.”4 The Sermo contra Latinos, by a follower of Athanasius, confirms, “But the Father is first not according to time, and not according to rank, surely not!”5
God is unique.
We have no precedent in our world for understanding how God can be one and at the same time three. We mistake the nature of the Godhead by positing three Persons in tandem, one eternally exercising authority over the others as human chief executive officers exercise authority over their subordinate staff.
- All quotations of Athanasius are from The Epistle of S. Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, Concerning the Councils Held at Ariminum in Italy and at Seleucia in Isauria (or De Synodis), in Members of the English Church, Select Treatises of S. Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, in Controversy with the Arians, trans. J. H. Newman (Oxford: John Henry Parker, J. G. F. and J. Rivington: 1842), except where otherwise noted. [↩]
- Punctuation is that of the translator of the De Synodis. [↩]
- This concern for and attention to the relationship between equality in substance and attributes can be seen in “The Westminster Confession of Faith,” 9:1, which recognizes, “The Holy Spirit, the third Person in the Trinity, proceeding from the Father and the Son, of the same substance and equal in power and glory, is, together with the Father and Son, to be believed in, loved, obeyed, and worshipped throughout all ages,” in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part I: Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, 1999), 131. “The Westminster Shorter Catechism” continues this equation in its answer to Question 6: “There are three Persons in the Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory” (Constitution of the Presbyterian Church, 175). “The Westminster Larger Catechism” slightly amplifies this statement in its answer to Question 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” (Constitution of the Presbyterian Church, 196). [↩]
- Thesaurus linguae graecae: Canon of Greek Authors and Works, vol. 26, p. 580, line 24, accessed 23 Feb. 2006, available from http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/inst/textsearch, translation by William David Spencer. [↩]
- Literally: “may it not happen! mē genoito.” Ibid., vol. 28, p. 829, line 47, translation by William David Spencer.
The statement cited in our text is included in a discussion of the theory of the “eternal emergence” of the Son and Spirit, which seeks to clarify that the Spirit is “conjoined and together and not being inferior according to the emergence after the Son. . . . For just as the Son immediately and closely is out of the first, which implies the Father, so also the Spirit is immediately out of the Father, with reference to the eternal emergence. But the Father is first neither according to time, nor according to rank—surely not!” As we can see, the Son and Spirit proceeding from the Father may be understood as order, but without an eternally hierarchical ordering.
In addition, we can notice this concern is also expressed in the Second Helvetic Confession: “Thus there are not three gods, but three persons, consubstantial, coeternal, and coequal; distinct with respect to hypostases, and with respect to order, the one preceding the other yet without any inequality” (ch. 3, “Of God, His Unity and Trinity,” “The Second Helvetic Confession,” in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.], Part I: Book of Confessions, 56). [↩]