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The Holy Trinity (Part Two)

In the first part of this article we explored: i) the origin of the word 'Trinity' and the doctrine it refers to; ii) Old Testament indications of the Trinity, and iii) New Testament revelation. See under 'related articles'.

In this, the second part of the article, we continue with: iv) the Persons of the Trinity and v) early divergencies in the church, which prompted the church fathers to formulate the doctrine.

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4. The Persons of the Trinity

God is a unity in His essential being or in His substance, i.e. He is one in essence, nature and will. Yet within this one Being there are three centres of expression; three modes or forms in which the divine essence exists. Each is a self-conscious and self-directing 'Person'; but because they have the same nature, they are not distinct 'individuals' capable of behaving independently or in opposition to one another.

Because of the difficulty of this concept for people with finite minds, illustrations or analogies have been used to try to clarify this truth. Although illustrations must be used with caution, the analogy of light - "God is light" [1] - is very helpful: Every beam of light has three rays; the first one is invisible, the second visible and the third, which gives heat, can be felt but not seen. The analogy is obvious, but the helpful part is the fact that all three rays are essential to light; where there is light these three rays must be present.The analogy falls short in that though light can be split into three separate rays, God's three-fold centre of life cannot be split or divided into three; the divine essence is fully present in each of the Persons.

There is perfect equality in nature, honour and dignity between the Persons in the Trinity. Fatherhood has, from all eternity, been the personal property of God. [2] To God as Father, Christ has the unique relationship of the only begotten Son. [3] The Holy Spirit, again, is the only One who knows the thoughts of God. [4] This eternal fellowship of the Trinity was manifested historically in the work of man's redemption: The Son entered the world as Jesus the Man, and the Spirit entered the world as the Spirit of Christ. But all three worked together in that both the Father [5] and the Spirit [6] testified of the Son, and He testified of the Father [7] and of the Spirit. [8]

Despite this equality in nature, the functions ascribed to each of the Persons in man's redemption reveal a certain degree of subordination in relation, with the Father first, the Son second and the Spirit third. As it was the Son's office to reveal the Father, [9] so it is the Spirit's office to reveal the Son. [10] The Holy Spirit is also said to "proceed" from both the Father [11] and the Son. [12] In the works of creation and redemption, the particular function ascribed to God the Father is that of planning, [13] to the Son that of execution and mediation [14] and to the Spirit that of establishing conclusion. [15]

Although the Persons of the Trinity have an eternal unity in purpose, each of them takes a unique part in the working out of the divine purpose:
i) The Father is the Counsellor. [16]
ii) The Son is primarily responsible for the actual redemption of man. [17]
iii) The Holy Spirit applies the results of the redemption accomplished by the Son. [18]

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5. Some early divergencies

The basic problem with the doctrine of the Trinity is that it comprises two facts which are difficult to reconcile: 1) God is one; 2) the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God. Errors have crept in in the effort to reconcile these two facts. Those who stress the first fact, i.e. that God is one, have tended to relegate the Son and the Holy Spirit to inferior positions of less than true deity.The two main errors of this kind are known as Sabellianism and Arianism. In the 16th century their unitarian beliefs revived and many Unitarian churches were formed. On the other hand, those who have stressed the second fact, i.e. that all three Persons are God, have fallen into the error of Tritheism.

5.1 Tritheism, i.e. a belief in three Gods.

In stressing the reality of Christ's deity and the personality of the Holy Spirit, these people have taught that there are three distinct Beings with different natures in the Godhead. They base their theory on scripture testimony, claiming that the Bible teaches that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct, separate and infinite Beings. They answer the insistence of the Bible on the fact of the unity of God by claiming that it is only a moral unity.

5.2 Sabellianism (Monarchianism)

Monarchianism, i.e. a belief in only one Person in the Godhead who may indiscriminately be called Father, Son or Holy Spirit, started towards the end of the second century. Two kinds of Monarchianism can be distinguished, according to their view regarding the nature of Christ: i) Dynamistic Monarchianism (from the Greek word 'dunamis' meaning 'power') taught that a divine power descended on the man Jesus and enabled him to do the works of God.
ii) Modalistic Monarchianism taught that Christ was a 'mode' of God's manifestation and that all the fullness of God dwelt in Christ.

Because Sabellius was the best known exponent of this view, his name is often given to Monarchianism in general. He taught that God, the one divine Person, manifested Himself sometimes as the Father, sometimes as the Son and sometimes as the Holy Spirit. The terms 'Father', 'Son' and 'Spirit' therefore do not denote distinct realities within the Godhead, but three roles or modes in which the one God successively reveals Himself to man. Thus God first revealed Himself as Creator (Father), later as Redeemer (Son) and lastly as Sanctifier (Holy Spirit). His theory thus implied that the eternal Father had suffered on the cross, and was clearly unscriptural.

5.2 Arianism

In about 318 A.D. Arius, presbyter at Alexandria, started teaching that the Son was a created being and thus inferior to the Father in dignity and nature. He allowed that the Son was created before the foundation of the world, and as such was the highest and noblest of created beings, but he denied His eternal Sonship, i.e. that He was co-eternal with the Father. The Holy Spirit was also reduced to a relative form of deity through the teaching that He was created by the Son.

This sparked off such a controversy that the First General Council met at Nicea in 324 A.D. to debate the question whether Christ was 'homousins' (of the same essence as God) or 'homoiousios' (of similar essence with God). Under the leadership of Athanasius, the Council declared that Christ was "the Son of God, only begotten of the Father ... of the substance of the Father ... very God of very God." [19]

Arianism continued until the year 660 A.D. and created a lot of confusion. It was based on a wrong interpretation of the Greek term 'gennētos' as that was applied to the Son. The term is traditionally translated as 'begotten', but in Greek philosophical terminology it denoted anything 'derivative' or 'generated'. As God has always been regarded as the only 'agennētos' (ungenerated), and the Son is described as 'monogēnes' (only begotten'), Arius taught that Christ had come into being out of non-existence.

However, the Greek experts remind us that the term 'only begotten' can only be rightly understood in the sense of unoriginated relationship, i.e. "the begetting is not an event of time, however remote, but a fact irrespective of time. The Christ did not 'become', but necessarily and eternally 'is' the son." [20]

5.3 Unitarianism

In the late 16th century, Faustus Socinus denied the divinity of Jesus, and his teachings led to the formation of many 'Unitarian' churches. In the 18th century Semler and Eichhorn criticized the Bible, its inspiration, and especially the deity of Christ. The result was a spread of unbelief. In England Unitarian beliefs among Presbyterians and Baptists resulted in spiritual deadness. In Scotland the so-called 'Moderates' held sway. They were against evangelical preaching and all enthusiasm in religion. The result was a widespread spiritual deadness and unbelief, coupled with a decay in morality. Some modern cults, although varying in other respects, all stress the unity of God so that the deity of both Christ and the Holy Spirit is denied.

Conclusion

The early Christians believed in the unity of God; yet at the same time they experienced both Jesus and the Holy Spirit as God. Because of the difficulty in understanding and expressing these great facts in human terms, dogmas had to be formulated to define the doctrine and protect it from error. In A.D. 425, one hundred years after the Council of Nicea, Augustine formulated the dogma known as the Athanasian Creed, which is still accepted today. Briefly it states the following:

The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each divine, eternal, omnipotent and uncreated, yet there are not three divine, eternal, omnipotent and uncreated Beings, but One. Though each is Lord, there are not three Lords but one Lord. It defines the relationship between the Persons as "The Father was made from none, nor created, nor begotten. The Son is from the Father alone, neither made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Spirit is from the Father and the Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding ... All the three co-eternal Persons are co-equal among themselves; so that ... both unity in trinity, and trinity in unity, is to be worshipped." [21]

The importance of preserving the doctrine from error, can be seen in its implications for Christian life and experience. Thus, because there is self-revelation within the Trinity, God is revealable to His creation. Because God is a fellowship within Himself, He is communicable to His creation. The fellowship of the Trinity is the basis of all true fellowship for God's creatures, and they find this fellowship pre-eminently in the church. Thus Christ prayed for us who have believed in Him through the message of His apostles: " that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you." [22]

References:

1. 1 John 1:5
2. Ephesians 3:15
3. John 3:16
4. 1 Corinthians 2:11
5. Matthew 3:17
6. John 15:26
7. John 5:19
8. John 14:26
9. John 14:7,9
10. John 16:14
11. John 14:16-17
12. John 15:26
13. Genesis 1:1;Ephesians 1:5,11
14. John 1:3; Ephesians 1:3-14
15. Psalms 104:30; 2 Peter 1:21
16. Romans 11:33; Ephasians 3:11
17. 1 Corinthians 1:30; Ephesians 1:7
18. Ephesians 2:18; 1 Thessalonians 2:13
19. Renwick, p.54
20. Vine, p.822
21. Pearlman, p.72
22. John 17:21

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Berkhof, J. A Summary of Christian Doctrine, London, England: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1938.

2. Douglas, J.D. (ed.) New Bible Dictionary, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1962.

3. Finney, C. The Heart of Truth, Minnesota, U.S.A.: Bethany Fellowship, 1976.

4. Hammond, T.C. In Understanding be Men, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968.

5. Pearlman, M. Knowing the Doctrines of the Bible (Part One), Roodepoort, S.A.: Gospel Publishing House, 1937.

6. Renwick, A.M. The Story of the Church, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1958.

7. Vine, W.E. Vine's Expository Dictionary of N.T. Words, Massachusetts, U.S.A.: Hendrickson Publishers, ?

8. Walker, W. A History of the Christian Church (4th ed.), Edinburgh, U.K.: T.and T. Clark Ltd., 1985.

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Posted in: Bible by on January 6, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

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