John (Part 57): Trinity, part 2 (ch 15)

05/22/2015 08:39

The last summary gave several points that I may repeat (or just reference) in this summary in order ensure presenting a complete picture. We are discussing the Trinity. The Cappadocian Fathers helped us understand the concept of one essence and three persons. But this structure created an argument concerning the placement of intellect and will: are they in the one essence or are they in the three persons? Augustine and others thought they were in the one essence because it seemed as if multiple intellects and wills would divide the mind of God. However, Augustine’s placement smacks heavily of modalism (Sabellianism). The very definition of modalism is one God acting in different capacities. If the Persons of God have no independence of mind, they are no more Persons or different than, for example, my arm as opposed to my leg acting unthinkingly simply according to my one mind’s direction. That is not a good picture of the Trinity.

I believe (along with the Cappadocians) that each Person of the Godhead has an intellect and will. This does not create division in God (as Augustine feared) because of what actually is the one essence of God—his truth, goodness, and beauty. Remember that these are not simply virtues by which God conducts his life. These are born in God so that we may say he IS truth and he IS goodness. Thus, the three Persons, thinking infinitely based on their same foundational essence of truth, goodness, and beauty cannot but think, conclude, and will identically, while yet remaining three.

The one essence of God holds that which the Persons use in performance. In other words, and as just discussed, the truth, goodness, and beauty of God’s essence is the stuff (the essence) that the Persons use to think and will. We may also include power in the one essence of God because it is this power on which the Persons draw to perform.

The Cappadocians also came up with the concept of the difference between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity. The immanent Trinity is the relationship of the Trinity of all eternity—how they, in fact, inherently interrelate. The economic Trinity is defined as the relationship among the Trinity in regard to creation. This concept was developed to answer Arius’s question that if Jesus is equal to God, why does he say, “The Father is greater than I,” in John 14:28? The Cappadocians argue that only in the economic Trinity—the interrelationship of the Trinity in dealing with creation (and salvation in particular) do we have this seeming hierarchy of activity.

Several thinkers, especially more recently (in the last 100 years or so), have challenged this division. If we believe God is interested in love relationship (and we do), presenting himself as he really is would be important for that relationship or else the relationship would built on some false impression. Consider two human beings. If a man acts in a kind, caring, generous manner to a woman as they begin a relationship, she may wonder whether his kind, caring, and generous actions are truly who he is or are simply what he is doing when with her. She would not want to fall in love with someone who acts one way with her but could be something else in reality. The point of the Bible’s revelation to us is to present God to us. He is interested in us knowing him, not a temporary role-playing persona.

But if that is true—if there truly is no difference between the immanent and economic Trinity—we must discover whether hierarchy then defines the Trinity or whether hierarchy has no place in the Trinity. Surely there cannot be differences among members of the Trinity regarding ability. Being infinite is part of the definition of being God. If one is in charge because he knows more or makes better decisions than the other, that other can’t be God. But could the members be absolutely equal in essence, but take part in role-playing where one always acts as leader even though not essentially superior? This is, in fact, the position that many Patriarchal Complementarians take to shore up arguments for male leadership in church and home.

But there are a few problems for thinking this way about the Trinity. First, if one member of the Godhead eternally has always “acted” as subordinate and will always act as subordinate, how can we say that this Person is not ontologically subordinate? There is no realistic identity for this subordinate in his entire existence to ever support equality of essence.

But let’s suppose the role-playing takes place eternally. In actuality, since the intellects are all infinite, using the same one essence of truth, goodness, and beauty as the foundation of their mindset, it would be impossible for them to think differently concerning anything that they determine to do. It would be impossible for one to submit his will to the other when the wills were not different. So there is no functional reality to saying that one directs or commands the others. That role-playing scenario suddenly turns into disingenuous farce. Not only that, but it demeans the one who is given the role of commander as his only function. It means, in reality, that he has no real function or contribution in the divine activity. He merely pretends to plan and direct the actions that the others had already planned to take before they received his so-called “command.” Rather than farce and eternal role-playing, we must conclude for consistency in the Trinity acting as they really are—equal in essence and resultant mind and will.

But this leaves us with the original problem—the one that Arius had identified. Why does it appear in the Gospel of John as if there is hierarchy? What did Jesus mean when he said the Father was greater? And why is the Spirit sent from the Father? We must remember that Jesus is fully God without forgetting that Jesus is fully human. The reason “the Word became flesh” was to be our representative. Jesus, as a human—an image bearer, remained in perfect covenant relationship with God by meeting the covenant obligation of image bearers to trust in God for provision. It is as a human, then (albeit a perfect one), that Jesus remarks that the Father, as God, is greater than he, the human image bearer. He recognizes this fact (as opposed to rebellious humankind who seek to exalt self over God). Therefore, what we see in this interaction is not a case of members of the Trinity interacting, but rather members of perfect Covenant of Life relationship—God with man.

But it is not only with Jesus that this directive language appears. In 14:16, we learn that the Father will give the Spirit. The Spirit is not human, but a member of the divine Trinity. Why does the Father direct the Spirit’s activity? The answer to this requires changing our surface-level thought pattern. Context should speak to us here, and the context is not about explaining Trinity interaction but rather the focus still is on God-to-human interaction. Let me explain.

From the beginning, we recognize in God his desire for everlasting love relationship. This is, in fact, why he chose to be known as Father. The biblical image of father is the one who provides for those with whom he is in love relationship. The idea is presented in imagery—imagery that came from the very structural difference between men and women in creation. Before sin, our differences were not meant to impose one sex upon or over another. But it did intend to allow our image-bearing reflection to show the care of God by a man caring for a woman and his younger family through the basis of God-given capability. Of course, sin pushed this picture to distorted necessity as men used this capability to seek domination over those physically weaker. So it become incumbent on the father, still with that general physical capability, to care for, provide for, and protect his family. It still patterned our God who cared for, provided for, and protected his children.

The idea, then, of God as Father (rather than simply king, master, or leader) is thoroughly depicted in Scripture:

Isaiah 63:16 – In this passage, after describing God’s provisional care for Israel, and then considering the current disobedience of Israel, the narrator cries out that God still is Father and would care for them even yet.

Jeremiah 3:19 God says, “I thought: How I long to make you My sons and give you a desirable land, the most beautiful inheritance of all the nations. I thought: You will call Me my Father, and never turn away from Me.” Notice that sandwiched between calling them sons and calling himself Father, God places the role of the father: providing for his children.

Exodus 4:22 God tells Pharaoh that he would seek the care and provision for Israel, as his first-born son.

Deuteronomy 1:31 “And you saw in the wilderness how the Lord your God carried you as a man carries his son all along the way you traveled until you reached this place.”

Psalm 103:3-5, 13 “He forgives all your sin; He heals all your diseases. He redeems your life from the Pit; He crowns you with faithful love and compassion. He satisfies you with goodness; your youth is renewed like the eagle. . . . As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.”

All of this presents God as a father, one who cares for, provides for, and protects those with whom he has love relationship. And if this is so—if this is the image of God pictured throughout the OT—should we not think that this image is what is important to Jesus in calling God Father in John 14-17? Remember how this passage started. The disciples were fearful and worried because Jesus announced he was going away. But Jesus told them, “Your heart must not be troubled.” Why? God would still care for them and provide for them and protect them. He was their Father.

But Jesus also includes himself in this fatherly image. In that very opening verse of the discussion (14:1) he told them, “Continue trusting in God; in me continue trusting.” He would be father to them as well. This is why we read in Isaiah 9:6 that Jesus would be called the “Everlasting Father.” He also, as God, everlastingly cares for, provides for, and protects his children whom he loves. Jesus goes on in 14:18 to tell the disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans; I am coming to you.” Fatherly care is again emphasized as he remarks in 15:26, “When the Counselor comes, the One I will send to you …”

Significantly, Jesus doesn’t stop with two Persons of the Trinity. Jesus even shows the Spirit’s fatherly care as he calls him “Counselor” in 14:16 and 15:26. This Greek word, parakletos, can be translated helper, succourer, aider, comforter—the image of one who cares and provides for—the image of a father. That word is not simply a name for the Holy Spirit. John is the only one who uses it in the NT, and it is true that in his Gospel it is used exclusively of the Spirit. But in I John 2:1 we read of Jesus as this paraclete—this advocate.


Thus, the whole thrust of the discussion is NOT to communicate relationships and functions or role-playing in the Trinity. It is to show how the whole Trinity acts in fatherly care, provision, and protection for the disciples and us, the children of our God. The Father sending the Spirit speaks of the Spirit’s purpose and intent—from the love and care of God. It does not speak of the command/order of one Trinity member and the obedience of the other; that is a misunderstanding of the contextual intent. We see all three members of the Trinity involved in this fatherly care especially brought together in John 14:16: “And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Counsellor to be with you forever.”