How the Trinity Shines Light on Difficult Doctrines

light.jpegFree will.

The doctrine of election.

The New Testament use of the Old.

The problem of evil.

These are just a few of the most complex issues we face when we read the Bible and formulate doctrine. They are debated by well-meaning and biblically-committed Christians, and often they leave us perplexed, if not flummoxed, at how to understand them and apply them to life.

Certainly, there are mysteries related to each of these doctrines, but in God’s revealed word, we still find ample evidence for explaining them as Scripture teaches. That said, I believe it is impossible to understand any of these doctrines rightly without a self-conscious awareness of how they all relate to the nature of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Or, to put it the other way, how a robust doctrine of the Trinity sheds light on these doctrines that relate God to his world and his Word. Let me try to illustrate. Continue reading

Seeing the Trinity by Re-Reading Isaiah 61

dawid-sobolewski-271380In his excellent book on the Trinity, Fred Sanders makes a number of key observations related to seeing (and not seeing) the Trinity in the Old Testament. (This subject takes up the whole of chapter 8 in The Triune God).

  1. A biblical formulation of the Trinity triuneshould not begin with the Old Testament. Because the doctrine is revealed in the historical events of the Incarnation and Pentecost, not the propositions of the text, we must begin with the events recorded in the New Testament, not the hints contained in the Old. Sanders rightly corrects strictly chronological approaches to the Trinity: “The root idea of revelation is not verbal announcement but the unveiling or disclosing of something that has been present, though concealed. . . . The triunity of God was revealed when the persons of the Trinity became present among us in a new way, showing up in person and becoming the object of our human observation” (40).
  2. With the full revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we can look backwards to see “adumbrations” of the Trinity in the Old Testament. As Sanders notes, “The doctrine of the Trinity did not arise and cannot stand without the Old Testament, but the Old Testament’s usefulness for Trinitarianism is retrospective and dependent on the light provided by the fullness of revelation” (212).
  3. In this way, the doctrine of the Trinity is a ‘mystery’ in the biblical sense. In the New Testament, mysterion speaks of those realities that were once hidden, but are now revealed. The Trinity fits well into this biblical category: “God did not yet reveal his triunity until the fullness of time had come. The Trinity is a mystery in the biblical sense: always true, once concealed, now revealed” (210).
  4. More specifically, trinitarian exegesis in the Old Testament is prosoponic (from the Greek word for person). Prosoponic or “prosopological exegesis is a technical expression, but an important one for discussions about the Trinity. It simply means reading the Old Testament in light of the New, where the persons (prosopon) are distinguished in the Old Testament text. “Having met Christ and the Spirit [in the Incarnation and Pentecost], we can look for them in the Old Testament in a way we could not have without having met them in person” (227).
  5. Prosoponic exegesis requires rereading. “What is required for doctrinal interpretation of the Old Testament is a hermeneutical framework that acknowledge the complex structures of the revelation, and an approach to reading the documents that precede and follow the revelation. The key hermeneutical category for this kind of interpretation is rereading” (215, emphasis mine). In rereading, we gain new understanding, insight not available on a first reading. In this way, readers do not add meaning to the text, but instead see the text in the fullness of later revelation. A good example of this is reading Genesis 1 in light of John 1, Colossians 1, and Hebrews 1.

From hermeneutical commitments like these, Sanders helps us get our bearings on reading the Old Testament. In fact, his chapter on reading the Old Testament retrospectively is one of the best I’ve read on grasping the theological unity and eschatological development of the Bible. For these reasons, I would highly recommend his book, especially if you struggle to see how grammatical-historical exegesis relates to the whole Bible. Continue reading

The Doctrine of the Trinity: Three Distinct Persons

Trinity_3Over the weekend I presented the first part of a ‘bare-bones’ outline of the Trinity. In short order, I argued that the doctrine can be sub-divided into two basic assertions, which each require a healthy dose of explaining.  The first proposition is God is one God. The second proposition is God is three Persons. Under those headings I added the following points.

God is One God

  1. The Father is God.
  2. The Son is God.
  3. The Holy Spirit is God.
  4. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are Uncreated, Co-Eternal, Inseparable, and Perfectly Equal in Essence.

God is Three Persons

  1. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  2. The Father Sends the Son and the Spirit.
  3. The Son is Sent by the Father, and Sends the Spirit.
  4. The Spirit is One Sent by Father and Son.
  5. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit works together to create the cosmos, sustain life, and redeem the church.
  6. God’s visible actions in history reveals his invisible triune nature.

Because of the difference in classification (God and persons) there is no logical inconsistency between saying God is ‘one’ and God is ‘three.’ Still, there is natural difficulty (not too mention the effect of sin on our thinking) in trying to understand how God is one and three. On the one hand, natural man cannot grasp an infinite God—even with God’s inspired word. On the other hand, God’s revelation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit guides Christians to a true but incomplete knowledge of him.

Keeping our creatureliness and Godward-dependence in mind as we approach this doctrine, this outline aims to help us put some of the pieces together.  Since, I’ve already laid out a defense of God as one God, the  next step is to pick up the second proposition—God is three persons—and  consider the first four points. Continue reading

The Trinity in Biblical Theological Perspective: A Mystery without mysterion

(This is an excerpt from a recent paper I wrote, “The Trinity in the Old Testament: A Present But Elusive Mystery.” It suggests that the development of the Trinity in the Bible follows a mystery-revelation pattern.)

Mystery without mysterion

In his essay entitled “Mystery and Fulfillment” in Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol. 2, D. A. Carson includes a section called “Mystery without mysterion,” where he asserts that the idea of mystery—something hidden now revealed (cf. Matt. 13:10-17, 34-35)—can occur in NT literature in places where the word, mysterion, is not used explicitly.  He suggests this to be the case in fourth gospel where “although John never uses the term mysterion he sometimes provides fresh revelation that has clearly been hidden in time past, but which is some how said to be connected to the very Scriptures in which it has been hidden (e.g. John 2:19-22).”[1]  From this general description, Carson references Philip Kramer’s 2004 dissertation on the subject,[2] and produces four criteria to evaluate mystery-language:  “(1) [the] referent mysterion is the gospel or some part of it; (2) the disclosure of this mystery may be traced, at least in part, to the Christophany Paul experienced on the Damascus Road; (3) the text makes it clear that this mysterion was once hidden but is now revealed; (4) the Old Testament Scriptures constitute the medium in which the mysterion was hidden and by which it is revealed.”[3]  This taxonomy fits very well when applied to the Trinity’s development from the Old Testament into the New Testament. 

First, as John Piper has proclaimed, “God is the Gospel!”[4]  There is no part of the gospel that is not Trinitarian, and each member of the Trinity functions in their unique role to call, atone, and regenerate (cf. Eph. 1:3-14).  Moreover, in the Old Testament, the characteristics ascribed to the Father, the Word of God, the Spirit of God, and the coming Messiah are consistent with the Incarnation and Pentecost.  In other words, what was foretold through types, shadows, and veiled allusions, is now manifest in Jesus and the Spirit.

Second, the Trinity is defined and explained by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and the arrival of his Spirit.  In fact, without these, the verbal expressions of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are incomplete, at best.  For instance, the union of three persons is most clear in passages like John 14:16-17 where Jesus says, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another [of the same kind] Helper…the Spirit of Truth” (cf. John 15:26).  Though Kramer’s criterion delimits the disclosure of the mystery to Paul’s Damascus road experience, this restriction is too narrow.  While it fits his specific subject in Galatians, it should be broadened across the New Testament.  It should be remembered, Paul had a Damascus road experience because he was lacking the necessary apostolic ‘credentials’ that all the other disciples received (cf. Mark 3: 13-14; Acts 1:21-22).[5]  Consequently, the corroborating NT evidence is not isolated to one man’s encounter with Jesus, it is the composite person and work of Jesus Christ that makes sense of the Old Testament in general, and the Trinity, in particular.  In this Augustine was right, “[God’s] grace hid itself under a veil in the Old Testament, but it has been revealed in the New Testament according to the most perfectly ordered dispensation of the ages.”[6]  Therefore, recognizing the Trinity in the OT depends upon NT Christology.[7]

Third, the doctrine of the Trinity was hidden in the OT and revealed in the NT.  While the component parts were scattered throughout the OT, the necessary historical events (i.e. Incarnation and Pentecost) were lacking to make sense of the mysterious pluralities, theophanies, and eschatological promises.  Even into the church age, it took over three centuries to sort out the biblical doctrine of the Trinity and its ontological entailments.  Yet, this should not be surprising.  It is the natural state of affairs with biblical mysteries.  Proverbs 25:2 enlightens us, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.”  Likewise, 1 Corinthians 2:7 says, “We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.”  It is the wisdom and glory of God to hide his Triune nature from those without the Spirit, and to reveal himself to those united to Christ—it should not be forgotten that these are NT realities.[8]

Fourth, New Testament authors consistently appeal to the Old Testament to explain the rise of Trinitarian thought, thus proving the mysterious nature of God’s hiddenness and revelation in the OT.  Moreover, traces of the Trinity in the OT are not scant.  Rather, the most illustrious Trinitarian passages in the NT are often dependent upon or giving explanation to OT passages (cf. Matt. 28:18-20 –> Dan. 7:13-14; 2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Num. 6:22-26; John 1:1-18 –> Gen. 1:1; Ex. 19-20; 1 Cor. 8:1-6 –> Deut. 6:4).  Thus it seems that in God’s wise providence he has revealed his Triune nature perfectly and progressively, and as we study his Scripture we have the blessed privilege of seeing his mystery and revelation, ultimately revealed in and through Jesus Christ (John 1:18; Heb. 1:1-2).

Tomorrow, I will post a reflection on these intertextual considerations.    Until then, may we take this Lord’s Day to worship the God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss


[1] D.A. Carson, “Mystery and Fulfillment” in Justification and Varigated Nominianism: The Paradoxes of Paul, vol. 2, ed. D.A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 424. 

 

[2] Philip Kramer, “Mystery without mystery in Galatians: An examination of the relationship between revelatory language in Galatians 1:11–17 and scriptural references in Galatians 3:6–18, 4:21–31” Ph.D. diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2004

 

[3] Carson, “Mystery and Fulfillment,” 425, footnote 91.

 

[4] John Piper, God is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005).  

 

[5] The requirements outlined by Peter in Acts 1 make more sense in light of this mysterion discussion, that the mysteries of the OT, which foretold the gospel (Gal. 3:8), could only be understood through a comprehensive knowledge of Jesus Christ (cf. Luke 24:25-27, 44-49).  This is complicit with Paul’s apostolic ministry which faithfully expounded the OT Scriptures (cf. Acts 17:2).

 

[6] Augustine, “A Treatise on the Spirit and the Letter” in Anti-Pelagian Writing, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, American ed., vol. 5 (United States: Christian Literature, 1887; reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004),  95.

 

[7] Alec Motyer puts it this way, “It was Jesus who came from the outside as the incarnate Son of God, Jesus who was raised from the dead as the Son of God with power, who chose to validate the Old Testament in retrospect and the New Testament in prospect, and who is himself the grand theme of the ‘story-line’ of both Testaments, the focal-point giving coherence to the total ‘picture’ in all its complexities” (Look to the Rock: An Old Testament Background to Our Understanding of Christ [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996], 22).

 

[8] For more on the condition of the believer in the OT, see Jim Hamilton, God’s Indwelling Presence.

 

The Mystery of Marriage: A Parable of Christ and the Church

Marriage is a mystery!  Empirically speaking, this is proven every time blissful lovers get married and discover the unforeseen realities of married life.  A young wife may think, “Why didn’t I see that his charming idiosyncracy in courtship is actually a really annoying habit in marriage?”  In every generation and with every marriage, the mystery proliferates, because woven into the fabric of humanity is God-given peculiarity associated with sexual differentiation.  This was implicit in creation, and has been exaggerated by the Fall.  All the same, it is part of God’s plan.  Solomon captures this creational profundity, when he writes, “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin” (Prov. 30:18-19).  From elementary school playgrounds, to high school dances, to twenty-five year anniversaries, the relationship between boys and girls that matures into the coupling of husband and wife is a profound mystery. 

Biblically speaking, marriage is also mystery; but in the Bible, the term “mystery” does not connote obscurity or uncertainty.  Instead, it is used to depict a reality hidden now revealed.  In Ephesians, Paul calls the ingathering of the Gentiles a mystery, describing the way in which nations outside the covenantal people Israel, were made “fellow citizens with the saints and the household of God” (2:19).  He also describes marriage as a mystery (Eph. 5:32).  In both instances, what was once only seen in types and shadows, has now been explained and made clear (cf. John 16:29-30).  The Old Testament promised salvation to gentiles but until Christ’s incarnation, the full plan of salvation for the nations had gone unnoticed.  Just the same, the pattern of men and women leaving and cleaving, coupling one with another in marriages has been patterned since Adam and Eve (cf. Gen. 2:24); yet, only in the fullness of time did the significance of this holy institution become known.  Pertaiing to marriage, it is important for us to understand that God’s telic purposes did not come after the first marriage, but rather they preceded the first marriage. 

J.V. Fesko has called this kind of understanding proleptic understanding of history, “protology,” meaning that in the beginning, God imbued significance to people, events, and institutions that in the fullness of time would find ultimate meaning in Christ and the effects of his redemptive work.  Looking backwards from the fully disclosed canon of Scripture, this could be called typology, but since it is prophetic and future-oriented, it seems better to call it protology (see Fesko’s Last Thing First).  In the case of marriage, when God brought Eve to Adam, he was taking strides to accomplish his eschatological goal of Christ and the church.  As Isaiah writes about our covenant Lord, “God declares the end from the beginning” (Is. 46:9), and in the case of marriage this is absolutely true.

Consider the words of New Testament scholar, George Knight III, as he described the eternal purposes of God in marriage:

Unbeknownst to the people of Moses’ day (it was a ‘mystery’), marriage was designed by God from the beginning to be a picture or parable of the relationship between Christ and the church.  Back when God was planning what marriage would be like, He planned it for this great purpose: it would give a beautiful earthly picture of the relationship that would someday come about between Christ and His church.  This was not known to people for many generations, and that is why Paul can call it a ‘mystery.’  But now in the New Testament age Paul reveals this mystery, and it is amazing.

This means that when Paul wanted to tell the Ephesians about marriage, he did not just hunt around for a helpful analogy and suddenly think that “Christ and the church” might be a good teaching illustration.  No, it was much more fundamental than that: Paul saw that when God designed the original marriage He already had Christ and the church in mind.  This is one of God’s great purposes in marriage: to picture the relationship between Christ and His redeemed people forever!  (George Knight III, “Husbands and Wives as Analogues of Christ and the Church” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem [Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991], 175-76)

Marriages that embrace and embody this truth, of seeing themselves as miniature portrait studios of Christ and the church are blessed with knowing the reality for which they were united in covenant love.  Those who do not know this mystery are tragically living in the dark.  Still the saddest group of all may be those who know Christ and his salvation, but do not know how his relationship with the church should shape and inform their marriage.  By choice or ignorance, they embody an egalitarian marriage, and chaff against the gospel.  Scripture’s wise design for marriage as a parabolic representation of Christ and the church, that includes male headship and female submission is not a product of the curse, but a divinely-revealed mystery that God promises to bless.

May we who love God’s wise design in marriage and the gospel that it “mysteriously” reveals, pray for a vision to see God’s design for marriage incarnated in our own marriages and in those around us, so that the world may see a mosaic of marriages within the chruch that illustrate the mystery of Christ and the church.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss