Chapter 2: Beholding the Wonder of Our Triune God: Historical Overview
As we have indicated, knowing God is important, and understanding something of the Trinity is crucial for that personal knowledge. This involves looking at what Christians through the ages have confessed about the triune God. Such historical awareness of earlier church confession enables us more clearly to marvel at what is one of the Scriptures’ most glorious truths.
The major background for understanding the Trinity, of course, is the monotheism of the Scriptures. In solidarity with its Jewish heritage, early Christianity confessed the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even in the midst of its deeply polytheistic context, early Christians did not waver on this point. From Genesis 1:1 to Deuteronomy 4:35 and 6:4, the church confessed that the Lord alone is God. And this monotheistic confession carried on into the New Testament as well. John 17:3 and 1 Corinthians 8:6 are just two examples of the confession of the one true God.
The story becomes more interesting, then, when we notice how the monotheistic Scriptures touch on Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Jesus appears to be God, yet he came into the world to obey and glorify his Father. Returning to John 17:3, we notice that it attributes the giving of eternal life to Jesus. That is something only God can give!
Thickening the plot, as it were, for early Christians, John 1:1 says the Word (Jesus) who is God was also with God. There is a kind of divine identity between the Word and God, and yet there is difference. This is one of several passages that made it clear to early Christians that there is this unity and diversity principle applicable to the one true and living God.
But it was not so clear to all Christians. Some, wanting to “protect” monotheism from any hint of plurality, hypothesized that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are but “modes” of the one God: God only exists as one of the three at any one time and that as a manifestation. The church ultimately condemned this “modalism” or “Sabellianism” (named after its founder) since, for one, the baptism of Jesus seems to present us with all three persons of the Trinity.
Another error was that of Arius who sought to “protect” the one God by making Jesus a highly exalted member of creation. The Arian view gained a much wider following than Sabellius’ view and so had to be addressed more forcefully by the worldwide church. This was the occasion for the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325. Nicea ruled, using the categories of Athanasius, that the Father and the Son were homoousios, or “of the same nature,” directly confronting Arius’s false teaching.
The Spirit’s deity was handled in the years following as the Cappadocian Fathers–Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory and Nazianzus – expounded on the teaching of passages like Hebrews 9:14 and 1 Corinthians 2:10-11. Augustine contributed as well in one of the most influential of books, Treatise on the Trinity. Among many things, the book defends the Trinity against the charge of contradiction, since God is not one and three in the same respect.
In short, the three persons form a single essence in the Godhead; and yet with respect to person, they are distinct. Within the Trinity there is harmony, meaning that differing yet complementary parts reach unified expression. This is a rich and beautiful truth which touches the lives of those who are made in his image.