Craig is a Christian philosopher, and is perhaps the most prolific and public face of intellectual Christian apologetics today. His theology seems to trend Wesleyan, he is not a fan of Reformed soteriology, and he isn’t keen to defend the doctrine of inerrancy. Nevertheless, he is a true Christian believer. More than that he’s a conservative Christian believer.
God has (and is) using Craig in a remarkable way in Christian academia and in presentations to students in the academy. In short, Craig is a brilliant ambassador for Christ in a context many of us don’t have access to. Perhaps his most accessible book for “normal” Christians is On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision.
In his interview with Shapiro, Craig discusses some common apologetic arguments for the existence of God, why he believes the Christian God is the God of the universe, and even provides his own salvation testimony. This is an excellent interview, and Craig does a wonderful job of representing Christ for a worldwide audience. I can’t recommend it highly enough:
In his wonderful book, Fools Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion, Os Guinness spends some time discussing the challenges that thinking Christians face today. One of the most dire, he believes, is from the fraudulent, revisionist perversion of true Christianity within churches:
Many revisionists in the Protestant liberal churches, followed by the extremes of Catholic progressivism and emergent evangelicalism, have reached the point where their thinkers preach “a different gospel,” some of their leaders are hardly recognizable as Christian, and some have joked that they recite the Apostles’ Creed with their fingers crossed …
Some of today’s deadliest challenges to the Christian faith come from within the church itself, yet in many parts of the church Christian apologetics is weak, poorly understood and openly dismissed as an unworthy and a wrong-headed enterprise.
Without faithful and courageous apologists, men and women who are prepared to count the cost, the church is vulnerable to the challenges it faces internally as well as externally. Can there be any question that today’s “grand age of secular apologetics,” which is both post-Christian and pluralistic, is no time for Christians to be voiceless and lacking in persuasion?
If ever there was a time when it was vital for all Christians to be bold and winsome advocates on behalf of their faith, it is now. No one can fail to see the blizzard of challenges sweeping down on the Christian faith today and calling for a clear response.
From questions about the origins of the universe (Leibniz’s “Why is there not nothing?”) to the challenges of scientism, to attacks on the existence of God and the person of Jesus, to the exposure of the sins and hypocrisies of the church, to recurring questions about evil and suffering raised by natural disasters, to the validity and importance of truth, to the contested place of religion in public life, to the purported irrationality and menace of religion of any kind, to the relationship of the Christian faith to other religions and the response of Christians to new technologies and alternative lifestyles—the church faces an unprecedented barrage of questions, challenges and attacks on its core message, its view of the world and its way of life.
Not surprisingly, such grave assaults from the outside have led to serious erosions on the inside too, and all this at a speed and on a scale that is without precedent in Christian history (210-211).
In today’s environment, many “Christians” are moving rapidly towards the exits, anxious to leave the hard truths of the “rule of faith” behind. As soon as it begins to cost something to identify as a Christian, we’ll see the pretenders stop pretending and seek to “revise” the faith. Indeed, Guinness makes the point that the term “revisionist” is much more accurate than “liberal,” (222-223).
He then turned to one important task for Christians today:
Christian advocates, then, must be ready to focus their attention on those inside the church as well as those outside—resisting modern revisionism just as St. Paul resisted ancient Gnosticism and St. Athanasius stood fast against Arianism and the world of his day.
Are today’s evangelists and apologists prepared to count the cost and pick up their crosses again and truly be contra mundum—even to the point of scorn, shame, and perhaps imprisonment and death?
Let there be no misunderstanding: the greatest crisis now facing the church in the West today is the crisis of authority caused by the church’s capitulation to the pressures of the sexual revolution, and in particular to the bullying agenda of the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer coalition.
It will not do for evangelists and apologists to keep silent for fear of losing opportunities to present the gospel. As Luther made plain in his day, to fight the battle at any point other than where the battle is being fought in one’s day is to lose the battle (226).
Guinness’ book isn’t about fighting the culture wars. It’s an encouraging, thought-provoking and profoundly moving book about recovering the lost art of persuasion as a tool for engaging the our friends, neighbors, co-workers and communities with the Gospel. It’s probably the most helpful apologetics book I’ve ever read, but it’s much more than that. I’ll write a full review on it soon.
Ephesians 2:1-9 is a very frank look at what God saved Christians from and about who we really are as people. Are we good people who need help from God? Or, are we rebellious sinners in desperate need of a Savior? For non-Christians, this is a sobering and honest look at sin and their need for Christ. For Christians, this is a reminder of what we’re saved from, and a rebuke to live for God like we ought to. I hope you find you find this little study helpful!
WHO WE REALLY ARE (Eph 2:1-3):
Eph 2:1 – And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins;
Right up front, without any preamble, Paul reminds the Christians in Ephesus that they used to be “dead in trespasses and sins,” (Eph 2:1). This is who we are without Christ; not physically dead but spiritually dead. This runs counter to what we want to believe about ourselves. We want to believe we’re “good” people.
However, what standard, or benchmark, are people using when they describe themselves as “good people?” Who says murder is wrong? Who says stealing purses from old ladies is a bad thing? Who says marriage is a sacred covenant, or agreement, between a man and a woman? Who says it is morally wrong to be unfaithful to your spouse? Without an anchor of som
e sort, some objective benchmark to ground morality and human “goodness,” then we’re left with a purely subjective mess.
Scripture teaches that all of creation was made by God, and more specifically that men and women are made in God’s image (Gen 1:27-28). Being His creatures, God’s standard is the benchmark for morality and behavior. Scripture teaches us that we’re not good people. Our entire concept of human morality is built on God’s word (Rom 2:14-15). God’s word tells us we’re dead in trespasses and sins without Christ.
Again, this isn’t something people like to hear. Many Christians like to deny the idea of “total depravity,” typically out of a sinful desire for autonomy from God or as a visceral reaction against what they perceive as Calvinism. As theologian Michael Horton wrote, “. . . pelagianism is the natural religion of humanity!”  Even compromising Christian counselors deny this doctrine. For example, one prominent Christian counselor boldly declares that his end-goal when assisting people through crisis is to restore self-esteem and instill more self-reliance in the individual!  He even goes so far as to declare:
“Jesus’ ministry was one of helping people achieve fullness of life and assisting them in developing their ability to deal with the problems, conflicts and burdens in life.” 
It is difficult to imagine a more un-Biblical and ridiculous concept of Christ’s ministry. So much for repenting and believing in the Gospel (Mk 1:15)! Self-reliance is what doomed Adam and Eve in the Garden; they chose to follow their desires over God’s command. This has been man’s natural state ever since (Rom 5:12-21); we don’t want to rely on God, we want to rely on ourselves.
Consider what Paul wrote in the Book of Romans:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse,” (Rom 1:18-21).
We can see from Paul’s words that knowledge of God is everywhere, but men hold back, crush down and suppress this truth in unrighteousness. We don’t want to acknowledge that God is there, because then we’re accountable for what he says. Paul went on to paint a clear picture of all people, Jew and Gentile, knowing the truth about God but glorifying themselves instead:
“Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened,” (Rom 1:21).
Also, remember the testimony of Romans 3:9-18, where Paul once again explains the spiritual plight of any unregenerate person, Jew or Gentile. Pay particular attention to these two verses:
“As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one,” (Rom 3:10).
“There is no fear of God before their eyes,” (Rom 3:18).
People are not wandering around, desperately seeking God. Spiritual things are foolish to them. I can recall my own father chiding me with a knowing smile when I was on my way to church one Sunday morning,
“Go ahead and go to church,” he said wistfully. “You’ll soon see there’s nothing to all that nonsense. I figured it out. You will too.”
Paul’s words stand true here; “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned,” (1 Cor 2:14). The fact that any man does seek God is evidence of the Holy Spirit working in your heart
This is what “dead” in trespasses and sins means. It means that unsaved, unregenerate rebel sinners are spiritual corpses. A dead body cannot rise up again! I was a Military Police officer for 10 years and saw many dead bodies in the course of duty; I can assure you none of those bodies was capable of rising up and walking away. They were dead. This is our spiritual condition without Christ; dead and gone without any hope in the world. It means knowing God is there and pushing that knowledge away, crushing it under false hopes, cynicism, etc. Knowing this makes us accountable for our own sin. Our inherent sin places an unbridgeable gap between us and God. Christ came to fill this gap and save sinners who don’t even want to be saved.
Eph 2:2 – Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience:
Paul continues describing the spiritual state of the Ephesian Christians before their salvation. This also describes modern Christians before they were saved by Christ. It describes you right now if you have not been saved by Christ.
People without Christ walk “according to the prince of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air.” Christians used to act this way, and were formerly energized and influenced by Satan. Numerous places in Scripture testify that this “prince of the power of the air” is most certainly Satan himself. In Jn 12:31, Christ discloses that by His death on the cross, Satan will be eventually cast out. His hold on people will be broken.  Likewise, in Jn 16:11, Christ comforts His disciples and promises to send the Holy Spirit as a Counselor or Helper for them after He ascended to the Father. Christ explained the role of the Holy Spirit in a Christian’s life, and said the Holy Spirit convicts men of judgment, because “the prince of this world is judged.”
What Paul says about Satan’s activity is so very important. Satan is “the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.” Notice that Paul describes unsaved, rebellious men and women as “children of disobedience.” The natural man is inherently rebellious against God. Satan is active and working in the lives of people who are unsaved and “the whole world lieth in wickedness,” (1 Jn 5:19). He does the same in a Christian’s life. The critical difference is that a Christian doesn’t belong to him anymore.
Romans 6 brings this out quite clearly. A person belongs in either one of two spiritual spheres; to Satan or God. People are by nature “children of disobedience” and belong to Satan without saving faith in Christ. After salvation, a person’s headship or spiritual ownership transfers to God. This is a legal, forensic decision by Christ to declare believers righteous when He is under no obligation to do so! Do you belong to Satan or God today?
Eph 2:3 – Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.
Paul goes on, describing our actions before salvation. Our “conversation” (or daily conduct) was about the lusts of the flesh. There was little to no thought about God’s standards, our own sin, and repentance for that sin. We lived our own lives for ourselves, not for God who created us. Our goal was to fulfill our own desires of the flesh and the mind. We know when bad and sinful things pop into our minds. We’ve all acted on some of these thoughts and made mistakes we’ve regretted and done things we’re not proud of. All of us know our hearts, and realize we’re sinful people. We all know about this gap between us and God.
Again, Paul makes no apologies for portraying men and men as the rebellious sinners they are. He writes that we are “by nature the children of wrath.” We are born as rebellious sinners, suppressing the truth and knowledge of God. It is our natural state. You and I weren’t born with a disposition to obey God and worship Him as Lord! We were born with a disposition to sinful thoughts and actions, which are opposed to God in every possible way!
“For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not,” (Ecc 7:20).
This doesn’t mean that unsaved people aren’t nice people who do nice things. It does mean that, because of our rebellious, sinful nature, nothing we do gains us any points with God in any way. It is a matter of perspective. It’s a matter of standards.
“Depravity as a doctrine does not stand or fall on the ground of man’s estimation of himself; it rather reflects God’s estimation of man.” 
By our own standards, I like to think I’m a pretty good guy. By God’s standard, I’m a rebellious sinner. We’re not sinners by our actions; we’re sinners by our very nature. This encompasses both thoughts and actions.
WHAT CHRIST DID FOR US (Eph 2:4-6):
Eph 2:4 – But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us,
Eph 2:5 – Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)
Eph 2:6 – And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus:
Think about the significance of this small word, “but.”  God is “rich in mercy.” He didn’t have to provide a way of salvation for us, but He did anyway. He was not obligated to do this. Our just punishment for rebellion is instant destruction. So many Christians have a small conception of our just and Holy God. They emphasize God’s love, but denigrate His holiness and terribly underestimate the depths of human sinfulness. This salvation He provided showed the “great love” He has for us. This is undeserved love. Because we’re spiritually dead to God, His love is shown by the fact that He even bothered with us in the first place. Again, salvation in Christ transfers us from one category to another – from Satan’s control to God’s control. Sin no longer has absolute dominion over a Christian; this is a promise unbelievers cannot claim as their own:
“For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace,” (Rom 6:14).
What does this tell us about God? He is holy, loving and just. We are sinful, rebellious and undeserving people. We should praise His name in every aspect of our lives.
Paul writes that this salvation in Christ “hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus,” (Eph 2:6). He is reminding the Ephesians, and us, about where our future home is. We are strangers and pilgrims on this earth (1 Pet 2:11), ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor 5:20). This world is not our eternal home; our hope is beyond this temporal world:
“For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself,” (Phil 3:20-21).
If we call ourselves Christians, we ought to act and think like it! We don’t have to bring sacrifices to an altar as an offering for God anymore; the ceremonial law has passed away in this dispensation. Instead, Paul tell us our reasonable service is to offer ourselves to God (Rom 12:1). This is the only proper response to the glorious gift of salvation.
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service,” (Rom 12:1).
God desires to be worshipped in spirit and truth (Jn 4:24). Our duty is to try our level best to fulfill this calling, looking forward to glorious eternity when we can do so, without possibility of sin.
WHY HE DID IT (Eph 2:7-9):
Eph 2:7 – That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.
Paul reminds us what God’s entire purpose in human history is. Some people believe the main point, or synopsis, of Scripture is that God saves us from sin. This is man-centered thinking and it is terribly wrong. It isn’t about us; it’s about Him. The entire arc of Scripture is about God bringing about His kingdom for His glory.
Christ’s sacrifice for sinners demonstrated His great love. But what was the point of Christ’s sacrifice? Why did God provide a way of salvation and elect to save anybody at all? For our sake? Surely not! He did it so that it would glorify His name and lead a grateful and undeserving people to worship Him the way we ought to have done all along – the way He deserves to be worshipped. Consider the following Scripture passages which plainly show that God works in human history for His own glory, not our own:
“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise,” (Isa 43:19-21). Isaiah is speaking once again of the future restoration of Israel, for His own sake.
“I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins,” (Isa 43:25). God promises to restore Israel and blot out her former sins for His sake, not theirs.
“And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified,” (Isa 49:3). This is an excerpt from one of the so-called Servant Songs in Isaiah, describing the future work of Christ the Messiah. It is clear that Christ’s work will glorify the Father, not men.
“Therefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord GOD; I do not this for your sakes, O house of Israel, but for mine holy name’s sake, which ye have profaned among the heathen, whither ye went,” (Eze 36:22). Again, this shows why God will act in the future to restore Israel.
Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and our salvation isn’t about us. It’s about God, and the honor and glory due to Him. So few Christians have any idea what the phrase “grace of God” even means. To them, Jesus is a Sunday School character sitting on a green field, surrounded by fluffy white sheep with a child on His lap and a dove floating above Him in the sky! Christians must be committed to really deepen their faith and move beyond crayon Christianity and really understand and appreciate who God is, and reorient our lives to show it.
Eph 2:8 – For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
Eph 2:9 – Not of works, lest any man should boast.
We are saved by grace through faith, which is unmerited or undeserved favor. Salvation is a gift from God, and Christians did not earn or deserve this gift in any way. I’ll turn from Ephesians at this point, and briefly discuss what the Gospel actually is. I’ve referenced it enough in this little paper, and it must be heard.
I believe there is one verse from the Gospel of Mark that is the clearest, most comprehensive passage on salvation in the Scripture:
“Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel,” (Mk 1:14-15).
This is the simplest Gospel verse in the Bible. Salvation isn’t a fast food menu where anybody can pick what they like. You can’t pick and choose from a potpourri of man-made religions, choose whichever suits you best and receive your own version of salvation when you roll forward to the pick-up window. God does not present an inclusivist view in Scripture:
“Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me,” (Jn 14:6).
“Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved,” (Acts 4:12).
Salvation entails both repentance and belief, or saving faith. Repentance means a change of mind (1 Thess 1:9). This involves a turn away from sin (Heb 6:1; Rev 9:21) and towards God (Acts 20:21). It is also so much more than mere regret. Repentance is genuine sorrow for one’s sin, accompanied by a resolution to turn from it. It is sorrow for one’s sin because of the wrong done to God and the hurt inflicted upon Him. In other words, there must be a real alteration of the inner person. This is the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in men’s hearts; Ezekiel described this process as God changing a heart of stone to a heart of flesh (Eze 11:19-20).
Salvation is also about believing in the Gospel, placing saving faith in Christ. Saving faith is understanding what Christ did for you in an intellectual and emotional way, and acting on it. It is more than some cold, intellectual understanding. “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble,” (Jas 2:19).
It does include intellectual understanding (e.g. “Christ is the Son of God!”). However, it also includes emotional understanding (e.g. “Christ died for my sins!”). And finally, it is voluntary action (“I will trust Christ as my Lord and Savior!”).
We cannot save ourselves. Dead people can’t do much of anything. Dead men can’t cooperate with God in salvation, in some kind of ridiculous synergistic fashion. We are totally dependent on the grace of God for our salvation, and I wish more preachers would bring this marvelous truth out. Praise Him that He provided Christ for sinners. He didn’t have to.
1. Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims Along on Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 561.
2. H. Norman Wright, The Complete Guide to Crisis & Trauma Counseling: What To Do And Say When It Matters Most! (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2011), 183.
3. Ibid, 24.
4. Edwin A. Blum, John, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John Walvoord and Roy Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1983), 318. “The Cross was also the means of Satan’s defeat. The prince of this world, Jesus said, will be driven out. His power over people by sin and death was defeated and they can now be delivered out of his domain of spiritual darkness and slavery to sin.”
5. Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1976), 7:119. “Theologians employ the phrase total depravity, which does not mean that there is nothing good in any unregenerate person as seen by himself or other people; it means that there is nothing in fallen man which God can find pleasure in or accept.” Emphasis mine.
6. Ibid, 2:219.
7. Grateful for this insight to John Phillips, Exploring Ephesians & Philippians (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1993), 63.
8. Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John Walvoord and Roy Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1983), 623. “Since sinners are spiritually dead toward God, they have nothing to commend them to God. This is why Paul described this love as being ‘great.’ ”
9. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 950.
It is a common challenge from unbelievers to demand a sign from God. People are so stubborn and rebellious in their sins, so determined to suppress their knowledge of His existence that the more bold among their number scoff, chortle and say something like, “If God is real, then why doesn’t He show Himself, here and now!”
This was the challenge atheist Edward Tabash gave to Greg Bahnsen during a long ago debate on the existence of God:
Greg Bahnsen’s response was classic:
Scripture tells us that even when He does show Himself by a divine sign, the people still demand more. God led the Israelites out of Egypt in a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night (Ex 13:21-22). Later, Moses led them out of Sinai, the Lord showed Himself by means of a pillar of cloud by day, whenever they set out from camp (Num 10:34). What more obvious of a sign of od’s presence and protection did the Israelites require!? If men were ever going to be satisfied with a visible sign from God, surely this would do. Alternating supernatural appearances of a pillar of fire and cloud would convince anybody, if men were willing to be convinced!
However, Scripture doesn’t give an account of covenant bliss on the march from Sinai. Instead of taking comfort from God’s presence and protection, the Israelites complained. Yes, that’s right – complained.
Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at (Num 11:4-6).
This was wholesale rejection of God and a lack of faith in His provision. They regretted leaving Egypt (Num 11:20). Their regret meant they had rejected God Himself (Num 11:20). Later, in the New Testament, the Pharisees echoed Edward Tabash by demanding Christ give them a sign from heaven (Mk 8:11-13). This is not a new phenomenon. Likewise, we can rest assured that even if God did condescend to provide a visible sign, people would either not believe it or contemptuously dismiss it out of hand.
What is so tragic about all of this is that God’s handiwork can be seen everywhere, all around us. His design and continual care for His creation are obvious;
For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse (Rom 1:20).
People won’t come to saving knowledge of Jesus Christ by beholding some wondrous sign from God. He has given us His final revelation in Scripture. Saving faith will come only after people are convicted and convinced of their own sin, and the atoning work of Jesus Christ (Jn 14:6). This conviction will only come by the drawing of the Holy Spirit, by the eternal plan of God (Jn 6:65). Like the valley of dry bones from Ezekiel, we are unable to give ourselves life and stand on our own (Eze 37).
People don’t need signs, and wouldn’t believe them anyway. Christians should busy themselves with explaining the Gospel and trusting the Holy Spirit to do His work in people’s hearts.
Very good, short (20:00 min) lecture on some reasons why we can trust the Gospels over and against the false, gnostic gospels. If you have a few minutes, this will be time well spent. The man lecturing is Peter J. Williams, Warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge, UK:
How well do you know the doctrine of the Trinity? Could you explain, from the Scriptures, that Jesus was God? Could you explain how the Christian understanding of Christ as God doesn’t make us tri-thiests, or people who believe in three Gods?
Watch the video below, a short five minute clip from a Unitarian who believes Jesus was a created being, and not a person of the Godhead. This video is heresy!Could you answer his argument? After the video, see a short explanation on the historical development of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity!
What you just watched was heresy. Now, I’ll give a short account of how the orthodox Trinitarian doctrine developed:
How the Doctrine of the Trinity Developed
When you consider “how the teaching of the Trinity developed,” it is important to understand that we are not talking about how men made up this doctrine. We’re talking about the struggle to precisely put into words the body of faith received from Christ and His disciples. This oral tradition, or body of faith, had acted as a conduit for correct doctrine and had eventually been set down in writing at the prompting of the Holy Spirit (1 Pet 1:21). So, we’re not discussing how men made this doctrine up, but how they struggled to precisely synthesize and define a doctrine clearly taught in the Scriptures.
There are five basic phases in the historical development of the Triune God, each often overlapping with one another; the economic concept, dynamic monarchism, modalism, Arianism and orthodoxy. The very early church in general did not concern itself with deep theological reflection; therefore these various heretical doctrines generally emerged in conflict with orthodoxy in the mid to late 2nd century and early 3rd century. The church was chiefly concerned with basic survival amidst intense periods of persecution. “The process of organizing itself and propagating the faith and even the struggle for survival in a hostile world precluded much serious doctrinal reflection.”
This economic development dealt with the roles of the specific persons of the Godhead rather than the ontological development and its implications. Early church fathers who developed the economic concept include Hippolytus, Tertullian and Justin Martyr. Their conclusion was that God consists of one identical substance which is extended into three distinct manifestations.
Justin Martyr, writing in the mid 2nd century likened this to one fire kindled from another; “which is not lessened when it has kindled [another], but remains the same; and that which has been kindled by it likewise appears to exist by itself, not diminishing that from which it was kindled.”
Tertullian, writing sometime between 197-217 A.D., characterized this as a unity of substance and remarked,
Even when the ray is shot from the sun, it is still part of the parent mass; the sun will still be in the ray, because it is a ray of the sun—there is no division of substance, but merely an extension.
Tertullian went on, “the material matrix remains entire and unimpaired, though you derive from it any number of shoots possessed of its qualities.”
Tertullian actually formulated the concept of later orthodoxy, “one essence in three persons” in his attack on modalism. In his polemic on Praxeas, written no earlier than 208 A.D., he wrote again of a unity of substance which was distributed into a Trinity;
placing in their order the three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and [l3] aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
This economic concept of the Trinity is orthodox but incomplete. Erickson lamented about a “certain vagueness” in the economic concept of the Trinity. “Any effort to come up with a more exact understanding of just what it means will prove disappointing.”
This concept was an attempt by the early church to actually define the relationship between Christ and God. The main proponent of monarchism was Theodotus, who brought the doctrine to Rome about 190 A.D. He sought to preserve the supremacy of God the Father at the expense of God the Son. Jesus was not really God; God was simply working through Him.
Theodotus “did not deny Christ’s birth from a virgin . . . but he did deny his divinity, teaching that he was a mere man upon whom the Holy Spirit descended at the time of his baptism, in consequence of which he became the Christ, received power to fulfill his special mission and by his righteousness was raised above all other men. The descent of the Holy Spirit, however, although raising him to a very exalted position, did not make him divine.”
The concept was that Christ was elevated to an exalted position, a sort of “moral oneness” with God.
A key proof-text for this concept was 1 Cor 5:19, where Paul wrote “in Christ God was reconcilingthe world to himself.” Christ was not divine; God was simply using Christ as the means to achieve His ends. This view was condemned by the Christian community. Dionysius, the Bishop of Rome from approximately 259-263 A.D., held monarchist views. Eusebius recorded that Dionysius held, “contrary to the teaching of the Church, low and degraded views of Christ, namely, that in his nature he was a common man.” The catholic church (in the original sense of the term) moved energetically to combat this heresy, summoning Dionysius to a council to explain himself. Eusebius contemptuously referred to him as “a despoiler of the flock of Christ.” Monarchism was never a widespread movement and was a relatively isolated phenomenon.
Erickson wrote that modalism was “a genuinely unique, original and creative conception . . . a brilliant breakthrough.” It advocated the view that God was really just one person with three different names, roles or activities. Father, Son and the Holy Spirit are identical, successive revelations of the same person. Like a skilled thespian, God simply plays different roles at different times.
Tertullian, writing his treatise against Praxeas sometime after 208 A.D., observed dryly, “Praxeas did a twofold service for the devil at Rome: he drove away prophecy, and he brought in heresy.” Tertullian boldly claimed that Satan himself was working through Praxeas in his modalistic interpretation of the Trinity. “Out of this doctrine of the unity he may fabricate a heresy. He says that the Father Himself came down into the Virgin, was Himself born of her, Himself suffered, indeed was Himself Jesus Christ.” He went on to state,
So it is either the Father or the Son, and the day is not the same as the night; nor is the Father the same as the Son, in such a way that Both of them should be One, and One or the Other should be Both.
Employing a legal tactic of positing and answering modalistic objections, Tertullian continued,
Well, but “with God nothing is impossible.” True enough; who can be ignorant of it? Who also can be unaware that “the things which are impossible with men are possible with God?” The foolish things also of the world hath God chosen to confound the things which are wise.” We have read it all. Therefore, they argue, it was not difficult for God to make Himself both a Father and a Son, contrary to the condition of things among men. For a barren woman to have a child against nature was no difficulty with God; nor was it for a virgin to conceive. Of course nothing is “too hard for the Lord.
But if we choose to apply this principle so extravagantly and harshly in our capricious imaginations, we may then make out God to have done anything we please, on the ground that it was not impossible for Him to do it. We must not, however, because He is able to do all things suppose that He has actually done what He has not done.
The modalistic conception of the Trinity was indeed novel. It solved any number of problems; both the unity of the Godhead and the full deity of all three persons are perfectly preserved by it. Ultimately, however, Scripture condemned this heresy to the flames. Too many texts spoke far too explicitly of the Trinity as distinct persons for the church to accept; such as Christ’s baptism, Christ speaking of the coming of the Spirit and His prayers that were specifically addressed to the Father.
The Arians, like the modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses, went a different route. Christ, they asserted, was not equal with God or even God at all – He was a creature brought into being by God. They felt that elevating Christ to the level of God the Father was, in effect, abandoning monotheism. They went further than the monarchists by emphatically declaring Christ was no more than a mere creature. However, from the beginning the church had worshipped Christ as God! The stage was set for a divisive battle. Athanasius considered Arianism to be a “harbinger of the Antichrist” and the daughter of Satan. Summarizing their teaching, he wrote,
God was not always a Father; but once God was alone, and not yet a Father, but afterwards He became a Father. The Son was not always; for, whereas all things were made out of nothing, and all existing creatures and works were made, so the Word of God Himself was made out of nothing, and once He was not, and He was not before His origination, but He as others had an origin of creation.
The church was quite rightly concerned with condoning the worship of a mere man. Athanasius wrote against the Arian heresy with great enthusiasm, judging it to be a theology which had been “vomited forth” and was at odds with Scripture and “alien to the divine oracle.” Arians took Proverbs 8:22-23 as one of their primary proof-texts; “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.” The Arians examined texts such as this and others and concluded it may be appropriate to call Christ a god, but he was certainly not the same as God the Father. Arias himself explained,
God himself is inexpressible to all beings. He alone has none equal to him or like him, none of like glory. We call him unbegotten on account of the one who by nature is begotten; we sing his praises as without beginning because of the one who has a beginning. We worship him as eternal because of him who was born in the order of time. The one without beginning established the Son as the beginning of all creatures.
Therefore, according to Arians, Christ Himself could not even fathom God’s essence. He was a mere creature; an exalted creature, to be sure – but a creature nonetheless. Church historian Justo Gonzalez summarized by observing, “if asked to draw a line between God and creation, Arians would draw that line so as to include the Word in creation.”
The Arian heresy prompted the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., the first ever ecumenical council of the early church. Prior to Nicea, church disputes had been settled over time with long debate culminating with an eventual consensus. After the conversion of Constantine, for the first time the authority of the state was invoked to settle a theological issue. Advocates of particular viewpoints could, for the very first time, forsake lengthy explanations of their positions in favor of simply convincing imperial authority. “Eventually, theological debate was eclipsed by political intrigue.”
Arianism began as a local conflict in Alexandria, Egypt. The Bishop of Alexandria, Alexander, was in vehement disagreement with Arias, who was one of the most famous presbyters of the city. Alexander eventually condemned Arias and removed him from all official positions in Alexandrian church. Arias, refusing to meekly fade from the scene, appealed to the common people of Alexandria and other Bishops from throughout the East for support. Arias was quite successful; people marched in the streets chanting Arian dogma and various Bishops wrote letters in support. The Eastern church was in turmoil.
Constantine, who had recently established Christianity as the state religion, resolved that he must act. He decided to call a council of Bishops from the entire empire to settle this matter, among others. Arias, not being a Bishop himself, was forbidden to attend. He counted on Eusebius of Nocomedia to present his views. Eusebius (not to be confused with the historian) resolved to simply explain the matter, certain that all opposition would fade away in light of the remorseless logic of Arianism. Eusebius’ oration did not go well.
The assertion that the Word or Son was no more than a creature, no matter how high a creature, provoked angry reactions from many of the bishops: ‘You lie!’ ‘Blasphemy!’ ‘Heresy!’ Eusebius was shouted down, and we are told his speech was snatched from his hand, torn to shreds, and trampled underfoot.
The result of this controversy, the Nicene Creed, is emphatically anti-Arian and takes great pains to emphasize the deity of Christ;
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead.
In the Nicene Creed the early church provided a clear and unambiguous affirmation of the full deity of all three persons of the Godhead, while at the same time maintaining their distinct roles in the economic Trinity.
The doctrine received further refinement at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. where the common phrase “three in one” was coined; the very essence of the orthodox concept of the triunity of God. He is not triple, but three in one.
 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 358-360. Erickson omits a discussion of Arianism.