A Review of the Doctrine of the Trinity
By Greg Wright
Preached at Grace Baptist Church on February 1, 2009
Good morning and welcome to Grace Baptist Church. We are continuing our studies in the Gospel of John. The next section in our study would have been John 5:16-30. However, as I looked over those verses I realized that in order to understand them, people need a good knowledge of the Doctrine of the Trinity. So we will spend our time today reviewing the Trinity, and then, Lord willing, we will return to chapter five next month.
It is good to review the Trinity, not only to understand the Gospel of John but to be better prepared for some of the ways in which this doctrine is being challenged today, for example:
· The eternal chain of command between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is being challenged by Evangelical Feminists.
· The meanings of the words Father and Holy Spirit are being altered in the Oneness Pentecostalism featured on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
· The divine power of the Son and many other points of orthodoxy are being challenged in the recent, best-selling book called The Shack. Good people are swallowing the heresy in that book the way a fish swallows bait, because well-known evangelicals are recommending it and because many people’s understanding of the Doctrine of the Trinity does not extend beyond what is contained in the song Holy, Holy, Holy.
Therefore, this message on the Trinity will be different from what you might expect in this setting. It will not be like an academic discussion, for I will not be getting into the ancient personalities and heresies that challenged this doctrine. Nor will it be just a reinforcement of the basic doctrines, for I will be going into much more detail than you find in the Shorter Catechism. Rather, this discussion will be a reflection of the way the Doctrine of the Trinity is being attacked in our day. This doctrine is being attacked at a very detailed level, and a detailed understanding on our part is going to be required in order for us to educate children and for us to keep from falling into error ourselves. Therefore, the discussion today will focus on terminology and will stick very closely to the Shorter Catechism and to the 1689 London Baptist Confession.
II. Biblical Background.
So let’s begin. The Doctrine of the Trinity came about as the result of studying what the whole Bible has to say about who God is and what God is. Our understanding of the Trinity is taken from both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Both testaments are very clear that there is only one God. When God gives the Ten Commandments He says in Exodus 20:2-3, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me.” Again, in Deuteronomy 6:4 we find the classic text, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God, the LORD is one!” The Lord is one. A strict monotheism, meaning having one God, was the practice of faithful Jews in the Old Testament and the continuing assumption of believers throughout the history of the church. This stubborn monotheism forced the early church to struggle to understand what the Bible teaches about the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. They wondered how all three could be God if there was only one God.
Of course, they had no problem in believing that the Father was God. For example, Romans 15:6 refers to the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
They did struggle to understand how Jesus is God. Of course, scripture clearly affirms that Jesus is God. For example, in John 8:58 Jesus tells the Jews, “Before Abraham was born, I am.” The Jews so clearly understood that Jesus was claiming to be God that they were ready to stone Him.
Likewise, the fact that the Holy Spirit is God is clearly affirmed in scripture. For example, when Ananias lied to Peter in Acts 5:3, Peter told him he had lied to the Holy Spirit, but in the very next verse Peter also tells Ananias that he has lied to God.
Finally, we have those passages that embrace all three persons of the Trinity. In Matthew 28:19 we read, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Again, in 2 Corinthians 13:14 we read, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.
The early church worked hard to understand what the whole Bible had to say about God. Leaders came together at councils and synods to discuss their ideas.
In the year 325, the Council of Nicea met and affirmed that Jesus is God, saying that He has the same essence as the Father and that He eternally originates from the Father. Then in 381, the Council of Constantinople affirmed that the Holy Spirit is God. Finally, in 589 at the Synod of Toledo, it was affirmed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son.
There was also the Council of Chalcedon, which was held in 451. It affirmed that Christ is one person with two natures, God and man, and that having both natures does not bring about any division, change, confusion, or separation.
So this Doctrine of the Trinity is not unique to Grace Baptist Church. This is the doctrine that orthodox Christians have held for hundreds of years.
III. Key Terminology.
When talking about the Trinity, terminology is very important. Two of the most important words are essence and person. Because we are all people, we all have some idea about what a person is, so I will start with the word essence.
A. What is an essence?
When we say God is one we mean one essence. Essence is what something is, as opposed to who something is. So it is that the fifth question of the Shorter Catechism asks “What is God?” Some of you have memorized the answer, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” When you list these attributes of God, you are describing the essence of God. The essence of God is revealed through His attributes. These attributes are all required in order for God to be God, and they are all infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.
First we see that these attributes are infinite. God possesses being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth without limit. Now, if the quality of any attribute of the Son or Holy Spirit were less than the quality of any attribute of the Father, it would not be without limit, would it. Infinite quality, possessing every attribute without limit, is part of what makes God, God. So the Son and the Holy Spirit must also possess every attribute without limit, just like the Father.
Second we see that the attributes of God are eternal. That means they have always been part of God’s essence. If there was ever a time when the Son did not exist or lacked any divine attribute, then the Son is not God. If there was ever a time when the Holy Spirit did not exist or lacked any divine attribute, then the Holy Spirit is not God. Eternal existence and eternal quality is part of what makes God, God.
Third we see that God is unchangeable. Since God already possesses every divine attribute in infinite quality, He does not learn, grown, or mature over time.
So we affirm that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all of one essence; this essence includes all the attributes of God; and these attributes are infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.
Now, having affirmed what God is, let us move to the sixth question in the catechism which is “Are there more Gods than one?”
The answer: “There is but one only, the living and true God.”
This may be difficult to grasp, because we have just affirmed that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are all three fully God. After all, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are different. The Son is not the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is not the Father, and the Father is not the Son. Why, then, do we not have three Gods?
The seventh question in the catechism provides the answer. It asks, “How many persons are there in the Godhead?”
The answer is “There are three persons in the Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” But then the catechism goes on to explain why these three are one God. It says, “These three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.” Substance, in this context, is another word for essence. The wording in our church constitution is similar to the wording in the catechism, except it uses the word essence instead of substance.
It says: “There are three persons in the Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These three are one God, the same in essence, equal in power and glory.
In addition, the catechism teaches that the essence of God is spiritual, not physical. We should go even further and note that the essence of God is uncreated spirit, as opposed to the created spirits of angels. John 1:3 says, “All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” God is the creator of all created things, spiritual and physical.
Here is where we need to carefully consider the difference between physical things and uncreated spiritual essence. If I pour a glass of lemonade, the lemonade in the glass is divided from the lemonade in the pitcher. In contrast, the essence of the Father can be shared with the Son and the Holy Spirit without being divided.
Furthermore, if the lemonade has been sitting for a while, the thickness of the lemonade at the top of the pitcher may be less than the thickness at the bottom of the pitcher. So after the lemonade is poured, there is a possible difference in quality between the two containers. In contrast, when the essence of the Father is shared with the Son and the Holy Spirit, there is no difference in quality.
Also, if I were to keep on pouring, I would eventually run out of lemonade. In contrast, the Father can share His essence with the Son and Holy Spirit eternally. The essence is never depleted, and the essence never changes over time.
Do you see how uncreated spiritual essence is different from the physical things we are familiar with? We do not have to understand spiritual essence; we just need to accept that uncreated spiritual essence is different, believing all that the Bible says about it.
If we do this, it will be easier for us to understand what the 1689 London Baptist Confession says about the Trinity. We are getting ready to read it. The terminology is tedious, but we are going to go through it phrase by phrase. I am reading from chapter 2, paragraph 3:
In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, [we’ll talk about that word] the Father, the Word (or Son), and the Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar, relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him.
Now, let’s take this paragraph apart. First we read, “In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word (or Son), and the Holy Spirit” What in the world is a subsistence?
According to Webster, to subsist is to have existence. A subsistence has real being. It is not like Super Man, Bat Man, or Spider Man who have no existence outside of the world of fantasy. This is something that is real, independently of our own thoughts and beliefs. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are really there.
Let’s continue. They are “of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided.” First they are of one substance. The spiritual qualities of the Father in no way differ from the spiritual qualities of the Son and Holy Spirit. Second, they are of one power. There is nothing that the Father can do that cannot be done by the Son and the Holy Spirit. Of course, they do not do everything that the Father does, but that has to do with their role, not with their ability. Third, they are each eternal. Since you cannot be God without also being eternal, all three must be eternal. Fourth, they each have the whole divine essence. Each one has every quality that makes God, God. Fifth, the fact that each has the whole divine essence does not mean the essence is divided. Since the essence is uncreated spirit, it can be shared without being divided.
That is what essence means in the Doctrine of the Trinity. God is one in essence but three in persons. What then is a person?
B. What is a person?
It is easier to describe a person than to define one. A person has all the things we associate with self consciousness, including the ability to reason, act, plan, desire, and love. He is aware of himself and his relationship to others.
How, then, are the divine persons in the Trinity related to each other? We read in the 1689 confession that “the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding.” This distinguishes the Father from the Son who is begotten and from the Holy Spirit who proceeds.
What about the Son? We read that “the Son is eternally begotten of the Father.” In most other contexts, the word begotten means born. Lest anyone think that the Son came into existence through birth, the Council of Nicea hammers out that He was begotten, not born. In saying this they are not denying the birth of our Lord in Bethlehem. They are denying that the Son was generated by birth. Furthermore, this begetting took place not in time but from eternity. Once again, it is important to consider the difference between physical things and uncreated spiritual essence. Jesus did not take on physical properties until the incarnation. Prior to being born in Bethlehem, He was spiritual essence like the Father and the Holy Spirit. Now His spiritual essence is joined to His physical essence. A spiritual essence can be begotten from eternity. A physical essence can only be begotten in time.
We now come to three other important words: son, equal, and filial. The word Son can mean equality or filiation or both. The word filial means originating through parents. Some people deny any need for saying that Jesus is eternally begotten, maintaining that He is the Son only with respect to being equal, not filial. Against this view, Sam Waldron argues that Jesus is the Son also in the filial sense. He writes:
The suppression of a real eternal fatherhood and a real eternal sonship lessens the glory of redemptive love. Is not the glory of the Father giving his Son for our redemption lessened if we limit the idea of sonship in this sentence to mere equality? The result is that one neutered divine person gives another colorless divine person. On this idea, where is the glory of the Father’s sacrifice? Where is the glory of the Son’s filial obedience? The tendency to doubt eternal generation and eternal procession diminishes the glory of the gospel.
I would add to Waldron’s argument the enormous effort we find in scripture to magnify the trauma of losing an only child, everything from Abraham laying Isaac on the altar to the only son who was healed in Luke 7:14.
Moreover, the phrase eternally begotten is very useful. It protects both the equality and the filiation of the Son. Those who do not like the phrase eternally begotten should, nevertheless, consider the ideas this phrase is intended to protect. By using the word begotten it is established that the Son has a filial relationship with the Father, a relationship that is somewhat analogous to human offspring. Then, by adding the word eternally, the deity of the Son is protected, avoiding the tendency to make the Son either a lesser being or a created being.
Meanwhile, we need to be careful in how we talk about essence versus personality. Waldron uses the term eternal generation. It is important to remember that only divine personalities are generated, not the divine essence. We would never say that the essence of the Son or Holy Spirit is generated by the Father. We might say the essence is shared or communicated, but we would never say generated.
One more precaution, the way we talk about essence versus personality is also distinguished by the way we use the word attribute. We use the word attribute with reference to essence but not in reference to personality. For personality we talk about roles, relationships, hierarchy, etc, but the word attribute is reserved for essence. Our discussions will be much easier to understand if we follow these rules.
The confession continues, speaking of “the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son.” In John 15:26 Jesus says, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness of Me.” The Spirit differs from the Father, in that the Father is neither begotten nor proceeding. He differs from the Son in that the Son is begotten, not proceeding. The Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son.
However, the confession immediately reemphasizes the way that the three are equally God, saying they are, “all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being.”
Then, having reaffirmed that the Trinity is but one God, the confession indentifies general categories in which the persons differ, saying that they are “distinguished by several peculiar, relative properties and personal relations.”
It is here that we stop to consider some of these peculiar properties. In fact, it is this part of the Trinity that especially needs to be preached on and explained in our day. For we live in a day in which people are very confused about the coexistence of equality and subordination in the Trinity. Having come this far in what the confession says about the Trinity, it is clear that the persons are to be regarded as equal with respect to essence. But are they also equal as persons, or is there some kind of subordination in the Trinity between the persons?
C. Subordination and Subordinationism.
First, we need to note the difference between subordination and subordinationism. Subordinationism is the idea that the essences of the Son and Holy Spirit are less God than the Father’s essence. It is the belief that there is a qualitative difference between the essence of the Father and the essence of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Against this idea, as we have already discussed, we affirm that the essence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the same. They are equal with respect to essence.
So we do not believe in subordinationism. However, we do believe in something called economic subordination. Now, in this context, economic has nothing to do with finance. Broadly, it pertains to the order and arrangement of things. With respect to the Trinity, it pertains to roles and hierarchy.
Scripture clearly conveys different roles in the Trinity, for example:
1. The Father is the one who sent the Son into the world. The Son did not send the Father, John 5:37a, “And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me.”
2. When Jesus came down from heaven, it was to do the Father’s will, not to do His own will, John 6:38, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.”
3. It was the Holy Spirit who directed the apostles in their ministry, yet not on His own behalf but as the spirit of Jesus, Acts 16:7, “And after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.”
4. The Holy Spirit came not to glorify Himself but to glorify Jesus, John 16:14, “He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you.”
From these passages alone, and many more could be added, it should be clear that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work together. They are united in purpose, but they do different things.
Scripture also clearly conveys an order in the Trinity with respect to authority. The Father is first, the Son is second, and the Holy Spirit is third. Jesus’ zeal for obeying His Father almost leaps off the page. Even as Jesus was bracing Himself for the trial of His life, in John 14:31 we read, “So that the world may know that I love the Father, I do exactly as the Father commanded Me.” Jesus clearly saw the Father as first and Himself as second with respect to hierarchy.
We see order again in the way the Holy Spirit is responsive to the Father and to Jesus. In John 15:26 we read, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me.”
So there you have it, economic subordination, Biblically supported, complete with roles and hierarchy. But how long will this hierarchy last?
Evangelical feminism argues that the hierarchy in the Trinity is temporary, and from this they deduce that there should be no difference in roles between men and women in church leadership and household leadership.
They are wrong, but how will we know they are wrong unless we understand the doctrine of the Trinity at this level of detail? Evangelical feminists accuse us of subordinationism, making no distinction between subordination of essence, which we deny, and subordination of role, which we affirm. To stand against this error we have to know the difference between subordinationism and economic subordination.
Likewise, that book The Shack denies hierarchy in the Trinity. But because many people have a very shallow understanding of the Doctrine of the Trinity, they find no problem with these kinds of statements.
Instead, we affirm that just as the divine personalities will never change, the hierarchy between them will never change. They will continue to have the same order of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Consider 1 Corinthians 15:25-28:
For He [that is Jesus] must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. For HE HAS PUT ALL THINGS IN SUBJECTION UNDER HIS FEET. But when He says, "All things are put in subjection," it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.
This last phrase is especially important, “When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.” This means that in the future Jesus will continue to answer to His Father.
In fact, it has always been this way in heaven. Ephesians 1:1 says we were predestined in the Son before the foundation of the world, requiring the Father to have eternally been the Father and the Son to have eternally been the Son.
At this point we have addressed that part of our confession that says that the three persons of the Trinity are, “distinguished by several peculiar, relative properties and personal relations.”
Now we move to that last part of the paragraph on the Trinity where we read, “which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him.”
How is the Trinity the foundation of our communion with God? It is by the Father our provider, by Jesus our mediator, and by the Holy Spirit our intercessor, comforter, and counselor. Jesus represents our needs before the Father. Romans 8:34 says that Jesus is at the right hand of God interceding for us. Romans 8:26 says “The Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” So regardless of what we might be going through in this life, and regardless of how abandoned we might think we are from time to time, if we could, through the eyes of faith, pull back the curtain, we would find both Jesus and the Holy Spirit interceding for us.
Not only does the Holy Spirit intercede for us, He also interacts with us. It is through Holy Spirit that we experience the comfort of Christ, and it is through His insight that we are warned, rebuked, and instructed.
This intercession is the basis of our comfortable dependence. We can relax in the assurance that because of the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the Father will be taking initiative on our behalf.
These are the basics of the Doctrine of the Trinity.
1. There is only one God, the living and true God.
2. There are three persons in the Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
3. These three are one God, the same in essence, equal in power and glory.
4. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding.
5. The personality of the Son is eternally begotten of the Father.
6. The personality of the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from both the Father and the Son.
7. Subordination of essence in the Godhead is denied, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being equal.
8. Subordination of persons in the Godhead is affirmed, the Son submitting to the Father and the Holy Spirit submitting to both with respect to role and hierarchy.
9. The hierarchical order in the Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is permanent.
10. Each person in the Godhead works on our behalf to bring us through this life and into the life to come.
This is a lot to remember. For this reason, I have put together a new song to help us remember. So now I am going to pray for us, and then I will introduce the new song.
Prayer: Thank you Lord for the way the entire Trinity works on our behalf. Please help us to remember the principles of this doctrine. Amen.