Essay / Theology

Helpful Resources from Classical Trinitarianism


The theme for the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society this year is the Trinity, so you can imagine how many sessions there are that I’m eager to attend.

There’s also an ongoing Trinitarian Theology Consultation at ETS, which does Trinity programming every year. For this year when the annual theme coincided with our consultation’s mandate, we (by “we” I mean the usual suspects: the consultation is me, Scott Swain, Ben Rhodes, Josh Malone, and Keith Johnson of Cru) planned something special.

We started by asking what a consultation of long-term Trinity-obsessed theologians like us could offer to the entire ETS membership this year. Our answer was that we should field the kind of questions that we hear often from contemporary theologians, and that we should give clear answers to those questions by bringing forth the resources of classical Trinitarian theology.

So that’s what we did. We took questions like “How can God be both one and three,” “How can the Son be the only incarnate person of the Trinity if the Trinity does everything together,” “why are some things that are done by the whole Trinity ascribed to only one person,” and “what’s the deal with the Holy Spirit?” In each case we’re answering them with the resources of the great tradition. The resulting session looks to me like one of the best things happening at an ETS conference with a lot of good things happening.

The session will be moderated by Josh Malone of Moody Bible Institute – Spokane. It’s on Thursday at 1pm (in the Grand Hyatt – Travis B). Here are summary previews by the authors:

Steve Duby (Grand Canyon University)
“How Can God Be One and Three? Understanding Divine Simplicity and Triune Fellowship”

Divine simplicity has become a topic of significant interest in contemporary dogmatics, and its relationship to the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most contested elements in the discussion. One of the central questions is whether divine simplicity, if it entails that the divine persons are modes of subsisting or (subsisting) relations in the Godhead, precludes adequate development of the concept of personhood in trinitarian theology and attenuates the interaction of the divine persons with one another. In light of this, I will present two scriptural arguments for holding that the persons of the Trinity are rightly called ‘modes of subsisting’ or ‘subsisting relations’ in God’s being. To grasp the implications for a trinitarian understanding of personhood and interpersonal communion, we will then further analyze the meaning of and relationships among the terms ‘essence’, ‘person’, ‘mode’, and ‘relation’. Finally, I will respond to two potential objections to this understanding of the personal distinctness of the divine persons, both dealing with matters traditionally addressed early on in medieval commentaries on Peter Lombard’s Sentences.

Adonis Vidu (Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary)
“How Can Only the Son Be Incarnate? Understanding Trinitarian Agency”

The patristic rule of trinitarian doctrine, opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa, seems to deny that the Son of God alone has assumed human nature. Thus the doctrine of inseparable operations appears to falter on the reality of the incarnation, unless one is prepared to admit that the Father and the Holy Spirit were also incarnate. This paper argues, to the contrary, that the incarnation does not lead to this reductio ad absurdum of the inseparability principle. One approach to this demonstration is through the doctrine of the divine missions. The notion of divine mission, I suggest, qualifies the way in which we understand God’s presence in the world such that the inseparability of divine operations is consistent with our encountering and relating to distinct trinitarian persons, including the Son.

Ben Rhodes (Joni and Friends International Disability Center)
“What is the Distinct Work of the Holy Spirit? Understanding Trinitarian Pneumatology”

While much contemporary pneumatology emphasizes the differences between various branches of Christianity, the main lines of the tradition of Trinitarian theology actually represent a basic consensus view of the person and particularly the work of the Holy Spirit. I sketch the contours of this consensus and analyze what is helpful about the tradition for contemporary evangelical theology, focusing in particular on what is often called the “perfecting” work of the Spirit. I conclude with some reflections about the significance of this work of the Holy Spirit for disability theology, especially Paul’s account of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12. Like the Corinthian church, too much contemporary Christianity values apparent strength, while God delights in working precisely through those we perceive as weak pitiful. Attention to this aspect of the Holy Spirit’s perfecting work is crucial for the ongoing activity of God’s conversion of our imaginations.

Keith E. Johnson (Reformed Theological Seminary)
“Who Does What? Understanding Trinitarian Appropriation”

Over the centuries, the Trinitarian doctrine of appropriation has helped countless Christians rightly read Scripture in its witness to the triune God. Because Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God, every divine act is the undivided work of the three. Yet if this is the case, why does Scripture frequently attribute certain actions (e.g., creation) to one divine person (e.g., the Father) without mentioning the others? The doctrine of appropriation attempts to answer this question by suggesting that actions performed by all three persons may be rightly attributed (or “appropriated”) to one divine person in order to reveal that person more fully. Although this doctrine has been affirmed throughout the history of the church, it has fallen on hard times in contemporary theology. In a context in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit are frequently viewed as three centers consciousness and will (i.e., “social” understandings of the Trinity), appropriation represents an embarrassing relic from a bygone era. In this paper, I will argue that the classic doctrine of appropriation represents an important theological tool that can help us articulate a coherent account of Scriptural teaching regarding the agency of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in creation, providence and redemption. Appropriation does not blur the identity of the divine persons but enables us to know the Father, Son and Holy Spirit better precisely in their personal distinctiveness. My primary conversation partner will be one of the great theologians of the church, St. Thomas Aquinas. We will explore his teaching on appropriation through a close reading of several passages in the Summa Theologiae.



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