Why What we think about the Trinity Matters

Why what we think about the Trinity matters

We’ve kept emphasising that what we believe about God matters.  When we talk about the Trinity, we are not just in the business of theological formulations and intellectual arguments.  This stuff matters practically for our daily lives and our eternal assurance.

Three things that matter:  What we can and can’t say about the Trinity

My doctrine lecturer Mike Ovey, principal at Oak Hill, used to suggest that there are three things that Christians should never deny about the Trinity

  • No denial of unity
  • No denial of equality
  • No denial of distinction

We have seen these three things as we have explored the Biblical teaching on the Trinity.  Often confusion has occurred in history where one of these has been pushed at the expense of the rest.

Denying distinction

For example, we want to emphasise the unity of God.  We have seen how we take our cue for this from the Shema in Deuteronomy  6.  Affirming the unity and oneness of God protects us from thinking of God as having rivals. It honours his sovereignty.  It stops us from thinking in terms of polytheism.  There is not more than one God.

But what happens when we focus so heavily on this at the expense of the other two criteria? Well, one thing we can end up with is something called Modalism.

Throughout history, some theologians have tried to account for why the Bible talks about the Father, Son and Spirit whilst refusing to accept that there are different persons.

Modalists believe that God simply appears in different modes.  Sometimes he appears as the Father, sometimes as the Son and sometimes as the Spirit.[1] They even try to associate these modes with different phases in history – God the Father creates, The Son redeems and the Spirit sustains and sanctifies.  One specific historical example of this was Sabellianism.

“Sabellians held that the only God, the Father in the OT, had become the Son in the NT, and sanctified the church as the Holy Spirit of Pentecost.”[2]

Some attempts at illustrations to explain the Trinity fall into this trap.  For example, the illustration is often used of water appearing sometimes as ice and sometimes as steam.  Such illustrations demonstrate the oneness of the Trinity, but lose the distinction between the persons.

Why does this matter? Well, there are two big problems with modalism.  First of all, we are once again left with a God who is not eternally love. Relationships are not an essential part of his character.

Secondly, this type of God is not really knowable.  In effect, his true essence is hidden behind the modes which he presents to us.  If the Father, Son and Spirt are only means by which God reveals himself at different times, then they are not true and full representations of Him.  Ovey likens this to the puppet master who hides behind a screen whilst we only see the different puppets which he controls from the background.

So as Letham sums up:

“With modalism, God’s revelation in human history as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit does not reveal who he is eternally, and so we have no true knowledge of God.”[3]

Denying Equality

Now, some people wanted to protect the status of Jesus as a real, supernatural person, but they still could not bring themselves to describe Jesus as fully God.  They too wanted to protect the oneness of God whilst allowing for distinction between the persons. So they talked about Jesus as being a lesser being, having divine qualities, but subordinate to the Father.  The most famous example of this was Arianism.

Arius was a presbyter in Alexandria, in Egypt. In 318AD, he confronted his bishop Alexander over perceived false teaching.  The account goes that:


“Alexander (Bishop of Alexandria) attempted one day, in the presence of the presbyters and the rest of his clergy, too ambitious a discourse about the holy Trinity…. Arius, one of the presbyters under his jurisdiction, a man possessed of no inconsiderable logical acumen, thinking that the bishop was introducing the doctrine of Sabellius the Libyan, from love of controversy advanced another view diametrically opposed to the opinion of the Libyan.”[4]

Arius rightly wanted to confront the apparent modalism in Alexander’s teaching, but he fell into an equally dangerous trap. Alexander himself explains about Arius and his followers:


“They assert ‘God was not always a father, but that there was when he was not a father; the word of God was not from eternity, but was made out of nothing; for that ever existing God has made him who did not previously exist, out of the non-existent’ Wherefore ‘there was when he was not.’[5]

He goes on,

“they taught that ‘the Son is a creature and a work; he is neither like the father in essence, nor is by nature either the Father’s true word or his true Wisdom, but indeed one of his works and creatures.”[6]

In his own words, Arius writing to Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia C320 explains:

“The Son is not unbegotten.”[7]

In other words, Jesus was a special and exalted angelical/godlike being, but he was created. When was he created? Well, it wasn’t as part of the creation of the Universe, but nor was Jesus eternal.  So Arians were left with a slightly ambiguous description of Jesus’s origins, “en hote pote ouk en” or, in English “there was a when, when he was not.”

The Arian controversy rocked and threatened to divide the church.  In fact, it was one of the major issues that led to the Council of Nicea when church leaders from all over the Roman Empire met together to thrash out different issues and controversies. The Council formulated the following Creed.

“We believe in one God, Father Almighty maker of all things, seen and unseen:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, begotten as only begotten of the Father, that is of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things came into existence, both things in heaven and things on earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate and became man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended into the heavens, is coming to judge the living and the dead.

And in the Holy Spirit.

But those who say ‘There was a time when he  did not exist, and ‘Before being begotten he did not exist,’ and that he came into being from non-existence, or who allege that the Son of God is of another hypostasis or ousia, or who is alterable or changeable, these the Catholic and Apostolic church condemns.”[8]

The Creed makes it very clear that the Church disagreed with Arius.  The Council concluded that it is wrong to suggest that there was a time when Jesus did not exist because he is fully God, he has the same substance and that means there is unity and equality to Father, Son and Holy Spirit without confusing them into one person.

Unfortunately, that didn’t settle the matter and the debate rumbled on for many years with sometimes one side having the upper hand and sometimes the other. A key figure in responding to Arius and his followers was Athanasius (296-393AD), a church leader who was also based in Alexandria.  His stand against Arian teaching put him in great danger and he was exiled five times because of his robust defence of the Trinity.

Here are two important things he tells us:

  1. The Father and Son revelation is a vital truth

In his own words, he says:

“But when we call God Father, at once with the Father we signify the Son’s existence. Therefore also he who believes in the Son, believes also in the Father: for he believes in what is proper to the Father’s Essence; and thus the faith is one in one God. And he who worships and honours the Son, in the Son worships and honours the Father; for one is the Godhead; and therefore one  the honour and one the worship which is paid to the Father in and through the Son.[9]

This comes back to what we have seen earlier.  The Trinitarian revelation of Father and Son is vital.  If we are to honour the Father truly for who He is then we must worship Him as the Eternal Father.  When we deny the deity of Jesus then not only do we dishonour Jesus but we take away something from the eternal and essential nature of God the Father.

  1. The doctrine of the Trinity is vital to the doctrine of Salvation

Or as Athanasius puts it (and I’ve chosen to quote him at length here):

“For it was absurd that, having spoken, God should lie, in that he had established a that men would die by death if he were to transgress the commandment, and man did not die after he had transgressed, but God’s word was made void.  For God would not have been truthful, if after he had said we would die, man had not died.  And furthermore, it would have been improper that what had once been created rational and had partaken of his Word, should perish and return again to non-existence through corruption.  For it would not have been worthy of the goodness of God that what had been brought into existence by him should be corrupted on account of the deceit which the devil had played on men.  And it would have been especially improper that the handiwork of God in mankind should come to nought, either through their neglect, or through the deceit of demons.” [10]

Here he is insisting that God could not leave sin undealt with.  The dilemma is this: if God overlooks sin in his mercy then He has lied, death has not come as a result of sin.  God cannot break his word.  However if God simply judged sin by bringing death to humanity hen creation has failed and God’s plan has been thwarted.

So, Athanasius says,

“But as this had to be, so again on the other hand lies opposed to it what was reasonable for God, that he should appear truthful in passing the law about death.  For it would have been absurd that for our benefit and permanence God, the Father of truth, should appear a liar.” [11]

The result is the incarnation:

“For this reason the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God came to our realm; … And lest what had been created should perish and the work of the Father among men should be in vain, he took to himself a body, and that not foreign to our own.  For he did not wish simply to be in a body, nor did he wish merely to appear, for if he had wished only to appear he could have made his theophany through some other means.” [12]

In other words

  1. God’s plan for his creation cannot be frustrated
  2. God’s Word – his law of death – cannot fail to come true
  3. So God must act

The fitting thing to happen was for God himself to come as a man, live among us and take the penalty on himself.  This means that Jesus is fully God and fully man.  In him, we see God taking the initiative to rescue his creatures and Man bearing the just penalty for sin.

A contemporary version of the same error

Modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses follow in Arius’ footsteps this even leads to them translating the Bible differently. For example, the New Word Translation of John 1:1 which reads:

“In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was a god.”[13]


There are two problems with this.  First of all, there’s a misunderstanding of Greek grammar. In English, we know whether or not something should carry the definite article (The) implying uniqueness or whether it carries the indefinite article (a) suggesting that it is potentially one of many within a category. In Greek, things are slightly harder because you only have the definite article. There isn’t a Greek equivalent of “a”.  So when the JWs came to John 1:1, they found that the text sometimes had the definite article and sometimes it didn’t.

It looked roughly something like this

“In the beginning was THE Word

and The Word was with THE God

and the Word was God”


The last use of “God” lacks the definite article and the translators of the New World Translation decided that it should be translated as

“…THE Word was A god.”

In other words, Jesus was presented as just one god, here taken to refer to a supernatural being such as an angel but one among many beings, not the one true Creator God, YHWH.

Now, here’s the thing.  It is true that when something lacks the definite article in Greek that it may be because it is indefinite and so we should add “a” or “an,” but that isn’t always so.

One such example is when you have something called “the predicate nominative,” in other words when a phrase does not have a subject and an object but two nominative nouns[14] joined by the verb “to be.”[15] John 1:1 is a good example of this. Others include: John 4:24; Hebrews 1:10 and Mark 2:28.[16]

In such cases, the use of the articular helps us to follow the logical order of the sentence.  This can be very important.[17] In our case, it enables us to say “The Word was God” but not “God was the Word” because the latter would imply that Jesus is not just fully God but that he is the whole or sum total of God.[18] We would lose that distinction between the persons again.

In fact, the grammar here helps us to distinguish carefully between God – describing the Triune God – and “God” – describing one of the persons within the Trinity. Carson puts it this way:

“In fact, if John had included the article he would have been saying something quite untrue.  He would have been so identifying the Word with God that no divine being could exist apart from the Word.”[19]

Now, here’s the second problem.  Read on in John 1 and you discover that The Word is described as the one through whom all things were made.  We are told that nothing was made without him (John 1:3). Now this is very important because there can only be two categories

  1. Created things
  2. Uncreated things

In the first category is everything that has been made.  In the second, there’s only God.  Jesus is put firmly in the second category.  He is not created; he is creator.  In other words, he is God – the one to whom we owe our life.  There isn’t a category in between.

Why it matters that we don’t deny the equality of the persons

The reason that this is so important is that if Jesus is less than fully God, then this throws into question the whole atonement.  Instead of God himself stepping down into history to save us, we have God at a distance who in effect throws another of his creatures to the wolves. Is such a God loving and would such a sacrifice be effective? The answer to these two questions is obviously “no.” This was the conclusion that Athanasius came to all those years ago: that it was necessary and fitting for God to come and live among us as a man.  Without the Trinity, there is no incarnation; without the Incarnation, there is no cross; without the Cross ,there is no forgiveness of Sin and no resurrection and without the resurrection we have no hope (1 Corinthians 15).

[1] Letham, The Holy Trinity, 108.

[2] Letham, The Holy Trinity, 108.

[3] Letham, The Holy Trinity, 108.

[4] A New Eusebius, 321.

[5] A New Eusebius, 323.

[6] A New Eusebius, 323.

[7] A New Eusebius, 325.

[8] Cited in Letham, The Holy Trinity, 116.

[9] Athansius, “Orations Against the Arians 111,” XXIII, 5, 862-863.

[10]  Athanasius, De Incarnatione, s6, 149.

[11]  Athanasius, De Incarnatione, s7, 149-151.

[12]  Athanasius, De Incarnatione, s8, 152-153.

[13] http://www.jw.org/en/publications/bible/nwt/books/john/1/ (cited 30/01/2015).

[14]  A subject-object sentence has a one thing (the subject or nominative) doing something to something else (the object).  Here we have two nominatives related to each other by an equative verb.

[15] Daniel B Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 40.

[16] Wallace, Greek Grammar, 43

[17] Wallace, Greek Grammar, 43

[18] In the same way that 1 John 4:8 tells us that God is love but not that Love is God.

[19] DA Carson, The Gospel According to John (The Pillar New Testament Commentary, Nottingham. Apolllos, 1991), 117.