Doctrine of the Trinity (part 5)

July 24, 2011     Time: 00:22:25

Systematic Summary

We have been looking at the biblical material for the doctrine of the Trinity. I am so glad that we took the time to survey the New Testament Scriptural data for the deity and the distinct personhood of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! Those of you who watched the debate with the two South African theologians Spangenberg and Wolmorans will remember how they attacked the doctrine of the Trinity as an imposition from the fourth century church upon primitive Christianity and having no basis in the original teachings of Jesus or the apostles. It is having this solid biblical background that enables you to see just the spuriousness of that sort of claim on the part of these theologians.

Historical Survey of the Doctrine

The Difficulty of Expression

The doctrine of the Trinity, as we know it today, as it was formulated by the ecumenical councils, is a result of a systematic reflection upon the data of Scripture and trying to formulate the data of Scripture into a coherent doctrine of God. The difficulty that the church faced was, how do you say that there is only one God and yet there are three persons, each of whom is God – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit? How can you avoid saying, on the one hand, there are three Gods, which you don’t want to say (that denies monotheism) or saying, on the other hand, that there is only one God and that these three persons are just different facets of the same person, which would not be right either? How do you affirm both the deity of each of the persons and their distinctness? That is what we are going to look at this morning.

Logos Christology

The roots of the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity that was eventually promulgated at Nicaea comes out of the “Logos Christology” of the early Greek apologists. Who were these men? These were second century Christians. They lived in the century right after Christ, beginning about AD 100 and following. They included people like Justin Martyr, Tatian, Theophilus, Athenagoras. These were early Christian writers who wrote in defense of the Christian faith in an overwhelmingly pagan Roman culture. These men helped to lay the ground work for the doctrine of the Trinity that was eventually promulgated at the Council of Nicaea.

This is called a Logos Christology because it takes its inspiration, on the one hand, from the prologue to the Gospel of John, where, you remember, John says “In the beginning was the Logos,” that is to say, the “Word” or “Reason.” Logos is the Greek word for “word” or “reason.” “In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God.” And then John describes how he became flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ. So, on the one hand, there was this doctrine of Christ as the Logos of God coming out of the prologue of the Gospel of John.

But, significantly, this also connected with the work of a Jewish philosopher named Philo of Alexandria in Egypt. If you ever doubt the influence of philosophy upon the formulation of classic Christian doctrines, this is a case in point that you can look to. Philo, who lived from about 25 BC to AD 40, was a Jewish philosopher who was an advocate of what is called Middle Platonism. That is to say, he was a follower of Plato, as Plato’s thought had evolved by the time of the first century.

In Middle Platonism, and particularly in the writings of Philo, the Logos (same word) is described as the reason or the mind of God. For Philo, the Logos, or God’s mind, is the creative principle behind the world.2 It serves as a sort of model for the world on which God creates the world – this sort of rational blueprint for the created physical world. Philo talks about the “kosmos noetos” or the rational or intelligible world that exists in the mind of God and serves as a pattern for the physical world that God then makes. This realm of the intelligible world, the ideas of God, are lodged in God’s Logos, or mind or reason. Philo would sometimes refer to the Logos as the Son of God or as God himself.

These Greek apologists, schooled as they were in Greek philosophy, connected Philo’s doctrine of the Logos with the doctrine of the Logos found in the prologue of the Gospel of John. They held that the Logos, prior to the creation of the world, existed immanently in God’s mind, that is to say, internal to God’s mind. It wasn’t as though the Logos was exterior to God; the Logos was the mind of God. It was his immanent reason or word. Before the creation of the world, this mind or Logos of God proceeded out of God – it went forth from God, and by the Logos then God created the world.

Let me read to you a passage from Athenagoras in his essay A Plea for the Christians. This is chapter 10 of his treatise A Plea for the Christians. This is what Athenagoras says:

The Son of God is the Word of the Father (that is, the “Logos” of the Father) in Ideal Form and energizing power; for in his likeness and through him all things came into existence, which presupposes that the Father and the Son are one. Now since the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son by a powerful unity of Spirit, the Son of God is the mind and reason of the Father . . . He is the first begotten of the Father. The term is used not because he came into existence (for God, who is eternal mind, had in himself his word or reason from the beginning, since he was eternally rational) [so he is called “begotten” not because he came into existence, God has always had his mind, his reason; rather Athenagoras says] but because he came forth to serve as Ideal Form and Energizing Power for everything material. . . . The . . . Holy Spirit . . . we regard as an effluence of God which flows forth from him and returns like a ray of the sun.

So the Holy Spirit is like the sunshine, the rays of the sun, that proceed out of the sun. They are not the same as the sun, but they are something that proceeds out of the sun.

On this Logos Christology, the Logos is begotten by the Father in the sense that the mind of God proceeds forth as a distinct individual, and it is through the Logos then that the world is created.

This Logos doctrine of these early apologists then was taken up into Western theology by the Church Father Irenaeus and then became very influential.


Question: The resultant physical world that had defect – was there an explanation to that? Did they draw on Genesis? I know what the Gnostics said, but what did these guys say?

Answer: That is a good point. They would certainly be in opposition to the Gnostic idea that this procession of the Logos and the creation of the world represented a kind of falling away from perfection or a sort of downward stair step away from perfection to the evil material world. They would attribute evil to creaturely free will, whether on the part of angels or on the part of human persons and not in any way would this represent a departure from perfection.3 The Logos is God himself and therefore fully perfect and the world that he has made is in itself good, though it becomes marred by sin.

Question: How familiar are you with the Aramaic targums?

Answer: Not all that familiar! I know of them, but I haven’t read much in them.

Followup: They have the “memra,” which is also the “word,” and for a lot of God’s actions, like God’s raining sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah, it is the Word of God raining sulfur. And the Word of God did this and the Word of God did that. So it seems perhaps Philo might have drawn from these traditions?

Answer: That is absolutely right! When you look at Philo, he is primarily – I think Philo scholars agree – he is primarily an exegete of the Jewish Scriptures. What he wants to do is to put Jewish thought into Greek categories to make it intelligible to his contemporaries. So the idea of God’s Word in the Old Testament is extremely important for Philo and would probably be a source of his Logos doctrine. But I think that when you get to John and his Logos doctrine, there is more going on there than just the Old Testament Word of the Lord. The very fact that he is using the word “Logos,” I think, connects this with Greek philosophy. You have a confluence here, I think – you are quite right –, of Jewish thinking about the Word of God, the Word of the Lord, and then this Platonic doctrine of the mind of God, the reason of God. These come together in Philo and then, I think, influenced the Greek apologists.

Question: When John uses “Logos” and connects with the Greek philosophy, you’ve well explained what he is connecting with. But what is he not saying? What is different in the Christian doctrine from Platonic?

Answer: Here is one thing that would be different: the idea of the Logos in Stoic philosophy in Greek thought. In Stoicism, the Logos was a kind of immanent principle in the world. It is the rational structure of the world that exists in things. For John, the Logos is clearly not some sort of immanent principle in the world that gives it rational structure. Rather, the Logos is God himself – he transcends the world, and he creates the world, and the world therefore has its rational structure because it is a reflection of the Logos himself. So that would be one way in which it would be distinct. And I think we would say, too, that John’s notion of the incarnation is just utterly unparalleled in Greek thought. Even in Philo – the idea that the Logos could take on flesh and become a human being is just without parallel. So the historization, if you will, of the Logos – that he dwelt among us, as John says – that is extraordinary.

Question: John was a fisherman. Was he schooled in any of this? Or was this common knowledge? Or is it just divine inspiration?

Answer: I don’t think it is just divine inspiration because it does connect with the Middle Platonism of his day. Scholars think that it isn’t demonstrated that John himself knew Philo’s work. Some have suggested that maybe John read Philo. They were contemporaries. But I think, for the most part, scholars would say that while it cannot be proven that John knew Philo’s work, nevertheless John breathes the same atmosphere as Philo in what is written in the prologue, this atmosphere of Middle Platonism – of the Logos as the mind of God. Whether or not a Galilean fisherman could have written this is going to depend on a number of things. First, did a Galilean fisherman write the Gospel of John? I mean, one could say that maybe John is not written by John, the son of Zebedee. There are scholars who think it might have been somebody else. Or maybe John, the son of Zebedee, appropriated this prologue and attached it to his Gospel. Or maybe, as a young man, John grew up and became much more educated and sophisticated. He left fishing and went into theology and church work, and the doctrine that you have in the Gospel of John is a very, very high Christology of Christ as Lord and God. I think that that is the sort of thing where we are just too ignorant to be able to answer the “how” question.4


Let me go ahead then to the next school of thought that we want to talk about, which is Modalism. Modalism followed the Logos Christology of the second century. This represents a third century development, that is to say, during the AD 200s. Modalism was a heresy that was propagated by certain theologians such as Noetus, Sabellius, and Praxeus, and others. Sometimes, Modalism is called Monarchianism because it holds there is one God who is this sort of monarch over all. Or sometimes it is called Sabellianism, named after Sabellius, the heretic who held to it. This view was opposed by Church Fathers like Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, and Novatian. Those were some of the principal protagonists in this debate.

What is Modalism? Modalism is a unitarian view of God. It is a view that there is only one person who is God. The Father is the one who became incarnate. There is no distinct person from the Father. There just is one Father. It was really the Father who became incarnate as Jesus Christ.

Sometimes Modalism holds that the persons that we speak of as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are just different roles played by this one person who is God. For example, I am a father, I am a husband, and I am a son. But I am just one person. Those are just three different relationships that I stand in. Or I might play three different roles – I might be a philosopher, a theologian, and a debater. Those are different roles that I play as one person. But there aren’t three persons. Similarly, there is just one person who is God and he portrays, or plays, these three roles of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So you can see that, on Modalism, the deity of Christ is affirmed. The idea that Christ’s deity is in any way denied is quite false. Modalism had a very high view of Christ. But it just didn’t distinguish the persons of the Trinity. It didn’t deny the deity of the Son and the Spirit, but it just denied that they were distinct persons.

Tertullian, in his essay Against Praxeas (which is an excellent, excellent treatise – if you’d like to read one of these early writings, Against Praxeas by Tertullian is highly recommended!), he says the error of the Modalists is their “thinking that one cannot believe in one only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the very selfsame person.” He says, “while they are all of one, by unity,” that is of substance, he says, “the mystery of the economy... distributes the unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit . . . yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as he is one God.”

Tertullian gives us the vocabulary of the Trinity. He says that the economy of God distributes the unity of God into these three persons, and that is what you have distinct in God – three distinct persons in one substance, in one being.

It will often be said by contemporary theologians that when Tertullian affirmed that God is three persons he did not mean this in the modern psychological sense of “person,” that is to say, a self-conscious individual, a center of self-consciousness. Rather, Tertullian meant “person” just in the sense of three individuals; that is to say, three subjects of predication, three individual things which you could predicate properties of, but not self-conscious persons in the psychological sense. But if you read Tertullian’s work, it seems that that is simply incorrect. When you read Tertullian, he did think of the persons as centers of self-consciousness and therefore persons in a modern psychological sense.5 For example, when he proves the personal distinction between the Father and the Son, Tertullian appeals to Scripture passages that use first and second person pronouns like “I” and “you.” He quotes numerous passages in which the persons of the Trinity are distinguished by the personal pronouns that they use, so that you have the person standing in a sort of “I-thou” relationship. The Father stands to the Son in a relationship of an “I” and a “thou.” So he will quote, for example, Psalm 2:7, which says, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee,” and Tertullian says to the Modalist, “If you want me to believe him to be both the Father and the Son, show me some other passage where it is declared, ‘The Lord said unto himself, I am my own Son, today I have begotten myself.’” And, of course, no such passage exists. He will challenge the Modalist to explain how a being who is absolutely one and singular can use first person pronouns, especially plural pronouns like “Let us make man in our image.” Tertullian clearly thinks of the persons of the Trinity as being able to employ first person and second person pronouns like “I” and “you” in relationship with each other, and therefore they are persons – self-conscious individuals. So he says “in these few quotations the distinction of persons in the Trinity is clearly set forth.”

So it seems to me that Tertullian is not just talking about individuals as subjects of predication, but he is talking about persons in the modern psychological sense of three centers of self-consciousness in God.


2 5:02

3 9:58

4 14:56

5 19:59