Editor’s Note: Responding to the General Assembly Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity, these essays attempt to give voice to the center of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) The essays seek a place where all sides can meet–without compromising the Gospel–and move forward together.
The Trinity is a fitting topic for this series. The early Christians faced a crisis concerning who Jesus Christ is in relation to God. Perceiving that the Gospel itself was at risk in this question, they redefined the moment in terms of the Trinity and rallied the whole Church around it, then and now. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) faces such a defining moment today. Perhaps now is a time to reaffirm the Trinity as the “summary of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (report to Birmingham GA, p. 3). This essay covers (1) the Biblical origins of the Trinity, the trinitarian affirmations about (2) Jesus Christ and (3) the Spirit, and (4) the interconnections among the three “persons.”
The origin of the Trinity probably lies in how Jesus understood himself to be a king in the line of David (see Matt. 1, Matt. 22:41-46). God’s covenant with David includes the promise that, I [God] will be to him [David’s heir] a father, and he shall be to me a son”(2 Samuel 7:14). Jesus thus prays to God as Son to Father (Matt. 11:25-27, John 17:1-26) and speaks openly about God as his Father (John 5:17f, 6:37-46, 10:25-30, 14:6-11). By definition there can be no son without a parent, and no father without a child. Natural parents and their children resemble one another sometimes laughably (walk, talk, mannerisms, appearance). They belong to each other as members of the same family, bone-of-bone and flesh-of-flesh. The family connection is the same if we substitute daughter for son or mother for father. So, when Jesus prays, he makes the stunning analogy: Jesus the human is to God the divine as a biological son is to his biological father. They are family, “of the same substance or being” (the homousios of the Nicene Creed).
Biblical statements about the Spirit are intentionally and explicitly linked to the Father and the Son. Jesus co-opts the messianic passage from Isaiah for himself, The Spirit of the Lord [= God] is upon me (Luke 4:18, 21). “God is Spirit,” says Jesus, and we must worship the Father in spirit and truth (John 4:23f). The Spirit comes from both the Father and the Son (John 15:26f) and unites them in their joint endeavors, above all glorifying each other (John 14:13/17:1) the way families do at best. The Spirit makes the glory of the Lord powerful among humans as well (2 Cor. 3:17f); where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (ibid.).
The Trinity is based on simple analogies, deeply rooted in the Bible, not proof-texts or images of one kind or another, e.g., metaphors, similes, allegories, symbols, etc. Trinitarian language in the Bible is NOT exclusively male-gender: father and son are male in both Biblical languages, but spirit is feminine in Hebrew (see Isaiah 11:2) and neuter in Greek (see John 14:26). Beyond that, according to the New Testament, trinitarian language for God is a name: when we do things in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit” (Matt. 28:19), we share in the presence and activity of the living God.
Affirmations about Jesus
The first and primary affirmation of the Trinity is thus the incarnation of God as a human being, or the deity of the human Jesus Christ. Whether in the form of “Jesus is the Son of God” or “Jesus is Lord,” this affirmation permeates the entire New Testament centuries before Nicaea. The early Christians debated whether God could become a particular human being and still remain God, or the human remain human, and whether God could suffer and die as humans do. These questions arose historically and logically only after the affirmation that Jesus is God as a human being. Notice I am NOT saying “God in a human being,” in which Jesus’ humanity is merely an instrument to be used and then discarded–a “container notion” of the incarnation (T.F. Torrance.) In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19, RSV) is a place statement, not an instrument statement. In Christ marks off the place where God abides as God and where God as the human Jesus acts to save a sinful humanity.
The poignancy of the Gospel stands out when we see the extent to which God as the human Jesus embraces our humanity. For Calvin the incarnation involved how near to us God came to save us (Institutes 2.12.1). Reflecting the Bible, the Apostles and Nicene creeds narrate the birth, sufferings, and death of Jesus, to show the extent to which God stoops to the human condition, enfolds us in God’s mercy, saves us from our sins, and initiates a new humanity. Paul goes so far as to say, God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21, RSV). The humanity of the Son is thus as important as the divinity of the Son, and as the Son of God Jesus Christ includes them both.
The early Church wrestled with the tough question, With Jesus Christ were they authentically dealing with God or something less than God? When saying Jesus loved them, was God really and truly the One loving them, or was Jesus a surrogate through which God acted? When saying Jesus suffered and died for our sins, was God the One forgiving them, or was Jesus like a scapegoat which God used–sacrificed–to attain reconciliation with humanity? When saying Jesus died on the cross and rose again from the dead, was God conquering sin, evil, and death once and for all, and recreating a new humanity, or was Jesus an example, a sage, a metaphor, or a symbol through which God could renew a pledge to humanity? Was Jesus merely an instrument, something less than God, in and through which God communicated indirectly God’s love, purposes, and moral instruction to a wayward humanity?
The priest Arius triggered the Council of Nicaea (325) when he offered the instrumental solution to the Christians of his day. For him the Son was a creature, Jesus Christ, who by definition could not be fully God, but God could work through him to create the world and make God’s will for creation known. The Son, says Arius, is more than merely human but less than fully divine; the real God remains at a distance, unknowable and inaccessible to humans.
Living in an advanced, technological, largely utilitarian society, we are strongly attracted to an instrumental view of Jesus. If Jesus Christ the Savior is primarily a means to an end–our salvation–isn’t he more or less replaceable with other instruments that do the same thing? In the question of instrumentality the Nicene Christians saw the Gospel itself at risk, and they answered with a profound grasp of what the Bible says.
The Trinity rules out a one-dimensional, top-down, self-sufficient idea of power. As “father” is bound to “son” and vice versa, the Father’s almighty power as “maker of heaven and earth” (Apostles Creed) is bound to the Son’s intentional powerlessness as Savior and Lord. God’s activity of creation is thus tied to God’s activity of redemption; and the lowly Jesus Christ on the cross is the touchstone of God’s power over all creation (see Col. 1:15-20; I Cor 1:18-31). For Christians, then, the measure of all legitimate power–political, military, economic, psychological, or institutional–is how well it serves “the widow and the orphan,” the vulnerable, the weak, the poor, the oppressed, and the needy, with whom God the Son (Jesus Christ) explicitly identifies. Jesus says to his disciples, Whoever would be great among you must be your servant (Matt. 20:26-28), and Jesus identifies himself with the least among us (Matt. 25:40, 45). My [God’s] power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). The trinitarian distinction between Father and Son leads–then and now–to a differentiated idea of real power.
Affirmations of the Spirit
The importance of the Spirit cannot be overstated. On the one hand, the Spirit is the unity and power of Father-and-Son. On the other hand, the Spirit draws humans to participate in the trinitarian God, whoever or wherever we are. As such, the Spirit is the unity and power of the community of Christians (Eph. 2:13-22, 4:1-6; 2 Cor. 3:17f). The Bible makes it clear that the works of the Spirit (John 3:8 & John 14:26; Romans 8:9-30; 2 Cor. 3:17f; I Cor. 12:3; Romans 8:15f/Gal. 4:6), the gifts of the Spirit (I Cor. 12: 6-11, 31b; Eph. 4:7-13), and the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, Eph. 3:9, Phil. 1:11 & 4:6f) are indispensable to our current participation in the Gospel centered in Jesus Christ.
The question of authenticity arises here, too. Does our Christian life really and truly connect us with God? Or is our faith, hope, love, joy, peace, etc., merely the natural response of our own hearts, minds, feelings, psyches, affection for others, sense of transcendence, etc.? If we say our responses are the Spirit dwelling in us and working through us, we make ourselves the means through which God works–once again an instrumental trap. God the Spirit, however, is accessible but not domesticated to the human individual. The Spirit is necessary to connect the Christian life authentically with God, but the work/gifts/fruits of the Spirit are GIFTS we do not control, for which we cannot take credit, and for which we can only glorify God.
Life as we know it is filled with evil and injustice, sickness and loss, death and destruction, senseless decisions and misguided policies all around us and within. To believe that the crucified Jesus is Lord (God), to love one another, to resist evil, to attain a flash of true insight, to hope in a better future, to rejoice and have peace in the face of tragedy . . . all fly in the face of life as we know it. What makes these profound ventures authentic is their gift character. They come from God, they are born of God, they serve God’s purposes, and they remain God’s whenever they show up in and among us. Above all, they give us full, authentic participation in God’s gracious, providential activity at the moment. So, the analogy works here, too: our faith, hope, love, joy, and peace in Christ are to God as we humans are to the Spirit, a mutual abiding of us in God and God in us (see esp. John 15:1-17 & I John 4). The deity of the Spirit–of the work, gifts, and fruits of the Spirit–is the second primary affirmation of the Trinity.
Among the three
The interconnections among the three persons of the Trinity are also crucial: whenever one is at work, the other two are at work as well (perichoresis). Calvin puts it this way: “To the Father is attributed the beginning of activity, and the fountain and wellspring of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of that activity.” (Institutes, 1.13.18). Similarly, Karl Barth’s theology interprets God’s activities of creation, reconciliation, or redemption in terms of their concrete take-off point (Son), their source (Father), and their powerful thrust (Spirit). The widespread practice of assigning the role of Creator to the Father, the role of Redeemer to the Son, and the role of Sustainer/Sanctifier to the Spirit goes too far in my estimation. Not only do the roles, hence the trinitarian persons, become separable from one another but also that approach detracts from the real thrust of the Trinity, namely: with the human Jesus Christ and the work/gifts/fruits of the Spirit we are authentically in the tender presence and gracious activity of the living God.
A similar danger arises when we put the trinitarian persons in an historical row, linking the Father with the time from creation to Christ (Old Testament), the Son with the time of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (NT–gospels), and the Spirit with the time from the beginning of the Church to the end time (NT–Acts-letters-Revelation). The early Christians called that “modalism” and rejected it. Trying to hold onto the oneness of God, modalism obscures the trinitarian distinctions and spiritualizes the humanity of Jesus Christ. The tendency toward modalism in our day is especially insidious. Modalism undermines the Bible as mostly outdated and irrelevant; and it invites speculations in the name of the Spirit without the other persons of the Trinity.
The Trinity is truly the sum of the Gospel. The trinitarian God gathers people together, shapes them, and sustains them as an authentic Christian community: where two or three are gathered together in my name,“ (Matt. 18:20). To utter the name of the trinitarian God–Father, Son, and Spirit–is to participate in the gracious presence, power, and activity of the living God.
Merwyn S. Johnson has served both as installed pastor and as interim for a number of churches. He has taught at Stephens College, Austin Seminary, and most recently Erskine Seminary, Due West, S.C., as Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology. A member of Foothills Presbytery (PCUSA), he currently teaches at Erskine Seminary and Union-PSCE at Charlotte, N.C.