Current Issues in Trinitarian Studies

Published April 18, 2020

By David Burggraff, PhD

Augustine, the great Western theologian and pastor, said: “There is no subject where error is more dangerous, research more laborious, and discovery more fruitful than the oneness of the Trinity [unitas trinitatis] of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”1

The doctrine of the Trinity—Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three coequal and coeternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—may be the most foundational doctrine in Christianity. A. W. Tozer’s opening chapter titled “Why We Must Think Rightly About God” of his now classic, The Knowledge of the Holy, begins with this statement: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”2 You don’t need to understand the Trinity to become a believer (We can be thankful for that!). According to Fred Sanders: “A Christian, and especially an evangelical Christian, is somebody who is already immersed in the reality of the Trinity, long before beginning to reflect on the idea of the Trinity.”3 However, it is not long into our Christian life that we want to learn all we can about our God.

But studying about our Triune God, Augustine tells us, is “laborious.” Why so? First, the terms surrounding trinitarian concepts are somewhat philosophical. Second, a limited knowledge of church history, especially the early church era, is necessary. Third, an understanding of what the Scriptures reveal about God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit is essential. Therefore, the study requires mental effort, plus an investment of time given to reading and research, and, most of all, faith in the Word of God. In the end, the discovery, Augustine exclaims, will be “fruitful.”

Why should Christians, and especially pastors and church leaders, familiarize themselves with issues surrounding the Trinity? Because it is a doctrine that is fundamental to the Christian faith; belief or disbelief in the Trinity marks orthodoxy from unorthodoxy. The many doctrines we regularly preach and teach are all based on the work that the unity of the Persons in the Godhead (the Trinity) revealed to man.

The Trinity is a doctrine not revealed merely in words but instead in the very action of the Triune God in redemption itself! We know who God is by what He has done in bringing us to himself! The Father, in loving His people and sending the Son. The Son, loving us and giving himself in our place. The Spirit, entering into our lives and conforming us to the image of Christ. Here is the revelation of the Trinity, in the work of Christ and the Spirit.4

A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but to practical Christian living as well.5 Perhaps the most basic, practical exercise we do in our daily Christian life is pray. Every time we pray we involve the entire Trinity. We pray to the Father (“Our Father in Heaven,” Matt 6:9; Luke 11:2) through the Son (“whatever you ask in My name,” John 14:13, 14; 15:7, 16; 16:23-24) and in/by the Holy Spirit (“the Spirit Himself intercedes for us,” Rom 8:26).

Not only is the Trinity foundational, it is also unique to Christianity. Of the three major monotheistic religions of the world (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) only Christianity teaches the Trinity. Human reason, however, cannot fathom the Trinity, nor can logic explain it, and, although the word itself is not found in the Scriptures, the doctrine is plainly taught in the Scriptures. The early Church was forced to study the subject and affirm its truth because of the heretical teaching that arose opposing the Trinity—but the early Church did not “invent” the doctrine. God revealed this foundational truth about himself through his progressive revelation in the Scriptures. But for two millennia, neither the Scriptures nor the statements in the creeds of the early Church have kept us from debating and stumbling over the concept of a Trinity. Issues about the Trinity are in full debate today.

Sometimes Forgotten, Quite Often Confused
Before we turn to those trinitarian issues being debated today, there is the obvious issue: too often the Trinity is not discussed at all! Please don’t get me wrong here. Although Christians can recite a definition of the Trinity, and will take a firm stand on the Trinity (i.e., on the deity of Christ, the person of the Holy Spirit), they have forgotten how key the doctrine is to the Christian life. It is rarely the topic of sermons and Bible studies today, and rarely the object of adoration and worship. If not ignored, at the least the doctrine is misunderstood. We may have all sorts of questions about it, but no one dares question the Trinity for fear of being branded a “heretic,” so it seems best to simply ignore it or decide it is best to remain confused rather than have one’s orthodoxy questioned.6 Even worse, many Christians make no attempt to even try to understand it. That is a travesty because the Trinity, as mentioned above, is arguably the most distinctive doctrine of Christianity. At the end of the day, if we are going to know God better, we have to know about the Trinity. Only then can we, as God’s children, pray to him, worship him, preach and teach about him, proclaim him, imitate him, and serve him!

Orthodoxy versus Heterodoxy
You will not find the word “Trinity” in Scripture. The Trinity is a theological attempt to provide coherence to the scriptural narrative about God—deduced from the scriptural narrative of God’s revelatory and redemptive acts; from God’s revelation of himself as triune unfolded progressively in redemptive history and culminated in the incarnation of the Son and in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. The early Church arrived at the doctrine of the Trinity out of its reflection on Scripture, thinking about God’s nature in relation to God’s actions, striving to find language to distinguish and correlate the three persons, and attempting to give verbal expression to its experience of God. Understanding that God is a Triune God and always has been a Triune God became the cornerstone of Christian theology that distinguished it from paganism and from other monotheistic religions.7

A major problem in formulating the doctrine of the Trinity had to do with the long-held, Old Testament belief of monotheism as stated in the Shema: “Hear O Israel, The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Dt 6:4). How could the Church recognize the belief that God was one and yet acknowledge the deity of Christ? Christ was variously explained as the mind of God—an impersonal Logos who became personal at the incarnation. Others pictured Him as eternal with the Father yet subordinate to the Father. There was even less understanding concerning the Person of the Holy Spirit. Some understood the Spirit to be subordinate to both the Father and the Son. In sum, the two major issues facing the Church concerning the Trinity were maintaining the unity of God on the one hand and affirming the deity of Christ on the other.8 The various creeds (Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed) were formulated as a result of early councils that were called to address these particular issues. The creedal formulations of these early councils contributed to the “orthodox” understanding of the Trinity itself and to our understanding of each of the three Persons respectively. This became the classical (traditional) understanding of the Trinity.

Throughout church history, renowned theologians such as Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and conservative theologians of the past century have affirmed the accepted traditional position. Occasional challenges to the orthodox Christian view were quickly recognized as heterodox, outside the bounds of scriptural and creedal understanding. For the most part, the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrines related to the individual Persons of the Trinity remained “static” well into the modern era.9

Contemporary Trinitarian Debates
Over the last thirty years, however, there has been renewed controversy and debate over the Trinity, even within the evangelical Church. It appears that two overlapping issues are receiving most of the attention today.10

The first has to do with how we should define the Trinity. Today, competing models to express the Trinity are being debated. For example, are the terms “persons” and “nature” still the best terms?11 Are the terms and expressions from the fourth and fifth century creeds (from the Nicene Creed [325 AD] to Chalcedon [451 AD]) still the best for, and appropriate to, a modern-era mind? Do those expressions best capture the scriptural data?

The second debate has to do with the eternal inner “relatedness” of the three Persons in the Trinity. Is there an eternally ordered trinitarian arrangement? Can the three Persons of the Trinity possess complete ontological equality yet also have an eternal social (economic) order? Is there a hierarchy within the Trinity? The debate is heated within the evangelical church over this issue of functional subordination.

The notion of hierarchy in the immanent Trinity evokes no small controversy among evangelicals today. Both sides of the debate accuse their opponents of heresy, tampering with the Trinity, and rejecting historic, orthodox Trinitarianism. But the reason runs deeper than a concern to defend orthodox Trinitarianism. Behind the Trinity debate, complementarians and egalitarians clash about the roles of men and women in the church and home. What started as an exegetical debate over biblical texts about the relationship between men and women has turned into a theological and philosophical debate about the inner life of the eternal Trinity. The heart of the gender debate has become the heart of the Trinity debate: can a person (human or divine) be equal in essence and necessarily subordinate in role to another person?12

What prompted this debate in our day? It began over a societal and ecclesial issue. Within the Christian community today there is tension between two views on the role of women in the home, society, and the Church—complementarianism versus egalitarianism. In order to demonstrate how women should think and live and exercise their role, appeal is made to the respective roles of the members of the Godhead with the intention of showing equality between the Persons (ontological Trinity) while simultaneously having different functional roles (economic Trinity). Arguments over an eternal hierarchy, a functional subordination, particularly whether the Son, though equal in being to the Father, eternally subordinates himself to the Father (in the immanent Trinity; the eternal relations within the Godhead) in terms of rank. The debate is motivated by gender issues such as male headship and women in ministry. Implications of trinitarianism for familial, ecclesial, and societal order are now frequent themes in theological writings and the subject of heated debates within the evangelical community.13 The doctrine of the Trinity is becoming a battleground for a gender war.

A couple of thoughts may be worth noting. (1) The Trinity should NOT primarily be used to establish the proper relations between men and women, because the Trinity is such a mystery, is unique and does not translate well as a model for relations between two persons of separate genders. (2) Functional subordination with ontological equality is indeed consistent with historic orthodoxy. However, whenever we use the word “subordination” in any discussion (or sermon) concerning the persons of the Trinity, it has connotations of Arianism. Subordination in today’s culture brings with it the accusation of “power over another,” “subjugation,” “repression,” and “inequality.” When preaching or teaching, give a clear definition of its theological meaning.

Because the New Testament speaks about Jesus’ submission to his Father during the incarnation (Jn 5:19; 14:28; 1 Cor 11:3; Phil 2:5-7) and even post-ascension as God’s vice-regent (Acts 2:33; 5:31; Rom 8:34; 1 Cor 15:28; Col 3:1; Heb 1:13; 10:12; 12:2; Rev 3:21), we must acknowledge that the Son’s submission demonstrates something of the eternal relationships within the Godhead. There appears some form of functional submission; expressing how this is taught in Scripture requires wisdom.

Today’s debates concerning the Trinity are not merely academic exercises. The question, “What is God like?” is the single most important question anyone can ask.

A. W. Tozer brilliantly summarized the entirety of Christian discipleship when he said,

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” What the church means when it says the word God reveals everything about our worship and theological integrity. If we begin with a wrong conception of God, we will misconstrue the entirety of the Christian faith. This fact is why heretics and false teachers so often begin by rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity. If we can reject God as he has revealed himself in Scripture, then we can and will reject everything else. . . . The content of the Christian faith begins with the affirmation of the God who is, who spoke, and who revealed himself . . . God’s Trinitarian nature. Without this affirmation Christianity is incoherent—it does not hold together.14

As Christians and church leaders, it is our holy responsibility and great privilege to communicate the right concept of God which we have received from God’s Word and the Christian fathers before us. By the grace of God and with His help, we will do so!

This article first appeared in VOICE Vol. 98, No. 5 (September / October, 2019). Used by permission.

1 Augustine, On The Trinity 1.3.5.

2 A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), p. 7.

3 Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), p. 26.

4 James R. White, The Forgotten Trinity (Grand Rapids: Bethany House, 1998), p. 167.

5 Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy, p. 8.

6 James R. White, The Forgotten Trinity (Grand Rapids: Bethany House, 1998), pp. 13, 14.

7 Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), pp. 98-100.

8 The discussion involved not only the true deity and genuine humanity of Christ, but also the relationship of His two natures. That early Trinitarian controversy was clearly a Christological controversy, centering mainly on the Son. The debate pendulum swung back and forth over the first four centuries of early church history: the Docetists denied Jesus’ humanity; the Ebionites denied His deity; the Arians “reduced” His deity, while the Apollinarians “reduced” His humanity; the Nestorians denied the union of the two natures, while the Eutychians emphasized only one nature.

9 This can be readily demonstrated. As a theological exercise, go to your personal library and pick up several systematic theologies written by evangelically minded, conservative, Protestant writers—Luther, Calvin, Turretin, C. Hodge, Warfield, Berkhof, A.H. Strong, Chafer, Walvoord, Ryrie, Erickson, Grudem, Grenz, Geisler, McCune, etc. from the past few centuries until today. Whether they are young or old, Calvinistic or Arminian, Covenantal or Dispensational, Reformed or not, cessationist or continuationist, it makes little difference. You will readily observe that most, if not all, of the theologians will develop their discussion of the Trinity and each of the Persons of the Trinity along the same or similar lines, even referencing many of the same Scriptures to support their propositions. There is a commonly understood and accepted tradition when it comes to explaining the person and work of each member of the Trinity. On the whole, any discussion related to the Persons of the Trinity is “static,” “fixed” – seldom will there be many “new discoveries” or new expressions.

10 There are numerous debates surrounding the Persons of the Trinity today. Many of these are “Person specific,” focusing on God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit. But any issue focusing on one Person eventually becomes an issue about the Trinity itself. Space does not permit further discussion here. A sampling includes: The foreknowledge of God; Divine sovereignty; Is Allah of Islam the same as Yahweh of Christianity?; The issues surrounding kenotic theories (Phil 2:6-7); The temptation of Christ (Heb 4:15); The New Apostolic Reformation (NAR, Pentecostalism) and its concept of pneumatology, also its application of Ontological Kenotic Christology; Feminist hermeneutics, theology and their resultant interpretation of God; etc.

11 Definitions of nature (ousia in Greek; substantia in Latin) and person (hypostasis in Greek; persona in Latin) are enormously problematic, all the more as related to God. Add to that the term homoousios – “of the same stuff” or “of one substance.” When thinking about the Trinity, remember each divine person is constituted by (1) the essential nature of Deity (“the Word was God”), that is, the attributes (ousia) that distinguish God from creation; (2) full self-consciousness (“I Am”), the actual reality of self, distinct from other persons, which in turn presupposes mental properties and internal relations; (3) unique relatedness (“the Word was with God”), distinguishing each member of the Godhead from the others; and (4) perichoresis (“I am in the Father and the Father in Me”), the mutual indwelling of each in the other without confusion of self-consciousness. Perichoresis is our way of describing how the life of each divine person flows through each of the others, so that each divine person infuses the others and each has direct access to the consciousness of the others. How do the persons in the Godhead relate to one another in terms of sharing in their attributes and activities? It is interesting to note that the New Testament includes the three divine Persons together in at least 106 passages.

12 Gons, Philip R. and Andrew D. Naselli, “An Examination of Three Recent Philosophical Arguments against Hierarchy in the Immanent Trinity,” in One God in Three Persons, eds. Bruce Ware and John Starke (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), pp. 195-196.

13 Proponents of an eternal functional subordination (which is the view many complementarians support) include Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, D.A. Carson, John Frame, Thomas Schreiner, Andreas Köstenberger, John Piper, Tim Keller. Charles Hodge and A. H. Strong would likely fall into this category. The opposing view, eternal functional equality (supported by many egalitarians) includes Millard Erickson, Kevin Giles, Stanley Grenz, Tom McCall, Rebecca Groothius, Keith Yandell, and Gilbert Bilezikian.

14 R. Albert Mohler, The Apostles Creed: Discovering Authentic Christianity in an Age of Counterfeits (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019), pp. 3, 5.

Dr. Dave Burggraff is Professor of Systematic Theology at Shepherds Theological Seminary and also serves as Executive Pastor of The Shepherd’s Church. He graduated from the University of Minnesota and received his seminary degrees in Pennsylvania; and he received his doctoral degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. Prior to his ministry at STS, Dave has served as pastor and professor in four colleges and seminaries, even serving as President of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.