Trinitarian Basics- Part 6

Eternal Generation and Spiration

These two concepts essentially address the same issue, with the former speaking of the relation between God the Father and God the Son, and the latter speaking of that between God the Father and God the Spirit.  We’ll leave the filioque to the side for the moment.  Also, I’ll be primarily speaking of the eternal generation, but know that I could also add to everything I say, “And it works the same way for spiration of the Spirit…”  I’m just conserving space here.

What is meant by this doctrine is also what is meant by the “monarchia” of the Father.  That is, trinitarian ordering begins with the Father and then moves to the Son and the Spirit. Continue reading

Trinitarian Basics- Part 5

Divine Simplicity

“Simplicity” is the underlying definition of, or way to understand, the divine essence.  Though hotly contested among modern and post-modern theologians (you can see the shift in the mid-19th cent.  Bavinck even critiques Charles Hodge in a footnote about this very subject), simplicity was mostly universally accepted throughout Christendom.  Recently Lewis Ayres has identified three organizational planks behind pro-Nicene theology, and simplicity is right at the top of the list.  It is the statement that God is not composed of “parts,” nor do his attributes make up a composite.  All of God is all of God, and each of His attributes is Him.  “Simple” is thus opposed to complex or composite.

Simplicity is really another way to explain infinity.  If God is outside of space and time, and thus always all that He is without bounds, then no “real” distinctions can be placed within His being.  This means Continue reading

Trinitarian Basics- Part 4

Nature, Substance, Essence

The terms “nature,” “substance,” and “essence” all signify the same thing when speaking of the being of God in Trinitarian nomenclature.  We’ve previously mentioned the occasional confusion of “substance” and “person” (because of the meaning of hypostasis), and there is similar confusion in the possibility of distinguishing between “substance” and “essence,” however, the terms were eventually worked out into a consistent fashion.  Though “substance” and “essence” could mean different things when speaking of the creation, they meant the same when speaking of God.  Each word signified the single divine being.

Like we saw with “person,” the actual definition of these terms is quite bare.  Esse means “the act of existing.”  Essentia means “the whatness of a being.”  Natura also means essentia or quidditas: “the character of something.”  Substantia could have the connotation of material “stuff,” but in Trinitarian nomenclature it was always identified with the essence and thus spiritual, invisible, simple, and infinite. Continue reading

Trinitarian Basics- Part 3


“Person” is the English translation of the Latin term persona and the Greek term hypostasis.  “Person” was used to denominate the individual and irreducible existence of the divine Father, Son, and Spirit respectively.  In fact, the most direct definition of “person” would be the rather uninspiring expressions “something that exists” or “mode of subsistence.”  In Thomism it would gain the added notion of “subsistent relation,” though that definition is still very much contested.  In no case, however, did it have the modern basically univocal meaning of human “person,” still less “personality.”

Richard Muller explains how the older definition of “person” differed from its contemporary meaning here.  Bavinck states plainly:

The Christian church and Christian theology, it must be remembered, never used the word “personality” to describe God’s being; and in respect of the three modes of subsistence in that being, they only spoke of persons reluctantly and for lack of a better term.  (Reformed Dogmatic vol. 2, pg. 50)

Person really doesn’t mean “person,” at least not in the ordinary sense we use it today. Continue reading

Trinitarian Basics- Part 2

Divine Incomprehensibility

Whenever we talk about the Trinity, we are talking about the being and nature of God, and therefore we are talking about something that is beyond us.  We are talking about something for which we have no full category.  There are no exact earthly parallels.  This is not because there is a problem with God’s revelation, nor does it call into question the trustworthiness of religion.  It is simply because God is God.  He is infinite.  He is outside our conceptions of time and space.  His name is wonderful.

This doctrine is universally confessed by Christians.  Sometimes it goes by other names: unknowability, hyperousia, apophatic, via negativa, etc.  The concept is the same.  God is incomprehensible.  He has revealed Himself in a trustworthy manner, but since He nevertheless remains Who He is, Christianity teaches that human knowledge of God is always analogical.

The argument that in Scripture God accommodates Himself to us through our language directly follows from the admission of divine incomprehensibility. Continue reading

Trinitarian Basics- Part 1

One God

The Trinity is an expression of Christian monotheism.  Modern neo-Trinitarian theologians may protest that I am here assuming what needs to be proved, but the response is simply that this series is an explanation of the historic meaning.  If one wishes to contest this meaning, then that is their privilege, but they will then assume the burden of showing why their formulation can use the traditional signifiers while disagreeing with the traditional things signified.  For now, we explain the faith.

The Trinity is One God.  The Biblical support for this is found in Deut. 6:4 and James 2:19 (among other NT passages).  At no point does the Bible apply the term “gods” to the Creator, nor does it suggest that any other heavenly beings are equal with Him.  The Nicene Creed sates “We believe in one God.”  The pseudo-Athanasian Creed states, “That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity” and “they are not three Gods, but one God. ”  The 39 Articles state, “There is but one living and true God.”  The Heidelberg Catechism takes monotheism for granted, wishing to know how the confession of 3 persons does not contradict it.  It answers, “these three distinct persons are the one only true and eternal God” (Q&A 25).  The Westminster Confession of Faith mostly echoes the 39 Articles and adds to them, retaining monotheism at the very beginning of its discussion, “There is but one only living and true God…” Continue reading

Trinitarian Basics- Prolegomena

Narrowly speaking, the Bible does not provide us with an exhaustive (or even fully explicit) theology of the Trinity.  The Bible does teach the doctrine of the Trinity, to be sure, but it does so by implication.  It gives us the revelation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and it tells us that these three are one, in various ways.  Anyone who has studied the history of the theological explanation of the Trinity, however, knows that this is only the starting gate of the discussion.  At no point did Arians, Sabellians, Eunomians, or any of the various Homoian groups flatly reject scriptural verses.  The debate was always over interpretation and implication.  This is not illegitimate, nor is its admission any departure from traditional Protestant Christianity.  Calvinists have always insisted on the need to deduce “good and necessary consequences” from the Bible and to insist that those too are part of the whole counsel of God (WCF 1.6).

This little preamble is necessary because of the recent shift to speaking of “Trinitarianism” or explicitly “Trinitarian” formulations of dogmatics.  This manner of speech capitalizes on the historic importance placed upon the doctrine of the Trinity and the rightful recognition that the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the unique confessions of Christianity.  What is less frequently admitted is that to appeal to “the Trinity” is to appeal to a specific theological construct and an objective tradition of theologizing.  There really is a specific referent when we say “the Trinity,” and it includes a number of basic doctrines.  Unfortunately many of these basic doctrines are either unknown or rejected by a good many of modern theologians who wish to cash in on the value of the term “Trinity.”  Therefore it will be necessary to lay out explicitly a number of the basic doctrines which underlay the theology of “the Trinity” in order for us all to be speaking of the same thing.  It will be the goal of this series to make plain what “the Trinity” actually means in historic Christian dogma.

We must also say that while the doctrine of the Trinity is supra-rational, it is not irrational.  At no point do Christians concede that the formulation of the Trinity is a violation of logic.  It is a mystery, to be sure, but not a contradiction.  Therefore it is appropriate to use reason in the service of dogmatics, and it will not be deemed wrong to ask for clarity and consistency in our discussions.  Such is the classic Reformed position.

Richard Muller on Ancient and Modern Definitions of “Person”

In none of these usages does the term persona have the connotation of emotional individuality or unique consciousness that clearly belongs to the term in contemporary usage.  It is quite certain that the trinitarian use of persona does not point to three wills, three emotionally unique beings, or, as several eighteenth-century authors influenced by Cartesianism argued, three centers of consciousness; such implication would be tritheistic.  It is equally certain that contemporary theological statements to the effect that the God of the Bible is a “personal” God point not to the Trinity, but to the oneness of the divine will in loving relation to creatures.  In other words, despite the variety of usages and implications we have noted, the patristic, medieval, Reformation, and Protestant scholastic definitions of the term persona are united in their distinction from colloquial modern usage.  In brief, the term has traditionally indicated an objective and distinct mode or manner of being, a subsistence or subsistent individual, not necessarily substantially separate from like personae.  Thus, in trinitarian usage, three personae subsist in the divine substantia or essentia (q.v.) without division and, in christological usage, one persona two distinct naturae, the divine and the human.  This can be said while nonetheless arguing one will in God and two in Christ- since will belongs properly to the essence of God and to the natures in Christ, and in neither case to persona as such.  Thus, in the language of the scholastics, persona indicates primarily an individuum (q.v.), and individual thing, or a suppositum (q.v.), a self-subsistent thing, and more specifically still, an intelligent self-subsistent thing.

~Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, p 226-227

Dabney on Trinitarian Thought

We find ourselves speaking almost inevitably of 1st, 2d, and 3d persons; thus implying some order in the persons. No orthodox Christian, of course, understands this order as relating to a priority of time, or of essential dignity. To what, then, does it relate? And is there any substantial reason for assigning such an order at all? We reply: There must be; when we find that where the three persons are mentioned by Scripture, in connection, as in Matt. xxviii:19, &c., &c., they are usually mentioned as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and not in reversed order; that in all allusions to the properties and relations of the three, the Father is always spoken of (e.g. the word Father) by some term or trait implying primary rank, and the other two, by some implying secondariness; as Christ is His Son, the Holy Ghost His Spirit; they are sent, He the Sender; and in their working, there is always a sort of reference to the Father’s primariness, (if I may coin a word,) directing their operation. See also Jno. v; 26; x:38; xiv:11; xvii:21; Heb. i:3.

But if it be asked, what is the primariness, the answer is not so easy. It was the usual answer of the ante-Nicene, and especially the Greek Fathers, that it indicated the order of derivation, that the personality of the Son is from that of the Father, not the Father’s from the Son; and so of the Holy Ghost. (And so far, it must be allowed, the fair force of the Scripture facts just stated, carries them properly enough.) The Father they regarded as anaitios, as pege theou, or arche theou, the Son and Holy Ghost as aitiaitoi, theoi ek theou, and as deriving their personal subsistence from the eternal act of the Father in communicating the divine essence to them in those modes of subsistence. And this view was embodied in both forms of the Nicene Creed, of A.D. 325 and 381, where the Son is called, “God of God, Light of Light, and very God of very God;” language never applied to the Father as to the Son. Their idea is, that the Father, the original Godhead, eternally generates the person, not the substance of the Son, and produces by procession the person, not the substance of the Holy Ghost, by inscrutably communicating the whole indivisible divine substance, essentially identical with Himself in these two modes of subsistence; thus eternally causing the two persons, by causing the two additional modes of subsistence. This statement, they suppose, was virtually implied in the very relation of terms, Father and His Son, Father and His pneuma, by the primariness of order always assigned to the Father, and by the distinction in the order of working. And they relied upon this view to vindicate the doctrine of the Trinity from the charge of tritheism.

Was it objected, that they represented the 2d and 3d persons as beginning to exist, and thus robbed them of a true self-existence and eternity? These Fathers could answer with justice: No; the processes of personal derivation were eternal, immanent processes, and the Father has a personal priority, not in time, but only in causation; e.g. the sun’s rays have existed precisely as long as he has; yet the rays are from the sun and not the sun from the rays. And the 2d. person may be derived as to His personality, thoes ek theou, and yet self-existent God; because His essence is the one self-existent essence, and it is only His personality which is derived. They regard self-existence as an attribute of essence, not of person.

Was it objected that these derived personalities were unequal to the 1st person? They answer: No; because the Father put His whole essence in the two other modes of subsistence. Was it said, that then the personal subsistence of the 2d. and 3d. was dependent on the good pleasure of the 1st.; and therefore, revocable at His pleasure? They answered, that the generation and procession were not free, contingent acts, but necessary and essential acts, free indeed, yet necessitated by the very perfection of the eternal substance. You will perceive that I have not used the word subordination, but derivation, to express this personal relation. If you ask me whether I adopt the Patristic view, thus cleared, as my own, I reply, that there seems to me nothing in it inconsistent with revealed truth; yet it seems to me rather a rational explanation of revealed facts, than a revealed fact itself.

~Lectures in Systematic Theology pg. 204

Dabney is here a better historical source than Hodge and Warfield, and though he might lament the “rational explanation” to a point, I can’t imagine a better or more straightforward explanation.

Dabney also mentions a “peculiar view of some Trinitarians” in which the sonship of Christ is given “a merely temporal meaning.” Among these are “the notorious Alex. Campbell.”

Calvin the Nicene

Yet we teach from the Scriptures that God is one in essence, and hence that the essence both of the Son and of the Spirit is unbegotten, but inasmuch as the Father is first in order, and from himself begot his wisdom, as has just been said, he rightly deemed the beginning and fountainhead of the whole of divinity.  Thus God without particularization is unbegotten; and the Father also in respect to his person is unbegotten.  They also foolishly think they may conclude from our statement that we have set up a quaternity, for they falsely and calumniously ascribe this fiction of their own brain to us, as if we pretended that three persons came forth by derivation from one essence.  On the contrary, it is clear from our writings that we do not separate the persons from the essence, but we distinguish among them while they remain within it.

… For although the essence does not enter into the distinction as a part or a member of the Trinity, nevertheless the persons are not without it, or outside it; because the Father, unless he were God, could not have been the Father; and the Son could not have been the Son, unless he were God.  Therefore we say that deity in an absolute sense exists of itself; whence likewise we confess that the Son since he is God, exists of himself, but not in respect of his Person; indeed since he is the Son, we say that he exists from the Father.  Thus his essence is without beginning; while the beginning of his person is God himself. 

~ Institutes I. XIII. 25