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The Trinity Doctrine: Will It Survive?

I am, by nature, an orthodox soul, but when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity, I find myself strangely unsettled. After reading the best of the ancients (Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine) I still get the sense that this doctrine is just a bit ‘too clever by half’. Esoteric discussions of hypostasis and essence seem, at times, to owe more to Aristotle than Moses and while most of us have, from childhood, bought into the idea that God is “one simple essence comprehending three persons” (John Calvin: Institutes) we have not often stopped to consider why this particularly arcane doctrine might be more practical than it first seems.

To make matters worse, the heretical alternatives to the Trinity doctrine, as expressed by the likes of Arius and Sabellius, are eminently ‘sensible’. Arius simply identified Christ as a created being while simultaneously affirming his Deity (he argues that Jesus was made ‘one’ with God just as all human believers are made one with God). Thus, in effect, demoting Christ to a subordinate status relative to God and thus synthesizing Christianity with the normative pagan perception of a hierarchical pantheon of gods. Sabellius, on the other hand, claimed that the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit indicate a tripartite distinction in God, thus negating, entirely, the esoteric mystery of three distinct persons in one God. Both these views lay strong claim to our common sense, but they also run afoul of Scripture. Then we have the brilliant, and rather heterodox, Puritan poet, John Milton. While not an Arian,

Milton, nonetheless, emphasizes the oneness of God and the subordinate roles of both Christ and the Holy Spirit. Milton argued that Christ is God only by virtue of the Father’s Will to make him such. Repeatedly, Milton attacks the notion of a single essence of three persons as nonsense. At the very core of Milton’s argument lies the unassailable fact of God’s supreme authority. When it comes to John 1.1, Milton agrees with Calvin in observing that Christ is a distinct person, but Milton goes further to claim that while the verse reveals that Christ was with God from the beginning, this is not the same thing as being with God from everlasting. Here, of course, Milton loses his orthodox credentials. But before we write Milton off entirely (remember, Milton also held that the human soul possesses no immortal qualities – yes, like Adventists, he too upheld the ‘Mortalist Heresy’), we ought to interrogate ourselves a bit further on the question of God the Father’s authority within the Trinity. Do we hold to a Trinity of Equals, or do we believe in a Trinity in which there exists a kind of relational subordination? Or do we find in Scripture something in-between, as it were?

John Calvin clearly denies that Jesus is a subordinate deity to the Father, but at the same time he affirms that when Christ says, “My Father is greater than I”, he is showing us that the Father enjoys a “higher degree” to the extent that the Glory of God manifested on earth through Christ “differs from the full perfection of brightness conspicuous in heaven”. Similarly, Calvin terms it “erroneous and impious” to even think of applying the name ‘God’ to the Father while denying it to the Son. Yet Calvin cannot entirely escape the implication of what he calls “order” or “economy” in the God-head. Working from Tertullian, Calvin states that while there is one God, “in unity of substance”, that unity finds expression in a Trinity and that there are “three, not in state, but in degree-not in substance but in form-not in power, but in order.” Quoting Tertullian, Calvin goes further to argue that the Son is “second to the Father”, but that this is only a difference by “distinction”, not in actual essence or Being.

To put it slightly differently, the relational differences between Father, Son and Holy Spirit suggest “order and economy” and, perhaps, even some kind of benign priority (Augustine hints at this), but they never suggest subordination. What does this have to do with us? In our fallen condition, authority vexes us constantly. Arius, in the mixed Christian/pagan era invented a simple hierarchical doctrine of the God-Head amenable to his culture and his time (C.S. Lewis calls Arianism a “sub-Christian mode of thought”.) But I wonder, if we are in danger of doing the same. It would be all too easy for many of us to begin emphasizing equality in the God-Head to the exclusion of “order” and priority. Indeed, the current societal tendency to confuse equality with sameness and inequality with difference and order, could find a theological counterpart in a Trinitarian doctrine of bland redundancy between Father, Son and Spirit to the extent that the three persons become rather like Sabellius’s three aspects of God’s personality. At the other extreme, more conservative believers could easily embrace Arianism as part of a general attempt to defend against the onslaught of moral relativism as they insist upon a God-Head of clear hierarchical subordination. The Truth, as so often is the case, not only lies somewhere between these two extremes, it also, necessarily, acknowledges both of them without bowing to either.

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