The Doctrine of the Trinity: Three Perichoretic Persons

trinityA few weeks ago I began a three part series on the Trinity. The first post affirmed God’s oneness. The second began to explicate how the one God is three persons. Today, I finish my series by looking at how the one God in three persons lives and moves in the world he created.

In Perfect Motion: How the Father, Son, and Spirit Work in the World

Because God created the world outside himself, creation is not a part of God. Yet, God in his omnipresence is present to bless, or curse, or to sustain his creation. In all places, at all times, and without diffusion of his deity or fluctuation of his power, God is active in the world.

However, as a triune God, each member of the Trinity performs a unique but unified role in creation. Together Father, Son, and Spirit created the universe; they preserve the cosmos; and they effect salvation for all the ones whom the Father gave the Son before the foundation of the world (see John 17). In short, their external activities are as harmonious, congruent, and seamless as their internal essence. 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 Doctrine of the Trinity: God is One God

TrinityThere is nothing bare-bones about the Trinity. But sometimes when introducing this doctrine it helps to give a brief, ‘bare-bones’ outline to help young believers or novice theologians understand the parameters of orthodox belief about Scripture’s deepest mystery.

With such an intention, let me lay out a bare-bones doctrine of the Trinity. In its shortest and most incomplete delineation, the Christians doctrine affirms two things: (1) God is One God and (2) God is Three Persons. This denies modalism (one god in three forms) and tritheism (three gods), and gets on the way to a right view of the doctrine. Continue reading

Acts: On Mission with the Triune God

[This is the most recent “Feeding on the Word” article for our church newsletter].

In most Bibles, Luke’s second book is entitled, “The Acts of the Apostles.”  However, as many commentators have noted, a more accurate title would be “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” because it is the Spirit who is responsible for convicting, converting, and creating the church. Yet, even this title is insufficient, because it tempts us to think that the Father and Son are absent. Thus, a better title might be, “The Acts of the Triune God Through the Church of Jesus Christ.”  While lengthy, such a title rightly emphasizes God’s work in and through the early church.

With this trinitarian framework in mind, lets consider how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work together in Acts to convert sinners and create the church.

Continue reading

Getting to Know Friedrich Schleiermacher (4): The Church, Eschatology, and the Trinity

Yesterday, we looked at Schleiermacher’s theology of God, Sin, Redemption, and the person of Christ. Today, we will examine his views on the church, eschatology, and the Trinity.

The Church

The last section of his systematic theology is on the church.  This breaks down into three sections—the origin, existence, and perfection of the church.  On the churches origin, he speaks of election and the Holy Spirit.  Concerning election, Schleiermacher vacillates.  On one hand, from the vantage point of the decree (which he speaks about but doesn’t really fit his system) God is the causal agent of all things in the world and thus he causes the election of those in the church, but on the other, as the one who knows all things, he elects based on future knowledge. Schleiermacher seems confused on this matter, and this is one the stress points of his system.  Concerning the Holy Spirit, Schleiermacher denies any deity to the Holy Spirit; instead, the spirit is the common spirit of the church.  The shared experience and feeling of Christ unites the church, and thus there is this universal spirit.

On the existence and practice of the church, Schleiermacher lays out six aspects of practice that are organized with the three offices of Christ.  So the church focuses on the Word of God and preaching as a means of the prophetic office; the church performs baptism and the Lord’s Supper in conjunction with Christ’s priestly office; and the church is invited to pray in the Lord’s name and exercise the keys of the kingdom in conjunction with Christ’s royal office.  In all of these, Schleiermacher reformulates doctrine.  So for instance, communion is not an ordinance laid down by Jesus, it is man’s demonstration of need for grace and the expression of his Godward dependence.  Likewise, prayer for Schleiermacher is not to a God who is outside of space and time; rather, prayer is the inward longing for God and his kingdom to be exercised in the world.

Eschatology

Finally, on the perfection of the church, there is no true doctrine.  It is only an idea.  Since doctrines are those things which church communities experience and record, there has not yet been an experience of a perfect church, and thus what the historical theologians have described as eschatology are merely conjectures.  He renames these doctrines “articles” and offers very scant evidence for them.  Instead, with great agnosticism, he states that we cannot know for sure what the resurrection, intermediate state, and the final judgment will be like.  In the end, he qualifies the doctrine of heaven and hell, to insist that in some way, all men will be reconciled and perfected.  In this, his view of election and universalism are similar to Karl Barth, who is one of Schleiermacher’s greatest critics.

The Trinity: An Appendix

Finally, in an appendix, Schleiermacher relegates the doctrine of the Trinity.   Its position there shows Schleiermacher’s connection with church history—it would be impossible to be a Christian theologian and not talk about this central doctrine.  And yet, because of his Kantian presupposition, he decides that the Trinity is neither practical, nor knowable.  And thus should be mentioned but not greatly used.

While, all these features of Schleiermacher’s theology mentioned above and over the last few days require a great deal more consideration, it is a start.  Tomorrow, we will look at how we should evaluate this theological giant whose shadow still looms until today.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Speaking of the Trinity

Keith Johnson, in his insightful new book, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralismprovides a concise survey of Augustine’s trinitarian theology.  He marks four traits about Augustine that are often obscured or slanted (52-55):

(1) Key to Augustine’s understanding of the trinity was the “inseparable operation” of the divine persons, meaning that in creation and salvation all members of the trinity were at work together–the Father as the Father, the Son as the Son, the Spirit as the Spirit.

(2) Augustine’s massive volume on the trinity is grounded in Scripture.  In fact, the first seven chapters are pure exegesis, and in hiw whole work he cites 6,800 biblical citations and allusions!  Despite contrary opinion, he is not a speculative theologian.  He cites from every book in the New Testament, minus Philemon, and twenty-seven Old Testament books as he makes a biblical, theological argument for the Trinity in chapters 1-7 and then as he considers how we might make sense of the Trinity in chapters 8-15 of the De Trinitate.

(3) “Despite popular claims to the contrary,” Johnson states, “Augustine’s teaching does not stand in sharp contrast to the trinitarian theology of the Cappadocians” (54).  Cf. Lewis Ayre’sAugustine and the Trinity.

(4) Augustine’s doctrine progresses over time.  Since his classic work took two decades to produce (AD 400-420), there is development in his understanding.  Johnson cites Ayres, “Augustine moves ‘towards a sophisticated account of the divine communion as resulting from the eternal intra-divine acts of the divine three” (Augustine and the Trinity3).

Two Rules By Which Augustine Interpreted Trinitarian Texts.

After presenting these basics, Johnson outlines three material ways that Augustine approached difficult texts about the Son.  He provides a handful of hermeneutical “rules” that serve current interpreters well as they come to the difficulty of reconciling passages that say things about God that seem to be in tension.

Combining these two rules, New Testament references to Christ can be grouped into three categories: (1) texts that refer to Son in the ‘form of God,’ in which he is equal to the Father (e.g., Jn 10:30; Phil 2:6); (2) texts that refer to the Son in the ‘form of a servant,’ in which he is ‘less’ than the Father (e.g., Jn 14:28); and (3) texts that suggest the Son is from the Father (e.g., Jn 5:19, 26)” (De Trinitate, 2.3, 98) (Keith Johnson, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism62).

Keith Johnson summarizes a hermeneutical rule that Augustine employed to discern different way in which Scripture spoke about the two natures of Christ:

In the form of God, Christ created all things (Jn 1:3), while in the form of a servant he was born of a woman (Gal 4:4).  In the form of God, Christ is equal to the Father (Jn 10:30), while in the form of a servant he obeys the Father (Jn 6:38). In the form of God, Christ is ‘true God’ (1 Jn 5:20), while in the form of a servant he is obedient to the point of death (Phil 2:8).  These two ‘forms’ exist in one person–the Son of God (De Trinitate, 1.28, 86) (Keith Johnson, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism60).

Last, Johnson points out another ‘rule’ that Augustine used to handle texts that speak of the Father sending the Son, or texts which speak of the Son coming from the Father.  Commenting on John 5:19, 26, Augustine observes,

So the reason for these statements can only be that the life of the Son is unchanging like the Father’s, and yet is from the Father [v. 26]; and that the work of the Father and Son is indivisible, and yet the Son’s working is from the Father just as he himself is from the Father [v. 19]; and the way in which the Son sees the Father is simply by being the Son (De Trinitate2.3, 99; quoted by Keith Johnson, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism62).

In general, these ‘rules’ while not commanded in Scripture, come from someone who is saturated with the Bible, and who models well an approach to understanding the Trinity from the text of the Bible.  Next time you read 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, Philippians 2:5-11, or John 5, 8, or 10 consider how these rules might serve your understanding of the glorious relationship between Father and Son.

And if you have never read, Augustine’s De Trinitate, it is worth the effort.  The first half is Bible-rich, while the second half engages in epistemic reflection on how we might best understand the Trinity through the use of analogies.  For Augustine, these analogies are not paradigmatic or authoritative, so much as they are ministerial.  They help him and put in words an  understanding of the three-in-one, even while each of the proposal ultimately fails.

May we have eyes to see the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as we read the Bible, not as blind monotheists, but as worshipers of the Triune God.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Biblical-Theological Reflections on the Doctrine of God

In the first chapter of his book The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology, Charles H.H. Scobie concludes by highlighting 9 theological reflections that come from an investigation of the doctrine of God worked out in the Scriptures.  Let me share three.

First, he asserts that the canonical understanding of God is consistently monotheistic, and asks what is monotheism’s significance.  Responding to that question, he cites an illuminating quotation from M. Burrows Outline of Biblical Theology (1946), which reads,

It [monotheism] is at bottom the question whether there is any unified, any reliable control of the universe, or whether we are at the mercy of an unpredictable interplay of forces in a welter of worlds that is not a cosmos, a system, a universe at all.  The polytheistic Babylonians and other Gentile peoples were in constant fear and uncertainty; Israel worshipped the one God whose ways had been made known, and whose faithfulness reached the clouds (Burrows 60, quoted by Scobie, 144).

Next, Scobie reflects on the personal nature of God.  Throughout the chapter, he reiterates the significance of God’s name and revealed character, and in this final section, he quotes from P.D. Hanson, who like Burrows emphasizes the way in which a the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus (re)defines all reality.

Impersonal models, such as one finds in some versions of process philosophy, inadequately express the biblical vision of reality.  In the Bible, reality, understood with historical specificity, is guided towards its goal by a divine Purposer who is not limited to the sum total of the physical substance of the universe and who therefore is best described with personal metaphors like Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer (quoting P.D. Hanson, The Diversity of Scripture; Scobie 145).

Scobie also reflects on the ways in which modern theology has been distorted by feminist distortions of God.  Even though, it is correct to denote God with ‘personal metaphors like Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,’ these should be representative of the entire Godhead and not used to redefine the personal and specific revelation of the triune God.  Urging for Biblical Theology to overrule contemporary interpretations, he writes against extra-biblical labels replacing the Bible’s own revelation.  He asserts,

Proposals have been made to avoid gender-specific terminology, e.g. that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” be replaced by some such phrase as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” [or worse, Mother, Child, Life-giving womb].  Such formulae, however, do not adequately express the personal nature of God nor the interrelationship among the persons of the Trinity.  Moreover, this approach suggests the biblical terminology is ‘merely’ metaphor that can be changed at will, rather than the way in which God has chose to reveal himself (Scobie 146).

These are just a handful of Scobie’s summarizing reflections on the doctrine of God in biblical-theological perspective.  He shows clearly that Biblical Theology is not just a sub-discipline in theology that outlines what the Bible ‘meant’ in its archaic context; he shows how a thorough-going Biblical Theology informs what the Bible ‘means’ for today.  In this way, he demonstrates how Biblical Theology should guide and direct Systematic Theology so that the final analysis and modern application is true to the text.

As we think ‘theologically,’ may we do so with a similarly robust biblical theology that shapes our understanding, and not vice versa.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

The Trinity in Biblical Theological Perspective (2)

The Trinity in Biblical Theological Reflection: New Testament Appropriations of Old Testament Evidence 

Three NT passages that are often used to support the doctrine of the Trinity are Matthew 28:19; John 1:1-8; and 1 Corinthians 8:1-6.  They show the New Testament revelation of the Trinity–one God, three persons.  However, as will be evidenced below these passages are not merely New Testament irruptions, rather they find dependence on earlier Old Testament passages.  The point being made then is that while the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly made in the OT, there are incomplete revelations in the Hebrew Bible that prepare the soul for the Christian revelation of the Triune God.  Let us consider these passages together. 

Matthew 28:19.  The Great Commission is the most explicit Trinitarian verse in the Bible.  While there are other triads,[1] no other passage of Scripture so clearly and concisely delineates the three persons of the Godhead.  It reads, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Here all three members of the Godhead are listed in order and united under a singular name,[2] and as was referenced previously this New Testament postulations depends upon Old Testament revelation, in at least three ways.  In short order, Matthew 28:18-20 has a typological precedent in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23,[3] a literary precursor in the three-fold, baptismal benediction found in the Aaronic blessing (Num. 6:22-26);[4] and a view of the Godhead that corresponds with the eschatological vision in Daniel 7:13-14.[5]  In each of these Old Testament passages there are glimpses of what is fully conceived in Matthew 28:18-20.   More to the point theologically, the significance of God’s name cannot be undervalued.  That the “I am” is now the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, marks a seismic shift in Theology Proper; nonetheless, it is one that was anticipated in the OT (cf. Isa. 7:14; Jer. 23:6; cf. Isa. 43:25 –> Phil. 2:9-11).[6]

John 1:1-18.  John’s prologue is another lucid example of the way OT ideas of Word and Wisdom were taken and applied to Jesus, so that God the Father and God the Son were inseparably united and yet hypostatically distinguished.  Consider John’s use of Genesis 1 as he introduces Jesus as the eternal Word of God—the one in whom “all things were made,” the source of all life, and the light of the world (1:1-5).[7]  That the Word, the Son of God, Jesus Christ is responsible for creation, life, and light is a clear testimony to his uncreated eternality and the fact that he is the unnamed divine agent in the Old Testament.  Köstenberger summarizes, “The prologue’s portrayal of the Word’s creative agency thus establishes an important theme [in John]… While the Word is personally distinct from God, the work he performs is nonetheless nothing but the work of God.”[8]  

Then, using imagery from the revelation on Mt. Sinai, John compares Jesus intimate knowledge of the Father with Moses fiery encounter in Exodus 19-20.  Moses was permitted into God’s presence, but he was disallowed from seeing God’s face, or later entering into his presence (i.e. the promised land).  Alternatively, Jesus Christ, “is in the bosom of the Father” (1:18 NASB).  He is the “one-of-a-kind Son” who alone has seen God and now is explaining him to the world.  In this comparison, Jesus is not a New Moses.  Rather, if the imagery from Sinai holds, he himself is YHWH in the flesh.  So that as Bauckham concludes,

Without contradicting or rejecting any of the existing features of Jewish monotheism, the Fourth Gospel, therefore redefines Jewish monotheism as Christological monotheism….in which the relationship the relationship of Jesus the Son to his Father is integral to the definition of who the one true God is.[9]

1 Corinthians 8:1-6.  Like John, Paul in his letter to the Corinthians expands the static notion of monotheism to include Jesus Christ.  Quoting the shema (Deut. 6:4) in 1 Corinthians 8:4, he argues against idolatry in verse 6 saying, “yet 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.”  It is absolutely fascinating to see Paul reject the existence of other (so-called) gods in one verse and then to turn and insert into the singular deity of God two names—God and the Lord Jesus, the Father and the Son.  Certainly, this Christology interpretation was a result of his Dasmascus Road experience with the risen Lord.  Richard Bauckham’s balanced explanation summarizes Paul’s thought process here,

The only possible way to understand Paul as maintaining monotheism is to understand him to be including Jesus in the unique identity of the one God affirmed in the Shema.  But this is, in any case, clear from the fact that the term ‘Lord’, applied here to Jesus as the ‘one Lord’, is taken from the Shema itself.  Paul is not adding to the one God of the Shema a ‘Lord’ whom the Shema affirms to be one.  In this unprecedented reformulation of the Shema, the unique identity of the one God consists of the one God, the Father, and the one Lord, his Messiah (who is implicitly regarded as the Son of the Father).[10]

While it has been argued by some that the semantic range of the word ehad allows for complexity,[11] this is a shocking statement.  Still, it is this kind of OT-dependent reading that best explains how we are to understand the traces of the Trinity in the Old Testament.  For nowhere in the shema is there a negation of a Triune God.  Rather, there is a firm affirmation of God’s unity, which orthodox Trinitarians also hold.  What Paul does in 1 Corinthians 8:6, however, is to unpack the unity of God in the OT in a way that fits with the greater revelation of Jesus as God (cf. Rom. 9:5; Tit. 2:13).  That the Spirit is not present in this passage does not deny the Trinitarian nature of the verse, it simply indicates that like the OT, aspects of the Godhead can be spoken of in isolation, though never upheld ontologically as independent or separate.

These are not the only passages either.  Other relevant Trinitarian passages in the NT that appeal to the OT  include Acts 2:17-21, where Peter quotes the prophecy in Joel to explain the events of Pentecost and the coming of God’s Spirit; Philippians 2:9-11, where Paul applies Isaiah 45:23, which speaks of YHWH, and applies it to Jesus saying God “bestowed on [Jesus] the name that is above every name;”[12] and 1 Corinthians 1:24, 30 and Colossians 2:3 which call Jesus “the wisdom of God,” the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”  Each of these passages develops Old Testament evidences for the Trinity—the coming of the Spirit, the Name of God, and the Wisdom of God. 

And I am sure that there are others.  Can you think of any? 

Sola Deo Gloria, dss


[1] Matt. 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:4-6; 1 Pet. 1:2; Jude 20-21; Rev. 1:4-5.

 

[2]  For more on the significance of ordered relationships in the Godhead see Bruce Ware, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance.  (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005).

 

[3] G.K. Beale makes this often overlooked connection in The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A biblical theology of the dwelling place of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 169-80.  He writes, “This passage [2 Chron. 36:22-23] has three things in common with Matthew 28:18-20: (1) both Cyrus and Jesus assert authority over all the earth; (2) the commission to ‘go’; and (3) the assurance of divine presence to fulfill the commission…the 2 Chronicles passage would be viewed as a historical event to commission a temple that foreshadowed typologically the much greater event of Jesus’ ‘Great Commision’ to build a greater temple” (176-77).  This observation is very informative for understanding the work of the Trinity expounded in Matthew 28, where the Son is building the temple, the Spirit is indwelling the temple, and ultimately the temple is for God the Father (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19).

 

[4] Viviano cites Luise Abramowski’s research and summarizes her work showing the relationship between the Aaronic blessing, the Nazarite vow, and the rite of baptism.  He writes, “Crucial to her case is the placing or putting of God’s name on the people.  This then links up with baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit” (Viviano, “The Trinity in the Old Testament,” 16). 

 

[5] Craig Blomberg writes, “Jesus’ closing ‘Great Commission’ of his apostles seems to allude to Daniel 7:14.  Jesus whose favorite title for himself throughout the Gospel has been ‘Son of Man,’ is given all authority on heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18), just as the Son of Man in Daniel’s vision received an identical universal authority.  It is even possible that the Trinitarian formula in 28:19 reflects a modification of the triad of Ancient of Days (God the Father), Son of Man (God the Son), and angels as God’s spiritual servants as the implied agents of the Son of Man being led into God’s presence (and thus functioning analogous to the Holy Spirit), also found in Dan. 7:13-14” (“Matthew” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D.A. Carson [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 100.

 

[6] For more on the names of God see John Frame, The Doctrine of God, 343-61; cf. John Piper, The Pleasures of God (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000), 98, 193-94.

 

[7] Andreas Köstenberger, “John” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D.A. Carson [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 421; see also Carson’s comments and detailed exegesis in The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1991), 111-39.

 

[8] Andreas Köstenberger, The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008), 115.

[9] Richard Bauckham, “Monotheism and Christology in the Gospel of John” in Contours of Christology in the New Testament, ed. Richard Longenecker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 165.

 

[10] Richard Bauckham,  Jesus and the God of Israel, 101.  This quotation comes from an entire section devoted to solving this theological riddle, see pp. 97-105.

 

[11] The task of demonstrating God’s singularity and unity in the OT is more challenging than may first appear.  OT scholars like Michael Heiser are pressing for a reappraisal of traditional OT monotheism, where an OT binitarianism is asserted over against the classic understanding of monotheism. See his dissertation “The divine council in late canonical and non-canonical Second Temple Jewish literature” Ph.D. diss., The University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2004 and his weblog devoted to the subject, http://michaelsheiser.com/TwoPowersInHeaven.  In his recent article “Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism? Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible” in Bulletin for Biblical Research  18.1 (2008), 1-30, Heiser concludes, “It is my hope that scholars will be encouraged to re-evaluate their assumptions about the reality of divine plurality in Israel’s worldview and how to parse that reality in understanding Israelite religion” (30).

 

[12]

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.

 

Busyness and Bavinck :: With a Meditation on the Economic Trinity

Over the last few weeks, things at school have picked up and consequently Via Emmaus has slowed down.  But in the busyness there have been many choice gleanings, even if they have not made it here. 

For instance, after sitting on the shelf for sometime untouched, I was finally able to pick up Herman Bavinck’s volume on God and Creation (volume 2 of 4)For those unaware of this Dutch theologian (1854 -1921), his four volume Reformed Dogmatics is a classic in Reformed theology and the translation was just completed last year. 

In his section of the Trinity, Bavinck writes with exegetical precision, intertextual sensitivity, and vast historical awareness.  And while not coming close to exhausting the endless majesty of the Godhead, Bavinck laid out a clear explanation of the doctrine that was greatly enriching.   I look forward to pondering his works more in the years to come.  Let me share an excerpt from Bavinck concerning the Economic Trinity, that is the Trinity as revealed in Redemptive History and Inspired Revelation:

The true development of the trinitarian ideas of the Old Testament is found in the New Testament.  In the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the one true God is revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  These three are identical withh those who revealed themselves to the Old Testament saints in word and deed, prophecy and miracle.  The threefold principle in operation in creation and salvation is, however, made more clear in the New Testament.  All salvation, every blessing, and blessedness have their threefold cause in God–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  The New Testament revelation is Trinitarian through and through (Herman Bavinck, God and Creation in Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 256).

I am grateful, that in the midst of the busyness of life, God refreshes us and renews us with such soul-enlarging truths.  I am thankful for the gifted men God has given his church–thinkers, pastors, writers, and theologians– to help us see the glorious vistas of our God.  More than that, I am thankful for God, who dwells in unapproachable light– disclosing himself to sinners in history, through language, as he really is.

Hopefully, as I press ahead in this semester, I will be able to share more of my readings.  It is a blessing and a joy to study God’s word (Ps. 19:8a) and his works (Ps. 116:2), and that joy is doubled by sharing them here.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss