On Divine Persons and Three-Headed Dogs

On Divine Persons and Three-Headed Dogs

This series of more academic articles are the fruit of my own study about divine Personhood in the Trinity. Eventually, I will make more popular versions for “normal” people. For those who, after reading this article, are on tenterhooks wondering what my own framework is, see this sermon I preached on Trinity Sunday 2020.

It’s not partisan to declare that social trinitarianism abandons Nicene concepts of divine Personhood.[1] It does. It adopts a completely different framework. Many non-confessional evangelicals likely adopt it unwittingly.

With one exception, the most influential social trinitarians are not widely read in evangelical circles; certainly not by the average seminary-trained pastor. They are Jurgen Moltmann,[2] Leonardo Boff,[3] Wolfhart Pannenberg,[4] Robert Jenson[5] and Millard Erickson.[6]Pannenberg’s influence is profound; Erickson, Jenson and William L. Craig each studied under him.

Is revision allowed?

First, we need to decide whether it’s possible to put a new framework on biblical truth. Millard Erickson suggests three ways to contextualize theology:[7]

  1. To transplant. You simply state the message using biblical categories, and do no contextualization at all
  2. To transform. The faith needs to be “updated” for modern times, and truth is not found in outdated doctrines.
  3. To translate. “The translators attempt to say what the Bible would say if it were being written to us in our present situation.”[8]

Erickson is a translator, and his social trinitarianism is an example of him doing just that.[9] If you believe it’s possible to re-frame theology in contemporary terms, if necessary re-working allegedly outmoded frameworks while retaining “timeless truth,”[10] then you’ll be open to accepting a re-framing of divine personhood in the Trinity.

What do these social trinitarians do with “personhood?”

A new framework

The first thing to note is a dissatisfaction with the classical understanding of Person.[11] Robert Jenson, for example, rejects divine simplicity as incoherent.[12] He dismisses Augustine’s thinking on the trinity,[13] claiming he was undone by “the old dissonance between the metaphysical principles of the Greeks and the storytelling of the Gospel.”[14] If the Persons are just active subjects of the same, identical nature, then it does not matter which Person does what. It’s irrelevant. Jenson criticizes Augustine, who admitted as much.[15] The classical doctrine has Father, Son and Spirit as the same Being, so all their actions are the same action. The Persons do not merely work together, they do the same thing. Their actions are indivisible.[16]

How, then, can we know the Persons at all!? Pannenberg observed that the idea of “person” seems to requirean individual subsistence, but this is “not compatible with the unity of divine essence.”[17]

So, social trinitarians argue, we must cast aside the straightjacket of Greek metaphysics and see the Persons as scripture sees them.[18] The answer, Jenson argues, is in the Cappadocian scheme of perichoresis and unity of action.[19] The Persons don’t perform the same action, but the same thing together. If there is no meaningful self-distinction within the Godhead, Jenson insists, then we are really speaking nonsense. We’re inventing formulas without meaning, and that makes dogma useless.[20]

What is a person?

So, we have a quest to define “person” more precisely; to put flesh on what is otherwise an alleged abstraction. Leonardo Boff is one such pilgrim.[21] Pointing to John 14:11 and 17:21, he sees divine Personhood as defined by an “I + Thou” relationship:

… a knot of relationships, an identity formed and completed on the basis of relationships with others … Interiority (consciousness in its ontological aspect) and openness to the other (freedom and ethical dimension) constitute the mode of being proper to a person.”[22]

Pannenberg explains:

If the trinitarian relations among Father, Son, and Spirit have the form of mutual self-distinction, they must be understood not merely as different modes of being of one divine subject but as living realizations of separate centers of action.[23]

The classical position, remember, sees the divine Persons as active subjects of the same nature. Consciousness, will, emotion (etc.) all each proper to a nature, not a person. The Father does not think one thing, while the Son thinks another. The Son does not will one thing, and the Spirit another. There is no individual self-consciousness. Everything is collective, because the Persons are the same Being.  

Social trinitarians say no. Each Person has his own will and self-consciousness. The old, stale view of Personhood is “merely an item of linguistic debris knocked from Hellenistic philosophy by collision with Yahweh.”[24]

“A person,” Boff declares, “is a subject existing as a centre of autonomy, gifted with consciousness and freedom.”[25] But, in the closeness of their union, they are really one:

the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three intelligent and free subjects; but they possess the same intelligence and the same will, like a triangle with three angles but only one area. All three Persons affirm themselves as an ‘I,’ not in order to close in on themselves, but in order to give themselves to the other two. What emerges is a real psychological perichoresis.[26]

Boff explains he does not reject the classical position; he “develops and completes it.”

since there are not three consciousnesses there, but only one … At most we can say that in the Trinity there is one substantial consciousness (nature) which is really expressed by three divine, conscious beings (Persons). What we can say is that, analogically, each divine Person is a center of interiority and freedom, whose raison d’etre (nature) consists in being always in relation to the other Persons.”[27]

His contribution is that he sees a divine Person as more than a particular active subject of the divine nature; more than even a specific, unique existence of the divine nature. He emphasizes the personal, conscious, relational aspect of each to the other in the same nature through perichoresis. Jenson suggests we drop person and use the term identity; “there are three identities in God …”[28]

Jurgen Moltmann believes it is a strawman to say social trinitarians believe in a “modern” understanding of Personhood. Critics like Karl Rahner, he charges, are actually imputing a caricature of extreme individualism.[29] Instead, real “personhood” can only truly be defined as an individual in relationship with others; “the ‘I’ can only be understood stood in the light of the ‘Thou’ – that is to say, it is a concept of relation. Without the social relation there can be no personality.”[30] Pannenberg warns that, if the only way you can distinguish the Persons is by their manner of origin, then “one cannot do justice to the reciprocity in the relations.”[31]

In this way, social trinitarians have re-framed the doctrine of God. However, to Moltmann, because the classical position understands the Persons as merely active subjects of the same nature, this means God communicates only with Himself in an internal, self-dialogue. There is no “I + Thou” conversation; there is only the one subject speaking to Himself. There is no community. Interpersonal relationships with the Trinity are surrendered. Man looks to God for a communal example and can only become “turned inwards and solitary,”[32] for God speaks only to Himself, about Himself.

So, Moltmann flatly denies that the Persons are the same identical essence.

If we search for a concept of unity corresponding to the biblical testimony of the triune God, the God who unites others with himself, then we must dispense with both the concept of the one substance and the concept of the identical subject.[33]

Moltmann points to the imago dei for support. “A person is only God’s image in fellowship with other people.”[34] Many theologians, independent of this controversy, have agreed.[35] Accordingly, the Persons must relate to one another in a real “I + Thou” relationship. This means the Persons must have individual self-distinction, intelligence, consciousness and will.

Thus Erickson, the one conservative evangelical proponent of social trinitarianism, suggests the Trinity must be understood as a society of persons.[36]

In union with each other

How do social trinitarians avoid tri-theism? Through perichoresis, a doctrine first formulated in the East by the Cappadocian Fathers. The Persons are united without confusion and mutually indwell one another without any blending or mingling, without change or division. Erickson calls perichoresis the “guard against tritheism.”[37]

If God is love (1 Jn 4:8), then He must be more than one person. Love needs an object. “Thus, if there were not multiplicity in the person of the Godhead, God could not really be love prior to this creation of other subjects.”[38] Unlike human persons, however, the Trinity is incorporeal and has no spatial limitations that hinder interpersonal relations. Their union is such that there are no separate experiences and so none of the typical barriers to perfect love. Nor is there any self-centeredness.[39]

Moltmann likens this union to a “circulation of eternal divine life.”[40] He explains that “[b]y virtue of their eternal love they live in one another to such an extent, and dwell in one another to such an extent, that they are one.”[41] There is not one subject; there is only “the living fellowship of the three Persons who are related to one another and exist in one another. Their unity does not lie in the one lordship of God; it is to be found in the unity of their tri-unity.”[42] Erickson, echoing Moltmann, explains the Persons “are so intimately linked and intertwined that they are unable to live apart from one another. Each supplies life to the others. What they do, although it may be primarily the work of one of them, is done together.”[43]

He suggests we stop thinking of God as metaphysically simple and consider Him as an organism; a union.[44] In a similar fashion, Pannenberg describes God’s essence as a “single constellation.”[45] No Person can exist without the other; “[n]one has the power of life within itself alone.”[46] Boff notes, “[t]heir relationship is one of reciprocal participation rather than production and procession.”[47] This abolishes the classical doctrines of eternal generation and procession. Yet, Moltmann avers, without this “perichoretic unity, then Arianism and Sabellianism remain inescapable threats to Christian theology.”[48]

Indeed, Moltmann contends that this perichoresis of three individual centers of self-conscious Persons is the only way to make sense of salvation history.[49] All ideas of subordinationism are now gone; the concept “has no validity within the eternal circulation of the divine life.”[50] Each Person eternally brings glory to the other in this circulation.[51]


Following the classical model, we recall that Donald Bloesch proposes the analogy of the Trinity as different dimensions of the same space; height, width and depth.[52] The dimensions, though real, are distinct aspects of the one shape. If the dimensions had independent status, you would have three shapes. But, you do not have three shapes. You have one shape with three facets.

Social trinitarians cry foul and see this as modalism by any other name. William Craig is a social trinitarian. In perhaps the very worst analogy in the history of the Church, he offers up the analogy of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards Hades, to explain the Trinity.[53] In a more responsible fashion, Erickson suggests the idea of the human organism consisting of heart, brain and lungs. Each is distinct, but not separable. Each depends on the other for existence. They can only exist together as a unit. They share the same life. He also proposes the analogy of Siamese twins who share the same organs. There are two, but also one.[54]

We close by returning to Erickson’s notion of “translating” doctrine. Can it be done? Donald Bloesch, independent of this issue, warns, “We can and must avail ourselves of philosophical concepts, but we must not let these concepts rule our thinking. We must always be prepared to modify them and perhaps set them aside as new light breaks forth from God’s holy word.”[55] If this be true, have social trinitarians done it here?

Barth warns that, if you have three separate objects of worship, you have three gods.[56] In denying the Persons’ numerical identity of essence (homoousia), is this what the social view hath wrought?

It is time for thinking Christians, especially pastors, to decide what “Person” means. Unfortunately, most don’t know it’s an issue. One may be right to stand in opposition to Church doctrine that is nearly 1600 years old. But, you should at least do it consciously!

A special thanks to my friend, Tito Lyro (Pastor, Bible Presbyterian Church, Olympia, WA and President of Western Reformed Seminary, Lakewood, WA) for reviewing this article!

[1] Robert Letham declares, “The idea of social Trinitarianism is alien to the classic doctrine, for which the unity and indivisibility of the Trinity, together with the inseparable works of God, are axiomatic,” (The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, revised ed. [Phillipsburg: P&R, 2019; Kindle ed.], KL 386).

[2] Jurgen Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom, trans. Margaret Kohl (reprint; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993; Kindle ed.). 

[3] Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, trans. Paul Burns (reprint; Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2005).  

[4] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991).

[5] See both The Triune Identity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1982) and Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). 

[6] Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995). Erickson did postdoctoral studies under Pannenberg and dedicated his Christian Theology (in part) to him.

[7] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013; Kindle ed.) KL 1681-1842. 

[8] Erickson, Christian Theology, KL 1771.

[9] In addition to Erickson’s God in Three Persons, see his other two monographs on Theology Proper and Christology in which he goes his own way on a number of issues; (1) God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998; Kindle ed.), and (2) The Word Became Flesh (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991). 

[10] “… the really crucial task of theology will be to identify the timeless truths, the essence of the doctrines, and to separate them from the temporal form in which they were expressed, so that a new form may be created,” (Erickson, Christian Theology, KL 1842).

[11] Robert Jenson believes that, had the gospel been birthed in a culture other than one steeped in Greek thought, then the Church would have used a different framework for understanding God. “The fathers did not, as is still often supposed, hellenize the evangel; they labored to evangelize their own antecedent Hellenism, and succeeded remarkably if not fully,” (Systematic, 90). 

[12] Jenson, Systematic, 110-114. 

[13] “Augustine imported Eastern doctrine, interpreted it according to his lights, and passed on the result … he was mostly blind to Athanasius’ and the Cappadocians’ specific achievement, and where he saw it he rejected it,” (Jenson, Systematic, 110-111). 

[14] Jenson, Systematic, 112. 

[15] Jenson, Systematic, 111.

[16] Augustine, “On the Trinity,” 15.5, in NPNF1, 14 vols. (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1887), vol. 1.3. “He who is sent is not therefore less than He who sends because the one sent, the other was sent; since the Trinity, which is in all things equal, being also equally in its own nature unchangeable, and invisible, and everywhere present, works indivisibly.” Emphasis added.

[17] Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:286. 

[18] “To find a basis for the doctrine of the Trinity we must begin with the way in which Father, Son, and Spirit come on the scene and relate to one another in the event of relevation,” (Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:299). 

[19] Robert Letham has a good initial definition but, as a classical trinitarian, he shows his cards in his description: “The mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Trinity in the one being of God. In social Trinitarianism, the word is used in a quite different way, to claim that the three hypostases are like three human persons engaged in a dance around one another, a development hinting at tritheism,” (Holy Trinity, KL 11553). It is not an accident that theologians allow no wiggle-room on the issue of divine Personhood; it goes to the heart of who God is.

[20] Jenson, Systematic, 113. 

[21] Boff, Trinity and Society, 118ff. 

[22] Boff, Trinity and Society, 89. 

[23] Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:319. 

[24] Jenson, Triune Identity, 108. 

[25] Boff, Trinity and Society, 115.

[26] Boff, Trinity and Society, 116. 

[27] Boff, Trinity and Society, 89. 

[28] Jenson, Triune Identity, 111. 

[29] “What Rahner calls `our secular use of the word person’ has nothing in common with modern thinking about the concept of persons. What he describes is actually extreme individualism: everyone is a self-possessing, self-disposing centre of action which sets itself apart from other persons,” (Jurgen Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom KL 2133-2134).

[30] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2135-2136.

[31] Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:319.

[32] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2290.        

[33] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2199-2200. 

[34] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2277.

[35] Robert Reymond quotes Charles Hodge approvingly, who believed the imago dei consisted in both knowledge of God and moral rectitude toward one’s neighbor. The fall ruined both our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationship with our neighbors (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, revised ed. [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998], 429). To be in the image of God includes the concept of relationship.

Erickson takes a structural view and explains that God made us a certain way in order to fulfill the relationships He meant us to have. “Humanity qua humanity has a nature encompassing all that constitutes personality or selfhood: intelligence, will, emotions. This is the image in which humans were created, enabling them to have the divinely intended relationship to God and to fellow humans, and to exercise dominion,” (Christian Theology, KL 10321).

[36] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 221ff. 

[37] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 228-238. 

[38] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 221. 

[39] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 223-225. 

[40] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2548. 

[41] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2547-2548. 

[42] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2558-2560. 

[43] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 234-235. 

[44] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 231, 264. 

[45] Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:359. 

[46] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 264. 

[47] Boff, Trinity and Society, 145; see 145-147. 

[48] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2208-2211. 

[49] “For this trinitarian history is nothing other than the eternal perichoresis of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in their dispensation of salvation, which is to say in their opening of themselves for the reception and unification of the whole creation. The history of salvation is the history of the eternally living, triune God who draws us into and includes us in his eternal triune life with all the fullness of its relationships. It is the love story of the God whose very life is the eternal process of engendering, responding and blissful love. God loves the world with the very same love which he is in himself,” (Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2300-2303).

[50] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2562. 

[51] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2567-2568. “The Persons of the Trinity make one another shine through that glory, mutually and together. They glow into perfect form through one another and awake to perfected beauty in one another.”

[52] Donald Bloesch, God the Almighty (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), 186. 

[53] William L. Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 593. 

[54] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 233-234. 

[55] Bloesch, God the Almighty, 35. 

[56] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 1.1, trans. G. W. Bromiley, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), 349.

Modalism Redux? The Concept of “Personhood” in Classical Trinitarianism

Modalism Redux? The Concept of “Personhood” in Classical Trinitarianism

This series of more academic articles are the fruit of my own study about divine Personhood in the Trinity. Eventually, I will make more popular versions for “normal” people. For those who, after reading this article, are on tenterhooks wondering what my own framework is, see this sermon I preached on Trinity Sunday 2020.

The doctrine of the Trinity tells us there is “One Being, three Persons.” Of course, it’s more complicated than all that, but we’ll leave it there. In this definition, what is a “person?” That’s a hard question. Two main views are common today; the classical model and the social model. The Church has traditionally held to the classical view. However, if you ask the right questions, you’ll likely find most Christians actually believe in the social model.

Why does this matter? Well, because it’s probably the most practical question you can ask about the Trinity! If the Scriptures show us three Persons who relate to one another in the Gospels, it’s important to know what “Person” means. If you hear “Person” and think of an autonomous individual with his own self-consciousness and will, then you don’t believe in the classical view, you’re at odds with all the great creeds of the Church, and you’ve abandoned the Nicene and post-Nicene understanding of God. Depending on who you ask, you may be a heretic.

Are you interested, now? 

Classical view of personhood

The Church has done most of the heavy lifting about divine Personhood in the context of Christology, so we ought to begin there. That first Christmas, the divine Son added a human nature to His divine nature. That’s why we confess that Jesus is one divine Person with two natures.[1]

How does this help us? It helps us by defining the terms “person” and “nature.” The latter is the seat of the will, mind, emotion and self-consciousness. The former is the active subject or owner of a nature. Think of a “person” as the engine that actuates a nature. The nature gives shape and color to a person, who is simply the active subject who animates or gives life to the nature.[2]

This is why, for example, the Church believes Jesus has two wills; because “will” belongs to a nature.[3] Jesus the Person acts in accordance with the will of either nature. Most Christians aren’t used to this kind of metaphysical thinking, but there it is. I won’t explain the long and difficult road the Church traveled to reach these conclusions from Scripture; a good historical theology text can do that for me.[4]

If this definition of “Person” is sound, and we have the host of Christological creeds to assure us that it is, then we know a “Person” is simply the active subject of a nature. But, God is “One Being, three Persons.” So, now we have a metaphysical conundrum. Because they’re “Persons,” are Father, Son and Spirit different active subjects of the same divine nature?

The classical position says they are.

The Church says Father, Son and Spirit share the same substance, nature or being. The Nicaean Creed says Christ is “of one substance [essence] with the Father.”[5] But, here’s the catch; the Church doesn’t understand this to mean that Father, Son and Spirit share the same category of class of “deity.” I’m a human being. You’re a human being. So, we’re each human. We share the attribute of “humanhood.”

That’s not what the Church believes about the Father and the Son.

The Church believes Father and Son are the same Being, and thus have the same essence, energy and concord of mind. They are, quite literally, identical (“I do not say similar, but identical”) and so these three Persons “have one and the same movement.”[6]

This distinction, that Christ was not a similar essence but literally the same essence as the Father, was the flashpoint for decades of bitter theological combat.[7] It’s the basis for every orthodox Church creed of any denominational flavor. We’ve already seen Nicaea. Here are a few more:

  • 1647 Westminster Confession; 2.3: “In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance …”[8]
  • 1561 Belgic Confession; Article 8: “we believe in one only God, who is one single essence, in which are three persons …”[9]
  • 1530 Augsburg Confession, Article 1: “there is one divine essence which is called and is God, eternal, without body, indivisible …”[10]
  • 39 Articles of the Church of England, Article 1: “in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance …”[11]

God is not divisible. God is One. This is why you’ve likely heard your pastor say that each Person is fully God in and of Himself. The Son is not 1/3 God, etc. In a way that’s beyond understanding, each Person is fully God because each Person is the same, identical essence. In the words of these same creeds, God is simple or indivisible.

Long ago, Augustine explained “the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit intimate a divine unity of one and the same substance in an indivisible equality; and therefore that they are not three Gods, but one God.”[12] There has always been one God. And, the Son isn’t a creature. This means, by default, He must be of the same numerical substance with the Father.[13]

Words basically fail us at this point as we seek to express the inexpressible. Augustine famously said that we use these terms because we don’t know what else to say![14] John of Damascus lamented that these things are “dimly understood,” but advised “we cannot do else than express ourselves according to our limited capacity.”[15] R.C. Sproul, commenting on the excerpt from the Westminster Confession we saw above, explained:

The subsistences, or persons, are more than offices, more than modes, more than activities, more than masks, and more than ways of appearing. The church historically has said that we do not understand how God is three in one. But we do understand that He is not three gods, and that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all divine.”[16]

How to tell ‘em apart?

It’s clear the main conceptual problem is how to distinguish the Persons if they are, in fact, the same Being. The Church has done this by highlighting incommunicable, unique characteristics each Person has that the others do not. John of Damascus explains:

For in these hypostatic or personal properties alone do the three holy subsistences differ from each other, being indivisibly divided not by essence but by the distinguishing mark of their proper and peculiar subsistence.[17]

These distinctions are:[18]

  • Paternity. The Father begat the Son.
  • Sonship. The Son is eternally begotten in an incorporeal, non-physical (“begotten, not made”[19]) and timeless manner (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”[20]) in a way we can’t ever understand. But, this does not imply that the Son is somehow not equal to the Father, that there was ever a time He didn’t exist, or that the Son was created.
  • Procession. The Holy Spirit is sent forth from both the Father and the Son.

How can you distinguish the Persons, then? By these unique characteristics. The Son doesn’t beget; the Father does. The Spirit isn’t begotten; the Son is. The Father doesn’t eternally proceed from the Spirit; the reverse is true. This is how the classical position avoids the charge of modalism.[21]

Robert Letham, perhaps the current dean of Reformed scholarship regarding the Trinity, calls the principles of identity of nature + personal distinctions “the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity.”[22] This is why those same creeds each speak of eternal generation and procession. However, theologians have long struggled to explain these doctrines. John of Damascus admitted they are “quite beyond comprehension,” and could not explain the functional difference between the two concepts.[23] Gregory of Nazianzus built a polemical fence more around what the doctrines are not, rather than what they are.[24]

These doctrines have been criticized by numerous 20th century evangelicals,[25] and it’s likely many non-confessional seminary students and graduates don’t understand them and can’t coherently explain them. It’s telling that the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message[26] and the GARBC Articles of Faith[27] do not mention eternal generation and procession at all. It’s as if the doctrines don’t exist.

The fruit of this negligence, in the eyes of the classical advocates, is that many conservative pastors and seminary graduates don’t understand the Trinity at all. They likely don’t appreciate that homoousia (“same substance”) means identity of essence, and that eternal generation and procession are the linchpins holding the doctrine of the Trinity together. They likely assume a modern version of “personhood.”

Lewis S. Chafer epitomizes this tendency. He explains the Persons act as agent and object to one another and “exhibit intelligence, consciousness, and moral agency.”[28] If Christology tells us that self-consciousness and moral agency are attributes of nature (and it does), then Chafer is quite wrong. This is why, in the eyes of some classical trinitarians, many evangelicals are functional tri-theists. Perhaps it’s not a stretch to suggest that, to classical eyes, many ordinary Christians are functional modalists and too many pastors are unwitting tri-theists.

The 20th century has seen an explosion of interest in the doctrine of the Trinity. That’s why it’s no surprise this past century saw some re-considerations of classical trinitarianism. The idea Father, Son and Spirit were merely active subjects or subsistences of the same exact Being seemed abstract and stale; like a flat Diet Coke. Does that sum up the Gospels? Does it sum up Jesus? When we worship Jesus, are we worshipping a “distinct manner of subsisting?”[29] Is that all there is?

When we read the Gospels, there’s a relentless urge to see the Persons as real individuals with their own self-consciousness, will and intelligence. But, remember, this is not what “same substance” means at all! It means an identical sameness of Being. For if you have three independent centers of consciousness and volition with the Godhead, you have tri-theism. Thus, you have heresy.

Donald Bloesch offers perhaps the best analogy for the classical model. “I prefer to speak of one space with three dimensions – height, length and depth.”[30] This is why two evangelical theologians have dismissed the classical model because “it seems to reduce to classical modalism.”[31]

Some theologians, Emil Brunner in particular, believe it’s dangerous to probe into this metaphysical abyss. It’s “a temptation for the intellect,” he warned, “to which we ought not to give way.” For it is impossible, Brunner believed, to understand “three persons” otherwise than in a tri-theistic sense.[32] To him, it’s a fool’s errand.

We may order people to think thus: ‘Thou shalt think these Three Persons as One,’ but it is no use: there still remains an uncertain vacillation between Tritheism and Monotheism. Not only the idea of ‘substance,’ but also this idea of ‘Person,’ was much too wooden to express the mystery of the unity of the Revealer and what was revealed.[33]

Thomas Watson warned that the Trinity is a mystery, “but where reason cannot wade, there faith may swim.”[34] Nonetheless, some Christians are content to continue wading. So, what do social trinitarians have to offer in return? We turn to that in the next article.

A special thanks to my friend, Tito Lyro (Pastor, Bible Presbyterian Church, Olympia, WA and President of Western Reformed Seminary, Lakewood, WA) for reviewing this article!

[1] As the Chalcedonian Creed says, “… the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence …” (Philip Schaff, ed. The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols. [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890], 2:63).

[2] For a great discussion of these concepts in relation to Christology, see especially Stephen Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 424ff. 

[3] See the decrees from the Third Council of Constantinople (680-681) in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 vols., ed. Norman J. Tanner, S.J. (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 1:124-130. 

[4] There are a number from which to choose. See (1) David Beale, Historical Theology In-Depth, 2 vols. (Greenville: BJU Press, 2013), 1:207-333; (2) Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: 100-600 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971), 226-277; (3) J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, revised ed. (New York: Harper One, 1978), and (4) Kenneth S. Latourette, A History of Christianity: Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500, revised ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1975).

[5] Schaff, Creeds, 2:59.

[6] John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” 1.8, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. S. D. F. Salmond, in NPNF2, 14 vols. (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), vol. 2.9. 

[7] J.N.D. Kelly argues convincingly that Nicea didn’t intend the phrase to mean Father and Son were identical. He believes they meant they shared the same category, like you and I do as human beings (Early Doctrines, 233-237). He argues the homoousia was a later development that was read back in. However, Kelly agrees that orthodoxy requires homoousia because of God’s simplicity.

[8] Schaff, Creeds, 3:607-608

[9] Schaff, Creeds, 3:390.

[10] Schaff, Creeds, 3:7. 

[11] Schaff, Creeds, 3:488.

[12] Augustine, “On the Trinity,” 1.7, in NPNF1, 14 vols. (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1887), vol. 1.3.

[13] Augustine, “Trinity,” 1.9. 

[14] Augustine, “Trinity,” 7.7. 

[15] John of Damascus, “Orthodox Faith,” 1.2.

[16] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Systematic Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, revised ed. (Sanford: Reformation Trust, 2019; Kindle ed.), KL 1262. Emphasis added.

[17] John of Damascus, “Orthodox Faith,” 2.8.  

[18] For the sake of my sanity and yours, I’m using the Western interpretation of the Holy Spirit’s procession and I won’t dare to discuss the filioque controversy. 

[19] See the Nicean-Constantinople Creed of 381 (Schaaf, Creeds, 58). 

[20] Ibid.

[21] Thomas Aquinas observed, “the Father is denominated only from paternity; and the Son only from filiation. Therefore, if no real paternity or filiation existed in God, it would follow that God is not really Father or Son, but only in our manner of understanding; and this is the Sabellian heresy,” (Summa Theologica, Q28, Art. 1, Obj. 4).

[22] Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Crossway: Wheaton, 2019), 120.

[23] John of Damascus, “Orthodox Faith,” 1.8; “… there is a difference between generation and procession, but the nature of that difference we in no wise understand.”

[24] Gregory of Nazianzus, “Orations 29 and 30,” in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Yonkers: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002).

[25] John Feinberg, for example, says, “Despite their firm entrenchment in both Western and Eastern traditions, the doctrines of eternal generation and eternal procession are unclear and are not required by Scripture,” (No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God [Wheaton: Crossway, 2001; Kindle ed.], KL 11901).

For a critical look at the historical development of the doctrine of eternal generation, see Beale, Historical Theology, 2:142-170.

Millard Erickson noted, “It must be acknowledged that for many persons today, the doctrine does not seem to make much sense. Just what does it mean to say that the Father eternally generates the Son, yet that the Son is not therefore inferior to the Father? How can the Father be the basis of the Son’s being but without this constituting some species of creation of the latter by the former? It may well be that the difficulty of making sense of this concept today is because in our time we are working within a different philosophical framework than that which these earlier theologians were utilizing,” (Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009; Kindle ed.], KL 1874-1878).

See also (1) J. Oliver Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962), 1:110-112; (2) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), Appendix 6; (3) Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1999), 62, and (4) William L. Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 594.

[26] See http://www.sbc.net/bfm2000/bfm2000.asp

[27] See https://www.garbc.org/about-us/beliefs-constitution/articles-of-faith/.

[28] Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols. (reprint; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1976), 2:293.

[29] Karl Rahner, The Trinity, trans. Joseph Donceel (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970), 110f. 

[30] Donald Bloesch, God the Almighty (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), 186. 

[31] Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations, 587. 

[32] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, trans. Olive Wyon (London: Lutterworth, 1949), 227.

[33] Brunner, Doctrine of God, 239. 

[34] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (reprint; Birmingham: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2016), 78.