We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. This is true is so many areas of endeavor and knowledge – such as science and medicine, for example – and it is true as well in the field of theology. It is a wonderful era in which we live, inheriting two millennia of theological thinking and articulation that is available literally at our fingertips. The early church fathers of course did not have such resources, and they struggled to fully and accurately articulate complicated truths such as the Trinity and all of the implications of the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Recall also that the several early centuries of the Church age involved as well the final codification of what were the accepted divine Scriptures (we call this canonization).
Yes, it is all rather complicated. We said from Day 1 of this series on the study of God – called “Theology Proper” – that this was a more academic endeavor than most we take on. But our topic this week of the Trinity is one that is surely taught throughout the Bible and is one that we cannot deny or pull out of the cloth of Scripture without unraveling the integrity of the whole garment. If you lose the Trinity, you lose everything.
And over the years, there are several basic errors espoused by some at various times that result ultimately in nothing short of heresy. In attempting to present these briefly (gigantic tomes have been written upon all that follows), let me use a delineation presented by a theologian of our own denomination and theological seminary – Wayne Grudem (from Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, chapter 14).
Grudem writes that there are three basic statements to be affirmed about the biblical teaching on the Trinity …
- God is three persons.
- Each person is fully God.
- There is one God.
A denial of any one of these three statements leads to one of the historical errors about the Trinity.
To deny the first point – that God is three distinct persons – is an error known within Church history as Modalism.
The idea here is that God is one person who appears in three different ways at different times. In the Old Testament he was God the Father. In the New Testament he is God the Son. And in the church age after the ascension he is the power and influence as the Holy Spirit. It is as if he has three hats and shows up at different times in different forms.
This of course denies the personal relationships within the Trinity, as when Jesus prays to the Father. And think about the baptism of Jesus where the Father speaks from heaven and the Spirit descends as a dove. And if this is true, the atonement for sin is lost – the truth that God sent the Son to be the atoning, substitutionary sacrifice for sin.
To deny the second point – that each person is fully God – is an error known within Church history as Arianism.
This is the more common error that has taken various forms down to our day. It is named after Arius, a Bishop of Alexandria (Egypt). He taught that Jesus and the Spirit were logically creations of the Father. This view was condemned at the Church Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 with a famous creedal statement about the nature of the Trinity.
An Arian way of thinking (then or now) is to say that Jesus was created before the rest of creation and is “like” the Father, but is not the same nature or essence as God the Father. Bolstering this view is an understanding of verses like Colossians 1:15, which calls Christ “the first-born of all creation.” But the idea of being first here is not #1 in order, but rather #1 in preeminence (supremacy, importance, authority, etc.).
To deny the third point – that there is one God – is an error known within Church history as Tritheism.
Honestly not that many people over the years have held to this view, as it is obviously not much different than pagan religions with multiplicities of gods.
And again, all of this discussion is admittedly rather academic, but it is also of the utmost central importance. Yet also, it is of immense practical understanding. I don’t want a Jesus who is less than divine – nothing more than a great moral example or most-empowered human creation. We need a perfect savior, not an ideal model of godly living. And we need more than a powerful spiritual presence or influence within us. We need not only God the Father; we must have God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit … or all is lost.