Our Reasonable Faith 15

This series is by RJS
Orthodox Christianity as affirmed in the historic creeds is at its heart Trinitarian -there is one God existing in three persons. But what does this mean — and why is it important? Certainly the Trinity is a tough concept to grasp – it overloads our mental circuits to use Keller’s phrase. We say the right words – but don’t really know what we mean or what we are supposed to mean. The difficulty of the concept has led some to conclude that three persons means three Gods, others that there are three different modes or aspects of one God as perceived from human perspective, still others that there is only one person in God. Does any of this really matter?

The final chapter of Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God describes his view of the intrinsic beauty and importance of the Trinity – The Dance of God.

Question: Why has traditional evangelical been so non-Trinitarian in focus but has always been so quick to defend the orthodoxy of believing in the Trinity? How significant is Trinity to Christian living?
Wow — Scot should be writing this post. According to Keller the importance of the Trinity is community. God is love but without another there is no love. The Trinity means that God is, in essence, relational. (p. 214)
And Keller expands upon this theme: The Trinity is described as perichoresis – to dance or flow around, mutual movement, mutual indwelling. Each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love. (p. 215)
Creation is a dance with the inner life of the Trinity written all through it.
We lost the dance in the refusal to serve God and participate in his community – Adam onward.
We return to the dance through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The future of the dance is recreation: How, then, will the story of human history end? … We do not see the illusion of the world melt away, nor do we see spiritual souls escaping the physical world into heaven. Rather we see heaven descending into our world to unite with it and purify it of all its brokenness and imperfection. (p. 222)
As God is in perpetual relationship so we are intrinsically relational. The Christian gospel is not so much individuals becoming right with God as it is establishment of God’s community. We work for justice, we live for service, we honor the dignity of our fellow human beings created in the image of God, we strengthen our human communities, we become stewards of the material world, and we create through science and gardening and art.
OK – Keller casts a fantastic vision, but is he right? Is the Trinity an essential element of Christian doctrine? And if so, is its importance in fact the essence of relationship? This is after all, somewhat different from the common understanding of God as the head, the Son in subordination, and the Spirit as helper or comforter.
Is Keller’s vision Biblical?

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  • Jon

    I think Trinity is essential, but the major reason is connected to understanding how we’re saved. The relational bit is important, too, though. The importance of relationality for humans is explicitly mentioned in Genesis, and it makes sense for disparate bits of theology to fit together like a jigsaw and re-enforce each other. It also makes snese for the foundations of humanness to be reflections of God’s being since we’re made in God’s image.

  • Yes, I agree that God as Trinity is a most important aspect of our orthodox faith.
    I was early on as a Christian a part of a sect which said that God is ultimately a Father who wants to have a vast family of human-divine sons and daughters for his own paternal honor, glory and satisfaction, and that he set this into motion through his Son- Jesus Christ, and by the Spirit brings it to pass. And there are passages such as in in 1 Corinthians 15 which I need to work further on.
    This sect purported that the church had lost this, but that it was in Paul’s writings, particularly in Ephesians 1 I think, but elsewhere as well, and that it was the rerevelation of the Supreme and Final Thing- God’s vital paternity- given to C. Arnell Jones, and a book by the same name compiled by my uncle. Certainly an eternal subordination of the Son to the Father was taught by them.
    Anyhow I got out of that teaching, but it took a long time for that teaching to entirely get out of me. It does have truth in it along with error, I believe. Though what was most troubling for me was the insistence that we have this truth: what is supreme and final to God and to all those in Christ rightly related to God- worked out in various ways in that book (which was NOT considered on an equal par with Scripture by the way, and this group supportted evangelical ministries such as Billy Graham).
    What helped me the most was the teaching of the Trinity as perichoresis, and John’s gospel especially, seems to bear this out. Along with the Incarnational asepct of understanding subordination which does go on during Jesus’ earthly ministry, and it seems in a sense somehow beyond that with reference to Jesus’ ongoing humanity, one person, two natures, of course in his deity and humanity.
    Anyhow just a bit about my background.
    But I do believe any teaching about God from Scripture has to be central and affect our understanding of all else. And the doctrine of Trinity as Keller expounds to me is at the heart of revelation, getting to the heart of what God and God’s goal in the kingdom in Jesus is all about.

  • Scott M

    I would call any vision of hierarchical Trinity or a Trinity defined by function bordering on heretical (I’m not sure what else to call it) and ultimately destructive of Christian faith. I would hardly call that view the traditional view. Keller has articulated the traditional view of the Triune God. As each person of the Trinity finds themselves in the center of the dance, they immediately yield to the other two. That’s the dance in which we were created to participated. Restored together to life in that dance through the healing grace of God, we dance not just with God, but with all human beings. That’s why it so stressed in scripture that we learn to yield our will, not just to God, but to each other.

  • Keller’s vision comes off as standard orthodox Christian Trinitarianism to me, albeit favoring one of the traditional images that’s being more widely used these days (the perichoresis, relational-dance image). To me an “understanding of God as the head, the Son in subordination, and the Spirit as helper or comforter” would be more *un*common than common at least among orthodox Christians. If there is no Trinity, with three co-equal, co-eternal, co-everything Persons, the whole thing falls apart in my book.

  • RJS

    Certainly the picture of Trinity given by Keller has a long history. But I don’t think that it squares well with much reformed or evangelical teaching. Perhaps I am wrong here.
    I also do not see this picture in the very early Church fathers – say the first 200 years; and, while consistent with the NT, it is “between the lines” not explicit.
    Why is this picture of Trinity and God as relationship appropriate?

  • Roseanne is right, I think, about the fathers. The term perichoresis, so far as I can see, was not the big term and, furthermore — again so far as I know — it described the Son and Father’s indwelling but not the Spirit’s indwelling. So, it was a Father-Son term.
    Nor am I convinced this term has had that much play among evangelicals. Classical evangelical thinking has been more about being (ousia) and less about perichoresis.
    It has caught on with the rise of two things: Trinitarian thinking has become more thoroughgoing and relationality has become much more significant to theology.

  • Scott M

    RJS, If you mean a fully developed metaphor or comprehensive language, then no, you won’t find that in the first two centuries. Working through those implications was, after all, the object of the first ecumenical councils. However, the precursors of the language of Trinity are clearly present earlier. For instance, in Justin Martyr’s second apology, we find this:

    But to the Father of all, who is unbegotten there is no name given. For by whatever name He be called, He has as His elder the person who gives Him the name. But these words Father, and God, and Creator, and Lord, and Master, are not names, but appellations derived from His good deeds and functions. And His Son, who alone is properly called Son, the Word who also was with Him and was begotten before the works, when at first He created and arranged all things by Him, is called Christ, in reference to His being anointed and God’s ordering all things through Him;

    I’ll also note that you have to be careful who you read as a “Father” from those first few centuries. Tertullian, for instance, wrote some very interesting things. But he ended his life as a schismatic and he also seems to have believed some very strange things. For instance, he believed people should be baptized as late in life as possible because sins committed after baptism could not be forgiven.
    At any rate, as language for the Trinity developed, so did the metaphors. The metaphor of relational dance has been probably the most common and enduring. I also remember a metaphor of the Father as the one who speaks, the Son as the Word which is spoken, and the Spirit as the breath by which the Word is spoken. But the imagery of dance is the most enduring.
    I really wouldn’t want to attempt to reconcile many Christian beliefs to the Reformed perspective. I know Keller comes out of that tradition, so perhaps he could find a way. I generally steer clear of that branch myself. But I would say that anywhere a metaphor or teaching presents a picture of anything other than an eternal, co-equal, mutually indwelling and interpenetrating unity of three Persons, then that metaphor or teaching is deeply flawed. And without some concept of the Trinity, we do not how to relate to either God or each other. It’s one of those things like the Resurrection. Distort it and you distort everything.

  • RJS,
    It’s been a pleasure to read this series. Your question about why traditional evangelicals have been so quick to defend the Trinity while simultaneously ignoring the Trinity, is definitely an interesting one to ponder. It has been interesting to see the growing evangelical enthusaism and interest in recent years. Keller’s emphasis is an example of this. I don’t think you could find one evangelical “apologetic” book thirty years ago that would have come close to Keller’s language and thought in this chapter.
    I like the metaphors, dance and friendship when it comes to understanding Trinity and the significance for us in marriage, friendship, community, gender, beauty, delight, mutuality, and love. In fact, it was my research into friendship (itself an “incidental” topic for evangelicals for many years–which I think is related to the Trinity and the “dance” or relationality) that pointed me to Catholic and Orthodox emphases of the Trinity.

  • Why has traditional evangelical been so non-Trinitarian in focus
    Because it’s hard.
    but has always been so quick to defend the orthodoxy
    Because it’s true.
    How significant is Trinity to Christian living?
    I’m still trying to figure that out.
    I agree with Scot that some of what Keller said seems to go beyond what scripture says — especially about the Spirit. But it doesn’t contradict what it says. Is he making a reasonable interpolation? I don’t know.
    I do know that, though I didn’t really like a lot of this book, this chapter floored me. Especially where he ties evangelism, social justice, art, “creation care” (as it’s been called), and community into a trinitarian gospel. It was magnificent to behold, even if it turs out to be a little flawed.

  • Cornerstone3 states:
    The Trinity is essential. I think equal importance should be taught as well as influenced. When I think about the Trinity, our minds are so small, we will never fully grasp its complete understanding. When I think about the Trinity as we have learned it, three persons in one, I think about a person. A person such as a woman with children and siblings. (It can be a man as well)
    The woman, for names sake can be called Jane. Jane is an individual, but Jane’s role as a Mother, is different from Jane’s role as a Daughter. Jane’s role as a mother and daughter are different from Jane’s role as a Sister. Jane is a Mother, Daughter, and Sister, all three different, but still Jane.
    This to me is similar to God. God as Father is different from God as Son and God as Holy Spirit. All three have distinct roles, but are still God.
    The wonderful thing for me was expanding my awareness of who God is and HIS purpose for HIS love in the world.

  • Yes the Trinity is essential. I think the Resurrection and the Trinity are the big two.
    Where do we get the “dance” metaphor for the Trinity? I’m not a fan. I have nothing against dancing or people who want to think about the Trinity as a dance, but when I think about God, dancing is not what comes to mind.

  • Scott M

    Cornerstone3, in what way does your usage of “role” differ from modalism? It sounds a lot like it to me, but I may misunderstand what you mean to say. Any discussion of God is always tremendously limited by the language and minds we have available. In many ways, it’s like trying to talk about quantum physics in the language of a two year old. But it seems your role metaphor fails to hold in tension the reality of God as three distinct Persons who are in such communion with each other that they are one God in essence.

  • Mike

    In response to your first two questions: yes, and yes. Not sure what your 3rd question refers to. But, what you described as “common understanding” is subordination!
    I just did a brief review of the comments so far, and I’d suggest a modified consideration of Jon’s post (#1). He mentions the significance of the doctrine as essential to salvation: spot-on. He then mentions “the relational bit is important, too.” I would want to reverse our tracks, then, and ask: why sunder the two? I agree that the saving action of the Triune God helps us understand God as Triune, but I am guessing here that the division of relationality from salvation is more of a typo than a conscious splitting of the two categories. Jon’s post really has some grist that likely connects well with Keller’s book: which I am now convinced I must read!
    And: yes, Keller’s vision is biblical, but I’d try not to overload the responsibility of him being comprehensive- did he assert this? I don’t know.
    RJS: Thanks! Great series!

  • Well, to speak of reformed and evangelical thinking today, my husband is currently a student at DTS (I know I know, many of you react against their conservative theology). His favorite class this past semester was Trinitarianism, which he found to be very transformational.

  • Robin Swieringa

    I prefer LaCugna’s presentation of the Trinity, which also posits perichoresis as the form of the relationships within God/between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There’s a slightly different emphasis than Keller’s, though: The dance is fluid loving and serving, and it occurs between and joins the three co-equal Divine Persons, through the the Spirit, who both IS and EFFECTS the perichoretic relationships. Through the Spirit, the persons, though distinct, are “in” each other, as well.
    What I find particularly appealing and as explanatory of Scripture as possible given the divine mystery is that the same Spirit-effected perichoresis that is ongoing “in” the immanent (in-Himself) Triune God is also in every born-again Christian via the Spirit, and since the Spirit is in union with the Father and the Son, we, too, are in union with them — just as Jesus prayed that we would be (John 17:21-24)– and with each other. The Spirit joins the local bodies of Christ to Christ, their head. Finally, since the nature of the Spirit is relationship and relationship-building, when we are in the Spirit and serving God, evangelism — inviting nonbelievers into a relationship with Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit — is the “natural”, if you will, disposition and activity of every Christian, since God desires that everyone would enter His Kingdom through Christ. Thus, the absence of the desire to evangelize and/or actually introducing nonbelievers to Jesus and His gospel is evidence of something amiss in one’s relationship with God, since where God is, the Spirit is, and the Spirit always wants to reach out and include everyone in the Dance through Jesus.
    This view of the Trinity and perichoresis has been transformational for me, as well, and I have found that it “makes sense” to my parishioners, as well.

  • qb

    Envisioning the Trinity in perichoretic terms is much like Caravaggio’s vision of the four Evangelists: an attempt to capture the elusive with allegory and metaphor. It is to explain the infinite in terms of the finite. So to ask if it is biblical does not help us get where we need to be.
    If it is helpful – that is, if it leads to understanding that coheres with revelation in a felicitous way – then that is enough. In a way, that’s what emerged from Patmos.

  • mariam

    Anyone besides me have trouble with the Holy Spirit idea? I mean Jesus was definitely a person; he had a personality. God the Father is powerfully, although not always sympathetically present in the OT, as a person. But the Holy Spirit? Sometimes a dove, sometimes fire? Where is the personhood there? Some people imagine the Holy Spirit as female to provide some balance. However the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to be a person, as much as an energy. That’s where the Trinity seems to fall apart for me, trying to figure our exactly how the Holy Spirit fits in. I know its an orthodox concept and all that. It’s not like I’m opposed to the idea but I actually don’t see the idea fully or even very partially developed in scripture.

  • RJS

    I agree – the Holy Spirit is a hard concept, and I have not found a good discussion to help think through the concept or the development of the full blown Trinitarian doctrine. The idea of God is clearly foundational. Jesus was a 1st century Jewish male and it is easy to trace devotion to Jesus and the doctrine of Jesus as Lord and as a person of the Godhead in the NT and early church writings. It is much harder to get a grasp on the Holy Spirit – references in the NT are somewhat more obscure. There are certainly references that lead this way – eg. Mt 28:19 (Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit) and the blessing in 2 Cor. 13:14 (The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.) are prime examples. But it is difficult to get to a full blown doctrine of the third person of the Trinity from the references available. How is Spirit different from energy or power of God – why do we insist on a characterization as a separate person? Perhaps someone knows of a good resource.

  • mariam (#17): It has always helped me to think of Jesus as limited to one physical place at a time during his earthy lifet, but now through the Holy Spirit he can be everywhere at once just like the Father. While the Son remains “at the right hand of the Father” reigning in glory, the Spirit takes His place on earth, expanding his earthly ministry from Judea to everybody, everywhere and everywhen, if that makes sense.
    See John 16:7-16 — “It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you. And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: Of sin, because they believe not on me; Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more; Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged. I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you. All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you. A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father.”

  • That should have been “earthly life” !!

  • Scott M

    mariam, if it helps, the question you ask is not a new one by any means. Right on the heels of Arius, who taught that there was a time when the Son was not, came Macedonius, who taught that the Spirit was not a person, but simply a power of God and thus was inferior to the Father and the Son. That was part of what drove the second ecumenical council. That’s when this portion of the creed was added:

    And (We believe) in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father: who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified: who spoke by the prophets. In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

    It may or may not help you, but it helps me to know that both the question and the response of the Church are ancient and continuing and not something novel. The feminine is often associated with the Spirit for a number of reasons, none of which should be taken to mean that the Spirit is female in the same way that Jesus is male. But a number of the images of the Spirit, especially that magnificent one in Romans 8, uses a feminine analogy. In Romans 8, the analogy is childbirth.
    But the NT does not depict the Spirit simply as power. In Matthew, Mary is described as with child of the Holy Spirit. In the theophany at Christ’s baptism, the point is less that the Spirit descends on him like a dove (not really a dove the way it’s phrased), but that all three persons of the Trinity are revealed. Each is separately present. Then it is the Spirit which leads Jesus into the desert to be tempted. You can speak against the Spirit (or blaspheme) in a manner similar to the way you can speak against Jesus. Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit teaches us what we ought to say. Then, of course, in John’s account of Jesus’ great teaching and prayer on the night he was betrayed, he repeatedly refers to the Spirit in a personal way and by many personal names. In language reminiscent of Jesus’ language about blaspheming the Spirit, Ananias and Sapphira are said to have lied to the Holy Spirit, not really something you can do to an impersonal power. Again, the Spirit speaks to Philip and tells him directly to go to the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch. In fact, Acts repeatedly has the Spirit telling people what to do and where to go.
    None of that is the sort of “slam dunk” prooftext which shows this is the only way it can possibly be read. But then, Arius also had an alternative reading for every Scripture so that it could be read in a way to support his point that Jesus was the first created being and subordinate to the Father. If you take Scripture alone and in isolation, it’s possible to read it in the way Macedonius did and the way Arius did. But what I hope I’ve shown is that there is ample support in the way Scripture is written to read many references to the Spirit as personal references if you are willing to do so. And since it can reasonably be read that way and the Church seems to have always read it that way and treated it as a matter of great importance, I’m willing to read the text that way.

  • Mike Mangold

    mariam: Wiki “Oneness Pentecostalism” and you’ll see that not all Christians have to believe in the “Trinity” to be a Christian. Hebrews 6:1-8 lays the foundation of Christianity and I don’t see any implication of a Triune God in there. And if you get the chance, check out the Catholic Encyclopedia’s “Dogma of the Trinity” for at least the RC’s admit the concept is shaky at best: “There is also the closely parallel recognition on the part of historians, the dogma, and systematic theologians, that when one does speak of an unqualified trinitarianism, one has moved from the period of Christian origin, to say, the last quadrant of the fourth century.”

  • RJS

    Scott M
    I agree with much of what you said especially about the NT. But I don’t hold the second ecumenical council as an ancient source here – because that is actually quite late in the game. I would like evidence that what it affirms is in fact the Apostolic tradition. I think we can find that, but I have yet to find a good scholarly exposition of the sort that abound on the development of Christology – the basis for our devotion to Jesus and belief in the divinity of Jesus.

  • Scott M

    RJS, the second ecumenical council is just a few decades after the first. If you reject it as indicative of the apostolic tradition, you really have no basis to accept the first. Arius had a compelling and convincing way to read scripture for everything he said about Jesus. Nor is there anything that completely and utterly makes the case in any writing we have preserved before the council. Athanasius and the council ultimately rejected Arius’ teaching by appealing to what the Church had always believed. So fine, if you think three hundred years later is actually “late” from our perspective of twenty centuries, that’s fine. But then you really have no basis to believe in the eternal co-equal nature of the Son. The second council a few decades after the first made essentially the same statement about the Spirit in response to Macedonius that Athanasius made to Arius. This is not what the Church has always believed. I don’t see any grounds for rejecting one and accepting the other.

  • Mike Mangold

    RJS: the key verse for me concerning Jesus’ divinity is John 20:28 (“Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”). Jesus never claimed to be God but here, in one of his first appearances after the Resurrection, a disciple does call him “God.” And that’s not just a little confusion over “Lord” and “God” either which gets so many Christians confused. I appreciate your open-mindedness, btw.

  • Scott M

    Mike, I’m curious. In what way would you say oneness pentecostalism is any different from Sabellianism, modalism, or Monarchianism? If it’s not substantively different, what’s the point in adopting a perspective within a faith that was rejected by that faith as recently as a century or so after the time of Jesus? I suppose I don’t grasp the motivation or impulse that would push people to try to join a spiritual tradition while rejecting what that tradition says and instead embracing an ancient splinter group of that tradition. Protestantism, of course, has no means to say that anything is or isn’t Christianity. But I don’t get the motivation to do what groups like this appear to be doing. I’ve grown up with, explored, and participated in spiritualities, some of which are decidely fringe. But whatever the spirituality I’ve explored, I’ve never been drawn to splinter groups within that spirituality. I’ve always tried to embrace it for what it has been held to be. So I suppose that’s one motivation I just don’t get.

  • Mike Mangold

    Scott M: “what’s the point in adopting a perspective
    within a faith that was rejected by that faith as recently as a century or so after the time of Jesus?”
    Because “that faith” is Roman Catholicism. Same thing was asked of Luther.
    That’s nice you can find comfort in the dogma of the Trinity. Whatever shakes your tree. I just don’t find it necessary to beleive in it in order to be a Christian and my point about the Oneness Pentecostals is that I am not alone in that thinking. What we are trying to do is to determine what the 1st century Christians really believed and apply that to our lives. If that belief system is “ancient” so be it. It is also genuine and not built on a series of long words, multiple layers of metaphors, and plays-on-words. I do however, appreciate your recognition that Protestantism has no means to really say what is or isn’t Christian. That is a nice break from the knee-jerk responses I have often gotten from other bloggers here.

  • Dana Ames

    I’m not sure there was technically a “Roman Catholicism” until after the schism of 1054. Before that, there was only “the church”. It had its eastern and western iterations, and there were significant cultural reasons (and power plays) contributing to their distancing and eventual split from one another- but it wasn’t “Roman Catholicism”, especially in the east. Though the Roman popes were represented in the councils and agreed with their outcomes, they was never “in charge” in the east.
    For a number of years, “first century Christians” were Jewish, or gentiles who were attracted to the God of the Jews, and we see them continuing those Jewish forms of worship (including worship in the Temple in Acts). I don’t think that means we need to frequent the local synagogue. It took them some time to figure out what the resurrection meant -with the help of the Holy Spirit 🙂 I think Peter’s visit to Joppa happened a number of years after the Ascension. So doctrine/dogma is developmental.
    I remember during the ’70s how the first century church was held up as some “golden age”, and I went along with that belief for a long time. I don’t anymore, especially since I’ve become more aware of the history of the whole church… There are certainly important moments, and some are more important than others, but I think the Holy Spirit works with people where they are, constituting the church, however it “looks”, in whatever age it is in. I think Jesus loves the church, just as we are, right now.

  • Mike Mangold

    Dana: 1. “I’m not sure there was technically a “Roman Catholicism” until after the schism of 1054.” I agree. I just used the term for simplicity.
    2. “I don’t think that means we need to frequent the local synagogue.” Again, I agree but for a different reason. The real model was the house church, sometimes a public forum, not a synagogue or other building. In fact, “going to church” (or temple, or synagogue) betrays the idea of the body of Christ.
    3. In terms of that ’70’s image of the early church, there has been too much scholarship since then to think that is an appropriate model anymore.
    4. As for Jesus loving the church here and now: amen!

  • RJS

    Scott M (#24)
    I am not dismissing the classical doctrine of the Trinity. I just find the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as a person of the trinity somewhat harder to trace than the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus. But the ecumenical creeds are in a sense the end of the process of refining Christian understanding of Trinity.
    Certainly Origin in De Principiis and Tertullian in Against Praxeas have fairly well developed views of the Holy Spirit as person of the Trinity by ca. 200ish. There is every reason to think that they are passing on and elaborating on recieved wisdom of the church – Tertullian says as much.
    Scot – or anyone else – is there a book that gives a scholarly appraisal of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity and the Holy Spirit as person of the Godhead? Or an analysis of the understanding of the Spirit of God in the first century?

  • Dana Ames

    Mike #29,
    you might be interested in the long (4 parts so far) but exceedingly well written and interesting review of the Viola/Barna book on Ben Witherington’s blog. Much scholarship, with lots to think about…
    Glad for agreement-

  • Mike

    I would suggest The Holy Trinity by Robert Letham. At times, Letham seems to be countering some people out there that, imho, are more bent on social trinitarianism, and Letham tends to take a more typical Western or Augustinian perspective, i.e., move from the one to the three. Nonetheless, it’s thorough, succinct, and is clearly for the academy: some might differ with me on that last point.
    The other source I would commend to everyone, would be The Trinitarian Controversy by William Rusch. You get a sample of different essays and letters, and creedal formulations that assist in illuminating some of the tensions- some historical, some cultural- that the church leaders lived in as they were preaching, participated in dialogue, and leading in the formation of the early Christian communities. Rusch’s introductory notes are balanced and intricate: there’s no obvious doctrine of God in the NT, yet one cannot simply ignore “the idea of the triadic manifestation of the Godhead was present from the earliest period as part of the Christian piety and thinking.” (p.2)

  • Mike

    I have tried to track along with your comments today, and I want to address your original question:
    Anyone besides me have trouble with the Holy Spirit idea?…But the Holy Spirit? Sometimes a dove, sometimes fire? Where is the personhood there?…However the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to be a person, as much as an energy. That’s where the Trinity seems to fall apart for me, trying to figure our exactly how the Holy Spirit fits in.
    I haven’t really tracked well with the replies of others to your question, but I think your question is spot-on, and it points to an important source of confusion that everyone gets into: what’s a person?
    If we use some kind of ego-centric individual (I think I got this warning from Richard Muller) as the meaning of “person”, then to be sure, our confusion comes trying to import across the centuries our understanding of “person” into the usage and contexts of the early church. I suppose that is obvious enough, so no offense intended here.
    One stop, though, along the way: I am not altogether convinced that Augustine’s way of depicting the Spirit as the relation of love between the Father and the Son (he does have other ways to depict the Spirit) has not done more harm than good, namely, the harm being a confusion of what is meant by a person by Augustine. True, he had a few different hermeneutics at play at any one time: but this depiction, imho, has not served us but contributed the problem of understanding the notion of “person.”
    How do I now get started on this idea of “person” distilled down so as to not weary you and everyone? 🙂
    The whole discussion really came to a head following the first Council of Nicea: Hilary of Poitiers and Athanasius contributed to a great coming-together of the East and West. What they, and Tertullian a century earlier, were trying to get across is that God is of one undivided substance, but exists as three persons in a consubstantial Triad. It’s not Sabellian, or modalist: instead the focus here is on the unity of God- all three persons of the Godhead share the same divine nature. OK: I know I have distilled in a huge way, and some will read this, and think “Mike left that [blank] out” or something like that. Amen: and grace to me.
    So, whither the Holy Spirit? Athanasius began responding to a few different types who asserted the Spirit was a creature, and his aim was to develop the idea that the Spirit is consubstantial with the Father and the Son, as well as completely divine. He makes several arguments that are all good and convincing, but the best one he makes secures the idea of the Spirit as a person, consubstantial with the Father and the Son, comes from his discussion of 1 Cor. 3:16ff. Athanasius develops the notion that we could only become partakers of God if the Spirit were divine: otherwise, we would be united to another creature, and one that is not consubstantial nor co-eternal with the Father and the Son. Again, I have compressed this discussion enormously, so please forgive the brevity.
    I would suggest that this does not completely answer your question, mariam, but I hope it gets it started in a new way. I would not want, either, to dismiss our shared concern that our contemporary understanding of “person” also deserves some consideration. But I would not suggest to you that what is meant now is what was meant then by the word “person.”

  • RJS

    Mike (#32)
    Letham’s book looks interesting. The first hundred pages or so cover the part of the history I am most interested in – but the ToC and exerpt on amazon both look intriguing.

  • Mike Mangold

    Dana (#31): thanks for the link. It’s always good to get a contrarion opinion. But this reminds me of my own pastor (ok, so I “go to” church, too!) who, within the same breath, states that we are all priests and kings and then states that only he is qualified (as a pastor) to determine what roles we can fill. My reading of Viola and Barna is that putting that job description on pastors is a matter of violence and not very Christ-like.
    RJS: for a nice summary of Christologies in 1st century Christianity, try “Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew” by Bart D. Ehrman. Another one of my “issues” (sorry) is that when Orthodox Christianity declares certain beliefs “heretical” does that really mean that they are not truthful? So if Pope Pompus declares that some 1st century or “ancient” belief does not fit Orthodox dogma are we not entitled to believe it anyway? Is that the heritage or tradition of the church? “Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the Papal Bull?”

  • Many of you will remember previous discussions here last year concerning perichoresis … and I’m in the process of collecting my many thoughts about it for another project. But as difficult as it is for many to think of the Holy Spirit as a “person”, I think we have to defer to the way Jesus spoke of the Counselor … using words like “he” “him” “his” rather than “it”. Yes, words like “wind” and “fire” and “dove” have been used, but both the Father and the Son have been described with language other than “person”-oriented.
    Just because we cannot easily conceive of the Spirit as a “person” does not mean that the reality of perichoretic relationship is not present and valid. The mystery and paradox remain….
    Have any of you read Patrick Oden’s book “It’s A Dance”? I’m half way through and finding it very good….

  • mariam

    Thanks all for your expansion on this topic. I’ve sort of avoided thinking about the nature of the triune God, but this has helped get me started. Now I have to google about half the words and names here:)

  • Richard

    I can understand the Holy Trinity by the signature of His creation. Man, made in His image.
    I am Spirit, soul and body. I can identify each part of me only because I am not seperated by any other part. I am in such a union with myself that no part of me goes anywhere without the other even though they apear to be in three diferent kingdoms when taken to the knife.
    Each part of me gives witness to the other and should any part be severed from the other then I become an incomplete person into a relationship of need instead of dependency.
    Dependency is the heralding trumpet of relationship since Christ Himself did not rise from the dead but was raised from the dead and our dependency on His blood, by His doing, in and by God’s pleasure, brought us in right standing to the union (relationship)of the Triune Godhead as His body.
    Anyway, that’s the way I was brought up to see God.