Essay / Theology

The Eternal Trinity

Some time ago I got a note from a reader asking if a certain Baptist statement of faith was adequately trinitarian. I think the question came from somebody who didn’t know the Baptist heritage very well, and was just doing his best to understand the words of the words of the statement of faith.

The relevant words from the Baptist statement are, “The eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being.”

That, of course, sounds like a strong and direct statement affirming the doctrine of the Trinity, but notice that the key verb is “reveals.” For a suspicious interpreter, that seems to leave open the possibility that God might not actually be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but might just reveal himself as such.

As a doctrinal statement goes, I think this sentence suffers by comparison with a sentence I really like, the one found in Biola’s doctrinal statement, an admirably brief statement written in 1912 by the founders of the Bible Institute: “There is one God, eternally existing and manifesting Himself to us in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” The Biola statement gives equal emphasis to two things: God’s eternal existence as Trinity, and his manifestation to us as Trinity.

By contrast, the Baptist statement strongly emphasizes only the second aspect. But it does also allude to the first statement, when it specifies that “the eternal triune God” is the subject doing the revealing. That seems sufficiently clear to me, though it’s not the point of emphasis.

If you under-emphasize or even omit the eternal existence, it could leave open the door to the heresy of modalism, the idea that God in himself is merely monadic or unipersonal, but takes on threeness or apparent threeness in his revelation to us. The Baptist statement is of course NOT guilty of modalism, and it even puts up a barrier to modalism by saying it is “the eternal triune God” who reveals himself to us as the three persons named in Scripture. It also correctly confesses the deity of Christ, his consubstantiality with the Father, his eternal preexistence, and all the other things that draw the lines in the right places for the biblically inevitable doctrine of the Trinity.

And both statements are good examples of how the classic doctrine of the Trinity can be confessed in fairly simple, straightforward language that is mostly taken from the Bible.

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