Three Critiques of Stuart Olyott on The Trinity

Stuart OlyottA few months ago I reviewed Stuart Olyott’s useful and short book, What the Bible Teaches about the Trinity. In that post I raised two areas where I felt the work fell short: meaningful application and developed understanding of the Holy Spirit. Both of those criticisms may be a little unfair, considering the brevity of Olyott’s book. But upon further reflection I became convinced that some of Olyott’s material warrants more detailed interaction. So under the three points below, I will raise some of my concerns and respond to them.

Blasphemy Against the Spirit

In a section on the full deity of the Holy Spirit, under the heading, The Holy Spirit is to be worshipped and honoured (p47-8), Olyott touches briefly on blasphemy against the Spirit: “Blasphemy is insulting the honour of God, and if the Holy Spirit were not God, it would be impossible to blaspheme against him. As it is, this sort of blasphemy is the most serious of all, and can never be forgiven (Matthew 12:31–32).” While the potential to blaspheme against the Spirit is a convincing argument for his deity, Olyott’s point is both pyric and inconsistent.

For starters, Jesus says that blasphemy against the Son of Man will be forgiven. By this logic, we could question Jesus’ full deity. Secondly, Olyott fails to interpret these verses in the context of Matthew’s gospel, resulting in a position that has caused much harm and anxiety over the years. Quoting Isaiah 42, Matthew identifies Jesus as God’s Spirit empowered servant, who embodies God’s promised rescue and hope (Matthew 12:17-21). He then triumphs over an afflicting demon, prompting the question pervasive to the Gospels, ‘Who is this? Can this be the Son of David?’ (12:22-23). The reader of Matthew knows the answer, because of the quote from Isaiah, but the Pharisees are predictably suspicious and dismissive claiming Jesus was only capable of such feats because he was a servant of Satan (12:24), rather than the suffering servant of Isaiah. Jesus highlights the folly of their accusation (12:25-29), and significantly in his defence states that he is empowered by the Spirit of God (12:28).

Mihaly MunkacsyWhat does any of this matter? Just before he mentions blasphemy of the Spirit, Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (12:30). The Pharisees failed to recognise the beginning of Satan’s defeat and the inauguration of God’s kingdom, the ‘eucatastrophy’ they longed for. For they opposed the one who had come preaching the good news, partnered by God’s Spirit. Blasphemy against the Spirit is therefore not some abstract offence, or loose word I might have muttered only to never be forgiven; it is the deliberate rejection of God’s Christ, to set oneself up against the Spirit empowered servant. Apart from him there is no forgiveness of sins.

Praying to the Son and the Spirit

In chapter 3, commenting on the Lord’s Prayer, Olyott writes, “Prayer to God is not to be addressed to the Lord Jesus Christ, but to the one who is distinct from him—the Father” (p25). Later, while discussing the established Trinitarian heresies, Olyott labels thanking God for dying on the cross or for his indwelling presence Modalism (p86). Admittedly Olyott is defending the distinctions between Father, Son, and Spirit, cautioning us against saying of the Father what can be said only of the Son or of the Spirit. But this does not mean we cannot address the Son or the Spirit in prayer. Both clearly receive worship and praise. Why then do we prohibit prayer to the Son or the Spirit?

Richard BauckhamOlyott writes, “The New Testament knows very little of praying to the Lord Jesus Christ” (p91). Yet we can clearly read of prayer being addressed to the Son. “As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit” (Acts 7:59-60). Paul, in 1 Timothy 1:12, writes, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus even invites his disciples to pray to him, in John 14:14, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” As Richard Bauckham points out, in Jesus and the God of Israel, “Acclamations and prayers addressed to Jesus go back to the earliest times…The New Testament evidence for personal prayer to Jesus as a regular feature of early Christianity has sometimes been underestimated.” Even if the prevailing practice was prayer to God the Father, Bauckham goes on to say, “Since Jesus was understood as the active mediator of grace from God…and as the Lord for whose service Christians lived, prayer addressed to him was natural.”

Orthodoxy and Salvation

Of the three points I make in this post, I imagine this last one might draw the most criticism. It also is not one that Olyott makes explicitly. However, he seems to make two contradictory statements about orthodoxy and salvation. Correctly he writes about Sabellius, most likely the father of what would come to be called Modalism, “Fortunately God does not listen to our words, but looks on our hearts, and the mediation of Christ guarantees that our prayers are presented in heaven without fault. And yet it is always dangerous to have wrong views of God” (p86). I made a similar point in an old post on Origen. But a few pages on, Olyott undoes his generous statement about heterodoxy or heresy, lumping Modalists with Muslims, animists, and pagans (p87). “The only true God is the one who has revealed himself in the Scriptures, and this is what he has revealed…A belief in the Trinity is essential to salvation.” Bringing his book to a close, he states this point more emphatically: “There can be no salvation where there is no belief in the Trinity” (p90). I feel like I might lose my job by disagreeing with such a statement. But should we really base salvation on the grounds of orthodox Trinitarian belief? I know nothing of that in Scripture.

Roman TrialJesus is fully God, as are the Father and the Holy Spirit, yet the salvation he offers, the work he accomplished, was not the overturning of our ignorance about the Trinity but the forgiveness of our sins at the cross. It is ours by faith, not intellectual ascent. Belief is primarily, as I read it in the New Testament, trusting in God’s grace made known in Christ, long before it is believing the right things about God. Surely this is what Jesus means in John 17:3 when he said that eternal life is knowing the only true God, and Jesus whom he sent.

Book Review: What the Bible Teaches About the Trinity

Considering the present theological maelstrom about the Trinity punctuating most timelines and newsfeeds, I chalked it up to providence when I was given this short book to review. While the intricacies of the Son’s eternal submission to the Father will be dismissed as a superfluous conversation by many, studying what God has revealed about himself as both three and one – Father, Son, and Spirit, yet one God and not three gods – is not a subject (if we can call it that) that any Christian should pass over. Indeed, every Christian should be familiar with what the Bible teaches about the Trinity. In this helpful and mercifully short book Stuart Olyott sets out to do just that.

Stuart OlyottIn the introduction, Olyott offers his work as a primer, both concise and accessible. Without assuming to settle minor and infinitely complicated details about our doctrine of the Trinity, throughout the book the reader is presented with the major tenets and a few key passages. He acknowledges disagreements, mostly those of the past, and modestly owns that there is much as creatures we will never comprehend. Instead his modest aim for the work is that, “It will remove that sense of strangeness that you may feel as you first approach this deep subject and make it possible for you to progress where once you thought you would never begin” (p7). Olyott achieves this, providing his reader with a very useful and far from insignificant first step in their lifelong study of the living and true God, the Trinity.

Even though Olyott overstates the point when he writes that no question about God containing the word ‘how’ can be answered (p15), I appreciate that he makes humility and adoration key components to his work. As the author says, “We come as humble learners, searching the Scriptures…humbled that we cannot enter anywhere, except where he has permitted. We are not as God. We are creatures. We can never discover what he has not revealed” (p16). This is such an important and often overlooked point when it comes to the Trinity, specifically, and Christian doctrine, generally. We come to God as fallen and finite creatures, meaning it is appropriate we do not view the subject of God’s nature, or any theological matter, as one we might master. Rather, as Olyott insists from the beginning of his book and concludes in his final chapter, we should walk away from theological study as reverent worshippers. Olyott’s book captures these twin attitudes, as the author refuses to venture far beyond what we can know from Scipture and he brings the book to a close exploring how the truth of God as Trinity shapes worship and prayer.

TrinityWith this attitude of teachable humility and reverence, Olyott approaches the deep truths of God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. You can read other reviews to learn how the book is laid out; here I want to briefly comment on the general flow and aims of the book. Olyott identifies three Trinitarian heresies that have almost always existed in the church: polytheism, Unitarianism or Monarchianism, and modalism (p51; expanded on p81-86). The first overstates God’s plurality or threeness, resulting in three gods as opposed to the God who is one. The second favours God’s oneness and generally– for example in Arianism – denies the full divinity of the Son or the Spirit. The third suggests that God has at different points in history worn different masks, meaning there is no Son for God simply took another form or mode. But identifying the common heresies that ignore and twist the witness of Scripture does not get us where we need to be. Olyott then unpacks the mystery of the Trinity, affirming threeness and oneness, distinction and unity, the full divinity of each person of the Trinity with the repeated scriptural insistence that there is one God. This forms the bulk of the work and is worth reflective reading, critical engagement, and serious study. Olyott carefully guides the reader through the turbulent waters of Trinitarian theology, making all the necessary stops, and only a few that would have been better left out of a primer. The author works hard throughout his work to make plain what has been revealed to us but also warning against that which has not. I appreciated his simplicity, especially considering that God’s Triune being is perhaps the greatest mystery we will ever encounter (p16); and I thought the strict dismissal of all analogies for the Trinity was an important challenge to teachers and students alike (p78, 86). Though he covers immense ground in a short space, Olyott does well to avoid reductionism and shows that when it comes to the Trinity responsible simplicity can only go so far.

Before concluding this review, it must be said that while Olyott demonstrates the appropriate instinct to turn his abridged theology into doxology, I found his application to be shallow. This shallowness also extends to Olyott’s theological corrections, which are dated. On the first criticism, my want for application, to limit the practical value of the doctrine of the Trinity to worship, prayer, and salvation feels like a sermon where the application is: read your Bible, pray, and evangelise. To pick just a few examples, the biblical doctrine of the Trinity is immensely important for our understanding of the cross, progressive holiness or sanctification, God’s comforting and powerful presence, being transformed by God’s Word, and properly grasping human nature since we are made in the image of God. Secondly, the book possesses too few timely corrections that the proper understanding of the nature and work of God results in. Obviously this is not a work exclusively on the Holy Spirit, but pneumatology is an area where modern misunderstandings must be challenged. And I am not only talking disagreements about spiritual gifts or growing Pentecostalism; we desperately need work to be done around the role of the Spirit in empowering and making Christians fruitful, illuminating Scripture, and convicting us of sin. These were my two major criticisms of the book: it lacked rich, practical application and did not adequately challenge the significant errors that result from an incomplete view of God as he has revealed himself. But the brief work more than makes up for these shortcomings elsewhere.

Scotum FideiIn closing, let me reiterate the outstanding positives of Olyott’s work: accessibility, humility in approaching this study, application of the truth that God is Trinity, careful treatment what Scripture teaches, and the correction of common Trinitarian heresies, unwitting and deliberate. I have other further questions that I would like to raise but this review is already far too long. Therefore I highlighted just two concerns about the book, chosen because of the nature and intended audience of book: application and challenging prevalent misunderstandings. Having said that, my copy is well marked and I plan on returning to it in the future as both a teaching resource and invaluably concise reminder of the God whom we worship.

I received this book for free from Evangelical Press in exchange for this honest review. I was not required to write a positive review of the book. If you enjoyed this then you might enjoy other reviews I have written, here and here, covering some theological works, Christian living, and a few novels.

Friendship

Facebook friendsFriendship has been cheapened. Though we have seen no drastic shift in our lifetime I am convinced that we find ourselves in a generally negative trend with regards to friendship. The tragedy of this trend goes further than losing the richly significant role friendship once played in human life and flourishing, for I believe Christians have lost sight of the crucial role deep friendships play in discipleship and spiritual growth. The cheapening of friendship as an integral part of all of human life, and specifically Christian life, needs assessment and I hope to convince you to revaluate your own understanding of friendship in this brief post.

Defining friendship

Defining friendship is not a simple task. Biblical reference to it is thin and we have largely lost touch with the fullness and rich appreciation many cultures throughout history have attributed to it. A great place to start is to point out that the Christian God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – has never known anything less than perfect other-person centeredness as Trinity. Our God is relational; his fundamental nature consists of personal intimacy and communion.  As Christoph Schwöbel writes in his essay Recovering Human Dignity, the imago Dei means human relationality is explained by the relationality of God. Adam’s intensely relational capacity sheds light on how it was possible for him to be in a ‘not good’ condition when he walked Eden with his Creator. Because we are created in the image of our God we are created with the need for intimate and self-giving relationships.

St Paul's HouseI do not think that this deep and other-person centred intimacy should be limited to marriage, as many tend to do today. In 1 Samuel 18:1 and Deuteronomy 13:6 we are given a vivid description of friendship as ‘souls knit together.’ Michael Haykin comments that this metaphor says friends are intimate companions to each other’s innermost thoughts and feelings, bearing ideas of strong emotional attachment and loyalty. We are so caught up with the “one flesh” of Genesis 2:24 that we completely overlook the knitting of souls in holy and spiritual friendship. I love how this metaphor in some ways reflects the Trinitarian nature, for there is plurality and oneness, merged yet distinct persons. Despite the scant references to friendship in Scripture, this description alone should enrich our impoverished definition and practice of friendship.

In Spiritual Friendship Aelred of Rievaulx says, “We call friends only those to whom we have no qualm about entrusting our heart and all its contents.” Friendship involves complete vulnerability, the joining of two people’s souls in a wonderful love that reflects the nature of God. I realise some readers might find this comes too close to our definition of marriage. Perhaps that is because we operate with a biblical definition of marriage but a culturally informed definition of friendship. So we limit love to romance, intimacy to physicality, and oneness to marriage. This is far from God’s intention for the gift of friendship and a misunderstanding of the imago Dei.

The purpose of friendship

1. Hedonism. As with all good things, friendship is a gift from God to be gratefully enjoyed. Though he goes on to say more, Aelred writes, “True friendship is the fruit and reward in and of itself”. Hear Augustine in his Confessions on the pleasures of friendship, “To make conversation, to share a joke, to perform mutual acts of kindness, to read together…to share in trifling and in serious matters, to disagree though without animosity…to teach each other something…to long with impatience for those absent, to welcome them with gladness on their arrival.” Furthermore, if our friendships imitated God’s Trinitarian and self-giving relationality they would provide unending joy, security, and love. Friendship is a gift from God that is entailed in the imago Dei, yet we spend most of our lives content with vague reflections of true friendship.

Spiritual friendship2. Holiness. Moving on from the above point, friendship has to be about more than itself. Friends need a common pursuit, or shared interests and longings. We can say that there must be a shared direction. Tim Keller, in The Meaning of Marriage, writes that the best friendships are cultivated when there is something both friends are seriously committed to. To develop this point further, Aelred says that a friend desires nothing that is unbecoming and never fails to wish for what is becoming. It involves willing and not willing the same things for each other; like desires and denials. For Christian friendships, another way of putting this is the pursuit of holiness, spiritual growth and the opposition of sin. I am convinced that the greatest shared direction for any friendship is towards Christlikeness. Listen to this great quote from Gregory of Nazianzus about a close friend, “Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians”

3. Heaven. C.S. Lewis famously said, in The Weight of Glory, that we have never met a mere mortal. We are all eternal. Only people will last forever. The hard truth is however is that while friendship is a wonderful gift from God in the present, not all friendships will last in eternity. In Confessions, Augustine writes about a dear friend, what we might call a ‘best friend,’ who became ill and died in his twenties. Though Augustine joyfully reflects on what they had when his friend was alive, he laments what was lost: “I had poured out my soul on to the sand by loving a person sure to die as if he would never die.” He speaks of his soul being lacerated by the loss of his friend and becoming miserably inconsolable. In the post linked above I make this point: eternal friendship is only enjoyed by those who are in Christ and will be with him in glory. Friendships will tragically end on earth with death, and some will carry on into heaven. With this point we learn that friendship can be one of the most important experiences in our lives, not only because they will continue in glory but also because as Christians we can introduce others to the man who laid down his life for his friends.

Jenson on Hegel: Philosophical and Trinitarian Principles for Relationships

Jenson, author of The Triune GodEarlier this year, for my systematics course, we discussed the modern issues surrounding Trinitarian theology I got to work on as essay dealing specifically with the difficulties regarding our doctrine of the Holy Spirit. While the readings – from luminaries such as T. F. Torrance, George Hunsinger, and Colin Gunton – were stimulating and helpful, it was the slightly unorthodox theology of Robert Jenson that grabbed my attention. And it is one particular point Jenson makes which I hope to draw out and apply in this post.

Jenson points out that one of Western theology’s major shortcomings is the trend (perhaps traceable to Augustine’s “bond of love”) to envelope the Holy Spirit within the other two Persons of the Godhead, reducing the Holy Spirit to the Personal Trinity’s capacity, void of any real personal capacity. Highlighting this problem in Karl Barth’s theology, Jenson notes that the Spirit is seen more prominently as the fellowship between Father and Son and not a partner of that fellowship. Similarly to Augustine’s phrase, Barth’s famous expression for the Spirit was, “the mediator of communion”. And according to Jenson, in practice we own an “I-thou” trinitarianism, which could more accurately be called binitarianism.

Jenson believes that the 20th century philosopher Hegel, whom he calls the greatest expositor of “I-thou” ontology, provides a helpful corrective for understanding relationships, both divine and human. Hegel was convinced that if persons are to be free for one another they must be both subject and object in their converse. But in a purely “I-thou” relationship a person can evade availability as an object, thus enslaving the other person. Relationships thus become open or hidden struggles for domination. Each person is vying to be the subject, or master, making the other party its object, or slave, intentionally or subconsciously.

Cover: Phenomenology of the SpiritHegel felt that mutually accepted objectifying and availability cannot happen without an intrusive third party who liberates the two parties and makes them free for one another. His solution to the “I-thou” impasse is that both subjects need to be objects of another. Otherwise each party can’t help but guard against increasingly becoming the object, by striving after ascendency as the subject. Jenson suggests that herein is the answer to many of the issues in modern trinitarian theology: Father and Son are free to love each other only when the Holy Spirit objectifies them, as subject the Spirit’s intention is mutual love between its objects.

Whether you fully understand Jenson’s pneumatological development based on Hegelian philosophy or not, let alone agree with it, it’s the corollary application I hope you’ll find helpful. You might think Jenson has overlooked significant answers the West does give, such as taxis in the Trinity and the monarchy of the Father, hierarchy without ontological inferiority. I remain unconvinced by process theology and the implications it has for trinitarian theology, such as the ontological derivation of the Son and Holy Spirit (a hallmark of Eastern theology). But that being said, Hegel and Jenson present us with a valuable principle for relationships, even if we have to limit it to the human sphere.

The principle that we can derive from Hegelian philosophy, which Jenson hints at, is the necessity of a third party in human relationships. Hegel argued that we see this in marriage, where a child (the intrusive third party and subject) objectifies its parents as well as serves as a mutual object of their love. Jenson goes a step further than Hegel in saying friendships that are too exclusive will wither or become destructive. Conflict and confrontation over hegemony is the destiny of relationships that don’t make room for a third party. To paraphrase Jenson, if I am to be your object, and you mine, there must be one for whom we are both objects, whose intention is our mutual love. That is accountability, friendship and God’s design for human relationships. It is also a warning that most of us need to hear today.

Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology, Volume 1Nearly all of what I’ve said above is a summary of Robert Jenson, in the first volume of his Systematic Theology: The Triune God (1997), p153-156. If you are brave then you can find the relevant sections on p104-116 of A.V. Miller’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit (1977).

The Agency of Definitive Sanctification: Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Portrait of John MurrayThe unfortunate result of writing a thesis is that you end up with a lot of material but not enough space for its inclusion. There is a great tragedy in this, for apart from a few keen theological students and your honours supervisor these by-products are not really accessible reading. But that is not going to prevent me offering this brief piece, which is more of a hors d’oeuvre, on the agency of definitive sanctification.

John Murray on sanctification roused my interest in this question (see Collected Works: volume 2, p285-293). His answer to the question is given as a twofold progression where the second step, in my opinion, undoes the first. For he says that (1) while it is the saving action of each person in the Trinity that believers are sanctified, (2) it is by virtue of the Son’s complete work on the cross that the action of the Father and Holy Spirit take effect. So much for the old Latin expression opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa (the external works of the Trinity are undivided). Murray appears to reduce the work of both Father and Spirit, within the Triune God’s sanctification of the creature. Below I will briefly outline why we should not limit the agency of our definitive sanctification to one person in the Trinity.

Father as Monarch: the initiating agent of the Trinity (Dr. Benjamin Dean, my lecturer in systematic theology at George Whitefield College)

Without presuming to address the myriad of questions surrounding the taxis (order) in the Trinity, this distinction made by Ben Dean is a helpful one: when we speak of the Monarchy of the Father we can do so with reference to his person but not his being. That is to say that the Father, without being ontologically superior, is the prominent person within the Trinity. His prerogative is privileged as he is the leading and initiating figure of the Trinity. Thus when we speak about the co-activity of the Triune God we need to bear in mind that it unfolds within a defined order. Bringing this back to sanctification we should remember that the Son’s work is carried out in submission to the Father’s desire that his creatures enjoy a relationship with him, and for this they must be sanctified.

The pactum salutis: the covenant of grace

Though it is often forgotten or unmentioned, the pactum salutis (pact of salvation) is a hallmark of Reformed theology. It presupposes communion with Christ, a union or bond forged between the mediator and God’s elect in eternity. Election is the Father’s decision to make a covenant of grace with certain creatures he chose before time. The Father gives the elect to his Son and unites them with him, which explains Jesus’ phrase in John 10:28-29 where he assures believers that he will lose none that the Father has trusted into his hand. Though not very different to the first point I have made, the pactum salutis teaches us is that in sanctification, we are not merely benefitting from Christ’s work and our position in him, but as covenant partners with the Triune God from eternity, the Spirit appropriates covenant blessings (salvation) to us.

 The Spirit makes us holy: the consecrating agent (John Webster, Confessing God, p128-129)

In eternity the Father looks ahead to our reconciliation and sanctification, in history the Son takes up the creature’s cause and reconciles them by his sufficient work, in which our sanctification finds its organic source. But it is the Spirit who completes the sanctification which was willed by the Father and effectively procured by the Son. The Spirit acts upon the creature filling out its history in completion of the divine purpose. He makes this sanctification actual. His work establishes creatures in fellowship with “the thrice Holy One”. Thus without his work the salvation initiated in eternity and secured at Calvary cannot be enjoyed by the creature.

Scutum FideiWe will finish where we started, with John Murray, who concludes his chapter on the pattern sanctification like this, “when Christ is truly honoured, the other persons of the Godhead are likewise honoured” for we see the Father’s glory in the Son’s face and know that the Spirit glorifies the Son (p312). I wholeheartedly agree with Murray, but ask if we would not gain a greater grasp of the Son’s work as we remember its integration within the Trinity’s.

The Trinity: Unity, Community & Equality

One of the most striking truths about the Christian God is that in him there is both unity and community. The formula we use is “one God, three persons, co-equal and co-eternal”. In other words, there is one God and yet; Father, Son and Spirit are distinct from one another but equally and eternally God. This means that within the Godhead there is perfect union because Father, Son and Spirit are perfectly united as one God but there is also perfect communion because Father, Son and Spirit are also distinct from one another and perfectly equal in terms of deity. It is a mind bending reality. Augustine, the great church father, once said of the Trinity, “Spend your life trying to understand it, and you will lose your mind; but deny it and you will lose your soul.”

Rightly, we want to understand our God to the best of our ability but popular attempts to simplify this difficult doctrine often amount to over-simplifications. We simplify the doctrine of the Trinity at the expense of its depth. When we lose equality, unity or community in the trinity, we have lost the grand significance of it. For this reason, we want to be nuanced and incisive. There are essentially three trinitarian heresies into which people fall and, in order to avoid them, we must understand them. It is to these we will now turn our attention.

Modalism

Frequently the Trinity is likened to water; a single element which appears as solid, liquid and gas – one substance, three modes. Another popular image is that of a man who is simultaneously father, son and husband; one man, three roles. Both of these images are fundamentally flawed, their flaw has been known in church history as “Modalism” (one God who appears in different modes). The problem of Modalism is that the plurality is artificial. A water molecule can never be solid, liquid and gas simultaneously and similarly a man who is father, son and husband does not have communion because he is only one man. The Christian God has community within himself and so does not need creation for communion. If God were as these analogies imagine him, he would need us to love and be loved. As it is though, active love is innate to God. God’s love is not merely something he can comprehend or create, it is integral to who he is. This is because he exists in community as a Trinity. What’s more, relationships on earth exist as echoes of the perfect community in the Godhead and Christian relationships here are being sanctified to be like the relationships of the Trinity; not absorbed into a singularity as Eastern mysticism imagines. The Trinity promises relationships that maintain distinction of persons while bringing them into intimate community.

Tritheism

Through church history, not many people who have claimed to be Christian have argued that there are three gods simply because biblical evidence is so strongly contrary to this idea. Often though, in trying to avoid Modalism, we fall into Tritheism (the idea that there are three gods). This idea is tied to many attempts to describe the Trinity analogously; a three leaf clover, the parts of an egg or sections of a banana fail to teach the unity of God. Each part is only one third of the whole substance but the Father is not a third God who, together with the other two thirds (Son and Spirit), makes up one God. This idea is not one God but three gods a third of the size. The significance of viewing the Trinity in this way is that the intimacy of relationships is lost. On earth we are entirely distinct, marriage demonstrates the closest relationship we can know but even within marriage partners don’t have perfect union and aren’t perfectly known by one another. In contrast to this, the promise of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is that the sanctification of Christian relationships will bring about perfect union and knowledge of one another which is why even the relationship of marriage will be surpassed in heaven. Tritheism undermines the unity to which the Trinity teaches Christians can look as they long to enjoy intimacy knowing and being known by one another.

Subordinationism

It is very tempting to imagine the Father as the supreme God who commands his subordinates; Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the Trinity is described as a business run by a CEO (the Father) who is assisted by a director and a manager (the Son and the Spirit). Here we undermine the equality of each member of the Trinity and imply that the Father is greater or more God than the Son or the Spirit, this has been termed “Subordinationism”. As in Modalism and Tritheism, losing equality within the Godhead has significant bearing on relationships. The feminist movement comes loaded with unhelpful baggage but is built on one sound truth: women and men are equal. This truth is rooted in the equality within the Trinity; the Son submits to the Father freely and though equal with him, obeys the Father. This relationship is not reciprocal; the Father does not obey the Son yet, there is mutual glorification as the Son glorifies the Father and the Father the Son. This is to describe only one relationship in the Godhead but the same is true with the Holy Spirit. Equality and submission within the Trinity shows us what relationships on earth should look like and gives hope for redeemed relationships in eternity. Subordination in the Trinity offers no rebuke to chauvinism but equality within the Trinity protects every individual as equal without undermining the qualities of submission and headship.

Conclusion

We began by noting the fact that perfect communion is exhibited in the very nature of God and outlining three fundamental truths about the Trinity. Namely, the three members – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – are (1) in perfect unity, (2) perfectly distinct and (3) co-equal and co-eternal. We then looked at three basic heresies through church history which have denied each of these truths and saw their impact on relationships within the Trinity. We extended these implications to relationships on earth to see the significance of each heresy.

Of course, the Trinity should be believed because it is taught by the Bible but hopefully this brief discourse has given ample evidence in support of the necessity of the Trinity to human relationships. This provides Christians with unique insight into relationships in the world as well as cause to hold firmly to the Christian doctrine of a Triune God.