The Doctrine of the Trinity (part 3)

January 14, 2008     Time: 00:26:29

We are going to continue our discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity.

We saw last time that the New Testament affirms that there are three persons who are God – God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit – and that these three are all distinct from one another and yet they are all God. The question is: how do you make sense out of this scriptural data? Let’s do a systematic summary together by looking down through church history and seeing some of the positions that have been held by the church fathers as they thought about this..

To begin with, it was very clear to everybody concerned that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were distinct persons and yet they were all God. But the difficulty was how do you express that. How do you say that the Father and the Son are both God but that they are not the same person? The difficulty was complicated by the fact that the modern concept of a person did not even exist at this time in history. It has been shown that the modern concept of personhood – of a person – actually comes out of these early trinitarian debates over the three persons in the godhead. The modern concept of the person did not even exist at that time. Tertullian, who was one of the church fathers who wrestled with this problem (his dates are 150 to 225), was the one who invented the term persona or person. He also used the word trinitas, which we get our word Trinity, for the first time. He wanted to express the doctrine that there were three persons in one nature. The difficulty was how to do this.

One of the earliest Christological speculations on this was called Logos Christology. Christology, as you can see from the word, is the doctrine of Christ. Christology is the study of the person and work of Christ. Logos is the Greek word for “word” which we see in John 1 where in verse 1 it says, “In the beginning was the Word [was the Logos], and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” This Logos Christology was inspired by the Gospel of John as well as by Greek philosophy. Basically what it held was this. Originally God the Father alone existed. There was just the person God the Father, no universe, nothing else. But God existed with his Word in his mind. Indeed, the Word in some sense was the reason of God – it was the intellect of God. This reason or intellect – this Word – of God then was expressed by God and proceeded forth from God and became a separate person or individual through whom in turn God then created the world. So in the writings of early church fathers like Athenagoras you find expressions of this Logos Christology where God the Father existed in the beginning but he had within him his reason and his wisdom. The reason proceeded forth as Christ, the Son, and the wisdom as the Spirit. This was an early attempt to show how Christ and the Spirit are God himself, but they are not the Father. Rather, they are the reason and the wisdom of the Father which proceed out of the Father.[1]

This doctrine clearly attempted to affirm the deity of Christ, and yet also attempted to affirm some sort of distinction between Christ and the Father. By contrast, one of the early Christian heresies which subsequently arose was called modalism, which I mentioned the first day we began to talk about the doctrine of the Trinity. Modalism is very similar to unitarianism. It holds that there is one God who is one person. God is just a single person, but God has three faces so to speak. The word that was used here was prosopon for face. A prosopon was a mask that a Greek actor would wear in a Greek play. The idea here was there is on God who is one person but he has three faces or masks that he wears – three roles that he plays. One of the early proponents of modalism was Sabelius who flourished around AD 215. Sometimes this heresy is called Sabellianism. Sabelius held to a kind of successive modalism – first God revealed himself to human kind as the Father, then he revealed himself to people as the Son, then finally he revealed himself to people as the Holy Spirit. These were three different roles all being played by the same person.

Sabelius was condemned and excommunicated by the church for his modalism. Why? Modalism simply cannot make sense of the simultaneous existence of the three persons – that they exist co-eternally. Remember all the passages we read about Christ as being the creator of the universe through whom and for whom the universe exists. The Son prays to the Father, even during his incarnation. The Holy Spirit is active in the life and ministry of Jesus himself. So the co-existence and the eternality of the three persons is incompatible with modalism. You cannot regard them as just different forms taken by the one God.

It is noteworthy however that even in modalism there was no denial of the deity of Christ. On the contrary, modalism had a very strong affirmation of the deity of Christ. Christ was God himself. It was the same God who was the Father and the Spirit. So modalism did not deny the deity of Christ. Where modalism failed was that it failed to recognize the distinctness of the person of Christ from the persons of the Father and of the Spirit.

An early heresy then arose in the church called Arianism, not to be confused with Aryanism with a “y” which was Nazi racism. This type of Arianism was named after a church presbyter named Arius who flourished around AD 319. Arius was an anti-modalist. He did not think that the Son and the Father were the same being. Arius thought that the Son is a distinct and separate being from the Father. But because the Father is God, that means that the Son cannot be God. The Son is subordinate to God. He is a sort of demigod, if you will. He is very close to God; he is like God, but he is not God. You might compare modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses to Arius.[2] Modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses propounded by the Watchtower Society is just a modern version of Arianism. They believe exactly the same thing – that the Son was a creature. He was not God. He was a demigod that was the first creation of God. He was not the same in essence as the Father. The word essence in the Greek was ousia which means substance or essence. Arius did not affirm that the Father and the Son have the same essence. They are similar in essence, but they do not have the same essence. Therefore, God is uniquely the Father, and the Son is the first created being of the Father.

In the year 321 Arius was excommunicated by the church for his heresy. However, he did not take this lying down. Instead of quietly retiring, Arius proceeded to go about the Roman Empire gathering converts to his system of belief. He would propagate the Arian doctrine through ditties that seamen could sing as they loaded the ships and worked on the docks. Arianism began to become very widespread among common people as it was spread around the Roman Empire.

Arius based his view primarily upon a misinterpretation of Proverbs 8. In the eighth chapter of the book of Proverbs, we have Wisdom who is personified as a woman. She talks about how she was there in the beginning with God, and God created her in the beginning. It was through her that the world was made, and so on and so forth. Arius took this female personification of Wisdom to be identical with Christ and said that just as Wisdom is a creature that is made by God, so Christ is made by God. Unfortunately he overlooked all of the passages that we’ve been dealing with in prior lessons on the deity of Christ where we saw that the New Testament affirms that Christ is God and Lord. Arius really could not take seriously the Scriptures that talked of the full deity of Christ.

Unlike modalism, Arius preserved the distinction of the three persons but only at the sacrifice of their deity. Modalism preserved the deity of the three persons but only by collapsing the distinction between them. It was sort of a trade-off. Modalism preserved the deity but not their distinctness; Arianism preserved their distinctness but not their deity. The question was: how do you put these together to both affirm the deity and the distinctness of the three persons?

In the year 325 the emperor Constantine convened the first universal council of bishops of the whole church at the town of Nicaea. This council was charged to make a decision with respect to Arianism and with respect to the doctrine of the deity of Christ. At this council, Arius was opposed by the Greek church father Athanasius. Athanasius was a very valiant church father who suffered multiple exiles for his adherence to the full deity and distinctness of the person of Christ and who opposed Arianism as being heretical because it demeaned the person of Christ and denied his full deity. The watchword for Athanasius was that Christ is the same essence or the same substance as the Father. The word for that was homoousios. Remember we saw that the word ousia means substance or essence.[3] Homo means, in this case, “same.” This is not the Latin word for “man” as in Homo sapiens. It is the Greek word here – homo meaning “same” like in our word homogeneous or homogenized milk. That means the milk has been mixed so it is all the same. Here, homoousios means “same substance.” Athanasius, opposed to Arianism, supported this doctrine that the Father and the Son are of the same essence (same substance) and therefore equally God.

At the council the bishops broke down basically into about four different parties. There were first of all those who were aligned with Athanasius – the Athanasian party. There were probably about thirty bishops that Athanasius could count on in his camp. Then there was the broad center coalition who were utterly confused about what to believe. They didn’t know what was going on in this whole debate. Probably around 200 bishops fell into this category. Then there were the semi-Arians. These folks did not like Arius. They recognized that his doctrine of the denial of the deity of Christ was wrong, but they felt uncomfortable with Athanasius’ doctrine of homoousios. Why? In Greek thought an ousia or a substance can mean either the essence of a thing or the thing itself. So for example this eraser is an ousia – it is a substance. This book is a substance. I am a substance. The blackboard is a substance. If you say the Father and the Son are the same substance then to these thinkers you were saying they were the same thing. But that is not right. That is what modalists said. So the semi-Arians suspected that Athanasius’ doctrine of homoousios – same substance – was really a kind of crypto-modalism. And they feared it because they thought that this would deny the distinctness of the Father and the Son. They wanted to be sure that the Father and the Son were not collapsed down to the same thing. They are different things. So the semi-Arians proposed homoiousios instead of homoousios. It means similar substance – the Son is similar in substance to the Father but he is not the same substance as the Father. In other words, this whole great debate hung upon a single iota. So when people say that it is just an iota, that is where this expression comes from. Because the difference between homoousios and homoiousios was basically the deity of Christ. The deity of Christ stood or fell with that iota. If it was the same substance as Athanasius said then that meant Christ was fully God just as the Father. If he was only similar in substance to the Father then he was not identical to the Father in essence.

Finally at the council there were probably only about 6 Arians. There were 70-90 of these semi-Arians. So you can see that there was never any chance that Arius’s view would prevail. There was never any chance that the church was going to adopt Arianism and say that the Son was not God, or not divine, or was a created being as Arius believed. The whole difficulty lay in how to express the full deity of the Son without collapsing the distinction between the Father and the Son. There there was great confusion.

Athanasius finally won the day. The council promulgated a creed which is now known today as the Nicene Creed.[4] If you come from a liturgical background, you may have recited it on Sundays frequently. The great Nicene Creed affirms the full deity of the Son, that he is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father, and having the same substance as the Father. I want to read it now:

We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things, visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of god, begotten from the Father, only begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended into the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead:

And in the Holy Ghost.

Notice several things about this remarkable statement. First of all, it affirms in traditional language the one God who is the Father, and then one Lord who is Jesus Christ. So you have this traditional distinction in the New Testament between God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is identified as God’s Son. He is the only begotten of the Father. That is to say, of the substance of the Father. They have the same essence. The use here of the word “begotten” is important because it shows that he is not a created thing. If an artisan creates something, it is not of the same substance of the artisan. If I create a statute or a painting or a piece of machinery it does not share my essence. But if I beget a child then that child has the same essence as I do – a human being begets another human being. A dog begets a dog. A cat begets a cat. In affirming that the Son is the only begotten of the Father (he was not made but begotten) they are affirming that he has the same nature as the Father, just as a kitten has the nature of a cat, or a puppy the nature of a dog. So it says of the same substance as the Father, “God of God, light from light, very God of very God, begotten not made.” In contradiction to Arianism, Christ is not a creation. He is begotten by the Father; he is not made by the Father. Being of one substance with the Father – that is the homoousios. He is the same essence, the same nature, as the Father. By whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on earth. This expresses again his creating role as the cosmic Christ. Then it describes his role in the person of salvation. And finally the person of the Holy Spirit is sort of thrown in there as an afterthought in the end, “We also believe in the Holy Spirit.” This is the Nicene Creed that came to be promulgated in the Council of Nicaea in 325.

I think this little history lesson makes it very obvious how misleading it is when cultic groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses and others say that the church did not decide that Jesus Christ was God until three hundred years afterwards – till AD 325 at the Council of Nicaea where the church got together and voted to make Jesus Christ God. I think you can see that that is a complete misrepresentation of the facts. From the very beginning the deity of Jesus Christ was recognized. The New Testament authors went to great pains to try to express the full deity of Christ. Modalists and Logos Christologists recognized the full deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. What they were wrestling and struggled to understand was how the Father and the Son and the Spirit could all be God and yet not be one person. How could they be distinct and yet all be God? But there wasn’t a question about the deity of Christ until Arius came along and began to deny it. It was only the provocation of Arianism which was this tiny minority position that demanded a response from the church to formulate very clearly the relationship between God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. So the early church did so by means of this begetting relationship whereby the Son and the Father have the same substance but the Son is begotten by the Father.

That brought to a close the great trinitarian controversies of the early church, but of course the doctrine of the Trinity continued to be debated and discussed down through church history and even so today. In the next lesson I am going to look at the doctrine of the Trinity in light of contemporary thought, explore some of its problems, and propose a possible model of the Trinity whereby we can make sense of the doctrine of three persons in one substance or being.[5]



[1] 5:12

[2] 10:00

[3] 15:02

[4] 20:02

[5] Total Running Time: 26:29 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)