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#579 Trinitarian Procession and Unitarianism

May 20, 2018
Q

Hi Dr. Craig! Thanks for all the good work you do to articulate the essentials of the Christian faith. I have found them tremendously beneficial, However, I have a problem with a central tenet of orthodox christianity: the doctrine of the Trinity. I was raised a Jehovah's Witness and, as you would know, JWs are antitrinitarian. While I have come to see how flawed many of their doctrines are, and to understand how their criticisms of Orthodox Trinitarianism falls short (many thanks to your work), I still think that they are right about the unipersonality of God. Indeed, what I have garnered from personal research is that a lot of the early church fathers believed in a unipersonal God. Their doctrine of a triunity between three divine persons was subordinationist. As a matter of fact, the Nicene Creed was itself in many ways subordinationist. You seem to share this view yourself. But perhaps more intriguingly I came to find that even the Nicene Creed affirms the unipersonality of God. My current views about Orthodox Trinitarianism seem to overlap very closely with those of British Philosopher, Samuel Clarke. I believe the One God of Christianity just is the Father. He is the fountainhead of divinity from which the Son and Holy Spirit derive. Since the doctrine of the Trinity is so important to being accepted as a Christian, would you say that my current views represent Orthodox Trinitarianism correctly? And can I be accepted into the fold of 'Mere Christianity' if I hold these views?

Adejimi

Nigeria

Dr. craig’s response


A

I think you’ve misunderstood the Church Fathers, Adejimi. You equate the belief that the Son and the Spirit proceed from the Father with the belief in unitarianism. That’s just a mistake. The Church Fathers did affirm the first belief. They saw the Father as the fount of the other two persons of the Trinity. In particular, they regard the Son as begotten by the Father, a belief that came to be enshrined in the Nicene Creed. But the force of the word ”begotten,” as opposed to “created,” is that the Father and the Son share the same nature, just as cats beget kittens and dogs beget puppies. Thus, the Son and the Spirit share the divine nature and so are God. That’s why the Creed says the Son is “very God of very God.”

So when you say that “the Father. . . is the fountainhead of divinity from which the Son and Holy Spirit derive,” that just is orthodox Trinitarian doctrine (unless you think that the Son and Spirit are impersonal emanations, which obviously the Church Fathers did not)!

Now whether the doctrine of the procession of the Son and Spirt from the Father implies an objectionable subordinationism is a distinct question.  The Fathers did not think so. The three persons are equally divine, sharing the same essence. Any subordination of one person to another involves, not the ontological Trinity, but only the economic Trinity, that is, the respective roles the persons play in the plan of salvation.  

Of course, in one sense all this is academic. For the relevant question for Christian belief is not what the Church Fathers taught but what the New Testament teaches. I think that the New Testament teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons and that each is God, and, moreover, that there is one God. Therefore we should be Trinitarians, whatever we think about the procession of one person from another.

- William Lane Craig