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This is the transcript of the sermon I preached for the evening service for last Lord’s Day giving an overview of the Doctrine of the Trinity from historical and systematic theology:

 

  1. Introduction, The Necessity of the Trinity in a Christian Worldview
  2. Doctrinal Overview of the key tenets of the Doctrine of the Trinity
  3. Eternal Generation of the Son

I. Introduction, The Necessity of the Trinity in a Christian Worldview

Now it is necessary to go over the definition of the Trinity because most of the time witnessing to a Jehovah’s Witness or a Muslim we pass by each other as ships going in opposite directions when we discuss the person of Christ because we have not properly defined the doctrine of the Trinity and the Unitarians with their presuppositions/assumptions (i.e. that Jesus was only a prophet or Michael the Archangel) interpret key passages on the deity of Christ differently.  I will be focusing more on a historical and systematic overview of the doctrine of the Trinity in this sermon since I will focus on exegesis of key passages in the Christology section.  The Christian worldview is explicitly Trinitarian because the Gospel assumes the doctrine of the Trinity and other theistic worldviews which tinker with the doctrine of God end up undercutting the doctrinal foundation for the Gospel since Only Christ, fully God and fully man, can perfectly fulfill the covenant of works on our behalf as our perfect mediator, which no mere angel or prophet is qualified to do.

The Doctrine of the Trinity is sometimes called a mystery, this does not mean that it is an irrational or illogical doctrine, but rather it is difficult for our finite minds to fully comprehend just as any other attribute of God.

“The Trinity is a truth that tests our dedication to the principle that God is smarter than we are.  As strange as that may sound, I truly believe that in most instances where a religious group denies the Trinity, the reason can be traced back to the founder’s unwillingness to admit the simple reality that God is bigger than we can ever imagine.  That is really what Christians have always meant when they use the term “mystery” of the Trinity.  The term has never meant that the Trinity is an inherently irrational thing.  Instead, it simply means that we realize that God is completely unique in the way He exists, and there are elements of His being that are simply beyond our meager mental capacity to comprehend[1]”.

We must study this doctrine with humility avoiding the error of rationalism which has caused doubt on key Christian doctrines pertaining to the Trinity such as the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit.

“The incomprehensibility of God means that the doctrines of the faith will involve holy mysteries which transcend human reason and contradict fleshly wisdom (not, for instance, chapter 3: ‘Of God’s decree’ and chapter 8 ‘Of Christ the Mediator’).  Such mysteries must be accepted with humility and reverence by an intellect weaned from the arrogant and foolish notion of rationalism that it must or can comprehend the divine Being (Ps. 131)[2]”.

This demonstrates the double standard of Unitarians who deny the Trinity as a logical contradiction because they cannot fully comprehend it, yet they still affirm that God is eternal, which is also a mystery for our finite minds to grasp,

“Rather than thinking of eternity as a long, long time, think of it here as a way of existence that does not involve a progression of events and moments.  That is how God lives.  He defies our categories and our feeble efforts to comprehend Him.  If he didn’t, He wouldn’t be God[3]”.

Also there are important apologetic implications due to the fact that only God is triune in nature this means that ultimately any analogy will break down when we define the doctrine of the Trinity, therefore we should define the trinity how the inspired and inerrant Word of God defines it rather than presuming that our human ingenuity can do a better job,

“This process works just fine for most things.  But for unique things, it doesn’t.  If something is truly unique, it cannot be compared to anything else, at least not without introducing some element of error[4]”.

“When we say, “God is like…” we are treading on dangerous ground.  Yes, we might be able to illustrate a certain aspect of God’s being in this way, but in every instance the analogy, if pushed far enough, is going to break down[5]”.

II. Doctrinal Overview of the key tenets of the Doctrine of the Trinity

For defining the doctrine of the Trinity James White summarizes the doctrine of the trinity in three parts with the following chart:

Foundation One: Monotheism: There is Only One God
Foundation Two: There are Three Divine Persons
Foundation Three: The Persons Are Coequal and Coeternal[6]

The doctrine of the Trinity is more fully explained in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith Chapter 2 Paragraph 3,

3. In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences,4 the Father the Word (or Son) and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and Eternity, each having the whole Divine Essence,5 yet the Essence undivided, the Father is of none neither begotten nor proceeding, the Son is6 Eternally begotten of the Father, the holy Spirit7 proceeding from the Father and the Son, all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and Being; but distinguished by several peculiar, relative properties, and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our Communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him[7]”.

Notice that the confession uses more precise language to carefully define the doctrine of the Trinity to avoid misrepresentation, for example essence is used in place of being and subsistences rather than persons.  This helps to avoid misrepresenting these definitions since being and person have been used historically by those who deny the Trinity to equate God’s being and persons in terms of human categories, thus distorting the doctrine of the Trinity.  For example one group who denied the Trinity, the Socinians, in the 17th century (1600s) understood persons to refer to someone taking on different roles in a play by changing masks, which is not what the Doctrine of the Trinity teaches since this would means that God merely changes mode of form like water, so the Father becomes the Son or Holy Spirit, but they don’t exist at the same time in this view.  Richard Muller discussing the meaning of person based on its underlying latin word persona, and cautions against incorrect views of the Trinity by not correctly understanding the terms,

“In none of these usages does the term persona have the connotation of emotional individuality or unique consciousness that clearly belongs to the term in contemporary usage. It is quite certain that the trinitarian use of persona does not point to three wills, three emotionally unique beings, or, as several eighteenth-century authors influenced by Cartesianism argued, three centers of consciousness; such implication would be tritheistic… Thus, in trinitarian usage, three personae subsist in the divine substantia or essentia (q.v.) without division and, in christological usage, one persona has two distinct naturae, the divine and the human. This can be said while nonetheless arguing one will in God and two in Christ—since will belongs properly to the essence of God and to the natures in Christ, and in neither case to persona as such. Thus, in the language of the scholastics, persona indicates primarily an individuum (q.v.), an individual thing, or a suppositum (q.v.), a self-subsistent thing, and, more specifically still, an intelligent self-subsistent thing (suppositum intelligens)[8]”.

III. Eternal Generation of the Son

An important, but often neglected doctrine when studying the doctrine of the Trinity is called the eternal generation of the Son.  It is often overlooked or denied because it is misunderstood to teach that the Son was begotten or born as creatures are,

“One place at which the historic doctrine of the Trinity is in danger from such rationalism in our day is in a widespread doubt among evangelical teachers as to the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit.  This doubt is probably due to the seeming contradiction of asserting that the Son is self-existent God and yet eternally generated[9]”.

This doctrine answers the question of how the person of the Son is related to the Father and explains the language found in the New Testament such as begotten and explains how this language is used to describe the person of the Son.  This is crucial to understand since cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses will twist the meaning of firstborn and begotten to support their erroneous views about Christ, and likewise Muslims will quickly appeal to Christ being begotten to deny his Deity.  Stephen Lindblad summarizes the importance of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son,

“The question the doctrine of eternal generation answers is this: how does the Son have the whole divine essence, but in such a manner that the one common essence is not divided and the distinct persons are not confounded? (in other words: How does the Son eternally exist as a divine person of the Trinity being of the same divine essence as the Father and Holy Spirit, without confusing the persons of the Trinity?) The answer is simple, yet profoundly mysterious: the Son, as to his personal subsistence in the divine essence (i.e., as the Son), has the whole divine essence because the Father personally communicated his whole essence (i.e., the whole divine essence the Father has of himself) to the Son personally[10]”.

Stephan Lindblad further explains the definition of the eternal generation of the Son:

“By being begotten of the Father. He is therefore generated of the substance of the Father. This generation, however, is eternal, so that God the Father was never without God the Son. Likewise, generation is most perfect, so that the Father’s whole essence is communicated to the Son without any diminution, alteration, or mutation, but the whole yet remains in the Father. And, therefore, one is not able to say that the Son’s essence is derived, created, or essentiated from the essence of the Father, since the simple essence that is in the Father is communicated fully to the Son. It is for this reason one may accept the language of certain pious persons that the Son, as he is God, is of himself, that is, the essence that is in the Son is not of another essence, but is self-existent. For it is neither created nor properly speaking generated, as if it were another thing, but the same is communicated[11]”.

William Perkins accepted both the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son as well as the Son’s aseity (self-existence) and saw no contradiction between these two doctrines,

“Although the Sonne be begotten of his Father, yet nevertheless he is of and by himself very God: for he must be considered either according to his essence, or according to his filiation or Sonneship.  In regard of his essence, he is autotheos that is, of and by himself very God: for the Deitie which is common to all three persons, is not begotten.  But as he is a person, and the sonne of the Father, he is not of himself, but from an other: for he is the eternall Sonne of his Father.  And thus he is truly said to be very God of very God[12]”.

Orthodox Trinitarian theologians have been careful while affirming the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son to not stray into speculation of how the Son was eternally begotten as Ussher explains,

“We find it not revealed touching the manner, and therefore our ignorance herein is better than all their curiosity, that have enterprized arrogantly the search hereof; for if our own generation and frame in our mothers womb be above our capacity, Ps. 139:14-15, it is no marvell if the mystery of the eternall generation of the Son of God cannot be comprehended[13]”.

Dr. Sam Waldron gives a good explanation of why this doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son is important for maintaining a biblical doctrine of the Trinity because if the Son has not eternally been the Son (the position of those who deny the eternal generation of the Son say that Jesus became the Son at the incarnation or at his resurrection, but wasn’t the Son prior to the incarnation), then how were the persons of the Trinity distinguished?  This would also make the Son mutable and subject to change, which would be a clear denial of the immutability of God since God would have existed in a binity (2 persons) that later formed a Trinity, when the Son became a separate person in the Godhead.

“Without eternal generation and eternal procession (That the Holy Spirit has eternally existed as a person in the Godhead) … it is impossible to distinguish the different persons of the Trinity.  There are no revealed personal relations or properties.  Even terminology like the First, Second, or Third person of the Trinity becomes illegitimate.  We are left with three colourless, unvarying, indistinguishable persons in the Trinity.  This result smells of the barrenness of human philosophy, not the richness of biblical revelation[14]”.

In other words the biblical doctrine of the Trinity presupposes the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, along with the eternal generation of the Spirit.  The doctrines of the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit simply stated presupposes the immutability of the intratrinitarian relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

“That they are eternally mutually related as Father and Son and Spirit.  That is, the Father is the Father of the Son, and the Son is the Son of the Father, and the Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son[15]”.

“The peculiar personal property of the second person is expressed by the title Son.  As a person he is eternally the only begotten Son of the Father, and hence the express image of his person, and the eternal Word in the beginning with God.  The peculiar property of the third person is expressed by the title Spirit.  This cannot express his essence, because his essence is also the essence of the Father and the Son.  It must express his eternal personal relation to the other divine persons, because he is a person constantly designated as the Spirit of the Father and the Son[16]”.

These aren’t merely lofty ivory tower theological conjectures, but have been taught throughout Church History and have provided a solid biblical foundation to refute various heretical views of the Trinity throughout Church History, so we shouldn’t quickly ignore them or view them as irrelevant doctrines to our understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity which is, “the foundation of all our Communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him” (1689 LBC 2.3).

[1] James White, The Forgotten Trinity: Recovering the Heart of Christian Belief (MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1998), 20

[2] Samuel E. Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition (Grand Rapids, MI; Evangelical Press, 2013), 65-66

[3] James White, The Forgotten Trinity: Recovering the Heart of Christian Belief (MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1998), 42

[4] ibid, 25

[5] Ibid, 25

[6] James White, The Forgotten Trinity: Recovering the Heart of Christian Belief (MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1998), 28; another chart he has showing a triangle diagram of different heresies that result from denying one of the three tenets of the doctrine of the Trinity is found on, ibid, 30

4 Mat. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14.

5 Exod. 3:14; Joh. 14:11; 1 Cor. 8:6.

6 Joh. 1:14, 18.

7 Joh. 15:26. Gal. 4:6.

[7] W. J. McGlothlin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Philadelphia; Boston; Chicago; St. Louis; Toronto: American Baptist Publication Society, 1911), 232

[8] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1985), 226–227

[9] Samuel E. Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition (Grand Rapids, MI; Evangelical Press, 2013), 66

[10] ARBCA circular letter on eternal generation of the Son by Stefan T. Lindblad, 14; here is the full letter for a more thorough overview of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son: http://www.arbca.com/2013-circular-letter-eternal-generation-of-the-son

[11] ibid, 15

[12] William Perkins, A Golden Chaine, § 5, in The Works of That Famous and Worthie Minister of Christ, in the University of Cambridge, M.W. Perkins (Cambridge: Iohn Legat, 1603), 5 cited in J.V. Fesko, The Theology of the Westminister Standards: Historical Context & Theological Insights (Wheaton, Illinois; Crossway, 2014), 180-181

[13] Ussher, Body of Divnitie, 80, cited in J.V. Fesko, The Theology of the Westminister Standards: Historical Context & Theological Insights (Wheaton, Illinois; Crossway, 2014), 182

[14] Samuel E. Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition (Grand Rapids, MI; Evangelical Press, 2013), 68-69

[15] A.A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith (Carlisle, PA; The Banner of Truth, 1992), 59

[16] Ibid, 60