John (Part 56): Trinity (ch 15)

05/12/2015 08:13

In response to Arius’s confusion concerning the statements of Jesus (such as John 14:28 “The Father is greater than I”), the Cappadocian Fathers argued for two presentations of the Trinity. One describes the Immanent Trinity—the interaction of the Godhead as they have always existed in eternity—and the Economic Trinity—the interaction of the Godhead in relation to creation. Thus, the hierarchy seen in John is depiction of the Economic Trinity, preserving the equal status of the Godhead members in the Immanent Trinity. However, even in this view, certain difficulties are present. To understand as fully as we can the interaction of the Trinity, so that we may also know how to think through the Gospel of John’s presentation, we need to examine these issues. First, we need to understand the How—in what manner do the members of the Trinity interact—and then we need to also understand the Why—what is the basis for such interaction. We cannot stop at the How. Our God is a God of reason and purpose. If we presume a certain interaction and can find no reason or basis for it, we must consider carefully whether our presumption is incorrect rather than simply assume God acts in some manner without reasonable basis.

The Cappadocians described the Trinity as one essence with three Persons. But even among the 4th century Fathers who supported the Nicene verdict there was not full agreement. The Cappadocians understood the one essence-three Person arrangement according to what has now become known as Social Trinitarianism. Social Trinitarians understand the intellect and will of God to reside in the three Persons. Thus, each Person of the Trinity thinks and wills independently. Augustine and others of the Latin Fathers believed that the intellect and will of God was of the one essence, and thus existed in singular form. (This has become known as Latin Trinitarianism, but that title is not very descriptive, especially since not all the Latin Fathers agreed with it – e.g., Hilary). For lack of a better descriptive term, I call it Anti-Social Trinitarianism.

I agree with Social Trinitarianism. One of the defining reasons for the philosophical basis for a Trinity is that for God to be a God of love, even without creation or anything else, the mind and will must have another to love. We found in John (as well as the rest of the Bible) that love means a submission or sacrifice of self for the benefit of another (e.g., John 15:13). Therefore, a single intellect and will in the unity of the essence could not experience love in the self-sufficiency of God. There would have to be some other to love. However, with intellect and will in each of the Persons, the eternal nature of love could be expressed self-sufficiently—without need of any other. (One could attempt to argue from a basis in self-love in which a single intellect/will loves itself; however, that is not love as defined and described in the Bible. Biblical love requires a motivation of selflessness for the benefit of another. It was sin and its perversion of love that created self-love that was not rooted in the truth, goodness, and beauty of God.) Therefore, as we continue, we will be discussing from a presumption of social trinitarianism.

The essence of God refers to the commonality utilized by each individual Person. And then, corresponding to that, each Person of God is the individuality that utilizes the common essence. Therefore, we may understand the essence of God to include God’s eternal and infinite truth, goodness, and beauty as well as his power. Each person, then, is eternally and infinity self-aware, utilizing the shared truth, goodness, beauty, and power in their thinking, will, and resultant action. This balance is important to realize and maintain in our thinking. It is this arrangement that ensures that the thoughts and wills of the Persons follow one, agreeing path. As each considers anything, each Person thinks infinitely. And those infinite thoughts are all based in their common truth, goodness, and beauty. Therefore, it would be impossible for the Three not to come to the exact same conclusion about anything. Each is motivated from a common motivation. Each not only values the same virtues, but those virtues are actually who they are in their common essence. Therefore, one Person could not be motivated by something different, could not desire something different, and could not miss considering anything. Although three, they are infinitely bound together in their essence to common purpose, desire, and value. Therefore, although each thinks and wills, we may speak of the will of God (rather than wills) being assured that the three wills will always present themselves as one.


In the points covered so far, then, we realize a necessary balance of unity, multiplicity, and equality. The removal of any one of these will lead to some false understanding. Examine the following graphic.

The triangular structure helps us see that if, for example, we remove unity, then the other two qualities—multiplicity and equality—point us toward the error of tri-theism, three separate Gods rather than a Trinity. Likewise, if we remove multiplicity, the other two qualities point us toward modalism, the belief in one God that merely acts in different capacities at different times. And if we remove equality, the unity and multiplicity lead us to an incorrect Trinity concept of hierarchy.

But that is a model for the Immanent Trinity. Can there be a difference for the Economic Trinity?

Several verses in John seem to direct us toward a different understanding in the Economic Trinity. Consider the following:

John 5:19 “[T]he Son is not able to do anything on His own, but only what He sees the Father doing.”

John 6:38 “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My will, but the will of Him who sent Me.”

John 7:16 “My teaching isn’t Mine but is from the One who sent Me.”

John 14:28 “[T]he Father is greater than I.”

These verses seem to point out a difference in rank between the Father and the Son. And this difference is understandable: the Son has taken on humanity and has thus limited his omniscience. Therefore (and in other words), we see the Father directing and the Son obeying (the How of our search), while we understand the basis for this as the limited knowledge of the Son (the Why of our search).

But now consider this: we also have verses in John that seem to provide ranking order in other interaction.

John 15:27b “… the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father.”

John 14:16 “And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Counselor to be with you forever.”

In these verses we see also that the Father appears to direct the Spirit. This is the How of the interaction.  But what of the Why? What is the reason or basis for the Father directing the Spirit? We reasoned that the Father directed the Son based on the omniscience of the Father and the limited knowledge of the Son. But in the Father-Spirit interaction, both the Father and the Spirit are fully omniscient. We seem to have no basis for this manner of interaction.

Even more puzzling is John 15:27a. Here we read the words of Jesus as he speaks of the Spirit: “… the One I will send to you from the Father.” In this passage the Son appears to be directing the Spirit. This is more confusing because we are presented with the Son, who is of limited knowledge, directing the Spirit, who is of infinite knowledge. The Why of this arrangement is missing. We could say that these are merely the roles they chose to pursue, but still … for what reason?

Before we set about trying to find a solution to our basis problem, I’d like to point out one other problem with the hierarchical view of the Economic Trinity. Note the following statements made by Wayne Grudem, Professor of Theology at Phoenix Seminary. Regarding the Trinity being equal in essence but different in authoritative rank, he describes the interaction of the Trinity as follows:

1.     The Father plans, initiates, sends, commands, and delegates authority to the Son.

2.     The Son joyously agrees with, responds to, receives, carries out, and obeys these directives of the Father.

3.     The Spirit acts in joyful obedience to the leadership of both the Father and the Son.

Considering the ways in which Prof. Grudem describes the roles, it makes you wonder why the Son and Spirit both act in joy, but the Father doesn’t appear to conduct his role in joy. Perhaps that was just in oversight.

More importantly, as we recall how Jesus (and the rest of the Bible) describe love, we had learned that it is a selfless (submissive) activity seeking the benefit of another. In the role-playing of the Economic Trinity that Prof. Grudem describes, the Father is not shown to act in selflessness or submission. Thus, the Father is not shown to act in love.

This appears to me as a significant problem. In describing the equality of essence, Prof. Grudem has stated that it is equality in divine nature and attributes. Is love not an attribute? How can they maintain equality in attributes when the Father is not shown to express love to other members of the Trinity?

These problems of the Economic Trinity have led to reconsideration of the Cappadocian Fathers’ designations of Immanent Trinity and Economic Trinity. Is there really a difference? Rahner’s Rule (discussed last time) states that the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity. This would appear to champion the idea that the economic Trinity does not present a new Trinity; rather, it shows us the Trinity as it really is. Hebrews 1:1-3a reads, “Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son. God has appointed Him heir of all things and made the universe through Him. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature, sustaining all things by His powerful word.”

Notice in this passage that the Son is meant to be the revelation of God; therefore, we should be able to see God in the Son. Additionally, we learned in Isaiah that redemption is accomplished to fulfill God’s Zion purpose. But here in Hebrews we find the Son as beneficiary of redemption. Finally, we read that the Son is the exact expression of God’s nature in his activity—sustaining all things. Hebrews, then, appears to support the fact that the economic Trinity does not show us a different Trinity.  

Actually, Prof. Grudem would agree with this. He believes not only that there is hierarchy in the economic Trinity but also in the immanent Trinity. But this only propounds the problem discussed earlier. This, in effect, removes the attribute of love (for the other members of the Trinity) from his eternal role-playing activity.

Rather than presume that hierarchy exists and has always existed in the Trinity (for no apparent necessary reason), perhaps it is our own faulty understanding of what is going on in John (and other passages) that apparently suggests hierarchy. First let me present three points that we need to consider as we unravel, but then secure, our understanding of the Trinity.

The first point is that we ought to presume that the Father himself does submit just as the Son does. In John 14:9 we read of Jesus’s surprise at Philip when Philip asks to see the Father. Jesus replies that the person who has seen him has seen the Father. This informs us that as Jesus is submissive in love, so also must we understand the Father to be submissive in love because Jesus shows us—reveals to us—the Father.

The second point is that the Gospels do not hold true if we understand hierarchy to exist with a top-down structure of Father then Son then Spirit. While we do read in John 15:26 that Jesus would send the Spirit, supposedly indicating that the Spirit is at a lower rank than the Father, we also read in Matthew 4:1 “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness.” If leading and sending are intended to show us hierarchical rank, the Gospels contradict with one passage saying Jesus is of higher rank and another saying the Spirit is of higher rank.

The third point is that we see all three members of the Trinity performing the same activities. The Father creates (Is 44:24); the Son creates (Col 1:16-17), and the Spirit creates (Ps 33:6). The Father forgives sin (Ps 32); the Son forgives sin (Lk 7:47-50); and the Spirit forgives sin (Ro 8:2). The Father judges (Is 33:22); the Son judges (Jn 5:27); and the Spirit judges (1 Pe 1:2). The Father accepts worship (Ex 34:14); the Son accepts worship (Mt 14:33); and the Spirit accepts worship (Mt 28:19). The Father acts as a father (Is 64:8); the Son acts as a father (Is 9:6); and the Spirit acts as a father (Ro 8:14). The similarity of activity in relation to creation of all three seems to argue against hierarchical arrangement based on activity.

So, if the Trinity’s interaction in relation to creation (Economic Trinity) is, in fact, how the Trinity always interacts (Immanent Trinity), and we believe that hierarchy doesn’t exist in the Trinity, (1) why does Jesus obey the Father and (2) why does the Bible include directing language?

In answer to the first question, when we find Jesus obeying the Father, we are not seeing Jesus as a member of the Trinity; we are seeing him as our representative—a member of our human race. In that relationship—God to image bearer—Jesus rightly depends on God for provision and direction. It is a false view to assume that the interaction between Father and Son in the Gospel of John is between two members of the Trinity. We should see Jesus there as the perfect image bearer—the second Adam as Paul says—who is faithful to the covenant of life as he represents us, humankind, not deity. That is, in fact, the reason we call these two Father and Son. They were not Father and Son to each other in their divine interaction of eternity past (despite Augustine’s and others’ attempts to promote, without satisfying explanation, the incoherent idea of eternal generation). Rather, God said, “You are My Son; today I have become Your Father” (Hebrews 1:5). God became Father as the Word became flesh—took on humanity. So it is in his humanity that we see the Son’s limited knowledge obedience, and see him directed by God.

The answer to the second question is a bit more difficult to understand, but it is just as sure. We simply must not read authoritative command into words, phrases, and statements such as “the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father” (Jn 15:27) and “He [the Father] will give you another Counselor” (Jn 14:16). As discussed above, each Person of the Trinity has the same infinite knowledge, drawing on a common essence of value. It would be impossible for them to come to different conclusions on anything they plan to do. How then can Prof. Grudem and others argue that it is the Father’s distinction to plan and initiate and then command? All three have perfect understanding and knowledge of what all three want to have happen. For two of the three to pretend that they either don’t really know what to do until the Father tells them or that they need a directive before they can act on what all three of them know and have determined is disingenuous parody of authority rather than a function of purpose.

We must understand this directive language, then, as individual members of the Trinity moving and acting according to God’s combined determination and will. It is not infrequent that we see the Godhead together placed in a passage alongside, and spoken in distinction from, an individual Person of the Trinity. For example, Psalm 2:2 reads, “The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers conspire together against the Lord and His Anointed One.” Here the Lord is Yahweh. And Yahweh, we find in places such as Genesis 11:6-7, refers to all three Persons of the Trinity. Yet, the second Person of the Trinity is also mentioned in Psalm 2:2 along with Yahweh. In Isaiah 61:1, we read of the Spirit of the Lord God, specifying the Person of the Spirit in distinction while still speaking of the three-in-one Yahweh. We see the same thing in the New Testament. In Hebrews 1:1-4, we find God and the Son, not the Father and the Son.

Our understanding of all the passages in which directive language is used should not be to impose hierarchy of command on the three eternal, unlimited Persons of the Godhead. We should recognize their individual activity as motivated and directed by combined understanding and determination rather than as the result of command from one Person to another Person.

Even when Jesus refers to Father, he is not necessarily always referring to just one Person of the Trinity. In John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” Now, while this is true of the Father as one Person of the Trinity. Was the mission of Jesus not also to bring people to the Spirit? Well, yes, of course it was. But the terminology of Father is important in showing the provisional care of God. And Jesus’s mission was to bring image bearers back into covenantal relationship in which they would trust and God would provide, imaging a child’s trust of her/his father and a father’s care for his child. So, Father was the right word to use to convey this idea. But Jesus brought us to God—Father, Son, and Spirit.

Further, Jesus said that the words he spoke and the works he did were the Father’s words and works (John 14:10). Yet, elsewhere we find the Spirit leading Jesus and giving him his wisdom (Isaiah 61:1; Matthew 4:1; Luke 4:14; Acts 10:38; etc.). Was Jesus misleading the disciples in John 14:10? No. Again, he used the term Father for the image it conveyed.