On the Trinity: Part Two – The Trinity, Central to Apologetics and Evangelism

The following presentation/paper by Dr. R.K. McGregor Wright has recently come into my possession. I’d like to thank the friends at RCTR who sent this to me. It’s worth printing here for this series on the Trinity. Oh, and, yes, I’m going somewhere with this series….

Conference Seminar
R. K. McGregor Wright, ThM, PhD
THE CENTRALITY OF TRINITARIANISM

Preamble

The purpose of this presentation is to point up the importance, indeed the “centrality” of the doctrine of the Trinity for Christian Truth. This account will necessarily be brief compared to the extended discussion which came before Augustine, and summaries are always misleading in some way, but the topic deserves frequent review and restatement, central as it has proved to be. We should also recall, that in the order of Redemption, life must precede Truth, for only those awakened by the Holy Spirit are capable of exercising saving faith, but in Apologetics, Truth must precede life, for only the Truth has regenerating power on the mind or heart. Only within the Christian worldview are these two, Life and Truth, able to be fully coherent.

Most everyone here will agree with me when I say that Christianity is not just one more religion among many, but that it is the exclusive truth-basis for a comprehensive worldview. In fact, it’s the only truly comprehensive vision of reality that is available to us. Accordingly, the Christian believer is in a sounder position than anyone, to investigate other religions and competing worldviews with complete confidence that there is nothing out there that will finally turn out to be a threat to the truth of the Bible’s revelation. Our confidence as defenders of the faith assumes this, and it should temper our aggressiveness, while encouraging us as we confront heresy and just sheer nonsense these days.

It also follows that the closer we examine the Bible and the history of Christian doctrine, the more it will appear that the Bible is indeed the wholly reliable Word of God that it claims to be, and that history is indeed exactly what God says it is, the unfolding of his eternal purposes in a created world. The “one far-off divine event to which the whole creation moves” that Tennyson referred to, is in fact the glorification of God in his Kingdom. All facts, relations and persons, are what they are, and have the meaning they have, precisely because they are created by God to that great end. The meaning of any fact or relation or person is logically identical to its place in God’s plan for it. “Meaning” is ultimately identical to what God means, and we know what God means by what he says. The revelation of the Bible is a direct verbal communication from “the God who is there.” Mercifully, he had not left us in the dark on the big questions faced by mankind down the centuries, and the Bible takes sides on all these big questions.

So: exactly what kind of God is actually “there?” The answer to that most fundamental question is that God is exactly what he says he is in this verbal revelation. Instead of retreating into irrationalism or mysticism, or human speculation, the Christian simply looks into Scripture to find out what God has said about himself. In other words, we let God define himself on his own terms. He speaks to us most clearly in the self-identifying Christ of history. Christians have therefore thought a lot about the nature of God, and the Trinity is one of the main fruits of this thinking.

The Occasion In The Early Church

The main impetus towards the development of this doctrine in the early church came from two directions at the same time. The Jews on the one hand, were arguing that Christianity was just another version of paganism, having three “gods” not the One Living God of the Old Testament. How could Christians claim to be “monotheists” when they worshiped one God called the Father, and two other “gods” they called Jesus and the Holy Spirit?

On the other hand, the pagans pointed out that Christian were really just polytheists like them. “You are really not unique at all,” they said, “You worship one big god, and two lesser gods.” No doubt Arianism was particularly vulnerable to this criticism, but the orthodox felt it too. In any case, the idea of a god coming to earth as a man did not seem to the pagans to be especially unique: Greece had many such cases already in its mythology. Besides, everyone knows that there are many divine manifestations, many gods to worship, including the mysterious Creator behind all the others. The whole idea of there being only one God, like the Jews claim, is just crazy.

So, were the Christians polytheists or monotheists? The Jews accused them of being polytheists, and the Pagans were offended by their monotheism. These criticisms could be answered only by explaining how the Christian could claim to be a true monotheist while also worshiping Jesus as God. That was the issue. Various models were suggested to answer this case. The history of those models shows how the concept of the Trinity was developed.

What Then, Is “The Trinity”?

Occasionally we are treated to the false humility of the person who says “But you can’t define God! He’s too great for our simple minds to encompass…” It doesn’t seem to occur to these people, that if you can’t define a key term you are using, you don’t know what you mean by the term, and presumably, you can’t then tell anyone else what you mean. In fact, when a Christian says “I believe in the Trinity,” he/she is telling the world that the correct definition of God is the Trinity. In other words, when the Christian says “God” he means the Triune God of the Bible. No other “god” exists. All the competitors are figments only. They are just idols of the fallen mind.

What, then, is “the Trinity”? Three points must be made at the outset:

1) The Trinity is not a “thing” that might or might not “exist.” It’s a group of doctrines.

2) The Trinity is in fact, a collection or framework of six propositions, or statements, or doctrines about God. Each one can be exegeted from specific texts of the Bible, and collectively they make up what we call “the doctrine of the Trinity.”

3) As a group of propositions, they collectively make up a verbal “model” of God, a model designed to include ALL the information about God’s internal structure that he has told us in Scripture. It’s about the “whole counsel” of God in the Bible. It’s an attempt to cover all the bases about God’s being or “ontology.”

Many other “models” of God have been constructed by Christians in the past, and most originated before the Trinity was fully worked out. But as the Trinity became increasingly clear in the collective mind of the churches (that is, by about 400 AD), public and collective decisions were being made which set these incomplete models aside, and eventually labeled them as “heresies.” This word meant that they represented decided opinions, which were in conflict with Scripture at some point. The issue was, that the true (that is, the “orthodox”) model of God had to include ALL the material in revelation without residue. Accordingly, models like Arianism, Sabellianism, other Modalisms, and various types of “subordinationist” theories were eventually rejected not only by such Trinitarian giants as Hilary of Poitiers, Augustine of Hippo, and (300 years later), John of Damascus, but also by the highly technical composer of the Creed later called the “Athanasian” Creed, although it is clearly compiled by someone who had read Hilary and Augustine after 400 AD or so, and is probably to be dated about 450. Unfortunately, this creed is not well-known today, but it needs to be taken seriously, because it tries to set the key logical boundaries of trinitarianism, by excluding all the heretical models that he was aware of at the time. I might point out that it is more or less impossible to come up with a new heresy about the inner structure of God since his time, because he was pretty meticulous about his negative statements. It’s as if all the logical possibilities were noted, and all but one was excluded by some article or other.

The Trinity then, is a “doctrinal model of God.” Much as a chemistry teacher will draw a little framework of four atoms of carbon on a blackboard to show that carbon forms a tetrahedron (to explain the reason why the diamond is so “hard”), so a theologian might draw the famous diagram seen on the walls of old European churches that you see in your notes. This diagram represents visually the six basic propositions that make up the framework of the model. They are these:

1), The Father is Jehovah, }
2), the Son is Jehovah, and }> “Jehovah thy God, Jehovah is One” (Deut 6:4).
3), the Holy Spirit is Jehovah. }

These three statements outline what is meant by the Unity of God, the monotheistic conception that there can be only “One God.” The technical term is that the three Persons are “of the same Substance,” or basic eternal being. The next three propositions are that,

4), the Father is not the Son, { of the Father
5), the Son is not the Spirit, and, “In the Name <{ and of the Son
6), the Spirit is not the Father. { and of the Holy Spirit” (Mat 28:19).

While there is only one God, Jehovah, we obey him “in the Name (singular)” of the three Persons. Each has the same authority (the “name”), because each is Jehovah. But the text keeps the Persons distinct.

These last three propositions outline the Diversity of God, that there are three “Persons,” or centers of self-consciousness, within the eternal being, each equally and eternally distinct. In the Bible, each identifies itself as “I,” while thinking of the others as “Thou.” This is most clearly seen in the mind of Jesus in John’s Gospel; he prays to his Father, and promises to send the Spirit. Yet to the world, to his disciples, he presents himself as God (Jn 1:1-3, 8:24, 8:57-58, 14:7 and 26, 16:7-14). These biblical texts, like the believing Christian in the Athanasian Creed, “neither confuses the persons, nor divides the substance” (Article 4).

According to this model, God is an eternal One-and-Many. God’s unity and his threeness are equally “ultimate.” Neither “Substance” nor “Persons” is more basic or more ultimate than the other. And because a finite human consciousness cannot hold all of this model in one moment of conception (although it’s not too hard to think of one or two parts of it at a time), the Trinity is said to be “incomprehensible” or not able to be held together in the mind all at once.

To this outline we must add a few more propositions about the internal relations of the Persons. Because Scripture tells us that God “sent” his Son, and that both of them together “sent” the Spirit, we also speak of the “procession” of the Spirit from the Father while we speak of the Son’s “begetting” by the Father. Eventually certain liturgies in Gaul were altered to read that the Spirit “proceeded from the Father filioque, or “and from the Son,” and this refinement, omitted from the ecumenical creeds, became general throughout the Latin churches. The Eastern or Greek-speaking churches objected quite reasonably, that the Western church could not justly alter an ecumenical creed without calling an ecumenical council, and they refused the “Filioque clause” as an arrogant expression of the Western papacy. This sad division became the occasion of East and West excommunicating each other, an absurdity which John Paul II tried to correct in the past few years by receiving Eastern patriarchs as truly catholic brothers at Rome. This has resulted in the Eastern churches having two opinions on the topic, (1) that the Filioque clause is indeed correct, but that it should not be in the Creed, the other (2) that the clause is in fact heretical, and that the Spirit “proceeds” from the Father only. I agree with the East about the protocol, but I agree with the West that the clause is theologically correct, and verses can be quoted to show this is true (e.g., Jn 16:7).

In addition to the matter of how the Persons relate, an idea called “circumincession” (Gk. perichoresis) has been proposed to state that each of the three Persons, because they are each Jehovah, must interpenetrate or metaphysically exhaust each other’s being in eternity. This is interesting, but it is only a refinement, although I think it is a correct refinement. It amounts to a re-labeling of that feature of the Trinity that is noted by the term “incomprehensible” in the Athanasian Creed, an attempt to clarify what that term means for the being or Substance of God.

One warning is necessary at this point. Monotheism means that there cannot in the nature of the case, be more than one Ultimate. At the same time, if anything exists like the God of the Bible, it is not going to be possible for us to decide what that Ultimate is like just by looking at the finite world and making speculative projections about him. For us to know that God is a Trinity, God will have to tell us. And that is exactly what Christianity is claiming; he has told us.

This, incidentally, is why the Watchtower people are so silly about the Trinity. They seem to think that because their limited concept of numbers and logic cannot project the triune nature of God from their own little brains as a starting-point, therefore the Trinity must be self-contradictory. But the Trinity does not require that we believe a contradiction. The doctrine is that God is One in one sense, and Three in another sense, not one and three in the same sense, which would indeed be self-contradictory. There is no logical contradiction in saying that God is “Three persons in one substance.” If they bothered to read Thomas Aquinas, they would know that. But the accusation of self-contradiction persists and must be answered occasionally. We simply can’t know what an ultimate being would be like using ourselves as an origin of meaning. If he is there at all, he would have to tell us what he is like. He is there, and he has told us. That’s the bottom line. That’s what we mean by a “revelation.”

Worshiping The Trinity

The most basic response of the believing heart is worship, or the acknowledgement of God as God. This is expressed not only by personal meditation on what God has said about himself, but by the expression in communal moments of the truth about God through forms of worship in the assembly of the saints. We rehearse and express our happiness with the attributes of God in word and song. We repeat the creeds of the historic Catholic faith. In other words, we “worship God in his attributes.” Just like the Psalms in the Old Testament, we recount things God has done in the history of his people, in our own experiences, and in the world at large, by proclamation, by liturgy and prayer and teaching. These are the regular activities of the body of Christ. Back in 1800s, before he became a Bishop, the Pastor Edward Bickersteth realized that the spread of Arian ideas about Jesus in English Anglicanism would make it impossible to honestly use the Book of Common Prayer in church. The “Prayer Book” was a Trinitarian liturgy, and to use it required at least some understanding of what the Trinity was. He therefore compiled the best single book to come out of the 1800s on the Trinity, called Rock of Ages, which today is kept in print by Kregel’s press under the title The Trinity. He also wrote a fine exposition of the biblical evidence for the Personality of the Spirit, also in print as The Holy Spirit. They are both great books, and should be read carefully by us all. You can’t worship God properly without some awareness of his Triune nature.

The Apologetic Value of the Trinity

We must not think that the Trinity is a sort of “family secret” that is some sort of “problem” that we need to reserve for later, or suppress as an embarrassment of some kind. On the contrary, the Trinity should be right up front in our apologetic efforts. This is not only what we mean by the word “God,” but it is the best answer to the great basic issues in philosophy referred to under the headings of the “One-and-Many problem,” and the “location of Ultimacy” problem. Nothing much can be done in philosophy until these problems are faced somehow. In fact, one of the main reasons why modern philosophy began the 20th century by giving up altogether the search for a comprehensive system of philosophy, and ended the century by abandoning all possibility of truth per se in the claims of Postmodernism, was because of the conviction that the One-and-Many problem was in principle insoluble and had simply to be “contained,” if it could not be “solved.” They therefore gave up trying to resolve it and turned instead to what developed into the “linguistic analysis” schools, which have turned out to be so tiresome and unproductive recently.

The point I must briefly make here is that the Christian needs to point out to the unbeliever that everyone has to have a principle of unification to explain how the sheer multiplicity of our experience can be pulled together, and everyone has to have a principle of diversity to show how it is possible for the particular thing or moment to have significance within the totality of things. In the Middle Ages, this was expressed as the problem of the “universals” over against the “particulars.” Today, especially in the sciences, this becomes the problem of how to bring thought and data together. The best the unbelieving world can offer as a principle of unification is Logic, and the best they can think of as a principle of diversification is Chance. This is a bit disappointing, because Logic and Chance are not compatible as ultimate principles. How then, can the logic of reason and chance facts be brought into fruitful contact? No doubt at the subatomic level, quantum mechanics is a useful tool, but it has not led to a “theory of everything,” a unified field theory to cover all types of subatomic and cosmological events. The latest effort seems to be “string theory,” but nobody really knows how that works yet, and the research presses on, with the very small and the very big creating more problems the more closely the cosmos is examined.

So while the unbelieving world continues its pitiful Stratonician efforts to get the universe to explain itself, Christians should be pressing unbelief to face the question of how the data and logic can be connected, and whether their ultimate principles are big enough to bear the weight of their theories.

By “Stratonician,” I refer to the idea of Strato of Lampsacus that “The principles of the world lie themselves within the world,” the idea that the world needs only to be observed to disclose it’s fundamental principles to the observer. Science, in other words, is the cosmos interpreting itself to itself. This is the great blunder that derives from Aristotle’s disjunction between “knowing” and “believing” that underlies all our modern problems with faith and reason, the Bible and science, etc. etc. It’s the real reason why the secularists are trying to exclude any consideration of creation or intelligent design from the school classroom. The Bible addresses this issue in Genesis 3.

In the garden of Eden a very young couple decided to make themselves the ultimate principle of predication. They decided to make themselves the reference-point for deciding whether God was right or not about that “you will surely die” thing that he had mentioned. But if I have “the right to decide” whether God or Satan is correct about anything, clearly God is no longer the final standard for all truth any more. There has been a relocation of Ultimacy from God to me. This is what was being done about 270 BC, when Strato of Lampsacus insisted that “the principles of the world lie themselves within the world.” No they don’t; the ultimate principles for understanding the world of experience lie in God, not in the world. If the God of the Bible exists at all, he is the ultimate principle, the primary assumption, the necessary axiom or presupposition in terms of which the world of experience is to be understood. Then and only then, can the believer feel free from the need to postulate Logic or Chance as ultimate principles. To begin with, there can be no “chance” in a created universe, because all facts are what they are because God is what he is. No fact exists outside the exhaustive awareness of “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” as Paul calls him (Eph 1:3). And the fact that we can’t know with equal accuracy both the position and the velocity of a subatomic particle at the same instant is just a limitation of our finite human observation techniques, and nobody has demonstrated that it requires that quantum events are uncaused. The idea that causation somehow breaks down at the subatomic level is a religious belief, an act of faith about the world, not a logical requirement. And the idea of “chance” is nothing but ignorance of causation.

The upshot of all this is that Christians need to stop letting the unbeliever set the rules (in practice, the presuppositions) for what can be true and what not. The Christian has a perfectly sensible principle of unification in the sovereign Power of God as his ultimate, and a perfectly sensible principle of diversity in the eternal Plan of God for all the “facts.” God’s creatorial sovereignty and his personal plan for the world are equally ultimate in the three Persons of the one Jehovah. We certainly do not have to worry about how logic and chance can come together. That is a heathen problem, and to try to answer it is to get enmeshed in heathen solutions to heathen problems, whether scientific, or philosophical.

On the basis of the Bible’s cosmological principles, modern science developed and has flourished to become the self-sustaining enterprise that we see and enjoy today. Stanley Jaki has shown that this only happened once in the history of the world, between 1250 and 1650 in “Christian” Europe, both Catholic and Protestant. And this was no accident; it’s a fruit of the Biblical world-view.

Clearly, the apologetic value of the Trinity should not be ignored or neglected in these trying times.

Finally:

It has been often stated that the Trinity is a reflection on the nature of the Christian’s “experience of salvation,” and that is partly correct. Yes, we certainly do experience God as Father, as Son, and as the Holy Spirit, as Matthew 28:19 reminds us. But experience by itself is not enough to give us Truth in any ultimate sense; for us to have ultimate truth, the Ultimate must speak for himself, and that is what he has done in “the Jesus of history,” who identifies himself as “the Christ of faith” in the Bible.

We see the Trinity most clearly in the mind of Jesus himself in John’s Gospel. Then with the correct model in mind, we can go elsewhere in the Scriptures, including into the Hebrew Old Testament, and Lo! We see the same Trinity there ! No doubt the Trinity is indeed “a mystery,” but it is not self-contradictory. It involves no “paradox,” no “antinomy,” and neither Kierkegaard nor Kant can be trusted to tell us what it means. But Jesus can, and he is the one who speaks the Ultimate Word on this topic. Our task is to start where he stopped, and presuppose his vision of God as the Ultimate in terms of which experience, religious, scientific, or philosophical, can become intelligible. The Trinity is indeed “central” to our testimony to the Gospel of Christ. The triune creator-God of the Bible is the presupposition in terms of which our experience of the world can become intelligible. No other principle is big enough, or comprehensive enough, to cope with the philosophic and religious problems of the last 2,500 years of Western thought. Its apologetic value is enormous, and its neglect would be a serious strategic blunder.

Notes On What To Read Next

Augustinus, Aurelius. The Trinity (de Trinitate) (1963, Catholic University Press, Washington, DC).

The great statement by the most influential of the early Fathers. Summarizes and unifies the best Trinitarian thinking as far as his time. Shows clearly how the Trinity relates to other key doctrines, including Salvation.

Bickersteth, Edward. The Trinity (1860, often reprinted, Kregel’s, Grand Rapids).
The best exposition of the Trinity from the supporting texts to come out of the 1800s. Especially concerned to put the Trinity in focus as the true object of Christian devotion and worship.

Unusually helpful to believers with no background in theology. Discusses all the key NT texts.

Boff, Leonardo. Trinity and Society (1988, Burns and Oats, London).
This is an example of how a liberal Catholic saw the Trinity as teaching the church about Community in faith. The “social implications” of the Trinitarian idea.

Clark, Gordon. The Trinity (1985, The Trinity Foundation, Unicoi, Tennessee).
Careful discussions of the various problems associated with Trinitarian thought by a clear-headed calvinistic Christian philosopher. Many important issues clarified. Very helpful.

Fortman, Edmund J. The Triune God (1972, reprinted 1982, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids).
The very best of the shorter histories of how the Trinity came to be, by a careful Jesuit scholar. The history of how the Trinity developed is the second main example (after the victory over Arianism) of how the Holy Spirit continued to teach the Church the great truths of the Faith.

Hilary of Poitiers. The Trinity. (Vol IX of the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of 1888-89, a set kept in print by Eerdmans, Grant Rapids.)
A bit earlier than Augustine, and not so clearly expressed, Hilary’s work was widely influential in helping people focus on the central issues. Unfortunately he was soon neglected in favor of the more famous Augustine. His book is wide-ranging and subtle, but not well-organized.

John of Damascus. The Orthodox Faith (in the same volume with Hilary above) contains a dissertation on the Trinity which is sometimes spoken of as if it were a separate work. But Trinitarian thinking is woven throughout this book. John was one of the most influential of the early Eastern theologians, and a much better systematic thinker than (say), Origen.

Lovejoy, Arthur. The Great Chain Of Being (Harvard, 1936, and often reprinted).
The great classical study of how this standard pagan solution to the one-and-many problem influenced Western thought down to about 1800. Very helpful introduction, although parts are a bit technical. These can be scanned quickly.

Morey, Robert. The Trinity: Evidences and Issues (1996, World Publishing, Grand Rapids). This is probably the best, most useful, single book on the Trinity to come from the 20th century. It shows clearly how to answer the heresies, and expounds the Trinity from the OT as well as the New. Very thorough and well-researched, a real gem, and worth investing in.

Rushdoony, Rousas J. The One And The Many (1971, reprinted 1978, Thoburn Press, Fairfax VA) I recommend this as the only really helpful book available to me on the Christian use of the one-and-many problem, not because of his Reconstructionist views, which animate all his writing, and which as a premillennialist, I reject. He sees the classical problem as a philosophical and political issue and illustrates it from the point of view of the development of civilizations. This is a very worthwhile analysis, and forms part of a Christian theory of history and the development of his own postmillennial theory of the Kingdom of God.

Van Til, Cornelius. Introduction to Systematic Theology (reprinted 1966 and often thereafter). Class syllabus covering the important implications of the various key topics of Systematics for the development of the task of Apologetics. Also found in the Van Til CD with everything else of the Van Til corpus, available from Westminster Seminary Bookstore.

The Author can be contacted at rkwjc@charter.net or Phone (423) – 434 – 2188

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3 Comments on “On the Trinity: Part Two – The Trinity, Central to Apologetics and Evangelism”

  1. 4ever4given Says:

    You guys are in my prayers… mostly a heart of thankfulness for your desire to “write” the truth in love. THis blog of yours is a ministry to people… like me. And I appreciate your work.

  2. GOWITHGOSPEL Says:

    Persevere!


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