A. Progressively Revealed in Scripture
This part of the chapter has two sections. The first is on the partial revelation of the Trinity in the Old Testament. The second is on the more complete revelation of the Trinity in the New Testament. Grudem acknowledges up front that the word trinity is not found in the Bible. However, he believes the idea represented by the word is found in several places.
As for the Old Testament, he says it would be surprising not to find indications of it if God indeed has existed eternally as three persons. Although it is not explicitly found, he catalogs at least 9 passages that might imply that God exists as more than one person.
- Let us make humanity in Genesis 1:26
- God distinguished from his God in Psalm 45:6-7
- The LORD said to my Lord in Psalm 110:1
- God speaking of Israel grieving his Holy Spirit in Isaiah 63:10
- The LORD speaking of the Lord coming to his temple in Malachi 3:12
- The LORD saying he will save them by the LORD in Hosea 1:7
- The servant of the LORD in Isaiah 48:16 distinguishing between the LORD and his Spirit
- Passages having to do with the angel of the LORD that glide between them being messengers and God speaking in the first person
- Possibly wisdom in Proverbs 8:22-31 who stands at God's side in creation--Grudem does not actually think this one is likely (229 n.7).
- Father, Son, and Spirit present at Jesus' baptism (e.g., Matt. 3:16-17).
- The three invoked in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19
- The mention of all three in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6
- The final blessing of 1 Corinthians 13:13 mentions all three.
- The mention of all three in Ephesians 4:4-6
- All three mentioned in 1 Peter 1:2
- All three mentioned in Jude 20-21
- Grudem mentions 1 John 5:7 in the King James Version, but makes it clear that it is not at all likely that this verse was in the original text of 1 John.
Grudem has done a good job of pulling together various texts from the two testaments that have played some role in the question of the Trinity and the Bible. He also demonstrates that he does not simply accept an idea because it fits with his way of thinking. For example, Proverbs 8 is almost certainly a personification of wisdom such as we find in other Jewish literature. It is not in any way thinking of wisdom as an actual being, despite how vividly it portrays her.
Similarly, 1 John 5:7 played no role in the great trinitarian debates of the 300s. This fact alone would indicate it did not exist at the time. After all, it would have been the most explicit trinitarian verse in the entire Bible if it had existed at the time. I affirm Grudem for looking at these passages objectively.
I want to affirm in strong terms his sense that the Trinity is "progressively" understood in Scripture. That is to say, the New Testament has much more to say in relation to the three persons of the Trinity than the Old Testament does. It is perhaps also significant that he says "more complete" revelation about the Trinity in the New Testament. Surely this wording is acknowledging what seems impossible to deny, namely, that the most complete understanding of the Trinity did not come until the 300s and 400s--hundreds of years after the New Testament was written.
Grudem's basic expectation of the Old Testament seems, at first glance, to be reasonable. We should expect to find hints of the different persons of the Trinity in the Old Testament. The question is whether Grudem is looking in the right way in the right places.
Here we face a fundamental issue of hermeneutics. Do we read biblical texts for what they were likely to mean to those to whom they were first written or do we read them in terms of the full blown Christian faith that was not in place until the 400s after Jesus? For Grudem, these two ways of reading will tend to be the same because he does not really know how to read biblical texts in context.
I personally believe that both are valid ways of reading the text, although the second way is more Christian. It just isn't always what the text meant originally.
For example, Psalm 45 seems to have been a wedding psalm for a king originally. The princess is ready in her chamber, dressed in gold (45:13). She is led to the king with many virgin maidens accompanying her (45:14). They enter the palace and the promise of sons and princes is mentioned (45:16).
This confirms that the psalm originally referred to a human king when it spoke of riding out in military triumph (45:4-5) and that it was indeed a theme in relation to a human king (45:1). The entire literary context thus pushes us to see the words, "your throne, O god" addressed to a human king (45:6), and the historical context tells us that earthly kings were often addressed as gods at that point in history. After all, the king is the embodiment of God on earth, God's focal representative at that time. We are not surprised, then, to find the next verse distinguish the king as god from Yahweh as God (45:7). Hebrews then takes these verses in a "fuller sense," a spiritual sense, when it reads them in relation to Christ (Heb. 1:8-9).
Suffice it to say, ancient Israel probably did not take any of these verses in the Old Testament in the way Grudem and other Christians have in the past. That does not mean that God did not intentionally plant clues for later Christians to find. It only means that all these verses probably were read differently originally, since the Trinity was not a way of reading the Old Testament until after the New Testament. Even New Testament passages like Hebrews 1:8-9 may have been more nuanced originally than Christians came to take them.
So no Israelite would have taken Genesis 1:26 in relation to a triunity within God. They would have taken the "us" in one of the other ways Grudem mentions--either a kind of plural of majesty or, perhaps more likely, as an address to other heavenly beings. There is clear evidence from the rest of the Old Testament that Yahweh could be visioned in the presence of other gods (e.g., Psalm 82; Deuteronomy 32:8 in its more likely original wording).
Psalm 110 is an uncomfortable passage in this discussion. On the one hand, like Psalm 45, it reads quite easily in relation to a human king. Since the headings of psalms and other biblical books were added to them later, they are usually not considered part of the inspired text. In that case, the LORD (Yahweh) is addressing the Lord (king) of the psalmist. It thus becomes a psalm in honor of a human king of Israel.
God promises to put the enemies of the king under his feet (110:1). God will bring triumph over enemies as the king rides out with his troops on the day of battle (110:2-3). He will be a king-priest like Melchizedek in Genesis 22, a king who also represented God spiritually (110:4). The king Lord fights at God's right hand, crushing other kings and judging nations (110:5-7).
Surely this is how those who first heard this psalm would have taken it. After the heading was added, the Israelites probably took it as David speaking of himself. This interpretation is not problematic so far.
What creates difficulty is the fact that Jesus uses this psalm in his sparring with his debaters and the early church followed suit. As part of his argument--and that of the early church--Davidic authorship is assumed. For the early Christians, including the gospel writers, we can suggest something that we often find, namely, that God inspired the biblical authors in the categories of the day, including the structure of the universe and human personality. It does not seem problematic to say that authorship was never the inspired point but rather the clothing in which the inspired point was presented, just as we do not think of there being three heavens above us to get to God (2 Cor. 12:2).
But what about Jesus (Mark 12:35-37)? Did not Jesus know who the author of Psalm 110 was, since he is God himself? We could suggest that Jesus was "gaming" them, playing on their own assumptions rather than his own. On the other hand, Jesus himself tells us he did not access his omniscience while on earth (Mark 13:32). But most would be more comfortable thinking that this only means his knowledge was partial rather than inaccurate at some point.
Grudem, in fact, would probably consider it an unintentional sin to assert the wrong authorship of a book. As a Wesleyan-Arminian, I do not. The intention to lie would not be present, and no one would be wronged inadvertently since the overall point being made was true either way. It is a sensitive enough issue that I will not take a position on it, only to say that Psalm 110:1 was not likely read to indicate more than one divine being until the time of Christ.
Yet surely Grudem is right to think we should find traces of the Trinity in the Old Testament. And we do find the Spirit of God in numerous places in the Old Testament. Even in Genesis 1:2 we find the Spirit of God hovering over the primordial waters. The Spirit of God comes on various people in the history of Israel--David, for example (1 Sam. 16:3).
And perhaps Grudem is right that the angel of the LORD reflects one of the persons of the Trinity, such as the pre-incarnated Christ. This is a difficult concept, since it is hard to imagine what the person of the Son was before he took on human personhood. But these are questions beyond the scope of individual speculation.
The New Testament does not specify the exact nature of the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but Grudem is quite right that all three are said to be divine. All three are distinct persons. Yet God is one. God would work out the rest of the details in the church.
B. Three Statements in Summary
Grudem captures the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity (he calls it the biblical teaching on it) in three statements:
1. God is three persons.
2. Each person is fully God.
3. There is one God.
1. God is three persons.
Scripture speaks of Jesus as a distinct person from God the Father. It speaks of the Holy Spirit as a distinct person from Jesus. It uses a masculine pronoun of the Holy Spirit in John, treating him as a person. Since the Spirit intercedes to God the Father, he must be distinct from him as well. The three persons of the Trinity are thus distinct persons from each other.
2. Each is fully God.
God the Father is clearly God. Grudem draws on John 1:1-4 to show that Jesus was fully God. He argues against the Jehovah's Witness' sense that John 1:1 should be translated that the word was a god on the basis of Greek grammar. Colwell's rule states that when a predicate nominative precedes the verb in Greek and the subject follows, the predicate nominative will lack the article (234, n. 12).
Other verses are adduced to support Jesus' full divinity. Thomas calls Jesus God in John 20:28. Hebrews 1:3 says that Christ is the "exact representation" of God's being. Hebrews 1:10, Titus 2:13, 1 Peter 1:1, Romans 9:5, Isaiah 9:6, Colossians 2:9 are all mentioned.
If God the Father and God the Son are God, then surely the Spirit is in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19. Lying to the Holy Spirit in Acts 5:3-4 is lying to God. Fleeing the Spirit in Psalm 139:7-8 is fleeing the presence of God. So each distinct person is God.
3. There is one God.
Despite there being three distinct persons, each of which is fully God, the Bible seems to require that there only be one God. This faith is the centerpiece of the Shema of Israel in Deuteronomy 6:4 and it is also key to Isaiah 45:5-6, 21-22.
Grudem's next two points in this section are that 4) simplistic solutions all run aground on one of the previous three points and that 5) all analogies have shortcomings. In the next section, he will treat the various errors of those who have tried to oversimplify the Trinity, including those who have erred on the "one God" side and those who have erred on the "all three are fully God" side.
Meanwhile, all analogies fail on one or another of the three basic points: analogies of a three-leafed clover or a tree with three parts or a person who is a farmer, a mayor, and an elder in his church or one person who has intellect, emotions, and will.
Finally, 6) Grudem makes it clear that all three persons have eternally existed as the Trinity.
Grudem's treatment in this section is entirely orthodox. These are the historically shared beliefs of the vast majority of Christendom. He treats in his footnotes a couple outliers--Jehovah's Witnesses and oneness Pentecostals. The former deny that Jesus was God in the same way as God the Father and the latter are "modalists" who believe the three persons were really only manifestations of the same person.
If there were to be a critique, it would be in the interpretations of the proof texts, although there is nothing idiosyncratic about the way Grudem uses them. It is at least possible that many of the passages that have been classically adduced were far more nuanced originally. That is to say, the classic statements of Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451) on the Trinity and dual nature of Christ probably reflect more developed understandings of these passages than their original meanings.
For example, it seems more likely that Old Testament passages like Isaiah 9:6 took their original meaning from the fact that kings of the Ancient Near East (ANE) could be conceptualized as God's divine representatives on earth. Such language seems fantastic to us used of a human being but, then again, we have not grown up in the ANE. The New Testament interestingly never uses this passage in relation to Jesus, but it is in keeping with the spirit of the New Testament for later Christians to see the divinity of Christ in it.
Some of the New Testament passages may find their original background in various Jewish traditions that used divine language of the logos (word) or of kings. The Jewish thinker Philo spoke of the logos, the divine word, as the one through whom God made the world (cf. Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:3). We also have evidence of divine language/imagery used of exalted figures like the Son of Man in 1 Enoch, Adam in The Life of Adam and Eve, or even Moses in Ezekiel the Tragedian.
The point is that the original meanings of these verses may have been more nuanced at first than they seem to us today. This explains why there was such long debate over the Trinity and how such differing positions could be taken. The point is not to deny the Trinity in any way but simply to say that God used the flexibility of language to bring Christian thinking on this subject to maturity, just as he did with the New Testament in its understanding of the Old Testament.
So the position that Grudem takes in this section is completely and historically orthodox. This position, however, may require us to put more faith in God's working in the early church than would make Grudem himself comfortable.
C. Errors on the Trinity
In the previous section, Grudem has conceptualized the Trinity in terms of three statements he believes capture biblical teaching: 1) God is three persons, 2) Each person is fully God, and 3) There is one God. In this section, he discusses various historical perspectives on God that fail in regard to one of these three.
Also called Sabellianism after the early third century teacher Sabellius, modalism understands the three "persons" of the Trinity simply to be three different forms or modes in which the one God manifests himself. In other words, modalism fails to see God as three distinct persons. The United Pentecostal Church affirms modalism as one of its core beliefs.
Modalism is obviously strong in its affirmation of there being only one God and that he is supreme ruler (it is sometimes called "modalistic monarchianism") but it fails to capture relationships between the persons of the Trinity, such as we find at Jesus' baptism or in the intercession of Jesus and the Spirit to the Father on behalf of us.
2. Arianism, etc.
Grudem puts denials of the full deity of the Son and Holy Spirit under the heading of Arianism, although it is only the best known representative of this category.
a. The Arian Controversy
Arius taught that although Jesus was the greatest of all creation, he was created by God before God made everything else (cf. Col. 1:15). The Council of Nicaea in 325 decided that his views were false. The Creed of Nicaea said that Jesus was "begotten, not made." The Nicene Creed, which issued out of the next Council of Constantinople in 381, clarified that this begetting took place "before all ages."
Nicaea also debated whether Jesus was "of one substance" (homoousios) with the Father or only of similar substance (homoiousios). It concluded that Jesus was "of one substance" with the Father, which Grudem believes is true to biblical Christianity.
As Grudem defines the heresy of subordinationism, it is to hold that the Son is inferior in being or attributes to God the Father. Grudem does not believe it is subordinationism to believe that the Son is subordinate to the Father in role or function (244 n.27). He will return to this issue later in the chapter.
In this section he also praises Athanasius for his role in defeating Arianism. The Athanasian Creed probably does not come from Athanasius but is a clear affirmation of trinitarian doctrine used in some Protestant and Catholic churches today.
Grudem mentions one form of adoptionism that existed in the early church, namely, the view that Jesus lived as an ordinary man until God "adopted" him as son at his baptism. Like Arianism, it did not affirm the eternal, full deity of Jesus. He also mentions in this section that the Nicene Creed of 381 added a statement on the deity of the Holy Spirit.
In AD589 at a regional council in what is now Spain, the Western church added to the Nicene Creed a sense that the Holy Spirit proceeds not just from the Father but "from the Father and the Son." Grudem does not believe that Scripture has an explicit statement on this issue because John 15:26 and 16:7 are about Jesus sending the Spirit after his resurrection, not from eternity past. He considers it unfortunate that the Eastern church split from the Western church over this doctrine, although the underlying issue had more to do with the authority of the Pope and the Western church.
On the whole, Grudem thinks the idea that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son makes sense. Might not the relation in time in John 15:26 match the eternal relationship of the Trinity? In any case, he does not believe that it warranted such a division in the church.
e. The Importance of the Trinity Doctrine
Grudem believes that the Trinity is crucial for six reasons. First, he believes Jesus could not have born the full wrath of God if he had not been fully God. Second, he believes that justification by faith alone would be in peril. Could we depend on him for salvation if he were not fully God? Third, if he is not infinite God, should we pray to him or worship him? Wouldn't it be idolatry to worship him then?
Fourth, we then begin to give credit for salvation to a creature rather than to God himself. Fifth, the personal nature of God comes to be at stake, because there are then no personal relationships within the Trinity. Sixth, Grudem sees the unity of the universe at stake--how can the diverse elements of the universe have any unity if in God there is no plurality in unity?
Few persons in the history of the church have actually held that the three persons of the Trinity are three separate Gods, although Grudem suggests many evangelicals may unintentionally fall into this category by recognizing the distinct persons but not the real "unity of God as one undivided being" (248).
Grudem's account is overwhelmingly orthodox, for the most part. The one area where there is significant debate is whether he has accurately caught the sense of subordinationism. Grudem does not believe that subordination of role or function counts as a heresy, only inferiority in being or attribute. As we will see later in the chapter, serious questions can and have been raised about this interpretation of subordinationism.
Grudem's six points on the importance of the Trinity are perhaps more open to discussion. It is true that Gregory of Nazianzus in the late 300s said that, "What has not been assumed cannot be healed." He was arguing that Jesus must have become fully human for atonement to work. Grudem's argument is somewhat of the flip side--Jesus needed to be fully divine for atonement to work.
This is a fully orthodox perspective, although Grudem predictably focuses more on God's wrath than early Christian tradition did. And while it is orthodox to believe that Jesus needed to become human to heal humanity of its sin, it is highly debatable whether God, in his sovereignty, couldn't have justified us, pronounced us "not guilty," by divine fiat and command. This is arguably an ironic defect in Grudem's sense of God's sovereignty.
Grudem's arguments about the importance of relationship in God or the importance of plurality seem obscure and highly debatable. Again, it is ironic that Grudem seems to be using the creation in order to argue for a certain understanding of God, as if God needs to have certain items on his pre-creation resume in order to relate to us.
Surely God, as God, may have his own well of creativity. The Trinity may make sense of a God who creates a world with relationships and unity in plurality, but surely Grudem does not want to suggest that God could not have created such things without the Trinity. Grudem seems to be creating God in the image of the creation.
It might be worth adding that it was not at all clear in the 300s who would emerge the winner and what would end up being considered Christian orthodoxy. It is easy for us to look back and condemn people like Arius, but it was not at all clear at the time who was correct. There was a time in the 300s when more Christians were Arian than Athanasian.
Finally, it is probably significant to point out that it was more theology and philosophy in the early church that solidified this orthodox understanding rather than biblical teaching itself. For example, neither Athanasius nor Grudem for that matter would not have written Colossians 1:15 the way it is, that Jesus is "firstborn of all creation." The emphasis is indeed probably on Jesus' pre-eminence, but might not some in the audience of Colossians have easily assumed that Jesus was something like the logos--not created like the rest of creation, but not uncreated like God either?
What Grudem calls "biblical Christianity" is arguably more than just biblical.
D. Distinctions between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
1. Different primary functions in world
The ways in which the different persons of the Trinity relate to the world is called the "economy" of the Trinity. For example, in relation to the Trinity, God the Father spoke the words of creation. The Son carried out these "creative decrees." The Spirit sustained and showed God's immediate presence in the creation. In redemption, God planned it. Jesus accomplished it. The Spirit implemented it, brought it to completion. Grudem sees Son and Spirit as equal in deity, but subordinate in their roles.
2. Eternally existed distinct
Grudem does not believe that the roles of the members of the Trinity are interchangeable. For him, the Father could not have come to die on the cross. They each have fixed "positions" (249). Second, these positions for Grudem are eternal. They have always had them from before the creation.
Finally, these are not distinctions in attribute, deity, or God's essential nature. They hold these things as part of God's one substance. The distinctions are in how they relate to each other, something Grudem calls "ontological equality but economic subordination" (251). He will of course use this understanding to argue for subordination in the family.
3. Relationships between persons and being
How does the being of God relate to the three persons of God? The persons are not each a third of God. Each of the persons is fully God. Yet the persons of God are not something added on to God, extra parts that the persons have that the others do not. The persons are not just different ways of looking at God (modalism), like looking at the same man as father, son, and husband.
Perhaps the analogy Grudem likes the most, but certainly considers imperfect, is a man thinking as subject, thinking about himself as object, and thinking about his ideas about himself--himself as subject, object, and thoughts about himself. He fully admits this doesn't get at it perfectly. God's existence is just a kind of existence far different than anything in our experience.
4. Can we understand it?
We simply cannot remove the mystery from the Trinity. He has already said that all analogies ultimately break down at some point. We simply will never be able to understand it fully. At the same time, he says, Scripture does not ask us to believe in a contradiction.
It is best to begin where Grudem ends. We believe in the Trinity because it is a doctrine of faith, because we believe that the Holy Spirit worked in the church universal to establish it as common doctrine. If we were truly limited to the Bible alone, other configurations would be possible. In fact, most scholars of the history of theology would argue that Grudem's version of subordinationism has historically been considered mildly heretical. It is possible to argue for it from the biblical texts, as Grudem does, but it is probably not the common consensus of Christians throughout the ages.
The historical understanding is not that the roles of the persons of the Trinity are subordinate but that the humanity of Jesus was subordinate to God the Father (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:28). The incarnation--the pre-existent Son of God taking on flesh--is a matter for later in the book, but historically Christians have believed that the Son was not human before he came to earth. In that sense, the historical Christian belief is that only the human nature of Christ is subordinate to God the Father and that the Son did not have this dimension until the incarnation.
But as Grudem says, no analogy is adequate to explain or describe the Trinity and we must ultimately consign its full understanding to mystery. Grudem seems right to say that the different persons of the Trinity tend to do different things. He also seems on to something when he recognizes a connection between the creation and the various roles they play.
God the Father seems to relate more to God's transcendence. God the Spirit seems to relate more to God's immanence. And God the Son seems to relate especially to bridging the gap between God's transcendence and his immanence.
An individual can speculate about such things, but refinement of doctrine is ultimately a matter for the universal church. But we can ask whether a more developed understanding of creation out of nothing would affect the way the church understands the Trinity.
For example, the Christians of the councils presumably had no thought for space itself being part of the creation. Creation, for them, was arguably the Trinity (in the emptiness) putting stuff into the emptiness that wasn't there before (creating it out of nothing). However, with the advent of relativity, we now must think of God creating the emptiness itself. We must now think of the very laws of nature being part of the creation.
The very idea of scientific law as part of nature belongs to the fifteen and sixteen hundreds. The assumption of the formative church would have been to see the operations of reason and experience as part of the givenness of the cosmos and they would have connected it to the nature of God.
Arguably, theologians like Grudem continue to blur the creation with the Creator. They have a three or at most four-dimensional understanding of God that ultimately sees him within the same space (and time) as the creation. In their theology, he is not truly outside space and, although they might say he is timeless, their solution to the question of God's foreknowledge of the future betrays that they do not truly see him as outside time.
So when so many theologians talk of the relationships within the Trinity, we have to wonder if they are still mistaking the analogy for the literal. That is to say, even "Father" and "Son" are analogies from our world to help us understand a mystery that ultimately reaches beyond our universe and frame of reference. We believe by faith in some eternal distinction in the pre-universe "nature" of God that corresponds to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But arguably even these distinctions are this-universe analogies.
Grudem's primary application is of course to marriage. The husband's role is parallel to that of the Father, whom he believe God intends to have authority over the wife in marriage. The relationship of parents to children is thus analogous for him to the relationship between parents and children. All are equal in humanity, importance, and personhood, but have different fixed roles and levels of authority.
Scholars of the history of theology largely disagree with Grudem (and thus Hodge) on subordination within the Trinity. Historically, it is the humanity of Jesus that is understood to be subordinate to God the Father. If Grudem wants to pull the cork on this issue by trumping the church fathers with Scripture, then he also opens the door to the question of whether Jesus is of "one substance" with the Father in the New Testament. It is no coincidence that, in the Protestant Reformation's turn back to the Bible, we not only saw the rise of Lutherans, but Socinianism as well, which denied the Trinity.
However, in the end, it is not clear that the Trinity is an appropriate model for the family at all. Jesus is not the bride of God the Father. He is the Son. The Holy Spirit is not the child of the Father and Son (a non-traditional family indeed and certain to be incarcerated). Given the mystery of the Trinity and our sense that even the orthodox statements of church history had an underdeveloped sense of ex nihilo, we must consider even the titles of "Father" and "Son" as analogies. They are metaphors drawn from human life to help us catch a glimpse of God. They are images we must not mistake for the fully literal.
God has no genitals. He is not literally male or literally a father. God uses feminine images of himself as well (e.g., Isaiah 42:14). We must never mistake the pictures of God for God himself. God uses pictures in revelation to meet us in language we can understand. But no human words or thought can fully--or perhaps even literally--capture God in our understanding.