How Evangelical Theologians Are Tackling the Doctrine of the Trinity

The Trinity is a hot topic right now—because of its relationship to discussions about gender (see 1 Cor 11:3) and its place in the perennial back-and-forth between more confessionalist and more biblicist strains of evangelical faith.

Recently I attended the annual Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, and I felt that if I was going to have a responsible view in these important debates, I needed to listen to people who’d studied the Trinity far more carefully than I have. You may feel the same way.

Let me give you a little introduction to one aspect of the discussion; it may help you enter a conversation that you’ve heard only snippets of before. And I’ll make a deal with readers: if you sit through some difficult discussion, I’ll give you at the end the biggest payoff I got out of Trinity papers at the 2017 ETS. It came from a Q&A session, so you won’t be able to read it in any place that I know of but here!

Calvin on the aseity of the Son

One paper I attended was delivered by Faithlife’s own Brannon Ellis, the head of our publishing arm, Lexham Press. I was curious to hear some of the fruit of his careful and extensive work on the Trinity. He focused on the views of John Calvin about “eternal generation,” the idea that the Son of God has always been the Son—that though he is equal with God the Father, he stands in a relationship of “generatedness” to the Father, and he always has. This language comes ultimately from passages such as John 3:16, in which Christ is called the “only begotten” Son of the Father.

Ellis noted that we tend to assume that the Reformers were mainly concerned about salvation, the church, and Scripture, that they weren’t so interested in “theology proper”—the doctrine of God. But Calvin, Ellis said, spent a great deal of time “wrangling” with others about the Trinity. He clearly felt it was important.

Calvin was especially dedicated to arguing for the Son’s “aseity”—his self-existence, his “from-himself-ness.” The most explicit Bible passage teaching divine aseity is probably Paul’s stirring statement in Romans 11: “for of him, and through him, and to him are all things.” We’re accustomed to saying this of God the Father—but can it be said of the Son? Calvin said yes. “He always possessed it of himself that he is.” (Calvin often appealed to Colossians 2:9, “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”)

Calvin wasn’t trying to be an innovator; he relied continually on patristic sources, especially Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine. One of the Reformers’ major concerns was to show that their work was one of theological retrieval and not revolution.

But Calvin’s opponents were quite sure that he was a revolutionary—they felt that by affirming Christ’s aseity, he was denying Christ’s eternal generation (his “begottenness”). Calvin’s opponents on this issue were often fellow trinitarians.

One of them, Ellis said, was Pierre Caroli. Caroli converted to Protestantism and back to Catholicism—at least twice. Caroli charged Calvin with the mutually exclusive heresies of Arianism (Christ is not the one true God) and Sabellianism (Christ is one manifestation of the true God). But Caroli was no slouch: he was professionally trained at the Sorbonne. When Calvin said that Christ possessed the attribute of aseity, Caroli heard a denial of eternal generation.

The value and risk of eternal generation

Ellis raised the question: Why does this doctrine of eternal generation matter? What role does eternal generation play in mature trinitarian theology? What does it do?

Traditionally, it has simply been a way of using biblical terminology as much as possible to distinguish Father and Son while underscoring their unity (in the one God) and equality (each person of the Trinity is fully God).

But the question naturally arises: how can the Son be generated from the Father without somehow being less of a God than God? This may be the “fundamental problem of trinitarian logic,” Ellis said; thus one of the key functions of classical trinitarianism has been to secure the unity of the Son with the Father.

It’s heretics—Arians mostly—who are always tripping on the paradox that the Son is from the Father and yet the same God. And you could basically map out trinitarian heresies according to the different ways they got this wrong.

Calvin seemed genuinely shocked that other trinitarians weren’t willing to ascribe one of the divine attributes—namely aseity, “from-himself-ness”—to the Son. Calvin didn’t want to put an asterisk on the Nicene assertion that Christ is “very God of very God.” Calvin was comfortable with the mystery his position created; in fact he saw it as healthy.

Ellis’ basic argument is that Calvin wanted to avoid over-explaining the Trinity, to be able to go as far as the Bible takes us and no further. And it turns out that the Bible takes us quite a long way down the mysterious path of the knowledge of the Trinity. The Son is equal with the Father even though he is “ordered to” the Father (“whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise,” John 5:19) and personally “derived from” the Father (“only begotten of the Father,” John 1:14).

A helpful trinitarian takeaway

Some talk about the Trinity does get rather abstruse. And I personally tend toward the biblicist rather than the confessional. Sometimes I’m tempted to stop exerting the mental energy necessary to follow the systematic theologians.

So it was particularly helpful for me when Ellis, during the Q&A after his paper, made a comment that I wish I had gotten down verbatim. He pointed out that a lot of the jargon surrounding the Trinity is simply a restatement of the fundamental analogy God makes when he chooses the words “Father” and “Son.” “Filiation,” for example, is just a fancy way of saying “Son-ness”; “generation” is a fancy way of saying “begottenness.”

That clicked immediately with me—and I hope it helps you. It justifies a great deal of the wrangling systematic theologians do: when doing their jobs, they are trying to faithfully “systematize” statements of Scripture without overruling or undermining any. Their major technical terms are—when they’re doing their jobs—demonstrably sourced in Scripture.

I won’t say that “Father” and “Son” are merely analogies to human experience; I tend to think rather that the fatherhood and sonship we know from our daily observations under the sun are themselves reflections of the prior reality of God’s “eternal begetting” of the Son (could this be what Ephesians 3:15 is saying?). But one way to keep my trinitarianism sound is to work to limit my speech about the Godhead to the only authoritative source we have for saying anything about God: his own words in Scripture—including words like “Father” and “Son.” Calvin attempted to do this, and though he was (rightly) not content to leave Scripture unsystematized, he was content to bow before the ineffable when he got there, rather than trying to peer behind it.

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Logos carries some helpful and important books on the Trinity, including Father, Son, and Spirit: the Trinity and John’s Gospel by Scott Swain and Andreas Koestenberger, Traces of the Trinity by Peter Leithart, God the Holy Trinity by Timothy George (ed.), and the books in the Crossway Studies on the Trinitarian God collection.


Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (forthcoming, Lexham Press).

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Comments

  1. Mike Gallagher says:

    Hi Mark,

    I know analogies fail miserably when we attempt to use them to describe God, but my favorite analogy for the Trinity is a light bulb because it’s actually a “working” analogy.

    When God the Father is working correctly (which has been the case for eternity) he must generate the Son. And together with the Son, they must send forth the Spirit. So if you think of God the Father as the whole physical light bulb, when it is working correctly, it generates light (the Son), and together the physical bulb and the light send forth the heat (the Spirit).

    I know the analogy fails in many ways, but I think it is much better than the other static analogies I have heard.

    Mike

  2. The best thing I’ve read on the Trinity is a recent work (2016) by a Lutheran theologian, Carl Beckwith, entitled “The Holy Trinity.” Its a very thorough discussion. I’ve never seen anything better from a conservative, confessional standpoint. He takes particular care to tackle these very questions you raise at length. Truly an excellent book. I heard Carl Trueman describe it as, “the best book about the Trinity that nobody will ever read.” Because it was put out by an obscure publisher, and is part of a series on Lutheran dogmatics, I agree few people will ever read it. They ought to.

    The best thing I’ve yet read on Christology is Stephen Wellum’s “God the Son Incarnate,” from Crossway’s Foundations of Evangelical Theology series. I particularly appreciated his criticisms of the various kenotic theories (which I was taught in Seminary), and his contention that Jesus didn’t empty Himself of any use of attribute at all – but continued to exercise them throughout the incarnation. Wonderful book. I need to read some sections again.

    Both these books assume you have a great deal of graduate training, and are familiar with the lay of the land. But, they’re more than worth their weight in gold. I read these books back to back, and I had more fun pondering them than anything else I’ve read in a long, long time.

  3. Robert Braham says:

    Mark,
    I am pleased to hear students of the word, yourself and Calvin, willing to dig deep, and be content to let the unanswerable alone.

    My “current” analogy for reaching Biblical conclusions is this. I view the Bible as a huge picture puzzle, but with a less defined form. My picture puzzle is not limited to being completable by simply putting the unique pieces together. The Bible puzzle is not made up of unique pieces. It presents what seems to be opposing views on the same subject, thus having many “same shaped” pieces that can fit into one or more “same spaces”. These same shaped pieces may have some unique color patterns or drawn shapes the help place them, but not always. Therefore, I am content to leave these pieces in the areas of the puzzle I think they fit without stressing out over the issues, theological or otherwise, that they present. They may be resolved someday. Theological patience must be eternal!

  4. Oke Shannon says:

    I simply accept the thought that my finite mind–and inadequate human language–cannot possibly fully express an infinite, eternal, all powerful God. In fact, if I was able to understand the full nature of God, He would neither be big enough to create all space, matter and time from nothing nor could He save me from my sins. I believe the Trinity is God’s way of giving our finite minds an opportunity to understand the elements of His nature that we can grasp.

  5. John Dickson says:

    Karl Barth posed a question in regard to whether the lordship which is ascribed to the Godhead should also be seen as the intrinsic freedom of God, i.e., the freedom to be unlike Himself.
    He then goes on to say, “The lordship discernible in the biblical revelation consists in the freedom of God to differentiate Himself from Himself, to become unlike Himself and yet to remain the same, to be indeed the one God like Himself and to exist as the one sole God in the fact that in this way that is so inconceivably profound He differentiates Himself from Himself, being not only God the Father but also—in this direction this is the comprehensive meaning of the whole of the biblical witness—God the Son (Note: he also in other discourse would point out in similar manner – God the Spirit). That He reveals Himself as the Son is what is primarily meant when we say that He reveals Himself as the Lord. This Sonship is God’s lordship in His revelation.”Karl Barth, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Thomas F. Torrance, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, vol. 1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 320.

    As most Hebrew scholars would point out in Hebrew thought a word is not a lifeless sound but an active agent that achieves the intention of the one who speaks. The “Word of God” is God fulfilling his divine purpose which in regard to the trinity as Barth would say, “No matter who or what else the self-revealing God may be, it is beyond dispute that in His revelation according to the biblical witness He takes form, and this taking form is His self-unveiling.” The mystery for all of us to contemplate is how did God do this in regard to His “Son” (Word became flesh) and still retain the Oneness of His being. It’s beyond our understanding and has to be accepted by faith that He has made himself known by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    I love the story of the philosopher who was a proponent of Arianism who roused the indignation of a simple old man, highly esteemed as a confessor, who, although unskilled in logical refinements and wordiness, undertook to oppose him.
    “In the name of Jesus Christ, O philosopher, hearken to me. There is one God, the maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. He made all things by the power of the Word, and established them by the holiness of His Spirit. The Word, whom we call the Son of God, seeing that man was sunk in error and living like unto the beasts, pitied him, and vouchsafed to be born of woman, to hold intercourse with men, and to die for them. And He will come again to judge each of us as to the deeds of this present life. We believe these things to be true with all simplicity. Do not, therefore, expend your labor in vain by striving to disprove facts which can only be understood by faith or by scrutinizing the manner in which these things did or did not come to pass. Answer me, dost thou believe?” The philosopher, astonished at what had occurred, replied, “I believe”; and having thanked the old man for having overcome him in argument, he began to teach the same doctrines to others.
    Sozomen, “The Ecclesiastical History of Salaminius Hermias Sozomenus,” in Socrates, Sozomenus: Church Histories, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Chester D. Hartranft, vol. 2, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 254.

  6. Mark,
    I appreciate your work. I still don’t sense any greater understanding of the argument though. It still remains a difficult study between eternal sonship and begotteness.

  7. Ken Schafer says:

    Here is another analogy that might be helpful, on a limited scale, at least. Consider three individuals who agree to start a corporation. They would hold different offices, so to speak, but they would still be the company–three distinct yet equal persons. In the course of time, their company would manufacture things, hire people, etc., but those three individuals would still be the originators of the company.

  8. Mike Jackson says:

    God bless you brothers! I just wanted to add something that I hope is a help. Ken, you said “Consider three individuals”.

    First in Deuteronomy ch 5 the scripture says: 1And Moses called all Israel, and said unto them, Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and keep, and do them. 2The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb.

    Let’s jump to verse 6 – I am the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. 7Thou shalt have none other gods before me. (We know this is the 10 commandments)

    If you jump over to chapter 6:4, Moses says:
    4Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: 5And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. 6And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: 7And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.

    Moses declared “The LORD our God is one LORD” (not three individuals)

    Scripture References
    Exodus 20:3
    Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

    Exodus 20:4
    Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image , or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:

    Exodus 20:5
    Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God , visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;

    Deuteronomy 4:35
    Unto thee it was shewed, that thou mightest know that the LORD he is God; there is none else beside him .

    Deuteronomy 6:4
    Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD:

    Deuteronomy 10:14
    Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens is the LORD’S thy God , the earth also, with all that therein is.
    [Hebrews 1:2 says: Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things , by whom also he made the worlds;]

    II Samuel 7:22
    Wherefore thou art great, O LORD God: for there is none like thee, neither is there any God beside thee, according to all that we have heard with our ears.

    I Kings 8:60
    That all the people of the earth may know that the LORD is God, and that there is none else .

    Isaiah 7:14
    Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel .
    [“Immanuel” means “God with us.”]

    Isaiah 9:6
    For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given : and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father , The Prince of Peace.

    Isaiah 37:16
    O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, that dwellest between the cherubims, thou art the God, even thou alone , of all the kingdoms of the earth: thou hast made heaven and earth .
    [Hebrews 1:2 says: Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son , whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds ;]

    Isaiah 43:10-11
    10 Ye are my witnesses, saith the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me.
    11 I, even I, am the LORD; and beside me there is no saviour .
    [Luke 2:11 says: For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord . AND John 4:42 says: and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world .]

    Hosea 13:4
    Yet I am the LORD thy God from the land of Egypt, and thou shalt know no god but me: for there is no saviour beside me.

    Zechariah 14:9
    And the LORD shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one LORD, and his name one .

    Matthew 28:19
    Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
    [What is the Father’s name? Son’s Name? Holy Ghost’s Name? Show me one place in the scripture where anyone was ever baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. In the book of Acts chapter 2, the apostles that were filled with the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. This baptism is the fulfillment of Matthew 28:19 using the name.]

    John 1:1 and 1:14
    1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…
    14…And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

    John 5:43
    I am come in my Father’s name , and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive.
    [If He comes in His Father’s Name, then what is His Name?]

    John 10:30
    I and my Father are one.

    John 12:45
    And he that seeth me seeth him that sent me.

    John 14:8-9
    8 Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us.
    9 Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father ; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?

    John 20:28
    And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God .
    [Thomas was speaking to Jesus]

    Acts 20:28
    Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood .
    [Were we saved by the blood of the Holy Ghost or the blood of Jesus?]

    Ephesians 4:5
    One Lord , one faith, one baptism,

    Colossians 1:12-20
    12 Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light:
    13 Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son:
    14 In whom we have redemption through his blood , even the forgiveness of sins:
    15 Who is the image of the invisible God , the firstborn of every creature:
    16 For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him :
    17 And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.
    18 And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.
    19 For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell ;
    20 And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.

    Colossians 2:8-10
    8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
    9 For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily .
    10 And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power:

    I Timothy 3:16
    And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh , justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.

    Hebrews 1:3
    Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person , and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high;

    I John 5:7
    For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one .

    Here is a short explanation of the Godhead from the book, “An Exposition Of The Seven Church Ages,” Chapter 1 by William Branham:

    “They didn’t believe in three Gods in the beginning of the church. You can’t find that sort of belief amongst the apostles. It was after the apostolic age that this theory came in and really became an issue and a cardinal doctrine at the Nicene Council. The doctrine of Godhead caused a two way split at Nicaea. And from that split there came two extremes. One actually went into polytheism, believing in three Gods, and the others went into unitarianism. Of course that was a little while in coming about, but it did, and we have it right today. But the Revelation through John by the Spirit to the churches was, “I am the Lord Jesus Christ, and I am ALL of it. There isn’t any other God”. And He put His seal on this Revelation.
    Consider this: Who was the Father of Jesus? Matthew 1:18 says, “She was found with child of the Holy Ghost”. But Jesus, Himself, claimed that God was His Father. God the Father and God the Holy Ghost, as we often express these terms, make the Father and the Spirit ONE. Indeed they are, or else Jesus had two Fathers. But notice that Jesus said that He and His Father were One–not two. That makes ONE God.
    Since this is historically and Scripturally true, people wonder where the three came from. It became a foundational doctrine at the Nicene Council in 325 A.D. This trinity (an absolutely unscriptural word) was based upon the many gods of Rome. The Romans had many gods to whom they prayed. They also prayed to ancestors as mediators. It was just a step to give new names to old gods, so we have saints to make it more Biblical. Thus, instead of Jupiter, Venice, Mars, etc., we have Paul, Peter, Fatima, Christopher, etc., etc. They could not make their pagan religion work out with just one God, so they split Him up into three, and they made intercessors of the saints as they had made intercessors of their ancestors.
    Ever since then people have failed to realize that there is just one God with three offices or manifestations. They know there is one God according to Scripture, but they try to make it the fantastic theory that God is like a bunch of grapes; three persons with the same Divinity shared equally by all. But it plainly says here in Revelation that Jesus is “That Which Is”, “That Which Was”, and “That Which Is to Come”. He is the “Alpha and Omega”, which means that He is the “A to Z” or THE ALL OF IT. He is everything–the Almighty. He is the Rose of Sharon, the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Morning Star, the Righteous Branch, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. He is God, Almighty God. ONE GOD.
    I Timothy 3:16 says, “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into Glory”. This is what the Bible says. It doesn’t say a thing about a first or second or third person here. It says God was manifest in flesh. One God. That ONE GOD was manifested in flesh. That ought to settle it. God came in a human form. That didn’t make Him ANOTHER GOD. HE WAS GOD, THE SAME GOD. It was a revelation then, and it is a revelation now. One God.”

    I pray this is a help to you brothers. May God bless you all.

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