Category Archives: Trinity

Hallmarks of the Trinity and God’s Inner Life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

When thinking of the Trinity people are often thrown into a quandary, and rightly so. The reality of God is an ineffable ultimate sort of reality that becomes slippery to the inquiring mind. Many, and rightly, caution that the mysterium trinitatis is something more to be adored than parsed and ransacked for intellectual coherence. It is true that the Trinity is ultimately a mystery, but the very fact that we can even use language like ‘trinity’ indicates that there is some level of intelligibility to this grand reality. As the tradition has illumined for the inquiring hearts and minds of the church, it is possible even to develop a grammar for speaking of God’s Triune life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Of course, all of these things are possible only because the impossible has been made possible by God’s choice for us in Christ to make himself known from the ontological inside out in the assumptio carnis (assumption of flesh). As such as Christians we do indeed think God as he has desired to be thought and experienced as filial Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

John Webster as he is attempting to offer a properly ordered treatment on a doctrine of creation dogmatically grounds his development in a doctrine of God; more focused, in God’s life as Triune. As he develops his thinking he offers four hallmarks that might be said of God in his inner life as that is given as gift in extra mode in his Self-revelation. He writes at length:

God’s life in himself is the perfect, still and eternal movement in which the Father generates the Son and together with the Son breathes the Spirit. Generation and spiration ­ the two ‘emanations’ or processions in which we may discern the personal modes of the one God ­ are the manner in which God is limitlessly abundant life, reciprocity and ‘ineffable mutual delight’. Of these internal works, a number of things may be said, all of which are (ectypal) indications of the unfathomable depth and originality of the triune God from which there flows his presence to creatures as their maker, reconciler, and perfecter. (a) God’s ad intra works are intrinsic, their term remaining within the subject of the action (this, over against-for example-Arian ideas that the Father’s generation of the Son is a transitive act, a work like creation, terminating in an object outside God, whereas generation and creation are properly speaking entirely different kinds of divine acts. (b) God’s ad intra works are constitutive, not accidental, activities. They are not ‘voluntary’ in the sense of enacting a decision behind which there lies an agent who might have willed to act otherwise: there is no Father ‘behind’ the generation of the Son, no Father and Son ‘behind’ the breathing of the Spirit (relations of origin are eternal, not sequential). In this sense, therefore, God’s immanent activities are ‘necessary’, not by external compulsion but by absolute or natural necessity: these activities are what it is for God to be God. (c) God’s ad intra activities are unceasing, not temporal or transient. They are not an act of self-constitution or self-causation (talk of God as causa sui makes no sense); they effect no alteration or modification of the godhead; they are not productive activities which might be conceived as finished. (d) God’s ad intra activities require us to speak of distinctions between the persons of the godhead. These distinctions are various. The persons are distinguished by origin (the Son is generated by the Father, but not the Father by the Son; the Spirit proceeds from Father and Son, but not they from him); they are distinguished by the order of the relations of origin which make it possible to speak of the first, second and third persons of the Trinity (though not thereby  to suggest temporal priority and posteriority or descending degrees of glory); they are, accordingly, distinguished by the order and mode of their immanent operations, which repeat the order and mode of their personal existence: the Father acts a nullo, the Son acts a Patre, the Spirit ab utroque ­ though not, of course, at cost to the common aseity in which each person is and acts.[1]

Important points about generation, aseity, and how the persons relate in oneness and threeness threeness and oneness (de Deo uno de Deo trino). We do see a commitment on Webster’s part to the filioque and the Western tradition, but we won’t engage with that now. More important, for my eyes, is his emphasizing of there ‘being no God behind the back of the Father or the Son or the Spirit’, a point us Torranceans and Barthians are fans of in heightened ways. We see Webster contradict the sort of post-metaphysical conception that some attribute to Barth’s theology; i.e. the idea that God’s ‘being is in becoming’, or for what Hunsinger calls the ‘revisionist Barth’ that God constitutes his being in his becoming in the incarnation (more pointedly: the resurrection). Instead Webster emphasizes the catholic view of God’s antecedent life as the ground of what is expressed and given in the outer life of the economy; we see Webster avoiding any sort of confusion between processions in the inner life with the missions given in the outer life.

These are all important points to emphasize when thinking God. Even though we have supposedly passed through a Trinitarian renaissance in Christian theology (Barth being one of its most important initiators) we might scratch our heads at the continued dereliction of thought of many, particularly within the realms of Protestant theology. We might think of someone like Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, or Owen Strachan and their eternal functional subordinationism or eternal submission of the Son to the Father. And now we have moved beyond, supposedly, the Trinitarian renaissance and have come to a point, according to Katherine Sonderegger et al. where God’s singularity needs to take precedence to help extinguish the relative emphasis on his multiplicity that has apparently obtained because of modern thinkers like Barth. It is interesting, really, because even Webster himself as a result of his turn to Aquinas et al. seems to want to correct the trinitarian excesses that even he had given himself over to in his early years with Barth and Jüngel. Much of Webster’s desire to correct has more to do with prolegomena or method when it comes to thinking God rather than a simple material correction in regard to a doctrine of God; when we come to that, as we have in the quote above, what we find is a Webster who is still a buddy of the ‘textual Barth’, as Hunsinger calls him.

Trinitarian theology is alive and well with many interesting trends and threads still fluttering in the minds and hearts of those who care. The Trinity matters because God matters. For the Christian there is no generic understanding of who God is; for the Christian God is necessarily Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and this reality, his persons-in-relation are the basis of his oneness, just as his oneness is the basis of his persons. When we get sidelined from the all-important reality of the Trinity, when we fail to emphasize that God is an eternal relation of love (i.e. self-giveness one for the other one in the other) precisely because he is a godhead who is personal, we end up constructing subsequent theologies that reflect whatever emphasis of God we hold dear. For an Evangelical Calvinist, as myself, understanding that God is Father by me entering that reality through the Son by the Spirit, means that the theology I do will always have a personalist and familial shape to it precisely because God in this frame just is Love.


[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 89-90.


The Self-Communicating God of Athanasius Against the Mute God of Arius: God’s Being As Love Rather Than An Absolute Self

The doctrines of old never really get old. The heresies of old never really get old, they just re-emerge in new language games per the periods those language games are played within. Aspects of what is known as Arianism continue to rear its ugly head into the 21st century. If you don’t know Arianism, at base, is the idea that ‘there was a time when the Son was not’; in other words, there was a time when the Son of God, who we now know as Jesus Christ, was non-existent, that he is a creature. This was the heresy that flowered early in the church through the teachings of Arius, and his followers, and which Athanasius argued against starting early at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Ironically there are many, even today, who want to argue that the development of what became Nicene theology is really the result of overly imposing Hellenic categories upon God thus making God into a three-headed monster; or making God into a pantheon of persons seated above in the heavenlies. I say this is ironic because we do have a case of an over imposition of Greek categories upon the Christian God, but it isn’t from the Trinitarians (the Nicenes); it is from the Arian impulse to mold God into the monadic conception of godness that we can derive from the classical philosophers (e.g. the god of the philosophers). In fact it is the Trinitarians who refused to give into the seduction provided for by the intellectuals, and instead flipped the grammar they developed on its head by allowing the pressure of God’s Self-revelation and Self-communication in Jesus Christ to reify such categories in such a way that the Revelation of God forged the categories Christians think God from. There is indeed a Greek impulse available in the Christian tradition, but it is resident with those who would identify with Arius and his followers rather than with Athanasius and his.

Arthur McGill, in a distilled and precise fashion, offers a fruitful line in regard to what Athanasius accomplished contra [mundum] Arius and the dead fruit he produced.


Let us conclude this chapter by setting the Trinitarian God and the Arian God in the sharpest possible contrast so that all the issues may be clearly seen.

At one level, we are concerned with the question of God’s essential being, of the quality that gives him his identity as God. According to Arius, the indispensable mark of divinity is unbegottenness, or what we might call absolute independence. God is divine because he exists wholly from within himself, wholly on his own. He needs nothing, he depends on nothing, he is in essence related to nothing. And this, according to the Trinitarian theologians, is precisely what the powerfulness disclosed in Jesus Christ discredits. For as these theologians read certain passages in the Gospel of John, the powerfulness in Jesus is characterized as fully and perfectly divine, and yet at the same time, as totally and continually derived.

In other words, as present in Jesus, God’s powerfulness has a form—the form of dependence—which Arius can only reject as quite unworthy of God. In place of self-contained and self-sufficient autonomy, what the Trinitarian theologians see as the defining mark of divinity is that totality of self-giving which proceeds between the Father and the Son. The Father gives all that he is to the Son; the Son obeys the Father and offers all that he is back to the Father. The Father and the Son are not divine, therefore, in terms of the richness of reality that they possess within themselves. They do not exist closed up within their own being. Rather, they are divine in terms of the richness of the reality that they communicate to the other. Against Arius’ reverential awe of the absolute, Gregory of Nazianzus puts the alternative:

Thus much we for our part will be bold to say, that if it is a great thing for the Father to be unoriginate, it is no less a thing for the Son to have been begotten of such a Father. For not only would he share the glory of the unoriginate, since is of the unoriginate, but he has the added glory of his generation, a thing so great and august in the eyes of all those who are not altogether groveling and material in mind. (Theological Orations III. ii; Christology of the Later Fathers, p. 168.)

If Arius identifies God’s divinity with his absolute independence, Gregory identifies it with his inner life of self-giving.

At a second level, we are faced with the question of how God exercises his divinity in relation to the world and to men. For Arius, God’s complete self-sufficiency means that with the world he appears in the form of absolute domination. As God depends on nothing, everything else depends on him. As he is completely rich, everything else is completely poor. As he is completely powerful, everything else is completely weak, and is called to revere his power. And as he can affect other things without himself being affected, i.e., through an intermediary agent, everything else is its activity affects itself and other things, but not him.

According to the Trinitarian theologians, nothing could be more contrary to the power of God that men encounter in Jesus Christ than this Arian picture. Far from being a vessel of dominating mastery, Jesus is just the opposite. He does not come on clouds of glory. He does not stand over his followers, ordering them hither and yon to his bidding and vindicating his authority by unopposable acts of self-assertion. In the Epistle to Diognetus, and early Christian writing, the question is asked, Why did God send his Son?

To rule as a tyrant, to inspire terror and astonishment? No, he did not. No, he sent him in gentleness and mildness. To be sure, as a king sending his royal son, he sent him as God. But he sent him as to men, as saving and persuading them, and not as exercising force. For force is no attribute of God.

“Force is no attribute of God”—that is the basic principle for the Trinitarian theologians. God’s divinity does not consist in his ability to push things around, to make and break, to impose his will from the security of some heavenly remoteness, and to sit in grandeur while all the world does his bidding. Far from staying above the world, he sends his own glory into it. Far from imposing, he invites and persuades. Far from demanding service from me in order to enhance himself, he gives his life in service to men for their enhancement. But God acts toward the world in this way because within himself he is a life of self-giving.[1]

Which conception of God are you being exposed to today in the Christian church? There is a major recovery movement taking place in and among evangelical Protestant theologians; they are attempting to recover the classical theistic conception of God that they believe is the church catholic conception of God. But we might want to ask ourselves if the God being recovered, the version of the classical theistic conception of God that is being recovered resembles the Athanasian or the Arian understanding more or less? Is the God being recovered for the church the relational and self-communicating God that Athanasius articulates, or are the impulses being recovered more in line with the Arian monadic conception of God wherein God’s absolute independence, apart from relational emphases, is being emphasized? While a fully fledged Arianism may well not be being recovered, this does not mean the untextualized impulses of the Greek godness principles that Arius thought from can’t be attendant in some modulated form in the God being recovered for the evangelical churches.

More materially, as McGill distills Athanasius, what stands out is indeed the reality that God, at core, in se, is a God of onto-relation; a God who finds his being in subject-in-being relation such that the oneness of God (ousia) is shaped by the threeness of God (hypostaseis), and vice versa. That God’s being is necessarily one of love, and that love is defined by his very activity of self-giveness as he is resplendently Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is within this anterior coinhering relations of God that we can begin to understand why God created to begin with; that the who of God’s life precedes the what as that is revealed for us in the God for us in Jesus Christ. It is within this antecedent reality of God’s life that our lives make sense, and that suffering itself takes upon new hues of bright and vibrant color; as we come to recognize the deep relationality of God, and the Self-relating dependence of God within himself, that we recognize how significant relationship is for us. God is able to reverse what the enemy intended for evil by using suffering and tragedy to recognize our deep need for him; that we can come to recognize that the ground and bases of our lives is an ecstatic one given to us as gift ever afresh and anew by the guarantee of the Holy Spirit sealed upon our hearts with the kiss of Jesus Christ.

I am sorely concerned for the churches. I’m concerned that they are getting a more Arian-like conception of God that does not provide them with an adequate understanding of God which can only result in a deleterious spirituality that has nothing to do with who God really is in himself as revealed as the Son of the Father. Yes, the God of the schoolmen has certain qualities to him, but are they the actual realities that Athanasius could see? Yes, Athanasius used a similar grammar to the Greeks, and a similar grammar to the God of the classical theists, but he may well have used that grammar in equivocal ways from the way that say medieval classical theists used that grammar. These are big ideas, and big concerns; but they have real life and concrete iterations and implications in and for the people of the church of Jesus Christ.

[1] Arthur C. McGill, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method (Eugene, OR: Wipf&Stock Publishers, 1982), 80-2.

The Rock of Israel: The Self-Sustaining Triune Life of God

There has been a controversy or ‘war’ even between George Hunsinger and Bruce McCormack—or that’s how the outside world has labeled it—in regard to how to receive Barth’s doctrine of God. The basic tension comes from the thesis that Barth’s doctrine of election, that came in his Church Dogmatics II/1, caused him to reify his earlier construed doctrine of God which is found in CD I/1. That is, after Barth had his aha moment in regard to reformulating the classical doctrine of double predestination, the argument goes that by time we get to CD IV/1 that Barth had Christified his doctrine of God to the point that he makes God’s being in history (ad extra), in the economy, constitutive of God’s being in his immanent (ad intra) life. The critique of that comes from folks like Hunsinger and Paul Molnar who argue that Barth stayed consistent in his rendering of a doctrine of God, and that, for Barth, there was always already a classical type of doctrine of aseity, and christologically, a Logos asarkos present; that there was no shift to the type of McCormackean and Jüngelian conception of God that ostensibly propounds that God’s eternal life is posited on his economic life.

In developing the just mentioned context, Molnar offers the following quote in order to help substantiate the case that Barth was actually quite ‘classical’, metaphysical, and thus not post-metaphysical in the ways that McCormack, Jüngel, Ben Myers, et al. have wanted to re-present Barth. Beyond the controversy, I think this quote is beautiful in regard to the way Barth speaks of God’s eternally triune love; it is beautiful to me precisely because it is a self-sustaining love (a se) that is contingent on nothing else but the triune persons in interpenetrative relation (perichoresis) one with the other as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

He reveals Himself as the One who, even though He did not love us and were not revealed to us, even though we did not exist at all, still loves in and for Himself as surely as He is and is God; who loves us by reason and in consequence of the fact that He is the One who loves in His freedom in and for Himself, and is God as such. It is only of God that it can be said that He is in the fact that He loves and loves in the fact that He is. . . . God loves, and to do so He does not need any being distinct from His own as the object of His love. If He loves the world and us, this is a free overflowing of the love in which He is and is God and with which he is not content, although He might be, since neither the world nor ourselves are indispensable to His love and therefore to His being. (IV/2, p. 755)[1]

Beyond helping to substantiate his thesis, Molnar’s thesis, more positively this quote in and of itself represents the type of aesthetic quality that was present in Barth’s thinking; a doxological quality.

Personally, I find great solace in the reality articulated by Barth. I like knowing that God doesn’t need me to be who He is; that God doesn’t need the world, or the creation to be who He is; God is God whether we want to acknowledge that or not. There is an objectivity about God’s life that is non-contingent upon my existence and only relates to His Self-existence. The comfort I draw from this, once God’s primary objectivity is identified, is what Barth calls God’s ‘secondary objectivity,’ an objectivity that God allows us to know Him, to participate in His life in and through the mediation of His life for us in Jesus Christ. There is comfort in knowing that nobody can pluck me out of the Hands of such a God; that this God freely loves out of the overflow and plenitude of His inner-love, and that this is precisely the type of love that typifies what Divine love actually is: a love that is Self-given and defined in and for and then from the other. It brings great joy to my heart knowing that I am included in the depth of this kind of love; a love that is genuinely free, and not consumed with the self (cor incurvatus ad se). A love that is immovable and always abounding in the resplendence of an eternal reality that was there before we ever were; no wonder the Apostle Paul (following Moses et al.) called Christ the Rock of Israel.

[1] Karl Barth, CD IV/2, 755 cited by Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 134.

The Love of the Triune Life as the Reality of Salvation in the Theology of Hugh Binning

Here is young Scottish theologian (1627–1653), Hugh Binning. He died at a very young age, but in his short life he was able to communicate some beautiful things about God, and how the Triune life was involved in the reality of salvation. Here is a short snippet from him on a Trinitarian salvation,

our salvation is not the business of Christ alone but the whole Godhead is interested in it deeply, so deeply, that you cannot say, who loves it most, or likes it most. The Father is the very fountain of it, his love is the spring of all — “God so loved the world that he hath sent his Son”. Christ hath not purchased that eternal love to us, but it is rather the gift of eternal love . . . Whoever thou be that wouldst flee to God for mercy, do it in confidence. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are ready to welcome thee, all of one mind to shut out none, to cast out none. But to speak properly, it is but one love, one will, one council, and purpose in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, for these Three are One, and not only agree in One, they are One, and what one loves and purposes, all love and purpose.[1]

[1] Hugh Binning cited by Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 79.

How the Inner Life of God gives Structure, Depth, and Purpose to Creation in the Triune Economy of His Life for the Other

I like how John Webster relates a discussion about the inner (immanent) and outer life (economic) of God as Triune, as a kind of telic means for grasping how we conceive of creation itself—and all its contingent and creaturely realities as they find their ontic orientation in and from the ground of all reality in God’s life as Creator as He upholds it all by His sustaining Word—in such a way that creation has depth beyond itself as it is situated in and from the economic life of God and His gracious action upon the surface of the earth. With such understanding we can imagine a Trinitarian structure to creation’s orientation, as creation’s contingency away from God (in her independent integrity), once again, over and again only has resource for understanding her depth as she looks towards God[1]; the non-contingent reality who breathes life into her moment by moment. Webster writes:

How may this economy be described more closely? (1) The divine economy is grounded in the immanent perfection of the Holy Trinity. God’s dealings with creatures, in which he makes possible for them to know and love him, are a second, derivative reality. In more directly dogmatic language, the economy is the field of the divine missions: the Father’s sending of the Son and the Spirit to gather creatures into fellowship with himself and to uphold them on their way to completion. But this outpouring of love in the divine missions is the external face of the inner divine processions, that is, of the perfect internal relations of the triune persons, the fountain from which the external works of God flow. The opera Dei externae are suspended from the opera Dei ad intra. The importance of this is not simply that it respects the divine aseity, and safeguards the distinction of uncreated and created being. It is also that, by grounding the economy in the inner life of God, it indicates that the creation has depth. Creation is not simply contingent temporal surface, arbitrary action. It has a willed shape; it assumes its form under the pressure of the divine intention, and is maintained by unbounded divine benevolence. And so creatures and their acts – including textual and intellectual acts – are referred back to the anterior reality of God, a reference in which alone their substance and continuing operation are secured.[2]

Here we have an occurrence of thinking in a Rahnerian key of the economic is the immanent, but spoken of in such a way that we clearly avoid any worries about entering panentheistic territory; but more importantly, we have a better way of thinking about how the eternally Triune life of God gives creation depth and order in and from the order that co-inheres between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And further, how in the economy, as God’s gracious movement towards the other, the world gains a gravitas that is charged with all the wisdom and bounty of God’s overflowing life of love.

[1] I have taken this thinking of ‘contingency away from God and towards God’ from T.F. Torrance in his book Divine and Contingent Order.

[2] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/NY: T&T Clark International, 2012), 117.

Not the Binity But the Trinity: The Holy Spirit’s Place in the Life of God

The Holy Spirit, unless you’re a Pentecostal or Charismatic, is often left in the background somewhere in theological discussion. Never mind that John Calvin has been called the ‘theologian of the Spirit’ or the fact that Colin Gunton made great appeal to the Spirit in his doctrine of creation, or that folks like my friend and Evangelical Calvinist colleague, has edited books devoted to Third Article Theology; the Spirit, in my experience anyway, is often under-referenced in the Reformed circles I have contact with when discussing things theological. And maybe some of this is actually by design: I mean the Holy Spirit’s ministry is to magnify the person and work of Jesus Christ; so He, by His person (hypostasis) stands in the background. As T Torrance was fond of highlighting, the Holy Spirit comes along for us with the coming of the eternal Son in the Incarnation; in other words, the Spirit comes with the Son for us, indeed he paves the way (think of the overshadowing of the waters in Genesis [protology – creation] or the overshadowing of Mary’s womb in Luke [eschatology – recreation]).

The aforementioned noted, the Holy Spirit was given his rightful place in the development of the Trinitarian theology that took was given expression in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. Kooi and Brink highlight this especially well when they write:

The question might be posed as to why, between 325 and 381, the view arose to describe the Spirit too as being of one essence (“consubstantial”) with the Father and the Son. Was that not a little too much of a good thing? Was a binitarian concept that safeguarded Jesus’s divinity not complicated enough? It was precisely in the fourth-century controversy with those who doubted the divinity of the Spirit that it became clear that the Trinitarian concept was not to be relinquished. It was not based just on some Bible texts that linked the Spirit to God; it had much more to do with the pneumatological insight developing in the early church that we human beings do not have the Spirit at our disposal and that we cannot manipulate the Spirit. A spirit that does not issue from God would automatically be on the side of the creatures and open to such manipulation. Nor would such a spirit be able to genuinely connect us with God. We would be left out on our own. Only because the Spirit is radically on God’s side is he able, through the Son, to incorporate us into communion with the Father. However, this work can happen only if the Spirit belongs fully, as a distinct person, to the divine essence. This soteriological insight played a major role in the labors of Athanasius and the Cappadocians and would eventually lead to the confession that the Spirit “is Lord and gives life” and must “be worshiped and glorified together with the Father and the Son” (the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, an expansion of the Nicene Creed; hereafter we will refer to both forms simply as the Nicene Creed).[1]

I like how they highlight that the Holy Spirit indeed is God of God; i.e. that He is indeed a hypostasis within the Godhead (Monarxia), and as such is Lord (cf. II Cor. 3.17). He is not an energy or a spark within humanity, He finds His reality in the eternal relation and coinhering life of the Father, Son, and indeed, the Holy Spirit.


[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 94-5.

A Disjointed Blog Post on the Ontological and Economic Trinity, Something of a Teaser

I wrote a whole spate of posts when the Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) was happening online; as did others. But I thought I would revisit this issue, although not directly, by engaging with something two contemporary Dutch theologians have written on eternal generation and the doctrine of the Trinity. I would have to say, out of all things theological, the doctrine of the Trinity and Christology (and how that implicates soteriology) get me going the most. So as I read the following from Kooi and Brink my excitement level was piqued which is what is energizing me to write this post.

What they offer here is something that both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance would say amen to; indeed it is the embracing of what Karl Rahner somewhat championed by asserting (and arguing) that the immanent (or ontological) Trinity is the economic Trinity. In other words, who we see revealed by the eternal Son of God in Christ in temporal history is who God is antecedently in always already reality in his inner eternal life in the Divine Monarxia as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a purely non-speculative cataphatic approach to knowledge of God; wherein the concentration on who God is comes within the Athanasian frame which Thomas Torrance adopted for himself as Paul Molnar explicates for us:

Torrance’s view of God the Creator was strictly determined by his Trinitarian theology so that, in order to understand his explication of the doctrine of creation, it is important to realize that his thinking remains structured by Athanasius’ insight that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate”. What this means is not only that, following the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius stressed the centrality of the Father/Son relation for understanding God the Father Almighty who is the Creator, but that he wanted to stress that this same relation must have “primacy over the Creator/creature relation. The latter is to be understood in the light of the former and not vice versa”. Or, to put it another way, “while God is always Father he is not always Creator” and “it is as Father that God is Creator, not vice versa”. . . .[1]

This is rich, and a quote I actually used in my chapter for our first EC book.

You know what? I’m going to simply use this post as a teaser. The quote I want to share from Kooi and Brink is too long for me to transcribe tonight. But just know that its thrust is in keeping with the way Molnar describes Torrance’s Trinitarian theology relative to the relationship between the ontological and economic Trinity. I realize that this post now seems disjointed, but just remember, this is a blog post.

[1] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian Of The Trinity, (Ashgate Publishing Limited, England, 2009), 73.

Doctrine of God: Let There Be No Daylight Between the Being and Persons of God. Kooi and Brink

As I underscored and wrote upon how the Being (ousia) of God has been separated from the Persons (hypostases) of God in many medieval and Post Reformed orthodox treatments of the doctrine of God in my personal chapter for our volume one Evangelical Calvinism book, I am happy to see that Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink do not follow this type of disjunction in their just released Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction. They would be critical then, as I am, of Katherine Sonderegger’s approach and return back to this more classic rendition of developing a doctrine of God; i.e. by starting with God’s oneness and only later getting to his threeness, as if we could think them apart in any meaningful way as Christ[ians]. Here is what Kooi and Brink have to say about this (in extenso):

We join then this recent turn in asserting that the doctrine of God, with the related treatment of the divine attributes, must be approached from the basis of the doctrine of the divine attributes, must be approached from the basis of the doctrine of the divine Trinity. There there can be no misunderstanding that, speaking from a Christian perspective, God can be thought of only as the Trinity; the Christian church confesses no other God than the Father of Jesus Christ in communion with the Holy Spirit. In that sense the doctrine of the Trinity may be regarded as the Christianized version of the doctrine of God. The church does not worship an anonymous Supreme Being but the God who has made a name for himself in Israel and has gotten a face in Jesus Christ. The divine attributes will also have to be viewed and studied from this perspective, for they do not concern—as has often been suggested—a “universal” divine being, but the triune God. This perspective implies, that right from the start, these attributes must be colored and interpreted by God’s sovereign turn toward us human beings in the history of Israel, Jesus Christ, and the Spirit.[1]

And then in small print[2], just following, this Kooi and Brink dig further into the way the being of God has been spoken of in abstraction from his persons,

There are numerous examples in history [sic] of studies that first deal at length with the attributes before getting to the doctrine of the Trinity, but the paradigmatic cases are Thomas Aquinas (STh I.2–26 and 27–43) and Schleiermacher (CF, paras. 170–72); yet he judiciously suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity needs to be constructed anew from the oldest sources). The sharp criticism of Karl Rahner (e.g., in Feiner and Löhrer, MS 2:317–97) on how the theological tradition has split apart the tractates  De Deo trino and De Deo uno (“On the triune God” and “On the one God”) has become famous. But even Berkhof stays with this tradition. Being disappointed with its classical form, he even decided toward the end of his life to incorporate the doctrine of the Trinity in his doctrine of God at all but to deal with it at the end of his treatment of the doctrine of Christ (CF, paras. 19–23 and 38).

In Calvin’s Institutes the attributes receive little attention, and the doctrine of the Trinity much more. Calvin wanted to stay close to the Bible and practical faith and feared the “idle speculations” that would arise if we isolate various elements of the doctrine of God and make them stand alone. His dictum was, “Hence it is obvious, that in seeking God, the most direct path and fittest method is, not to attempt with presumptuous curiosity to pry into his essence, which is rather to be adored than minutely discussed, but to contemplate him in his works, by which he draws near, becomes familiar, and in a manner communicates himself to us” (Inst. 1.5.9). In his own doctrine of God, therefore, Calvin focused to a large extent on the doctrine of the Trinity, which over time he accepted as fully biblical (1.13; see also Letham 2004, 253, 265, 267–68). In the twentieth century many followed Barth’s example by prioritizing the doctrine of the Trinity over a discussion of the divine attributes (e.g. Genderen and Velema, CRD 143–64 and 164–92; see also 135), but few did so as consistently as Wolfhart Pannenberg (ST 1, chap. 6, as sequel to and colored by chap. 5) and Robert Jenson (ST 1, esp. chaps. 4–9 and 13). See above, chapter 2, for the consequences of mixing the Christian doctrine of God with philosophical ideas about God, which became the target of the prominent critics of religion in the nineteenth century.[3]

To continue to press this let me share a quote I used in my chapter from Thomas Torrance; it is an interesting quote, particularly because while agreeing with Kooi and Brink, in the main, Torrance would appear to disagree with their assessment of Calvin. But the primary reason I am sharing this, for our purposes, is simply to reinforce this type of critique relative to the artificial separating of God’s oneness (‘being’) from his threeness (‘persons’). So Torrance,

in the Scots Confession as in John Knox’s Genevan Liturgy, the doctrine of the Trinity is not added on to a prior conception of God—there is no other content but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There was no separation here between the doctrine of the One God (De Deo Uno), and the doctrine of the triune God (De Deo Trino), which had become Roman orthodoxy through the definitive formalisation of Thomas Aquinas. This trinitarian approach was in line with The Little Catechism which Knox brought back from Geneva for the instruction of children in the Kirk. “I believe in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Son and in the Holy Spirit, and look for salvation by no other means.” Within this trinitarian frame the centre of focus in the Confession and Catechism alike is upon Jesus Christ himself, for it is only through him and the Gospel he proclaimed that God’s triune reality is made known, but attention is also given to the Holy Spirit. Here once again we have a different starting point from other Reformation Confessions. Whereas they have a believing anthropocentric starting point, such as in the Heidelberg Catechism, this is quite strongly theocentric and trinitarian. Even in Calvin’s Institute, which follows the fourfold pattern in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the doctrine of the Trinity is given in the thirteenth chapter within the section on the doctrine of God the Creator. Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, however, understandably followed the order of the Apostles’ Creed. The trinitarian teaching in the Scots Confession was by no means limited to the first article for it is found throughout woven into the doctrinal content of subsequent articles.[4]

You might be wondering why this is important, at this point; it has to do with the topic of a recent post of mine on apophatic versus cataphatic theology. When theologies start with the oneness or ‘being of God’ over against the threeness or ‘persons of God’ they are typically taking the apophatic approach to knowing God. They are starting with a discursive rather than concrete way to God; using philosophical categories that conceive of Godness prior to being confronted by that in the definitional reality of His own Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It potentially gives us a God, the approach under critique in this post, that is abstract and personally removed from his creation; who is not easily understood as a ‘relational’ and dynamic God.


[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 78-9.

[2] The small print is a stylistic move used throughout Kooi’s and Brink’s Christian Dogmatics with the purpose of providing more detailed analyses of various loci. It is reminiscent of how Karl Barth used his footnote sections (his “small print”) to accomplish the same thing.

[3] Kooi and Brink, Christian Dogmatics, 79.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 3–4 cited by Bobby Grow, “Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis?: Either Through Christ or Through Nature,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 110.

No God Behind the Back of Jesus: God is Love not an UnMoved Mover

I don’t know about you, but as a North American evangelical, growing up, I was taught and given the impression, theologically, that God is somewhat performance driven; i.e. that he is concerned with me keeping his law in order for me to maintain fellowship with him (a quid pro quo type of relationship). Don’t get me wrong, it was never quite this explicit, in fact just the opposite might have been what was on the surface; i.e. that ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.’ But underneath the pietism that the Sunday school song captures remained a God who was shaped goodshepherdby his relation to me and the world by us (humanity) keeping a rigid performance shaped spirituality. Even if I was told that God was love, and even if those telling me that he is love were genuine, there still, even at a tacit level, remained a detachment or rupture between what they were saying and the theology they, and then I had available to fall back on; in other words there was a fissure between the pietism, and the actual theology behind said pietism. If I am not being cryptic enough what I am referring to is the classically Reformed theology that funded, ostensibly, the piety I lived under as a child and young adult; bearing in mind that my background was just a basic baptistic “biblicist” Free church mode of being.

An antidote to all of this came for me in seminary, particularly through my professor, Ron Frost’s instruction; he introduced me to Trinitarian theology (at that time it was presented to me through Colin Gunton’s work). Since, then, of course, as many of you know, Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth have become my teachers in regard to informing the way I think about God as Triune love and what that means for my development as a Christian person. I thought I would share a lengthy quote from Thomas Torrance that illustrates the type of teaching I’ve been sitting under for the last eleven years. Here Torrance explicates what it means for God to be love:

… Just as we can never go behind God’s saving and revealing acts in Jesus Christ and in the mission of his Spirit, so we can never think or speak of him truly apart from his revealing and saving acts behind the back of Jesus Christ, for there is no other God.

It is of course because God actively loves us, and actually loves us so much that he has given us his only Son to be the Saviour of the world, that he reveals himself to us as the Loving One, and as he whose Love belongs to his innermost Being as God. If he were not Love in his innermost Being, his love toward us in Christ and the Holy Spirit would be ontologically groundless. God is who he is as he who loves us with his very Being, he whose loving is as inexhaustible as his infinite Being for his Love is his Being in ceaseless triune movement and activity. It is precisely as this living, loving, and acting God that he has come to us in Jesus Christ and unites us to himself by his one Spirit, interacting with us in creation and history, and in our human and physical existence in time and space, all in order to be our God and to have us for his people.

It is thus that we understand why Christians believe the God and Father of Jesus Christ to be the one and only God and Saviour of the world. He is not different in himself from what he is in the activity of his saving and redeeming love in the singularity of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the God who is loving and saving us has once for all given his very Self to us in his Son and in his Spirit, and who in giving himself freely and unreservedly to us gives us with him all things. It is in the Cross of Christ that the utterly astonishing nature of the Love that God is has been fully disclosed, for in refusing to spare his own Son whom he delivered up for us all, God has revealed that he loves us more than he loves himself. And so it is in the Cross of Jesus Christ above all that God has both exhibited the very Nature of his Being as Love and has irrevocably committed his Being to relationship with us in unconditional Love. In Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit we know no other God, and believe that there is no other God for us than this God, who freely seeks and creates fellowship with us, utterly undeserving sinners though we are.[1]

There are no decrees, no artificial covenants (of works/redemption/grace), or stipulations in regard to how we can relate to a God like this, or who we are relating to. It is all contingent upon who he is in his triune life, and how that shapes his uncomplicated but ineffable relationship to us through his election and free choice to not be God without us, but with us, Immanuel. This is the God, the One revealed and explicated in Jesus Christ, that the piety I grew up with has been in search of; it is not the God, in my evangelical Calvinist view, who we get through Aristotelian, Thomistic, and scholastic decrees and covenants—the God who hides behind the back of a pretty soft face of Jesus.

It is unfortunate to see a whole new crop of young evangelical theologians drinking deeply from the well of scholasticism Reformed theology, and the God provided for in that schema. It is not the God simply revealed in Jesus Christ, and thought of from there. Instead the God of the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox, the God evangelical theologians are pressing into currently, is a God conceived of through philosophical speculation and appeal to the analogia entis; a God conceived of in abstraction, and then fitted to the God revealed in Christ.

If we cannot simply look at Jesus as the fullest explication and exegesis of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit then I would highly suggest that we not talk too much about any other conception of God. This is a serious matter, which I realize the other “side” would agree to. Unfortunately for some vested reason they can’t seem to accept the fact that the classical theism they have embraced unnecessarily layers a conception of God with the dregs of philosophical projection that muddles the face of God in Jesus Christ to un-recognition. Yes, you might end up with a sense of apophatic transcendence, in regard to the philosophically conceived God, but that sense of transcendence, so conceived, really, ironically, is more of a psychological sense of ‘feeling’ God which is generated by the self, more than a real sense of God’s transcendence as that is given in his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ unmitigated. Torrance speaks of this unmitigated God, I wish the evangelicals would swarm towards his approach to things rather than to what they have been now for these past many years.


[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 4-5.

The “Trinitarian Revival,” and Does Jesus Come After or Before the Oneness of God?


Katherine Sonderegger identifies Karl Rahner and Karl Barth, respectively, as the seminal heads who initiated what has been called the Trinitarian Revival. She writes:

The “Trinitarian Revival” has been traced to twin geniuses: Karl Rahner and Karl Barth. Rahner’s remarkable essay for his encyclopedia, Mysterium Salutis, now published separately as The Trinity. Joseph Donceel, trans. New York: Herder, 1970. (New York: Crossroad, 2003) provides the template for considering much Christian piety as “sheer monotheism”—see p. 42, note 43. Karl Barth announced the Trinity as a form of revelation in his Church Dogmatics, I.1, thereby joining the modern doctrine of revelation to the Triune God as proper and sole Subject of dogmatics. Because of the Christological concentration of these doctrines of the Trinity, they remain distinctly modern, belonging to the pronounced Christological focus of modern theology, and not simply as variants on Peter Lombard’s Sentences and early Trinitarianism in the doctrine of God.[1]

Ultimately Sonderegger does not think this style of “revival” has been a good thing; the above quote is a footnote she wrote tied to commentary she was offering on the impact that modern theology, a la Barth et al., has had upon the shape of Trinitarian theology. She sees the emphasis upon the threeness of God (de Deo trino), promoted by Barth, Rahner, et al., as something that has had a negative impact upon understanding God as One (de Deo uno). Sonderegger writes:

Once more we must pause before a seemingly anodyne, wholly biblical phrase: the One God. Perhaps nothing so marks out the modern in systematic theology as the aversion to the scholastic treatise, De Deo Uno. It belongs not to the preface but rather the body of the dogmatic work to lay out the broad movement in present day dogmatics that has pressed the treatise De Deo Trino to the fore; indeed, it crowds out and supplants the exposition of the One God. But even here we must say that the doctrine of the Trinity, however central to the Christian mystery, must not be allowed to replace or silence the Oneness of God. God is supremely, gloriously One; surpassingly, uniquely One. Nothing is more fundamental to the Reality of God that [sic] this utter Unicity. Such is God’s Nature; such His Person: One. Oneness governs the Divine Perfections: all in the doctrine of God must serve, set forth, and conform to the transcendent Unity of God. Now, to say all this aligns the Christian doctrine of God with the faiths of Abraham, Judaism, and Islam; indeed of all monotheisms—for monotheism is not a shame word! The Christian affirmation of divine Unicity opens it, like the merciful and welcoming Lord it serves, to the peoples and faiths of the good earth. But this cannot serve as ground for such a fundamental axiom in dogmatics. Rather, we must appeal to Holy Scripture.[2]

She clearly has a problem with the modern turn in what has now come to be called Trinitarian theology (ironically because of the modern turn). It appears, though, that she is over-correcting by so emphasizing the Oneness of God that she already is starting to lose sight of how the Oneness is oneness by almost denigrating the Threeness of God; which would be ironic because ever since at least the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople the threeness and oneness of God have been inextricably linked within the Christian grammar.

But as we recall in the footnote I shared from her, she does mention Peter Lombard’s Sentences. This might clue us into the turn-back she is attempting to make, and how she thinks a doctrine of God should develop. It says much about her theory of revelation; she’s obviously not a Barthian (or potentially not even an Athanasian). Like Lombard she is going to want to follow the progressive unfolding of Scripture in salvation history. As such she opens to the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and works her way, in a seemingly linear fashion, from there until she gets to Jesus. Once she gets to Jesus in the New Testament she will start reflecting on the threeness of God. Sonderegger is actually following not only Lombard’s lead, but the lead found in the scholastic developments of theology embedded in Post Reformed orthodoxy.

I once wrote about how the scholastics Reformed placed a rupture between the Oneness of God and the Threeness. Here’s what I wrote as I had just finished comparing how a doctrine of God is developed in various Reformed confessions, and a chatechism:

At first blush there might not be much apparent difference between TheWestminster Confession of Faith (WCF), The Belgic Confession of the Faith (BC), The Heidelberg Catechism (HC) and The Scott’s Confession 1560 (SC); but this requires further reflection. The “Westminster” tradition starts talking about God by highlighting his “attributes,” these are characteristics that are contrasted with what humans are not (analogia entis). We finally make it to God as “Father, Son, Holy Spirit,” but not before we have qualified him through “our” categories using humanity and nature (analogia entis) as our mode of thinking about “godness.” This is true for both the WCF and the BC. Jan Rohls provides a helpful insight on this when he speaks to the nature of the composition of many of the Reformed Confessions (including both the WCF and the BC):

It is characteristic of most of the confessional writings that they begin with a general doctrine of God’s essence and properties, and only then proceed to the doctrine of the Trinity. The two pieces “On the One God” (De deo uno) and “On the Triune God” (De deo trino) are thus separated from each other. . . .[3]

We now see this move being made in Sonderegger’s work. It’s not a new thing then, but a call back to the calmer waters, as Sonderegger might see it, of classical theism; and away from the turbulent seas that modern theology has presented the church with.

Should we be afraid of speaking of God’s Oneness and Threeness in the same breath? Was the ancient church afraid of doing so? I don’t think so. Thomas Torrance, who I also once quoted has this to say about this type of move by Sonderegger:

. . . in the Scots Confession as in John Knox’s Genevan Liturgy, the doctrine of the Trinity is not added on to a prior conception of God—there is no other content but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There was no separation here between the doctrine of the One God (De Deo Uno), and the doctrine of the triune God (De Deo Trino), which had become Roman orthodoxy through the definitive formalisation of Thomas Aquinas. This trinitarian approach was in line with The Little Catechism which Knox brought back from Geneva for the instruction of children in the Kirk. “I believe in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Son and in the Holy Spirit, and look for salvation by no other means.” Within this trinitarian frame the centre of focus in the Confession and Catechism alike is upon Jesus Christ himself, for it is only through him and the Gospel he proclaimed that God’s triune reality is made known, but attention is also given to the Holy Spirit. Here once again we have a different starting point from other Reformation Confessions. Whereas they have a believing anthropocentric starting point, such as in the Heidelberg Catechism, this is quite strongly theocentric and trinitarian. Even in Calvin’s Institute, which follows the fourfold pattern in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the doctrine of the Trinity is given in the thirteenth chapter within the section on the doctrine of God the Creator. Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, however, understandably followed the order of the Apostles’ Creed. The trinitarian teaching in the Scots Confession was by no means limited to the first article for it is found throughout woven into the doctrinal content of subsequent articles.[4]

Sonderegger would most likely respond that Torrance is simply a modern theologian himself; following in the steps of Barth and Rahner working out the so called “Trinitarian Revival.” But I think she’s wrong. I think Torrance’s insight, as well as the facts on the ground, blunts her critique of the modern trajectory within Trinitarian theology. Sure, yes, modern theology has flavored Trinitarian theology a certain way (i.e. in almost anti-metaphysical ways, which is what I think Sonderegger is really troubled by), but I don’t think the allergy of speaking of God’s Oneness and Threeness together is as present say in Pro-Nicene theology as she seems to want to make it.

I’ll leave you to decide …

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology. Volume 1 Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), xxiii, n. 4.

[2] Ibid., xiv.

[3] Bobby Grow, “Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either Through Christ or Through Nature,”  in eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 108.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology cited Ibid., 110.