Christianity is a monotheistic religion, meaning belief in only one God. However, the doctrine of the Trinity is that there is one God in three persons; Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. It holds that:
- The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct Persons (hypostases)
- Each Person is fully God; the three are coexistent, coeternal and coequal
- There is one God; the doctrine does not split God into three parts
The history of the trinitarian doctrine
The early Church was divided on the question of the divine nature of God the Son and his relationship to God the Father. There were many different views, including:
- The view that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons of one Being.
- The view that Jesus was born human and God ‘adopted’ him to become The Son.
- Sabellianism/modalism. The view that The Father and the Son were two different modes of God, so Jesus was divine but not human.
- The view that Christ was God and he only appeared human.
- The view that Jesus is a distinct and lesser being than God, because Jesus came into being whereas God did not.
- The view that God is a unity and does not have three persons.
Christianity became the religion of the Roman empire in 319 under order of the emperor Constantine. Many historians think that at least part of his motivation was a political one; to bring greater unity to the empire under one religion. However, the disunity within Christianity was therefore a hinderance to that aim, so in 325 a council of Bishops was convened by Constantine to settle the dispute over the God’s relation to the Son.
They produced the Nicene Creed. These are its key points:
- Belief in one God
- Christ is the Son of God, “eternally begotten” of the Father
- “Begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father”.
- For our salvation “he came down from heaven”
- “By the power of the Holy spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”
- “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified”.
The God of Christian monotheism was thereby declared a triune God. He is one Substance (‘ousia’) yet three Persons (‘hypostasis’). Jesus has two natures (human and divine). He is Fully God and Fully Man, joined in hypostatic union. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are co-equal and co-eternal.
The need for the doctrine of the Trinity
The nature and identity of Christ as that of being God seems to have a need for the doctrine of the Trinity. If Christ is God, then it seems that God can have different aspects or personas. A doctrine which makes sense of this is required; the Trinity. The trinitarian doctrine is also argued to make most sense of what the Bible says about the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The Biblical evidence for the trinity
The word “Trinity” is not in the Bible. However, trinitarians believe that we need the concept of the Trinity because they argue it accurately captures the way that the Bible refers to the relationship between The Father and the Son.
Corinthians 8:6. “for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live”.
John 10:30. Jesus said, “The Father and I are one”. This quote seems to suggest that The Father and The Son are one being which would entail co-equal and co-eternal. This provides biblical evidence for the trinitarian view.
Arians respond with a different interpretation – that Jesus did not mean that he and the Father were of one substance, but of one purpose. They think the context of the quote shows that Jesus was referring to being of one in their pastoral work and purpose. In John 17:21 Jesus prays that his disciples “may all be one”, where “one” is the same Greek word as in John 10:30. This suggests that the use of ‘one’ does not refer to substance but something like purpose.
John 1:1-3. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made”.
John 1:14. “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”
“The Word” refers to Christ. These verses from John suggest that Christ The Son is co-eternal with The Father, because he pre-existed the creation of the world, and co-equal with The Father, because through him all things were made.
Hick: Jesus did not seem to believe he was divine. Hick argued that the historical Jesus did not teach nor “apparently believe that he was God, or God the Son, Second person of a Holy Trinity, incarnate, or the son of God in a unique sense.” Hick points out that the label ‘son of God’ was a common title in Judaism when referring to a very special human chosen by God, not a truly unique divine person. For example, Adam was called the son of God.
Many scholars, including Hick, make a development argument regarding Jesus’ divinity. John was the latest Gospel written and clear statements of Jesus’ divinity do not exist in the earlier Gospels, which casts doubt on the authenticity of John. The earliest gospel is thought to be Mark, which begins with Jesus’ baptism making no mention of a divine birth and Jesus is depicted as a prophet. Matthew and Luke were written next and mention Jesus’ divine birth. John was written last and presents the son (The Word) as having existed even before the incarnation. Hick’s argument is that Jesus being the son of God in a unique sense was a later invention and thus an idea of human origin. Hick applies demythologisation to the idea of the incarnation, concluding that it conveyed the idea of embodying a conviction in life. Jesus embodied ‘the goodness and love of God’.
However, even in Mark, often thought by New Testament scholars to be the first gospel written, there are presentations of Jesus that seem to suggest his divinity. During Jesus’ baptism God speaks and says: “you are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Jesus quiets a storm like God does in the story of Jonah and walks on water like God does in the book of Job.
Bart Ehrman claims that the argument of development should be taken to apply to what Jesus said about himself, rather than merely what the narrative features of the gospels suggest about Jesus. Ehrman accepts that such features of Mark’s gospel show that Mark understands Jesus to be divine, but argues that this does not show that Jesus himself thought of himself as divine. It is only in gospel of John that Jesus makes clear statements of divine self-identification and although there is dispute over the dating of the first gospels there is considerable agreement that John was written last and is therefore subject to this development criticism focused on what Jesus said about himself.
Arianism is the view that Jesus Christ is different from God the father and therefore a lesser, subordinate being. The argument is that Jesus did not always exist and so is contingent, whereas God the Father has always existed and therefore is eternal. God the Father is therefore of a different substance to The Son. They are neither co-equal nor co-eternal.
The Ecumenical First Council of Nicaea of 325AD declared Arianism to be a heresy. The council claimed that actually the relationship between the Father and the Son is of the same substance and thus of the same being.
Arius: “Son” implies derivative. Arius argued that the idea of “Son” by definition involves a derivation from a “Father”. This has to mean that Christ is lesser than The Father, if the idea that The Father is the father of Christ is to make sense.
The Nicene Creed introduced the idea of “eternally begotten” to deal with this issue. The idea is that the Son is related to the Father by eternal derivation. The Son had no beginning in time. The Father is eternal and thus must eternally be a father, and so therefore must The Son be eternal, without a beginning in time.
Arguably ‘eternally begotten’ is not biblical. Furthermore, Arius argued that there can only be one mightiest thing. If the Father is the mightiest, then The Son cannot be. As evidence for his view, Arius pointed to: “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28)
There are philosophical reasons for the Nicene claim that the begetting of The Son is eternal, which is that it takes place outside time since God is outside time.
W. E. Channing defended the unitarian view. He argued:
- The scriptures are in limited human language and thus require reason to interpret.
- Reason is a God-given faculty and thus it cannot be contrary to faith and we must use it. Although using human reason in theology is dangerous, it is more dangerous not to use it.
- “We object to the doctrine of the Trinity” because it subverts “the unity of God”.
- The trinity implies three persons who love and converse with each other and have different roles in our salvation. “if these things do not imply … three minds … we are at a loss to know how three minds [are to be formed]”
- The trinity is “unscriptural” because the idea that God is three persons is never found in the New Testament.
- If the Trinity were true, it would be important and expressed in scripture with “all possible precision” and yet it is simply not. “We ask for one, one only, in which we are told, that [God] is a threefold being”.
- The Trinitarian view of Jesus is one of “infinite confusion”. How could one being be both human and divine, weak and almighty, ignorant and omniscient?
The incoherence of the trinity. The Unitarian liberal theologian Channing argued that the Trinitarian view of Jesus is one of “infinite confusion”. How could one being be both human and divine, weak and almighty, ignorant and omniscient? Something could be either human or divine, but not both. These are two different incompatible states. They are contradictory qualities which cannot inhere in the same being, or that being would have contradictory qualities. Divinity is infinite, humanity is finite; something cannot be both infinite and finite. John Hick agrees and illustrates this argument; to say Jesus is God is like saying that a circle is also a square. Hick goes on to conclude that Christ being a mere human solves the paradoxical implications of the trinity.
The trinity is a mystery to be taken on faith. Theologians like Augustine and Karl Barth admit that the trinity is a mystery which must be taken on faith and that all human attempts to fully understand the trinity through reason are misguided. Augustine began his book “On the Trinity” with the statement that he wrote it
“in order to guard against the sophistries of those who disdain to begin with faith, and are deceived by a crude and perverse love of reason”.
Barth said he was ‘relieved’ that Augustine admitted that his word “person” was just a manner of speaking for the mystery of the trinity, because “A really suitable term for it just does not exist”. The application of human reason to understanding God is not something Augustine or Barth would accept.
The success of Barth’s argument here depends on whether they are right that the Bible supports the trinitarian view and also on whether he is correct in his rejection of natural theology and the power of reason to provide us knowledge of God.
Jesus’ role in our salvation (the atonement) shows he was divine. Jesus’ sacrifice of his own life to save us from our sins is called the atonement and is something only a divine being could do. A mere human’s death would not have the significance nor power to save us from our sins. Christians believe that Christ’s defeat of death when he was resurrected was an offer of eternal life to all who have faith in him. So, the resurrection story must have been true in order to make sense of the purpose of Jesus’ life in saving us from our sins, which is a prevalent biblical theme.
The moral exemplar theory of the atonement, such as the version proposed by Hick, doesn’t require that Jesus’ death had a literal and direct effect on our sinful state, so his theory of the atonement undercuts the importance of the trinity for salvation. Hick claims that Jesus was just a human and so certainly died, but that the power of his sacrifice was merely as an example of moral life so inspiring that it influences us to be better and thereby saves us from our sins in that sense. So, Jesus didn’t have to be a divine being to save us from our sins.
Karl Barth on the Trinity
Karl Barth believes the Trinity is the centre of Christianity (without it, Christianity is no different from Judaism).
He produced a recent development on the doctrine, which claimed we should replace the traditional trinitarian formula of “one God in three persons” with “one God in three modes of being”.
The reason for this is that Barth claimed that the word ‘person’ has changed in meaning since biblical times to now involve an ‘attribute of self-consciousness’. We now think of a person as having a self-conscious personality, but therefore if God is three persons then there would be three ‘personalities’, which suggests three persons, which is the heresy of tritheism that goes against the “one God in three persons” formulation.
So, Barth proposed that trinitarianism should hold “one God in three modes of being”, which Barth points out was a term used by early Church theologians and so is more true to their meaning that the word “person” has now become.
“we are speaking not of three divine I’s, but thrice of the one divine I.” – Barth
He believed that the basis of the doctrine is that God revealed himself to humans in two ways,
- In the Son – an objective (factual) unveiling of what God is;
- In the Spirit – a subjective (personal belief/understanding) of how God works for us
Barth believes that both are needed for human beings to fully understand the trinity. He concludes that because humans are sinful, they are incapable of responding to the objective revelation of God through Jesus, unless a recognition is imparted to them by the Holy Spirit.
Barth argued that the term ‘person’ was spread by Augustine to bring together the Western Churches that used the latin ‘personae’ and the eastern churches that used ‘hypostatis’. Augustine claimed neither term worked because a suitable term doesn’t exist, so proposed ‘person’ as a compromise.
Barth argued the Eastern Greek Churches’ term ‘hypostatis’ was better because the western ‘personae’ suggested Sabellianism, which is anti-trinitarian as it states the Father, Son and Holy spirits are ‘three mere manifestations behind which stood a hidden fourth’ – Barth.
The origin of the Holy Spirit; the filioque controversy
The current Nicene Creed ends with this line:
“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified”.
“Filioque” is a Latin word meaning “and from the Son”. In the late 6th century, some western Churches started adding the word to the Niceno-Constantinoplitan Creed. Originally the Creed had stated that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father”. The addition by some western Churches changed that to the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son”.
The filioque controversy began as a disagreement around the meaning of the filioque term and the theological legitimacy of adding it to the Nicene Creed. Many Eastern Churches rejected this addition, claiming that it violated Canon VII, established in the third ecumenical council of Ephesus, which stated that no one may make an addition to the Nicene Creed. When the Pope authorized the addition of the term to the Nicene Creed in the 11th century, this in turn provoked controversy over whether the Pope had the authority to do that. This contributed to the Great Schism of 1054, where Eastern and Western Christianity separated.
The filioque term disrupts the balance of the trinity. Eastern Christian theologians argue that there is a balance to the trinity, which is that a characteristic is either had by all or only by one. For example, Fatherhood is unique to the Father, begottenness is unique to the Son, and procession unique to the Spirit. All three have uncreatedness. However, If the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son, then the Son is in a superior position to the Holy Spirit. If both the Father and the Son have the characteristic of being that which the Spirit proceeds from, then the balance of unity of the trinity is destroyed. Eastern Christians think that this imbalance causes the Holy Spirit to be seen as lesser than the Father and the Son, which has a negative consequence for the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church. For example, spiritual and moral life becomes about legalistic obedience to the letter of the law, instead of the spirit of the moral law living in and guiding each person by the power of the Holy Spirit. If you thought the Holy Spirit is lesser than the Father and Son, you would be less likely to view it as a source for ethics and just stick to the revealed teachings of the Father and Son. Eastern Christian theologians think this is what happened to Western Christian ethics.
Some Western theologians respond that without the dual procession from the Father and the Son, we cannot distinguish between the Son and the Spirit. Certainly there is the difference that the Son was incarnated, but that is a difference within the physical world, not within the actual nature of God. Especially considering the triune God existed before the incarnation, and even before the creation of the world. So there must have been a difference between the Son and the Spirit at that point for the trinity to be plausible. It seems the Spirit coming from the Son does that job.
The filioque term undermines the nature of the Father. Eastern theologians point out that It is the Father which creates, and the Son is eternally derived from the Father. It is the Father who creates, not the Son.
However, John does state that “through” the Son all things are made, so it appears that the Father and Son create together. Even the Nicene creed claims that.
John only states that “through” the Son all things were made however, which could suggest that it is the Father who performs the foundational creative act. In that case, it would undermine the role of the Father to suggest that the Son had a role in creating the Holy Spirit.
There is some biblical support for the Filioque clause. Various Bible passages refer to Jesus “sending” the Holy Spirit. For example, Augustine points to John 20:22, where Jesus breathed on his disciples and said “Receive the Holy Spirit”. Augustine thought this passage clearly showed that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Son.
The Eastern Church argue that the immanent trinity is not the same as economic trinity. In other words, the way God reveals himself in history does not necessarily give us an accurate view of his actual nature in itself. Although the Holy Spirit seemed to proceed from Jesus, that was only the Economic Trinity, the actions of God, which cannot tell us anything about the true nature of God, i.e. the Immanent Trinity. Augustine simply assumes that the physical events of Jesus’ breath and words revealed something about the Immanent Trinity.
Protestant sola scriptura theonomy. Some protestant theologians argue that this view undermines the authority of scripture. They argue that we should trust the authority of the Bible over that of our own reasoning.
St Augustine was in favour of the filioque addition.
The Immanent Trinity refers to what God is. God in Godself, God’s nature, what God is in eternity apart from creation. The Economic Trinity refers to what God does. The God we experience in history and our personal lives. Western Christianity believes that the Economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity. The Eastern Churches believe that the Economic Trinity is lesser than the Immanent Trinity.
Augustine pointed to the passage “God is love” (1 John 4:8). He claimed that there are features of the human soul which appear to be triadic, of three aspects, which makes them traces of the trinity. For example, the triad of self-love; lover, beloved, love. The spirit is what enables union between God and believers, and between believers and other believers. The Spirit is the giver of community because it is the love that holds it together.
From this, Augustine concluded that the Holy Spirit is the personification of love. The Holy Spirit is what we experience when we experience the “bond of love” between believers. Augustine claimed the Holy Spirit must also be the bond of love between Father and Son. Since Father and Son are one, their bond of love is self-love, which is why we have the triad of self-love in our soul.
Since the Holy Spirit acts within the Trinity as a bond of love between the Father and the Son, it therefore proceeds from both. It also acts within human beings to unite them with each other and with the Father and Son.
Can the Trinity be understood? Augustine admits that his analogy with love is just an analogy.