Speaking Truthfully about God: The Trinity – What it Affirms.

The Baptism of Christ c. 1425.

Recently I have become convinced that the doctrine of the Trinity is the central doctrine that defines the Christian faith all of life itself.

But first, two things.

1) Doctrine (or dogma as it is sometimes called) is not very popular among some people of faith. The idea that we can systematize God talk isn’t always appealing and part of me understands this (we want to be confidant and yet humble in our God talk for while we can speak truthfully about God we cannot speak exhaustively about him).

2) Doubt about who God really is and what he is really like has become rather fashionable (I’m thinking here of some attempts at post-modern theology within what’s left of emergent circles as opposed to a more robust apophatic theology as present in Eastern Orthodoxy). While it is true that there is and always needs to be an element of mystery to God (we don’t have it all figured out after all) we can never allow this mystery to keep us from talking about God.

To be sure, if the gospel is true then God is not distant and unknowable. Rather, if the gospel is true then God is immanent and knowable and is so in particular things. Given God’s self-revelation we can, and therefore must, speak truthfully about God and we have to say that when we speak truthfully about God we are not simply speaking truthfully about how we experience God but about who God really is. Of course, God being God and utterly free (“wholly other”, to quote Barth) from creation we cannot speak about God through any effort of our own. We can only speak about God and know him if he reveals himself to us and this is precisely a central proclamation of the Christian faith. God has made himself known. He has taken on flesh and become one of us and by looking at Jesus of Nazareth we can know God as he really is. While it is true that creation testifies to God and that he has revealed himself through his creation it is also true that we know God in a particular way through a particular person, namely, Jesus of Nazareth. It is, of course, the particularity of this revelation that is most offensive to the world.

That being said, in the next few posts I would like to explore the doctrine of the Trinity as the central doctrine of the Christian faith. In three posts I want to explore what the Trinity affirms, what it denies and finally, why it all matters. When we proclaim that we worship the one true God we are proclaiming the one true God who is triune. While we can never fully grasp the Trinity we must talk truthfully and in so doing I think we will see just how utterly radical God’s relation to the world is.

The Trinity – What it Affirms.

“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty…We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…We believe in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life.” – Nicene Creed.
“I believe in God the Father Almighty…And in Jesus Christ his only Son…I believe in the Holy Ghost.” – Apostles Creed.
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is one that has certainly caused a few headaches throughout Church history. If you have ever spent a bit of time trying to wrap your mind around the Triune nature of God then you will know what I mean. The Trinity affirms a number of things, denies even more things and is of great import for Christian practice, and indeed, for being human. To be sure, however, the Trinity is not a concept or idea, no. The Trinity is no less than the living God.

Oftentimes theologians will look to the Scriptures for proof-texts that support, or allegedly “prove”, the Trinity. However, perhaps the most powerful example in Scripture is that of the baptism of Jesus. This should not be understood as a “proof” for the Trinity, but rather, something much more profound. For, here in this magnificent scene the Triune God, who is present on every page of Scripture, comes into focus. The Son is baptized, affirmed by the Father and descended upon by the Holy Spirit in the dove.

On the one hand Christianity, like Judaism, confesses one God. However, on the other hand the Scriptures and Christian worship quite obviously refer to three divine beings, Father, Son and Spirit. God is one and three, but how are we to even begin an attempt at making sense of this? Above are quoted the Trinitarian affirmations from the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. From these creeds David Yeago in his yet-to-be-published Apostolic Faith teases out six rules(1), if you will, for how Christians can think Trinitarianly, and thus truthfully, about God.

First, there is only one God who is the God of Israel “maker of heaven and earth”. The God whom Jesus claims as Father is not Ba’al, Zeus, Allah or some cosmic divine energy. Rather, the only one true God is the God of Israel, the one who made all things, the great “I Am”, he whose name cannot be pronounced, YHWH. Thus, Christians confess a particular God, the God of the gospels and this serves to distinguish him from lesser deities.

Second, “this one God is the Father who is never without his Son and Spirit”(2). God is given, in the Creed, a particular name: Father. This one God has an “eternally begotten” only Son. The Son, as eternally begotten of the Father is eternally the Son as the Father is eternally a Father. God did not come to be a Father at some point in time. Through this Son “all things were made,” meaning that he is not a part of creation. Likewise, the Spirit is not part of the creation to whom God gave life. On the contrary, he is “the giver of life”. The Spirit is eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son and, therefore, belongs to the “Being which transcends all beings”(3).

Third, everything that the Father is the Son and the Spirit are also. The Son as eternally begotten of the Father is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” If the previous point is true and the Father is indeed God, then the Son is “God from God”. By very nature of his begottenness he is “of one Being with the Father”. As the Cappadocians distinguished, they are of the same ousia (substance). In the same way the Spirit shares in this ousia for he is “the Lord, the giver of life.” He does that which God does. Therefore, the Son and the Spirit can and should be worshipped and glorified along with the Father. If the Son and Spirit are anything less than the Father then to worship them also would be nothing short of idolatry.

Fourth, the Son and the Spirit are distinct from the Father, they are not him. Neither is the Father the Son or the Spirit. This is to say that while the Son and the Spirit are everything that the Father is the three do not collapse into one. The three are distinct and distinguishable from one another. Just how they are distinguishable from one another is precisely in their relationships with one another. Both the Son and the Spirit are from the Father and, therefore, not the Father. Likewise, the Son and the Spirit are distinct from one another in that while the Son is begotten the Spirit proceeds. If ousia speaks to “what” God is (he is one) then, according to the Cappadocians, hypostasis speaks to “who” God is (he is three). The relations are eternal and, thus, intrinsic to who God really is. The distinction here is subtle but important. Ousia is a kind of thing (canine) whereas hypostasis is a particular thing (a poodle). However, when we use this sort of language to speak of God it is analogical in that God’s ousia, or oneness, is not a countable oneness just as his hypostasis, or threeness, is not a countable threeness (4).

Fifth, there is no work of God that is not a work of the triune God, Father, Son and Spirit. If the Father, Son and Holy Spirit can never be separate then every work of God is a triune work. Each work is the Father working along with the Son and the Spirit. As Gregory of Nyssa has said, “the Father does all things through the Word in the Holy Spirit”(5). This prohibits us, as we shall see shortly, from dividing up God’s work amongst the Trinity (i.e. the Father creates, the Son redeems, the Spirit sustains).

Finally, in the coming of Jesus of Nazareth and in the outpouring of the Spirit we receive nothing less than the very life of God. In the Incarnation the Son who is everything that the Father is takes on flesh to become what we are. God becomes man “for us and for our salvation”. On the cross “our Lord Jesus Christ has gathered us into the very life of God”(6). Likewise when the Spirit, being everything that the Father is, is given to us as gift we receive and are filled with nothing less than the God of the gospel.

It would be short-sighted to presume that these affirmations of God as Triune did not touch on other areas of Christian faith. Creation, as one such matter of faith, is a work of the Triune God. For example, in the Nicene Creed we confess the Father who is “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen”, the Son through whom “all things were made” and the Spirit who is “the giver of life.” In this way we see that the life giving creative act of calling the world into being is a work of the one triune God. Scripture testifies likewise. During the creation account in Genesis God says, “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”(7). Genesis 1:2 states that during creation “darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”(8). Much later St. John writes of the Logos: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being”(9). It is evident then that if God is indeed Triune, and the God of the gospel most certainly is, then we cannot simply resort to some sort of modalistic affirmation that the Father is the creator. No, the work of creation is a Triune work.

End Notes:

1) The following six rules can be found in David Yeago’s Apostolic Faith page 158-164.

2) Yeago, 158.

3) Cyril of Alexandria as quoted by Yeago, 159.

4) Dr. Joe Mangina, Systematic Theology lecture, Wycliffe College: October 13, 2010.

5) As quoted by Yeago, 162.

6) Yeago, 163.

7) NRSV: Genesis 1:26.

8) NIV.

9) NIV: John 1:3.

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4 comments
  1. Beth said:

    I am really enjoying your thoughts this week.

  2. jt* said:

    Thanks homie. It was a pretty productive week. The juices were flowing.

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