The Trinity of Persons

Desiring God 2005 Conference for Pastors

"This Is My Beloved Son!" Exulting in the Trinitarian Relationships of Jesus Christ

It is my great privilege to be able to unfold for you something of the glory of God in a way that for some reason in recent decades, perhaps centuries, even in the Christian Church, we have not talked much about this aspect of God, which is central to who he is in Himself and in His revelation. And that is God as triune — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Think how little we talk about this in our evangelical circles, how little we comprehend of what it means and what significance it is to our lives.

And of course, this conference, we’re going to focus primarily on the Son’s relationship to Father and Spirit, respectively. Tonight I’m going to lay out for you something of why this is important for us to be talking about, and give you a bit of a review of the history of the doctrine of the Trinity. So you can pretend for a moment you’re back in a classroom, and we’ll sort of go through some of the basics to make sure we’re on the same page and understanding what the church has affirmed over the centuries in regard to this doctrine.

Resurgence and Reformulations for the Trinity

I come to you this evening from the academy, from a place where I have spent a fair bit of time reading volumes on the Trinity and scholarly works that have been produced. One of the reasons that I felt moved to write the short piece that has now come out on the Trinity is that there is very little at a level that most of us can comprehend and pass on to educated laypeople in our churches about the Trinity. Trinitarian writing tends to be very esoteric, filled with difficult words and filled with difficult conceptions. And in many cases, what we read there is problematic. In fact, let me suggest to you that I’m coming to you tonight with good news, bad news, and then more good news from the academy.

First of all, the good news is that the doctrine of the Trinity is back in. It’s an amazing thing. It is on the table big time in the academy. Some of you may be astonished to learn at the resurgence of interest in this particular doctrine over the past few decades. Much attention is being given to this long neglected area of our Christian faith and conviction. And from all of this scholarship, some help is coming to the church.

But here comes the bad news. Most of the revisions and reformulations of Trinitarian doctrine that are taking place today represent major shifts away from orthodoxy. Hence, the majority of this scholarly literature that is now out there is harmful and destructive, not helpful and strengthening to Christian faith. In the sobering words of Jeffrey Wainwright of Duke University:

Various thinkers and activists are seeking such revisions of the inherited doctrine of the Trinity that their success might in fact mean its abandonment . . . The understanding, and perhaps the attainment of salvation, is at stake in these contemporary reformulations of Trinitarian doctrine.

Now, I don’t intend to focus in this conference on all of that material, on what’s problematic with the recent reformulations of the doctrine of the Trinity. I will suggest to you a couple of things that you could look at. One is an article I have written that’s in a book edited by Eric Johnson and Doug Huffman entitled God Under Fire. And I would encourage you to take a look there at a short chapter on reformulations that have taken place in the doctrine of the Trinity and several things about those reformulations that are deeply troubling to us evangelical, biblical Christians.

Another book I would commend to you that is a scholarly volume — it’s not the easiest reading but it’s very helpful — is a book by John Thompson entitled Modern Trinitarian Perspectives published by Oxford University Press. There are some copies in the bookstore and if you would like a copy of that, you can go there and get it or order it from Amazon if they run out there. Those are helpful places I think where you could get a feel for some of the scholarly work that has been done and many of the problems that are attached to it.

Renewed Energy in an Area of Neglect

Now I’ve given you good news and bad news, and I said there is more good news. Here’s the more good news. As so often is the case, renewed attention to some doctrinal area, even when misguided, prompts others to look afresh at what was perhaps neglected, an area that we have simply not paid attention to sufficiently.

This has been the case for me personally, both in the doctrine of providence, due to the rise of process theology and open theism, respectively, and in the doctrine of the Trinity. I must confess to you that I am so deeply grateful to the Lord that through this sort of revolution that’s taking place in the doctrine of the Trinity, that the Lord has opened my eyes to look afresh at Scripture and his teaching about himself, his revelation of himself, to bring to my own mind and consciousness and awareness and my own faith and life truths about God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that I simply did not see not that many, many years ago. So I am grateful to the Lord for his grace in helping me understand who he is better from his word.

So I invite you to join me in this journey to know better the God whom you already know. Let’s know him better. And in particular, to see something fresh of more of the glory and the wonder of God revealed in Christ, who lived his life in the power of the Spirit. May that simple phrase, God manifest in Christ who lived his life by the power of the Spirit, mean something much more to you two days from now than it does now, by God’s grace. Let me propose to you this proposition. Knowing God means, among other things, knowing God as triune. God is triune, he has revealed himself as triune, and we his people should care to learn just what this means and what difference it makes to our lives. So let’s explore the glory and the wonder of the Trinity. Are you with me on that? All right.

The Glory of the Trinity

Now to get a start at this, I want to invite you to open your Bibles and turn to Ephesians 1 and look together with me at a very familiar passage. I’m sure it’s familiar to almost all of us here. This is Ephesians 1:1–14. And what I want us to see is how clearly Paul understands the doctrine of the Trinity, the persons of the triune God, as he unfolds this glorious doctrine of salvation that he presents in these verses. I want us to notice three things in particular as we read this. We’re going to read it slowly. I’m going to comment, sort of like meditation put on public display. We’re going to work our way through this slowly and think about it. Think as we go, and I want you to notice three things about this text that we don’t always, or perhaps even often, notice.

Number one: notice the clear Trinitarian delineation that Paul has in mind, distinguishing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You have to ask yourself the question, for Paul, is this just ad hoc? Is this just sort of a flip of the coin whether he happens to mention the Father or the Son or the Spirit, or does he intend to teach us something significant about God and his work by mentioning the Father, not the Son, not the Spirit; and the Son, not the Father, not the Spirit in this particular case. Does Paul intend to teach us something about God as he distinguishes Father, Son and Spirit?

Secondly, notice in this passage as we read it, the implicit ranking of the members of the Trinity with the Father clearly as supreme, the Son, second, and the Holy Spirit, third. So we are right to talk about the Father as the first person of the Trinity, the Son as the second, and the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity. The ranking comes from Scripture. The early Christian theologians often use the word taxis to indicate the ordering that is found in the Trinity. And here we’ll see this in Ephesians one.

Third, notice also the centrality of the Son to salvation as the Father has chosen to make the Son the centerpiece of his cosmic work in salvation and accomplish all of this to his glory. Notice these three things as we read. First of all, the distinction of father, Son, and Spirit, the implicit ranking of the three, and then the centrality of the Son.

An Apostle of Christ by the Will of God

All right, this is Ephesians 1:1–14:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:1–2).

Stop. Let’s think. What is this saying? Well, first of all, notice Paul is an apostle of Christ Jesus, by the will of God. Now, I take it by the will of God, Paul has in mind God the Father. It’s very common for Paul to use Theos as another name for the Father in particular Trinitarian contexts.

One of the clearest you might bring to mind is 1 Corinthians 13:14, which says, “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you.” So in Paul, oftentimes shorthand for the Father is simply God, particularly in Trinitarian contexts. So here Paul now says that he is an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.

Now, here are some things that are indicated by that. First of all, isn’t there a distinction that Paul is making between the Father and the Son? They are two different, let’s call them, persons. They are different expressions of what Paul would understand to be the one true and living God, and yet they are different, distinct. There is Father and Son. So he is an apostle of Christ, but it’s by the will of God.

Now, doesn’t that also imply a ranking in the Trinity? Doesn’t it indicate that though Paul is an apostle of Christ that he is sent by Christ to fulfill the will of Christ and to carry out the mission of Christ, ultimately, not because Christ has said so, but ultimately because the Father has said so. The Father has willed that Paul be an apostle of Christ. Doesn’t it indicate an ultimate primacy that is given to the Father in this?

And notice also, he extends this notion then to the saints in the second half of Ephesians 1:1, which says, “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and who are faithful in Christ Jesus." So here the saints in Ephesus are to understand themselves as responsible to Christ, to be faithful followers of Christ. But as Paul was called to be an apostle of Christ, they, followers of Christ, understand this implicitly to be under the rubric of the authority of the Father, who has commanded all of this to be. And the Father, as we’ll see in Ephesians 1:3, receives the ultimate glory for having accomplished this work of salvation done by his Son.

So right there we see the distinction in the Trinity, the ranking of the Trinity, and the centrality of the Son because we are called to be followers of Christ, not followers of the Spirit, not followers of the Father. We are followers of Christ.

Grace from the Father and the Son

Now consider Ephesians 1:2:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

He says, “and.” You wouldn’t think so much would be in our theology because of a kai, would you? But think of the significance of linking together God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. If Ephesians 1:1 indicates the distinction between the Father and the Son — “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” — doesn’t verse two indicate a fundamental identity and unity of the two? So from whom does grace flow? Grace and peace from whom? Answer: from the Father and the Son. They together are in a unified way. They are identified as the giver of grace to their people. So both distinction and identity of Trinitarian members are indicated.

Here’s one more observation in these two verses: Where’s the Spirit? Now, you all know the danger of building too much on silence. You can’t make an argument on the basis of silence, but isn’t it noteworthy how seldom the Spirit comes to play in a context where God is given praise? We’ll look later on in another session at Revelation 5, where it is the Lamb who was slain, who is at the right hand of the Father, that receives worship from all. In every age and in every part of the world they bow before the Father and the lamb who was slain. Where’s the Spirit?

Now, I’m going to show you when we get there. I think the Spirit is there. But here’s the point: the Spirit willingly accepts and embraces a backstage position. He is not out here in the spotlight. Who’s out here in the spotlight generally is the Son, who receives center attention and the Spirit willingly accepts this role. It’s an astonishing thing that even though Paul clearly knows about the Spirit and is going to talk about the Spirit shortly, he doesn’t enter his discussion at the beginning of this because he understands the Spirit is facilitating and yet the Father and the Son are bringing all of this to his people.

The Father’s Blessing in the Son

Ephesians 1:3 says:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places . . .

Notice, isn’t it clear the distinction within the Trinity, the distinction of Father and Son? And I believe the Spirit is here. I understand Ephesians 1:3 for Paul to be saying, “Who has blessed us with every blessing from heaven brought to us by the Spirit.” I don’t think he means, by spiritual blessing, he means spiritual as opposed to material. That’s another option. Heavenly blessings might make you think so, from the heavenly places might lead you in that direction. But I don’t think his point is spiritual as opposed to material because actually some of the blessings that Paul is going to talk about — the inheritance, for example — involves materiality.

It involves inheriting this world. Certainly, our resurrection bodies which come in Christ, which are a blessing to us, are in fact material. So instead, I think what Paul means in verse three is that he has blessed us with every blessing from heaven mediated to us by the Spirit in Christ. So I read Ephesians 1:3 as a Trinitarian verse. It’s the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but notice all three are there. The three are distinguished and yet the ranking that is there. “Blessed be . . .” not the Spirit. “Blessed be . . .” not the Son. He says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is clear that ultimate praise, ultimate glory, redounds to the Father just as Jesus himself indicated through his own life and teaching and ministry, that all glory would go to the Father.

We’ll see in a passage that we’ll look at subsequently, Philippians 2:10–11. That’s one you all know. It says, “Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” — and there’s not a period there — “to the glory of God the Father." He says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The distinction is there, the ranking is there. Clearly, the Father receives the highest billing. The Son, obviously, is in second place. The Son, obviously, is second in the Trinity because it is in the Son that every blessing comes to us as is unfolded in the subsequent verses. Every one of them is a blessing that comes in Christ. We’ll read this in just a moment, but look ahead at Ephesians 1:4, which says, “Just as he chose us in him.” Then, Ephesians 1:5 says, “He predestined us to adoption through Jesus Christ.” Then, Ephesians 1:7 says, “In him we have redemption.” You go through the list, and every blessing we have comes in the Son. The Son is the center focal point of all of the blessings of God. They are brought to us in Christ mediated to us through the Spirit.

The Father’s Choice

Now, when we keep reading from this point on, the pronouns make it a little bit difficult, but let me suggest to you what is being said. We’ll pick up now at Ephesians 1:4:

Even as he chose us in him . . .

Well, here it’s not too difficult, is it? Clearly, Paul picks up the thought of God and Father from Ephesians 1:3. He continues:

Even as he (the Father) chose us in him (Christ) before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him (the Father).

Isn’t that an astonishing thing, that the father chose us in his son in order to bring us to himself as holy and blameless people? It was the Father’s desire to have us in his presence, to have us as his own, and the only way that this could be is by choosing us in his Son to be made holy and blameless through the work of his Son — which Paul talks about in a moment here — and then bring us to himself as these restored people. It is the Father who has chosen to do this. Praise be to his name.

Sometimes we hear of this notion of salvation that is something along these lines. The Father, in his anger toward us, in his just condemnation of us, was about to condemn us all and send us all to hell. But the Son, in his love and grace, stepped in and said, “O Father, don’t do that. Allow me to take the punishment that they deserve on myself so they can be set free.” That is dishonoring to the Father. It is not true to biblical teaching to think that the Father had to be convinced or had to accept a plan brought to him by another, even if that other was his Son. No, it was the Father who designed and carried out every aspect of our redemption, and he did it in his Son and it starts all the way in eternity past. Before the foundation of the world, the Father chose us to be brought to himself and he knew the only way it could happen would be through his Son. The Father has done it.

The Father’s Love

Ephesians 1:4–5 says:

In love, he (the Father) predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will . . .

This is another indication of the love of the Father.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are (1 John 3:1).

How did this happen? He adopted us. He is the one who picked us out, chose us to be legally made his own children through what his Son has done for us. So he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ to himself according to the kind intention of his will. Of whom does the pronouns speak there? It’s the Father’s will. He continues:

To the praise of his (the Father’s) glorious grace, with which he (the Father) has blessed us in the Beloved.

So again, the Father is stressed as the one who has brought to us these blessings because of his deep love for us to give his Son to provide the way by which we would come.

The Father’s Grace

Ephesians 1:7 says:

In him (Christ, the Beloved) we have redemption through his blood (the blood of Christ), the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace . . .

What do you think of that pronoun, folks? What do you think at the end of Ephesians 1:7? Who does “his grace” reference? I’d vote for the Father. I think it’s because of what Paul says in Ephesians 1:6 — “to the praise of his (the Father’s) glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”

So wouldn’t then also verse seven indicate it’s according to the riches of the grace of the Father. Ephesians 1:8–10 continues:

Which he (the Father) lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will (the Father’s), according to his (the Father’s) purpose, which he (the Father) set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him (Christ), things in heaven and things on earth.

Isn’t it clear? You see the distinction of the Trinity, the ranking of the Trinity, and the centrality of Christ in the accomplishing of everything that God sought to do in the created order. Everything is summed up in his Son.

Heirs in the Son, Sealed by the Spirit

Ephesians 1:11 continues:

In him (the Son) we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him (the Father) who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.

Perhaps by that Paul means Jewish believers. It’s hard to say for sure. Whose glory is it? It’s the ultimate glory of the Father. Remember, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . (Ephesians 1:3).

Now, finally we’re coming to the Spirit, but only through the Son. Ephesians 1:13 says:

In him (Christ) you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who (the Spirit) is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his (the Father’s) glory.

So the Spirit does enter the picture in Paul’s mind. The Spirit comes and seals us in Christ so that every promise, every gracious gift that God has for us in His Son, will come to us. Nothing can keep from us every blessing that has been brought to us in Christ from the heavenly places because the Spirit has come to seal us in the Son and to guarantee before the Father we will receive it all.

That’s Ephesians 1:1–14. Isn’t it amazing how jam packed it is with the Trinity? Isn’t it amazing? I have thought this myself so many times. Isn’t it amazing how we can read a text like this and miss the obvious? And I think the reason is that we simply have not been taught and trained. We haven’t been brought into an understanding of the Trinity that would help us read the Bible with Trinitarian glasses. We need to put on our Trinitarian glasses as we read the Bible and notice Father, Son, and Spirit, and when we do so, we’ll find there is a richness that is there that we have not seen. May God help us and open our eyes to see more of his glory, more of his greatness, and more of the richness of who God is as he is only Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The History of the Doctrine of the Trinity

All right, in what remains of this evening’s session, what I would like to do is run through with you an overview of the history of the doctrine of the Trinity so that we can be on the same page with one another, have a common definition in front of us and a common understanding of what the struggle was in the church in order to come up with this doctrine and realize the significance that it is for us. And then, in the subsequent sessions, of course, we’ll focus then on the role of the Son in particular in relation to the Father and then to the Spirit in the two sessions — Jesus and the Father, Jesus and the Spirit — that I’ll have with you to follow.

We turn now to a historical and biblical overview of the doctrine of the Trinity. Why did Christians come to believe this particular doctrine? We start here where we have to start, and that is with the early Christian conviction that there is one God. Scriptural monotheism is where we must begin. It is a remarkable thing, I believe, that both in Old Testament Israel and in the New Testament church you have in Judaism and in early Christianity, a wholehearted commitment to the notion that there is one and only one God.

Now, why is that remarkable? It sounds right to us. We hear that and we say, “Well, of course.” Well, the reason is very simple. It was true both in ancient Israel and for the early Christians that in both communities what was true of them is that they were surrounded by polytheistic cultures. Everybody around them in the ancient near east believed in a multitude of gods.

Think of the Greco-Roman world. Think of Athens where Paul entered in Acts 17, beholding the city full of idols. Here we have two cultures that relate to Old Testament Israel and the New Testament early church that were deeply polytheistic, and what we have in both cases is the faith of Israel and the faith of the early Christians affirming there is one God. That was in the face of enormous opposition. There is one God.

The Biblical Affirmation of Monotheism

Well, is it clear that the Old Testament teaches there is one God? Indeed, let’s look at a few of the main texts. Genesis 1:1 says:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Now you may think, “Well, is that a monotheistic text?” And the answer is, it sure is. If you understand what Moses, the writer, is doing in Genesis 1, his main purpose in this chapter is to establish the uniqueness, the incomparability, the oneness of the one true and living God of Israel in contrast to the view of many gods, of the polytheistic views that were held by the religions that surrounded Israel.

So in those religions of the ancient near east, they held that different Gods had territorial jurisdiction over different portions of the created order, and hence, different gods were responsible for and had lordship over various parts of creation. In light of that, Moses declares, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In other words, there is one God and he made all of it, and hence, he has rights of rulership over everyone and everything.

There is such a close connection in biblical theology between creation and lordship. Think of Acts 17 again. Paul, at Athens, is invited to talk about the true and living God, and he says:

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth . . . (Acts 17:24).

Do you hear it? There is a connection between God being creator and Lord. And here is what Moses is declaring from verse one of the Bible. There is one God. He reigns supreme over everything. He has rights over Phoenicians, Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians. Why? He created everything in heaven and earth. As creator of all, He stands as the exclusive deity, and he has exclusive rights of rulership over all he has made. That’s the point of Genesis 1:1.

The One God Is Our God

Deuteronomy 4:35 is a very clear, straightforward statement:

To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him.

Deuteronomy 6:4, the famous Shama text of Ancient Israel, says:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one (or the Lord alone).

The point being that there is one God and that one God, amazingly, is our God. Let me just pause for a moment to wonder with you at the truth of what we’re talking about. Here we are talking about there is one God. He created all the heavens in the earth. And my friends, he is our God. Isn’t that just utterly astonishing and unbelievable? By his grace he has brought us to realize and to bow and worship the one true and living God? What mercy has been extended to those of us who are of the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. Amen. So, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God.” Marvel. “The Lord alone is God.”

The Lord Is God Alone

First Kings 8:59–60 comes at the end of Solomon’s address after the temple has been built and he declares:

Let these words of mine, with which I have pleaded before the Lord, be near to the Lord our God day and night, and may he maintain the cause of his servant and the cause of his people Israel, as each day requires, that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other.

Yes, it is true. In this age of pluralism in which we live these texts are enormously relevant. Whether others out there acknowledge it or not, it is true notwithstanding. There is one God and he reigns over all peoples. They must bow the knee to the one true and living God or they perish. May God help us to see the truth of his word and realize how contemporary this is.

Consider Isaiah 45:5–7. You can’t miss the point here. You just can’t. Listen:

I am the Lord, and there is no other,
     besides me there is no God;
     I equip you, though you do not know me,
that people may know, from the rising of the sun
     and from the west, that there is none besides me;
     I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness;
     I make well-being and create calamity;
     I am the Lord, who does all these things.

Yes, there is one God. Isaiah 46:9 is the last text we’ll look at here:

Remember the former things of old;
     for I am God, and there is no other;
     I am God, and there is none like me . . .

Yes, the Old Testament affirms that there is one God.

The Witness of the New Testament

What about the New Testament? Surely New Testament early Christians who now affirm a belief in the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit as God might conclude, you know what, we were mistaken when we thought that there was just one God. Now we’ve come to see that there are three. Wouldn’t that have been an easy way to solve what became the problem of the Trinity in the church? But amazingly, despite the ease with which it would’ve been to affirm three gods, remember, polytheistic cultures surrounded them. There were beliefs all around the early Christians that there were many gods. How easy it would’ve been to affirm three gods. No, the New Testament is as insistent as the Old that there is one God.

Here are a few texts. John 17:3 says:

And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God . . .

First Corinthians 8:6 says:

Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist . . .

First Timothy 2:5 says:

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus . . .

Romans 3:30 says:

Since God is one — who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.

James 2:19 says:

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder!

So yes, the New Testament affirms that there is one God.

Trinitarian Teaching in the Early Church

Well, let’s look secondly now then at how the early church developed its Trinitarian understanding given the fact that it was resolutely committed to monotheism. How then did it affirm the doctrine that we have come to know as the Trinity — one God, but Father, Son, Holy Spirit, each fully God. Well, let’s take a look at some biblical teachings.

First of all, in relation to God the Father, there was no question in the early church that the Father was full deity. Who else would we say that Jesus prayed to if it wasn’t God, his Father? Whom did Jesus seek to honor and glorify with his life, if not God, the Father? To whom did Jesus pray if not to God, the Father? So there never was a dispute in the early church. In fact, just the opposite was the case. If anything, there was a tendency in the early church toward what was called monarchianism, that is, an elevation of the Father in a way that would subordinate or in some way render less the Son and the Spirit because of the Father’s monarchy. His rulership over all was uncontested and could not be jeopardized. And so clearly, there was no question for early Christians that the Father was God.

What about Jesus? Here is where it gets really interesting, doesn’t it, in these early centuries of the church. The burning question for the first three centuries of the church, theologically, is this question: Who is Jesus? Yes, we acknowledge that he is our Savior. We acknowledge that we are called to follow his Lordship. But how can we understand Jesus as Thomas declared, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), when we affirm the Father is God and we affirm that there is one God? How can it be that there is one God, the Father is God, and Jesus is God? How can we comprehend this?

But they were pressed upon, these early Christians, by texts of Scripture. And in fact, some of them were the very texts in the New Testament that declared that God is one. Let me take you back to a couple of them. I purposely read only part of the verse. John 17:3 says:

This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

Ah, do you remember the significance, theologically, of the word and? This is eternal life. So who can give eternal life? Who is capable of giving the gift of eternal life? Answer: only God. Now, think. It says, “This is eternal life that they may know you, the only true God” — obviously, a reference to the Father — “and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” So here, even though the Father and the Son are distinguished in their personhood, they are identified together as deity providing salvation and eternal life for people. So Jesus himself is identified and unified with the Father in being capable of doing what only God can do: giving eternal life.

Creator of the Cosmos

Or think of another passage. Again, I read half of it to you. First Corinthians 8:6 says:

Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist (look at the rest of the verse), and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

Again, here’s the question: who is capable of creating the universe? Who alone can do this? God. Only God can do this. Amen. Only God can do this. Look at how Paul puts it here though. He distinguishes Father and Son, but he attributes to Father and Son the same ability of being able to bring about creation. So there is one God, the Father from whom are all things, and one Lord Jesus Christ. And it’s so amazing, isn’t it, this connection of the two in several passages. He continues, “And one Lord Jesus Christ by whom are all things and we exist through him.” So the Son is the agent of creation. Only God can create, but the Son creates and the Father creates. Therefore, the Father is God and the Son is God. Isn’t that the point?

And then, of course, there are other passages that were so important for early Christians in affirming the deity of Christ. In John 1:1, again, you see identity and distinction with Father and Son:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God . . .

That’s a distinction, right? The Father and Son are distinguished. You are with another only if that other is distinct from you. It makes no sense, really, to talk about being with yourself, right? The passage continues:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God (distinction), and the Word was God (identity).

So here we have then, somehow or another we’ve got to understand, Father and Son are distinct from one another while being identified as the same God. What language shall we borrow to express such incredibly profound truths? And of course, this passage doesn’t leave us just with that statement of “the word was God.” It’s in the context of “in the beginning”. In the beginning was the Word. Well, what does “in the beginning” bring to mind? It brings to mind Genesis 1:1, does it not? In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Here now, in the beginning was the Word.

So John purposely brings to mind Genesis one, the God of creation, and applies it to Christ. In the beginning, the God who created the heavens and the earth was the Word. In the beginning was the Word. And if that’s not clear, look at John 1:3. It says:

All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

The Son then is the creator of the heavens and the earth, declared in Genesis one. Yes, he is God. But also, in the beginning was the Word and the word was with God. Distinct and identical.

The Great I Am

How do we put these together? John 8:58 is another very important statement by Jesus to the Pharisees. He says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” which clearly means more than simply, “Before Abraham existed, I was already on the scene.” In itself that is an astonishing statement, is it not? I mean, Abraham lived how many years before Christ roughly? He was roughly 2000 years BC. So here’s Jesus saying, “Before Abraham lived, I was already here, so I’m over 2000 years old.”

But of course, that’s not his point. If that were his point, strictly speaking, they would’ve laughed their heads off and called for the men in the white coats. It would not have been the response that in fact Jesus got. They took up stones to stone him. Why? He was speaking in their ears, to their judgment, blasphemy. Why? He said, “Before Abraham was I am.”

Consider Exodus three. Yahweh is what he has in mind in making that claim. The I am of the God of Israel is what Jesus is declaring.

The Preeminent Son

In Mark 2:5–11, I won’t read this text to you, but here is an account where Jesus forgives the sin of the one who is dropped down through the roof in front of him. And of course, only God can forgive sin.

In Hebrews 1, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but there are six, count them, separate arguments for the deity of Christ that come in Hebrews 1. Just look at these quickly with me. In Hebrews 1:2, Christ is creator of everything in heaven and earth. In Hebrews 1:3, he is the exact representation of the nature of His Father. In Hebrews 1:3 also, he upholds the universe by the word of his power.

In Hebrews 1:6, God commands the angels, “Let all the angels of God worship him.” Now do you think God knows that only God should be worshiped? I think so. I think he knows that one. So here is God the Father commanding the angels, “Worship the Son.” Next, in Hebrews 1:8, it says that of the Son, the Father says, “Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever,” using Theos as a title for the Son. In Hebrews 1:11–12, he quotes from Psalm 102:25–27, which says that the heavens will wear out like a garment, they will be changed, but your years will never come to an end. “You will not change,” says the Lord. He applies that statement from Psalm 102, which is clearly about the God of Israel, who is immutable and eternal, and he applies it to the Son. That’s an astonishing application of that text from the Old Testament.

So here we have these amazing passages which indicate the eternality, immutability, and deity of the Son himself. Yes, Jesus is God.

The Spirit’s Divinity

What about the Holy Spirit? Well, obviously the Holy Spirit was also a very difficult area for the early church to grapple with in terms of the deity of the Spirit. But again, the text of Scripture finally persuaded them.

For example, In Acts 5:3–4 where Peter is with Ananias and Sapphira, he asked him, “Why have you lied to the Holy Spirit?” And then he says, “You have not lied to men, but to God.” In 1 Corinthians 2:10–11, Paul indicates that the Holy Spirit knows the thoughts of God. Hence, he is able to reveal them. His point really is more a point about revelation in that text than it is about the Spirit, per se. But he indicates to the Spirit who reveals these things to him is the Spirit who knows the thoughts of God. Well, who can know the thoughts of God but God. It indicates the omniscience of the Holy Spirit.

First Corinthians 3:16 says:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?

Isn’t that an amazing metaphor that’s used? Now, for those of us who are in Christ, temples of God, think of the Old Testament imagery where the Shekinah glory dwelt, where God dwelt and manifested himself. Now it’s in us, his people. By whom? How is God present in us? By his Spirit. God is here.

Hebrews 9:14 indicates that Christ was delivered up by the “eternal Spirit”. He has the attribute of eternity. Yes, the Holy Spirit, likewise, is God. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.

Triadic Passages in the New Testament

My last category here are passages in the New Testament sometimes called triadic passages, which indicate that all three are present in the same context, and some of them are clearly a context which indicate the deity of the Father, Son, and the Spirit. The two strongest ones are these two. Matthew 28:19–20 is where Jesus indicated all authority had been given to him. And he says, “Go therefore, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name (singular, so there is one nature of God and one being of God) of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The one name of the one God is Father, Son, and Spirit, says Jesus.

The other one is 1 Corinthians 13:14. I mentioned to you earlier this benediction. This is the last verse of the Book of 2 Corinthians, where basically Paul is saying, “May God be with you, may God’s presence go with you.” But the way he says it is:

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

So we have this Trinitarian language that is stated indicating the one God, whose blessing will rest upon them, is Father, Son, and Spirit.

Solidification of the Doctrine of the Trinity

Well, how did the early church wrestle with all of this data, all of this biblical teaching? How did they put it together? Quickly, I’ll run through this with you.

At the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, a date all of you ought to know because you’re educated Christians and you’re responsible to help your people understand their own history and what has happened. Leading up to this council, there had been a lot of dispute, particularly about the Son. The Holy Spirit wasn’t on the radar screen much yet because the issue of the Son hadn’t been settled. That had to be settled before then the whole conversation shifted to the Spirit. Here, the question is, “Who is the Son?” One proposal that had been put forward, but had been rejected without any need of a council because it was so clear to normal Christian people that it could not work, was called modalism by Sebellius.

Sibellius’s modalist proposal argued that there is one God; that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. Sounds pretty good, what’s the problem? Well, the only way this works, said Sebellius, is as the one God who is the Father (he held to a monarchian view of the Father) in the incarnation manifests himself now as the Son. So during the incarnate life of Christ, we have God present as Son, but not Father and not Spirit.

Then at Pentecost, the Father comes again this time as the Spirit, no longer Son nor Father, but Spirit. So yes, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. But the three are God successively, not simultaneously. It was obvious to Christian people in reading their Bibles, this just doesn’t work.

You can think of an example right off the bat, can’t you? The baptism of Jesus. How can you have the voice from heaven, “This is my beloved Son,” and the Spirit is descending as a dove upon the Son in the water altogether simultaneously? Who does Jesus pray to in the garden? He says, “Father, if you are willing, let this cup pass.” Is this some kind of supernatural ventriloquism that’s taking place? Jesus somehow is talking to himself? No, it doesn’t work. So Modalism died out simply because it was clear from a reading of the Scriptures themselves that it would not work.


This more serious problem came from Arias. Arias, of course, was one of the main proponents of the notion that the Son was the highest of all of God’s created beings. He himself was supreme over creation, hence Arias understood Colossians 1:15 to indicate that Christ was the first born of creation. He existed as the highest of all of God’s creatures. And by him, then, God brought into existence the rest of the created order. By him, he accomplished salvation. But the Son Himself was subordinate in his essence to the Father. The Son was created, but the Father was uncreated. And this Arian proposal grew in the church.

It was a very prominent view that many people were attracted to. So much so that the Council of Nicea was called, and the hero of the day was the man whom John Piper will help us know better in his address to us, Athanasius. He was a courageous defender of the doctrine of the deity of Christ. And he put forward the Greek term that some of you remember from your church history days in going through this that the Son is of one nature (homoousios) with the Father.

Now, in that very same council, there was a mediating party that was there, followers of the deceased Origen, who proposed a position that they thought would be a halfway house between Athanasius and the Arians. They proposed that Christ was homoiousios, and therefore he was of a very similar nature to the Father. If you ever hear the notion that you always ought to try to find the middle position, don’t believe it. What you ought to always try to find is the truth. And sometimes the truth is on one edge or the other, but go for the truth. Go for the truth.

And here this mediating position tried to win the day, but thankfully it did not. Athanasius persuaded and he got the votes. And at the end of the day, the homoousios doctrine prevailed and became the basis for the Nicene creed.

Council of Constantinople

Now what about the Holy Spirit? Well, the Arians changed their attack. They lost the battle on the Son, so now they shifted and they attempted to defend the notion that the Spirit of the Lord, the ruah Adonai was something like the arm of the Lord, the right hand of the Lord, or the breath of the Lord, which is just like another part of the Lord’s anatomy. It doesn’t indicate personhood, it just means the presence of God, so that the Spirit is an impersonal force that represents the presence of God. He is not, in fact, deity.

So another council was called. This one was at Constantinople in 381 AD, in which the heroes here were some more Eastern theologians. Athanasius was from the Greek Eastern tradition, and so these Cappadocian fathers, as they’re called, were from the Eastern tradition. You may remember who they were. Basil was one of them, who was later called Basil the Great. He didn’t call himself that. Also there was Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus. And these two Gregorys and Basil then formed the committee that worked on how to respond to the Arians. Arias had died in 336 AD, but his followers were very much active and present, and they prevailed at Constantinople and then supplemented the third article of the Nicene Creed.

At Nicea in 325 AD, do you know how much was stated about the Holy Spirit? We had God, the Father Almighty and the Lord Jesus Christ, begotten not made, and all that. We had a long article on the Son. Do you know how much at 325 AD there was on the Holy Spirit? It said, “And we believe in the Holy Spirit.” That was it. That’s how much attention the Holy Spirit was getting in those days.

So now at 381 AD, the extension of this Nicene Creed was established for the church in the third article, proclaiming that the Holy Spirit is the Lord, the life-giver, and the one who proceeds from the Father, who, with the Father and the Son is to be worshiped and glorified.

Now, I won’t go into this with you. There was a lot of dispute between Gregory of Nazianzus, in particular, and the other two over whether they should push and urge the term homoousios also of the Spirit, to affirm that the Spirit is of the same nature with the Father and the Son. Gregory of Nazianzus wanted it badly and the other two voted against him. So he left and he was angry, and it’s an interesting story, but the other two were persuaded that they would not win the larger vote if they insisted upon putting forward a proposal that had homoousios in it for the Spirit.

So instead, they used language that amounted to the same thing, but language that was deeply rooted in biblical teaching so that there could not be a complaint against them unless you complained with Scripture itself, and hence the Nicene Creed, in its third article statement, indicates the deity of the Spirit, but with scriptural language that indicates his being Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18), creator (Genesis 1:2), and is to be worshiped and glorified with the Father and the Son (for example, 2 Corinthians 13:14, where all three are together as the one God). So at the Council of Nicea and Council of Constantinople, the church affirms the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Augustine’s Contribution

Now, how to put that together with one God was still not entirely clear. And we really have St. Augustine to thank for a final formulation of the Trinity. I noticed that the bookstore has his massive De Trinitate in translation, thankfully. I have my doctoral students read it at Southern Seminary in our seminar on the Trinity. It’s a dense book, but it’s packed with very insightful discussion of the Trinity. Augustine really put together what amounts to our Orthodox understanding of the Trinity. And let me provide for you a definition that is Augustinian. This is not a direct quote from Augustine’s work, but it is, in the spirit of Augustine, put in language that I have constructed but I believe is faithful to the Orthodox tradition.

What does it mean then that God is a trinity? It is this. God’s whole and undivided essence belongs equally, eternally, simultaneously, and fully to each of the three persons of the Godhead so that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each is fully God while each in his own personal expression, in role and activity, is of the one eternal and undivided divine essence. This definition, by the way, is in the little book that has just come out. So if you get that, this discussion is in there with definition and elaboration.

Deeper into the Riches of God

Well, let me draw this to a close this evening and also prepare us for where we’re going in the next two sessions that I have with you. The Christian faith affirms. Now, listen carefully. I know it’s the end of the day. Some of you have traveled today and you’re tired. I know it. Hang in there for just a few more minutes. Listen carefully to these last paragraphs that I have for you. It’s very important in understanding what the Trinity is.

The Christian faith affirms that there is one and only one God, eternally existing while fully and simultaneously expressed in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each member of the Godhead is equally God. Each is eternally God and each is fully God. There are not three Gods, but three persons of the one Godhead. Each person is equal in essence as each possesses fully the identically same and eternal divine nature. Yet, each is also an eternal and distinct personal expression of that one undivided divine nature.

Each person of the Godhead then is fully God. The Father or Son or Spirit is not each one-third God, but rather each person is fully God. Yet, while each person is fully God, it is no one person alone who is fully God, but each person eternally exists along with the others, each of whom possesses fully the identically same divine nature.

Because of this, because of what we just said, what distinguishes each person of the Godhead from each other is not and cannot be the divine nature of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Is that clear to you? What distinguishes Father, Son, and Spirit cannot be the divine nature of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Thus, the one and undivided divine nature, is possessed equally, eternally, simultaneously, and fully by each of the three persons of the Godhead. Therefore, what distinguishes each person of the Godhead from the other persons is his particular role in relation to the other persons and the relationships that each has with each of the other persons. Is that clear?

What distinguishes them cannot be at the level of nature. Since, at the level of nature, they are identical. What distinguishes them is at the level of role and relationship that they have with each other. In light of both the equality of essence and yet differentiation of role and relationship that exists among the persons of the Godhead, we realize that our task then is to discern just how those roles and relationships are expressed.

We must consider how Scripture talks about the role and relationship of Father, Son and Spirit in relation to one another and in their relationship to us in the created world. And we will do this in our subsequent two sessions, focusing our attention particularly on the Son in relation, first to the Father, and then in relation to the Spirit. In so doing, may we see more clearly and more gloriously something of the God whom we already know. May we worship with greater richness of understanding, deepened appreciation, more awe and wonder at the glory and the greatness that is the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.