Results tagged “Trinity” from Reformation21 Blog

Katherine Sonderegger and the Divine Oneness as Foundational Perfection

Last time, I proposed to share with you my 'reading notes' on Katherine Sonderegger's new Systematic Theology, Volume 1: The Doctrine of God

There are plenty of big books in the world to which one could commit cash and time. Why this one? Well, my answer to that is a bit of a hunch: I heard Prof Sonderegger present a paper at a conference and I was impressed by three things: her commitment to listening to the voice of Scripture, her elegant literary style (she really has an ear for English prose), and her determination to press theological ideas a very long way indeed. 

I haven't been disappointed in picking up this stout volume of her work, though I have been daunted at times. That is not because Sonderegger parades her learning, or attempts to intimidate by being opaque. On the contrary: in reading this theology, one feels as if one is experiencing theology as it really should be done. And that is hard but rewarding work. 

Having established her beginning point with the Oneness of God - a surprising challenge to the fashionable determination to start with the Three - Sonderegger subsequently turns to an examination of the Divine Oneness as the foundational perfection. That is a measure of how seriously she takes the divine unity - there is no gainsaying or surpassing it as a perfection of God. And that is, as she writes, something that 'beckons us into the mystery of God' - by which Sonderegger means it draws us into prayer, and to worship. Divine Oneness is 'contemplated on bended knee'. It is something that Israel heard when they encountered God at the foot of the mountain, and trembled. 

What is it for 'Oneness' to be a 'foundational predicate' of God? It means that all the other things we might validly say about God are 'governed and determined' by Oneness.  The corollary is naturally the strong prohibition throughout Scripture against idolatry. Not only does Scripture testify that God is supreme, and that he is not accompanied by a queen-god, but God does not look like anything. He is without likeness on the earth. He is not to be paired with any material, visible thing. But importantly, he is not a concept or an idea, either. 

This is pushing the notion of this divine Oneness a long way, and rightly: "We do not approach God's Holy Oneness any more powerfully by examining our general concepts and ideals than we do by examining trees, and human faces, and sunsets. God is One, this very One: God is concrete, superabundantly particular." (p. 27)

How do we then know God? It is enough at this stage for Sonderegger to state that, as we do know him, we are confronted by mystery. This is the immortal, invisible, God only wise, ineffably sublime. And yet, he is known, as he declares himself, through the Scriptures, where we hear his voice. 

In contemporary terms, we might say that God is free, and radically so. He is not constrained by comparison. He is not a member of a class, or a set. And, echoing Barth, Sondereggar notes that God's freedom has its impact in the world not to enslave but to free those who draw near to him. This is not then a meditation on a concept of God's freedom, but a reflection on what God's freedom actually achieves in the history of Israel, and in the history of Jesus Christ. 

That is: God is free, not constrained by some human plaything, some statute or item. He is not for us to imagine into being through our comparison of him with mute beasts, or with great human beings. There is not to be found, nor thought, his likeness in the earth. Yet, this is not simply a dissolving of God's reality into a vast blackness of negativity, where we say only what God is not and not what he is. For Sonderegger, negating the form, image, or likeness of God is merely what creatures must do to affirm the reality of the Divine Oneness and Freedom. 

I am not sure that I wish to carp at all with what Sondereggar has drawn out from this affirmation of the Divine Oneness as foundational predicate. Perhaps we could add some things that the Professor no doubt would also add: the Oneness means that all the other things we might say about God must be held together - he is not the Almighty God on Monday, and the Merciful God on Tuesday. Rather, might must modify mercy, and vice versa. The Oneness will also mean that the history of his actions is one single history, not a disconnected and arbitrary series of events. History itself, as creation too, emanates from the one source, and no other. 

But to affirm the Divine Oneness is to recognize that the divine being is so deep, so without parallel, so uncompromised and untainted, so holy, that it is probably time to quit these inadequate meditations and simply fall to praise, confession, and thanksgiving. 

Michael P Jensen is the rector of St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of Martyrdom and Identity: the Self on Trial and Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology

The Three Greatest Reasons Christ Loves You

If a preacher had one sermon to preach to unbelievers he would likely preach something that follows the Apostolic pattern in the book of Acts. But what about when faced with the chance to give just one message to those who are Christians? Here there is, naturally, a lot more liberty. 

Usually, when I'm faced with a situation where I may never see the Christians I'm speaking to again this side of eternity, I speak to them about truths that are of special significance to Christians, such as the love Christ has for his bride (Eph. 3:19).

The Puritans sometimes get a bad rap for their theology, especially in the area of assurance of salvation. Yet, I gained full assurance of salvation from reading a Puritan, Thomas Goodwin. No Continental writer has quite given me a sense of Christ's love for me in the way that Goodwin did when I first read him on the heart of Christ in heaven towards sinners on earth. 

So, if you ask me what topic would I speak to Christians about if I had only one study/sermon, it would probably focus on the love of Christ for the church. Indeed, I recently had the privilege of speaking on the love of Christ for his bride in Brazil when I was asked to give an impromptu bible study one evening. 

How do you (a Christian) know that Christ loves you? How can you be assured of his love for you? Here below are what I believe are the three greatest reasons that Christ loves you.

1. The command of the Father on the Son. The Father gave Jesus a perpetual command to love sinners (see Jn. 6:37-40; Jn. 10:15-18; 15:10). Jesus remains in the Father's love by loving sinners. There can be no greater influence upon the Son to love us poor, miserable sinners than the command of the Father. Christ's failure to love us would actually be a failure to love his Father. 

Think of Christ's words to Peter in John 21:15-17. Christ asks Peter three times, "do you love me?" Peter will show his love for Christ by feeding Christ's sheep. Now think of the Father asking the Son, "do you love me?" Son: "Yes, Father, you know that I love you." Father: "Die for my sheep, love my sheep, nourish my sheep."

Christ shows his love for the Father by loving those whom the Father has given to him. There can be no greater pleasure for Christ than expressing his love for his Father. This has massive implications for us: it means that Christ will show his love for the Father by loving us.

2. The work of the Spirit on the Son. Christ possessed the Spirit without measure (Jn. 3:34). He is the man of the Spirit, par excellence. Upon his entrance into heaven, Christ received a fresh outpouring of the Spirit to the greatest degree possible for any human (Acts 2:33; Ps. 45). As a merciful high priest, exalted in the heavens, the Spirit produces grace and mercy in Christ in a manner than even exceeded his grace and mercy on earth. Therefore, Christ, having the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), is even more patient towards sinners in Heaven than he was on earth. This partly explains why Christ said it was better for him to go than stay (Jn. 16:7).

As Thomas Goodwin said, "your very sins move him more to pity than anger." This is what it means for Christ to be a sympathetic high priest.

Christ's resurrected body made it possible for him to receive not only a fresh outpouring of the Spirit upon his human nature in heaven, but his resurrected body enabled him to receive an even fuller outpouring of the Spirit upon his human nature in heaven, as the exalted King. Thus Christ is more patient, loving, and merciful in heaven (i.e., in glory) towards sinners on earth than when he was in his state of humiliation. 

3. The holy self-love of the Son. As Christ saves and blesses his people, he is reaping the fruit of his work for sinners. He is more concerned for our salvation than we are. As a good husband, Christ loves his bride. But, remember, in loving his bride he is loving himself: 

28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. [29] For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, [30] because we are members of his body (Eph. 5:28-30).

Why would Christ deprive his own body of grace? I can be sure that he will love me because I belong to him, and he would have to hate himself before he could hate me. Whatever grace, love, blessing, etc., we have received as Christians, we can be sure that we have received these graces because Christ loves himself.

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me that: 

1) Jesus must love sinners in order to express his love towards his Father.
2) Jesus will be patient and merciful towards me because of the effect of the Holy Spirit upon him in Heaven.
3) Jesus will love me because he is a good husband, so that by loving me more he is loving himself more.

If you're a Christian struggling with assurance, here, then, are three blessed reasons to be assured: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

And guess what? How many of these reasons for Christ loving us have anything to do with things we do? The greatest reasons Christ loves you are entirely dependent not upon us, but upon the triune God, which really is good news.

The odd thing about some of the theology that comes from the camp of those who claim to emphasize grace in their preaching and teaching is that they don't always do a very good job of expressing the rich theology of grace found in the Scriptures. It is one thing to use the word grace a lot, but quite another thing to express a robust, trinitarian theology of grace that highlights the person of Christ in a manner that goes beyond over-used slogans. 

Personally, I'm glad that the three greatest reasons Christ loves me are not qualifications in me, but instead dependent upon the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  

Katherine Sonderegger and the Divine Oneness of God

I've been slowly working my way through Katherine Sonderegger's Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Doctrine of God.  Released this year, it is the sort of book that pastor-theologians or theological students could make the focus of a reading group. It is beautifully written, fresh, biblical in method, and extremely stimulating. It is above all genuinely theological, and not as concerned with the political as much contemporary theological writing is. You can see some other comments I've made on Sonderegger here. This post represents the first of what might be called 'reading notes' on Sonderegger's text. 

'The Perfect Oneness of God' is the place that Sonderegger chooses to begin her doctrine of God. This is for a biblical reasons, she argues: the Shema is such a foundational truth for all of Scripture that it cannot be gainsaid. She notes that the New Testament is likewise insistent on the oneness of God as 'axiomatic', citing James 2:19: 'You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe - and shudder!'. For Jesus, the oneness of God is the theological principle from which he argues with the lawyer about the greatest commandment (Mark 12:29-30). 

So God is One. But what does that mean? Does it mean that God is to be worshipped alone among other gods? Or that in fact that there are no other gods? At this juncture, Sonderegger begins to address one of the concerns underlying her work: that the critique of a kind of theological conceptuality as being 'Greek metaphysics' in the name of a more 'biblical' or 'Hebraic' type of thinking has been a massive mistake in late twentieth century theology. For Robert Jenson, writing in the tradition of Karl Barth, the divine oneness needs to sweep away all thought of the 'one' of Greek metaphysics and instead consider the particular and distinctive contribution of the narrative of Holy Scripture, with its dramatic presentation of the threefold God. 

Sonderegger is not an anti-trinitarian! But she questions the almost universal trend to take the doctrine of the Trinity as the starting point for the doctrine of God. This was Aquinas's starting point, and that of many Reformed theologians, although not Peter Lombard's. Lombard began with the Three; Aquinas insisted on beginning with the One. 

So, what is Sonderegger's argument for beginning with the Oneness and not the Threeness? The Oneness of God is, she says, one of those principles so foundational that all other theological statements rest upon it. There are philosophical and traditional warrants for starting here, but most importantly: 'Divine Oneness is recommended principally by Holy Scripture itself' (p. 9). Sonderegger then argues that the principle form of the Old Testament is not narrative, but Torah. And the subject matter of Torah is the One God. In particular, we see the profound influence of the book of Deuteronomy in the gospels and in Paul. As Sonderegger says:
Indeed so central is Torah, and especially its representation in Deuteronomy to the authors of the New Testament, that we risk simply repeating these Gospels and Epistles when we set out the citations (p. 12). 
The law is framed in narrative, but it is after all not the narrative that Psalm 119 celebrates, but the 'precepts' 'commandments' 'laws' and 'statutes'. 

What this allows us to do is to go beyond God as an actor in a drama, as per Barth and Jenson, and to talk about metaphysics. The Oneness of God says something about his being. Even though Scripture is not a philosophical treatise, and it is certainly not a Greek philosophical treatise; but that is saying something about genre, not subject matter. This is an important principle to distinguish for a properly theological hermeneutics. The form of Holy Scripture is certainly not to be separated from its subject matter, but it surely can be distinguished from it, and definitely not reduced to it. 

In particular, the narratives and other literature of the Old Testament distinguish the One True God from the other gods by the fact of his invisibility. 'The nature of the One God is to have no image, form, or likeness' (p. 21). That is the opening principle for Israel's invitation to worship the One God. That is the tragic story of apostasy, as the chase after idols. The Oneness of God, and his Invisibility, are in opposition to the gods and idols of the nations that surround Israel. 

There are questions to ponder here. Is Sonderegger right in putting Torah in the central form of her reading of the Old Testament? Certainly, this move allows her to reintroduce the traditional metaphysical conceptuality of theology. The limp theism of a previous generation is now being seriously challenged (how did anyone ever think that Open Theism was a good idea?) But the warning, that a thicker version of metaphysics might do damage to the proper reading of Scripture, should be heeded, too. 

Michael P Jensen is the rector of St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of Martyrdom and Identity: the Self on Trial and Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology

Most evangelical presentations of the doctrine of Scripture are implicitly trinitarian. They identify the Father as Scripture's primary author, the Son as Scripture's central subject matter, and the Spirit as the immediate agent of prophetic and apostolic inspiration. Scripture is God the Father preaching God the Son by God the Spirit, to borrow J. I. Packer's famous description. Moreover, evangelicals recognize that the gospel of Jesus Christ, the central subject matter of Scripture, is implicitly trinitarian. The gospel concerns the love of God the Father for elect sinners, the suffering and glory of God the incarnate Son, and the fellowship of the saints in God the Spirit. The gospel is trinitarian in its root and fruit. 

As salutary as this implicit trinitarianism is, there is more to be said about the relationship between the Trinity and Scripture. The Trinity is not simply the primary author of Holy Scripture and the organic structure of the gospel. The Trinity is the depth dimension of Holy Scripture, its principal subject matter and end. Matthew Bates's recent book, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and the Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretation of the Old Testament, opens an illuminating window into to the trinitarian depth dimension of Holy Scripture.

Bates's book focuses upon early Christian "prosopological exegesis" of the Old Testament. Prosopological exegesis is a "person-centered reading strategy" that seeks to resolve the otherwise ambiguous identities of speakers and audiences in Old Testament texts in light of the clear determination of their identities in the apostolic gospel. As Bates demonstrates, both the New Testament and early Christian interpreters engaged in this sort of exegesis. For example, Mark 12.35-37 clarifies the identities of speaker and auditor in Psalm 110 as God the Father speaking to God the Son regarding his eternal generation and messianic dominion. And it clarifies for us that David overheard this conversation between the Father and the Son "in the Holy Spirit."     

New Testament and early Christian prosopological exegesis overhears the story of "the conversational God" as it unfolds from its root in the Son's eternal generation and appointment as Messiah, through the Son's incarnate mission, death, and resurrection, to its ultimate triumph in the installment of the Son at the Father's right hand. 

In Psalm 110.3-4, we overhear the Father say, "from the womb, before the dawn-bearing morning star appeared, I begot you," and we overhear the Father appoint this eternally begotten Son as messianic priest-king, "You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek" (compare with Psalm 2.6-9).

In Psalm 40.6-8, we overhear the Son speaking to the Father of the body he has prepared for him and of the Son's desire to do the Father's will in his incarnate mission (see also Heb 10.5-7). 

In Psalm 22, we overhear the Son's cry of agony from the cross (vv. 1-2) and we overhear the Son praise the Father in the midst of an "ever-expanding" assembly of peoples after the Father has raised him from the dead (vv. 22-25).

In Psalm 45.6-7, we overhear the Son being addressed as the Father installs him on his eternal throne after he has obediently fulfilled the Father's commission, "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your companions" (see also Heb 1.8-9).

Such a reading strategy unveils the trinitarian depth dimension of Scripture in at least two ways. First, it reveals that Holy Scripture is not only God's Word to us; Holy Scripture is also witness to God's Word to God. How wonderful it is to read the Bible as a Spirit-inspired occasion to overhear God's intratrinitarian conversation! Second, this reading strategy helps us see that the great love story which unfolds in the pages of Scripture is not simply the story of God's love for elect sinners. It is the story of the Father's love for his eternal Son and of his desire to make him the head of a redeemed humanity, and it is the story of the Son's love for the Father and of his willingness to become incarnate and to endure suffering--to the point of death on a cross--out of zeal for the Father's glory among the nations (Ps 69.9; John 2.17). Prosopological exegesis helps us see that the story of God's love for us is but a modulation on the greater theme of the Father's love for the Son in the Spirit. 

Prosopological exegesis is a person-centered reading strategy that helps us see the person-centered subject matter and the person-centered end of Scripture. It teaches us that the purpose of revelation, and of revelation's inscripturation, is to unveil God's intratrinitarian life of communication and communion and to welcome us into that life's embrace--at great cost to the triune God himself (Matt 11.25-27; 1 John 1.3-4). Holy Scripture is the product of the Holy Spirit, who enabled prophets and apostles to overhear the lovely words of the Father to the Son and of the Son to the Father, and who enables us to hear the testimony of the prophets and apostles in order that, through their testimony, we too may have fellowship with the Father through the Son in the Spirit.
In previous entries in what is becoming an impromptu antiphonal blog series on the Trinity, Fred Sanders and I have focused on the nature and relevance of the doctrine of inseparable operations (see here, here, and here). To this point, we have considered ways in which the unity of God's being informs the unity of God's action towards his creatures in making, redeeming, and perfecting them for his glory. In the present post, I want to consider a couple of the ways in which his tripersonal manner of existing is inflected in his external works. As God is one and three, so God acts as one and three.

God's triune identity informs our understanding of God's triune actions in two areas, both which specify in different ways how the three persons relate to one another within the context of their indivisible activity toward creatures. 

(1) The doctrine of appropriations helps us appreciate why the Scriptures characteristically appropriate (for example) the act of predestination to the Father (Eph 1.4-6; 1 Pet 1.1-2) even though each divine person is an agent of God's electing grace (John 6.70; 13.18; 1 Cor 2.7-11). The reason distinct divine actions are appropriated to distinct divine persons is not because God's actions toward his creatures are divided between the persons: the external works of the Trinity are undivided (opera Trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt). The reason is due to the ways in which the personal characteristics of the three manifest themselves in their common, indivisible action. Thus, as the Father is the principle of the Son and the Spirit (i.e., he eternally generates the Son and he eternally breathes forth the Spirit), his personal character shines forth in a special way in predestination, the principle act of the Trinity in salvation. Similarly, because the Son is eternally generated by the Father and because he eternally breathes forth the Spirit, the Son's personal character shines forth in a special way in the work of redemption, since the work of redemption flows from divine predestination and issues in the work of sanctification (Eph 1.3-14). Finally, because the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son as the bond of God's tripersonal perfection, his personal character shines forth in a special way in the work of sanctification, since the work of sanctification brings the acts of predestination and redemption to their divinely appointed goal (Eph 1.4; 5.27), making us a habitation for the triune God (John 14.16-17, 23).

More clearly than in the doctrine of appropriations, (2) the doctrine of divine missions reveals how the mystery of God's tripersonal being shines forth in God's tripersonal actions toward his creatures. In trinitarian theology, "mission" refers to the "sending" of one divine person by another for a specific purpose in relation to our salvation. In Scripture, these missions follow a very specific pattern: the Father sends the Son to accomplish his redemptive mission; and the Father, with the Son, sends the Spirit to accomplish his sanctifying mission (Gal 4.4-7; John 15.26). This missional pattern in turn corresponds to the eternal relations that constitute the divine persons: the Father eternally generates the Son; and the Father, with the Son, eternally breathes forth the Spirit. As insightful as this correspondence is, it does not fully capture the wonderful reality expressed in the doctrine of the divine missions. Not only do the eternal relations of the Trinity constitute the "whence" of the divine missions, the latter being the temporal embassy and extension of the former. The eternal relations of the Trinity also constitute the "whither" of the divine missions insofar as they provide the divine prototypes and goals of those missions: the goal of the Son's redemptive mission is to make us sons and daughters in order that he might become the firstborn among many brothers and sisters (Gal 4.5; Rom 8.29); the goal of the Spirit's sanctifying mission is to embrace us within the fellowship of the Father and the Son, pouring out the Father's love into our hearts (Rom 5.5), and awakening within us the Son's filial cry of "Abba! Father!" (Gal 4.6). Formally stated, we may summarize the law of God's triune action as follows: The eternal relations of the Trinity are inflected in their undivided external operations, even as the external operations of the Trinity extend their eternal relations to elect creatures in a manner suitable to creatures.

Why does any of this matter? Along with the fact that the doctrines of inseparable operations, appropriations, and missions help us think truly about the true and triune God in his saving action, these doctrines also help us become better readers of Scripture (see, for example, here) and help deepen our communion with the triune God (see, for example, here and here). Those are not insignificant reasons for caring about trinitarian theology. 


Now, in order to round out this impromptu series, somebody needs to say something about the relationship between the Trinity and divine simplicity and about the nature and significance of the eternal generation of the Son of God. Fred? 
I recently read an essay by a leading evangelical theologian arguing that many "egalitarian" discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity threaten to compromise basic tenets of orthodox Christianity and to undermine, at least implicitly, the authority of the Bible (Wayne Grudem, "Doctrinal Deviations in Evangelical-Feminist Arguments about the Trinity," in Bruce A. Ware and John Starke, eds., One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life [Crossway, 2015], chap. 1). Over the course of the essay, the author extensively criticized some of these approaches for subscribing to the doctrine of "inseparable operations." The doctrine of inseparable operations teaches that, because the three persons of the Trinity are one God, each person of the Trinity is operative in all of God's external works--from creation through redemption to consummation. More concisely stated: "the external works of the Trinity are indivisible" (opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt). Though I share the author's complementarian commitments, as well as his concerns about the way some egalitarian theologians treat the Trinity, I believe his attempt to correct these treatments of the Trinity by denying the doctrine of inseparable operations represents a cure that is worse than the disease. To deny the doctrine of inseparable operations is to undermine classical trinitarian theology at its core.

As Lewis Ayres and others have demonstrated quite extensively over the past couple of decades, fourth century trinitarian thought, the context within which "Nicene Christianity" as we know it emerged, was characterized by three basic features: (1) a clear sense of the distinction between "person" and "nature" in the Godhead, with the understanding that there are three of the former and only one of the latter; (2) a conviction that the eternal generation of the Son does not constitute a division between the being of the Father and the being of the Son but rather that it occurs within the indivisible and incomprehensible being of God; and (3) a belief that the unity of being among the Father, the Son, and the Spirit entails a unity of operation in their works toward creatures. These three features, we should note, not only characterize fourth century trinitarian theology; they also characterize mainstream trinitarian theology East and West, late patristic, medieval, and modern, Catholic and Protestant. 

The doctrine of inseparable operations has received broad acceptance in the church because it enjoys a solid foundation in Holy Scripture. The doctrine reflects a pattern of theological reasoning that follows from a biblical pattern of divine naming. 

Consider just one example. In 1 Corinthians 8.6, Paul declares: "for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist." In this text, the Apostle appropriates two common Jewish strategies, one drawn from the Old Testament, another borrowed from Greco-Roman God-talk, for affirming the absolute unity of God's identity and action. The language of "one God" and "one Lord" draws upon Deuteronomy 6.4 to affirm the unity of God's identity. The language about "all things" being "from" him and "through" him borrows discourse often used to describe the various "causes" of the universe in order to affirm that God alone is the supreme cause of all things--i.e., that all things are "from him and through him and to him," to quote Romans 11.36. The striking feature of 1 Corinthians 8.6 is that Paul locates the distinct identities of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ within the singular divine identity and within the singular divine causality that plans and accomplishes all things for God's glory. (For further discussion of this and other Pauline texts relevant to the doctrine of the Trinity, see Wes Hill's excellent book.)

This feature of the biblical naming of God constitutes the controlling grammar of the church's later trinitarian discourse. The distinction between divine persons is a distinction that obtains within the singular being of God without compromising or dividing that being. Similarly, the distinction between divine persons is a distinction that obtains within the singular agency of God without compromising or dividing that agency.  

Of course, the flip side is true as well. The unity of God's being does not elide the distinction between the persons: The Father and the Son are one God and one Lord; but the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. Furthermore, the unity of God's agency, as affirmed in the doctrine of inseparable operations, does not elide the distinction between the persons. Francis Turretin summarizes a broad ecclesiastical consensus on this point:

Although the external works [of the Trinity] are undivided and equally common to the single persons (both on the part of the principle and on the part of the accomplishment), yet they are distinguished by order and by terms. For the order of operating follows the order of subsisting. As therefore the Father is from himself, so he works from himself; as the Son is from the Father, so he works from the Father (here belong the words of Christ, 'the Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do,' Jn. 5:19). As the Holy Spirit is from both, so he works from both. They also differ in terms as often as any divine operation is terminated on any person. So the voice heard from heaven is terminated on the Father, incarnation on the Son and the appearance in the form of a dove on the Holy Spirit.

In other words, within the undivided action of God toward his creatures, the three persons act in accordance with their distinct identities: in every work of God outside of himself, the Father acts from himself, the Son acts from the Father, and the Spirit acts from the Father and the Son. The three act in an indivisible but not an indistinct manner. (This principle, by the way, constitutes the intratrinitarian basis of the Son's obedience to the Father in his incarnate state, as Mike Allen and I have argued here.) 

The past twenty five years or so have not exactly been a golden age of evangelical reflection upon the Trinity. This is due in part to modern theological amnesia regarding some of the most basic elements of biblical, trinitarian reasoning (as Stephen Holmes has shown here). It is also due to the (all too often) haphazard manner in which the Trinity has been used in debates regarding gender roles in the church. Thankfully, things are slowly changing. As they do, both complementarians and egalitarians need to do some house cleaning in their theological polemics. Such house cleaning will require patience in recovering the categories of classical trinitarian theology and, more fundamentally, in recovering the patterns of biblical reasoning from which these categories derive and which, in turn, these categories serve to promote. 

When engaging in theological polemics, we must be careful not to destroy the fruitful trees that may stand in the midst of our interlocutors' arguments (see Deut 20.19-20). Let's contend for a biblical understanding of gender and gender roles. But let's not compromise the doctrine of the Trinity in the process.
"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." 2 Corinthians 13.14

B. B. Warfield long ago observed that the apostolic writings do not develop but rather presuppose the doctrine of the Trinity. The New Testament is not evidence of a transitional stage in the evolution of a trinitarian faith that is only conceptualized and codified in later centuries. The New Testament exhibits the presence within the apostolic church of a deeply ingrained trinitarian faith that, almost effortlessly, articulates itself in trinitarian summaries of the gospel events (e.g., Gal 4.4-7), trinitarian formulations of sacramental practice (e.g., Matt 28.19), trinitarian outbursts of praise (e.g., Eph 1.3-14), and trinitarian benedictions, such as we have in 2 Corinthians 13.14. 

This little verse is a trinitarian theology of salvation in miniature. As the God in whose name it blesses is one and three, so too is the salvation it commends. 

Second Corinthians 13.14 coordinates each phase of God's saving work--from its conception to its accomplishment to its effect--to a different person of the Trinity. Thus "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ" coordinates the accomplishment God's saving work to the Son: our Lord and elder brother who graciously humbled himself to bear our curse and who was gloriously exalted to bestow his Father's blessing (2 Cor 8.9). "The love of God" coordinates the conception of God's saving work to the Father: whose love initiated the sacrifice of his beloved Son (John 3.16) and whose love intended our adoption as that sacrifice's gracious consequence (Eph 1.4-5). "The fellowship of the Holy Spirit" coordinates the effect of God's saving work to the Spirit: who brings us into adoptive fellowship with the Father (Gal 4.5-6), through mystical fellowship with the Son (Eph 1.3), in and by the corporate fellowship of the local church (1 Cor 12). 

The text does not coordinate the three persons of the Trinity to the three phases of salvation because all three persons are not united in all three phases of God's saving work (the external works of God, after all, are undivided) but in order to highlight the distinctive glory of each particular person in each particular phase of salvation. Consequently, as the Father's distinctive personal character lies in begetting the Son and breathing the Spirit, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in conceiving the plan of salvation in love. As the Son's distinctive personal character lies in being begotten of the Father and breathing the Spirit, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in accomplishing the gracious plan that brings many sons to glory. As the Spirit's distinctive personal character lies in being breathed forth by the Father and the Son in their mutual fellowship and love, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in welcoming us into the fruit or effect of God's gracious plan of salvation: the fellowship of the Spirit.

Two quick observations follow from the preceding discussion. 

First, contrary to Warfield's reading, this verse does not contradict the principle that an ordered procession of persons exists within the Trinity; it rather confirms it. Though syntactically the Son precedes the Father and the Spirit in this verse, his position in the work of salvation corresponds to his personal order within the Trinity, as we saw above. The significance of 2 Corinthians 13.14 for trinitarian theology, we might say, lies not in syntax but in semantics. 2 Corinthians 13.14 presents to us a salvation initiated by the first person, accomplished by the second person, and perfected by the third person in correspondence with their eternal relations.

Second, as with the persons themselves, the phases of God's work of salvation may be distinguished. However, as with the persons, God's work of salvation cannot be divided. God's salvation, like God himself is one. No conception of salvation without salvation's accomplishment. No accomplishment of salvation without salvation's effect. 

This observation, it seems to me, holds powerful implications for how we think about the place of the local church within God's saving purpose. If it is indeed true that the fellowship of the Spirit (with the Father, through the Son, in the local church) is inseparable from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father, then we cannot expect to enjoy the grace of the Lord Jesus or the love of the Father apart from the church, the community within which the fellowship of the Spirit flourishes. Accordingly, to the extent that we would lean into the love of the Father and into the grace of the Lord Jesus, we must lean into the fellowship of the Spirit in the place where he pours forth the realities of that fellowship, in the local church.

And this also seems to be why Paul concludes a series of exhortations toward restoration, mutual comfort, agreement, and peace (see 2 Cor 13.11) with a trinitarian benediction: because the triune God of love, grace, and fellowship is the one whose blessing and presence is absolutely essential in forming a community characterized by restoration, mutual comfort, agreement, and peace.
Augustine's second homily on the Gospel of John offers one of the richest commentaries on John 1.12 that I have read. His explanation of what it means for God to give us "the right to become children of God" is worth quoting in full:

What did he bestow on them? Great kindness; great mercy. Singly born, he did not wish to remain one and only. Many couples who have had no children adopt some when advanced in years and realize by choice what nature was unable to provide; that is what human beings do. But someone who has an only son rejoices in him all the more, because he alone will take possession of the whole inheritance and not have anyone else to divide it with and thus turn out the poorer. Not so God; he sent the very same one and only Son he had begotten, through whom he had created everything, into this world so that he should not be alone but should have adopted brothers and sisters. You see, we were not born of God in the same way as the only-begotten Son of his, but we were adopted through the Son's grace. For the only-begotten Son came to forgive sins, those sins which had us so tied up that they were an impediment to his adopting us; he forgave those he wished to make his brothers and sisters and made them co-heirs... No, he was not afraid of having co-heirs, because his inheritance is not whittled down if many possess it. They themselves, in fact, become the inheritance which he possesses, and he in turn becomes their inheritance (Homilies on the Gospel of John [New City Press, 2009], pp. 64-65).

The beauty of Augustine's description of adoption speaks for itself. A few observations are nevertheless worth making.

(1) Augustine's homily is a helpful reminder that faithful biblical exposition did not begin in the modern era. Patristic sermons and biblical commentaries will inevitably strike evangelicals as strange territory. Nonetheless, it is territory that repays patient exploration.  

(2) Much of the power of the doctrine of adoption lies in the disanalogy that obtains between human adoption and divine adoption. Human couples often adopt because they lack natural offspring. Human couples with an only child (at least in Augustine's day) often rejoice in the fact that their offspring can be the sole heir of their inheritance (and thus can avoid the poverty that might accompany dividing their inheritance). "Not so God": He sacrificed what he had--his eternally begotten, eternally beloved Son--to enrich his enemies by making them joint-heirs with Christ. 

(3) We cannot appreciate the full depths of the gospel apart from the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us about the kind of love that is on display in the gospel. The Father eternally loves the Son, and this love is the measure of what the gospel cost: the Father loved us by sacrificing his beloved Son to forgive those sins that "were an impediment to his adopting us." Moreover, the Father's love for the Son is the measure of what the gospel bought: the Father loved us by bequeathing to us an inexhaustible inheritance, which is nothing other than the right to become an heir of the Father's love in and with Jesus Christ, his beloved Son. Truly this is "great kindness; great mercy."

I Worshipped "Allah" Last Sunday

Never have I so carefully typed quotation marks. Those tiny dashes keep intact both my ordination vows and my soul. They also refer to my enjoyable experience last Sunday attending an international service organized by the Gereformeerde Kerken in IJsselmuiden, Netherlands. Gathered there was a small group of immigrants and refugees from around the world, including not a few from the Middle East. The sermon was in Dutch, but it was immediately translated, phrase by phrase, into French, Russian, English, and Arabic . . . all at the same time. By accident I sat in the Arabic section, but I could still hear the English translator parked on the other side of the room. 

The kaleidoscope of languages spoken all at once pushed the limits of my sensibilities for "decency and order," but it also made the service unforgettable. I was particularly struck by how the content of a single sermon--fittingly, on Pentecost--appeared to resonate with all of the congregants, each in his own tongue. Through both ears, I heard that all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of "Allah." Of course, in this case, "Allah" unequivocally meant the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

How different was the carefully choreographed prayer service hosted last week by Pope Francis with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas. The well-intentioned event enjoyed pre-approval by the modern Catholic Church's declaration that, with the Church, "Moselms . . . adore the one God." Similar confusion between the "Allah" of Islam and the, well, quite different "Allah" of Christian (triune) theism now swirls at the doorstep of our theological homes. What will we do?

At the close of my own international assembly, the congregation sang "Great is Thy Faithfulness," dividing the stanzas into the languages represented there. Such unity in diversity offered a faint analogy of the glory of the triune God. Discerning when that glory gets diminished in the name of well-intended desires to reach and respect foreign cultures requires the wisdom of God. Thankfully, as I heard last Sunday, that is just what our faithful God has promised to give his sons in the Spirit.

The Triune God

Our latest book, The Triune God, has recently been published in partnership with P&R Publishing. It is high testament to the blessings of God upon some very hard work as it's the culmination of many years of steady and faithful labor by one pastor and one church family. 

Rev. Ron Kohl is the senior pastor of Grace Bible Fellowship Church (a supporting Alliance Member Church) in Quakertown PA. Yes, that Quakertown, of our Quakertown Regional Conference on Reformed Theology. After several years of an encouraging and edifying event, this volume is evidence of the faithful teaching and ministry that has happened there.

In the latest Alliance Re:port Ron tells of the conference and makes a case for Alliance events in a piece titled "Mary Moments in a Martha World." If you have not read it, you ought. And if you need a copy our Alliance Re:port, wish to learn more about Alliance Member Churches, or to order a copy of The Triune God, please call us (215-546-3696) as we would be happy to mail you one.

The Triune God can be ordered here -
Alliance Re:port can be viewed here -
Alliance Member Churches can be found here -,,PTID307086_CHID560230_CIID1423494,00.html


The winners of Jeremy Walker's book, The New Calvinism Considered: a personal and pastoral assessment, will soon be receiving their copies thanks to EP Books! Thank everyone for signing up, those random selected are:

Joan H, Huron, OH
Anthony F, Valencia CA
Helene B, Luverne MN
Alvin L, Herndon VA
Corey D, Walker MI
Nate B, Paso Robles, CA
DeWayne W, Willingboro NJ
Greg M, Olathe KS
Mark P, Tuscaloosa AL
Charles B, Greenville SC

Hunting with a Lion


Now that B. B. Warfield's theology is back on the scene with Fred Zaspel's The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway), I thought I'd point out a few comments by the Lion of Princeton in his Collected Works on the faithful and fearless John Calvin. What struck me this week was Warfield's assessment of what made Calvin tick, what drove his most profound theological reflection, what conditioned all of his work at Geneva, and what suffused his every religious impulse with devotional fire.

What was it for Calvin that, according to Warfield, "did not stand for him out of relation to his religious consciousness" but was essentially given "in his experience of salvation itself"? What was that "great and inspiring reality" that situated "his profoundest religious emotions"? Was it the compelling narrative of Scripture? A renewed cosmos to come? Small groups?!? No, for Calvin, it was that vital and mysterious truth that we worship one absolute God in three Persons.

Now I confess, I wouldn't instinctively place the doctrine of the Trinity at the center of a church growth strategy. But Calvin knew something we too often don't remember; namely, that God as Trinity permeates and conditions all that is genuinely Christian, including church worship, prayers, providence, salvation, Scripture, sacraments, preaching, and, indeed, all of life and creation.

So 400 years from now, what would an observer say is the ultimate conviction of your (or your pastor's) ministry? What truth undergirded each sermon, Sunday School lesson, or session meeting? Of course, I'm not advocating tossing out words like "hypostases" or "perichoresis" from the pulpit each week. But let us increasingly yearn to become self-consciously Trinitarian in the deepest fibers of our being in order that we might better know and commune with the only God who is.

Results tagged “Trinity” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 2.3, Part Two

iii. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

To limit the Confession's commitment to Trinitarianism to the two sentences that conclude Chapter two would be a serious mistake. Though simplistic revisionists have seen fit to add a chapter on the Holy Spirit, the entire Confession is viewed from a Trinitarian perspective, including the Confession's robust portrayal of the work of the Spirit in the Application of Redemption that comprises the bulk of the central sections of the Confession. 

Of practical import, to neglect the Father will make us soft and lazy, folk of dull consciences inclined to antinomianism and prone to complain at what we view as a lack of parental care for our most urgent needs. Ignoring the Son will lead us to make little of our need for a blood-bought redemption or of giving praise and glory to another, encouraging us in the default of every Adamic heir - a treadmill of works righteousness as we endeavor to make idols of ourselves. Neglecting the Spirit will encourage worldliness of the worst kind, ignoring what he provides in on-going transformational holiness in fruit-bearing, Christ-like lives. 

To get a grasp of how Trinitarianly robust seventeenth century Reformed theology can be, read John Owen's, Of Communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Each Person Distinctly, in Love, Grace, and Consolation; or, The Saint's Fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost Unfolded (1658), otherwise known as Volume 2 of the 16-volumed set of Owen's Works. He will make us appear as theological Lilliputians.

Chapter 2.3

iii. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Richard Muller notes three characteristics of Reformed Orthodoxy's discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity: First, they showed a careful appropriation and development of Patristic vocabulary; second, they demonstrated a clear appreciation of the exegetical ground of the doctrine in Scripture; and third, they struggled to find philosophical categories for the expression of the doctrine given the increasingly problematic conception of the term "substance" in the seventeenth century [Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics 4:58-62].

Given the degree of anti-Trinitarian sentiments in both the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Socinianism in particular)*, and as Trinitarian statements go, the WCF's two sentence, fifty-five word statement is profoundly terse and even simple. We should not conclude, however, that the Divines minimized the doctrine; on the contrary, any form of Unitarian theology was viewed as heresy and, more especially, un-Christian and even anti-Christian. One-in-threeness and Three-in-Oneness constitutes orthodox theology and the Divines bow to Tertullianesque, Niceno-Constantinopolitan creedal justification for the statements they make. There is One God but there is also MORE THAN ONE who is the ONE God. The Father is God. The Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God. 

Truth is, God can only exist this way. Truth is, too, that the gospel can only be the way that it is because God is triune, for love - out-going, sacrificial love that we see in Christ's Mediatorship - can only exist because of plurality within the unity of God. Without Trinity there is no possibility of gospel.

[* See, Paul C. H. Lim, The Crisis of the Trinity in Early Modern England (OUP, 2012); Philip Dixon, Nice Hot Disputes: The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Seventeenth Century (T & T Clark, 2006)]