Discourse 21 – The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

In the recent past I have frequently had questions put to me about the Trinity - that is to say, the threefold unity of God. The Evangelical Free Church congregation of Tulpengasse in Vienna (“TUGA”): http://tuga.evangelikale.at includes in its formulation of the fundamentals of Christian belief a treatment of this topic, one that is very clear and appealing both in terms of the form and of the content. With the permission of the brothers and sisters who direct that congregation, I would therefore like to reproduce their formulations here without adding any further commentary of my own.

(See also Discourse 107: “The denial of the Trinity, the false Catholic teaching and the true Biblical Trinity“)

(See also Discourse 82: “Is belief in the Trinity necessary for salvation?“)

The Father
We believe in God the Father, who dwells in inaccessible light; he may be recognized to the extent that he has revealed himself in word and in deed. In his mercy and grace he accepts all as his children who turn away from their sin and have confidence in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior and Lord.

The Son
We believe in Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, who was sent by the Father to reconcile us to himself and to redeem us from sin and eternal death. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born from the Virgin Mary. Thus he is true God, and truly man as well, in accordance with Scripture. He led a perfect, holy and sinless life. In keeping with God’s plan of redemption he suffered crucifixion and death for the sake of our sins. He rose from the dead and seated himself at the right hand of God, where he now intercedes for all who believe. He will come again in visible form to judge the living and the dead and to set up his eternal kingdom.

The Holy Spirit
We believe in the Holy Spirit as a Person who is one with the Father and with the Son, and who is sent by them to accomplish the work of redemption in humanity. He leads people out of sin, causing them to be reborn, directs, teaches, reproves, authorizes, comforts, dwells in the faithful, unites them in one body and gives glory to Christ.

B. Catalog of biblical passages on which the above is based

John 1,1-3.14.18
John 4,24
John 14,6-
John 16,8-14
Acts 2,23
Romans 8,1-17.26-27.32-34
2 Corinthians 3,17
2 Corinthians 5,19
Philippians 2,6-11
1 Timothy 3,16
1 Timothy 6,15-16
Hebrews 1,6-8
Jude 25

C. Explanations (by F. Weber)

o  When I read the first point of the fundamental principles of faith above, it strikes me that the expression “Trinity” does not occur. Are we to take it that it is nonetheless a significant term?

This word was not introduced to Christian theology until the 2nd century after Christ: it does not form a part of standard biblical discourse. At the same time, it is not wrong to use it, so long as one is aware what kind of biblical conception is behind it and what is not.

o  How is the Trinity not to be understood?

Well, for example, as a belief in three gods - by denying the unity of the essence of God and introducing distinctions between three different gods...

o  ... Similarly to the way in which some Hindu sects speak of the “Trinity” of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer - while the ancient Babylonians also reverenced a divine triad, or even several of them! But may this not also be an indication that early Christianity absorbed such conceptions in a modified, christianized form?

By no means. There is no such connection to be found, any more than we can show that the mystery religions (those that have to do with a dying god who rises from the dead) had any influence on the proclamation of faith by the early Christians. These apparent formal parallels, when we examine them more closely, cannot blind us to the vast difference in terms of content: they are poles apart. C. S. Lewis discusses this question in depth in his book “Miracles”. These imagined groupings of three gods might also be partially surviving but thoroughly mangled remains of an original revelation of God to humanity.

o  Must we then see the triune God of the Bible as a Trinity of revelation, but not of the person?

Not at all. That would be going to the opposite extreme! In the 3rd century Sabellius taught that Father, Son and Holy Spirit were just three different appellations for one and the same divine Person, just as one and the same human individual can be at the same time an artist, a teacher and a friend, or for that matter a father, a son and a brother. God ("God the Father", the "Son-Father" etc.) in Sabellius’ view had three different phenomenal forms: as the Father he is creator and preserver, as the Son he became flesh, and as the Holy Spirit he completes the work of rebirth and sanctification. But this contradicts Holy Scripture, as we can see if we look at what it has to say about the triune God! Already in the Old Testament Jesus is quite often clearly distinguished from the Father and the Holy Spirit. The formulation that goes by the name of the Athanasian creed, drafted by Christian apologists between the 4th and the 6th century, is one of the clearest corrective statements on this point.

o  In this connection I have a problem that causes me some difficulty. I can admit that there are many statements in the Bible from which we can recognize the divinity of Jesus as plainly revealed - whether in direct form, in that Jesus is addressed as Lord and God, or indirect, in that he is worshiped and prayed to and has divine properties attributed to him, like eternity or power of forgiveness of sins. On the other hand, there are also verses, like Mark 13,32 , 6,6 or 11,13, which appear to indicate the opposite, namely that he is subject to limitation. How can I make sense of this?

Well, we just have to recognize the fact that in the days of his self-abasement Jesus surrendered the independent exercise of his divine properties, and gave himself over to a voluntary limitation and dependence on the Father. So in the passages referred to above, for instance, the Father did not grant the Son the power to exercise his divine omniscience. Undoubtedly the Lord Jesus now knows the date of the Second Coming - now that he has returned to the heavenly world! Moreover, there only a very few such passages, and significantly they occur above all in the Gospel of Mark - in the Gospel, that is, in which Jesus is specially presented as the servant, the obedient slave who humbles himself (c.f. 10,45).

o  You mentioned Jesus as appearing in the Old Testament. In what ways do we find an expression of his divinity there as well?

Above all in the theophanies, the Old Testament appearances of God. On the one hand Holy Scripture tells us that no one has ever seen God (John 1,18), but on the other we must see these appearances, of which we are told that they are divine appearances, as appearances of the Son. This becomes particularly clear in the expression that occurs frequently in the Old Testament, “the angel of the Lord” (the angel, not an angel). The latter is identified with the Lord (Yahweh), and yet at the same time distinguished from him, e.g. in Judges 13.

Another interesting indication is that in some passages God uses the pronouns with which he refers to himself in the plural rather than the singular, and even the term Elohim (=God) is a plural noun.

o  Some sects have criticized Christians at times on the grounds that they make it easy for themselves by saying that we here have to do with a mystery that in the last resort cannot be explained - so making the Trinity finally inexplicable in logical terms.

First of all we must see that the nature of God as consisting of three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is not a product of natural human understanding, but rather results from God’s revelation of himself. At the same time, the Bible does not give us any patent dogmatic formulae, such as would be obvious to every superficial or even prejudiced reader - we rather find a kind of demonstration on the basis of indices, built up on the basis of countless and sometimes even obscure references. To find these out calls for certain preconditions to be met, and it is going to cost us something (1Cor 2,10-16; Acts 17,11).

God has not given us any guarantee that he would tell us everything. But we should hold onto what he actually has revealed to us of himself. And that is the fact that he is one God, and the fact that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are at the same time three different and distinct divine Persons. What he does not reveal to us indeed remains a mystery (Deut 29,28-29), and is not an occasion for speculation - speculation, in our case, as to how this can be rationally grasped.

I must honestly say to you as well, if we are just concerned with understanding here, that it seems to me completely illogical that God, of whom we are told not just that he loves, but that he actually is love, should have a nature consisting of one sole person - seeing that New Testament love, agape, calls for an object, otherwise it cannot be agape, but becomes self-love instead.

Love, though, existed before anything was created! - love that is only possible in a dialog with a conscious Thou. For all eternity love has been flowing and continues to flow between the Persons of the Trinity.

It is just as hard to imagine personality without community. The Persons of the Godhead stand in a relationship of perfect harmony to one another, in complete community.

o  Now you have shown how there is great practical value in the biblical doctrine of the three Persons in one God. The fact that only this doctrine makes it possible for us to imagine eternal love in a credible way does actually demonstrate that we are not concerned here just with an academic question. Does this doctrine have any further importance for salvation?

Oh yes, indeed. Even decisive importance for salvation!

With reference to the revelation of God: only God can reveal God. Only through the fact that God the Father sent God the Son could the fullness of God really be revealed.

And with reference to the atonement for sin: this could only be accomplished through God the Son’s becoming man. No creature, but only an infinite, an eternal being was able to do away with the infinite and eternal separation between God and humanity. If a person does not believe in Jesus as the infinite and eternal Son of God, he remains cut off from the certainty of redemption.

Let us conclude by quoting a remark by Boettner:

“If there were no Trinity, it would not be possible for God to become man, there could be no objective restitution and so no salvation; because in that case there would have been no one capable of functioning as a perfect Mediator between God and humanity.”

See also Discourse 26: “The Trinity: an unbiblical conceptual model?” with  the following interpretation:

The Biblical Trinity

There is just the one and only God in his three authorities: God the Father as the legislative authority, comparable with the legislature in human society; the Holy Spirit as the authority of execution, similar to the political executive arm; and the Son of God as the judicial authority, like the court of justice. God has given human beings the law and the commandments (Ex 24:12), the Holy Spirit registers the extent to which people observe them, but only intervenes when human actions might otherwise contravene God’s plan (2Thess 2:7), and the Son of God will judge every single human being (Jn 5:22) at the Last Judgment.

In this age of quantum entanglement – with its “spooky action at a distance”, as Einstein termed it – the independent spiritual personality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and their simultaneous presence (Jn 14:10-11) in the spirit of the one God (Jn 4:24), can only be a problem for people living today if they are completely uninformed. In addition, the Bible gives us numerous examples of manifestations of spirit in the spirit of human beings (Mk 1:23-25; 5:6-8; Lk 3:24; but also Jn 14:23; 17:26!).

The attempt to explain relations of this nature on the basis of the ancient wisdom of the Fathers of the Church (Council of Nicea etc.) was already erroneous in view of their assertion that the earth is the center of the universe (The Creation.) and might be regarded today as comparable to the attempt to explain quantum mechanics by the laws of classical physics.

The actual reason why the Unitarians reject the Trinity (There is no salvation apart from the Trinity / C H. Spurgeon), is, first of all, the fact that they refuse to accept the divinity of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ as God (Ps 45:7-8; Jn 20:28; Phil 2:5-6; 2Pet 1:1; 1Jn 5:20) and even his pre-existence (Gen 1:26; 11:7) not to mention his post-existence with God (Jn 14:23; 17:26!), would call in question their entire false structure of faith with its "human Jesus" as a "faith fighter", "pal" or "model of suffering" and reduce it to absurdity.

But on the other hand the doctrine of the three in one – the Trinity – was interpreted for centuries by the Catholic church according to the whim and "feelings" of the old Church Fathers (Council of Nicea etc.) and not in accordance with the Bible’s statements. As a result it was easy for the representatives of "faith in the one God" – the Unitarians – to question this in the light of the Bible.

But unfortunately the opportunity was missed of studying the Bible in depth and determining what it actually says about the essence of God, his Son and the Holy Spirit – instead, people just made use of superficial arguments to rebut this equally incorrect Trinitarian dogma of the Catholic church.