A Trinity in Name Alone is Not Enough

by Kevin Hester

In October of this year, Christianity Today reported the findings of a recent LifeWay Research poll commissioned by Ligonier Ministries. The poll was targeted at the evangelical community and surveyed a number of key theological topics and concepts including God, the person and work of Christ, the Holy Spirit, Scripture, and salvation. While these topics would seem to be basic Sunday School fodder, the results of the survey were disturbing. In most cases, 25-50% of Evangelicals reported a lack of awareness or assurance regarding the teaching of the Church on basic dogma.

One seeming bright spot was that 96% of self-reported Evangelicals believed in the Trinity. However, subsequent questions revealed that this affirmation lacked significant comprehension. For example, 31% of respondants said that God the Father was more divine than Jesus, and 58% believe that the Holy Spirit is a force rather than a personal being.

This survey reveals that our churches, while confessing dogma, are failing to adequately teach, define, and defend the basic beliefs of the Church. Evangelical ignorance of basic Trinitarian theology is especially troubling given the evangelistic efforts of anti-Trinitarian sects like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and various oneness Pentecostal groups. When these efforts are coupled with societal forces pushing the Church toward inclusivism, it is not difficult to imagine a new Socinianism arising.

In order to defend the faith, our churches must remain committed to theological catechesis in the home, in our Sunday Schools, and from our pulpits. Yet many forces press against such teaching. Emphases on practical Christian living and evangelism are needed, but not at the expense of doctrine. An identification of catechesis with “liturgical” or “liberal” faith communities pushes many Evangelical congregations toward a softer social focus. In downplaying doctrinal distinctions, the non-denominational movement has left many Evangelical churches devoid of any theological teaching at all. When these forces are coupled with a lack of education among the clergy and the arguments of the cults, we leave our congregants open to heresy and fail to heed the words of Paul (Ephesians 4:14) and Peter (2 Peter 3:17).

There are biblical, historical, and theological reasons for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. While the word “trinity” is not found in Scripture, the concept certainly is. God is clearly presented as one God (Deuteronomy 6:4, Isaiah 44:6, Romans 3:30). At the same time the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit are all clearly defined in Scripture as personal beings who do the work of God and receive the worship that is due only to God. The union of their purpose and will as well as their economic distinction is seen in Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:13-17), the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), and in the great benedictions of the Church (2 Corinthians 13:14).

Historically, the Church has affirmed its Trinitarian belief in consistently rejecting teaching that sought to conflate the persons of the Godhead (Monarchianism) and beliefs which denied the full divinity of Christ (Adoptionism and Arianism) or the personality and divinity of the Holy Spirit (Pneumatomachianism). The Church established this belief in the foundational confessions of the Church at Nicea (A.D. 325) and Constantinople (A.D. 381) affirming that the one God exists eternally as three distinct (but not separate) personal ways of existing.

Theologically then, the Church teaches that God is one in number, purpose, and will, but three in relation to dispensation or work. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are united in one God all possessing the attributes of God in full measure. Because God cannot change this Trinitarian, existence is an eternal aspect of God’s ontological existence.

So what? Is this theological jargon really all that important? What is really at stake other than some old arcane creeds and musty hymns? The implications of the doctrine of the Trinity likely go farther than you would ever imagine. As we will see below, without the Trinity we have no way of understanding who or what God is. Without the Trinity, there is no Gospel and no pattern for governance in the world. Without the Trinity, there is no reason to love and no model for what that love looks like.

Personal, Relational God

Personal beings are beings that are capable of relating to others. If God does not exist as a Trinity, then there is no ontological basis for the relational attributes of God. To paraphrase Augustine in de Trinitate, what does it mean for God to be love (1 John 4:8) if there is no object of that love? God’s love means that God is a relational God who is infinitely loving. This love has always been part of God’s nature. Without the Trinity, God could be eternally existent, having omnipotence, and immutability, but these characteristics would be self-contained without reference to anything outside God’s self. There would be no underlying reality for its expression and therefore no creation, no redemption, no revelation.

Revelation

The Trinity serves as the basis for our understanding of God’s personality and as a consequence, God’s revelation. We are personal beings and therefore relate personally. Revelation cannot be separated from personhood. To deny the Trinity undercuts any basis for communication between God and humanity. It also brings Scripture into question. We have noted the way that Scripture speaks of both the unity and three-personal nature of God, but Scripture also bases God’s revelation in this fact as well. Jesus is the Word of God with all that entails (John 1). Jesus says when we see Him we have seen the Father (John 14:9). Hebrews testifies that Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the representation of His nature (Hebrews 1:3). The reality, and by extension the accuracy of the revelation found in the incarnation, is tied to the Trinity.

Gospel

The Father’s sending of the Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit are revelatory, but they are also redemptive. The economy of God’s work in the world involves all members of the Trinity and they work together in creation, revelation, and redemption. The Father accomplishes redemption by sending the Son and accepting His sacrifice for sin. The Spirit applies the benefits of Christ’s death to the believer and works to draw the world back to the Father through the Son. The Gospel itself is therefore meaningless without reference to the Trinity. As Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out an ecumenism that denies Christ’s central role in salvation and its Trinitarian framework is devoid of the power of redemption (Trinitarian Doctrine for Todays Mission, passim).

Human Society

The loss of a rigorous doctrine of the Trinity not only impacts the relationship between humanity and God. The Trinity also serves as the basis for all human relationships in all areas of human society. Inasmuch as humans are created in the image and according to the likeness of God, we should expect to find traces of the Trinity in human relationships. The Trinity serves as the foundation for the equality of humankind (as all members of the Trinity are equally God) but also the order of society. There is a hierarchy of roles in the economy of God’s work in the world, but this is a functional subordination rather than an ontological division. While the Father sends the Son and the Spirit testifies to the Son, each member of the Trinity relates to one another in love and order. The obedience and order demonstrated in the economy of God establish important principles of human subordination as well without denying equality. Each member of the Trinity works in love to glorify the other members rather than themselves.

Love

Naturalism teaches that people are valuable only as they are capable of exercising their will to power; they are simply commodities. Christianity teaches us that humans are intrinsically valuable by nature and that our response to one another must be guided by love. This is indeed part of the greatest commandment (Mark 12:29-31). This commandment is based in God’s nature and is exemplified for us in the members of the Trinity. The interpersonal relationship of the Trinity teaches us how to love. The love for others we are commanded to have is a selfless love that glories in another’s creation in the image of God, recognizes their value, and willingly submits to God’s order. The doctrine of the Trinity helps remind us that love is an action rather than an emotion. As John has said, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).

Conclusion

Part of loving then, is being willing to tell the truth. The Trinity is more than a word. It is more than a quaint, old-fashioned notion or a dusty dinosaur of a dogma. It lies at the very foundation of Christianity and cannot be removed without disrupting the entire edifice of the Church. Rather than a confusing distraction to the Gospel, preaching and teaching on the Trinity (and other foundational Christian dogmas) is the Gospel. Such preaching might just be the most loving thing we could do.

2 thoughts on “A Trinity in Name Alone is Not Enough”

  1. The Son is only obedient to the Father in his incarnation. In eternity He is equal in will and in every respect. There can be no obedience in eternity as that would imply the possibility of disobedience; it would imply two wills rather than one, making the eternal Son less than the Father. The Son eternally proceeds from the Father, one in essence and will. There was no decision made by the Father to send the Son, but the Father,Son and Holy Spirit , the one God determined on the incarnation. (Human Society) What do you mean by ‘principle of subordination in human society’? Are you implying the subordination of women to men? Kevin Giles deals with these issues very well.

    1. Dear Grainne:

      Thank you for your comment. Since this was on an older post, I apologize for not having seen it sooner. I think what is causing confusion here is the distinction between the ontological trinity and the functional trinity. Ontologically, God is one as is indicated by the Council of Nicea’s use of the term “homoousios” or consubstantial. Each member of the Trinity is thus fully God with equal power and glory. From an ontological standpoint God is one in number, purpose, and as you indicate will because all hypostases (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) act as one. Because of this, all members of the Trinity are equal “in every respect” and are fully God at one and the same time. This is why Jesus can say because you have seen me, you have seen the Father (John 14:9) and I and the Father are one (John 10:30).

      Christian tradition also recognizes a functional or economic Trinitarian expression in that the one God is manifested to us in three persons or hypostases. The relationship of these hypostases is indicated by the Father’s eternal begetting of the Son, and the Holy Spirit’s eternal procession from the Father (and the Son). This means that God’s one essence is manifested in three persons or hypostases and that each person or hypostases has objective and subjective distinction in this way. This is why Jesus can say he was sent by the Father (John 20:21) and that he had done the will of his Father in Heaven (John 5:19). Jesus also promises that He will send the Spirit (John 15:26). Thus we see each hypostasis working to fulfill God’s plan of redemption in a functional way. Notice how in John 5:19 referenced above Jesus indicates his obedience by saying that he is unable to act contrary to the will of the Father. This functional subordination from all eternity does not imply the possibility of sin or imperfection because the Son (and the Spirit) is consubstantial with the Father and thus incapable of sin. Just like the Father, all the actions of the Son (and the Spirit) must of necessity flow from the perfect nature which is God.

      There are many aspects of functional subordination in human society, none of which necessarily imply a lack of equality. I have a boss at work who can effectively “tell me what to do.” At the same time if my boss and I were to be murdered by a deranged gunman, the gunman would be charged with two murders. Thus, though we are equal we function in a relationship of subordination at my workplace. Perhaps this helps. I did not mean to imply the subordination of women to men, whether in marriage or society in general, though as you point out some have made the argument. I prefer the concept of mutual submission of the husband and the wife as outlined in Ephesians 5:21-33. Just as there is equality in marriage and functional/complementary roles, the same may be implied in the Godhead.

      Kevin Hester

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