Thus concludes a whirlwind tour of some of the basic affirmations of the Trinity. To be sure, we have not even begun to scratch the surface in the last post. Regardless, now we must turn from what the Trinity affirms to what it denies. In a certain sense, it is easier to say what the Trinity is not rather than to say what the Trinity is. Nevertheless, by the very nature of making affirmations about the Trinity we are also making denials in regards to who/what God is not. There is much that could be said here but for our purposes we will focus on two of the more prevalent heresies, modalism and Arianism.
Between the second and third centuries a group of theologians (namely, Sabellius, Noetus and Praxeas) were seeking to understand how God can be three and yet one. If God is one, then how can we speak of him as three? Their answer to this question was that the threeness of God must refer to three forms which God takes on. Father, Son and Spirit are simply how we experience God. For if Christians worship God and yet also want to worship Christ then we have to say that these are really just different names for the same thing. The same is to be said for the Spirit. The real God, then, is the fourth behind the three. Here, the oneness of God remains intact because even though God reveals himself to us in various ways (as “Father” in the beginning, as “Son” in the person of Jesus, and as “Spirit” in the life of the Church) when all is said and done Christians want to affirm one God.
The problem with this is that if the Father, Son and Spirit are simply forms that the one God takes on at various points in time then these forms are nothing more than “masks” that the real God can take on and off depending on how he wants to relate to us. If this is the case then none of the three are truly basic to God’s own identity. God is not really Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he just dresses up on different occasions depending on the role he wants to play. This is problematic because then God is not really triune. On the surface, as he presents himself to us, God is three. However, if we were to dig down a little bit and penetrate the surface we would surely see that God is really just one. Yet, if the gospel is true then this must be a lie for the Scriptures testify, and we confess, that the Trinity “goes all the way down”. In other words, if we were to scratch through the surface of how God presents himself to us we would discover that God really is three in his own Being.
A modern example of this sort of modalistic thinking about God is in the argument that we do not really know God in himself. All we can know is how we experience God and we experience God as Trinity. The problem with this is that God remains hidden and unknown. He is “out there” in some other realm and does not really have very much to do with us humans. However, these claims of modalism are too modest about God because the biblical God is one who is radically involved in the world.10 God is different from his creation, yes, but this difference must not be confused with distance.
Arianism, like modalism, is an attempt to reconcile that God is one and yet three. The intellectual climate was ripe for Arius. By the time Arius came on the scene Jesus the Logos was already being understood as the mediator between the eternal realm and the transcendent realm and was heavily influenced by Greek philosophical thought. The gap between the infinite (God) and the finite (the world) is filled with the Logos. It was this understanding of the Logos that led Arius to question the divinity of Jesus. Was the Logos to be understood as God in the same sense that the Father is God or is he God to a lesser extent? The way Arius addressed these questions was to say that “there was a time when the Son was not”. In other words, the Son is a creature, albeit, he is the firstborn of all creation, but he is a created being none-the-less. This has implications for how we understand the Father for if the Son was created and was not always the Son then God was not always Father but becomes Father when he brings forth the Son.
One of the more obvious problems with this is that Christians worship a Christ who is more than just a creature. However, there is a deeper issue at work here having to do with how Arius thinks about God himself. When Arius says (rightly so) that a created Logos is not God he is saying that God is eternal, having no origin, and that internally God is simple in the sense that he is one. For Arius, God’s oneness is prior to everything else in creation including the Logos. God, then, is ultimately one and not three.
Arius’ concern is that if we acknowledge that the Logos is God then we are guilty of worshipping a second God. So, Arius wants to say that the Logos is “divine” but not God. In other words, from humanities point of view Jesus is God but from God’s point of view he is not since the one God existed prior to creating the Logos. The problem with this is that it is at complete odds with the Christian gospel. Yes, Christians worship one God, the God of Israel, but we worship him as Trinity. When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray in the gospels by addressing God as their father he is bringing them into relationship with his Father, the one who is eternally his Father.11 Therefore, if Fatherhood is necessary to God’s identity then Jesus, the Son, is God’s very identity. There has never been a time when God was not the Father because there was never a time when God was not the Son.
The Trinity must deny Arianism because Jesus is fundamentally treated as part of the creation. He is a creature not God. Yet the Scriptures testify that creation is a triune act that involves the Son as much as it involves the Father. In fact, everything that was made was made through the Son and is held together in him.