Introduction: To many people, the doctrine of the Trinity is a piece of celestial mathematics—and bad mathematics at that! Why, as so many today complain, should we think of God in so clumsy and complicated a way? Why not just eliminate all this talk about ‘three-in-one’ and so on, and deal with God instead? After all, as we are repeatedly told by many well-meaning folks, the New Testament doesn’t talk about God in this way–it talks about God in beautifully simple terms. Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, stated this feeling rather well: “When we shall have done away with the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the very simple structure of Jesus; when, in short, we shall have unlearned everything which has been taught since his day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines he inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily his disciples.”[i]
Jefferson’s words will strike a chord of sympathy with many a reader, as many will testify. Surely Christianity is a very simple religion: the assertion that God loves us and redeems us through Jesus Christ. But the nagging question remains: is God really so simple that we can understand Him, that we can capture Him in such simple terms as Jefferson suggests? The wise and challenging words of Augustine are worth remembering: “If you can understand it, it’s not God.”[ii]
Perhaps a greater threat to the historic orthodox understanding of this important doctrine comes, not from a pure rationalist like Jefferson, but from within the rank and file of those professing to be Bible-believing Christians. Benny Hinn, the flamboyant charismatic television evangelist is representative of a host of decidedly heretical teachers who appear frequently on TBN.[iii] Hinn, for example, repeatedly claims to be the recipient of “revelation knowledge.” Under such divine influence he declared, “God the Father is a person and He is a triune being by Himself separate from the Son and the Holy Ghost. … God the Father is a person, God the Son is a person, God the Holy Spirit is a person, but each of them is a triune being by Himself. If I can shock you, and maybe I should, there are nine of them. … God the Father is a person with His own personal spirit, with His own personal soul and His own personal spirit body.”… “God the Father is a person separate from the Holy Ghost. Totally separate. … Do you know the Holy Spirit has a soul and a body separate from that of Jesus and the Father? … God the Father then is a triune being within Himself. He’s a person. He has His own Spirit, He has a soul. … A soul is my intellect. … God thinks. … separate from the Son and separate from the Holy Ghost. … God the Father is a separate individual from the Son and the Holy Ghost, who is a triune being who walks in a spirit body and He has hair … has eyes … has a mouth … has hands.”[iv]
This is not only nonsense, but it deserves to be called just what it is—heresy. Hinn is an example of the many who appear on TBN. Noted theologian R.C. Sproul rightly said, “The heresies of TV preachers like Crouch seem to follow more from ignorance than from malice. Very little evidence of any significant knowledge of either church history or theology is displayed by Copeland, Hagin, Tilton, Crouch, and others. These men are not scholars. There is nothing wrong with that. Not all Christian ministers are called to be technical theologians. There are other godly vocations to be pursued than scholarly ones. What is alarming, however, is the attitude with which these “teachers” assert their novelties, claiming divine authority for charting a new course. Some of them (Paul Crouch, for example) have been approached charitably and privately by theologians warning of these heresies, but to no avail.”[v]
The doctrine of the Trinity lies in Scripture in solution; when it is crystallized from its solvent it does not cease to be Scriptural, but (only comes into clearer view. Or, to speak without figure, the doctrine of the Trinity is given to us in Scripture, not in formulated definition but to fragmentary allusions; when we assembled the disjecta mernbra (scattered parts) into their organic unity, we are not passing from Scripture, but entering more thoroughly into the meaning of Scripture. We may state the doctrine in technical terms supplied by philosophical reflection; but the doctrine stated is a genuinely Scriptural doctrine.[vi] We looked last time at the O.T. and the Gospels. Now we turn our attention to the epistles.
I. The Epistles of Paul
From first to last in Paul’s epistles, redemption, which was Paul’s one business to proclaim and commend, is consistently referred to as the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are addressed repeatedly in his prayers and thanksgivings–almost with unfailing regularity Paul opens his epistles with the words “grace and Peace…from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (cf. Rom. 1:7; I Cor. 1:3; II Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:5; I Thess. 1:2; II Thess. 1:2; I Tim. 1:2; II Tim. 1:2; Tit. 1:4; Philm. V.3).
A. Paul’s Monotheism.
1. This is the first premise of his thinking–the unity of God. Cf. Rom. 3s30; I Cor. 814; Gal. 3:20; Eph. 4:6; I Tim. 2:5; Rom. 16:22; I Tim. 1:17. Although Paul usually refers the word “God” to the Father, the Father was no more God than the Lord Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit. (Paul asserts that the Spirit of God dwells in us–cf. Rom. 8:10ff; I Cor. 3:16, thus Paul equates the Spirit of God with God. Likewise in Tit. 2:13; Rom. 9:5; and Col. 1:19, 2:9 he expressly refers to Jesus Christ as God.)
B. Specific Texts
1. Eph. 2:18; 3:2-5, 14,17; 4:4-6; 5:18-20. Note the co-source of all saving blessings.
2. I Cor. 12: 4-6–Paul’s thinking clearly suggested a threefold causality behind every manifestation of grace. (NOTE: Spirit, Lord, God)
3. II Cor. 13:14—Again the three highest redemptive blessings are brought together and attached distrubutively to the three Persons of the Triune God.
Note: Why is the terminology of Paul and the rest of the writers of the N.T. not precisely identical with that of our Lord as recorded in His discourses? (cf. I Pet. l;2; Jude v. 20,21; Rev. 1:5).
Example: Paul does not speak of “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit: so much as he does of “God, the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit”. This difference in terminology finds its account in large measure in the different relation in which the speakers stand to the trinity. Jesus was the Son, and spoke as such, but He was Paul’s Lord, and Paul naturally spoke of Him as such.
II. The Rest of the New Testament
The phenomena of Paul’s Epistles are repeated in the other writings of the New Testament. In these other writings also it is everywhere assumed that the redemptive activities of God rest on a threefold source in God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit; and these three Persons repeatedly come forward together in the expressions of Christian hope or the aspirations of Christian devotion (e.g., Heb. 2: 3,4; 6: 4-6; 10:29-31; I Pet. 1:2; 2:3-12; 4:13-19: I Jn. v. 4-8; Jude vs. 20, 21; Rev. 1: 4-6). Perhaps as typical instances as any are supplied by the two following: “According to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” (I Pet. 1:2); “Praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude vs. 20, 21). To these may be added the highly symbolical in- stance from the Apocalypse: ‘Grace to you and peace from Him which is and was and which is to come; and from the Seven Spirits which are before His throne; and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth’ (Rev. 1: 4, 5).
A. Incarnation, Worship and Redemption.
“The incarnational Christology of the New Testament,” writes New Testament scholar R.T. France, “had its roots not in philosophical speculation, and still less in the gratuitous imitation of supposedly similar ideas in other religions and cultures, but in Christian experience of Jesus, both in his earthly ministry and in his risen power, and that it was the natural translation of this experience into an attitude of worship which provided the seedbed for New Testament Christology. To fail to explore and account for this attitude of worship, as has much modern discussion of the origins of Christology, is to discard the real life-situation of a warm and experience-centered devotion to Jesus in favour of a process of philosophical speculation which lacks an adequate starting-point in the life of the Christian church.”[vii]
Clearly these writers, too, write out of a fixed Trinitarian consciousness and bear their testimony to the universal understanding current in apostolical circles. Everywhere and by all it was fully understood that the one God whom Christians worshipped and from whom alone they expected redemption and all that redemption brought with it, included within His undiminished unity the three: God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, whose activities relatively to one another are conceived as distinctly personal. This is the uniform and pervasive testimony of the New Testament, and it is the more impressive that it is given with such unstudied naturalness and simplicity, with no effort to distinguish between what have come to be called the ontological and the economical aspects of the Trinitarian distinctions, and indeed without apparent consciousness of the existence of such a distinction of aspects. Whether God is thought of in Himself or in His operations, the underlying conception runs unaffectedly into trinal forms.
Conclusion: The trinity of the Persons of the Godhead, shown in the incarnation and the redemptive work of God the Son, and in the descent and saving work of God the Spirit is thus everywhere assumed in the N.T. It is in this intimacy of relation between the doctrines of the Trinity and redemption that the ultimate reason lies why the Christian Church could not rest until it had attained a definite and well-compacted doctrine of the Trinity. Nothing else could be accepted as an adequate foundation for the experience of the Christian salvation.
[i] as cited by Alister McGrath, Understanding the Trinity (Zondervan, 1988), p. 110.
[ii] TBN, ironically stands for the Trinity Broadcasting Network—yet TBN has actively promoted anti-trinitarianism. What many of the people who support TBN do not realize is that much of this money is being used to support doctrines that come out of the kingdom of the cults. Paul Crouch, the President of TBN, for example, pays for and promotes people like Roy Blizzard and Joseph Good, both of whom openly deny the trinity. Crouch also gives his staunch support to the United Pentecostal Church (UPC), a cult which claims that the trinity is a pagan doctrine. Truly, it is hard to think of a greater irony than that a broadcasting network named “Trinity” should promote antitrinitarian doctrine! cf. Hank Hanegraaff, Christianity In Crisis (Harvest House, 1993), p. 359.
[iii] Luther wisely said, “How this intertrinitarian relation is carried on is something we must believe; for even to the angels, who unceasingly behold it with delight, it is unfathomable. And all who have wanted to comprehend it have broken their neck in the effort.” What Luther Says: An Anthology III compiled by E.M. Plass (Concordia, 1959), p. 1385.
[iv] as cited by G.R. Fisher and M.K. Goedelman, The Confusing World of Benny Hinn: A Call for Discerning the Ministry & Teaching of the Popular Healing Evangelist (The Quarterly Journal, 1997), p. 6.
[v].R.C. Sproul, “Á Serious Charge,” The Agony of Deceit ed. M.S. Horton, (Moody, 1990), p. 45.
[vi] As in Part I, I have distilled the major features of this sermon from B.B. Warfield’s “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity” which can be found in his Biblical and Theological Studies (P & R, 1968), pp.22-59 or in the article “Trinity” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia V, ed. James Orr (rpt. Eerdmans, 1956), pp. 133-171.
[vii] R.T. France, “The Worship of Jesus,” in Christ the Lord: Studies in Christology presented to Donald Guthrie (IVP, 1982), p. 33.
by Archibald Alexander
Archibald Alexander’s A Brief Compendium of Bible Truth is a welcome addition to the growing corpus of reprinted material from early faculty members of Princeton. First printed in 1846 and now newly edited, this summary of Christianity’s major doctrines is a pocket theology for “plain, common readers” who do not have the time or opportunity to study larger works of systematic theology, but still want to grow in their spiritual understanding. Reading this book will enable you to better comprehend those biblical truths that matter most for your walk as a believer in today’s world, making you, by God’s grace, a stronger and more godly Christian.
Containing 38 short chapters on everything from the “Being of God” to the “Mediatorial Offices of Christ” to the “Final Judgment,” Alexander’s Compendium is a unique introduction to the core doctrines of the Christian faith. As an early American proponent of “experimental” theology, Alexander had little patience for mere intellectual pursuits. His book is as intensely practical as it is thoughtful. Even after more than 150 years, modern readers would be hard-pressed to find a more accessible, yet thorough, introduction to Christian doctrine than A Brief Compendium of Bible Truth. Excellent for personal and devotional reading, small-group and Sunday school study, and elder and deacon training classes.
“[Archibald Alexander teaches] that Christianity is more than an affirmation of intelllectual propositions; it is also a personal experiential relationship with Jesus Christ.” from the Preface (by James Garretson and Joel Beeke)
About the author: Archibald Alexander (1772-1851) served as the first professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and was the founder of the Princeton Theology, which merged Reformed experiential theology as found in the Westminster Standards with Scottish Common Sense Realism.