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Reflections on the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity — Part 1

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Reflections on the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity — Part 1

Paul L. Owen

This essay offers some thoughts on what must surely be the Christian’s most beautiful object of contemplation: the nature of God. In particular, it explores the understanding of God as a Trinity of persons, as articulated in the historic Creed of the Council of Nicaea (325CE).1 I reproduce here by way of introduction the (transliterated) Greek text of the Creed, and then my own translation of the text interspersed with relevant Scripture passages:

"This essay attempts to lay some groundwork which may help Latter-day Saints appreciate exactly what mainstream Christians mean when they speak of the Holy Trinity."

Pisteuomen eis hena theon patera, pantokratora panton horaton te kai aoraton poieten kai eis hena kurion Iesoun Christon ton huion tou theou gennethenta ek tou patros monogene toutestin ek tes ousias tou patros theon ek theou phos ek photos theon alethinon ek theou alethinou gennethenta ou poiethenta homoousion to patri di’ hou ta panta egeneto ta te en to ourano kai ta epi te ge ton di’ hemas tous anthropous kai dia ten hemeteran soterian katelthonta kai sarkothenta enanthropesanta pathonta kai anastanta te trite hemera anelthonta eis ouranous kai erchomenon krinai zontas kai nekrous kai eis to hagion pneuma.

We believe in one God (Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 45:5; James 2:19) the Father Almighty (1 Corinthians 8:6; Ephesians 4:6; John 17:3), maker of all things both seen and unseen (Genesis 1:1; Isaiah 44:24; John 1:3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2), and in one Lord (Deuteronomy 6:4) Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 8:6; Ephesians 4:5), the Son of God (Hebrews 1:2-8), the Only Son begotten of the Father (John 3:16), that is from the Being of the Father (John 1:18; Hebrews 1:3), God from God (John 1:1-2; 1:18; Hebrews 1:8-9), Light from Light (John 1:5; 8:12; 1 John 1:5), true God from true God (John 17:3 cf. 17:21; 1 John 5:20), begotten not made (John 1:2-3; 1:14-15; Colossians 1:13-17), essentially the same as the Father (John 1:1; 8:58; 10:30; 14:9-10; Hebrews 1:3), through whom all things came into being (John 1:3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2), both in heaven and upon earth (Genesis 1:1 cf. Colossians 1:16), who on behalf of humanity and for our salvation came down (John 16:28) and was enfleshed (John 1:14), became human (Philippians 2:6-7), suffered [death] (Matthew 16:21; Mark 10:45; Romans 8:32; Philippians 2:8) and came back to life on the third day (Mark 10:34; Luke 24:46; 1 Corinthians 15:4), ascended into heaven (Acts 1:9) and is coming to judge the living and the dead (Matthew 25:31-46; John 5:25-29; Revelation 22:12), and [we believe] in the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19; John 15:26; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; 2 Corinthians 3:17-18; 13:14).2

What do non-LDS Christians mean when they speak of God as one Being, three persons? How does this conception of God, shared by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestants, differ from the understanding of God’s oneness and threeness within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?3 This short essay makes no pretensions to offer any definitive answers to such questions, but rather attempts to lay some groundwork which may help Latter Day Saints appreciate what exactly mainstream Christians mean when they speak of the Holy Trinity.4 This is not intended to be a defense of the Trinity, but rather an explanation of how the doctrine is understood within the framework of historic, orthodox Christianity.


First of all, mainstream Christians distinguish between the trinitarian economy of God, and the trinitarian ontology of God.5 What does that mean? These terms are an attempt to come to grips with two aspects of God’s relationship to the world: his otherness (transcendence), and his presence in the world (immanence). God is not, in his essence, a part of the space-time continuum which we might designate the "created order."6 It is necessary to distinguish between the Life of God, which is grounded in Divine Sovereignty (Exodus 3:14), and the life of the contingent world.7 Paul the Apostle put it this way: "The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all life and breath and all things" (Acts 17:24-25).8

Genesis 1:1 tells us, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." It is interesting to compare this with John 1:1, which says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." So apparently, God and his divine Word both existed prior to "the beginning." St. Paul writes: "And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:17). Here we see that Christ, as God’s image (Col. 1:15), precedes the created order, and the very existence of that order is sustained by Christ. The same message rings true in Proverbs 8:22-31. There we read that "from everlasting" (Prov. 8:23) God existed with his Wisdom, before the heavens and the earth were brought into existence. Because of the fact that Genesis 1:2 mentions the role of the Spirit of God in creation, as well as the connection between God’s Spirit and Wisdom in passages such as the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon (7:22-25) and Psalm 104:24 & 30, some have taken this to imply that God’s Wisdom is associated with the Holy Spirit, just as God’s Word is associated with the Son. In light of the fact that the language of Colossians 1:15ff., and Hebrews 1:2-3 applies such imagery to Christ however,9 it is probably best not to draw rigid distinctions with respect to the relationship of God’s Wisdom to the Son and the Spirit. The same ambiguity exists with regard to God’s Word for that matter, since the very act of speaking implies breath, which might easily be associated with the Spirit (Hebrew ruach cf. Isaiah 40:7-8; 59:21).

At any rate, traditional Christians insist that one not confuse the non-contingent essence of God, with the space-time continuum of the "post-beginning" created order.10 Yet, the scriptural allusions to God’s Wisdom and Word existing with God in the beginning imply that within the very structure of the non-contingent "being" of God there is internal relationality. God possesses non-contingent Life within himself — in fact, non-contingent Life is a fairly good working definition of the "essence" of God — yet this Life is shared in a plurality of self-distinction.11 God shares his Sovereign Life with Others. Orthodox Christians understand those Others to be the Son and the Holy Spirit, who may be distinguished from the Father insofar as God may be distinguished from the Wisdom of God and the Word of God, yet not so far as to postulate that God could ever be God-without-Wisdom, or God-without-Word. An essential continuity between the self-grounded identity of God and the begotten Son and proceeding Holy Spirit, is indicated by the very phrases "Son of God" and "Spirit of God." The Word is the Son as "Son OF God," and Wisdom is the Spirit as "Spirit OF God." It is the OF which signifies that the divine essence is shared by each self-distinction.12 The Son and Spirit are not creations of God; nor was there ever a time when the Son was not Son, or the Spirit was not Spirit. From another angle, never was there a time when God was a Son/Word-less God, or a Spirit/Wisdom-less God. The essential nature of who God eternally is, irrespective of the created order, is displayed in this plurality of self-distinction.

Thus far we have been attempting to talk about God’s ontology, or being; and we have given some reasons why traditional Christians speak of a non-contingent essence of God.13 But we must move beyond the realm of ontology to that of "economy." This is a move from contemplating God as he eternally and non-contingently is "in himself," to speaking of God as he moves and acts in the created world. God is not only other than the world, but also "immanent" in the world. The same Paul who insisted that God is not a contingent being, also affirms that, "He is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27). God not only exists non-contingently apart from the world, but he also chooses to exist as a distinguishable being within the world. The world is not a part of God, neither does the world exist apart from God, but rather the world exists "by" God. Paul says that "in him we live and move and exist" (Acts 17:28). Yet the intimate relationality between God and the created order does not thereby make God "part of" the created order. God in his essence remains distinct, which is why the Apostle quickly adds: "Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature (to theion) is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man" (Acts 17:29 cf. Romans 1:20-23).

Just as we saw that there is, according to classical Christian thought, a trinitarian structure to the non-contingent Being of God, so likewise there is a trinitarian structure to the historical "economy" of God. Or in other words, God is three not only in himself, but is also God three-fold "for us." God’s non-contingent being is reflected in the self-revelation of God in the realm of contingency. Hence, the New Testament scriptures present us with God in three "modes of existence." God is the Father who sends his Son into the world on a mission of redemption (John 3:16; Galatians 4:4). And God is the Father who sheds abroad the Spirit of His Son upon all those who are called into the fellowship of the Divine Life (Romans 5:5-6). St. Paul expresses it in these words: "And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’" (Galatians 4:6). To receive "eternal life" is to be taken up into the non-contingent Life of the eternal Godhead. It is the Life which is revealed in the intimate fellowship of the Father and the Son (1 John 1:1-3). We earlier suggested that "non-contingent Life" is at least one serviceable working definition of the "essence" of God. This finds confirmation in 1 John 5:20, which states: "And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding in order that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life" (emphasis added). The true God is the one in whom to be is to be in Jesus Christ. Because the self-distinctions of Father and Son are both grounded in the same essence, the same shared Life, the definition of the true God, as opposed to the idols of the world (1 John 5:21), is not exhausted either by the revelation of the Father alone, or the Son alone. That is why John tells us, "Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also" (1 John 2:23).

This is why Jesus could say, "He who believes in Me does not believe in Me, but in Him who sent Me. And he who beholds Me beholds the One who sent Me" (John 12:44-45). Likewise Jesus tells Thomas, "If you had known me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him" (John 14:7). This does not mean that Jesus is the Father, as though there were no personal distinction between the two; but rather it means that the Son is one in essence with the Father (John 10:30). Jesus’ remark to Thomas functions rhetorically in preparation for that great confession which Thomas makes in 20:28: "My Lord and my God." The two persons may be distinguished with respect to their place in the divine economy, but not with respect to Deity (John 1:1). The Father and the Son mutually indwell one another (John 14:10-11); they share the same non-contingent Life (John 1:4; 8:58); and this is the life which believers are granted to participate in by grace (John 17:20-24). Because the Father, within the order of the divine economy, has granted to the Son to have Life "in himself" (John 5:26), which reflects the communion which has always existed between the two (John 17:5 & 24), the Son grants the life of God to all those who believe in him (John 17:2-3) ...

This three-fold structure to the divine economy pervades the discourse of the first-century apostolic witness.14 God condescends to reach down to man, displaying the trinitarian structure of the Divine Life which entered the world in the historical mission of the Son, and confronts the world with the Life-giving presence of the One God in the person of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:14-18). The trinitarian economy is witnessed at the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17), whereby the identity of Jesus Christ is publicly unveiled. The "heavens were opened" (Matt. 3:16), and the true nature of Jesus Christ as the Son of God is attested by the Spirit (3:16), and the Father (3:17). The unique identity of Jesus is related by association with the Divine Others. John the Baptist realized the implications of this revelation: Jesus of Nazareth is none other than the Son of God (John 1:34), who existed prior to John (despite the fact that John was conceived six months earlier [Luke 1:24-26]), and has the authority to baptize the world with God’s Spirit (John 1:33). This Messiah is none other than the incarnate presence of Israel’s God, for whom John had been sent in preparation (Isaiah 40:3//Matt. 3:3).

This baptismal scene brings to light the triadic allusions in the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah’s prophecy. Within chapters 40-55 of Isaiah, we read of the future ministry of an enigmatic figure, the Suffering Servant (50:4-9), who at one and the same time seems to represent Israel’s righteous remnant (49:3), as well as Israel’s God (50:1-3). Isaiah 40:3 anticipates the earthly visitation of God, which will result in the display of "the glory of the LORD" (40:5). This glorious visitation is rooted in the revelation of God (40:5), and the immutable nature of God’s Spirit (40:7) and Word (40:8). The Lord will come and bring about the "rule" (Hebrew mashal) of God by the strength of his own arm (40:10 cf. Revelation 22:12). When Israel’s God visits the earth, he will be a shepherd to his people (40:11 cf. John 10:11). In 42:1, we read of God’s Servant, the Chosen One, upon whom God’s Spirit will rest; the One who will "bring forth justice to the nations." Here again we are confronted with Israel’s God, the Servant, and the Spirit of God. This triad of God, Servant, and Spirit also appears in 48:16: "And now the Lord GOD has sent Me, and His Spirit." In 40:10 it is the Lord GOD (Adonai YHWH) himself who comes to shepherd Israel; whereas in 48:16, the Lord GOD (Adonai YHWH) is distinguished from the One who is "sent", and from the Spirit. Yet the One who is sent in verse 16 is none other than YHWH, the God of Israel, as the preceding context makes plain — the LORD is the speaker throughout 48:3-15. Despite the referential shift however, we find no hint that two Gods are in view in these passages; in fact, Isaiah takes great pains to emphasize the unrivalled exclusivity of the one true God (e.g. 40:25; 43:10; 44:6-8). Somehow the identity of the Servant, and the identity of Israel’s God who sends the Servant are related to one another.15

This identification of the Servant, the one who is sent to bring salvation to Israel (Isaiah 49:5; 53:11), with Israel’s God, who is in some sense both the Sender and the Sent, is amplified in light of three other considerations: 1) Isaiah 7:14 has already anticipated the coming of one who will be a "sign," and whose name will be "Immanuel" ("God is with us"). 2) Isaiah 11:1-4 has predicted the arrival of a messianic "branch" who will be endowed with the Spirit of God to bring judgment upon the earth (11:4 cf. 42:13). 3) Isaiah 57:13 promises that God will exalt the one who trusts him; and 57:15 identifies YHWH as the high and exalted One who dwells with the "crushed" (dakka cf. 53:5, 10). The same Hebrew roots (rum and nasa) which are used in 57:15 are also found in 52:13: "Behold, my Servant will prosper, he will be high (yarum) and exalted (nissa)"; and in 6:1: "I saw the Lord (adonai) sitting on a throne, high (ram) and exalted (nissa)." These two terms are rarely combined together in the Hebrew Bible.16 4) Hence perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Apostle Paul develops this Isaianic imagery in the hymnic passage of Philippians 2:6-11. Isaiah 53:12 is alluded to in Philippians 2:7, which immediately follows Paul’s affirmation of Jesus’ pre-incarnational equality with God in verse 6. We can now see how it is that Paul derived the notion that the one who "emptied Himself" is none other than the one who "existed in the form of God" (verse 6).17

Lest there should be any doubt that Paul was thinking along these lines, in Philippians 2:10, Paul applies to Jesus the words of Isaiah 45:23: "I have sworn by Myself, the word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness and will not turn back, that to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance." Yet in the same context Paul distinguished between Christ and the Father. It is God who exalts Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:9); and it is the Father who receives glory when Jesus Christ is confessed as Lord (2:11). Paul apparently saw in Isaiah 45:23 a reference to the Father and the Son, possibly on the basis of the reference to the word (Word?) which goes forth from God’s mouth. But another basis of distinction may be based on the wording of the LXX (Greek) version of Isaiah 45:23, which reads: "to Me shall bow every knee, and every tongue shall confess to God." Paul may have distinguished between the "Me" of 45:23, and the "God" which is mentioned at the end of the verse; hence deriving a distinction between God (theos) and Lord (kurios), who both fall under the identity of the exclusive Deity proclaimed in 45:21-22.18

It is in the relationship of the one God to the Servant of Isaiah’s prophecies that we see as poignantly as anywhere else the nature of the economic Trinity. God’s three-fold identity as Father, Son and Spirit, is related to the historical progress of redemption. The One God who exists within himself, non-contingently as God, Wisdom and Word, as Father, Son and Spirit, is the One who reveals himself within the realm of contingency, within the constraints of the space-time continuum, as the three-fold God for us. The triune identity of God is historically unfolded in the story of salvation, whereby the eternal, sovereign, non-contingent "I AM" enters the fallen world, assumes a delimited role and identity over against others in space-time history, and both secures, as the Son, and sheds abroad, as the Holy Spirit, the eternal life of God. The historical life, death, and subsequent glorification of Jesus of Nazareth becomes nothing short of the historical experience of God.19 And the sending forth of the Holy Spirit to empower and indwell the Church, is nothing short of God’s own historical "coming down" to dwell in the midst of his people (Ezekiel 37:14 & 27).20


A further step which may help to increase understanding in religious discourse between traditional Christians and Latter-day Saints, is to explore more carefully what is meant by the sorts of distinctions which are drawn between terms such as "Being" and "person." The doctrine of the Trinity insists that God is three with respect to personal distinction, but one with respect to Divine Nature. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are essentially the same, but personally differentiated. What is the purpose of drawing such distinctions?

It first of all must be kept in mind that there are two viewpoints which most Christians perceive to be unscriptural theological frameworks: modalism and polytheism. Polytheism can simply be defined as offering religious devotion to more than one God.21 Since Christians from the earliest stages of church history have offered prayer, worship and religious devotion to Jesus Christ alongside God the Father, to separate the Son and the Father as two Gods rather than one would seem to fall into the error of polytheism, and hence idolatry. The only other solution would be to withhold prayer and worship for the Father alone, which would seem to contradict the pattern of religious devotion attested in the New Testament witness.22

The other error which most Christians believe it necessary to avoid is modalism. Modalism arises from the failure to maintain a proper theological continuity between the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity. The three persons are explained as three "roles" which God plays for our sake; but these manifestations are not believed to reflect who God actually is within himself. In other words, the problem with modalism is that God essentially remains unknown. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are simply names which God assumes within history, but they do not correspond to the Reality of who God actually is. God in his essence remains veiled and hidden, and we are left with no objective referential ground by which to define or describe the God we claim to be in relationship with.23

It is these two perceived errors which orthodox trinitarianism attempts to avoid. At this point it may be helpful to define some terms which many Christians use as they explain their understanding of God: 1) "Substance" (Latin substantia) or "being" (Greek ousia) is that of which an objectively real person or thing consists. All real objects (whether spiritual or material) have "substance," otherwise they are mere figments of the imagination.24 2) "Essence" (Latin essentia) or "nature" (Latin natura) refers to what someone or something is like; or what qualities, powers or characteristics are by definition possessed by a person or thing. 3) "Subsistence" (Latin subsistentia) or "person," (Latin persona) are words which are used to refer to a given instance of a particular substance. Orthodox Christians believe that God is one eternal, personal and spiritual divine substance who exists in three modes of subsistence, or three self-distinctions.25

Now when we come to the biblical evidence a decision has to be made. Does one start with the assumption that God is one, and then attempt to explain how God can be three; or does one begin with the knowledge that God is three, and then attempt to explain in what way God can be one? This decision is an important one, and as we will see, it is the basis of important differences of understanding among Christians of different traditions. Protestants and Roman Catholics, who tend to be under greater influence from the heritage of the Western tradition, generally start with the assumption of God’s oneness. The Eastern Orthodox Church on the other hand follows the heritage of the East, and hence tends to begin with the knowledge of God’s threeness. Whether consciously or not, the LDS Church appears to side with the Eastern tradition in this matter.

In the opinion of the present writer, the Western tradition is correct to begin with the assumption of God’s oneness, and move from there to an explanation of God’s threeness. Revelation begins with the Old Testament, not the New; and hence it seems fundamentally misguided to begin building a portrait of God based upon later stages of revelation. One must first come to grips with what the Hebrew Bible teaches us about the nature of God; and then upon that foundation we can establish a clearer understanding of God as derived from the New Testament witness. Perhaps no truth is more fundamental to the religion of the Old Testament than the revelation of Deuteronomy 6:4: "shema yisrael YHWH elohenu YHWH echad" ("Listen, Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!"). When the Lord Jesus was asked by a Jewish scribe what was the most important commandment of all (entole prote panton), he replied: "The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God is one LORD’" (Mark 12:29). Hence there is good reason to take Deuteronomy 6:4 as the capstone of a truly biblical religion. St. James took the shema to be such a fundamental truth that even the demons recognized it (James 2:19).

Yet alongside this fundamental truth of God’s oneness, we find the New Testament scriptures describing God the Father alongside two other persons: the Son and the Holy Spirit. Matthew 28:19 reads: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." 2 Corinthians 13:14 states: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all." In 1 Peter 1:2 we read of those who are chosen "according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood." How are statements such as these to be understood in light of the monotheistic heritage of the Old Testament? Clearly these three persons are to be understood in some sort of close relationship with one another; but does this mean that we are to speak of hree Gods instead of one?

There are indications in the New Testament witness of how such statements ought to be reconciled with one another. We will look at a few passages which may shed some light on the issue. In 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 St. Paul discusses the matter of pagan idolatry, and it is clear that Deuteronomy 6:4-5 is in the background.26 Paul brings up the matter of loving God in 8:3, which brings to mind Deuteronomy 6:5. In 8:4, we read that most Christians understand in reality that, "there is no God but one." What Paul means is clarified by 8:7, where the Corinthians are reminded that, "not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol." Sandwiched in between these two statements we read as follows from verses 5-6: "For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords [i.e. in the pagan religions], yet for us [i.e. in the Christian religion] there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through him."27 The wording of 8:6 clearly seems to reflect Deuteronomy 6:4; and what is significant is that Paul distinguishes two persons in Moses’ words, based on the terms YHWH and elohim. In Paul’s understanding, the term "God" used here refers to the Father, whereas the term "LORD" refers to Jesus Christ. Thus both the Father and the Son are associated together under the one Deity spoken of by Moses! Hence, the exclusive love which Deuteronomy 6:5 insists must be reserved for "the LORD your God" would be understood to embrace both the Father and the Son.

A second passage which may bring clarity in this regard is John 10:30, where Jesus is depicted as claiming: "I and the Father are one." Mainstream Christians generally take this to mean that the Father and the Son share the same essence, or divine nature. The usual alternative to this is to take these words to mean that the Father and the Son are only one in purpose and action. However there are good reasons for favoring the "one in essence" reading: 1) John 1:1 has already informed us that the Father and the Son are both God (theos not merely theios).28 2) The issue at stake in John 10:24ff. is the identity of Jesus, not his union of will with the Father. 3) The Jews clearly understood Jesus to make claiming to be God, as seen by their response: "For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God" (10:33 emphasis added). John records their statement very carefully. What is at stake is a question of "being" (Greek, on). The Jews insist on Jesus being merely a man; the rhetorical contrast which John intends the reader to pick up insists on Jesus being God; which is exactly what the Jews understood his claim to be. Hence the oneness which Jesus claims with the Father in 10:30 is best understood ontologically as a oneness of Be-ing. It is this same identity of Be-ing which Jesus claims in 8:58: "prin Abraam genesthai ego eimi" ("before Abraham came into being I AM" cf. Exodus 3:14). In 8:54, Jesus identifies his Father as the one whom the Jews claim as their God; hence this I AM statement asserts an ontological equality (con-substantiality) between Jesus and the Father. Again, this should come as no surprise, since the reader has already encountered these words in the very first verses of John’s gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God" (John 1:1-2 emphasis added). The copulative verb eimi occurs four times (in the imperfect tense) in the space of two verses, which tells us that the identity between God the Father and God the Word (the Son) is a matter of ontology, or being.29

It is this understanding of the ontological identity of the Father and the Son which lies behind the controversial homoousion clause in the Nicene Creed which we saw above: "homoousion to patri," which we translated "essentially the same as the Father." The Father and the Son are understood by orthodox Christians to be "of the same essence," because the Son is begotten of the Father’s own being (ek tes ousias tou patros).30

This understanding finds further support in at least one other New Testament text. In Hebrews 1:3 we read of the Son: "who being the brightness of the glory and an exact representation of his essence" ("hos on apaugasma tes doxes kai charakter tes hypostaseos autou").31 The Son is an exact representation of the essential nature of God. If God were to "image-ine" himself, this is what his mind’s eye would see. The Son cannot be split off from the essence of God any more than the brightness of a light can be separated from the light itself. Hence the imagery of the first clause of this verse, which describes the Son as "the brightness of the glory."32 This same idea is expressed several times in John’s gospel: "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only [Son] from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).33 "No man has seen God at any time; the one and only God, being in the bosom of the Father, he has explained Him" (1:18).34 "Not that any man has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father" (6:46). "These things Isaiah said, because He saw His glory, and he spoke of Him .... And he who beholds Me beholds the One who sent Me" (12:41 & 45). Or in the words of the Nicene Creed: "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, essentially the same (homoousion) as the Father."35


Read Part II


1. This is not to be confused with the later Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381CE.

2. The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed elaborates: "[We believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father (and the Son), who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets."

3. For an extremely valuable introduction to the respective viewpoints, see Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide? (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997).

4. By "mainstream" Christians, I refer to those bodies which consciously stand in continuity with the ecumenical trinitarian and Christological manifestos of the fourth and fifth centuries CE.

5. On this distinction see for example Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996), 73-111; Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 213-26; and Ted Peters, God as Trinity: Relationality and Temporality in Divine Life (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 146-87.

6. The position I am presenting here is consistent with, but does not demand, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo ("out of nothing"). Within a LDS framework, a meaningful line between Creator and creation could still be maintained by postulating that the elements of the universe are eternally contingent upon God (D&C 88:12-13). This is the position taken by B. H. Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology, ed. John W. Welch (Provo: BYU Studies, 1994), 71-72. For those interested in pursuing the matter further, good defenses of creation ex nihilo can be found in Paul Copan, "Is Creatio Ex Nihilo a Post-Biblical Invention? An Examination of Gerhard May’s Proposal," Trinity Journal 17NS (1996): 77-93; and William Lane Craig, "Creation and Conservation Once More," Religious Studies 34 (1998): 177-88.

7. See the discussion of Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, 203-34.

8. For the most part I will be following the New American Standard Bible when citing scripture. Occasionally I will give my own translations.

9. This is pointed out in all of the standard critical commentaries.

10. This follows from the fact that God alone is uncreated (Isaiah 44:24), and hence non-contingent. 2 Enoch expresses it this way: "Before anything existed at all, from the very beginning, whatever exists I created from the non-existent, and from the invisible the visible" (J24:2). "And there is no adviser and no successor to my creation. I am self-eternal and not made by hands" (J33:4).

11. On divine Life and the essence of God, see Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, 240-42; and Boff, Trinity and Society, 124-28.

12. This insight I draw from Cornelius Plantinga, "Social Trinity and Tritheism," in Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement: Philosophical and Theological Essays, eds. R. J. Feenstra and C. Plantinga (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 28.

13. For a detailed philosophical defense see Richard Swinburne, The Christian God (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994).

14. For a discussion of some of the key passages, see Gordon D. Fee, "Christology and Pneumatology in Romans 8:9-11 — and Elsewhere: Some Reflections on Paul as a Trinitarian," in Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ, eds. J. B. Green and M. Turner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 312-31.

15. For a very sophisticated analysis of this material, see Gerard Van Groningen, Messianic Revelation in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 571-666.

16. See the discussion of Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), 47-51.

17. See Bauckham, God Crucified, 51-53, 56-61.

18. The wording of the LXX at this point, and its possible interpretation by St. Paul was pointed out to me recently in conversation with Prof. Larry Hurtado.

19. To this extent, I am in complete agreement with Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (London: SCM Press, 1974), 200-90.

20. See Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 827-45.

21. I do not enter here into the question of whether or not Israelite religion was consistently monotheistic. Such discussions are often plagued by the failure to distinguish properly between the false religious practices of Israel, and the correct religious beliefs of Judaism. The belief in one unique and exclusive God is abundantly attested in ancient Jewish literature: Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:2; 2 Samuel 7:22; Isaiah 43:11; 44:6; 45:5, 6, 14, 18, 21, 22; 46:9; Hosea 13:4; Joel 2:27; Wisdom of Solomon 12:13; Judith 9:11-14; Sirach 36:5; 2 Enoch J33:8; J36:1; J47:3; Testament of Abraham [A] 8:7. The fact that the people of Israel were often guilty of idolatry is attested both by archeological finds and by textual evidence (e.g. the polemics in the book of Judges and the prophets); but this does not negate the commitment to monotheism which is attested in the scriptural record. Neither does the fact that angels, and key patriarchs (e.g. Moses, Enoch) could be given the title ‘god’ obliterate the clear line in Judaism between the One God and the created order. The issue is not a matter of titles — it is the issue of identity. Neither does the fact that some Jewish texts attribute divine functions to God’s Word and Wisdom (e.g. Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-8:1) compromise monotheism, for these are best understood as personifications of aspects of God’s own identity — the very reason why they played such an important role in early Christological formulations.

22. On the origins of the inclusion of Jesus within God’s identity, and the worship of Jesus in the historical context of monotheistic Judaism, see J. D. G. Dunn, "The Making of Christology — Evolution or Unfolding?," in Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ, 437-52; Jürgen Moltmann (with Pinchas Lapide), Jewish Monotheism and Christian Trinitarian Doctrine (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 45-57; Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998); idem, "First-Century Jewish Monotheism," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 71 (1998): 3-26; and Richard Bauckham, "Jesus, Worship of," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 3:812-19; idem, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, passim. For a different perspective, which explains such phenomena by arguing that Second Temple Judaism was not strictly monotheistic, cf. Peter Hayman, "Monotheism — A Misused Word in Jewish Studies?," Journal of Jewish Studies 42 (1991): 1-15; and Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (London: SPCK, 1992). See further discussion in Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1977), 205-19. 

23. For a very well-written evangelical critique of modalism, see Gregory A. Boyd, Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).

24. For an exhaustive discussion see Christopher Stead, Divine Substance (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977).

25. A very helpful resource for understanding the technical vocabulary of Patristic and Scholastic theology, is Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985).

26. For a discussion see Hurtado, One God, One Lord, 161 notes 13, 14; Bauckham, God Crucified, 37-39; and in more detail Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 369-76.

27. I am well aware that Joseph Smith appears to have expressed a different interpretation of 1 Corinthians 8:5-6. See Joseph Fielding Smith (ed.), Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1993), 418-19. In my opinion however, Joseph Smith’s doctrine of a "plurality of Gods" has been largely misunderstood by many LDS and non-LDS alike; and his comments on this verse provide a good example of the confusion. The (LDS) Prophet writes: "Paul says there are Gods many and Lords many. I want to set it forth in a plain and simple manner; but to us there is but one God — that is pertaining to us; and he is in all and through all" (p. 418 bold emphasis added). These last words are crucial. In my judgement, Joseph Smith had a view of the Deity which was heavily influenced by the thought-forms of Jewish Kabbalah. There is only one ineffable Deity (D&C 121:32); but that Deity has manifold emanations which flow from the divine essence (D&C 88:12). God’s essence fills the universe ("and he is in all and through all"), but that essence is incarnated or located in various divine personages — one of whom functions as the God of this world (D&C 88:13, 41). Hence Smith believed that other divine personages had jurisdiction over other worlds; but all of these "Gods" were ultimately incarnations of the one God whose essence "is in all and through all." Smith emphasizes that he is attempting to speak in a "plain and simple manner." It is Joseph Smith’s "plain and simple" explanation of his own unique mutation of Jewish Kabbalism which has led, in my opinion, to a great deal of misunderstanding in subsequent LDS theology. The two key thinkers who it appears to me truly understood what Joseph Smith was attempting to communicate with his "plurality of Gods" language are Orson Pratt and B. H. Roberts. See for example Orson Pratt, "Great First Cause," in Orson Pratt’s Works Volume 2: Important Works in Mormon History (Orem: Grandin Book Company, 1990); and B. H. Roberts, Mormon Doctrine of Deity (Bountiful: Horizon Publishers, 1903), 162-69; and idem, The Truth, The Way, The Life, ed. John W. Welch (Provo: BYU Studies, 1994), 166-68; 224-31.

28. See the detailed exegesis of this verse by Murray J. Harris, Jesus as God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 51-71. Also Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), 187-88.

29. This argument allows for, but does not demand, a Platonic definition of "substance." By ontological oneness, or consubstantiality, we only mean that the person of Jesus Christ is included within the unique identity of the One God.

30. Richard Bauckham writes: "The credal slogan of Nicene theology — the homoousion (that Christ is of the same substance as the Father) — may look initially like a complete capitulation to Greek categories. But the impression is different when we understand its function within the trinitarian and narrative context it has in, for example, the Nicene and Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creeds. The context identifies God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and identifies God from the narrative of the history of Jesus. The homoousion in this context functions to ensure that this divine identity is truly the identity of the one and only God. In its own way it expresses the christological monotheism of the New Testament" (God Crucified, pp. 78-79).

31. The Greek word hypostasis did not have the technical meaning of "person" in contrast to ousia ("being"), which the term later came to signify in trinitarian formulations, largely due to the Cappadocian theologians. According to the Greek lexicon of Walter Bauer, in its first-century usage, hypostasis simply meant "substantial nature, essence, actual being, reality." Commenting on the usage here, we are told, "the Son of God is charakter tes hypostaseos autou (an exact) representation of his (=God’s) real being." W. Bauer, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 847.

32. An excellent discussion of this passage can be found in Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ (Downers Grove: IVP, 1998), 78-83.

33. Cf. PGP Moses 2:26-27: "And I, God, said unto mine Only Begotten, which was with me from the beginning: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and it was so .... And I, God, created man in mine own image, in the image of mine Only Begotten created I him; male and female created I them."

34. [My translation] following the best witnesses which read [ho] monogenes theos (presence of the article varying), rather than the more widely attested ho monogenes huios. I am not at all persuaded by the arguments of Theodore Letis, to the effect that the reading "one and only God" is simply due to the influence of Valentinian gnostic interpretation of the prologue of John. This explanation fails to explain the use of this reading by orthodox Fathers (e.g. Clement, Basil, Gregory Nyssa, Epiphanius). Furthermore, Letis allows his theological biases to intrude on the evaluation of external support for the theos reading; and he does not explain the obvious parallelism between 1:1 and 1:18 which bracket the prologue, and which is disrupted by the huios reading. (See Theodore P. Letis, The Ecclesiastical Text: Text Criticism, Biblical Authority and the Popular Mind [Philadelphia: IRRBS, 1997], 107-32.) Neither is Bart Ehrman convincing in his attempts to explain the reading "the one and only God" as an example of "orthodox corruption" of the text. Ehrman explains away the parallelism between 1:1 and 1:18 in an obviously contrived manner; and he operates on the question-begging assumption that a first-century reader would not be able to make sense of the [ho] monogenes theos reading. He furthermore does not give adequate weight to the intrinsic probability that the huios reading was introduced to conform to Johannine idiom outside the prologue, and also in order to avoid the potentially polytheistic understanding of 1:18 (which is most likely why Athanasius did not utilize the theos reading). (See Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament [Oxford: OUP, 1993], 78-82.)

35. It should be evident from my discussion that I am not persuaded by arguments to the effect that Nicene theology merely represents the imposition of Platonic philosophical categories upon the Church’s doctrine of God. That the framers of the fourth-fifth century trinitarian and Christological statements were generally sympathetic to Platonism, and used philosophical terms to formulate their understanding of God, is basically true — and truly irrelevant. All theological reflection moves beyond the language of the Bible, and expresses doctrine in contemporary forms of expression. The real issue is whether the ecumenical Creeds are successful in expressing the essential content of New Testament Christology: that the One God became incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who is at the same time a distinguishable person from the Father. In other words, Jesus must be included within the unique identity of the One God, without being swallowed up in the person of the Father. On this whole matter see the provocative argument of Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils and Christ: Did the Early Christians Misrepresent Jesus? (Great Britain: Mentor, 1997).