The Doctrine of the Trinity (part 5)

January 28, 2008     Time: 00:41:35

There have been a lot of interesting things in the news lately – haven’t there? – from a Christian perspective. I noticed for example that in the recent issue of U.S. News and World Report it had a major story called “James Dobson’s Righteous Revolution.” In this major story The Dobson Way describes how an evangelical leader has stepped into the political ring and the sort of influence that Dobson is having on the political process in the United States toward adopting biblical values. This goes on for about eight pages in this issue of U.S. News and World Report. What is remarkable about this article, I think, is the tone of optimism that characterizes the article. Everyone seems to feel as though an enormous corner has been turned. Ever since the November elections, there seems to be just a new tone in the air about the reassertion of traditional moral values, the importance of spirituality, belief in God, and so forth. According to the article, Dobson, who for many, many years was president of Focus on the Family has now stepped down as president of that organization so he can be involved more directly in political lobbying to try to get congressmen elected who are sympathetic to Christian values. Apparently, Dobson has actually targeted a number of liberal senators and congressmen for the mid-term 2006 elections. His goal basically is to build a filibuster-proof majority for George Bush’s judicial nominees in the U.S. Senate so the Senate liberals will not be able to block these conservative judicial appointees to the court who will stand for the sanctity of human life and stand up for traditional marriage.

I don’t know if you watched any of the commemorative ceremonies or march on Washington with respect to the Roe vs. Wade anniversary, again the thing I noticed there was just a different tone in the air. Tremendous optimism. A sense that things really were going to change as a result of what’s been happening recently in the United States. I especially saw this as testified from the other side. Jan and I watched an interview with a woman who was with the National Organization of Women. This woman had some very interesting things to say. She said that today Roe vs. Wade hangs by a thread and could be broken at any time. She said that if Roe vs. Wade is overturned that 19 states are ready immediately to outlaw abortion in those states. Only a handful of states, she said, are prepared to make this an unrestricted right in the way that it is today. So even she recognized that the will of the people is not with abortion on demand. If you listen to the will of the people, restrictions would be proposed almost immediately. Then she had this to say, which I thought was very revealing. She said, Do we really want to go back to the days of our grandmothers when people had to have families with eight or ten children in them? In other words, she was tacitly admitting that abortion is being advocated as a means of birth control, which is horrific when you think about it! Abortion would be a means of birth control; a means of having smaller families. This is what the pro-abortion lobby has always denied, that this is a matter of convenience or being used for birth control. Yet this was implicitly admitted by this spokeswoman.

I thought that was extremely interesting, and also so encouraging to see this new mood of optimism that seems to exist in the country. We can only work for its continuation and pray that this will go on.

This morning we want to wrap up our discussion on the doctrine of the Trinity. You will remember last time we reviewed the church historical trinitarian controversy with respect to Logos Christology, Modalism, Arianism, and finally the creed that was promulgated at the Council of Nicaea which affirmed that the Father and the Son are of the same substance or essence rather than the Son being any sort of a created being.[1]

According to the classic doctrine of the Trinity, there is one being who is God but there are three persons in the Godhead: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. These three persons are all divine, they are all equal, and yet there are not three Gods. There is but one God. So the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not the logical incoherence that three persons are somehow one person or that one God is somehow three gods. Rather, the doctrine of the Trinity is that there is one God who has three persons associated with him. There are three persons in one substance, in one being, which is God.

The problem posed by this comes from reflection upon the nature of identity. If two things are identical then they are, in fact, the same thing. For example, the classic example would be Venus was once identified as the morning star which rose at dawn. Then they thought a different star called the evening star would appear in the evening. It wasn’t until sometime had passed that astronomers realized that in fact the morning star and the evening star were identical – they were both Venus. So in fact there was really only one object that was being observed but it was called different names – the morning star and the evening star.

Suppose we say, as Christian theology wants to do, that the Father is God and the Son is God:

Father = God
Son = God

If these are understood as identity statements, the difficulty is that identity is transitive. That is to say, if the Father is identical to God and the Son is identical to God then it follows that the Father is identical to the Son,

Father = Son

which is heresy. That is not what we want to say. They are two different persons. So how can we say the Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God, without saying that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all identical? How do you understand these statements in such a way that they do not imply that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are indeed all identical?

I think the answer is that statements like “The Father is God” and “The Son is God” and “The Spirit is God” should not be understood as identity statements. These are not meant to mean the Father is identical with God, the Son is identical with God, or the Spirit is identical with God. Rather, these are statements that attribute a property to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, namely, the property of divinity – the property of being divine. So to say that the Father is God is to say the Father is divine. Or the Son is God is to say the Son is divine. The Holy Spirit is God means the Holy Spirit is divine. I think that is obvious when you reflect on the fact that according to Christian theology, God is triune. God is a Trinity, right? So if these were identity statements and the Father is God then that means the Father is the Trinity. The Father is triune, and that is clearly wrong! If two things are identical then they must have all the same properties, but the Father is not identical with God because God is triune. God is a Trinity. But the Father is not a Trinity. He is a member of the Trinity. So clearly these kinds of statements cannot be identity statements. Rather, they are ascriptions of a property to the persons – the property of divinity. They are ways of saying the Father is divine, the Son is divine, and the Spirit is divine.

An analogy for this would be, for example, if someone were to say Belshazzar is king.[2] That is not meant to be an identity statement. What that is is a way of saying Belshazzar is regal or Belshazzar occupies the office of being a king. That is not incompatible with there being two kings. There can be co-regents of the kingdom as in fact was the case with Belshazzar. So you can have two kings who are not identical with each other and yet they are both king in the sense that they both have the property of being regal or the property of occupying the same office.

So I don’t think there is any ultimate difficulty in saying the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, but that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are not identical. These are not meant to be identity statements.

All of this still leaves us wondering how three persons can somehow be the same being. How can you have three divine persons who are together one God? How is that possible? Maybe we can get a start at this question by means of an analogy. There is no reason that there has to be analogies to the Trinity in the created world but nevertheless analogies can be useful as a springboard for reflection on some topic, and therefore can be useful. I want to suggest an analogy to you that I am a little bit hesitant to share lest someone think it is sacrilegious, but nevertheless others have found this so useful that I think I will go ahead and share this analogy. In Greco-Roman mythology there is said to stand guarding the gates of Hades a three-headed dog named Cerberus. One of the tasks of Hercules in mythology, you may remember, was to go capture Cerberus, this vicious three-headed dog that was guarding the gates of Hades. I think we can suppose that Cerberus must have had three brains since he had three heads, and therefore had three distinct states of consciousness of whatever it’s like to be a dog – three dog consciousnesses. Therefore, although Cerberus is a sentient being he did not or does not have a unified consciousness. Rather, he would have three consciousnesses. We can even assign proper names to each of these three consciousnesses. We could call them, say, Rover, Bowser, and Spike. Those would be the three dog consciousnesses of Cerberus.

These three centers of consciousness are entirely discrete. We can imagine that they could even come into conflict with each other. Two heads might go for the same piece of food or the same bone and wrestle with each other over that piece of food. But nevertheless in order for Cerberus to be biologically viable, and especially in order to function effectively as a guard dog at the gates of Hades, there would have to be a considerable degree of cooperation among Rover, Bowser, and Spike. Despite the diversity of these three states of consciousness, clearly Cerberus is one dog. He is a single, biological organism which has a canine nature. He just has three heads, and therefore three consciousnesses. We can even say Rover, Bowser, and Spike are canine as well, even though they are not three dogs. They are not three separate dogs. There is only one dog here which has a canine nature, but in a kind of derivative sense, Rover, Bowser, and Spike are canine as well and they have a canine consciousness. If Hercules were attempting to come into Hades and Spike, say, snarled at Hercules and bit him on the leg, Hercules might well report “Cerberus attacked me” or “Cerberus snarled at me.” So although you could attribute actions to one of the three dog consciousnesses you could attribute it to the whole as well. If Spike bit Hercules then Cerberus bit Hercules since Spike designates one of the consciousnesses of Cerberus.[3]

We can enhance this Cerberus story by investing him with rationality and self-consciousness. We can imagine that Rover, Bowser, and Spike are canine persons, as it were, and therefore would be personal agents. Cerberus in that case would be a tri-personal dog. He wouldn’t have just one person, he would have three persons associated with his being.

If we were to ask ourselves, “What makes Cerberus one dog rather than three dogs despite him having these multiple consciousnesses?” I think we would probably say it is because Cerberus has a single body – he has a single, physical dog body. But suppose Hercules were to kill Cerberus and as a result his minds would survive the death of his body. Imagine that he is personal and therefore the soul would survive the death of his physical body. In that case, would the three minds of Cerberus still be one being? In what sense would they be one being? How would they differ from three exactly similar dog minds which were never unified in the same body but have just been unembodied? Since the divine persons are prior to the incarnation at least three unembodied minds we could similarly ask what makes them one being rather than three separate individual beings? Cerberus, I think, is a very handy analogy for one being with three centers of consciousness – three self-consciousnesses – if we invest him with rationality. But the question would be then if you don’t have the physical body to make this one organism in virtue of what would these three consciousnesses belong to one being?

This is a difficult question. Maybe we can get some insight on it by reflecting upon the nature of the soul. My colleague J. P. Moreland, who has specialized in the nature and existence of the soul, believes that souls are immaterial substances. They are things, but they are immaterial in nature. And he believes that it is plausible that animals have souls. He argues that souls come in a variety of capacities and faculties. Higher animals, like chimpanzees and dolphins, have souls which are more richly endowed than the souls of primitive animals like turtles and snakes for example. What makes the human soul a person is that the human soul is uniquely equipped with rational faculties of intellect and freedom of the will which enable the human soul to be a self-reflective agent capable of self-determination. So the difference between the human soul and animal souls would be basically one of its capacities and faculties. The human soul is more richly endowed with rational faculties that enable it to be a self-determining free agent.

When you think about it, God is very much like an unembodied soul. In fact, as a mental substance who doesn’t have a body, God just is a soul. It would seem God is a mental substance, an unembodied substance. We naturally tend to equate a rational soul with a person. That is because the human souls that we are acquainted with are all persons. All of the human souls that we are aware of are persons. But that is because human souls are each equipped with one set of rational faculties sufficient for personhood. I am a person. My soul is a person, because my soul is equipped with one set of rational faculties which is sufficient for personhood. But suppose in God’s case that although God is one soul, he is a soul which is so richly endowed with faculties that he has three complete sets of rational cognitive faculties each of which is sufficient for personhood.[4] In that case, even though God is one soul, he would not be one person. Rather, there would be three persons. So God would have three centers of self-consciousness, three centers of intentionality and will. This would give us a clear model of the Trinity.

Clearly, in this case God would not be three separate souls – three distinct mental substances – for he is just one soul. All of the cognitive faculties that we are talking about are the faculties of just one immaterial substance or one soul. But God would be one soul endowed with three sets of rational faculties each sufficient for personhood, and therefore God would comprise three persons.

I think this model of the Trinity gives a clear sense to the classic formula “three persons in one substance.” I want to emphasize this is just a model. I am not claiming to know in fact how God is three-in-one, but as long as we can offer a model which is coherent and plausible then no philosophical objection can be raised against the doctrine of the Trinity by unitarians whether they be classic unitarians or Muslims or Jews or cultists who deny the doctrine of the Trinity.

You’ll notice that this model as I’ve laid it out does not feature, but neither does it preclude, the derivation of one of the persons from another. You’ll remember in the Nicene Creed we have enshrined this formula that the Son is begotten of the Father. He is begotten in his divine nature. So if we represent the Trinity as a triangle and the three angles represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – three persons, three angles, but one substance, one geometrical figure. On the classic doctrine the Son derives from the Father, and the Spirit derives from the Father and from the Son. So the Son proceeds from the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Therefore, you have these relationships within the Trinity of derivation. The Constantinopolitan Creed from 381 confesses that the Son is begotten of the Father before all worlds, light of light, very God of very God, begotten not made.

The model of the Trinity that I’ve laid out does not feature these relations of derivation of the persons from one another. On the model that I’ve explained, God could simply exist eternally, necessarily with all of his multiple cognitive faculties and capacities. So God would simply be a being in which you have three centers of self-consciousness and will without any sorts of relationships of derivation of one person from another. I think this is all for the better on this model because although the derivation of the persons from the others is something that is creedally enshrined in the Nicene Creed and other creeds, I do think (as I said last week) that this is actually a relic or a vestige of the old Logos Christology which has been preserved in the creeds. This doctrine really finds no biblical warrant whatsoever. It seems to introduce into God a kind of subordinationism of the Son and the Holy Spirit which does seem to call into question their full and equal deity with the Father.

If I might expand on this biblically speaking, the vast majority of contemporary New Testament scholars recognize that the word that is traditionally translated as “only begotten” as, for example, when it says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” that word is monogenes.[5] Mono meaning “only” or “single” and genes meaning “to give birth.” This word translated “only begotten” carries a connotation of derivation only when it is used in contexts of a family. But it can mean simply unique or one-of-a-kind. The word doesn’t really carry with it the idea of “only begotten.” So some of your modern translations – if you look at your own Bible – will not translate this word as “only begotten.” It will say something like “God has given his one and only Son” or something of that sort rather than use the expression “only begotten.”

It seems to me that on the one hand this word doesn’t necessarily mean “only begotten” but even if it does mean “only begotten” surely the references to Christ as monogenes in the New Testament (for example John 1:1, John 1:14, and John 1:18) don’t contemplate some sort of eternal procession of the Son from the Father in his divine nature. Rather, I think they would refer to Christ’s being begotten by Mary. It refers to his incarnation to his human birth. In other words, the expression monogenes has less to do with the Trinity than it has to do with the incarnation. It has to do with Christ’s human nature being begotten, not his divine nature. This primitive understanding of Christ being begotten is evident, for example, in Ignatius’ (an early Church father) description of Christ as “one physician of flesh and Spirit, begotten and unbegotten, both of Mary and of God.” That is from his letter to the Ephesians chapter 7. Notice what Ignatius says there. He says the flesh is begotten of Mary, but the spiritual aspect of Christ’s nature – his divine nature – is unbegotten. There is no idea here that Christ in his divine nature is begotten. In fact, changing monogenes so that it refers to the divine nature being begotten rather than the human nature being begotten I think tends to depreciate the importance of the historical Jesus for Christian faith because it makes Jesus the Son of God not in virtue of his incarnation but in virtue of the Trinity.

Theologically-speaking as well, orthodox theology has always resisted any attempt to subordinate one of the persons to the others. The notion is that all three of the persons of the Trinity are to be conceived as equally divine; therefore none of the persons is to be subordinated to the others in terms of his properties and perfections. But it is very hard to see how, if the Son proceeds from the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, that the Son and the Holy Spirit do not become dependent contingent beings. They exist only in the sense in which created things exist; namely, by the will and sustaining power of the Father. I think it does introduce a kind of subordinationism into the Godhead that ought to make us feel very uncomfortable.

On this model we do not include this idea of the derivation of the persons of the Trinity one from another. Rather the model just goes so far to affirm three centers of self-consciousness in the one being – in that one immaterial substance. But if, in line with the creedal statements, you do want to introduce these relations of derivations into the persons, nothing prevents you from doing so.

This raises the further question that came up last week. Suppose we say that, in fact, in the ontological Trinity you do not have these relations of derivation.[6] That in the ontological Trinity you simply have three co-equal divine persons. In that case, why do we call one the Father, one the Son, and one the Holy Spirit? Would it be equally legitimate for the person who is the Father to have become incarnate, in which case he would be the Son and the Son could have been the Father? On the traditional orthodox understanding of the Trinity that would be impossible because these relations of derivation are intrinsic to the ontological Trinity. So the Father is the one from whom the other persons of the Trinity proceed, and he could not have been any other person. But if you get rid of these relations of derivation in the Trinity then it doesn’t seem that there would be anything that would prevent you from saying that the names of the persons of the Trinity are simply a reflection of their various roles in the economic Trinity. The Father sends the Son, the Son becomes incarnate and dies on the cross, the Holy Spirit fills and inspires and sanctifies the church. Therefore, the names of these persons are the result of the roles that they play in the economic Trinity. But had God chosen to do so differently then the persons might well have had different denominations. I am not taking a position on that. I am not committed myself one way or another but I do think that that is an open question that would be occasioned by a model in which you do not have these intrinsic relations of derivation among the three co-equal persons of the Godhead.

What application does the doctrine of the Trinity have for us today? I think several.

1. Christianity is Trinity-centered. Often you will hear people say that Christianity is Christ-centered, but I think that that is incorrect. Christianity is based upon the worship of all three of the divine persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All of them are co-equal and all of them are fully divine, fully God. Therefore all of the cults – when you look at the different cultic groups like Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, different other sorts of cults like EST and so forth – they all deny the doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity is like a yardstick for measuring orthodoxy. It is this doctrine, I think, that is the plumbline that separates Christian cults from orthodox Christianity. Therefore we should not in our practical lives focus simply upon one person in exclusion to the others. Rather, we should be Trinity-centered in our worship of God and in our fellowship with God. For example, Jesus has told us that when we pray we should pray to the Father in the name of the Son. Paul says in Romans 8 we do so in the power of the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us with groanings too deep to be uttered. So you see there how the prayer life of the Christian involves the Trinity. Prayer is normally directed to the Father in the name of the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.

2. The doctrine of the Trinity implies that God is an eternal fellowship. God is not a lonely, isolated monad – a single, solitary person. Rather, God is a fellowship of three person. In the inter-trinitarian fellowship of God’s being, God is completely loving. He gives himself away to another as the persons of the Trinity love each other. He is entirely self-sufficient and self-contained. So God didn’t have to create the world in order to have company. God wasn’t lonely prior to the creation of the world. He didn’t need you and me. Rather God in the inner-trinitarian relationships of complete knowledge, love, and will was entirely perfected, sufficient, and blessed.[7] His creation of human persons, of finite persons, is an act of condescension on his part. It is an act of grace that he would create finite persons in his image and invite them into this inner-trinitarian love relationship as adopted sons and daughters of God. So the tremendous privilege of creation and salvation is that we can become part of God’s family. Not indeed as divine persons – there are only three divine persons – but as adopted sons and daughters of God in fellowship with the persons of the Trinity.

3. The doctrine of the Trinity helps to highlight the respective roles of the persons of the Trinity in the plan on redemption. I’ve already highlighted this. We said that it is the Father who sends the Son. It is the Son who reconciles us by dying in our place and paying the penalty for our sin whose righteousness is imputed to us so that we will stand faultless before the Father. It is the Holy Spirit who regenerates us and brings new birth and new life and who keeps us in grace until our death when we go to be with God. It is the Holy Spirit who provides us with that perseverance to the end and the assurance of salvation that comes from the indwelling and filling of the Holy Spirit. Just think what it would be like if there were no Trinity. If there were no Trinity of persons to carry out all of these roles it would be very different from the kinds of relationships that we enjoy now with God.

4. The Trinity can help to shed light upon the chain of authority that exists in the human family. Feminists and egalitarians today denounce the doctrine of male headship in the family and particularly in the husband-wife relationship. They say that this teaches the subordination of the woman to the man and the inferiority of the wife to her husband if she submits to him as her head. But I think the doctrine of the Trinity shows that that is quite wrong. In the economic Trinity the Son submits to and does the will of the Father and the Holy Spirits stands in the place of Christ and carries out the ministry that Christ has directed him to do. Yet, in the ontological Trinity all three of the persons are equally divine, equally perfect, and share equally in the attributes of God. But for the purpose of salvation and the plan of redemption, one of the persons submits to another without implying inferiority or subordinationism. I think it is exactly the same with husband and wife.

In the first letter of Paul to the Corinthian church – 1 Corinthians 11:3 – Paul says, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” That is to say, God the Father. Here you see a sort of chain of command – from the Father to Christ (the Son) to the husband to the wife. This doesn’t imply the inferiority of the wife to the husband anymore than it implies the inferiority of the Son to the Father.

Over in Ephesians 5:22-24 Paul gives instructions for man-wife relationships:

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.

This kind of submission that Paul calls for – the submission of the wife to the husband – does not imply subordination in the sense of inferiority.[8] In God’s economy, man and woman are both created in the image of God. They are co-equal, joint heirs of God’s grace, but for the purpose of the family, the wife submits to the husband and the children submit to the husband and the wife. They are equal but for the accomplishment of a divine purpose one submits to the other just as in the Trinity for the accomplishment of the plan of salvation one of the persons submits to one of the others.

I don’t think that the scriptural doctrine of male headship in the family does not in any way imply inferiority or subordinationism of the wife to her husband. Especially it doesn’t imply the subordination of women to men in general because it is talking specifically about the relations within a marriage between a husband and his wife.

So the Trinity, I think, sheds great light upon the doctrine of male headship in the home and helps us to see that when a woman submits to her husband in God’s plan she is not in any way being made a sort of doormat or implied to be inferior.

That completes what I wanted to share about the doctrine of the Trinity.[9]



[1] 5:11

[2] 10:05

[3] 15:03

[4] 20:03

[5] 25:15

[6] 30:16

[7] 35:02

[8] 40:00

[9] Total Running Time: 41:35 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)