Project Credo: Trinity

This semester I am taking two introductory classes on Christian doctrine, both of which require me to write a 10-12 page credo, simply expressing what I believe about every topic covered in class. I started work on one of these recently, and for fun I thought I’d share my section on the Trinity. (Yes, I will be posting the full credos as PDFs when I’m finished.)

The Trinity

There is only one God, one true divine being with one single essence or ousia. He is a single Subject, indivisible, who cannot be broken apart. Yet it belongs to the one divine essence to subsist in three distinct Persons, revealed as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each Person is fully and entirely God, possessing the fullness of the one divine nature in unity with the other Persons. God thus exists as a unity-in-trinity, or a trinity-in-unity, in which the single divine ousia exists in a trifold mode of three hypostases. The Persons are each distinguished not by any divine attributes of which one person has more or less, for they are all entirely equal and divine, but by their relations to each other. The Father is the Father precisely because He is Father of the Son, for example. Apart from these internal relational distinctions, there is no possible essential or eternal difference to draw between the Persons of the Trinity. They are each essentially equal in power, glory, wisdom, authority, and love. They share one will, intelligence, and emotional life. There is no hierarchy, supremacy, or subordination of any kind within the immanent/ontological Trinity. The Father is an unqualified equal to the Son who is an unqualified equal to the Spirit who is an unqualified equal to the Father. Each has the fullness of the one divine nature, the one divine nature which itself constitutes them as relations of one God. The divine nature both constitutes the relations of the Triune Persons and is constituted by their relations. In these relations, the Father eternally begets the Son, and the Father and the Son eternally spirate the Spirit, but in these cases the generation neither compromises the aseity of each member nor defines some kind of ontological contingency. Neither should the begetting of the Son of the procession of the Spirit be seen as Persons originating from the unoriginate Person of the Father, but rather the Persons come from the being of the Father, the one ousia which each Person fully shares. 

In history, God has expressed Himself in a unique Triune economy, and the way the Trinity is expressed in redemptive history is called the economic Trinity. In the economic Trinity, as a general pattern, the Father sends and initiates, the Son obeys and accomplishes, and the Spirit implements and consummates. In this economy the Father clearly takes the ultimate authority, this likely because of the correspondence with His eternal begetting of the Son and spiration of the Spirit. The Son is, in a certain sense, the fulfillment of God’s economy, as throughout the Old Testament and finally in the Incarnation He was (and remains) the personal, distinct, tangible appearance of God within creation. Throughout the whole of redemption, the Spirit acts as the agent of divine power, the one who accomplishes the supernatural divine will within natural space and time. These role distinctions are consistent and ultimate in human relationship to God, but they are not themselves internal to the divine being, though they in an imperfect and finite way reflect the internal Triune relations of God. They call forth a response for human faith and practice which seeks to worship the Father through the mediation of the Son by faithful union in the Spirit, and to do the will of the Father on the ground of the work of the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Project Credo: Trinity

Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in God

Once upon a time, the Twelve Apostles (including Matthias) came together under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to write the Apostles’ Creed as the core of Christian belief. At least, so the story goes. While historically it’s probably not true, it cannot be denied that the substance of the Apostles’ Creed goes way back. It was the first of the three ecumenical creeds accepted by all Christianity (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox). It summarizes in very brief form the message of the Gospel as found in the New Testament.

So, given its importance, I’m going to so a series on the articles of the Apostles’ Creed. This first post will be on, naturally, the first article, of God the Father Almighty.

The Creed states as follows:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

It sounds simple enough. What do we learn from this?

First, we begin with “I believe.” The content of the Creed, the Gospel of the Triune God who has acted in and as Jesus Christ, is taken by faith. We do not now see Jesus. We do not have any way to verify with our own reasoning or arguments that Jesus truly was and did everything we believe about Him. There are reasons to believe, but not proof, and our mental hands are not forced by any logical necessity. We accept the content of the Creed by faith, the act of submitting our minds to God’s revealing His Son to us by His Spirit through His Word. We confess first that our attempts at proof and verification are, if not worthless, certainly inadequate, and so we have no other grounds that trust in the self-revealing God and His Word communicated in Scripture and the preaching of the Gospel.

Next, we see that God is first defined as “Father.” Unlike many confessions and works of theology or dogmatics, which initially identify God through creation, the Creed begins with His identity as Father. We know God as Father first because we know Him truly through the Son. As Athanasius once remarked, “It is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.” God is the Father of the Son before and apart from creation, and because He creates and recreates us by and in His Son, He makes Himself to be our Father as well. Because God’s being Father is ultimately first, and His position as Creator second, we know that God’s first and foremost intentions and regard for us are of fatherly love. Before God is anything else to us, He is the loving Father.

We also see that this Father is “almighty.” Note that this almightiness is connected, not to His role as Creator, but to His being the Father. This is essential for us to know: that God is not first merely all-powerful creator deity but that He is all-powerful precisely as our loving Father. In this we know that God’s almighty powers, such as omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, are not against us or even simply neutral toward us, but rather act for us. God is the Almighty, the one who alone holds all power and knowledge and wisdom and immortality, and this almighty God is our Father. In this we can be assured of God’s gracious intention in His rule over all things. Whatever happens to us happens under the care of our almighty Father.

At this point the Creed adds that God is Creator, that He made the heavens and the earth. Only after we know that God is first and foremost Father, and that as Father He has almighty power, is it safe to consider that He is the Creator. Creation is an act of the loving Father out of His almightiness. We exist by His will alone. This puts a claim on us all. If He is Creator, than we depend on Him for every breath, and again this is a dependence in our Father. But we must therefore obey Him. Even our ability to disobey Him is something that exists by His creative power, and thus we are necessarily at His mercy in all we do. In this case it behooves us to live rightly before Him. And we can be assured, since the Creator is Father, that all He demands of us is truly good and that the world is so ordered under His creative will that obeying Him truly does bring us benefit.

Finally, we note that God is the Creator of both heaven and earth. It should strike us that both the earthly and the heavenly realms are creations. Heaven and earth are twin realities created by God, and both had a beginning. Heaven has not always existed, and is not God’s eternal home. Heaven is rather the invisible and spiritual side of the created order where God makes His throne from which to rule the earth. In heaven God’s fatherly will truly does reign and all things are ordered as they should be, and so heaven is the model and destiny of earth. We pray through Christ for the Father who created heaven and earth to make earth more like heaven until the day when the two will be united into one, just as the God of heaven and man of the earth have united in Christ Jesus.

As one final note, we see that all things whatsoever are included in heaven and earth, so that there is nothing outside of God which was not created by God. And since this Creator is Father, we know that everything which exists can only exist in relation to His fatherly care. Nothing could exist apart from the creative will of the God we know as Father. Therefore nothing exists except for our benefit as children. We also know that, as children, we are set to inherit all created things. For if the Son is the heir of the Father, and the Father has created all things, and we have been made sons in the Son, then we are the rightful heirs of creation. In the meantime we may use and enjoy all that is our Father’s in gratitude, and in the end all things belong to us, and we belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in God

Why Trinity Analogies All Stink (With Help from Quantum Physics!)

“The Trinity is like…” Talk about a dangerous way to start a sentence. As Christians, we believe strongly in the strange and paradoxical truth that in some way, God is both one God and yet also exists three co-equal, co-eternal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is a deep mystery. Certain details of how this works will always be beyond the furthest limits of human understanding.

Of course, that’s not always a helpful thing to say around skeptics and curious new believers. They want answers that make sense to them. So naturally we try to use analogies. This is, in my opinion (though with the support of many Reformed theologians), a bad idea. Analogies for the Trinity have a huge flaw: the reality of the Trinity is so unique that all analogies will fall in line with some heresy or another.

Speaking of heresies about the Trinity, I should explain the two main kinds of heresies possible. The first group is called modalist or Sabellian heresies. In this kind of heresy, there is really only one person of God, and He acts or reveals Himself in different ways, modes, or means at different times. Sometimes He interacts with us as Father, other times as Son, and other times the Spirit. Some heresies in this group would say that God was the Father, then became the Son, and then became the Spirit. The defining point of these heresies is that God only exists as one person, and the Father, Son, and Spirit are all basically different aspects or parts of that person.

The other kind of heresy you can fall into with the Trinity is tri-theism. Tri-theism is simply a belief in three Gods. There are many ways of looking at the Trinity which basically say there is the Father God, the Son God, and the Spirit God, all separate beings who work together in creation and salvation history. This is also a serious heresy, since all tri-theism violates the basic creed of God’s earliest covenant revelation: “The LORD your God is One.”

So, here’s where analogies fail. All analogies for the Trinity end up basically agreeing with one of these two kinds of heresy. Want some examples? Here they are:

  • The Trinity is like an egg. This analogy says the members of the Trinity are like an egg: an egg has shell, white, and yoke while being one egg. But this acts like the members of the Trinity are basically just parts of one person, which would be a Sabellian heresy. Or, for that matter, you could interpret this analogy as a tri-theistic heresy, since the shell, white, and yoke are each totally different materials. 
  • The Trinity is like the three states of water. This analogy uses ice, water, and water vapor to explain the three members of the Trinity. Three forms but one substance. This is a blatant modalist heresy, since in this case the one substance of water just switches between different forms. Honestly, this is practically textbook modalism.
  • The Trinity is like mustard. Just one word, man: tri-theism. At best.
  • The Trinity is like someone being husband, father, and employee. This analogy is totally modalist, trying to make the different roles of one normal person comparable to one God substance existing eternally as three persons.
  • The Trinity is like three-in-one shampoo. I’m sure that sounds silly, but I didn’t come up with this one. Using three-in-one shampoo for the Trinity is basically tri-theistic, saying the Trinity is like three totally different substances mixed in one container.

I could go on, but the basic point should appear by now. Trinity analogies inevitably line up with one heresy or another. This happens because nothing we can see, touch, or understand is actually anything like the Trinity.

Here is where I drag in quantum physics. See, in quantum physics there is something called the Heisenburg uncertainty principle. According to this principle, having equally precise knowledge of both a particle’s position and the particle’s momentum (think “speed” for simplicity if you don’t understand) is impossible. The more you know one of them, the less you know the other. The only ways to precisely measure a particle’s position throw off the momentum too much to measure both, and the only ways to precisely measure a particle’s momentum make nailing down the location impossible. So there’s a trade-off: the more you drill into a particle’s position, the less knowledge you have of the momentum, and vise-versa. If you want to know both at the same time, you have to be content with only a very imprecise and vague knowledge of both.

I think the Trinity ends up in a similar situation. Our God is has revealed Himself both in one-ness and three-ness. Yet there is a trade-off in how precisely we can understand these two realities. The more we try to nail down God’s one-ness, the more we lose sight of His three-ness. The more we try to nail down God’s three-ness, the more we lose sight of His one-ness. If we want to balance these two realities Biblically, we find ourselves with no choice. We cannot try too hard to analyze or analogize, or we will end up seeing a God who is basically all one-ness and no three-ness (modalist/Sabellian heresy), or a God who is basically all three-ness and no one-ness (tri-theist heresy). If you want to have a God who is truly both three and one, who is three-in-one, we have to check our normal reasoning and analogies at the door. All we can do is humbly bow at God’s self-revelation.

This, of course, is the necessary way of faith. If we believe in a God who is greater than we are, we have to accept that sometimes truths about Him are greater than any truths we understand, and He cannot always fit into the categories and ideas we are used to. So how else can I conclude but to use the praise of the Apostle Paul?

Oh, the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable His being and untraceable His essence! For who has known the nature of the Lord? Or who has ever explained Him? Or who has ever understood Him, and deserved to be renowned? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever! Amen.

Why Trinity Analogies All Stink (With Help from Quantum Physics!)