The Trinity Statement

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We impose human conduct in our fallen world onto the relationships in heaven’s perfect one. But, since there is no exact point of reference for God in our contingent world, we must rely upon God’s revelation of God’s nature. Such specific divine revelation is recorded in the Bible in the form of affirmations, such as “Hear, Israel, the LORD (singular) your God (plural), the LORD (singular) is one” (Deut 6:4). The interchangeable use of the singular and plural names of God shows that God is unique.

God is not limited to human gender.

Christians differ over their understanding of God’s intention for the ecclesiastical and domestic relationship between the genders. But, this topic should be included under the doctrine of humanity and not of the Trinity, since God is neither male nor female (as we learn from Deut 4:15–16), and God is not limited to two Persons, but is one God in three Persons. Thus, no direct and specific analogical correspondence exists between one male and one female in relationship or in church service or all females and all males in relationship or in church service and the perfect love relationships within the monotheistic Godhead of the Trinity. Further, the attempt to ignore the Holy Spirit and forge some sort of corresponding relationship to human gender out of the incarnational, metaphorical designations of “father” and “son” is at best logic fault and at worst heterodox.

Athanasius warns against overly anthropomorphizing Trinitarian familial language. He counters the charge that his insistence on equality in the Trinity reduces two Persons of the Godhead to “brothers”: “One is not Father and the Other Son, but they are brothers together” (3:23.51). 6 Athanasius answers that equality does not mean that one Person in the Godhead cannot be identified as “father,” as another takes on flesh and enters our world as an infant who is the child of divine intervention (by the Holy Spirit, who is another Person of the Trinity [Luke 1:35]) and human childbirth (see Phil 2:5–11), and he cites numerous examples of human parents begetting children. Yet, he warns that this human understanding must be confined to our human realm. We must approach the eternal by “casting away human images, nay, all things sensible, and ascending to the Father, lest we rob the Father of the Son in ignorance, and rank Him among His own creatures” (3.23.51).

In summary, Athanasius insists that equality of attributes demonstrates equality of substance (being) in the One Triune God.

God exercises perfect cooperative relationships.

God models perfect love, respect, cooperation. Although Jesus in his human incarnation was limited in various ways (Phil 2:6–8), including in knowledge (e.g., Matt 24:36; Mark 13:32), at his ascension he returned to his former place of authority and glory, where he receives prayer and grants power from heaven (Acts 7:56, 59; Luke 24:49). In eternity, the Persons of the Trinity know each other intimately. As 1 Corinthians 2:10 tells us, the Spirit searches the thoughts of the others. The Persons of the Godhead indwell each other (John 17:21), expressing perfect love and mutual glorification (John 17:1; 23–24), each sharing cooperatively in humanity’s creation, redemption, and sanctification.7 God exemplifies a unity in diversity that we should emulate between the genders and practice in the global, multicultural, mutual submission and respectful cooperation of all humans.

Voluntary deference as part of the salvific plan

Deference within the Trinity is mutual: the Father defers to the Son to carry out the plan of salvation, as does the Holy Spirit, and so the Son is honored as he in turn defers to Father and Spirit. All mutually honor and defer to one another.

Such deference did not reveal a permanent superiority of one Person of the Trinity over the Others to John Calvin, who wrote:

We ought also to understand what we read in Paul: after the judgment “Christ will deliver the Kingdom to his God and Father” (1 Cor. 15:24p.). Surely the Kingdom of the Son of God had no beginning and will have no end. But even as he lay concealed under the lowness of flesh and “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7; cf Vg.), laying aside the splendor of majesty, he showed himself obedient to his Father (cf. Phil. 2:8). Having completed this subjection, “he was at last crowned with glory and honor” (Heb. 2:9p.).

The mission of Jesus Christ was not simply to lead humanity in righteous and obedient living, as was the task of the first humans. Christ’s mission was greater, having to redeem fallen humanity, after which, Calvin explains, “So then will he yield to the Father his name and crown of glory, and whatever he has received from the Father, that ‘God may be all in all’ (1 Cor 15:28).” To perform this mission, Christ becomes our “Mediator” and our “Lord,” a title, Calvin notes, that “belongs to the person of Christ only in so far as it represents a degree midway between God and us.”

  1. In a May 1537 letter to Simon Grynée, the rector of the Academy of Basle, John Calvin reports he was labeled a Sabellian for claiming Jesus Christ was “that Jehovah, who of Himself alone was always self-existent” (in other words autotheos). This is noted by Charles Hodge (see his Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1952], 467 [vol. I, ch. 4, sec. 6A]. Referencing Ignatius, Athanasius makes a similar point to that of Calvin, that, strictly speaking, “the Son was ingenerate,” since the Second Person of the Trinity was not created, though the Son was generate in the incarnation (De Synodis, 3.17.46): “We are persuaded that the blessed Ignatius was orthodox in writing that Christ was generate on account of the flesh, (for He was made flesh,) yet ingenerate, because He is not in the number of things made and generated, but Son from Father” (De Synodis, 3.18.47). Charles Hodge, however, seems to disagree, seeing the “fathers who framed that [Nicene] Creed” as “denying to the Father any priority or superiority to the other persons of the Trinity,” but yet being “the Monas, as having in order of thought the whole Godhead in Himself; so that He alone was God of Himself (autotheos, in that sense of the word),” being “greater than the other divine persons” (465). In regard to “the Father, Son, and Spirit,” Prof. Hodge believes in “their absolute unity as to substance or essence, and their consequent perfect equality; and the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, as to the mode of subsistence and operation” (462), offering quotations of scholars ancient and contemporary to himself, including Prof. Waterland, who claims, “The title of ho Theos [the God], being understood in the same sense with autotheos, was, as it ought to be, generally reserved to the Father, as the distinguishing personal character of the first person of the Holy Trinity” (465). Hodge, however, cautions that “neither the Bible nor the ancient creeds explain” what is “meant” by the term “sonship,” and, in fact, “it may be something altogether inscrutable and to us incomprehensible” (468). Still, drawing on human analogy, he himself believes, “In the consubstantial identity of the human soul there is a subordination of one faculty to another, and so, however incomprehensible to us, there may be a subordination in the Trinity consistent with the identity of essence in the Godhead” (474). Likewise, Augustus Hopkins Strong also notes the charge of Sabellianism against Calvin (Systematic Theology [Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1907], 334 [vol. 1, pt. 4, ch. 2, sec. 4c]) and himself states, “The New Testament calls Christ Theos, but not ho theos. We frankly recognize an eternal subordination of Christ to the Father, but we maintain at the same time that this subordination is a subordination of order, office, and operation, not a subordination of essence” (342 [I.4.2.5: 3d]). Prof. Strong believes his anthropomorphic view of “the possibility of an order, which yet involves no inequality, may be illustrated by the relation between man and woman. In office man is first and woman second, but woman’s soul is worth as much as man’s” (ibid.). Such distinctions can be traced in the early church to Origen in his Commentary on John, book 2, section 13 (p. 98), where he suggests of John 1:1, “John has used the articles in one place and omitted them in another very precisely, and not as though he did not understand the precision of the Greek language. In the case of the Word, he adds the article ‘the,’ but in the case of the noun ‘God,’ he inserts it in one place and omits it in another.” Origen contends, “the noun ‘God’ stands for the uncreated cause of the universe, but he omits it when the Word is referred to as ‘God.’” (14). Origen’s view is that “the Word has become God because he is ‘with God’” (12), therefore, “God, with the article, is very God, wherefore also the Savior says in his prayer to the Father, ‘That they may know you the only true God.’ On the other hand, everything besides the very God, which is made God by participation in his divinity, would more properly not be said to be ‘the God,’ but ‘God.’” So, Jesus Christ has “drawn divinity into himself,” (17) “though he would not remain God if he did not continue in unceasing contemplation of the depth of the Father.” “The God, therefore, is the true God” (18) (Origen, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Books 1–10, trans. Ronald E. Heine [Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989], 98–99). With this argument, Origen strangely ignores the fact that, with the verb “to be” requiring a predicate nominative rather than a direct object, and with Greek syntax depending on case endings and not word order, the structure of the final clause of John 1:1, having two nominative endings, demands that only one may take an article in order to distinguish the clause’s subject from its predicate nominative. Therefore, the presence of a lone definite article in John 1:1’s final clause (“the Word was God”) is grammatically, not theologically, determined. Still, Origen’s argument manages to preserve the divinity of Christ, as sharing the deity of the Father, while maintaining the Son’s eternal subordination and complete dependence on the Father, and further preserving to the Father the idea of self-existence. Such reasoning leads Origen to appear to draw such conclusions as subordination within human society reflects the subordination in the Trinity, since the Son and Spirit’s eternal subordination is necessary for the Father to maintain the attribute “almighty,” since “one cannot be a father apart from having a son, nor a lord apart from holding a possession or a slave, so we cannot even call God almighty if there are none over whom he can exercise his power” (On First Principles, trans. G. W. Butterworth [New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1966], 23 [ch. 2, sec. 10]), and, despite the example of Stephen in Acts 7:59 and the apostle Paul in Rom 1:8, “perhaps we ought not to pray to anyone born (of woman), nor even to Christ himself, but only to the God and Father of all” (Origen, “On Prayer,” in Alexandrian Christianity, Library of Christian Classics, vol. 2, trans. John Ernest Leonard Oulton and Henry Chadwick (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1954), 269 [15.1]). J. N. D. Kelly observes of Origen, “The impact of Platonism reveals itself in the thoroughgoing subordinationism which is integral to Origen’s Trinitarian scheme. The Father . . . is alone autotheos; so St. John, he points out, accurately describes the Son simply as theos, not ho theos. In relation to the God of the universe He merits a secondary degree of honour; for he is not absolute goodness and truth, but His goodness and truth are a reflection and image of the Father’s” (Early Christian Doctrines [New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1960], 131– 32). One can see how this viewpoint contrasts with Athanasius’s painstaking identification of the Son as almighty, worthy of worship, equal in honor, goodness, truth, et al., to the Father. Still, the subordinationism found in Origen, when divorced from his theology of continuous derivation of divinity from the Father to the Son, or the completely Platonic perspective of the Son as less than the Father in being, has a history of acceptance in some circles of Christianity (as we saw reflected in the thought of Strong and Hodge), though such a perspective appears to be less than the high Christology we noted in Athanasius, Calvin, and Warfield, and which we affirm in our present “An Evangelical Statement on the Trinity.” []
  2. Even the order in which the Persons of the Trinity are mentioned can be changed according to emphasis in the Bible, as can be seen in 2 Cor 13:13 (verse 14 NIV), “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the partnership (koinōnia) of the Holy Spirit be with all of you,” so no strict protocol of mentioning the Father first as having superior precedence is rigidly maintained. Translation by William David Spencer. []

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