Treading Through the Tenets: Triunity

Treading Through the Tenets: Triunity

As a new year begins, I thought it might be helpful, to some at least, to put some flesh on the bones of "The Ten Tenets" of a Reformed apologetic, as those tenets are delineated and discussed in Covenantal Apologetics. So, what I propose to do is to take a new Tenet each month, for ten (or so) months, and explicate, briefly, something of their substance and significance for a Covenantal approach to apologetics.

For those who have not read Covenantal Apologetics, the Ten Tenets are these:

  1. The faith that we are defending must begin with, and necessarily include, the Triune God -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- who, as God, condescends to create and to redeem.
  2. God's covenantal revelation is authoritative by virtue of what it is, and any Covenantal, Christian apologetic will necessarily stand on, and utilize, that authority in order to defend Christianity.
  3. It is the truth of God's revelation, together with the work of the Holy Spirit, that brings about a covenantal change from one who is in Adam to one who is in Christ.
  4. Man (male and female) as image of God is in covenant with the Triune God, for eternity.
  5. All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenantal obligations.
  6. Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know. Those who are in Christ, see that truth for what it is.
  7. There is an absolute, covenantal antithesis between Christian theism and any other, opposing, position. Thus, Christianity is true and anything opposing it is false.
  8. Suppression of the truth, like the depravity of sin, is total but not absolute. Thus, every unbelieving position will necessarily have within it ideas, concepts, notions, etc that it has taken and wrenched from its true, Christian context.
  9. The true, covenantal, knowledge of God in man, together with God's universal mercy, allows for persuasion in apologetics.
  10. Every fact and experience is what it is by virtue of the covenantal all-controlling plan and purpose of God.

This month we'll set our sights on Tenet 1:

1. The faith that we are defending must begin with, and necessarily include, the Triune God -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- who, as God, condescends to create and to redeem.

This tenet, obviously, extends to the whole of Christianity, and could occupy us for some time. For now, however, we'll simply highlight a few of the salient points in this tenet that relate to a Reformed approach to apologetics.

First, let's make sure we're all looking through the same lens. We need to see what this tenet is not saying, and in order to do that it is crucial to pay close attention to its language. Some might initially read this tenet as requiring, in every defense of Christianity, that one begin one's defense with a discussion about the Trinity. But this is not the point. Note: "The faith that we are defending must begin with..." In other words, we must keep initially and constantly before us the fact that we are defending the Christian faith, and not some kind of generic theism. That faith, the Christian faith, must begin with, and necessarily include, God's triunity. This is basic to Christianity, and it's likely no one, no matter the apologetic method, would disagree with it. But its application in a Covenantal apologetic sets this approach apart, and includes at least the following:

1. In the course of our defense of the faith, we take our principles of reasoning, and of thinking, first of all, from the truth of Scripture that form and inform our Reformed principia, i.e., our doctrine of God and our doctrine of Scripture. For example, we admit that our laws of thinking are not able to penetrate, in any comprehensive way, the character of the Triune God. So, what we affirm about God has its ground in what He has said about Himself, and not, in the first place, in what we, in and of ourselves, might think is "reasonable." We affirm as true, in other words, things our minds cannot grasp. Cornelius Van Til puts the point this way:

If it is the self-contained ontological trinity that we need for the rationality of our interpretation of life, it is this same ontological trinity that requires us to hold to the apparently contradictory...Everything that we handle depends for what it is upon the [Trinitarian] counsel of the infinitely inexhaustible God. At every point we run into mystery. All our ingenuity will not aid us in seeking to avoid this mystery. All our ingenuity cannot exhaust the humanly inexhaustible rationality of God. To seek to present the Christian position as rationally explicable in the sense of being comprehensible to the mind of man is to defeat our own purposes. To do so we must adopt the standard of reasoning of our opponent, and when we have accepted the standard of reasoning of our opponent, we must rest content with the idea of a finite God.

Part of what this means is that we must, when circumstances permit, help our unbelieving interlocutors see that man's efforts to make sense of the world, of knowledge, of their very lives, has, historically, ended in repeated failures. This failure is inevitable. The primary reason we have such a variety of psychological, sociological and philosophical menus from which to choose is that the dishes offered in each of the menus have proven to be rancid, unable to provide the needed nourishment. So, new recipes are invented and other dishes are served up. But they too prove to be poisonous. Not only so, but they're all concocted without once acknowledging the Owner of the restaurant. Even if some of the specific ingredients in these dishes are palatable, the "new" dishes will inevitably suffer from the same malady as the rest; they will, without fail, render us hopelessly malnourished.

Here is the irony of the human condition: the only way properly to reason and to think is to begin with that which we do not and cannot comprehend, i.e., the mysterious and incomprehensible Triune God. This is what those outside of Christ need to hear. To embrace its truth requires repentance, a change of mind, that issues forth in noetic humility. Once we recognize that our minds are meant to think God's thoughts after Him, we will begin to find rest from all our striving. Only then will we feel ourselves at home in the world. We have to begin by acknowledging that our thinking is dependent, not independent, and that, as human beings, we cannot exhaust any aspect of God's Triune character, or of the reality He has made and sustains. Only God does that.

2. This leads to our second point. Because God is Triune, He is able to condescend to His creation, all the while remaining who He is. That is, central to God's identity is that he is Triune. Because He is Triune, the second person of the Trinity could come down, in space and time, and He did so, from the beginning of creation into eternity. Not only so, but when the time had fully come, He took on a human nature, walked the earth, all the while remaining fully God. In other words, central to the Incarnation of the Son is the claim that He condescended, but without in any way sacrificing his essential deity (i.e his omniscience, omnipotence, aseity, immutability, etc.). It is vitally important to recognize that any discussion of the Incarnation of Christ presupposes the Triunity of God. As is clear, for example, in Christ's baptism, in order for him to be the Son, there must be the Father, and His conception -- that which brought about the union of the divine and human natures in Christ -- was accomplished by the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 1:35).

3. Thirdly, and related, one might ask, "Is it not possible that a god who is only one, and not one-in-three, condescend? What would prevent, for example, the god of Islam from condescension? Why must God be Triune in order to condescend? Isn't it possible that a god who is only one could condescend and redeem?" This may sound like a question for modal logic, or for a speculative theology, but it runs much deeper than either of those. The short answer to the question is, "No, it is not possible that a god who is only one condescend to redeem." This is one reason that Islam cannot countenance a god who actually speaks, and who reveals himself. To reveal himself would be beneath him. He can only reveal his will.

Beyond that, however, is the often-times aberrant and empty notion of "possibility" itself when such questions arise. The reason it is not possible for a god who is only one to condescend is that no such god does, or could, exist. Because only the Christian, Triune God exists, it is impossible that any other god exist. And to posit a possibility based on a prior impossibility is, well, impossible. "But," you say, "isn't it theoretically possible that a god who is only one condescend?" The answer to this question is the same. How could it be theoretically possible for a god who is only one to condescend when the very activity of theorizing about possibility, of concept-making, of possibility itself depends upon the actual existence of the Triune God? In other words, the question itself presupposes its impossibility because it can only be asked on the basis of the necessity of the Triune God's existence.

This does not, of course, mean that it is never appropriate in a Reformed apologetic to argue for Christianity with an emphasis on God's unity, quite the contrary. Because God is, in fact, one God, it is perfectly proper and right to defend the faith with this unity in view. But it cannot be a unity in the abstract; it cannot be a unity gleaned from reason, with Triunity later "added" from revelation; it cannot be a unity that is included as one aspect of created reality. The one God must be the one God who speaks -- really speaks -- and who, while remaining who He is essentially, comes down to relate Himself to His creation, and specifically to His covenant creatures. Only the Triune God could do this, because the only God that exists is the Triune God.

So, we always come to those who are outside of Christ with a robust affirmation of the Triunity of God. Such an affirmation serves to require humility of mind. It properly constrains our ever-present push toward autonomy. Most importantly, such an affirmation alone can lead to a discussion of the glorious truths of the gospel, without which living in this world is nothing but striving after the wind.

The words of Reginald Heber rightly evoke praise from Christians, but those who live in rebellion against God need to hear them as well, and they'll hear them if the Triune God is at the foundation of the faith we defend:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!

All Thy works shall praise Thy Name, in earth, and sky, and sea;

Holy, holy, holy; merciful and mighty!

God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

Dr. K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).