I think I am a Doctrine Nazi (kudos to Jerry Seinfeld)
I asked my wife tonight if it was inappropriate for me to call myself a “Trinity Nazi” on the blog because I freak out when people misrepresent important doctrines like the Trinity. She said: “Do you mean that you care about getting doctrine right? then yes you are and no it isn’t inappropriate.” So there you go, I am a Trinity Nazi, in that sense.
The Trinity is a foundational, primary doctrine of the church. It is an essential doctrine. It is a clear doctrine of which every Christian should be knowledgeable and conversant. It is clear in the sense that there is no controversy with regard to the statement of the doctrine of the Trinity and unlike many other doctrinal issues (eschatology or ecclesiology) there is no room for variance.
Here is a brief excerpt of the doctrine from the London Baptist Confession of 1689: In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided (See the bottom of this post for two other statements declaring our belief in the Trinity).
We generally talk about the unity of God using the terminology of “substance” or “essence.” God is one in substance or essence. We talk about the diversity of the trinity using the terms “person” or “subsistence.” There is one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I find that many believers and pastors don’t even grasp the simplest expression of the Trinity and actually hold to substandard views of the Trinity and often find themselves in league with views that have clearly been defined as heretical. The following sound clip from a program (aired 1/5/2011) called “Pastor’s Perspective” with noted Calvary Chapel pastor Chuck Smith and co-host Don Stewart is an example of a discussion on the Trinity that is less than adequate. A caller asks the hosts a question about the Trinity since his Roman Catholic co-worker is having a discussion with him and he thinks he should disagree with him, listen then I will make some comments…
The response here is at best confusing. My initial response was “huh?” and then I was flabbergasted and shocked. Here are the confusing statements made that every pastor should be aware of and avoid:
First, the Catholic coworker is correct: The Father and Son are different persons. That was never affirmed, the hosts simply proceed to say he is wrong, then in parts of their answer affirm that he is correct (I am assuming in the conversation the Catholic co-worker was making a distinction between Father and Son and was misrepresented by the caller, I don’t think this caller was nuanced enough to recognize the problem with his mis-phrasing, that is why he is calling. He described the co-worker as saying Jesus and God were different persons then later said the coworker reference a passage that had the Son at the right hand of the Father (possibly Acts 7:56). Again this simply demonstrates a confusion of categories that if understood would be easily explained. But since no one made that simple initial correction, I am going to stand with my assumption. I will give my “response” to the caller after I deal with the mis-statements of the hosts.)
Second, Chuck Smith uses a phrase that should be avoided in an orthodox statement of the Trinity. He uses the phrase “there is one God manifested in Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, then later “one God yet three persons in which that one God has been manifested.” In the early controversies surrounding the Trinity the words which were used had paramount importance and it was the language of the Trinity that was hotly debated. The words used are important and specific, precisely because the doctrine of the Trinity is important and complex. “Manifestation” was a word that began to be associated with Sabellianism (modalism, and modern United Pentecostalism). When people use this word it raises a red flag as to whether they truly understand the issues surrounding the ancient and modern heresies. It causes concern when some words and phrases are used correctly (? apparently) then mixed in with this confusing and repeated reference.
Third, Don Stewart wasn’t clear and caused me to question his understanding of the Trinity when he distinguishes between the phrase: “distinct persons” and “different persons.” It appears he thinks that there is a distinction necessary between these two phrases, I think??? He says:
I don’t know if personhood is the equivalent to “centers of consciousness”, in fact let me restate, I would reject that definition as lacking the more traditional designation of persons as those who possess the attributes of mind, emotion and will. A center of consciousness would not demand those qualities of full personhood. This is one of the major discussions in keeping people from calling the Holy Spirit a force; He is not simply a force as He has mind, emotion and will.
The members of the Trinity are not merely distinct, they are different. The Father is not the Son; The Son is not the Father; The Son is not the Holy Spirit, etc. These are not simple distinctions, they are distinct differences. That needed to be emphasized, especially in response to how the question was phrased. The challenge the caller had was that his co-worker said that “Jesus and God” were different persons. Now, that is true on two levels and I will try to address them both because the question and the answer were very unclear.
The hosts were partially correct in their Trinity explanation and partially incorrect which may be worse than simply being wrong. It is confusing. I know that they don’t want to be associated with false doctrine and non-Trinitarian groups, but their comments could easily be stated by a modalist. I find this sloppy theologizing to be unbecoming of the minister of God. It is an unfortunate and common modern pastoral paradigm in which the Trinity question is addressed, and ultimately minimized. The correct phrases are used leading you to believe that the person is orthodox in their statement then as they continue to speak in an attempt to explain the basic statements they include language that is patently wrong and misleading and then end with the caveat: “no one can understand the mystery of God.” It makes me want to scream “No soup for you!”
God is beyond comprehension. The revealed and historically formulated and expressed doctrine of the Trinity is not!!!!! We can and should master the revealed and confessed expression of the Godhead. Anything short is shoddy pastoring, sloppy thinking and abhorrent to the lover of the mysteries of God and the Scripture.
Here is how I would have answered the question:
Thanks for the question Chris, before I answer your question let me clarify: did your Catholic friend say the Jesus and God were different persons or did he say that the Father and Son were different persons? (Since I don’t know what he would have said)…here is why it is important. First, Jesus is the name that we typically use when we refer to the Son in His incarnation. To say that Jesus and God were different persons would be to say that if Jesus were still divine then he would be a second god? Is that what your Catholic friend was affirming? If so he is mistaken. We probably would not use the name Jesus in the Trinity definition and we would not compare person to God, that would be a basic confusion of the categories used in the Trinity definition.
In the Trinity words and definitions are precise and important. We would never say “Jesus and God were different persons” in a Trinity discussion as that is a confusion of categories. The Trinity is a doctrine constructed from the Biblical evidence that shows us how Father, Son and Holy Spirit can all be God and yet still only have one God. So we have the category of essence or substance. God is one. There is only one God. In His essence He is One; The Father is God, The Son is God, The Holy Spirit is God yet there is still only one God. That is how we describe His unity.
So how do we avoid a contradiction? How can three be one? This is where it is important to talk about personhood. See in the one Godhead, the three, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three different persons who have eternally existed, are completely equal. It is not a contradiction because we are not saying that they are three essences and one essence (that would be a contradiction) or three persons and yet one person (that would be a contradiction) we are saying that they are three persons and yet still only one essence (maybe difficult to grasp, but not a contradiction).
Both Roman Catholics and Protestants agree about the nature of the Trinity – this is not one of the many points of contention between us. So either or both of you misunderstand the Trinity.
Here are some historic creeds and their Trinity statements:
The Athanasian Creed states it this way:
1. Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord; And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity. Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man. God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world. Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood. Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ. One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God. One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead; He ascended into heaven, He sits on the right hand of the Father, God, Almighty; From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies; and shall give account of their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.
The Westminster Confession states the doctrine of the Trinity in this way:
In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.