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Reflections on the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity — Part 2

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Reflections on the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity — Part 2

Paul L. Owen


There is one final issue which ought to be addressed in the interest of increasing understanding between traditional Christians and LDS on the topic of the Trinity. That is the matter of unity and diversity in theological understanding of the nature of God’s oneness and threeness. Many Christians give the impression that all who believe that God is a Trinity (essentially one, but personally differentiated) are in complete agreement as to the nature of the unity of God’s Being. That however is not the case, and obscuring the different viewpoints on this subject does not do anyone any favors. There are at least three areas where certain differences of understanding need to be recognized.

First of all, there are differences between the views of the Apologists (second and early third centuries CE), and those of the post-Nicene Fathers (fourth and fifth centuries CE). The Apologists (e.g. Justin, Athenagoras, Tertullian, Irenaeus,) did not express their understanding of God in exactly the same manner as did later Fathers (e.g. Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Augustine). The Apologists’ main opponents were gnostics and modalists; the Arian controversy had not yet arisen, and hence they cannot be expected to have formulated their definitions in light of later controversy. J. N. D. Kelly outlines two of the primary differences between the earlier and later stages of understanding:

There are two points in the Apologists’ teaching which, because of their far reaching importance, must be heavily underlined, viz. (a) that for all of them the description "God the Father" connoted, not the first Person of the Holy Trinity, but the one Godhead considered as author of whatever exists; and (b) that they all, Athenagoras included, dated the generation of the Logos, and so His eligibility for the title "Son", not from His origination from within the being of the Godhead, but from His emission or putting forth for the purposes of creation, revelation and redemption. Unless these points are firmly grasped, and their significance appreciated, a completely distorted view of the Apologists’ theology is liable to result.36

For the Apologists, the Son and the Spirit were not eternally con-substantial persons, but rather extensions of God’s essence who became distinct "persons" for the purposes of creation and redemption.37 We offer two quotes here by way of illustration; one from Tertullian and one from Athenagoras. Tertullian writes:

We have already said that God devised the whole universe by Word, by Reason, by Power. Among your own philosophers, too, it is argued that Logos, that is Word and Reason, would seem to be the Artificer of the universe. This Logos Zeno defines as the maker who has formed and ordered all; he will have it that this Logos is also called fate and God, and mind of Jove, and universal law. All this Cleanthes gathers up into Spirit and affirms it to pervade the universe. We, too, to that Word, Reason and Power (by which we said God devised all things) would ascribe Spirit as its substance; and in Spirit, giving utterance, we should find Word; with Spirit ordering and disposing all things, Power. This, we have been taught, proceeds from God, begotten in this proceeding from God, and therefore called "Son of God" and "God" because of unity of nature. For God too is spirit. When a ray is projected from the sun, it is a portion of the whole, but the sun will be in the ray, because it is in the sun’s ray, nor is it a division of substance, but an extension. Spirit from Spirit, God from God — as light is lit from light. The parent matter remains whole and undiminished even if you borrow many offshoots of its quality from it. Thus what has proceeded from God, is God and God’s Son, and both are one. Thus Spirit from Spirit, God from God — it makes in mode a double number, in order not in condition, not departing from the source but proceeding from it (Apology, 21.10-13).38

Likewise note the following statement from the pen of Athenagoras:

I have sufficiently shown that we are not atheists since we acknowledge one God, who is uncreated, eternal, invisible, impassible, incomprehensible, illimitable. He is grasped only by mind and intelligence, and surrounded by light, beauty, spirit, and indescribable power. By him the universe was created through his Word, was set in order, and is held together. [I say "his Word"], for we also think that God has a Son.

Let no one think it stupid for me to say that God has a Son. For we do not think of God the Father or of the Son in the way of the poets, who weave their myths by showing that gods are no better than men. But the Son of God is his Word in idea and in actuality; for by him and through him all things were made, the Father and the Son being one. And since the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son by the unity and power of the Spirit, the Son of God is the mind and Word of the Father.

But if, owing to your sharp intelligence, it occurs to you to inquire further what is meant by the Son, I shall briefly explain. He is the first offspring of the Father. I do not mean that he was created, for, since God is eternal mind, he had his Word within himself from the beginning, being eternally wise. Rather did the Son come forth from God to give form and actuality to all material things, which essentially have a sort of formless nature and inert quality, the heavier particles being mixed up with the lighter. The prophetic Spirit agrees with this opinion when he says, "The Lord created me as the first of his ways, for his works."

Indeed we say that the Holy Spirit himself, who inspires those who utter prophecies, is an effluence of God, flowing from him and returning like a ray of the sun. Who, then, would not be astonished to hear those called atheists who admit God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and who teach their unity in power and distinction in rank (Plea Regarding Christians, 10)?39

There is both continuity and discontinuity between the views of these earlier writers and those of the post-Nicene period. The continuity is in the fact that the three Persons were each understood to be of the same "substance" and hence fully God, yet personally distinguished from one another. But there is discontinuity in that the Apologists held to an essentially Monarchian view of the Deity. The Father is God in the proper sense; the Son and the Spirit derive their divinity by sharing in the essence which belongs to the Father as the source of the Godhead. It is also unclear in these earlier writers how the conclusion could be avoided that there once was a time when the Son and the Spirit did not exist as distinct persons. The Son and the Spirit always existed within God as Word and Wisdom (Irenaeus), but not necessarily as personal subsistences alongside the Father.

A second distinction that needs to be drawn lies between the views of the Eastern and Western theological traditions. The most influential exponents of the point of view which came to prevail in the West are Athanasius (ca. 295-373CE) and Augustine (ca. 354-430CE). The most prominent of the Eastern theologians are the great Cappadocian Fathers: Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory Nyssen and Basil, who were most active from the period 360-81CE. The Cappadocians are credited with offering a more clearly articulated understanding of the con-substantial relationship of the Holy Spirit to the other two persons — an issue which was not adequately addressed by the Nicene Council.40 What is the major point of difference between the Eastern and Western Church? It has to do with the understanding of the relationship of the Father to the Monarchy of the Godhead.41 Both East and West are agreed that the Father has a certain priority of position within the Trinity. The Father alone is unbegotten and non-proceeding. But does the Monarchy, the font of Deity, reside in the Father’s person, or in his Being? Is the Son begotten of the Father’s person, or his Being? Does the Spirit proceed from the Father’s person, or his Being? If, as the Eastern Church insists, the font of Deity resides in the Father’s person, then the Spirit clearly must proceed from the Father alone, since the Son does not possess the Father’s person. But if the font of Deity resides in the Father’s Being, then the conclusion may be drawn that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, since all are agreed that the Father and the Son are con-substantial, that is, that they are identical in essence. Largely due to the influence of Augustine, the Western Church gradually settled on the view that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, and eventually the words "and the Son" were added to the text of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (381CE) in the sixth century in conjunction with the Third Council of Toledo (589CE).

This argument has important theological ramifications. If the font of Deity is located in the Father’s person, then the divine nature of the Son and the Spirit will of necessity be a derived divinity. In fact, it is a general tendency of the Eastern Fathers (Gregory Nazianzen excluded) to speak of God the Father as the cause of the Deity of the Son and the Spirit. The issue at stake is whether or not each of the Persons of the Trinity can be spoken of properly as God in their own right (autotheos). Thomas F. Torrance writes:

When the Cappadocian theologians argued for the doctrine of one Being, three Persons (mia ousia treis hypostaseis) they did so on the ground that the ousia had the same relation to the hypostasis as the general or common to the particular. They pointed, for instance, to the way three different people have a common nature or physis. They absorbed the Nicene ousia of the Father (ousia tou Patros) into the hypostasis of the Father (hypostasis tou Patros), and then when they spoke of the three divine Persons as having the same being or nature, they were apt to identify ousia with physis or nature. Thereby they tended to give ousia an abstract generic sense which had the effect of making them treat ousia or physis as impersonal. Then when in addition they concentrated Christian faith directly upon the three distinct hypostases of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as they are united through their common action, they were charged with thinking of God in a partitive or tritheistic way, three Gods with a common nature, which of course they rejected. They sought to meet this charge by establishing their belief in the oneness of God through anchoring it in the Father as the one Origin or Principle or Cause, Arche or Aitia, of divine Unity, and they spoke of the Son and of the Holy Spirit as deriving their distinct modes of subsistence or coming into existence (tropoi hyparxeos) from the Father as the Fount of Deity (pege theotetos). But they went further and argued that the Son and the Spirit derive their being (einai) and indeed their Deity (theotes) from the Father by way of unique causation (aitia) which comprises and is continuous with its effects, and by that they meant the Father considered as Person, i.e. as hypostasis, not ousia, which represented a divergence from the teaching of the Nicene Council.42

Hence there is an element of ontological subordinationism which remains in the Eastern view, which in the mind of those inclined toward the view of the Western tradition leaves the door open to implicit Arianism. Furthermore, by making the one ousia which is shared by the three persons abstract, and locating it in the person of the Father, the Eastern view confuses divine substance (Deity) with divine nature (Divinity), and hence leaves the door open to tritheism. As Donald Macleod notes: "The core, then, is clear: the essence of the Son and the Holy Spirit cannot be subordinate in any sense to the essence of the Father because it is one and the same essence, equally self-existent in each person. Consequently, such terms as ‘begotten’ and ‘proceeding’ apply only to the persons of the Son and Spirit, not to their essence. Otherwise, we have three divine beings."43

There are dangers inherent in both viewpoints.44 The Eastern Church charges the West with subordinating the person of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son; and furthermore suspects that the Western tradition leaves an open door to the heresy of modalism. The Western Church charges the East with subordinating the Son to the Father; and furthermore suspects that the Eastern tradition leaves an open door to the heresy of tritheism. The present writer is inclined to side with the West in this matter, and believes that the weight of biblical evidence favors the view that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son.45 But the main point in this context is that both East and West fall under the category of "orthodox" Christianity; both in good conscience affirm the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. However their respective viewpoints on the procession of the Holy Spirit are reflective of fundamentally different understandings of the nature of the "oneness" of the Trinity. The West insists that the three eternal Persons share a common Deity — each Person is autotheos. The East maintains that the three eternal Persons share a common Divinity — the Father alone is Deity in a proper sense (autotheos).46

Many popular-level treatments of the doctrine of the Trinity, especially in evangelical literature, offer only a superficial discussion of this matter if they even mention it at all, generally relegating this argument to the trash heap of ivory tower technicalities for "theologians" to quibble about.47 But passing over the difficult issues in order to increase sales projections and reader accessibility doesn’t do anyone any favors. Theology is not a task for those who are unwilling to stretch their minds and grapple with difficult concepts.

This brings us to one final line of distinction which needs to be drawn if our discussions concerning the Holy Trinity are to rise above the level of vague generalities. In contemporary theological and philosophical discussion, there are two heuristic approaches to understanding the Trinity. There is a "social" model, and there is a "psychological" or "modal" (not "modalistic") model. Generally speaking, these two approaches can be traced back to the differences between the East and the West in their articulation of the nature of the "oneness" of the Godhead; but the current "social" model is also largely driven by perceived philosophical difficulties with the doctrine of the Trinity as articulated in Western manifestos such as the so-called Athanasian Creed. The "modal" or "psychological" model goes back to Augustine, and has been advocated by important thinkers in our century such as Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, Donald Bloesch, Kelly James Clark and Thomas F. Torrance.48 The "social" model is more heavily indebted to the Cappadocians, and is represented by theologians such as Cornelius Plantinga, Leonardo Boff, Jürgen Moltmann, Richard Swinburne, Millard Erickson and Clark Pinnock.49

What is the difference between these two approaches? Essentially they differ as to their contemplative ground, or starting point. The psychological/modal approach begins with the ontological oneness of God’s Being and uses social analogies to explain how the Persons relate to one another. The social approach begins with the inter-relation of the Persons, and articulates the nature of their oneness within the construct of their perichoresis or "mutual indwelling" (John 14:10-11). The psychological/modal model does not deny the idea of perichoresis; but neither does it employ this concept as a means of explaining the ontological "oneness" of the three Persons. In other words, the two models differ as to their understanding of the significance and function of the doctrine of perichoresis. One (the social construct) uses the concept of "mutual indwelling" to explain how the three eternal Persons can be "one." The other (the modal construct) uses the concept of "mutual indwelling" to illustrate the internal relationality of God’s Being.

The primary illustration which the social model uses to describe the Trinity is that of a harmonious society. Allow me to illustrate this viewpoint with a citation from Cornelius Plantinga:

Let me propose generally, then, that the Holy Trinity is a divine, transcendent society or community of three fully personal and fully divine entities: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit or Paraclete. These three are wonderfully unified by their common divinity, that is, by the possession by each of the whole generic divine essence — including, for instance, the properties of everlastingness and of sublimely great knowledge, love, and glory. The persons are also unified by their joint redemptive purpose, revelation, and work. Their knowledge and love are directed not only to their creatures, but also primordially and archetypally to each other. The Father loves the Son and the Son the Father. Extrapolating beyond ex-plicit New Testament teaching, let us say that the Father and the Son love the Spirit and the Spirit the Father and the Son. The Trinity is thus a zestful, wondrous community of divine light, love, joy, mutuality, and verve.50

Essentially social trinitarianism begins with the construct of a "divine society," and then bases the oneness of the Persons in the harmony and union of activity of that society. Modal trinitarianism begins with the construct of a "divine Being," and then uses social analogies to explain the inter-relationality of the three Persons. Modal trinitarians do not understand the Father, Son and Spirit as fundamentally a unified society; but rather the three Persons are understood to be "modes of existence" of the one Being of God. God’s oneness is grounded in the non-contingent Life which God has in himself; the threeness speaks of the relationality which is comprehended within the Reality of God’s self-existent Life. Donald Bloesch expresses this approach:

Father, Son and Holy Spirit are symbols that correspond not to inner feelings or experiences but to ontological realities. Their dominant reference is objective rather than subjective. The persons of the Holy Trinity connote agencies of relation rather than separate personalities. God in his essence is one, but the way he interacts within himself is threefold. In the Godhead there is one being but three modes of existence. There is one person but three agencies of relationship. There is one overarching consciousness but three foci of consciousness. There is one will but three acts of implementing this will. There is one intelligence but three operations of intelligence.

God does not simply act in a threefold way but exists within himself in a tripersonal relationship. The economic Trinity reflects the immanent Trinity, but it also follows it and is not to be equated with it. The doctrine of the Trinity asserts that there are distinctions within God himself, and these distinctions constitute a fellowship of subjectivities that in their perfect unity mirror one divine intellect and one divine will. There is a trinity of persons but a unity of essence.51

The primary illustration of this approach is the "psychological" analogy of the relationship of the mind to the self.52 Gregory A. Boyd explains:

In this analogy, the distinctness in union of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is thought of as being something like ("analogous to") the distinctness, say, of a person’s intellect, heart, and will within the unity of the one person (St. Augustine). Each "aspect" of the person is distinct, yet inseparable from the others, and together they constitute the single personality of that person. Or, another version of this model suggests that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are something like the self’s relationship to its own self-image (Jonathan Edwards). The very act of thinking, it is pointed out, requires a type of plurality within the one self (e.g. who is talking and who is listening?). So does the act of loving or hating oneself (who is loving and who is being loved?). The "fellowship" of the three divine "persons" is something like this, according to this model.53

Again, the point being made here is that both the social model and the modal/psychological model are approaches which are taken by mainstream, orthodox Christians; all of whom would quickly affirm their commitment to the belief that God is essentially one, but personally differentiated. Therefore, discussions between traditional Christians and Latter-day Saints need to take into consideration the spectrum of possibilities within the framework of historic, orthodox Christianity. Mainstream Christians should not give the misleading impression that there is no theological "breathing room" for different trinitarian perspectives underneath the umbrella of "orthodoxy;" and neither should Latter-day Saints be quick to caricature the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, without taking the time to understand the spectrum of opinion which orthodox Christians have arrived at as sincere people of good faith attempt to grapple with the mystery (Isaiah 45:15; 1 Timothy 3:16) of the relation of God’s one essence to his triune self-distinction.


36. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1978), 100.

37. For discussions see J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 95-136; Alastair I. C. Heron, The Holy Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 63-73; Basil Studer, Trinity and Incarnation: The Faith of the Early Church (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1993), 43-75; and Eric Osborn, The Emergence of Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993

38. Translation taken from J. Stevenson (ed.), A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church to A.D. 337 (London: SPCK, 1957), 171-72.

39. Translation taken from Cyril C. Richardson (ed.), Early Christian Fathers (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 308-09.

40. On the contribution of the Cappadocians see Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 258-69; Heron, The Holy Spirit, 80-86; Boff, Trinity and Society, 54-55; and Studer, Trinity and Incarnation, 139-53.

41. For those who wish to explore this matter further, see the detailed discussion of Gerald Bray, The Doctrine of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993), 153-96.

42. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, 178.

43. Macleod, The Person of Christ, 151.

44. I provide here helpful summaries of the Greek (Eastern) and Latin (Western) approaches from the study of Leonardo Boff: "Greek: This starts from the Father, seen as source and origin of all divinity. There are two ways out from the Father: the Son by begetting and the Spirit by proceeding. The Father communicates his whole substance to the Son and the Holy Spirit, so both are consubstantial with the Father and equally God. The Father also forms the Persons of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in an eternal process. This current runs the risk of being understood as subordinationism."

"Latin: This starts from the divine nature, which is equal in all three Persons. This divine nature is spiritual; this gives it an inner dynamic: absolute spirit is the Father, understanding is the Son and will is the Holy Spirit. The Three appropriate the same nature in distinct modes: the Father without beginning, the Son begotten by the Father, and the Spirit breathed out by the Father and the Son. The three are in the same nature, consubstantial, and therefore one God. This current runs the risk of being interpreted as modalism" (Trinity and Society, 234).

45. For discussions see Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, 185-94; Heron, The Holy Spirit, 176-78; Boff, Trinity and Society, 199-207; Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (London: SCM Press, 1981), 178-90; and Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 246-47.

46. The fundamental issues at stake in these two approaches receive a masterful treatment by John Calvin, who comes down solidly on the side of the Western Church. See Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion I.xiii.1-29.

47. For one recent example of this tendency, see the treatment of James R. White, The Forgotten Trinity (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1998), 218 n. 18.

48. See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume I: The Doctrine of the Word of God (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1975), 348-83; Karl Rahner, The Trinity (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970); Donald Bloesch, God the Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), 166-204; Kelly James Clark, "Trinity or Tritheism?," Religious Studies 32 (1996): 463-76; and Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996).

49. See 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), 21-47; Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988); Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (London: SCM Press, 1981); Richard Swinburne, The Christian God (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), 150-91; Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 321-42; and Clark Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 21-48.

50. Plantinga, "Social Trinity and Tritheism," in Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement, 27-28.

51. Donald Bloesch, God the Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love the Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), 185.

52. Jonathan Edwards writes: "This I suppose to be that blessed Trinity that we read of in the holy Scriptures. The Father is the deity subsisting in the prime, unoriginated and most absolute manner, or the deity in its direct existence. The Son is the deity generated by God’s understanding, or having an idea of Himself and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Ghost is the deity subsisting in act, or the divine essence flowing out and breathed forth in God’s infinite love to and delight in Himself. And I believe the whole Divine essence does truly and distinctly subsist both in the Divine idea and Divine love, and that each of them are properly distinct persons." Jonathan Edwards, "An Essay on the Trinity," in Treatise on Grace and Other Posthumously Published Writings, ed. Paul Helm (Cambridge: James Clark, 1971), 108. Cited by John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Leicester, England: IVP, 1998), 84-85.

53. Boyd, Oneness Pentecostals & the Trinity, 175.