The doctrine of the Trinity is the doctrine of God that is characteristic of Christianity. There are other religions whose adherents could join with us in saying the first article of our creed, expressing faith in one God as our heavenly Father, the Creator of all things in heaven and earth. But when we go on to the second article, and assert our faith in Jesus Christ as “His only Son, our Lord … very God of very God” we state the distinctly Christian faith, and the doctrine of the Trinity makes explicit what is implicit in this fundamental assertion.
Christianity began as the faith of a sect of the Jews who believed that the promised Messiah had come, that he had been crucified, had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, and had sent his Spirit to bind his disciples to himself and to one another. Through his death and resurrection he had brought them forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. They were to preach the gospel of God’s forgiveness as ready and waiting for all who repent, and to baptize converts into the fellowship of forgiven sinners.
In the Pauline and Johannine writings the gift of the Spirit and baptism into the fellowship are spoken of as adoption to share in the sonship of Christ (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6; John 16:20; 1 John 3:2). Taken by grace and adoption to share in the sonship which is his by nature eternally, the Christian shares the risen Lord’s relationship to the Father in the Spirit. Thus the doctrine of the Trinity is the theological formulation of the nature of God as God has revealed himself in Christ to the members of his continuing earthly body.
Monotheism And Trinitarianism
The first Christians had a Trinitarian religion with a unipersonal theology. The history of the first 400 years of Christian doctrine is the history of the revision of their theology to make it embody the faith expressed in their religion. To the Jews they preached Jesus as the expected Messiah, to the Greeks as the incarnation of the Logos. At the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 they confessed themselves unable to think of him as less than himself God, and at Constantinople in 381 they affirmed the same conviction about the Holy Spirit. Yet they could not be disloyal to the monotheism inherited from its sources in both Jewish religion and Greek philosophy. Hence came the formulation of the doctrine as treis hypostaseis en miai ousiai, tres personae in una substantia, a faith which found its full expression in the apparently contradictory sentences of the Quicunque Vult.
This formulation was due to the Christians’ insistence on bearing witness to God’s revelation of himself in both Son and Spirit as distinct Persons. Gnostics had tried to assimilate the gospel story after the pattern of their myths of divine redeemers, but this involved either polytheism or the treatment of Christ as less than fully God. The Greek philosophical tradition, represented by neoplatonism, had no place for internally differentiated unity. Subordinationist or adoptionist christologies might have met the Gnostic requirements; modalistic theories of the divinity of Christ might have made the new religion philosophically respectable. Attempts by Christians to interpret their faith on these lines were rejected by the church as untrue to the empirical evidence of what as a matter of fact Christ and the Spirit had shown themselves to be, evidence which required a revision of the concept of unity taken for granted in the monotheism of the Jews and presupposed in the neoplatonic metaphysic.
Revelation And Speculation
It has been too often supposed that the doctrine of the Trinity came from the intrusion into an originally simple religious faith of a complicated alien system of metaphysical or mythological speculation. Forty or so years ago, when I was a young student of theology, this notion was widespread. It led to many learned researches in quest of its possible source. Was it a Hellenizing of the true Hebraic belief? Or was it an infection from the mythology of the surrounding mystery cults? Or what? To satisfy examiners in theological examinations it was necessary to be able to discuss the latest theories of this kind. But later study led me to see that this was really beside the point. The doctrine grew out of the faith of the Christians themselves. It was so clearly an attempt at a creedal formulation of what in their experience Christ and the Spirit had been, and continued to be to them, that there was no need to look elsewhere for its origin. It came from the Christians’ insistence on remaining true to the full content of their religious faith, their refusal to allow it to be distorted, diminished, or explained away in order to adapt it to the philosophical spirit of the age. It was for the philosophers to consider what revision of their ways of thinking would be required by accepting the evidence which the Christians produced as given by God in his revelation of himself in Christ.
How can human thought assimilate this evidence without distorting, diminishing or explaining it away? When we try to think about the mystery of God’s being, the best we can do is to ask whether from our human experience we can draw any analogies which will help to lighten our darkness. No sooner had the doctrine received its formulation than this process began and produced what may be called the two classical analogies. Some Cappadocian theologians suggested that as three men are each a hypostasis of one ousia, manhood, so we may think of the Persons of the Trinity as each a hypostasis of the one ousia, godhead. This (which has been called the social analogy) was found inadequate as insufficiently guarding against tritheism. To avoid this Augustine, in his De Trinitate, experimented with what has been called the psychological analogy. He suggested that God should be thought of after the analogy of the human self which is a trinity of memory, intellect and will. But in the end he had to admit that this is inadequate: the apparent unity is only achieved at the cost of forgetting that in God each persona is a trinity of all the elements in the human self.
In attempting to expound the doctrine today theologians differ in the emphasis laid on one or other of these two analogies. Those who hold that we should think of each hypostasis or persona as fully personal in the modern sense of the word argue that this need not involve tritheism: by analogy from our experience of imperfectly unifying in one life the elements which should go to the making of one person we are led to see how intense must be the unifying power, how infinitely high the degree of unity in the divine life in which are unified nothing less than three complete persons. Those who, to avoid any danger of tritheism, would translate hypostasis or persona by some such phrase as “mode of existence” rather than person, and hold that it is in his ousia or substance that God should be thought of as personal in the modern sense of the word, argue that this need not involve the modalism rejected by the early Church and is consistent with all that God has revealed to us of himself in the biblical witness to his Trinitarian activity.
However difficult it may be for human thought, the mystery of the divine unity is such as to require the combination of the two analogies. The doctrine of the Trinity is best described as a trinity of Persons united in a closeness of unity characteristic of Modes of Existence. Nothing less than this will take full account of the revelation in Christ. In the Old Testament, and therefore by the first Christians for whom it was their Bible, God was thought of as unipersonal. When they found themselves worshiping Christ and the Spirit, how were they to escape the charge of being either polytheists or idolaters? I am myself convinced that this can only be done by thinking of the divine unity as having a richness of content unified by an intensity of unifying power for which we have nothing analogous on earth. This is what enables me to accept the biblical evidence for Son and Spirit being Persons in the modern sense of the word.
Barth’S View Inadequate
I cannot therefore be satisfied with the Barthian suggestion that we should do better to speak of God as revealing himself in three “modes of existence,” and ascribe personality in the modern sense of the word to his ousia or substance and not to the hypostases or personae. Apart from its distortion of the biblical evidence, there are philosophical difficulties about its consistency with the doctrine of creation. There is a well-known kinship between unitarian theology and the thought of creation as the imposing by God of form on coeternal chaotic matter. A unipersonal God is unthinkable except in relation to something or someone other than himself. To quote from what I have written in review of Dr. Claud Welch’s exposition of Barth:
The essence of the revelation is said to be that God is revealed as Lord. ‘The lordship of God … is to be equated with the essence of God.’ Lordship is a relative term and implies subjects. The revelation therefore is only concerned with God in relation to creation, with an ‘economic’ doctrine of God. Or have we here an indication of the logical connection between unipersonal doctrines of God and the necessity of the created universe to the being of God?
It may at first sight seem simpler to think of God as unipersonal and treat the revealed threefoldness as the mystery. To my mind the evidence requires us to start from his tri-personality and seek for light on the mystery of his unity. When we think it out we find that on this route the difficulties are less, not greater. There are many things in our experience which justify us in holding that, however mysterious may be a unity in which are perfectly unified three distinct persons, it is a mystery which is rationally credible. I find far greater difficulty in attempting to follow Dr. Welch’s exposition of the interrelations of his modes of existence, of which in the end he has to write: “we are ascribing to the personality of God a Threefoldness which is different from anything we know in finite personality.”
In its origin the doctrine was the doctrine of God as implied in the faith and life and worship of our Christian ancestors. If it is to have meaning for us, we must begin where they began. We must approach it from the standpoint of those who are trying to live by a Trinitarian religion, as men and women who are seeking to find and do the Father’s will in the Father’s world with the companionship of the Son in the guidance and strength of the Spirit. In our worship, moved by the Spirit, we come into the presence of our heavenly Father, brought in by the Lord Jesus whom we adore and worship as he takes us by the hand and presents us to the Father. As we rise to return to our work in the world, we look out in our mind’s eye beyond the wall of room or church, we look out into all the world around as those who are being sent forth, united with Christ and enlightened by the Spirit, that we may share in God’s joy in all that is good and true and beautiful, his grief over all that is ugly and base and sinful, his labor in overcoming the evil and building up the good. The more we practise ourselves in the habit of looking out on the world from the stand point of this understanding of God’s threefoldness, the more we find ourselves drawn onwards towards the realization of his essential unity. In the traditional language of the liturgy of the Western church we acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity and in the power of the Divine Majesty we worship the Unity.
TOGETHERNESS—One of the numbers from the show (looked) at the subject of church unity (and is) called Togetherness.… Four worthies [a Roman Catholic cardinal, an Anglican archbishop, an Orthodox patriarch, and a United Church moderator] sang a song in which they preached Togetherness, though each held firmly to his individual view.
The cardinal thought that
God allows others to go in their way
While we are infallibly going in His;
the archbishop insisted that
God is a gentleman through and through
And in all probability Anglican too;
the patriarch explained that
It would take hours to chronicle all the canonical
Differences between us and the rest.
But we’ll have you recall that though God made us all
He incontrovertibly made us the best;
while the United Church viewpoint was succinct:
Our flocks are enormous, and all nonconformist;
Our virtuous conduct all others’ excels;
We’ve God’s guarantee that our conscience is free,
And we won’t take our orders from anyone else.
—John Gray, “More Laughs to the Square Review” (a feature article on the Toronto show “Spring Thaw”), in Maclean’s, May 5, 1962, issue.
THE WHOLE LINE—You were brought into existence to preserve and to promote and to defend one of the great doctrines of the Methodist Church—entire sanctification, the work of the Holy Spirit and that still needs to be preserved, promoted and defended. But when Asbury was born that was about the only article in our creed that was under severe attack. Now the whole line of evangelical Christianity needs defense and preservation.—Methodist Bishop ARTHUR J. MOORE, in a Ministers’ Conference at Asbury Seminary.
BULLETIN FROM THE DEVIL—So the Convocation of Canterbury … is graciously allowing me to stay for another seven years in the English Catechism.… Universal belief in me, horns and all! What a glorious basis for twentieth century Church unity!—“DIABOLUS,” in The Scotsman.
ORTHODOXY ON PARADE—If all the beards here were shaved off and properly stuffed, what a Holy mattress one would have.—Archbishop A. M. RAMSEY at New Delhi, quoted by the Montreal Star.
TAMPERING WITH THE HYMNS—It’s a well-known truth that you may introduce anything from the confessional to the Koran, from vestments to yogi into a church and have a very good chance of getting away with it. But try and change the hymns and you have a full-scale revolution on your hands.—DAVID WINTER,Church of England Newspaper.
KANT AND HYMNSINGERS—In Königsberg, for example, where he lived near the castle, which also served as a prison, Kant was angered by the loud and persistent hymn-singing of the prisoners, which was particularly irksome to him in the summer, when he liked to philosophize with his window open, and complained to the town-president about the “stentorian devotions of those hypocrites in the gaol,” the salvation of whose souls would certainly not be imperilled even if “they listened to themselves behind shuttered windows and then even without shouting at the tops of their voices.”—Vorlander, Life of Immanuel Kant, p. 138, quoted by Karl Barth, in Protestant Thought: from Rousseau to Ritschl.
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