Doctrine of the Trinity (part 7)

August 07, 2011     Time: 00:38:51

We have been talking in our lesson about the doctrine of the Trinity, and we came last time to the Council of Nicaea, which was convened in the year AD 325 to settle the controversy that had arisen over the doctrine propagated by an Alexandrian presbyter named Arius, who held that Christ is not the same essence, or substance, as the Father. Christ was in fact the first of God’s created works; God is a single person (the Father), and the Son is a product whom the Father has made. This view was condemned at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, and the Nicene Creed was promulgated.

Let’s, for sake of review, read again the Nicene Creed. The Creed states:

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 Spirit.

Then these anathemas, or condemnations, are appended to the Creed:

But for those who say ‘there was when he was not’ and ‘before being born he was not’ and that ‘he came into existence out of nothing’ or who assert ‘the Son of God is from a different hypostasis or substance, or is created, or is subject to alteration or change’ – these the Catholic Church anathematizes.

We pointed out that this Creed has several notable features in it that deserve comment.

First of all, it says that the Son is of the same substance with the Father. That is to say, the Son is fully and unequivocally divine. This is evidenced also in the fact that the Father is said to be the Maker of all things and Jesus Christ is said, in the second article of the Creed, to be begotten, not made. So if God the Father is the Maker of all things, and Christ is not made, then he must be divine. He is not one of the things the Father has made; instead he is begotten from the Father. We saw that this is the vestige of the old Logos Christology of the early Greek apologists, who thought of the Son as somehow immanent, or in, the mind of the Father and who then proceeded out of the Father – came forth from the Father. Similarly, here in the Creed, it says that the Son of God is begotten from the Father and therefore of the same nature as the Father. Just as kittens are begotten by cats, dogs by dogs, cows by cows, so the Son, being begotten by the Father, shares the same nature as the Father. He is not something that was made; he is someone who is begotten from eternity without beginning.

Then we closed last time by noting that the Creed says that anyone who says that the Son is a different hypostasis, or ousia, from the Father is anathematized. This caused a great deal of controversy in the early church and a great deal of confusion. Why? The Roman empire at that time was divided linguistically into the West and the East.1 In the West, centered in Rome, the theologians spoke Latin. In the East, and in Alexandria, they spoke Greek. As a result, these words had different meanings for the Latin and the Greek church fathers.

Although the Nicene Creed is written in Greek – it is promulgated in Greek – the meaning of the word here is the Latin understanding, ironically. What does that mean? In Latin, the word for “substance” is substantia. It is simply the etymological equivalent of hypostasis. In Greek, hypo means “under” (as in a “hypodermic needle” or “hypothermia”) – it means when something goes low or goes under. Stasis, as you can imagine, is related to the word “to stand.” So hypostasis is something that stands under the properties that it has. It basically is a property bearer. A hypostasis is an individual thing that bears properties – it is the thing that stands under its properties. It bears the properties it has. In Latin, “sub” means “under” (like “submarine”). And stantia is the same root for “to stand.” So substantia means “to stand under something.” The substance is the thing that exists and bears the properties. It has the properties. So, in Latin, hypostasis and substantia are really the same thing – they are just the Greek word and the Latin word for the idea of an individual property bearer, an individual thing. That is why, in the Creed, it says anybody who says that the Son of God is a different hypostasis, or substance (and that word in the Greek is ousia), from the Father is condemned. He is a heretic.

The trouble is that, for Eastern theologians who spoke Greek, hypostasis and ousia were not synonyms. Their word for “substance” was ousia. That is what substance is in Greek – ousia. Hypostasis, for the Greek theologian, wasn’t the same thing as a substance. Therefore, it was very disquieting and confusing for them to read in the Creed that if you say that the Son of God is a different hypostasis or substance you are condemned. This was very confusing.

Gregory of Nyssa was one of the prominent Greek fathers who wrote on this subject. In his 38th epistle, he explains the Greek understanding of what a hypostasis is. He says “a hypostasis is what subsists and is especially and peculiarly indicated by a name.” For example, “Paul.” So a hypostasis would be an individual like Paul, or John, or Peter. Those would be individuals that could be named. That would be a hypostasis. But he says, “ousia refers to the universal nature common to things of a certain type.” For example, man. So, according to Gregory, ousia refers to the essence, or the nature, that is shared by all men, for example. Peter, John, and Paul would be different hypostases2, different individual men, but they would all have the same ousia, they would all have the same essence, namely, humanity. So everyone in this room has the same essence, a human nature. You have humanity as your nature. But that doesn’t mean everybody in the room is the same hypostasis. Rather, there are individual men and women here who have this universal human nature.3

For the Greek fathers, the Father and the Son are clearly distinct hypostases – they are different individuals. They are not the same. How do you know that? Because they have different properties. For example, only the Son has the property of being begotten. The Father is unbegotten. The Son is begotten. So they are clearly not the same individual. They have different properties. The Son has the property – bears the property – of being begotten; the Father bears the property of being unbegotten. Therefore, these are two hypostases even though they have the same essence, or the same substance.

Therefore, when the Nicene Creed denies that the Father and the Son are different hypostases – when it says the Father and the Son are the same hypostasis or ousia – that sounded like modalism to the Greek church fathers. That would be modalism – it would be to say that there is only one individual who is God and who bears all these properties, and it just appears to us as though they are distinct as the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. But really there is only one individual there. So the Greek church fathers were greatly confused and disturbed by this condemnation appended to the Nicene Creed that says anyone who asserts that “the Son of God is from a different hypostasis or substance” is anathematized. The Greek fathers wanted to say, “Yes, they are the same substance, but they are not the same hypostasis; they are different.” I think you can see the confusion that arose because of the language differences between the Latin and the Greek speakers.

After decades of intense debate, this was finally cleared up at the Council of Alexandria in the year 362. What the Council of Alexandria did was adopt the Greek reading that the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit have the same ousia, but there are three hypostases in the Trinity. Hypostasis became equated with the idea of a person or an individual. So the classic doctrine of the Trinity is that there is one substance, one essence, one nature, which is God, but there are three hypostases, three persons, three individuals who are the same being and have the same essence.


Question: In terms of talking about Christ being different from God – Christ came to Earth in a human body, but did Christ change from an initial state (as a spirit, like the Father or Holy Spirit) when he came to Earth? Or did Christ already have some sort of preincarnate body?

Answer: This will be a question that we will take up when we get to the Doctrine of Christ. Here we are still on the Doctrine of God. We will discuss this more in detail later on. But the classic Christian understanding of the incarnation is that the second person of the Trinity – the Logos or the Son – did not change in any way in becoming incarnate because the incarnation is not a matter of subtracting something from the divine nature; it is a matter of adding to it an additional nature which it did not have before, namely a human nature.

Followup: Because Christ’s spirit essentially remains unchanged.

Answer: That is right. So what happens in the incarnation is not a matter of subtraction but of addition. That is the way to think about it from an orthodox perspective. So it is completely wrongheaded when people think about the Son, the second person of the Trinity, and wonder what attributes would he have to give up in order to turn himself into a human being.4 That is really a very pagan idea, akin to Zeus turning himself into a bull or turning himself into a swan. The Christian doctrine of the incarnation is not that Christ turned himself into a man. It is rather that his person, which already had a divine nature, now takes on, in addition to that divine nature, another nature – a new nature, a human nature – which he did not possess prior to the virginal conception in the womb of Mary. We will talk about that in more detail later on.

Question: Last week you talked about the four parties represented at the Council of Nicaea. At the end of the Council, it resulted in the Athanasians prevailing, and out of that came the Nicene Creed. Did they leave the Council of Nicaea essentially united? In other words, regarding the groups who didn’t initially agree with the Athanasians and were debating them – by the time they left did they change their views and all leave believing the same thing?

Answer: I am not absolutely certain about how every party who was at the Council eventually wound up. I think that some of the Arians remained unrepentant. Certainly, that vast majority of the bishops – that large center party that was so confused – went over and agreed with Athanasius. I think that the reason was that the church had always affirmed the deity of Christ, and, therefore, they saw that the error of Arius was turning Christ into a work, into a creature, and that simply couldn’t be tolerated.

Followup: So there might have been a few factions, but for the most part they left united?

Answer: Yes, that is right, it was united in this. This was the verdict of the Council, and then the Creed came out of it.

Question: To clarify what you were discussing earlier, could you talk about kenosis?

Answer: You are talking here about a theory of the incarnation called kenosis. Again, we will talk about this more when we get to the Doctrine of Christ later on. This was a 19th century (so very, very recent in terms of church history) development of an attempt to understand the incarnation in non-orthodox terms. Kenosis takes its word, or its terminology, from Philippians 2 where Paul says that Christ did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but he emptied himself.5 Kenosis is the word for “emptying.” These theologians began to wonder, “Wherein did this emptying consist? What did Christ empty himself of in order to take on human flesh?” They began to do exactly what I suggested was wrongheaded – they began to speculate, what attributes of divinity did Christ give up in order to turn himself into a human being? He gave up omnipotence; he gave up timelessness; he gave up omnipresence. All of these attributes were thought to not be really essential to God because Christ gave them up; and if these were essential attributes of God, then Christ isn’t divine. It denies the deity of Christ. So what they had to say is that these are just contingent properties of God. God isn’t essentially timeless, omnipotent, omnipresent, and so forth. What was really essential to God were the moral properties of God, like his being loving and holy, and Christ didn’t empty himself of those, he kept those. So the whole impulse of Kenotic Christology was based on this question, how do we understand what Christ had to give up in order to become a man? As I said earlier, I think that this is just wrongheaded. He didn’t give up anything on the orthodox view; rather what he did was he added additional attributes to his person that are constitutive of a human nature. Think again, to borrow that illustration from the movie Avatar, of Jake Sully who didn’t give up any of his human properties in order to become a Navi. He took on an additional nature on the planet that was his Navi nature, but he remained a human being in the spaceship and didn’t give up any of his human attributes. He became one person with two natures. That is closer to the orthodox doctrine than Kenotic Christology, which, though very popular especially in Christmas cards and popular piety around Christmas time, is quite unorthodox. We will talk about that much more later on.6

Question: At Nicaea, there were both Greek and Latin speaking people and they agreed together when they left Nicaea. Is the “or” in the Greek to indicate not “and” – that it was supposed to be implying the same thing, and that’s why they agreed when they left?

Answer: That is a good question, and I don’t know what was in their minds about that. But they are intended to be synonyms – hypostasis or ousia – and I think they capitulated to this but with a great deal of discomfort. Then afterwards there came out all of this rumbling and grumbling about this that then finally got resolved in the Council of Alexandria.

I want to go back to the question that was raised earlier that I forgot to address. I think you can see, from our survey so far, what a gross misrepresentation of church history it is to say that three hundred years after Christ the church assembled and voted to make Jesus Christ divine. That is just completely wrong. Right from the beginning – the Logos Christology of the Greek apologists, the modalists like Praxeus and Sabellius – they all thought that Christ was God. It wasn’t until Arius arose, at the beginning of the 300s, that this threat of a non-divine Christ began to trouble the church. Nicaea simply ratified what the church had always believed from the beginning, that Christ was fully divine, and, therefore, Arius and his followers were mistaken. But it is just a complete misunderstanding of church history to think that up until this point no one had believed Christ to be divine, and then somehow at the Council of Nicaea they magically turned Christ into God and voted to make him God. That isn’t an accurate understanding of church history.

Question: At Nicaea, did the Arians or others appeal to the Gnostic gospels or challenge the canon to support their case?

Answer: Not that I know of! Even the heretics always appealed to the canonical books of the New Testament. I am not aware of any Arian that attempted to appeal to these extra canonical writings.

Question: I had heard when Dan Brown’s book was popular that the vote was 316-2 where in his book it says this was by a close margin when they voted at Nicaea.

Answer: It was overwhelming. As I say, there were only about six Arian bishops even in attendance of the thing. So Arianism was never going to win. The question was just this terminological problem of how do you say that the Father and the Son are both God but nevertheless they are not the same person? That was the difficulty. That finally got hammered out by making a distinction between hypostasis and ousia. That was really the nub of the issue. It wasn’t the divinity of Christ; it was, how do you affirm the divinity of Christ and yet also affirm his distinctness from the Father? That was the real theological nut to be cracked.

Question: Can you break apart the word hypostasis in Greek?

Answer: hypo means “under.” The example I gave was “hypodermic” where a needle goes under the skin. stasis means “standing.” It looks like the word “stand.” So hypostasis is something that stands under its properties and bears its properties.

Followup: (inaudible)

Answer: It is equal in Latin, isn’t it? sub is “under” and stantia is “stand.” That was the confusion. The fathers who wrote the Creed were using these etymologically as synonyms, which they are etymologically. You break the word apart and they are perfectly synonymous. But the trouble is, for the Greeks, that is not the way they understood it.7 They didn’t understand these things to be synonymous. They could distinguish between a substance, which they translated not as hypostasis but as ousia, and therefore said “We want to affirm that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three hypostases just as John, Paul, and Peter are three hypostases, but they are all the same substance.”

Coherence of the Doctrine

That completes the historical survey that I wanted to do with you. This brings us to the apologetic problem of the Trinity. Is this a logically comprehensible and defensible doctrine that there are three persons who are God?

The Problem

At one level, the problem seems to be that the doctrine of the Trinity seems to be logically incoherent. Because what the doctrine affirms is that the Father is God and the Son is God but the Father is not the Son:

Father = God
Son = God
Father ≠ Son

That violates the transitivity of identity, to put it in fancy terms. If the Father is God and God is the Son, then the Father is the Son, and yet the doctrine of the Trinity says the Father is not the Son. Similarly, for the Holy Spirit. There seems to be a logical incoherence in the doctrine of the Trinity in saying that the Father is God, the Son is God, and yet the Father and the Son are not the same. How do you make sense of that?

A Proposed Solution

What I think we want to say as Christians, or at least what we can say as Christians, is that the Trinity is God. So if we want to make an identity statement, “who or what is God”, it is the Trinity. The Trinity is God. What that means is that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not divine in virtue of being instances, or examples, of the divine nature. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not divine because they are examples, or instances, of the divine nature. Just to make the terminology clear: Ben is an instance of the human nature, Jim is an instance, or an example, of the human nature, and Bob is an instance, or an example, of the human nature. The reason they are human is because they instantiate the human nature. What I want to suggest here is that if the Trinity is God, then the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are not divine in virtue of instantiating the divine nature. This can be very clearly seen in the fact that, if the Trinity is God, then it is essential to the nature of God to be three persons. But the Father is not three persons. The Son is not three persons. So they are not instances of the divine nature. The Trinity is the instance of the divine nature. That is why the Trinity is not a fourth God in addition to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There is only one God, and that God is the Trinity.

It is the Trinity which is an instance, or an example, of the divine nature. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not instances of the divine nature, and that is why they are not three Gods. If they were instances of the divine nature, then there would be three Gods, just as Jim, Ben, and Bob are three men, each being an instance of the nature of humanity. So the Trinity is the sole instance of the divine nature, and that is why there is only one God, God who is the Trinity.

While a statement like “The Trinity is God” is an identity statement, statements like “The Father is God” or “The Son is God” should not be construed as identity statements. This is an identity statement: “The Trinity is God” – God and the Trinity are the same thing. These are not identity statements: “The Father is God,” “The Son is God.” Rather, these are predicates.8 For example, they could ascribe an office or a title to a person. For example, when I say “Bryant Wright is pastor” I do not mean that he is identical to being a pastor, or “the” pastor, because there are other pastors as well. But I am saying that is an office or a title that he holds. Or it will be a way of ascribing a property to a person. It would be, for example, to say as much as “The Father is divine.” You are not making an identity statement, you are predicating a property of the Father, namely, the Father is divine. It would be as if I were to say of the king, “Belshazzar is regal.” By ascribing the property to him of being regal, I am saying that Belshazzar is the king. But I am not making an identity statement there. I am saying he holds the office of being a king or he is regal, but I am not making an identity statement.

Properly speaking, the true identity statement is “The Trinity is God,” and statements like “The Father is God” or “The Son is God” are not identity statements; they are predicative statements. They predicate properties of the Father and the Son, namely, the property of being divine.


Question: If you are arguing this with someone, what if they said, “Is God, taken alone, less capable, less powerful, less endowed than God as a member of the Trinity?” In other words, when you separate them out, to say they are less than?

Answer: All right, let’s think about this question. Is God (I think he said), taken alone, less than God as a member of the Trinity? God is not a member of the Trinity. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are members of the Trinity. God is the Trinity. See, it is an identity statement – God is the Trinity, the Trinity is God; so God is not a member of the Trinity. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not Gods with an “s,” they are not instances of the divine nature. There is only one God, and that is the Trinity. So there isn’t such a thing as God as a member of the Trinity.

Question: We hear a lot from pastors and other individuals, “We pray this in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” Is that improper?

Answer: No, I don’t think that is improper. Indeed, I don’t think it is improper to say things like “The Father is God.” I am just saying that philosophically we need to understand how these words are being used. I am not against the expressions. We can use these linguistic expressions, but we need to understand that when we make them, we are not making an identity statement that the Father is identical to God. So when we say “God the Son,” what we mean is the second person of the Trinity, the divine Logos, the divine, second person of the Trinity. When we say “God the Father,” we are talking about the first member of the Trinity, the divine Father.

Question: You never hear “God the Trinity.” This is the first time I ever heard, “in the name of God, the Trinity.” I hear “God the Son,” “God the Father,” and “God the Holy Spirit,” but I have never heard of “in the name of God the Trinity.”

Answer: Yeah, you know there was a hymn that we sang the other day in church. I can’t bring it exactly to mind, but it speaks in this way. It says in the last verse something about “God the Holy Trinity” and it refers to God as the Holy Trinity.9 So this is not unknown or unusual in Christian expression; but I grant you that it is true that we don’t often talk this way.

Question: Would it be appropriate to say that God is the essence of the Trinity and the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit is the existence?10

Answer: OK, let’s be careful here--because we are trying to be careful. I don’t think we want to say that God is the essence of the Trinity because an essence in this case would be a bunch of properties, and God isn’t a bunch of properties. The essence of the Trinity would be things like omnipotence, omniscience, moral perfection, holiness, timelessness, and necessity. Those would be things that would make up the essence of God. I just want to say that these are the same being. If you want to ask “What being is God?,” I am suggesting it is the Trinity. That is God.

Question: The way the explanation has come out, it sounds almost like, to give a different example, you have a council of three people. The council is the whole and it is not without the three people. But that the three people in that case are distinct and don’t necessarily have the same nature, whereas we know that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while they have some different things that they do, have the same nature and are of the same nature.

Answer: I think that what you are on to here is you are pushing me to explain, “How are you going to distinguish your view from tri-theism?” Is God just a sort of council of three divine beings, sort of like the Greek pantheon of gods? Is that what God is? I am going to have to develop this some more in order to try to show why we are not talking here about tri-theism but one being.

Followup: That is what it sounds like.

Answer: Well, don’t think that! [laughter] I think it is clear that we don’t want to say that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each instances of the divine nature because surely it is essential to the divine nature to be three – to be three in one, to be a trinity. Yet the Father isn’t a trinity, and the Son isn’t a trinity. Plus the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have different properties on at least the orthodox view. We have got to distinguish them as being three persons, and the challenge will be, how do we unite them as one being and not just some sort of council? I share that concern, and we will talk about that as I develop this model.

Comment: The hymn is “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and the tune name is “Nicaea.”

Answer: Really? How does the last verse go in “Holy, Holy, Holy”?

Followup: It goes:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All Thy works shall praise Thy Name, in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, holy, holy; merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

Answer: There you go, that is what I was thinking of! And the tune is “Nicaea” interestingly enough! Very nice!

What we will do next time is ask ourselves, why don’t we have three gods in the sense of three divine beings who just form a sort of council, as was said here? What makes them one? That will be the challenge that we will take up next time.


1 5:04

2hypostases” is the plural form of “hypostasis

3 9:57

4 15:00

5 This is referring to Philippians 2:5-8 (NASB) which says, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

6 20:04

7 25:07

8 30:04

9 See further down in this Q&A session for a comment given by another person that reminds Dr. Craig of what the hymn name is (“Holy, Holy, Holy”) and its lyrics. To further illustrate the point that the term “God, the Trinity” has been used in prior centuries, see also the hymn titled, “All Men Living Are But Mortal” whose lyrics were composed in the 17th century by Johann G. Albinus. The lyrics say, in part:

“Yea, with joy I leave earth’s sadness
For the home of heav’nly gladness,
Where I shall forever see
God, the Holy Trinity.”

10 35:00