Orthodox Nicene Trinitarianism

This is a revised and expanded composite of the three-part series on classical orthodox Nicene Trinitarianism that I wrote in the summer of 2016. I did my writing in the wake of the great Calvinist brouhaha about the “eternal functional subordination” of the Son and other related teachings involving authority and submission as distinguishing personal qualities between the Persons of the Holy Trinity. In the course of watching and reading the blogosphere battle over this subject, I learned some new things and refined my understanding of classical Trinitarian theology. This essay is the articulated fruit of my alleged enlightenment and refinement. I can only hope it’s of some benefit to you and that it gives glory to the Blessed Trinity.

Introduction

The ancient doxology of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Praise Him, all creatures here below.
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

In the glorious perfection of all perfections who is the one true and living God, there is unity and diversity. God is One, and God is Three. But one what? And three what? And what is the relationship between the One and the Three? These are the questions at the root of what it means for God to be the Holy Trinity.

Here, I will attempt to answer these questions. I have no expectation that what I have to say will be easily or clearly understood. My only expectation is that you’ll see how wondrously and mysteriously elusive God is to our understanding of his Trinitarian Nature. I also hope that I’ve been precise and rigorous in my attempts to explain this great mystery of the Faith once for all delivered to the saints.

Revelation through Incarnation and Redemption

In orthodox Trinitarian thinking since the time of the early Church Fathers, there has been a distinction between the Holy Trinity as God has revealed himself to us and the Holy Trinity as God knows himself to be. The Triune God has revealed himself to his creation in his works through the history of creation and especially in the outworking of redemption for his people and in his people. These are called his ad extra works or operations. The Triune God as he is in himself and knows himself to be (i.e. the Three Persons in direct relation to one another) is something qualitatively different than and yet analogous to what God has revealed to us. These relations between the Persons in God are his ad intra works or operations. It should come as no great surprise to us that such a distinction exists due to God’s benevolent accommodation to our limitations as his creatures. The Holy Trinity as seen and understood in the economy of redemption (i.e. salvation accomplished for us and applied to us) is called, naturally, the Economic Trinity. And the Holy Trinity as the one true God is in himself, as he knows himself to be in the relations of the Three Persons directly toward each other, is referred to as the Immanent Trinity or Ontological Trinity.

It was in the incarnation of God the Son and his subsequent life and work as true man where the Three Persons become clearly distinguished. And it is the incarnation of the Son which makes every foray into the Immanent Trinity doubly complicated. This is because the Trinitarian nature of God and the union of the two natures of Christ are interdependent and mutually revealing realities in God’s working out salvation in the context of the incarnation of the Son. In becoming man, God the Son took on human qualities and acted in human ways that made it evident he is distinct from the Father who sent him and from the Holy Spirit who he received from the Father and who he poured out upon the saints in union with him. Yet in becoming man, the Son took on qualities and acted in ways that showed he was and is both truly God and truly man. Therefore, the work of understanding the distinction and the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in God is a parallel pursuit alongside the work of understanding the distinction and the unity of the nature of God and the nature of man in the incarnate Son. Things proper to the Son as man are not to be imported into the inner life of the Triune God, and much error has come about by doing so.

We can only speak as best we can of the Immanent Trinity through the revelation of the Economic Trinity while recognizing the distinction. But we need not fret or fear that the ‘real’ Trinity is a shadowy, mysterious, and utterly unknowably different God lurking behind the deceptive veneer of a ‘fake’ Trinity experienced by our creaturely senses. We must take comfort in remembering that the Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (who we experience through the work of salvation won for us and given to us) truly and intentionally reveals the Persons of the Immanent Trinity to us. This is a revelation, not an obscuration, even if it’s ultimately incomprehensible.

The Failure of Attempts at Trinitarian Analogies

Perhaps it’s worth noting at the outset that it’s far easier to misunderstand and wrongly explain the Trinity than it is to understand and rightly explain the Trinity. Trinitarian heresies come easily to us, and they do so usually by our attempts to impose analogies from creation upon the Trinitarian nature of God. They also come about by our desire for God to be less mysteriously other and more relatable to ourselves. A typical error is to read creaturely patterns directly onto the Trinitarian nature of God as if any pattern was put there by God to reveal his Trinitarian nature.

There are simply no appropriate or good analogies for the Trinitarian nature of God, because Trinitarian essence is a uniquely divine quality. It has no true analogue in the creation. It’s actually useful to show what God’s Trinitarian nature is not through the aid of analogies from creation, e.g. it’s not like the three phases of water, it’s not like the three tenses of time, it’s not like three different toppings on vanilla ice cream, it’s not like three slices of a caramel pecan pie, it’s not like three members of a family or a committee, and it’s not like three social different roles a man occupies in his respective relations to multiple fellow men. The Trinity may have some connection to those final two examples, but they are still misleading analogies for how the Three are the One. I personally advocate avoiding all attempts at making analogies and just call the Trinity a divine mystery held by faith in what God had revealed about himself.

God revealed himself as the Trinity in history through action; the first believers who followed Christ and received the Spirit were experiential Trinitarians. Their doctrine was captured in the form of narratives and the doxologies in the Scriptures. And Holy Scripture itself doesn’t explicitly provide any descriptive and differentiating words or a confessional formula for the nature of the One and the Three. The Church Fathers had to develop and define the extrabiblical language necessary to express the doctrine just as they had to develop and define the succinct term ‘Trinity’ (from the Latin word trinitas meaning ‘threefold’) itself.

Developing the Technical Theological Language

The typical English phrase for orthodox Trinitarianism is that God is one Substance (or Being) in three Persons. This expression comes from Latin words used in ancient Western Christian theology, i.e. Substantum and Persona. The equivalent Greek word used in ancient Eastern Christian theology were Ousia and Hypostasis respectively. But, in their ordinary use, these respective Latin and Greek words are not equivalent. And, in fact, it was a rather annoying complication that the terms Substantum and Hypostasis were exact translational equivalents in their ordinary usage, while the words Ousia and Hypostasis were synonyms in their ordinary Greek usage.

The ancient theologians of the fourth century, using Greek in the East and Latin in the West, struggled through the language barriers to develop and harmonize the technical meanings of the Greek and Latin terminology while contending against Arianism and other heresies. Their work lasted from the time of the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 to the time of the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. What emerged was a mature and standardized formulation and meaning for orthodox Nicene Trinitarianism, which the one holy catholic and apostolic Church has inherited and by which she is guarded.

The Greek and Latin language challenges are also reflected in the older English ways of confessing the Trinity. We confess that God is one Substance in three Persons, or that God is one Substance in three Subsistences, or that God is one Essence, or is one Nature, or is one Being, etc.

Misconstruing the Language about Persons

So what is a divine Hypostasis or Subsistence? Is it a Person? Well, yes and no.

The modern connotation of the word ‘person’ is loaded with baggage which makes its application to the Trinity a dangerous undertaking. Various statements could be made that are equally true and equally misleading. The typical English rendering of God as one Substance in three Persons can be helpfully corrected by saying God is one Person in three Self-Relations. In both cases, these words have stipulated technical meanings when describing God that are not identical to creaturely uses of the same words.

The modern connotation of a person is a being who is conscious of himself in relation to others, who engages in communication, and who individually possesses knowledge, volition, and emotion as a self-contained entity. Furthermore, a ‘person’ experiences changes in his knowledge, volition, and emotion through interaction with others. The problem in applying ‘person’ to God is that some of the modern creaturely properties apply with respect to the one Substance or Nature of God, other properties apply with respect to each Hypostasis or Subsistence in God, and still others don’t properly apply to God at all. Divine simplicity reminds us that knowledge, volition, and emotion are all attributes of the one Substance whereas self-consciousness in relation to others and communion between self and others are characteristics of the three Subsistences. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit commune with one another eternally, and they do so with one mind, one will, and one affection in an unchangingly simple Essence.

Differentiation of each Self and each Other

The differentiation that exists in the one God is a threefold sense of self and otherness that we see expressed in the speaking and acting of one toward the others. Each divine Subsistence distinguishes between himself and his two fellow Subsistences in word and deed, and we follow suit in our worship and doctrine.

In the Old Testament, we can see glimpses of multiple otherness in the one God. For instance, Yahweh who is on earth inspecting Sodom rains down fire from Yahweh who is in heaven (Genesis 19:24), and Yahweh calls Israel to draw near to him by saying that Yahweh has sent him as well as his Spirit (Isaiah 48:16). Both the Angel of Yahweh and the Word of Yahweh are sent out from Yahweh, and they speak and act in the Name of Yahweh or on behalf of Yahweh and yet do so as if they themselves are Yahweh.

The Economic Trinity draws its name from the fact that it is most clearly expressed in the economy of redemption which ultimately unfolds in the New Testament. With the incarnation of the Word of God as the Messiah, a stark distinction is seen between the Father and the Son. John’s Gospel is perhaps the most overt source. In the beginning, the Word is, at the same time, “toward the God” and yet is God. He is the “unique God” who reveals (i.e. exegetes) God the Father. Christ spoke in ways that distinguished him from the Father, i.e. “The Father and I, we are one.” And Jesus spoke in ways that also distinguished both him and the Spirit from one another and the Father, i.e. “But when the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”

The Apostles were experiential Trinitarians as they witnessed the Trinity revealed in word and deed. At the baptism of Christ, the Father publicly professed his pleasure in his Son, and the Father sent down the Spirit who alighted upon the Son as the Father’s Seal upon the Son. Prior to his ascension, the Lord instructed his Apostles to mark new disciples by baptism according to a Trinitarian confession in the one Name possessed by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The three Subsistences are ‘agents’ of communication, each one toward the others, and each knows himself as self in relation to the others. Each Subsistence ‘instantiates’ the knowledge, volition, and emotion of the one Substance according to his Hypostatic or ‘Personal’ properties and his relations to the other Hypostases. (And yet again, agency, instantiation, and personality here are not exactly the same for God as they are for his creatures. The language grasps desperately to explain.)

Now, a temptation in speaking this way is to view the divine Essence as an impersonal pool of attributes that these three added Somethings called divine Persons appropriate and utilize. But this is wrong. The Persons do not consist in three extra Somethings on top of the impersonal generic God-Substance.

Another temptation in speaking this way is to view the divine Persons as portions of the one God or as “centers of consciousness” in God, figuratively located in different ‘places’ from one another in God. But this too is wrong. Each Hypostasis is fully the one divine Substance. The three Hypostases are not each one third of the one divine Substance. The three Hypostases are not ‘localized’ or ‘centered’ differently anywhere in the one divine Substance. Subsisting in three Self-Relations is itself an attribute of the fullness of the one divine Substance. The one Substance of God is thoroughly Tri-Personally Self-Relational in all its attributes.

God’s glory is Trinitarian glory. God’s holiness is Trinitarian holiness. God’s wisdom is Trinitarian wisdom. God’s lovingkindness is Trinitarian lovingkindness. And so on and so one. O how wondrous and beautiful is the blessed and eternal Trinity!

Persons and the Error of Social Trinitarianism

As was discussed regarding the differentiation of Subsistences in the divine Substance, the modern sense of ‘person’ is a self-conscious being who engages in communication and possesses a self-contained mind, will, and emotions. In light of the ordinary usage, the usual expression of God being one Substance in three Persons (where “Substance” and “Persons” have technical meanings which go unstated continually) can insidiously drift toward thinking of the three Persons or Subsistences as being full ‘persons’ as we think of persons. In other words, we can mistakenly think of the three divine Persons as each independently possessing a mind, a will, and emotions.

Misconstruing the use of the word ‘person’ can lead to thinking the unity of the three divine Persons is the result of some harmonization of their individual volitions. This is the error of social Trinitarianism. It’s a flirtation with tritheism, as if the three Persons are individual species that belong to the genus of God. The error consists of asserting that the nature of the unity of the three Persons is a social arrangement, whether it’s an act of their unified wills for a common purpose, or an enduring love for one another, or simply mutual enthusiasm for racquetball — anything that is sociological harmony rather than substantial unity is not classical Trinitarianism.

The ‘unity’ of the will of the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit is not the result of the harmonizing of three separate divine wills as though each divine Person has his own individual will. God has one will, the will is an attribute of the Substance of God, and that one will is expressed Tri-Personally in the three Self-Relations who are the one God. The same is true for the mind of God and the affections of God.

Substantial Union through Interpenetration

So how are the three divine Persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit united as the one divine Substance? Well, again, it’s simply an essential or substantial unity.

The traditional orthodox description of the unity of the Persons is perichoresis in Greek meaning ‘rotation’ or circumincessio in Latin meaning ‘encircled throughout’. The word perichoresis actually has two specialized classical uses. One (i.e. perichoresis of natures) is used to describe the union of the two natures (i.e. divine and human) in the one Person and Subsistence of the incarnate Christ. The other (i.e. perichoresis of persons) is used to describe the union of the three Subsistences in the one Substance of God. Here we will focus on the latter usage.

The language of perichoresis has become popularly misconstrued or distorted by social Trinitarian meanings and metaphors in recent centuries, e.g. descriptions of the three Persons as being in something like a dance with one another. Such imagery may have its right uses, but subverting and replacing substantial unity is not one of them.

The three divine Persons are the one divine Substance by their mutual indwelling of one another. This can be described as co-inherence or mutual interpenetration. The three Persons mutually inhabit one another in Substance. Note carefully. The Persons mutually indwell one another; they do not mutually indwell the one divine Essence as through the Essence was Something ‘larger’ or other than the three Persons. The three Persons living in mutual interpenetration of one another is itself the one Substance of God. Conversely, the one Essence is Tri-Personally Self-Relational.

Once again, the important description is that the union is substantial or essential. Note carefully. This is not the merging, mixing, blending, or hybridizing of three substances into a “supersubstance” to make the one divine Essence of God. The one single simple Essence of God is characteristically Tri-Personally Self-Relational.

This is simply another way of stating what the classical formulation has always stated. The Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, and the Spirit is fully God. The Father is neither the Son nor the Spirit. The Son is neither the Spirit nor the Father. The Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. Yet there is only one God.

And yet, if we were to stop with that relatively modern classical formulation without saying how the three Persons are what they are in relation to each other, we would be in the same position that ultimately gave rise to modern breakdowns and substitutions for properly classical Nicene Trinitarianism. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Western theologians dropped Hypostatic or Personal properties from their minimal popular formulation of the Trinity and unwittingly lost a key element of the ancient church doctrine.

Personal Properties: Analogical Origination

In the divine Substance of the one God, differentiation exists so that the three Persons (i.e. Hypostases, Subsistences, or Self-Relations) live in mutual interpenetration of one another. Each Person knows himself in distinction from his two fellow Persons. Each Person is fully God and possesses all of the divine attributes that are the one single and simple divine Essence of God.

But if each divine Person is fully God with all of the attributes of God, how does each Person differ from the other two Persons? Moreover, how does each Person know the difference between his two fellow Persons? Are the three Persons interchangeable with one another? What is the nature of the differentiation of the three Subsistences in the Substance of the one true and living God?

There are individual Hypostatic or Personal properties that differ between the three Self-Relations and distinguish the Persons from one another. These properties are an irreversible taxis (ordering) so that the three divine Persons are not interchangeable with each other. Indeed, if the Persons were interchangeable or entirely identical with one another, one must wonder how they could possibly be distinguishable from each other. And if indistinguishable, how there could even be three of them at all?

One again, the Personal properties are not three extra Somethings added on top of the impersonal divine Substance to produce three Persons. The Personal properties are an attribute of the divine Essence. Every attribute of God is thoroughly Tri-Personal.

This Hypostatic order of the three divine Persons or Self-Relations as they commune ‘inwardly’ toward one another (i.e. God’s ad intra relations as the Ontological Trinity) is revealed through the titles and activities that the three divine Persons assume as they relates ‘outwardly’ toward their creation (i.e. God’s ad extra relations as the Economic Trinity). It is ‘fitting’ that each Person does what he does.

Here, it would also be fitting to anticipate a temptation and thwart it. This irreversible Hypostatic ordering is not an authority structure. Given what has already been stated about the one essential will of God according to divine simplicity which is expressed in Tri-Personal form, the notion of authority and submission of multiple wills is a return to the profane error of social Trinitarianism in our humanization of God.

Analogically speaking according to the Economic Trinity, the properties distinguishing the Persons are those of origination and/or procession. The Father is unbegotten. The Son is begotten of the Father. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Again, we must stress: this is God’s analogical revelation of himself to us. The Father’s eternal ‘unbegottenness’ or paternity, the Son’s eternal generation or filiation by the Father, and the Spirit’s eternal procession or spiration from the Father and the Son does not mean that the Son received his existence from the Father or that the Spirit received his existence from the Father and the Son. The Person of God the Father is the analogical source of the differentiation (or enumeration), not the substantial source of the divine Substance’s impartation to God the Son and God the Spirit. Each Person stands as fully God in and of himself.

Enumeration as an Alternative Ordering

Attempting to speak with greater modesty and caution, one could say that the order of the Persons is an unassuming enumeration so that there is merely a “First” Person, a “Second” Person, and a “Third” Person. And indeed, it’s accepted standard theological shorthand to do so.

In attempting to speak unassumingly and numerically about the Economic Trinity, the irreversible or sequential taxis begins its Personal enumeration with the eternal Father as the First Person. The enumeration proceeds to the eternal Son as the Second Person in relation to the First Person. And the enumeration concludes with the eternal Spirit as the Third Person in relation to the First Person and the Second Person. The Father as the First Person and ‘point of reference’ in the Trinity is not arbitrary; it is ‘fitting’ (whatever ‘fitting’ mean in the great mystery of the Hypostatic ordering). Importantly, this is an enumeration, not a sub-numeration. This is an ordination (as in sequentially before and after among equals), not a subordination (as in putting beneath as inferiors to superiors). First is simply where the counting begins. Second is what it is because it comes after First. Third is what it is because it comes after First and Second.

As unassumingly numerical as this way of speaking about the Trinity is, we should not think we’ve come any closer to univocally describing the Immanent Trinity, because it is and always will be impossible for us to know God as he knows himself. To speak of the First Person, the Second Person, and the Third Person of the Trinity as Hypostatic designations is every bit as analogical to creaturely existence as the titles of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are, because human counting schemes are the creatures of God just as much as human being are the creatures of God.

Truthfully, enumeration is merely another way of confessing that we believe there’s an ordering to the Persons which makes it ‘fitting’ that the First Person is the Father, that the Second Person is the Son, and that the Third Person is the Spirit (whatever ‘fitting’ means with respect to the Ontological Trinity revealed through the Economic Trinity). This Enumerated Trinity is just a theologically auxiliary Economic Trinity that doesn’t even express the economical character in the Trinity’s work of redemption. And if this were used in place of the Hypostatic properties of the eternal generation or filiation of the Son and the eternal procession or spiration of the Spirit (rather than being used in addition to those properties), a key element of orthodox Nicene Trinitarianism would be lost and would open a door of omission for heterodox alternatives to enter.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this is a matter of divine incomprehensibility and divine accommodation to our finitude. Who God is in himself is the Immanent Trinity, and we have had the Immanent Trinity truly though analogically revealed to us in the Economic Trinity. Our challenge is to avoid thinking univocally about the Personal properties of eternal paternity, eternal generation or filiation, and eternal procession or spiration. And our challenge is to avoid reformulating the Self-Relations of the Holy Trinity according to relational patterns in the creation which God himself has not revealed to us.

As for my own thoughts concerning the “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) of the Son, the “eternal subordination of the Son” (ESS), or the “eternal relations of authority and submission” (ERAS) between the Father and the Son as modern proponents have formulated and presented them, I would say the following. I’m not convinced that the proponents of EFS, ESS, and ERAS actually understand classical Nicene Trinitarianism and certain other key elements of classical Christian theism (such as divine simplicity). I don’t believe that a distinction between function and ontology within the very being of God is a valid distinction. Therefore, I believe EFS, ESS, and ERAS are incoherent theological positions. And because I seek to believe in the genuineness of the professions of Christian faith and the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of proponents of EFS, ESS, and ERAS, I’m deeply thankful for the various blessed inconsistencies that the Triune God allows us to hold while he preserves his elect through every trial in faith and life. I believe that a consistent version of EFS et al. could only be a deeper and subtler version of Arianism. So, I hope these modern theological aberrations will pass away in due time in the kindness of God. I’m also deeply suspicious that EFS et al. are the product of much tireless and well-meant effort to oppose third-wave feminism in the church and the culture but are a particular formulation of marriage and gender roles according to a particular construction of authority and submission which have been illegitimately read backward into the ontological essence of the Triune God as a polemical apologetic device. I hope everyone will search and see if these things are so.

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