Article 1: The Trinity

Friday, I started a new series on the 39 Articles of Religion. It’s a concise set of articles stating the official beliefs of the Anglican church. I introduced the first part of the first article, which you can read here. Today, I will explain the last half: “And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

A few well-known passages of Scripture which supports the notion that God is one and three Persons are: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (Jn. 1:1) “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.” (I Jn. 5:7-8) “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 28:19)

The Matthew 28 passage is an important passage on the Great Commission and its association with baptism. But for our purposes, I will focus on whose name people are baptized into. Notice the singular—one name, not the plural names. God is One. Then it lists the Persons who bear the name God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Being baptized “in the name of” indicates being brought into a relationship with the One who bears the name. Other places in the book of Matthew mentions God’s name and those who represent it. Matthew 6:9 says the Father bears the name. Matthew 7:22 says the Son bears the name. Matthew 12:18-21 mentions again that it is Jesus who bears the name, but it is in connection with the Father who sent Him and the Spirit put upon Him, a theme we see in Christ’s baptism in Matthew 3:16-17.

In the second century, a baptismal confession using the structure of the verse in Matthew 28 emerged. While the exact wording of this original baptismal confession is not known, we do know that this creed (Apostles Creed) has been recited through the past 19 centuries, quoted by Irenaeus, and holds to the Trinitarian formula:

“I believe in God the Father…

“I believe in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord…

“I believe in the Holy Spirit…”

Some have said that there was no concept of a Trinity prior to the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. This is simply not true as evidenced in the Apostles Creed. It is also in the writings of Ignatius: “Since, also, there is but one unbegotten Being, God, even the Father; and one only-begotten Son, God, the Word and man; and one Comforter, the Spirit of truth; and also one preaching, and one faith, and one baptism.”

While Trinitarian ideals were taught in scripture and by other presbyters and bishops during the patristic period, Tertullian was the first to create a systematic treatment of this important doctrine, “arguing that there is one divine ‘substance’ which is articulated or ‘administered’ into three distinct but continuous ‘persons’: Father, Logos/Son, and Spirit.” (Walker, A History of the Christian Church)

While debates developed early on and settled at the Council of Nicaea, it does not mean that the doctrine of the Trinity was created in the 4th century. The council assembled in May 325 and after lengthy discussions, which relied on the Scriptures and accepted baptismal creeds, the council adopted a new creed. “In the text itself, they inserted the significant expressions ‘true God from true God,” “begotten not made,” “from the substance [ousia] of the Father,” and—most important—“of one substance [homoousios] with the Father.” (Walker) This asserts that the Logos/Son is not a created being but that He is eternally generated and is ontologically the same being as God.

There is also the criticism that the Trinity is contradictory. How can one God be three Persons? First, let’s look at what a contradiction is. Aristotle defined the Law of Noncontradiction when he wrote, “The same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject in the same respect.” The law does not say that A cannot be A and B at the same time, otherwise a woman could not be both a woman and a wife or a mother could not be a philosopher. We can also say that an object is both circular and wooden. There is no contradiction in predicating both. However, a circle cannot be a circle and not a circle at the same time and in the same relationship. For example, a piece of round wood today could be shaped into a square tabletop next week, but at no time could it be a square circle. It’s also important to note the phrase “in the same relationship.” An object could have a side that is square and another side that is round, like a table with a round top and the bottom of the legs are supported by a square piece of wood. This is an object that is both square and round at the same time, but it is not both in the same relationship or respect.

For the doctrine of the Trinity to be contradictory, it would have to say God is one God and God is three Gods. However, that is not what the doctrine teaches. Looking at Aristotle’s definition, God cannot be the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit in the same respect. In other words, the Father cannot be both a Spirit listening to the prayers of His Son in the flesh while at the same time being the Son in the flesh. However, God can be the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit at the same time and in different respects/relationships. Being God and being three Persons are two different aspects of the same substance. Be careful. When I use the word “aspect,” I am only using it in relation to Aristotle’s definition. I am not saying that there are three aspects of one God. I am saying that there are three Persons of one eternal substance. This is not a contradiction. It is the mystery of God as the Trinity.

In my next post, I will discuss the incarnate God-man.

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