Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Doctrinal Application

Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Doctrinal Application

by Keith Whitfield

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433651397
Publisher: B&H Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/01/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 128
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Keith S. Whitfield is assistant professor of theology and vice president for academic administration at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.
 

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CHAPTER 1

Unity and Distinction of the Trinitarian Persons

By Bruce A. Ware

Introduction: God as One and Three

The Christian faith affirms that God is one and that God is three: God is one in essence but three in persons. In essence, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fully coequal and coeternal; in persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are different and distinct. These twin pillars, then, necessarily uphold the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: the equality of the divine persons, as each possesses fully and eternally the identically same one and undivided divine essence, and the distinctiveness of the divine person, as the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are distinguished hypostatically from each other. Both the oneness and the threeness of God are equally true and equally fundamental to who the one God truly is.

Christianity affirms this union of one and three. It rejects both unitarian monotheism (one but not three) and tritheism (three but not one), and it insists on trinitarian monotheism (three distinct persons each of whom possesses eternally and fully the one and undivided divine nature). John 1:1 helps us see the crucial importance of embracing these twin pillars of trinitarian doctrine. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God [difference and distinction], and the Word was God [equality and identity]."

The Oneness of God's Triune Being: Equality of Essence through an "Equality of Identity" among the Three Divine Persons

The oneness of God expresses the truth that there is one and only one true and living God and one and only one eternal and undivided divine essence, which possesses intrinsically every perfection or quality in infinite measure. The oneness of God explains why Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot rightly be conceived as three gods, for each possesses eternally and fully this one same and undivided divine essence.

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are equally God, for they are identical in essence. The equality of the divine persons is the strongest kind of equality possible. Consider other kinds of equality in comparison to the unique equality that most importantly exists among the three divine persons: (1) The equality that exists, for example, among three evenly sliced pieces of pie is an equality of proportionality. Each piece of pie is equal to the other pieces because each is the same proportion of the total pie, that is, each is equally one-third of the pie. But the persons of the Trinity, though they possess an equality of proportionality — each possesses 100 percent of the divine nature — have attached to them an even stronger kind of equality. (2) Or the equality that exists among creatures is, at best, an equality of kind — that is, two cats are equal to each other, or two humans are equal to each other, because each possesses the same kind of nature as the other. And although the persons of the Trinity are equal with an equality of kind — each indeed does possess a nature that is the same kind of nature as that which the other persons possess, since each possesses the same divine nature — their equality is not merely an equality of the same kind. (3) Rather, the unique equality that exists among the three persons of the Trinity is stronger yet than either an equality of proportionality or an equality of kind. It is an equality that appears to exist only among the distinct persons of the Godhead. Each divine person, in essence, possesses an equality of identity with the other divine persons precisely because all the divine persons possess identically the same nature. The Son is equal to the Father precisely because he possesses the identically same nature as the Father possesses — not merely a nature of the same proportion (100 percent of the divine nature) or the same kind (each possesses a divine nature), but the very same and identical nature as the Father possesses — as is affirmed by the Nicene Creed's declaration of the Son's being homoousios (same nature) with the Father. And the Spirit is equal to the Son and the Father precisely because he possesses the very same and identical nature as possessed by the Son and by the Father.

Because the Father, Son, and Spirit possess eternally the identically same nature, each then must be understood as fully and in the strongest sense possible both coequal and coeternal — not three gods, but three personal expressions of the one and undivided divine nature that is commonly and fully possessed by each of the three divine persons. If the oneness of God is a oneness of the divine nature, where lies the distinctive threeness of God?

The Threeness of God's Triune Personhood: Distinction of Relations and Roles among the Fully Equal Divine Persons

The threeness of God expresses the truth that there are three distinct and distinguishable divine persons, each of whom possesses coequally and coeternally the identically one and undivided divine nature. For trinitarian doctrine, distinction of personhood is as necessary to maintain as unity or equality of nature or essence. While the Father possesses the identically same nature as the Son, the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. While the Son possesses the identically same nature as the Spirit, the Son is not the Spirit and the Spirit is not the Son. And when one examines biblical indicators on the distinctiveness of the Father from the Son and Spirit, the Son from the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit from the Father and the Son, one finds two categories that encompass the heart of their distinctiveness: relation and role.

Each is distinct most fundamentally in ontological relation due to the eternal relations of origin or modes of subsistence that identify each of the trinitarian persons uniquely. The Father (alone) is eternally unbegotten, the Son (alone) is eternally begotten by the Father, and the Spirit (alone) eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son (following Nicaea-Constantinople and the Western insertion of the filioque). These eternal relations of origin mark the fundamental distinction among the three persons, and they also ground the functional relations that follow. Since the Father is eternally unbegotten while he also eternally begets the Son, the Father's unique hypostatic identity indeed is that of eternal Father; because the Son is eternally begotten by the Father, the Son's unique hypostatic identity indeed is that of eternal Son; and because the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son, the Spirit's unique hypostatic identity indeed is that of the eternal Spirit. These three distinct hypostatic identities, then, are not interchangeable, nor are they true merely of the economic Trinity ad extra; rather, they are the eternal, unchangeable, fixed hypostatic identities of the persons of the immanent Trinity ad intra. This leads to the second way Scripture identifies distinctions among the trinitarian persons.

The trinitarian persons are also distinct in functional relation within the Godhead such that each expresses outwardly, as it were, who he is ontologically and hypostatically as defined by and flowing from their respective eternal relations of origin. Since the Father's unique hypostatic identity is that of the eternally unbegotten Father, he then eternally acts in a manner that befits who he is as Father; because the Son's unique hypostatic identity is that of the eternally begotten Son of the Father, the Son always acts in a manner that befits who he is as Son; and because the Spirit's unique hypostatic identity is as the One who eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son, the Spirit eternally acts in a manner that befits One who comes from and is united with both the Father and the Son. This may seem an obvious point to make, but it should be made explicit nonetheless. Because the Father is Father by his mode of subsistence as eternally unbegotten and begetter of the Son, he never acts as the Son or as the Spirit; he always, eternally, in all expressions of his personhood, acts as what he is, Father. The same must be said of the Son and the Spirit also: they always, eternally, in all expressions of their personhood, act as what they are, Son and Spirit respectively. So, though their action is unified as carried out always through the one and undivided divine nature, their action is also distinct, since each of them acts according to their respective hypostatic identities and never apart from them.

Biblically this relational and functional distinction of persons is most evident in the Father-Son relation in part because of what is conveyed by their respective divine names. The names of "Father" and "Son" are not ad hoc, nor are they true merely of the economic Trinity since they are attached to the eternal relations of origin whereby the Father is the eternally unbegotten Father of the Son, and the Son is the eternally begotten Son of the Father. Hence, "Father" names the One who is the eternal Father of the Son, and "Son" names the One who is the eternal Son of the Father. That is, they are distinct, and their distinction is manifest in part by their hypostatically distinct, eternal, and noninterchangeable divine names along with what those divine names signal. Note that these persons of the Trinity, then, are not brother, brother, brother or friend, friend, friend. Rather, as the three person triune God is eternally named, they are none other than Father, Son, and Spirit.

The very identity, then, of the first person of the Trinity is seen in and through his relation as the Father of the Son, and hence he functions always in a paternal way toward his Son. Likewise, the very identity of the second person of the Trinity is seen precisely through and not apart from his being the Son of the Father, and hence he functions always in a filial way toward his Father. The Spirit, since he proceeds from the Father and the Son, functionally relates as agent of the Father and the Son. In other words, while the Father, Son, and Spirit are unitedly the One God, acting from the commonly possessed divine nature, they also eternally act from their distinctive hypostatic identities: the Father acts only and always as God ... the Father; the Son acts only and always as God ... the Son; the Spirit acts only and always as God ... the Spirit. Because their ontological relations are eternal and unchangeable, so are their functional relations likewise eternal and unchangeable.

Scripture further demonstrates, as I will defend more fully below, the Father's distinctive functional relation to the Son, in part, contains the expression of paternal authority in this relationship, and the Son's distinctive functional relation to the Father, in part, contains the expression of filial submission. Eternal paternal authority and eternal filial submission give expression, therefore, to a portion of the meaning contained within the divine personal names of Father and Son, which in turn flow from their eternal hypostatic identities as eternal Father and eternal Son, which in turn flow from their respective eternal relations of origin. The Spirit likewise evidences a submissive functional relation to both the Father and the Son, expressing his mode of subsistence as proceeding from the Father and the Son. So then, relation — both ontological and functional expressions of relation — is a central category for understanding the distinctions between the three persons of the Trinity.

These distinct relations give expression to unique roles that each divine person carries out economically. Although all three work together in harmonious unity, as the early church fathers' doctrine of the inseparable operations (opera ad extra omnia sunt indivisa) affirms, each divine person contributes distinctively to this unified work of one God. John Calvin warns us that we dare not miss this hypostatic distinction in the divine work.

It is not fitting to suppress the distinction that we observe to be expressed in Scripture. It is this: to the Father is attributed the beginning of activity, and the fountain and wellspring of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of that activity. ... [T]he observance of an order is not meaningless or superfluous, when the Father is thought of first, then from him the Son, and finally from both the Spirit.

The Father carries out different and differing roles and activities than do the Son and the Spirit, and the same can be said for each of the other persons as well. To give some obvious examples, only the Father (not the Son or the Spirit) sends the Son into the world; only the Son (not the Father or the Spirit) becomes incarnate; and only the Spirit (not the Father or the Son) comes at Pentecost as sent from the Father and the Son.

Those in the pro-Nicene tradition commonly refer here to the doctrine of appropriations in which the order of operations among the divine persons depends on the order of their subsistence in the triune Being. For example, that the Father sends the Son expresses the appropriation of sending to the Father by virtue of the Son's mode of subsistence as the begotten of the Father. The sending of the Spirit by the Father and the Son is the expression of the appropriation of sending to the Father and Son by virtue of the Spirit's mode of subsistence as proceeding from the Father and the Son. That is, the external works of the trinitarian persons are always expressive of their eternal modes of subsistence or eternal relations of origin.

I fully agree with the pro-Nicene doctrine of appropriations and find it biblical and right to depict the divine trinitarian operations as expressive of their eternal modes of subsistence. Yet, while what I affirm in this chapter fully accords with this pro-Nicene understanding, I believe that the appeal to divine appropriations falls short of expressing fully what Scripture indicates regarding the functional relations and operations of the trinitarian persons. Yes, the order of operations ad extra is expressive of the order of relations ad intra, but saying only this excludes a significant portion of scriptural indications. When one considers the Father sending the Son, though it is true that the Father acts as sender due to his manner of subsisting, to leave it here misses also the personal planning, motives, purposes, and authority the Father exhibits in his sending of the Son. The act of the Father sending the Son is not some kind of mechanical or impersonal outworking of the relations of origin; rather, it is an intensely personal action — the action of a genuine Father who is about to send his only begotten and deeply beloved Son to endure excruciating pain and death, and he does this out of his great love for those sinners whose rescue can take place only through what his Son, and no one else, can do. The pathos, the reality, the plans and purposes, the motives, and, yes, the authority and submission of the Father's sending and the Son's glad and willing descent to a sinful earth are deeply imbedded in the biblical story in a way that mere appeal to the doctrine of appropriations misses. We must hear the Scriptures and notice the distinctive trinitarian operations in which these expressions of motive, purpose, authority, submission, joy, and longing attach to the very persons of the Godhead in the outworking of the unified work of the one God.

In summary then, what distinguishes the three persons from each other within the Godhead? Their distinctive relations — both ontological and functional — and roles are the clearest expressions of just how each is distinct from the others and the features that constitute the uniqueness of each divine person. The doctrine of the Trinity, then, is an accounting and expression of both (1) the one, undivided divine nature eternally and fully possessed by each of the three divine persons, and (2) each member's distinct personhood, according to the eternal relations of origin, such that each has his own unique relation with the other members, and each carries out distinctive roles in a manner that accords with the hypostatic distinctiveness of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Biblical Support for Trinitarian Distinctiveness Expressive of Relations and Roles

My focus for the remainder of this chapter is to describe and defend this thesis: while the categories of "relations" and "roles" are the clearest and most comprehensive in undergirding that which distinguishes the Father from the Son and from the Spirit, within these relations, and expressed in their respective roles, one finds a prevailing authority-submission structure that gives order and direction to the roles carried out by the three trinitarian persons.

(Continues…)


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Table of Contents

Dedication,
Introduction,
Chapter 1: Unity and Distinction of the Trinitarian Persons,
Chapter 2: From God to Humanity: A Trinitarian Method for Theological Anthropology,
Chapter 3: On Trinitarian Theological Method,
Chapter 4: Response to Malcolm B. Yarnell III, Matthew Y. Emerson, and Luke Stamps,
Chapter 5: Response to Bruce A. Ware, Matthew Y. Emerson, and Luke Stamps,
Chapter 6: Response to Bruce A. Ware and Malcolm B. Yarnell III,
Conclusion,

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