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Archive for the ‘The Trinity’ Category

The Trinity in Christian Theology

Posted on: June 9th, 2011 by Matt No Comments

The Trinity

In the doctrine of the Trinity, we encounter one of the truly distinctive doctrines of Christianity. Among the religions of the world, the Christian faith is unique in making the claim that God is one and yet there are three who are God. Although it seems on the surface to be a self-contradictory doctrine and is not overtly or explicitly stated in Scripture, nevertheless, devout minds have been led to it as they sought to do justice to the witness of Scripture.

The doctrine of the Trinity is crucial for Christianity. It is concerned with who God is, what he is like, how he works, and how he is to be approached. Moreover, the question of the deity of Jesus Christ, which has historically been a point of great tension, is very much wrapped up with our understanding of the Trinity.

The position we take on the Trinity will also answer several questions of a practical nature. Whom are we to worship—Father only, Son, Holy Spirit, or the Triune God? To whom are we to pray? Is the work of each to be considered in isolation from the work of the others, or may we think of the atoning death of Jesus as somehow the work of the Father as well? Should the Son be thought of as the Father’s equal in essence, or should he be relegated to a somewhat lesser status?

Formulating a position on the Trinity is a genuine exercise in systematic theology, calling forth all the skills discussed in the opening chapters. Since the Trinity is not explicitly taught in Scripture, we will have to put together complementary themes, draw inferences from biblical teachings, and decide on a particular type of conceptual vehicle to express our understanding. In addition, because the formulation of the doctrine has had a long and complex history, we will have to evaluate past constructions against the background of their period and culture, and to enunciate the doctrine in a way that will be similarly appropriate for our age.

We will begin our study of the Trinity by examining the biblical basis of the doctrine, since this is fundamental to all else that we do here. Then we will examine various historical statements of the doctrine, noting particular emphases, strengths, and weaknesses. Finally, we will formulate our own statement for today, attempting to illustrate and clarify its tenets in such a way as to make it meaningful for our time.

The Biblical Teaching

There are three separate but interrelated types of evidence: evidence for the unity of God—that God is one; evidence that there are three persons who are God; and, finally, indications or at least intimations of the three-in-oneness.

The Oneness of God

The religion of the ancient Hebrews was a rigorously monotheistic faith, as indeed the Jewish religion is to this day. The unity of God was revealed to Israel at several different times and in various ways. The Ten Commandments, for example, begin with the statement, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me [or besides me]” (Exod. 20:2–3). The Hebrew translated here as “before me” or “besides me” is עַל־פָּנׇי (‘al-panai), which means literally “to my face.” God had demonstrated his unique reality by what he had done, and thus was entitled to Israel’s exclusive worship, devotion, and obedience. No others had so proven their claim to deity.

The prohibition of idolatry, the second commandment (v. 4), also rests on the uniqueness of Jehovah. He will not tolerate any worship of humanly constructed objects, for he alone is God. The rejection of polytheism runs throughout the Old Testament. God repeatedly demonstrates his superiority to other claimants to deity. It could, of course, be maintained that this does not conclusively prove that the Old Testament requires monotheism. It might simply be the case that it is the other gods (i.e., the gods of other nations) who are rejected by the Old Testament, but that there is more than one true God of the Israelites. In answer we need point out only that it is clearly assumed throughout the Old Testament that there is but one God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not many (e.g., Exod. 3:13–15).

A clearer indication of the oneness of God is the Shema of Deuteronomy 6, the great truths of which the people of Israel were commanded to absorb themselves and to inculcate into their children. They were to meditate on these teachings (“These commandments … are to be upon your hearts,” v. 6). They were to talk about them—at home and on the road, when lying down and when arising (v. 7). They were to use visual aids to call attention to them—wearing them on their hands and foreheads, and writing them on the doorframes of their houses and on their gates. One is an indicative, a declarative statement; the other an imperative or command. “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (v. 4). While there are various legitimate translations of the Hebrew here, all alike emphasize the unique, unmatched deity of Jehovah. The second great truth God wanted Israel to learn and teach is a command based on his uniqueness: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (v. 5). Because he is one, there was to be no division of Israel’s commitment. After the Shema (Deut. 6:4–5), the commands of Exodus 20 are virtually repeated. In positive terms God’s people are told: “Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name” (Deut. 6:13). In negative terms they are told: “Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you” (v. 14). God is clearly one God, precluding the possibility that any of the gods of the surrounding peoples could be real and thereby worthy of service and devotion (cf. Exod. 15:11; Zech. 14:9).

The teaching regarding God’s oneness is not restricted to the Old Testament. James 2:19 commends belief in one God, while noting its insufficiency for justification. Paul also underscores the uniqueness of God. The apostle writes as he discusses the eating of meat that had been offered to idols: “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one … the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Cor. 8:4, 6). Here Paul, like the Mosaic law, excludes idolatry on the grounds that there is only one God. Similarly, Paul writes to Timothy: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men” (1 Tim. 2:5–6). While on the surface these verses seem to distinguish Jesus from the only God, the Father, the primary thrust of the former reference is that God alone is truly God (idols are nothing); and the primary thrust of the latter is that there is but one God, and that there is only one mediator between God and humans.

The Deity of Three

All this evidence, if taken by itself, would no doubt lead us to a basically monotheistic belief. What, then, moved the church beyond this evidence? It was the additional biblical witness to the effect that three persons are God. The deity of the first, the Father, is scarcely in dispute. In addition to the references in Paul’s writings just cited (1 Cor. 8:4, 6; 1 Tim. 2:5–6), we may note the cases where Jesus refers to the Father as God. In Matthew 6:26, he indicates that “your heavenly Father feeds [the birds of the air].” In a parallel statement that follows shortly thereafter he indicates that “God clothes the grass of the field” (v. 30). And in verses 31–32 he states that we need not ask about what we shall eat or drink or wear because “your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” It is apparent that, for Jesus, “God” and “your heavenly Father” are interchangeable expressions. And in numerous other references to God, Jesus obviously has the Father in mind (e.g., Matt. 19:23–26; 27:46; Mark 12:17, 24–27).

Somewhat more problematic is the status of Jesus as deity, yet Scripture also identifies him as God. (Since the topic of Jesus’ divinity will be developed in the section on Christology [Chap. 33], we will not go into great detail here.) A key reference to the deity of Christ Jesus is found in Philippians 2. In verses 5–11 Paul has taken what was in all likelihood a hymn of the early church and used it as the basis of an appeal to his readers to practice humility. He speaks of Christ Jesus “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (v. 6). The word here often translated “form” is μορφή (morphē). This term in classical Greek as well as in biblical Greek means “the set of characteristics which constitutes a thing what it is.” It denotes the genuine nature of a thing. The word μορφή contrasts with σχῆμα (schēma), which is also generally translated “form,” but in the sense of shape or superficial appearance rather than substance.

For Paul, an orthodox Jew trained in the rabbinic teaching of strict Judaism, verse 6 is indeed an astonishing statement. Reflecting the faith of the early church, it suggests a deep commitment to the full deity of Christ. This commitment is indicated not only by the use of μορφή, but by the expression “equality [ ἴσα—isa] with God.” It is generally held that the thrust of verse 6 is that Jesus possessed equality with God, but did not attempt to hold on to it. Some have argued, however, that Jesus did not possess equality with God; the thrust of this verse is, then, that Jesus neither coveted nor aspired to equality with God. Thus, ἁρπαγμόν (harpagmon—“a thing to be grasped”) should not be interpreted as “a thing to cling to,” but “a thing to seize.” On the contrary, however, verse 7 indicates that he “emptied himself” (ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν—heauton ekenōsen). While Paul does not specify of what Jesus emptied himself, it is apparent that this was an active step of self-abnegation, not a passive declining to take action. Hence equality with God is something he antecedently possessed. And one who is equal with God must be God.1

Another significant passage is Hebrews 1. The author, whose identity is unknown to us, is writing to a group of Hebrew Christians. He (or she) makes several statements that strongly imply the full deity of the Son. In the opening verses, as the writer (who will hereafter be referred to with the masculine personal pronoun) argues that the Son is superior to the angels, he notes that God has spoken through the Son, appointed him heir of all things, and made the universe through him (v. 2). He then describes the Son as the “radiance [ἀπαύγασμα—apaugasma] of God’s glory” and the “exact representation of his being” (χαρακὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως—charaktēr tēs hupostaseōs). While it could perhaps be maintained that this affirms only that God revealed himself through the Son, rather than that the Son is God, the context suggests otherwise. In addition to identifying himself as the Father of the one whom he here calls Son (v. 5), God is quoted in verse 8 (from Ps. 45:6) as addressing the Son as “God” and in verse 10 as “Lord” (from Ps. 102:25). The writer concludes by noting that God said to the Son, “Sit at my right hand” (from Ps. 110:1). It is significant that the Scripture writer addresses Hebrew Christians, who certainly would be steeped in monotheism, in ways that undeniably affirm the deity of Jesus and his equality with the Father.

A final consideration is Jesus’ own self-consciousness. We should note that Jesus never directly asserted his deity. Yet several threads of evidence suggest that this is indeed how he understood himself. He claimed to possess what properly belongs only to God. He spoke of the angels of God (Luke 12:8–9; 15:10) as his angels (Matt. 13:41). He regarded the kingdom of God (Matt. 12:28; 19:14, 24; 21:31, 43) and the elect of God (Mark 13:20) as his own. Further, he claimed to forgive sins (Mark 2:8–10). The Jews recognized that only God can forgive sins, and they consequently accused Jesus of blasphemy (βλασφημία—blasphēmia). He also claimed the power to judge the world (Matt. 25:31) and to reign over it (Matt. 24:30; Mark 14:62).

Further, we may note how Jesus responded both to those who accused him of claiming deity and to those who sincerely attributed divinity to him. At his trial, the accusation brought against him was that he claimed to be the Son of God (John 19:7; Matt. 26:63–65). If Jesus did not regard himself as God, here was a splendid opportunity for him to correct a mistaken impression. Yet this he did not do. In fact, at his trial before Caiaphas he came as close as he ever did to affirming his own deity. For he responded to the charge, “Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God,” by stating, “Yes, it is as you say.… But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:63–65). Either he desired to be put to death on a false charge, or he did understand himself to be the Son of God. Moreover, when Thomas addressed Jesus as “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28), Jesus did not disavow the appellation.

There also are biblical references that identify the Holy Spirit as God. Here we may note that there are passages where references to the Holy Spirit occur interchangeably with references to God. One example of this is Acts 5:3–4. Ananias and Sapphira held back a portion of the proceeds from the sale of their property, misrepresenting what they laid at the apostles’ feet as the entirety. Here, lying to the Holy Spirit (v. 3) is equated with lying to God (v. 4). The Holy Spirit is also described as having the qualities and performing the works of God. The Holy Spirit convicts people of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8–11) and regenerates or gives new life (John 3:8). In 1 Corinthians 12:4–11, we read that it is the Spirit who conveys gifts to the church and who exercises sovereignty over who receives those gifts. In addition, he receives the honor and glory reserved for God.

In 1 Corinthians 3:16–17, Paul reminds believers that they are God’s temple and his Spirit dwells within them. In chapter 6, he says that their bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit within them (vv. 19–20). “God” and “Holy Spirit” seem to be interchangeable expressions. Also in several places the Holy Spirit is put on an equal footing with God. One is the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19; a second is the Pauline benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14; finally, in 1 Peter 1:2, Peter addresses his readers as “chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood.”


On the surface, these two lines of evidence—God’s oneness and threeness—seem contradictory. In the earliest years of its existence the church did not have much opportunity to study the relationship between these two sets of data. The process of organizing itself and propagating the faith and even the struggle for survival in a hostile world precluded much serious doctrinal reflection. As the church became more secure, however, it began attempting to fit together these two types of material. It concluded that God must be understood as three-in-one, or in other words, triune. At this point we must pose the question whether this doctrine is explicitly taught in the Bible, is suggested by the Scripture, or is merely an inference drawn from other teachings of the Bible.

One text that has traditionally been appealed to as documenting the Trinity is 1 John 5:7, that is, as it is found in earlier versions such as the King James: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” Here is, apparently, a clear and succinct statement of the three-in-oneness. Unfortunately, however, the textual basis is so weak that some recent translations (e.g., NIV) include this statement only in an italicized footnote, and others omit it altogether (e.g., RSV). If there is a biblical basis for the Trinity, it must be sought elsewhere.

The plural form of the noun for the God of Israel, אֱלֹהִים (‘elohim), is sometimes regarded as an intimation of a trinitarian view. This is a generic name used to refer to other gods as well. When used with reference to Israel’s God, it is generally, but not always, found in the plural. Some would argue that here is a hint of the plural nature of God. The plural form is commonly interpreted, however, as an indication of majesty or intensity rather than of multiplicity within God’s nature. Theodorus Vriezen thinks that the plural form is intended to elevate the referent to the status of a general representative of the class and accordingly rejects the idea that the doctrine of the Trinity is implied in Genesis 1:26.2 Walter Eichrodt believes that in using the plural of majesty the writer of Genesis intended to preserve his cosmogony from any trace of polytheistic thought and at the same time to represent the Creator God as the absolute ruler and the only being whose will carries any weight.3

The interpretation of ‘elohim as a plural of majesty is by no means unanimously held by recent Old Testament scholarship, however. In 1953, G. A. F. Knight argued against it in a monograph entitled A Biblical Approach to the Doctrine of the Trinity. He maintained that to make ‘elohim a plural of majesty is to read into ancient Hebrew a modern way of thinking, since the kings of Israel and Judah are all addressed in the singular in our biblical records.4 While rejecting the plural of majesty, Knight pointed out that there is, nonetheless, a peculiarity in Hebrew that will help us understand the term in question. The words for water and heaven (among others) are both plural. Grammarians have termed this phenomenon the quantitative plural. Water may be thought of in terms of individual raindrops or of a mass of water such as is found in the ocean. Knight asserted that this quantitative diversity in unity is a fitting way of understanding the plural ‘elohim. He also believed that this explains why the singular noun אֲדֹנׇי (‘adonai) is written as a plural.5

There are other plural forms as well. In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make man in our image.” Here the plural appears both in the verb “let us make” and in the possessive suffix “our.” In Genesis 11:7 there is also a plural verb form: “Let us go down and confuse their language.” When Isaiah was called, he heard the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (Isa. 6:8). The objection has been raised that these are plurals of majesty. What is significant, however, from the standpoint of logical analysis is the shift from singular to plural in the first and third of these examples. Genesis 1:26 actually says, “Then God said [singular], ‘Let us make [plural] man in our [plural] image.’ ” The Scripture writer does not use a plural (of majesty) verb with ‘elohim, but God is quoted as using a plural verb with reference to himself. Similarly, Isaiah 6:8 reads: “Whom shall I send [singular]? And who will go for us [plural]?”

The teaching regarding the image of God in man has also been viewed as an intimation of the Trinity. Genesis 1:27 reads:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

Some would argue that what we have here is a parallelism not merely in the first two, but in all three lines. Thus, “male and female he created them” is equivalent to “So God created man in his own image” and to “in the image of God he created him.” On this basis, the image of God in man (generic) is to be found in the fact that man has been created male and female (i.e., plural).6 This means that the image of God must consist in a unity in plurality, a characteristic of both the ectype and the archetype. According to Genesis 2:24, man and woman are to become one (אֶחָד—‘echad); a union of two separate entities is entailed. It is significant that the same word is used of God in the Shema: “The LORD our God, the LORD is one [אֶחָד]” (Deut. 6:4). It seems that something is being affirmed here about the nature of God—he is an organism, that is, a unity of distinct parts.

In several places in Scripture the three persons are linked together in unity and apparent equality. One of these is the baptismal formula as prescribed in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19–20): baptizing in (or into) the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Note that “name” is singular, although three persons are included. Note also that there is no suggestion of inferiority or subordination. This formula became part of a very early tradition in the church—it is found in the Didache (7.1–4) and in Justin’s Apology (1.61).

Yet another direct linking of the three names in unity and apparent equality is the Pauline benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14—“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

In both the Gospels and the Epistles there are linkages of the three persons which are not quite as direct and explicit. The angel tells Mary that her child will be called holy, the Son of God, because the Holy Spirit will come upon her (Luke 1:35). At the baptism of Jesus (Matt. 3:16–17), all three persons of the Trinity are present. The Son is baptized, the Spirit of God descends like a dove, and the Father speaks words of commendation of the Son. Jesus relates his doing of miracles to the power of the Spirit of God, and indicates that this is evidence that the kingdom of God has come (Matt. 12:28). The threefold pattern can also be seen in Jesus’ statement that he will send the promise of the Father upon the disciples (Luke 24:49). Peter’s message at Pentecost also links all three: “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.… Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:33, 38).

In 1 Corinthians 12:4–6 Paul speaks of the conferring of special endowments upon believers within the body of Christ: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.” In a soteriological context he says: “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba! Father’ ” (Gal. 4:6). Paul speaks of his own ministry in terms of “the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:16). And Paul relates the several steps in the process of salvation to the various persons of the Trinity: “Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit” (2 Cor. 1:21–22). Similarly, Paul addresses the Thessalonians as “brothers loved by the Lord,” and indicates that he always gives thanks for them because “from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13–14). We might also mention here the benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14 and Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14–19.

It is obvious that Paul saw a very close relationship among the three persons. And so did the writers of other epistles. Peter begins his first letter by addressing his readers as the exiles of the dispersion “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood” (1 Peter 1:1–2). Jude urges his readers: “build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (vv. 20–21).

A more subtle indication of Paul’s trinitarian view is the way in which he organizes some of his books. Thus the form as well as the content of his writings communicates his belief in the Trinity. Arthur Wainwright has developed this at some length.7 He outlines Romans in part as follows:

  • The judgment of God upon all (1:18–3:20)
  • Justification through faith in Christ (3:21–8:1)
  • Life in the Spirit (8:2–30)
  • Part of Galatians follows a similar pattern:
  • Justification through faith in Christ (3:1–29)
  • Adoption into sonship through the redemption wrought by Christ and the sending of the Spirit (4:1–7)
  • The bondage of the law and the freedom given by Christ (4:8–5:15)
  • Life in the Spirit (5:16–6:10)

The same is true of 1 Corinthians. It is apparent that the Trinity was a very significant part of Paul’s conception of the gospel and the Christian life.

It is in the Fourth Gospel that the strongest evidence of a coequal Trinity is to be found. The threefold formula appears again and again: 1:33–34; 14:16, 26; 16:13–15; 20:21–22 (cf. 1 John 4:2, 13–14). The interdynamics among the three persons comes through repeatedly, as George Hendry has observed.8 The Son is sent by the Father (14:24) and comes forth from him (16:28). The Spirit is given by the Father (14:16), is sent from the Father (14:26), and proceeds from the Father (15:26). Yet the Son is closely involved in the coming of the Spirit: he prays for his coming (14:16); the Father sends the Spirit in the Son’s name (14:26); the Son will send the Spirit from the Father (15:26); the Son must go away so that he can send the Spirit (16:7). The Spirit’s ministry is understood as a continuation and elaboration of that of the Son. He will bring to remembrance what the Son has said (14:26); he will bear witness to the Son (15:26); he will declare what he hears from the Son, thus glorifying the Son (16:13–14).

The prologue of the Gospel also contains material rich in significance for the doctrine of the Trinity. John says in the first verse of the book: “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (ὁ λόγος ὴν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ὴν ὁ λόγος—ho logos ēn pros ton theon, kai theos ēn ho logos). Here is an indication of the divinity of the Word; note how the difference in word order between the first and second clauses serves to accentuate “God” (or “divine”). Here also we find the idea that while the Son is distinct from the Father, yet there is fellowship between them, for the preposition πρός does not connote merely physical proximity to the Father, but an intimacy of fellowship as well.

There are other ways in which this Gospel stresses the closeness and unity between the Father and the Son. Jesus says, “I and the Father are one” (10:30), and “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). He prays that his disciples may be one as he and the Father are one (17:21).

Our conclusion from the data we have just examined: Although the doctrine of the Trinity is not expressly asserted, Scripture, particularly the New Testament, contains so many suggestions of the deity and unity of the three persons that we can understand why the church formulated the doctrine, and conclude that they were right in so doing.

Historical Constructions

As we have observed earlier, during the first two centuries A.D. there was little conscious attempt to wrestle with the theological and philosophical issues of what we now term the doctrine of the Trinity. We find the use of the triadic formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but relatively little attempt to expound or explain it. Such thinkers as Justin and Tatian stressed the unity of essence between the Word and the Father and used the imagery of the impossibility of separating light from its source, the sun. In this way they illustrated that, while the Word and the Father are distinct, they are not divisible or separable.9

The “Economic” View of the Trinity

In Hippolytus and Tertullian, we find the development of an “economic” view of the Trinity. They made little attempt to explore the eternal relations among the three; rather, they concentrated on the ways in which the Triad were manifested in creation and redemption. While creation and redemption showed the Son and the Spirit to be other than the Father, they were also regarded as inseparably one with him in his eternal being. Like the mental functions of a human being, God’s reason, that is, the Word, was regarded as being immanently and indivisibly with him.

In Tertullian’s view, there are three manifestations of the one God. Although they are numerically distinct, so that they can be counted, they are nonetheless manifestations of a single indivisible power. There is a distinction (distinctio) or distribution (dispositio), not a division or separation (separatio). As illustrations of the unity within the Godhead, Tertullian points to the unity between a root and its shoot, a source and its river, the sun and its light. The Father, Son, and Spirit are one identical substance; this substance has been extended into three manifestations, but not divided.10

By way of a quick evaluation, we note that there is something of a vagueness about this view of the Trinity. Any effort to come up with a more exact understanding of just what it means will prove disappointing.

Dynamic Monarchianism

In the late second and third centuries, two attempts were made to come up with a precise definition of the relationship between Christ and God. Both views have been referred to as monarchianism (literally, “sole sovereignty”), since they stress the uniqueness and unity of God, but only the latter claimed the designation for itself. An examination of these two theologies will help us better understand the view on which orthodox Christianity finally settled.

The originator of dynamic monarchianism was a Byzantine leather merchant named Theodotus, who introduced it to Rome about A.D. 190. In many areas of doctrine, such as divine omnipotence, the creation of the world, and even the virgin birth of Jesus, Theodotus was fully orthodox. He maintained, however, that prior to baptism Jesus was an ordinary man, although a completely virtuous one. At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit, or Christ, descended on him, and from that time on he performed miraculous works of God. Some of Theodotus’s followers maintained that Jesus actually became divine at this point or after the resurrection, but Theodotus himself denied this. Jesus was an ordinary man, inspired but not indwelt by the Spirit.11

A later representative of this type of teaching was Paul of Samosata, who propounded his views early in the second half of the third century and was condemned at the synod of Antioch in 268. He claimed that the Word (the Logos) was not a personal, self-subsistent entity; that is, Jesus Christ was not the Word. Rather, the term refers to God’s commandment and ordinance. God ordered and accomplished what he willed through the man Jesus. This is the meaning of “Logos.” If there is one common element between the views of Theodotus and Paul of Samosata, it is that God was dynamically present in the life of the man Jesus. There was a working or force of God on or in or through the man Jesus, but there was no real substantive presence of God within him. Dynamic monarchianism was never a widespread, popular movement. It had a rationalist appeal, and tended to be a rather isolated phenomenon.12

Modalistic Monarchianism

By contrast, modalistic monarchianism was a fairly widespread, popular teaching. Whereas dynamic monarchianism seemed to deny the doctrine of the Trinity, modalism appeared to affirm it. Both varieties of monarchianism desired to preserve the doctrine of the unity of God. Modalism, however, was also strongly committed to the full deity of Jesus. Since the term Father was generally regarded as signifying the Godhead itself, any suggestion that the Word or Son was somehow other than the Father upset the modalists. It seemed to them to be a case of bitheism.

Among the names associated with modalism are Noetus of Smyrna, who was active in the latter part of the second century; Praxeas (this may actually be a nickname meaning “busybody” for an unidentified churchman), whom Tertullian combated early in the third century;13 and Sabellius, who wrote and taught early in the third century. It was Sabellius who developed this doctrinal conception in its most complete and sophisticated form.

The essential idea of this school of thought is that there is one Godhead which may be variously designated as Father, Son, or Spirit. The terms do not stand for real distinctions, but are merely names that are appropriate and applicable at different times. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are identical—they are successive revelations of the same person. The modalistic solution to the paradox of threeness and oneness was, then, not three persons, but one person with three different names, roles, or activities.14

Another basic idea expressed by modalism was that the Father suffered along with Christ, since he was actually present in and personally identical with the Son. This idea, labeled “patripassianism,” was considered heretical and was one of the factors leading to the rejection of modalism. (It may well be that the chief reason for the repudiation of patripassianism was not its conflict with the biblical revelation, but with the Greek philosophical conception of impassibility.15)

Modalistic monarchianism was a genuinely unique, original, and creative conception, and is in some ways a brilliant breakthrough. Both the unity of the Godhead and the deity of all three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are preserved. Yet the church in assessing this theology deemed it lacking in some significant respects. In particular, the fact that the three occasionally appear simultaneously on the stage of biblical revelation proved to be a major stumbling block to this view. Some of the trinitarian texts noted earlier proved troublesome. The baptismal scene, where the Father speaks to the Son, and the Spirit descends on the Son, is an example, together with all those passages where Jesus speaks of the coming of the Spirit, or speaks of or to the Father. If modalism is accepted, Jesus’ words and actions in these passages must be regarded as misleading. Consequently, the church, although some of its officials and even Popes Zephyrinus and Callistus I toyed with the ideas of modalism for a time, came eventually to reject it as insufficient to account for the full range of biblical data.

The Orthodox Formulation

The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity was enunciated in a series of debates and councils that were in large part prompted by the controversies sparked by such movements as monarchianism and Arianism. The Council of Constantinople (381) formulated a definitive statement in which the church made explicit the beliefs previously held implicitly. The view that prevailed was basically that of Athanasius (293–373), as elaborated and refined by the Cappadocian theologians—Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa.

The formula that expresses the position of Constantinople is “one οὐσία (ousia) in three ὑποστάσεις (hupostaseis).” The emphasis often seems to be more on the latter part of the formula, that is, the separate existence of the three persons rather than on the one indivisible Godhead. The one Godhead exists simultaneously in three modes of being or hypostases. The idea of “coinherence” or, as later termed, perichoresis, of the persons is emphasized. The Godhead exists “undivided in divided persons.” There is an “identity of nature” in the three hypostases. Basil says:

For all things that are the Father’s are beheld in the Son, and all things that are the Son’s are the Father’s; because the whole Son is in the Father and has all the Father in himself. Thus the hypostasis of the Son becomes as it were form and face of the knowledge of the Father, and the hypostasis of the Father is known in the form of the Son, while the proper quality which is contemplated therein remains for the plain distinction of the hypostases.16

The Cappadocians attempted to expound the concepts of common substance and multiple separate persons by the analogy of a universal and its particulars—the individual persons of the Trinity are related to the divine substance in the same fashion as individual humans are related to the universal human (or humanity). Each of the individual hypostases is the ousia of the Godhead distinguished by the characteristics or properties peculiar to him, just as individual humans have unique characteristics that distinguish them from other individual human persons. These respective properties of the divine persons are, according to Basil, paternity, sonship, and sanctifying power or sanctification.17

It is clear that the orthodox formula protects the doctrine of the Trinity against the danger of modalism. Has it done so, however, at the expense of falling into the opposite error—tritheism? On the surface, the danger seems considerable. Two points were made, however, to safeguard the doctrine of the Trinity against tritheism.

First, it was noted that if we can find a single activity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that is in no way different in any of the three persons, we must conclude that there is but one identical substance involved. And such unity was found in the divine activity of revelation. Revelation originates in the Father, proceeds through the Son, and is completed in the Spirit. It is not three actions, but one action in which all three are involved.

Second, there was an insistence on the concreteness and indivisibility of the divine substance. Much criticism of the Cappadocian doctrine of the Trinity focused on the analogy of a universal manifesting itself in particulars. To avoid the conclusion that there is a multiplicity of Gods within the Godhead just as there is a multiplicity of humans within humanity, Gregory of Nyssa suggested that, strictly speaking, we ought not to talk about a multiplicity of humans, but a multiplicity of the one universal human being. Thus the Cappadocians continued to emphasize that, while the three members of the Trinity can be distinguished numerically as persons, they are indistinguishable and inseparable in their essence or substance or being.

It should be reiterated here that ousia is not abstract, but a concrete reality. Further, this divine essence is simple and indivisible. Following the Aristotelian doctrine that only what is material is quantitatively divisible, the Cappadocians at times virtually denied that the category of number can be applied to the Godhead at all. God is simple and incomposite. Thus, while each of the persons is one, they cannot be added together to make three entities.

Essential Elements of a Doctrine of the Trinity

Before attempting a contemporary construction of the doctrine of the Trinity, it is important to pause to note the salient elements that must be included.

1. The unity of God is basic. Monotheism is deeply implanted within the Hebrew-Christian tradition. God is one, not several. We must keep in mind that we are dealing with one God, not a joining of separate entities.

2. The deity of each of the three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, must be affirmed. Each is qualitatively the same. The Son is divine in the same way and to the same extent as is the Father, and this is true of the Holy Spirit as well.

3. The threeness and the oneness of God are not in the same respect. Although the orthodox interpretation of the Trinity seems contradictory (God is one and yet three), the contradiction is not real, but only apparent. A contradiction exists if something is A and not A at the same time and in the same respect. Unlike modalism, orthodoxy insists that God is three persons at every moment of time. Maintaining his unity as well, orthodoxy deals with the problem by suggesting that the way in which God is three is in some respect different from the way in which he is one. The fourth-century thinkers spoke of one ousia and three hypostases. The problem is determining what these two terms mean, or more broadly, what the difference is between the nature or locus of God’s oneness and that of his threeness.

4. The Trinity is eternal. There have always been three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and all of them have always been divine. One or more of them did not come into being at some point in time, or at some point become divine. There has never been any alteration in the nature of the Triune God. He is and will be what he has always been.

5. The function of one member of the Trinity may for a time be subordinate to one or both of the other members, but that does not mean he is in any way inferior in essence. Each of the three persons of the Trinity has had, for a period of time, a particular function unique to himself. This is to be understood as a temporary role for the purpose of accomplishing a given end, not a change in status or essence. In human experience, there is functional subordination as well. Several equals in a business or enterprise may choose one of their number to serve as the captain of a task force or the chairperson of a committee for a given time, but without any change in rank. The same is true in military circles. In the days of multimember aircraft crews, although the pilot was the ranking officer on the ship, the bombardier, a lower-ranking officer, controlled the plane during the bombing run. In like fashion, the Son did not become less than the Father during his earthly incarnation, but he did subordinate himself functionally to the Father’s will. Similarly, the Holy Spirit is now subordinated to the ministry of the Son (see John 14–16) as well as to the will of the Father, but this does not imply that he is less than they are.

6. In the final analysis, the Trinity is incomprehensible. We cannot fully understand the mystery of the Trinity. When someday we see God, we shall see him as he is, and understand him better than we do now. Yet even then we will not totally comprehend him. Because he is the unlimited God and we are limited in our capacity to know and understand, he will always exceed our knowledge and understanding. We will always be human beings, even though perfected human beings. We will never become God. Those aspects of God which we will never fully comprehend should be regarded as mysteries that go beyond our reason rather than as paradoxes that conflict with reason.

The Search for Analogies

The problem in constructing a statement of the doctrine of the Trinity is not merely to understand the terminology. That is in itself hard enough; for example, it is difficult to know what “person” means in this context. More difficult yet is to understand the interrelationships among the members of the Trinity. The human mind occasionally seeks analogies that will help in this effort.

On a popular level, analogies drawn from physical nature have often been utilized. A widely used analogy, for example, is the egg: it consists of yolk, white, and shell, all of which together form one whole egg. Another favorite analogy is water. It can be found in solid, liquid, and vaporous forms. At times other material objects have been used as illustrations. One pastor, in instructing young catechumens, attempted to clarify the threeness yet oneness by posing the question, “Is (or are) trousers singular or plural?” His answer was that trousers is singular at the top, and they are plural at the bottom.

Most analogies drawn from the physical realm tend to be either tritheistic or modalistic in their implications. On one hand, the analogies involving the egg and the trousers seem to suggest that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are separate parts of the divine nature. On the other hand, the analogy involving the various forms of water has modalistic overtones, since ice, liquid water, and steam are modes of existence. A given quantity of water does not simultaneously exist in all three states.

In recent years, some theologians, drawing on the insights of analytical philosophy, have intentionally utilized grammatical “category transgressions” or “logically odd qualifiers” to point out the tension between the oneness and the threeness. Examples of their attempts at clarification are statements like “God are one” and “they is three.” Yet these odd sentences serve better to state the issue than to clarify it.

One of the most creative minds in the history of Christian theology was Augustine. In De trinitate, which may be his greatest work, he turned his prodigious intellect to the problem of the nature of the Trinity. He reflected on this doctrine throughout his entire Christian life and wrote his treatise on the subject over a twenty-year period (399–419). In keeping with the Western or Latin tradition, his view emphasizes the unity of God more than the threeness. The three members of the Trinity are not separate individuals in the way in which three members of the human race are separate individuals. Each member of the Trinity is in his essence identical with the others or with the divine substance itself. They are distinguished in terms of their relations within the Godhead.

Augustine’s major contribution to the understanding of the Trinity is his analogies drawn from the realm of human personality. He argued that since the human is made in the image of God, who is triune, it is therefore reasonable to expect to find, through an analysis of human nature, a reflection, however faint, of God’s triunity. Beginning with the biblical statement that God is love, Augustine noted there are three necessary elements in love: the lover, the object loved, and the love that unites them, or at least tends to do so.18 While this analogy has received a great deal of attention, it was for Augustine merely a starting point, a steppingstone to a more significant analogy based on the inner person and, in particular, on the mind’s activity in relationship to itself or to God. Already in the Confessions, we see the analogy based on the inner person in the triad of being, knowing, and willing.19 In De trinitate the analogy based on the mind’s activity is presented in three stages or three trinities: (1) the mind, its knowledge of itself, and its love of itself;20 (2) memory, understanding, and the will;21 (3) the mind remembering God, knowing God, and loving God.22 While all of these stages of the analogy give us insight into the mutual relations among the persons of the Trinity, Augustine feels that the last of the three is the most helpful, reasoning that when we consciously focus upon God, we most fully bear the image of our Maker.

In practice even orthodox Christians have difficulty clinging simultaneously to the several components of the doctrine. Our use of these several analogies suggests that perhaps in practice we tend to alternate between tritheism, a belief in three equal, closely related Gods, and modalism, a belief in one God who plays three different roles or reveals himself in three different fashions.

Augustine’s suggestion that analogies can be drawn between the Trinity and the realm of human personality is a helpful one. In seeking for thought forms or for a conceptual basis on which to develop a doctrine of the Trinity, we have found the realm of individual and social relationships to be a more fruitful source than is the realm of physical objects. This is true for two reasons. The first is that God himself is spirit; the social and personal domain is, then, closer to God’s basic nature than is the realm of material objects. The second is that there is greater interest today in human and social subjects than in the physical universe. Accordingly, we will examine two analogies drawn from the realm of human relationships.

The first analogy is from the realm of individual human psychology. As a self-conscious person, I may engage in internal dialogue with myself. I may take different positions and interact with myself. I may even engage in a debate with myself. Furthermore, I am a complex human person with multiple roles and responsibilities in dynamic interplay with one another. As I consider what I should do in a given situation, the husband, the father, the seminary professor, and the United States citizen that together constitute me may mutually inform one another.

One problem with this analogy is that in human experience it is most clearly seen in situations where there is tension or competition, rather than harmony, between the individual’s various positions and roles. The discipline of abnormal psychology affords us with extreme examples of virtual warfare between the constituent elements of the human personality. But in God, by contrast, there are always perfect harmony, communication, and love.

The other analogy is from the sphere of interpersonal human relations. Take the case of identical twins. In one sense, they are of the same essence, for their genetic makeup is identical. An organ transplant from one to the other can be accomplished with relative ease, for the recipient’s body will not reject the donor’s organ as foreign; it will accept it as its very own. Identical twins are very close in other ways as well. They have similar interests and tastes. Although they have different spouses and different employers, a close bond unites them. And yet they are not the same person. They are two, not one.

One idea in the history of the doctrine, the conception of perichoresis, is especially helpful. That is the teaching that the life of each of the persons flows through each of the others, so each sustains each of the others and each has direct access to the consciousness of the others. Thus, the human organism serves as a good illustration of the Triune God. For example, the brain, heart, and lungs of a given individual all sustain and supply each other, and each is dependent on the other. Conjoined twins, sharing one heart and liver, also illustrate this intercommunion. These, however, like all analogies, fall short of full explication of the Trinity. We will need to use several, some of which emphasize the oneness and others the threeness.

Although we cannot fully see how these two contrasting conceptions relate to each other, theologians are not the only ones who must retain two polarities as they function. In order to account for the phenomena of light, physicists have to hold both that it is waves and that it is quanta, little bundles of energy as it were, yet logically it cannot be both. As one physicist put it: “On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we think of light as waves; on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, we think of it as particles of energy.” Presumably, on Sundays physicists do not concern themselves with the nature of light. One cannot explain a mystery, but can only acknowledge its presence.

The doctrine of the Trinity is a crucial ingredient of our faith. Each of the three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is to be worshiped, as is the Triune God. And, keeping in mind their distinctive work, it is appropriate to direct prayers of thanks and petition to each of the members of the Trinity, as well as to all of them collectively. Furthermore, the perfect love and unity within the Godhead model for us the oneness and affection that should characterize our relationships within the body of Christ.

It appears that Tertullian was right in affirming that the doctrine of the Trinity must be divinely revealed, not humanly constructed. It is so absurd from a human standpoint that no one would have invented it. We do not hold the doctrine of the Trinity because it is self-evident or logically cogent. We hold it because God has revealed that this is what he is like. As someone has said of this doctrine:

Try to explain it, and you’ll lose your mind;

But try to deny it, and you’ll lose your soul.

Erickson, M. J. (1998). Christian theology (2nd ed.) (346–367). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.

God in Three Persons: The Trinity

Posted on: June 9th, 2011 by Matt 1 Comment

How can God be three persons, yet one God?

The preceding chapters have discussed many attributes of God. But if we understood only those attributes, we would not rightly understand God at all, for we would not understand that God, in his very being, has always existed as more than one person. In fact, God exists as three persons, yet he is one God.

It is important to remember the doctrine of the Trinity in connection with the study of God’s attributes. When we think of God as eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, and so forth, we may have a tendency to think only of God the Father in connection with these attributes. But the biblical teaching on the Trinity tells us that all of God’s attributes are true of all three persons, for each is fully God. Thus, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are also eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, infinitely wise, infinitely holy, infinitely loving, omniscient, and so forth

The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith. To study the Bible’s teachings on the Trinity gives us great insight into the question that is at the center of all of our seeking after God: What is God like in himself? Here we learn that in himself, in his very being, God exists in the persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet he is one God.


We may define the doctrine of the Trinity as follows: God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God.

A. The Doctrine of the Trinity Is Progressively Revealed in Scripture

1. Partial Revelation in the Old Testament. The word trinity is never found in the Bible, though the idea represented by the word is taught in many places. The word trinity means “tri-unity” or “three-in-oneness.” It is used to summarize the teaching of Scripture that God is three persons yet one God.
Sometimes people think the doctrine of the Trinity is found only in the New Testament, not in the Old. If God has eternally existed as three persons, it would be surprising to find no indications of that in the Old Testament. Although the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly found in the Old Testament, several passages suggest or even imply that God exists as more than one person.

For instance, according to Genesis 1:26, God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” What do the plural verb (“let us”) and the plural pronoun (“our”) mean? Some have suggested they are plurals of majesty, a form of speech a king would use in saying, for example, “We are pleased to grant your request.”1 However, in Old Testament Hebrew there are no other examples of a monarch using plural verbs or plural pronouns of himself in such a “plural of majesty,” so this suggestion has no evidence to support it.2 Another suggestion is that God is here speaking to angels. But angels did not participate in the creation of man, nor was man created in the image and likeness of angels, so this suggestion is not convincing. The best explanation is that already in the first chapter of Genesis we have an indication of a plurality of persons in God himself.3 We are not told how many persons, and we have nothing approaching a complete doctrine of the Trinity, but it is implied that more than one person is involved. The same can be said of Genesis 3:22 (“Behold, the man has become like one of us knowing good and evil”), Genesis 11:7 (“Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language”), and Isaiah 6:8 (“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”). (Note the combination of singular and plural in the same sentence in the last passage.

Moreover, there are passages where one person is called “God” or “the Lord” and is distinguished from another person who is also said to be God. In Psalm 45:6–7 (NIV), the psalmist says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever … You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” Here the psalm passes beyond describing anything that could be true of an earthly king and calls the king “God” (v. 6), whose throne will last “forever and ever.” But then, still speaking to the person called “God,” the author says that “God, your God, has set you above your companions” (v. 7). So two separate persons are called “God” (Heb. אֱלֹהִים, H466). In the New Testament, the author of Hebrews quotes this passage and applies it to Christ: “Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever” (Heb. 1:8).4

Similarly, in Psalm 110:1, David says, “The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet” ’ (NIV). Jesus rightly understands that David is referring to two separate persons as “Lord” (Matt. 22:41–46), but who is David’s “Lord” if not God himself? And who could be saying to God, “Sit at my right hand” except someone else who is also fully God? From a New Testament perspective, we can paraphrase this verse: “God the Father said to God the Son, “Sit at my right hand.” ’ But even without the New Testament teaching on the Trinity, it seems clear that David was aware of a plurality of persons in one God. Jesus, of course, understood this, but when he asked the Pharisees for an explanation of this passage, “no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did any one dare to ask him any more questions” (Matt. 22:46). Unless they are willing to admit a plurality of persons in one God, Jewish interpreters of Scripture to this day will have no more satisfactory explanation of Psalm 110:1 (or of Gen. 1:26, or of the other passages just discussed) than they did in Jesus day

Isaiah 63:10 says that God’s people “rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit” (NIV), apparently suggesting both that the Holy Spirit is distinct from God himself (it is “his Holy Spirit”), and that this Holy Spirit can be “grieved,” thus suggesting emotional capabilities characteristic of a distinct person. (Isa. 61:1 also distinguishes “The Spirit of the Lord GOD” from “the LORD,” even though no personal qualities are attributed to the Spirit of the Lord in that verse.)
Similar evidence is found in Malachi, when the Lord says, “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (Mal. 3:1–2). Here again the one speaking (“the LORD of hosts”) distinguishes himself from “the Lord whom you seek,” suggesting two separate persons, both of whom can be called “Lord.”
In Hosea 1:7, the Lord is speaking, and says of the house of Judah, “I will deliver them by the LORD their God,” once again suggesting that more than one person can be called “Lord” (Heb. יהוה, H3378) and “God” (אֱלֹהִים, H466).

And in Isaiah 48:16, the speaker (apparently the servant of the Lord) says, “And now the Lord God has sent me and his Spirit.”5 Here the Spirit of the Lord, like the servant of the Lord, has been “sent” by the Lord GOD on a particular mission. The parallel between the two objects of sending (“me” and “his Spirit”) would be consistent with seeing them both as distinct persons: it seems to mean more than simply “the Lord has sent me and his power.”6 In fact, from a full New Testament perspective (which recognizes Jesus the Messiah to be the true servant of the Lord predicted in Isaiah’s prophecies), Isaiah 48:16 has trinitarian implications: “And now the Lord God has sent me and his Spirit,” if spoken by Jesus the Son of God, refers to all three persons of the Trinity

Furthermore, several Old Testament passages about “the angel of the LORD” suggest a plurality of persons in God. The word translated “angel” (Heb. מַלְאָךְ, H4855) means simply “messenger.” If this angel of the LORD is a “messenger” of the LORD, he is then distinct from the LORD himself. Yet at some points the angel of the LORD is called “God” or “the LORD” (see Gen. 16:13; Ex. 3:2–6; 23:20–22 [note “my name is in him” in v. 21]; Num. 22:35 with 38; Judg. 2:1–2; 6:11 with 14). At other points in the Old Testament “the angel of the LORD” simply refers to a created angel, but at least at these texts the special angel (or “messenger”) of the LORD seems to be a distinct person who is fully divine

One of the most disputed Old Testament texts that could show distinct personality for more than one person is Proverbs 8:22–31. Although the earlier part of the chapter could be understood as merely a personification of “wisdom” for literary effect, showing wisdom calling to the simple and inviting them to learn, vv. 22–31, one could argue, say things about “wisdom” that seem to go far beyond mere personification. Speaking of the time when God created the earth, “wisdom” says, “Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind” (Prov. 8:30–31 NIV). To work as a “craftsman” at God’s side in the creation suggests in itself the idea of distinct personhood, and the following phrases might seem even more convincing, for only real persons can be “filled with delight day after day” and can rejoice in the world and delight in mankind.7
But if we decide that “wisdom” here really refers to the Son of God before he became man, there is a difficulty. Verses 22–25 (RSV) seem to speak of the creation of this person who is called “wisdom”:

The LORD created me at the beginning of his work,
The first of his acts of old.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth.

Does this not indicate that this “wisdom” was created?
In fact, it does not. The Hebrew word that commonly means “create” (בָּרָא, H1343) is not used in verse 22; rather the word is קָנָה, H7865, which occurs eighty-four times in the Old Testament and almost always means “to get, acquire.” The NASB is most clear here: “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his way” (similarly KJV). (Note this sense of the word in Gen. 39:1; Ex. 21:2; Prov. 4:5, 7; 23:23; Eccl. 2:7; Isa. 1:3 [“owner”].) This is a legitimate sense and, if wisdom is understood as a real person, would mean only that God the Father began to direct and make use of the powerful creative work of God the Son at the time creation began8: the Father summoned the Son to work with him in the activity of creation. The expression “brought forth” in verses 24 and 25 is a different term but could carry a similar meaning: the Father began to direct and make use of the powerful creative work of the Son in the creation of the universe.

2. More Complete Revelation of the Trinity in the New Testament. When the New Testament opens, we enter into the history of the coming of the Son of God to earth. It is to be expected that this great event would be accompanied by more explicit teaching about the trinitarian nature of God, and that is in fact what we find. Before looking at this in detail, we can simply list several passages where all three persons of the Trinity are named together.
When Jesus was baptized, “the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” ’ (Matt. 3:16–17). Here at one moment we have three members of the Trinity performing three distinct activities. God the Father is speaking from heaven; God the Son is being baptized and is then spoken to from heaven by God the Father; and God the Holy Spirit is descending from heaven to rest upon and empower Jesus for his ministry.

At the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he tells the disciples that they should go “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). The very names “Father” and “Son,” drawn as they are from the family, the most familiar of human institutions, indicate very strongly the distinct personhood of both the Father and the Son. When “the Holy Spirit” is put in the same expression and on the same level as the other two persons, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Holy Spirit is also viewed as a person and of equal standing with the Father and the Son

When we realize that the New Testament authors generally use the name “God” (Gk. θεός, G2536) to refer to God the Father and the name “Lord” (Gk. Κύριος, G3261) to refer to God the Son, then it is clear that there is another trinitarian expression in 1 Corinthians 12:4–6: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one.”
Similarly, the last verse of 2 Corinthians is trinitarian in its expression: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14). We see the three persons mentioned separately in Ephesians 4:4–6 as well: “There is one body and one Spirit just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

All three persons of the Trinity are mentioned together in the opening sentence of 1 Peter: “According to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with his blood” (1 Peter 1:2 NASB). And in Jude 20–21, we read: “But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.

However, the KJV translation of 1 John 5:7 should not be used in this connection. It reads, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”
The problem with this translation is that it is based on a very small number of unreliable Greek manuscripts, the earliest of which comes from the fourteenth century A.D. No modern translation (except NKJV) includes this KJV reading, but all omit it, as do the vast majority of Greek manuscripts from all major text traditions, including several very reliable manuscripts from the fourth and fifth century A.D., and also including quotations by church fathers such as Irenaeus (d. ca. A.D. 202), Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. A.D. 212), Tertullian (died after A.D. 220), and the great defender of the Trinity, Athanasius (d. A.D. 373).

B. Three Statements Summarize the Biblical Teaching

In one sense the doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery that we will never be able to understand fully. However, we can understand something of its truth by summarizing the teaching of Scripture in three statements:

1. God is three persons.
2. Each person is fully God.
3. There is one God.

The following section will develop each of these statements in more detail.

1. God Is Three Persons. The fact that God is three persons means that the Father is not the Son; they are distinct persons. It also means that the Father is not the Holy Spirit, but that they are distinct persons. And it means that the Son is not the Holy Spirit. These distinctions are seen in a number of the passages quoted in the earlier section as well as in many additional New Testament passages.

John 1:1–2 tells us: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” The fact that the “Word” (who is seen to be Christ in vv. 9–18) is “with” God shows distinction from God the Father. In John 17:24 (NIV), Jesus speaks to God the Father about “my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world,” thus showing distinction of persons, sharing of glory, and a relationship of love between the Father and the Son before the world was created

We are told that Jesus continues as our High Priest and Advocate before God the Father: “If any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). Christ is the one who “is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). Yet in order to intercede for us before God the Father, it is necessary that Christ be a person distinct from the Father.
Moreover, the Father is not the Holy Spirit, and the Son is not the Holy Spirit. They are distinguished in several verses. Jesus says, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit also prays or “intercedes” for us (Rom. 8:27), indicating a distinction between the Holy Spirit and God the Father to whom the intercession is made.
Finally, the fact that the Son is not the Holy Spirit is also indicated in the several trinitarian passages mentioned earlier, such as the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19), and in passages that indicate that Christ went back to heaven and then sent the Holy Spirit to the church. Jesus said, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

Some have questioned whether the Holy Spirit is indeed a distinct person, rather than just the “power” or “force” of God at work in the world. But the New Testament evidence is quite clear and strong.9 First are the several verses mentioned earlier where the Holy Spirit is put in a coordinate relationship with the Father and the Son (Matt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 12:4–6; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:4–6; 1 Peter 1:2): since the Father and Son are both persons, the coordinate expression strongly intimates that the Holy Spirit is a person also. Then there are places where the masculine pronoun ἥ (Gk. ἐκεῖνος, G1697) is applied to the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13–14), which one would not expect from the rules of Greek grammar, for the word “spirit” (Gk. πνεῦμα, G4460) is neuter, not masculine, and would ordinarily be referred to with the neuter pronoun ἐκεῖνο. Moreover, the name counselor or comforter (Gk. παράκλητος, G4156) is a term commonly used to speak of a person who helps or gives comfort or counsel to another person or persons, but is used of the Holy Spirit in John’s gospel (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7)

Other personal activities are ascribed to the Holy Spirit, such as teaching (John 14:26), bearing witness (John 15:26; Rom. 8:16), interceding or praying on behalf of others (Rom. 8:26–27), searching the depths of God (1 Cor. 2:10), knowing the thoughts of God (1 Cor. 2:11), willing to distribute some gifts to some and other gifts to others (1 Cor. 12:11), forbidding or not allowing certain activities (Acts 16:6–7), speaking (Acts 8:29; 13:2; and many times in both Old and New Testaments), evaluating and approving a wise course of action (Acts 15:28), and being grieved by sin in the lives of Christians (Eph. 4:30).

Finally, if the Holy Spirit is understood simply to be the power of God, rather than a distinct person, then a number of passages would simply not make sense, because in them the Holy Spirit and his power or the power of God are both mentioned. For example, Luke 4:14, “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee,” would have to mean, “Jesus returned in the power of the power of God into Galilee.” In Acts 10:38, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power,” would mean, “God anointed Jesus with the power of God and with power” (see also Rom. 15:13; 1 Cor. 2:4)

Although so many passages clearly distinguish the Holy Spirit from the other members of the Trinity, one puzzling verse has been 2 Corinthians 3:17: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Interpreters often assume that “the Lord” here must mean Christ, because Paul frequently uses “the Lord” to refer to Christ. But that is probably not the case here, for a good argument can be made from grammar and context to say that this verse is better translated with the Holy Spirit as subject, “Now the Spirit is the Lord …”10 In this case, Paul would be saying that the Holy Spirit is also “Yahweh” (or “Jehovah”), the Lord of the Old Testament (note the clear Old Testament background of this context, beginning at v. 7). Theologically this would be quite acceptable, for it could truly be said that just as God the Father is “Lord” and God the Son is “Lord” (in the full Old Testament sense of “Lord” as a name for God), so also the Holy Spirit is the one called “Lord” in the Old Testament—and it is the Holy Spirit who especially manifests the presence of the Lord to us in the new covenant age.11

2. Each Person Is Fully God. In addition to the fact that all three persons are distinct, the abundant testimony of Scripture is that each person is fully God as well.

First, God the Father is clearly God. This is evident from the first verse of the Bible, where God created the heaven and the earth. It is evident through the Old and New Testaments, where God the Father is clearly viewed as sovereign Lord over all and where Jesus prays to his Father in heaven.
Next, the Son is fully God. Although this point will be developed in greater detail in chapter 26, “The Person of Christ,” we can briefly note several explicit passages at this point. John 1:1–4 clearly affirms the full deity of Christ:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.

Here Christ is referred to as “the Word,” and John says both that he was “with God” and that he “was God.” The Greek text echoes the opening words of Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning …”) and reminds us that John is talking about something that was true before the world was made. God the Son was always fully God

The translation “the Word was God” has been challenged by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who translate it “the Word was a god “implying that the Word was simply a heavenly being but not fully divine. They justify this translation by pointing to the fact that the definite article (Gk. ὁ, G3836, “the”) does not occur before the Greek word θεός (G2536, “God”). They say therefore that θεός should be translated “a god.” However, their interpretation has been followed by no recognized Greek scholar anywhere, for it is commonly known that the sentence follows a regular rule of Greek grammar, and the absence of the definite article merely indicates that “God” is the predicate rather than the subject of the sentence.12 (A recent publication by the Jehovah’s Witnesses now acknowledges the relevant grammatical rule but continues to affirm their position on John 1:1 nonetheless.)13

The inconsistency of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ position can further be seen in their translation of the rest of the chapter. For various other grammatical reasons the word θεός (G2536) also lacks the definite article at other places in this chapter, such as verse 6 (“There was a man sent from God”), verse 12 (“power to become children of God”), verse 13 (“but of God”), and verse 18 (“No one has ever seen God”). If the Jehovah’s Witnesses were consistent with their argument about the absence of the definite article, they would have to translate all of these with the phrase “a god,” but they translate “God” in every case

John 20:28 in its context is also a strong proof for the deity of Christ. Thomas had doubted the reports of the other disciples that they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, and he said he would not believe unless he could see the nail prints in Jesus’ hands and place his hand in his wounded side (John 20:25). Then Jesus appeared to the disciples when Thomas was with them. He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing” (John 20:27). In response to this, we read, “Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” ’ (John 20:28). Here Thomas calls Jesus “my God.” The narrative shows that both John in writing his gospel and Jesus himself approve of what Thomas has said and encourage everyone who hears about Thomas to believe the same things that Thomas did. Jesus immediately responds to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29). As far as John is concerned, this is the dramatic high point of the gospel, for he immediately tells the reader—in the very next verse—that this was the reason he wrote it:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30–31)

Jesus speaks of those who will not see him and will yet believe, and John immediately tells the reader that he recorded the events written in his gospel in order that they may believe in just this way, imitating Thomas in his confession of faith. In other words, the entire gospel is written to persuade people to imitate Thomas, who sincerely called Jesus “My Lord and my God.” Because this is set out by John as the purpose of his gospel, the sentence takes on added force.14
Other passages speaking of Jesus as fully divine include Hebrews 1, where the author says that Christ is the “exact representation” (vs. 3, Gk. χαρακτήρ, G5917, “exact duplicate”) of the nature or being (Gk. ὑπόστασις, G5712) of God—meaning that God the Son exactly duplicates the being or nature of God the Father in every way: whatever attributes or power God the Father has, God the Son has them as well. The author goes on to refer to the Son as “God” in verse 8 (“But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever” ’), and he attributes the creation of the heavens to Christ when he says of him, “You, Lord, did found the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands” (Heb. 1:10, quoting Ps. 102:25). Titus 2:13 refers to “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,” and 2 Peter 1:1 speaks of “the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.”15 Romans 9:5, speaking of the Jewish people, says, “Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen” (NIV).16
In the Old Testament, Isaiah 9:6 predicts,

“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government will be upon his shoulder,
and his name will be called
‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God.’ ”

As this prophecy is applied to Christ, it refers to him as “Mighty God.” Note the similar application of the titles “LORD” and “God” in the prophecy of the coming of the Messiah in Isaiah 40:3, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” quoted by John the Baptist in preparation for the coming of Christ in Matthew 3:3.

Many other passages will be discussed in chapter 26 below, but these should be sufficient to demonstrate that the New Testament clearly refers to Christ as fully God. As Paul says in Colossians 2:9, “In him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily.

Next, the Holy Spirit is also fully God. Once we understand God the Father and God the Son to be fully God, then the trinitarian expressions in verses like Matthew 28:19 (“baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) assume significance for the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, because they show that the Holy Spirit is classified on an equal level with the Father and the Son. This can be seen if we recognize how unthinkable it would have been for Jesus to say something like, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the archangel Michael—this would give to a created being a status entirely inappropriate even to an archangel. Believers throughout all ages can only be baptized into the name (and thus into a taking on of the character) of God himself.17 (Note also the other trinitarian passages mentioned above: 1 Cor. 12:4–6; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:4–6; 1 Peter 1:2; Jude 20–21.

In Acts 5:3–4, Peter asks Ananias, “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit …? You have not lied to men but to God.” According to Peter’s words, to lie to the Holy Spirit is to lie to God. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:16, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” God’s temple is the place where God himself dwells, which Paul explains by the fact that “God’s Spirit” dwells in it, thus apparently equating God’s Spirit with God himself.

David asks in Psalm 139:7–8, “Whither shall I go from your Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there!” This passage attributes the divine characteristic of omnipresence to the Holy Spirit, something that is not true of any of God’s creatures. It seems that David is equating God’s Spirit with God’s presence. To go from God’s Spirit is to go from his presence, but if there is nowhere that David can flee from God’s Spirit, then he knows that wherever he goes he will have to say, “You are there.

Paul attributes the divine characteristic of omniscience to the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 2:10–11: “For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God [Gk., literally “the things of God’] except the Spirit of God.”
Moreover, the activity of giving new birth to everyone who is born again is the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born anew” ’ (John 3:5–7). But the work of giving new spiritual life to people when they become Christians is something that only God can do (cf. 1 John 3:9, “born of God”). This passage therefore gives another indication that the Holy Spirit is fully God.
Up to this point we have two conclusions, both abundantly taught throughout Scripture:

1. God is three persons.
2. Each person is fully God.

If the Bible taught only these two facts, there would be no logical problem at all in fitting them together, for the obvious solution would be that there are three Gods. The Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, and the Holy Spirit is fully God. We would have a system where there are three equally divine beings. Such a system of belief would be called polytheism—or, more specifically, “tritheism,” or belief in three Gods. But that is far from what the Bible teaches.

3. There Is One God. Scripture is abundantly clear that there is one and only one God. The three different persons of the Trinity are one not only in purpose and in agreement on what they think, but they are one in essence, one in their essential nature. In other words, God is only one being. There are not three Gods. There is only one God.

One of the most familiar passages of the Old Testament is Deuteronomy 6:4–5 (NIV): “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
When Moses sings,

“Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
terrible in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Ex. 15:11)

the answer obviously is “No one.” God is unique, and there is no one like him and there can be no one like him. In fact, Solomon prays “that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God; there is no other” (1 Kings 8:60).

When God speaks, he repeatedly makes it clear that he is the only true God; the idea that there are three Gods to be worshiped rather than one would be unthinkable in the light of these extremely strong statements. God alone is the one true God and there is no one like him. When he speaks, he alone is speaking—he is not speaking as one God among three who are to be worshiped. He says:

“I am the LORD, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I gird you, though you do not know me,
that men may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the LORD, and there is no other.” (Isa. 45:5–6)

Similarly, he calls everyone on earth to turn to him:

There is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Savior;
there is none besides me.

“Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.”
(Isa. 45:21–22; cf. 44:6–8)

The New Testament also affirms that there is one God. Paul writes, “For there is one God and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Paul affirms that “God is one” (Rom. 3:30), and that “there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6).18 Finally, James acknowledges that even demons recognize that there is one God, even though their intellectual assent to that fact is not enough to save them: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19). But clearly James affirms that one “does well” to believe that “God is one.”

4. Simplistic Solutions Must All Deny One Strand of Biblical Teaching. We now have three statements, all of which are taught in Scripture:

1. God is three persons.
2. Each person is fully God.
3. There is one God.

Throughout the history of the church there have been attempts to come up with a simple solution to the doctrine of the Trinity by denying one or another of these statements. If someone denies the first statement then we are simply left with the fact that each of the persons named in Scripture (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is God, and there is one God. But if we do not have to say that they are distinct persons, then there is an easy solution: these are just different names for one person who acts differently at different times. Sometimes this person calls himself Father, sometimes he calls himself Son, and sometimes he calls himself Spirit.19 We have no difficulty in understanding that, for in our own experience the same person can act at one time as a lawyer (for example), at another time as a father to his own children, and at another time as a son with respect to his parents: The same person is a lawyer, a father, and a son. But such a solution would deny the fact that the three persons are distinct individuals, that God the Father sends God the Son into the world, that the Son prays to the Father, and that the Holy Spirit intercedes before the Father for us.
Another simple solution might be found by denying the second statement that is, denying that some of the persons named in Scripture are really fully God. If we simply hold that God is three persons, and that there is one God, then we might be tempted to say that some of the “persons” in this one God are not fully God, but are only subordinate or created parts of God. This solution would be taken, for example, by those who deny the full deity of the Son (and of the Holy Spirit).20 But, as we saw above, this solution would have to deny an entire category of biblical teaching.

Finally, as we noted above, a simple solution could come by denying that there is one God. But this would result in a belief in three Gods, something clearly contrary to Scripture.

Though the third error has not been common, as we shall see below, each of the first two errors has appeared at one time or another in the history of the church and they still persist today in some groups.

5. All Analogies Have Shortcomings. If we cannot adopt any of these simple solutions, then how can we put the three truths of Scripture together and maintain the doctrine of the Trinity? Sometimes people have used several analogies drawn from nature or human experience to attempt to explain this doctrine. Although these analogies are helpful at an elementary level of understanding, they all turn out to be inadequate or misleading on further reflection. To say, for example, that God is like a three-leaf clover, which has three parts yet remains one clover, fails because each leaf is only part of the clover, and any one leaf cannot be said to be the whole clover. But in the Trinity, each of the persons is not just a separate part of God, each person is fully God. Moreover, the leaf of a clover is impersonal and does not have distinct and complex personality in the way each person of the Trinity does

Others have used the analogy of a tree with three parts: the roots, trunk, and branches all constitute one tree. But a similar problem arises, for these are only parts of a tree, and none of the parts can be said to be the whole tree. Moreover, in this analogy the parts have different properties, unlike the persons of the Trinity, all of whom possess all of the attributes of God in equal measure. And the lack of personality in each part is a deficiency as well.
The analogy of the three forms of water (steam, water, and ice) is also inadequate because (a) no quantity of water is ever all three of these at the same time,21 (b) they have different properties or characteristics, (c) the analogy has nothing that corresponds to the fact that there is only one God (there is no such thing as “one water” or “all the water in the universe”), and (d) the element of intelligent personality is lacking.

Other analogies have been drawn from human experience. It might be said that the Trinity is something like a man who is both a farmer, the mayor of his town, and an elder in his church. He functions in different roles at different times, but he is one man. However, this analogy is very deficient because there is only one person doing these three activities at different times, and the analogy cannot deal with the personal interaction among the members of the Trinity. (In fact, this analogy simply teaches the heresy called modalism, discussed below.

Another analogy taken from human life is the union of the intellect, the emotions, and the will in one human person. While these are parts of a personality, however, no one factor constitutes the entire person. And the parts are not identical in characteristics but have different abilities

So what analogy shall we use to teach the Trinity? Although the Bible uses many analogies from nature and life to teach us various aspects of God’s character (God is like a rock in his faithfulness, he is like a shepherd in his care, etc.), it is interesting that Scripture nowhere uses any analogies to teach the doctrine of the Trinity. The closest we come to an analogy is found in the titles “Father” and “Son” themselves, titles that clearly speak of distinct persons and of the close relationship that exists between them in a human family. But on the human level, of course, we have two entirely separate human beings, not one being comprised of three distinct persons. It is best to conclude that no analogy adequately teaches about the Trinity, and all are misleading in significant ways.

6. God Eternally and Necessarily Exists as the Trinity. When the universe was created God the Father spoke the powerful creative words that brought it into being, God the Son was the divine agent who carried out these words (John 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2), and God the Holy Spirit was active “moving over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2). So it is as we would expect: if all three members of the Trinity are equally and fully divine, then they have all three existed for all eternity, and God has eternally existed as a Trinity (cf. also John 17:5, 24). Moreover, God cannot be other than he is, for he is unchanging (see chapter 11 above). Therefore it seems right to conclude that God necessarily exists as a Trinity—he cannot be other than he is.

C. Errors Have Come By Denying Any of the Three Statements Summarizing the Biblical Teaching

In the previous section we saw how the Bible requires that we affirm the following three statements:

1. God is three persons.
2. Each person is fully God.
3. There is one God.

Before we discuss further the differences between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the way they relate to one another, it is important that we recall some of the doctrinal errors about the Trinity that have been made in the history of the church. In this historical survey we will see some of the mistakes that we ourselves should avoid in any further thinking about this doctrine. In fact, the major trinitarian errors that have arisen have come through a denial of one or another of these three primary statements.22

1. Modalism Claims That There Is One Person Who Appears to Us in Three Different Forms (or “Modes”). At various times people have taught that God is not really three distinct persons, but only one person who appears to people in different “modes” at different times. For example, in the Old Testament God appeared as “Father.” Throughout the Gospels, this same divine person appeared as “the Son” as seen in the human life and ministry of Jesus. After Pentecost, this same person then revealed himself as the “Spirit” active in the church.

This teaching is also referred to by two other names. Sometimes it is called Sabellianism, after a teacher named Sabellius who lived in Rome in the early third century A.D. Another term for modalism is “modalistic monarchianism,” because this teaching not only says that God revealed himself in different “modes” but it also says that there is only one supreme ruler (“monarch”) in the universe and that is God himself, who consists of only one person.

Modalism gains its attractiveness from the desire to emphasize clearly the fact that there is only one God. It may claim support not only from the passages talking about one God, but also from passages such as John 10:30 (“I and the Father are one”) and John 14:9 (“He who has seen me has seen the Father”). However, the last passage can simply mean that Jesus fully reveals the character of God the Father, and the former passage (John 10:30), in a context in which Jesus affirms that he will accomplish all that the Father has given him to do and save all whom the Father has given to him, seems to mean that Jesus and the Father are one in purpose (though it may also imply oneness of essence).

The fatal shortcoming of modalism is the fact that it must deny the personal relationships within the Trinity that appear in so many places in Scripture (or it must affirm that these were simply an illusion and not real). Thus, it must deny three separate persons at the baptism of Jesus, where the Father speaks from heaven and the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove. And it must say that all those instances where Jesus is praying to the Father are an illusion or a charade. The idea of the Son or the Holy Spirit interceding for us before God the Father is lost. Finally, modalism ultimately loses the heart of the doctrine of the atonement—that is, the idea that God sent his Son as a substitutionary sacrifice, and that the Son bore the wrath of God in our place, and that the Father, representing the interests of the Trinity, saw the suffering of Christ and was satisfied (Isa. 53:11)

Moreover, modalism denies the independence of God, for if God is only one person, then he has no ability to love and to communicate without other persons in his creation. Therefore it was necessary for God to create the world, and God would no longer be independent of creation (see chapter 12, above, on God’s independence).
One present denomination within Protestantism (broadly defined), the United Pentecostal Church, is modalistic in its doctrinal position.23

2. Arianism Denies the Full Deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

a. The Arian Controversy: The term Arianism is derived from Arius, a Bishop of Alexandria whose views were condemned at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, and who died in A.D. 336. Arius taught that God the Son was at one point created by God the Father, and that before that time the Son did not exist, nor did the Holy Spirit, but the Father only. Thus, though the Son is a heavenly being who existed before the rest of creation and who is far greater than all the rest of creation, he is still not equal to the Father in all his attributes—he may even be said to be “like the Father” or “similar to the Father” in his nature, but he cannot be said to be “of the same nature” as the Father

The Arians depended heavily on texts that called Christ God’s “only begotten” Son (John 1:14; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9). If Christ were “begotten” by God the Father, they reasoned, it must mean that he was brought into existence by God the Father (for the word “beget” in human experience refers to the father’s role in conceiving a child). Further support for the Arian view was found in Colossians 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation.” Does not “first-born” here imply that the Son was at some point brought into existence by the Father?24 And if this is true of the Son, it must necessarily be true of the Holy Spirit as well

But these texts do not require us to believe the Arian position. Colossians 1:15, which calls Christ “the first-born of all creation,” is better understood to mean that Christ has the rights or privileges of the “first-born—that is, according to biblical usage and custom, the right of leadership or authority in the family for one’s generation. (Note Heb. 12:16 where Esau is said to have sold his “first-born status” or “birthright—the Greek word πρωτοτόκια, G4757, is cognate to the term πρωτότοκος, G4758, “first-born” in Col. 1:15.) So Colossians 1:15 means that Christ has the privileges of authority and rule, the privileges belonging to the “first-born,” but with respect to the whole creation. The NIV translates it helpfully, “the firstborn over all creation.

As for the texts that say that Christ was God’s “only begotten Son,” the early church felt so strongly the force of many other texts showing that Christ was fully and completely God, that it concluded that, whatever “only begotten” meant, it did not mean “created.” Therefore the Nicene Creed in 325 affirmed that Christ was “begotten, not made”:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance (ὁμοούσιον) with the Father …25

This same phrase was reaffirmed at the Council of Constantinople in 381. In addition, the phrase “before all ages” was added after “begotten of the Father,” to show that this “begetting” was eternal. It never began to happen, but is something that has been eternally true of the relationship between the Father and the Son. However, the nature of that “begetting” has never been defined very clearly, other than to say that it has to do with the relationship between the Father and the Son, and that in some sense the Father has eternally had a primacy in that relationship

In further repudiation of the teaching of Arius, the Nicene Creed insisted that Christ was “of the same substance as the Father.” The dispute with Arius concerned two words that have become famous in the history of Christian doctrine, ὁμοούσιος (“of the same nature”) and ὁμοιούσιος (“of a similar nature”).26 The difference depends on the different meaning of two Greek prefixes, ὁμο—meaning “same,” and ὁμοι—meaning “similar.” Arius was happy to say that Christ was a supernatural heavenly being and that he was created by God before the creation of the rest of the universe, and even that he was “similar” to God in his nature. Thus, Arius would agree to the word ὁμοιούσιος. But the Council of Nicea in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381 realized that this did not go far enough, for if Christ is not of exactly the same nature as the Father, then he is not fully God. So both councils insisted that orthodox Christians confess Jesus to be ὁμοούσιος of the same nature as God the Father. The difference between the two words was only one letter, the Greek letter iota, and some have criticized the church for allowing a doctrinal dispute over a single letter to consume so much attention for most of the fourth century A.D. Some have wondered, “Could anything be more foolish than arguing over a single letter in a word?” But the difference between the two words was profound, and the presence or absence of the iota really did mark the difference between biblical Christianity, with a true doctrine of the Trinity, and a heresy that did not accept the full deity of Christ and therefore was nontrinitarian and ultimately destructive to the whole Christian faith.

b. Subordinationism: In affirming that the Son was of the same nature as the Father, the early church also excluded a related false doctrine, subordinationism. While Arianism held that the Son was created and was not divine, subordinationism held that the Son was eternal (not created) and divine, but still not equal to the Father in being or attributes—the Son was inferior or “subordinate” in being to God the Father.27 The early church father Origen (c. 185-c. A.D. 254) advocated a form of subordinationism by holding that the Son was inferior to the Father in being, and that the Son eternally derives his being from the Father. Origen was attempting to protect the distinction of persons and was writing before the doctrine of the Trinity was clearly formulated in the church. The rest of the church did not follow him but clearly rejected his teaching at the Council of Nicea.

Although many early church leaders contributed to the gradual formulation of a correct doctrine of the Trinity, the most influential by far was Athanasius. He was only twenty-nine years old when he came to the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, not as an official member but as secretary to Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria. Yet his keen mind and writing ability allowed him to have an important influence on the outcome of the Council, and he himself became Bishop of Alexandria in 328. Though the Arians had been condemned at Nicea, they refused to stop teaching their views and used their considerable political power throughout the church to prolong the controversy for most of the rest of the fourth century. Athanasius became the focal point of Arian attack, and he devoted his entire life to writing and teaching against the Arian heresy. “He was hounded through five exiles embracing seventeen years of flight and hiding,” but, by his untiring efforts, “almost single-handedly Athanasius saved the Church from pagan intellectualism.”28 The “Athanasian Creed” which bears his name is not today thought to stem from Athanasius himself, but it is a very clear affirmation of trinitarian doctrine that gained increasing use in the church from about A.D. 400 onward and is still used in Protestant and Catholic churches today. (See appendix 1.)

c. Adoptionism: Before we leave the discussion of Arianism, one related false teaching needs to be mentioned. “Adoptionism” is the view that Jesus lived as an ordinary man until his baptism, but then God “adopted” Jesus as his “Son” and conferred on him supernatural powers. Adoptionists would not hold that Christ existed before he was born as a man; therefore, they would not think of Christ as eternal, nor would they think of him as the exalted, supernatural being created by God that the Arians held him to be. Even after Jesus’ “adoption” as the “Son” of God, they would not think of him as divine in nature, but only as an exalted man whom God called his “Son” in a unique sense.

Adoptionism never gained the force of a movement in the way Arianism did, but there were people who held adoptionist views from time to time in the early church, though their views were never accepted as orthodox. Many modern people who think of Jesus as a great man and someone especially empowered by God, but not really divine, would fall into the adoptionist category. We have placed it here in relation to Arianism because it, too, denies the deity of the Son (and, similarly, the deity of the Holy Spirit)

The controversy over Arianism was drawn to a close by the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381. This council reaffirmed the Nicene statements and added a statement on the deity of the Holy Spirit, which had come under attack in the period since Nicea. After the phrase, “And in the Holy Spirit,” Constantinople added, “the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets.” The version of the creed that includes the additions at Constantinople is what is commonly known as the Nicene Creed today (See p. 1169 for the text of the Nicene Creed.)

d. The Filioque Clause: In connection with the Nicene Creed, one unfortunate chapter in the history of the church should be briefly noted, namely the controversy over the insertion of the filioque clause into the Nicene Creed, an insertion that eventually led to the split between western (Roman Catholic) Christianity and eastern Christianity (consisting today of various branches of eastern orthodox Christianity, such as the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, etc.) in A.D. 1054.

The word filioque is a Latin term that means “and from the Son.” It was not included in the Nicene Creed in either the first version of A.D. 325 or the second version of A.D. 381. Those versions simply said that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” But in A.D. 589, at a regional church council in Toledo (in what is now Spain), the phrase “and the Son” was added, so that the creed then said that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque).” In the light of John 15:26 and 16:7, where Jesus said that he would send the Holy Spirit into the world, it seems there could be no objection to such a statement if it referred to the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son at a point in time (particularly at Pentecost). But this was a statement about the nature of the Trinity, and the phrase was understood to speak of the eternal relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Son, something Scripture never explicitly discusses.29 The form of the Nicene Creed that had this additional phrase gradually gained in general use and received an official endorsement in A.D. 1017. The entire controversy was complicated by ecclesiastical politics and struggles for power, and this apparently very insignificant doctrinal point was the main doctrinal issue in the split between eastern and western Christianity in A.D. 1054. (The underlying political issue, however, was the relation of the Eastern church to the authority of the Pope.) The doctrinal controversy and the split between the two branches of Christianity have not been resolved to this day

Is there a correct position on this question? The weight of evidence (slim though it is) seems clearly to favor the western church. In spite of the fact that John 15:26 says that the Spirit of truth “proceeds from the Father,” this does not deny that he proceeds also from the Son (just as John 14:26 says that the Father will send the Holy Spirit, but John 16:7 says that the Son will send the Holy Spirit). In fact, in the same sentence in John 15:26 Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as one “whom I shall send to you from the Father.” And if the Son together with the Father sends the Spirit into the world, by analogy it would seem appropriate to say that this reflects eternal ordering of their relationships. This is not something that we can clearly insist on based on any specific verse, but much of our understanding of the eternal relationships among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit comes by analogy from what Scripture tells us about the way they relate to the creation in time. Moreover, the eastern formulation runs the danger of suggesting an unnatural distance between the Son and the Holy Spirit, leading to the possibility that even in personal worship an emphasis on more mystical, Spirit-inspired experience might be pursued to the neglect of an accompanying rationally understandable adoration of Christ as Lord. Nevertheless, the controversy was ultimately over such an obscure point of doctrine (essentially, the relationship between the Son and Spirit before creation) that it certainly did not warrant division in the church.

e. The Importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity: Why was the church so concerned about the doctrine of the Trinity? Is it really essential to hold to the full deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit? Yes it is, for this teaching has implications for the very heart of the Christian faith. First, the atonement is at stake. If Jesus is merely a created being, and not fully God, then it is hard to see how he, a creature, could bear the full wrath of God against all of our sins. Could any creature, no matter how great, really save us? Second, justification by faith alone is threatened if we deny the full deity of the Son. (This is seen today in the teaching of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who do not believe in justification by faith alone.) If Jesus is not fully God, we would rightly doubt whether we can really trust him to save us completely. Could we really depend on any creature fully for our salvation? Third, if Jesus is not infinite God, should we pray to him or worship him? Who but an infinite, omniscient God could hear and respond to all the prayers of all God’s people? And who but God himself is worthy of worship? Indeed, if Jesus is merely a creature, no matter how great, it would be idolatry to worship him—yet the New Testament commands us to do so (Phil. 2:9–11; Rev. 5:12–14). Fourth, if someone teaches that Christ was a created being but nonetheless one who saved us, then this teaching wrongly begins to attribute credit for salvation to a creature and not to God himself. But this wrongfully exalts the creature rather than the Creator, something Scripture never allows us to do. Fifth, the independence and personal nature of God are at stake: If there is no Trinity, then there were no interpersonal relationships within the being of God before creation, and, without personal relationships, it is difficult to see how God could be genuinely personal or be without the need for a creation to relate to. Sixth, the unity of the universe is at stake: If there is not perfect plurality and perfect unity in God himself, then we have no basis for thinking there can be any ultimate unity among the diverse elements of the universe either. Clearly, in the doctrine of the Trinity, the heart of the Christian faith is at stake. Herman Bavinck says that “Athanasius understood better than any of his contemporaries that Christianity stands or falls with the confession of the deity of Christ and of the Trinity.”30 He adds, “In the confession of the Trinity throbs the heart of the Christian religion: every error results from, or upon deeper reflection may be traced to, a wrong view of this doctrine.”31

3. Tritheism Denies That There Is Only One God. A final possible way to attempt an easy reconciliation of the biblical teaching about the Trinity would be to deny that there is only one God. The result is to say that God is three persons and each person is fully God. Therefore, there are three Gods. Technically this view would be called “tritheism.”

Few persons have held this view in the history of the church. It has similarities to many ancient pagan religions that held to a multiplicity of gods. This view would result in confusion in the minds of believers. There would be no absolute worship or loyalty or devotion to one true God. We would wonder to which God we should give our ultimate allegiance. And, at a deeper level, this view would destroy any sense of ultimate unity in the universe: even in the very being of God there would be plurality but no unity

Although no modern groups advocate tritheism, perhaps many evangelicals today unintentionally tend toward tritheistic views of the Trinity, recognizing the distinct personhood of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but seldom being aware of the unity of God as one undivided being.

D. What Are the Distinctions Between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?

After completing this survey of errors concerning the Trinity, we may now go on to ask if anything more can be said about the distinctions between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If we say that each member of the Trinity is fully God, and that each person fully shares in all the attributes of God, then is there any difference at all among the persons? We cannot say, for example, that the Father is more powerful or wiser than the Son, or that the Father and Son are wiser than the Holy Spirit, or that the Father existed before the Son and Holy Spirit existed, for to say anything like that would be to deny the full deity of all three members of the Trinity. But what then are the distinctions between the persons?

1. The Persons of the Trinity Have Different Primary Functions in Relating to the World. When Scripture discusses the way in which God relates to the world, both in creation and in redemption, the persons of the Trinity are said to have different functions or primary activities. Sometimes this has been called the “economy of the Trinity,” using economy in an old sense meaning “ordering of activities.” (In this sense, people used to speak of the “economy of a household” or “home economics,” meaning not just the financial affairs of a household, but all of the “ordering of activities” within the household.) The “economy of the Trinity” means the different ways the three persons act as they relate to the world and (as we shall see in the next section) to each other for all eternity

We see these different functions in the work of creation. God the Father spoke the creative words to bring the universe into being. But it was God the Son, the eternal Word of God, who carried out these creative decrees. “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3). Moreover, “in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col. 1:16; see also Ps. 33:6, 9; 1 Cor. 8:6; Heb. 1:2). The Holy Spirit was active as well in a different way, in “moving” or “hovering” over the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2), apparently sustaining and manifesting God’s immediate presence in his creation (cf. Ps. 33:6, where “breath” should perhaps be translated “Spirit”; see also Ps. 139:7)

In the work of redemption there are also distinct functions. God the Father planned redemption and sent his Son into the world (John 3:16; Gal. 4:4; Eph. 1:9–10). The Son obeyed the Father and accomplished redemption for us (John 6:38; Heb. 10:5–7; et al.). God the Father did not come and die for our sins, nor did God the Holy Spirit. That was the particular work of the Son. Then, after Jesus ascended back into heaven, the Holy Spirit was sent by the Father and the Son to apply redemption to us. Jesus speaks of “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name” (John 14:26), but also says that he himself will send the Holy Spirit, for he says, “If I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7), and he speaks of a time “when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth” (John 15:26). It is especially the role of the Holy Spirit to give us regeneration or new spiritual life (John 3:5–8), to sanctify us (Rom. 8:13; 15:16; 1 Peter 1:2), and to empower us for service (Acts 1:8; 1 Cor. 12:7–11). In general, the work of the Holy Spirit seems to be to bring to completion the work that has been planned by God the Father and begun by God the Son. (See chapter 30, on the work of the Holy Spirit.

So we may say that the role of the Father in creation and redemption has been to plan and direct and send the Son and Holy Spirit. This is not surprising, for it shows that the Father and the Son relate to one another as a father and son relate to one another in a human family: the father directs and has authority over the son, and the son obeys and is responsive to the directions of the father. The Holy Spirit is obedient to the directives of both the Father and the Son.
Thus, while the persons of the Trinity are equal in all their attributes, they nonetheless differ in their relationships to the creation. The Son and Holy Spirit are equal in deity to God the Father, but they are subordinate in their roles.
Moreover, these differences in role are not temporary but will last forever: Paul tells us that even after the final judgment, when the “last enemy,” that is, death, is destroyed and when all things are put under Christ’s feet, “then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one” (1 Cor. 15:28).

2. The Persons of the Trinity Eternally Existed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But why do the persons of the Trinity take these different roles in relating to creation? Was it accidental or arbitrary? Could God the Father have come instead of God the Son to die for our sins? Could the Holy Spirit have sent God the Father to die for our sins, and then sent God the Son to apply redemption to us

No, it does not seem that these things could have happened, for the role of commanding, directing, and sending is appropriate to the position of the Father, after whom all human fatherhood is patterned (Eph. 3:14–15). And the role of obeying, going as the Father sends, and revealing God to us is appropriate to the role of the Son, who is also called the Word of God (cf. John 1:1–5, 14, 18; 17:4; Phil. 2:5–11). These roles could not have been reversed or the Father would have ceased to be the Father and the Son would have ceased to be the Son. And by analogy from that relationship, we may conclude that the role of the Holy Spirit is similarly one that was appropriate to the relationship he had with the Father and the Son before the world was created

Second, before the Son came to earth, and even before the world was created, for all eternity the Father has been the Father, the Son has been the Son, and the Holy Spirit has been the Holy Spirit. These relationships are eternal, not something that occurred only in time. We may conclude this first from the unchangeableness of God (see chapter 11): if God now exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then he has always existed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We may also conclude that the relationships are eternal from other verses in Scripture that speak of the relationships the members of the Trinity had to one another before the creation of the world. For instance, when Scripture speaks of God’s work of election (see chapter 32) before the creation of the world, it speaks of the Father choosing us “in” the Son: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … he chose us in him before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph. 1:3–4). The initiatory act of choosing is attributed to God the Father, who regards us as united to Christ or “in Christ” before we ever existed. Similarly, of God the Father, it is said that “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). We also read of the “foreknowledge of God the Father” in distinction from particular functions of the other two members of the Trinity (1 Peter 1:2 NASB; cf. 1:20).32 Even the fact that the Father “gave his only Son” (John 3:16) and “sent the Son into the world” (John 3:17) indicate that there was a Father-Son relationship before Christ came into the world. The Son did not become the Son when the Father sent him into the world. Rather, the great love of God is shown in the fact that the one who was always Father gave the one who was always his only Son: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …” (John 3:16). “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son” (Gal. 4:4)

When Scripture speaks of creation, once again it speaks of the Father creating through the Son, indicating a relationship prior to when creation began (see John 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Heb. 1:2; also Prov. 8:22–31). But nowhere does it say that the Son or Holy Spirit created through the Father. These passages again imply that there was a relationship of Father (as originator) and Son (as active agent) before creation, and that this relationship made it appropriate for the different persons of the Trinity to fulfill the roles they actually did fulfill

Therefore, the different functions that we see the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit performing are simply outworkings of an eternal relationship between the three persons, one that has always existed and will exist for eternity. God has always existed as three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These distinctions are essential to the very nature of God himself, and they could not be otherwise

Finally, it may be said that there are no differences in deity, attributes, or essential nature between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each person is fully God and has all the attributes of God. The only distinctions between the members of the Trinity are in the ways they relate to each other and to the creation. In those relationships they carry out roles that are appropriate to each person

This truth about the Trinity has sometimes been summarized in the phrase “ontological equality but economic subordination,” where the word ontological means “being.”33 Another way of expressing this more simply would be to say “equal in being but subordinate in role.” Both parts of this phrase are necessary to a true doctrine of the Trinity: If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination,34 then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity. For example, if the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father in role, then the Father is not eternally “Father” and the Son is not eternally “Son.” This would mean that the Trinity has not eternally existed

This is why the idea of eternal equality in being but subordination in role has been essential to the church’s doctrine of the Trinity since it was first affirmed in the Nicene Creed, which said that the Son was “begotten of the Father before all ages” and that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Surprisingly, some recent evangelical writings have denied an eternal subordination in role among the members of the Trinity,35 but it has clearly been part of the church’s doctrine of the Trinity (in Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox expressions), at least since Nicea (A.D. 325). So Charles Hodge says:

The Nicene doctrine includes, (1) the principle of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son. But this subordination does not imply inferiority … The subordination intended is only that which concerns the mode of subsistence and operation …
The creeds are nothing more than a well-ordered arrangement of the facts of Scripture which concern the doctrine of the Trinity. They assert the distinct personality of the Father, Son, and Spirit … and their consequent perfect equality; and the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, as to the mode of subsistence and operation. These are scriptural facts, to which the creeds in question add nothing; and it is in this sense they have been accepted by the Church universal.36

Similarly, A.H. Strong says:

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while equal in essence and dignity, stand to each other in an order of personality, office, and operation …
The subordination of the person of the Son to the person of the Father, or in other words an order of personality, office, and operation which permits the Father to be officially first, the Son second, and the Spirit third, is perfectly consistent with equality. Priority is not necessarily superiority … We frankly recognize an eternal subordination of Christ to the Father but we maintain at the same time that this subordination is a subordination of order, office, and operation, not a subordination of essence.37

3. What Is the Relationship Between the Three Persons and the Being of God? After the preceding discussion, the question that remains unresolved is, What is the difference between “person” and “being” in this discussion? How can we say that God is one undivided being, yet that in this one being there are three persons?
First, it is important to affirm that each person is completely and fully God; that is, that each person has the whole fullness of God’s being in himself. The Son is not partly God or just one-third of God, but the Son is wholly and fully God, and so is the Father and the Holy Spirit. Thus, it would not be right to think of the Trinity according to figure 14.1, with each person representing only one-third of God’s being.

Figure 14.1: God’s Being Is Not Divided Into Three Equal Parts Belonging to the Three Members of the Trinity

Rather, we must say that the person of the Father possesses the whole being of God in himself. Similarly, the Son possesses the whole being of God in himself, and the Holy Spirit possesses the whole being of God in himself. When we speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together we are not speaking of any greater being than when we speak of the Father alone, or the Son alone, or the Holy Spirit alone. The Father is all of God’s being. The Son also is all of God’s being. And the Holy Spirit is all of God’s being.
This is what the Athanasian Creed affirmed in the following sentences:

And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance [Essence]. For there is one Person of the Father: another of the Son: and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is: such is the Son: and such is the Holy Spirit … For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity: to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord: So are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion: to say, There be [are] three Gods, or three Lords.

But if each person is fully God and has all of God’s being, then we also should not think that the personal distinctions are any kind of additional attributes added on to the being of God, something after the pattern of figure 14.2.

Figure 14.2: The Personal Distinctions in the Trinity Are Not Something Added Onto God’s Real Being

Rather, each person of the Trinity has all of the attributes of God, and no one person has any attributes that are not possessed by the others.
On the other hand, we must say that the persons are real, that they are not just different ways of looking at the one being of God. (This would be modalism or Sabellianism, as discussed above.) So figure 14.3 would not be appropriate.

Figure 14.3: The Persons of the Trinity Are Not Just Three Different Ways of Looking at the One Being of God

Rather, we need to think of the Trinity in such a way that the reality of the three persons is maintained, and each person is seen as relating to the others as an “I” (a first person) and a “you” (a second person) and a “he” (a third person).
The only way it seems possible to do this is to say that the distinction between the persons is not a difference in “being” but a difference in “relationships.” This is something far removed from our human experience, where every different human “person” is a different being as well. Somehow God’s being is so much greater than ours that within his one undivided being there can be an unfolding into interpersonal relationships, so that there can be three distinct persons.

What then are the differences between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? There is no difference in attributes at all. The only difference between them is the way they relate to each other and to the creation. The unique quality of the Father is the way he relates as Father to the Son and Holy Spirit. The unique quality of the Son is the way he relates as Son. And the unique quality of the Holy Spirit is the way he relates as Spirit.3

While the three diagrams given above represented erroneous ideas to be avoided, the following diagram may be helpful in thinking about the existence of three persons in the one undivided being of God.

Figure 14.4: There Are Three Distinct Persons, and the Being of Each Person Is Equal to the Whole Being of God

In this diagram, the Father is represented as the section of the circle designated by F, and also the rest of the circle, moving around clockwise from the letter F; the Son is represented as the section of the circle designated by S, and also the rest of the circle, moving around clockwise from the letter S; and the Holy Spirit is represented as the section of the circle marked HS and also the rest of the circle, moving around clockwise from the HS. Thus, there are three distinct persons, but each person is fully and wholly God. Of course the representation is imperfect, for it cannot represent God’s infinity, or personality, or indeed any of his attributes. It also requires looking at the circle in more than one way in order to understand it: the dotted lines must be understood to indicate personal relationship, not any division in the one being of God. Thus, the circle itself represents God’s being while the dotted lines represent a form of personal existence other than a difference in being. But the diagram may nonetheless help guard against some misunderstanding

Our own human personalities provide another faint analogy that can provide some help in thinking about the Trinity. A man can think about different objects outside of himself, and when he does this he is the subject who does the thinking. He can also think about himself, and then he is the object who is being thought about: then he is both subject and object. Moreover, he can reflect on his ideas about himself as a third thing, neither subject nor object, but thoughts that he as a subject has about himself as an object. When this happens, the subject, object, and thoughts are three distinct things. Yet each thing in a way includes his whole being: All of the man is the subject, and all of the man is the object, and the thoughts (though in a lesser sense) are thoughts about all of himself as a person.39
But if the unfolding of human personality allows this kind of complexity, then the unfolding of God’s personality must allow for far greater complexity than this. Within the one being of God the “unfolding” of personality must allow for the existence of three distinct persons, while each person still has the whole of God’s being in himself. The difference in persons must be one of relationship, not one of being, and yet each person must really exist. This tri-personal form of being is far beyond our ability to comprehend. It is a kind of existence far different from anything we have experienced and far different from anything else in the universe.
Because the existence of three persons in one God is something beyond our understanding, Christian theology has come to use the word person to speak of these differences in relationship, not because we fully understand what is meant by the word person when referring to the Trinity, but rather so that we might say something instead of saying nothing at all.

4. Can We Understand the Doctrine of the Trinity? We should be warned by the errors that have been made in the past. They have all come about through attempts to simplify the doctrine of the Trinity and make it completely understandable, removing all mystery from it. This we can never do. However, it is not correct to say that we cannot understand the doctrine of the Trinity at all. Certainly we can understand and know that God is three persons, and that each person is fully God, and that there is one God. We can know these things because the Bible teaches them. Moreover, we can know some things about the way in which the persons relate to each other (see the section above). But what we cannot understand fully is how to fit together those distinct biblical teachings. We wonder how there can be three distinct persons, and each person have the whole being of God in himself, and yet God is only one undivided being. This we are unable to understand. In fact, it is spiritually healthy for us to acknowledge openly that God’s very being is far greater than we can ever comprehend. This humbles us before God and draws us to worship him without reservation.

But it should also be said that Scripture does not ask us to believe in a contradiction. A contradiction would be “There is one God and there is not one God,” or “God is three persons and God is not three persons,” or even (which is similar to the previous statement) “God is three persons and God is one person.” But to say that “God is three persons and there is one God” is not a contradiction. It is something we do not understand, and it is therefore a mystery or a paradox, but that should not trouble us as long as the different aspects of the mystery are clearly taught by Scripture, for as long as we are finite creatures and not omniscient deity, there will always (for all eternity) be things that we do not fully understand. Louis Berkhof wisely says:

The Trinity is a mystery … man cannot comprehend it and make it intelligible. It is intelligible in some of its relations and modes of manifestation, but unintelligible in its essential nature … The real difficulty lies in the relation in which the persons in the Godhead stand to the divine essence and to one another; and this is a difficulty which the Church cannot remove, but only try to reduce to its proper proportion by a proper definition of terms. It has never tried to explain the mystery of the Trinity but only sought to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity in such a manner that the errors which endangered it were warded off.40

Berkhof also says, “It is especially when we reflect on the relation of the three persons to the divine essence that all analogies fail us and we become deeply conscious of the fact that the Trinity is a mystery far beyond our comprehension. It is the incomprehensible glory of the Godhead.”41

E. Application

Because God in himself has both unity and diversity, it is not surprising that unity and diversity are also reflected in the human relationships he has established. We see this first in marriage. When God created man in his own image, he did not create merely isolated individuals, but Scripture tells us, “male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). And in the unity of marriage (see Gen. 2:24) we see, not a triunity as with God, but at least a remarkable unity of two persons, persons who remain distinct individuals yet also become one in body, mind, and spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 6:16–20; Eph. 5:31). In fact, in the relationship between man and woman in marriage we see also a picture of the relationship between the Father and Son in the Trinity. Paul says, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3). Here, just as the Father has authority over the Son in the Trinity, so the husband has authority over the wife in marriage. The husband’s role is parallel to that of God the Father and the wife’s role is parallel to that of God the Son. Moreover, just as Father and Son are equal in deity and importance and personhood, so the husband and wife are equal in humanity and importance and personhood. And, although it is not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, the gift of children within marriage, coming from both the father and the mother, and subject to the authority of both father and mother, is analogous to the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and Son in the Trinity.

But the human family is not the only way in which God has ordained that there would be both diversity and unity in the world that reflect something of his own excellence. In the church we have “many members” yet “one body” (1 Cor. 12:12). Paul reflects on the great diversity among members of the human body (1 Cor. 12:14–26) and says that the church is like that: We have many different members in our churches with different gifts and interests, and we depend on and help each other, thereby demonstrating great diversity and great unity at the same time. When we see different people doing many different things in the life of a church we ought to thank God that this allows us to glorify him by reflecting something of the unity and diversity of the Trinity

We should also notice that God’s purpose in the history of the universe has frequently been to display unity in diversity, and thus to display his glory. We see this not only in the diversity of gifts in the church (1 Cor. 12:12–26), but also in the unity of Jews and Gentiles, so that all races, diverse as they are, are united in Christ (Eph. 2:16; 3:8–10; see also Rev. 7:9). Paul is amazed that God’s plans for the history of redemption have been like a great symphony so that his wisdom is beyond finding out (Rom. 11:33–36). Even in the mysterious unity between Christ and the church, in which we are called the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:31–32), we see unity beyond what we ever would have imagined, unity with the Son of God himself. Yet in all this we never lose our individual identity but remain distinct persons always able to worship and serve God as unique individuals

Eventually the entire universe will partake of this unity of purpose with every diverse part contributing to the worship of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for one day, at the name of Jesus every knee will bow “in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11).
On a more everyday level, there are many activities that we carry out as human beings (in the labor force, in social organizations, in musical performances, and in athletic teams, for example) in which many distinct individuals contribute to a unity of purpose or activity. As we see in these activities a reflection of the wisdom of God in allowing us both unity and diversity, we can see a faint reflection of the glory of God in his trinitarian existence. Though we will never fully comprehend the mystery of the Trinity, we can worship God for who he is both in our songs of praise, and in our words and actions as they reflect something of his excellent character.

 Grudem, W. A. (1994). Systematic theology : An introduction to biblical doctrine (226–261). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

The Trinity and Tritheism

Posted on: December 22nd, 2010 by Matt No Comments

Article by: Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology

This Tripersonality is not Tritheism: for, while there are three Persons, there is but one Essence.

(a) The term ‘person’ only approximately represents the truth. Although this word, more nearly than any other single word, expresses the conception which the Scriptures give us of the relation between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it is not itself used in this connection in Scripture, and we employ it in a qualified sense, not in the ordinary sense in which we apply the word ‘person’ to Peter, Paul, and John.

The word ‘person’ is only the imperfect and inadequate expression of a fact that transcends our experience and comprehension. Bunyan: “My dark and cloudy words, they do but hold The truth, as cabinets encase the gold.” Three Gods, limiting each other, would deprive each other of Deity. While we show that the unity is articulated by the persons, it is equally important to remember that the persons are limited by the unity. With us personality implies entire separation from all others—distinct individuality. But in the one God there can be no such separation. The personal distinctions in him must be such as are consistent with essential unity. This is the merit of the statement in the Symbolum Quicumque (or Athanasian Creed, wrongly so called): “The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Ghost is God; and yet there are not three Gods but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Ghost is Lord; yet there are not three Lords but one Lord. For as we are compelled by Christian truth to acknowledge each person by himself to be God and Lord, so we are forbidden by the same truth to say that there are three Gods or three Lords.” See Hagenbach, History of Doctrine, l:270. We add that the personality of the Godhead as a whole is separate and distinct from all others, and in this respect is more fully analogous to man’s personality than is the personality of the Father or of the Son.

The church of Alexandria in the second century chanted together: “One only is holy, the Father; One only is holy, the Son; One only is holy, the Spirit.” Moberly, Atonement and Personality, 154, 167, 168—“The three persons are neither three Gods, nor three parts of God. Rather are they God threefoldly, tri-personally.…The personal distinction in Godhead is a distinction within, and of, Unity: not a distinction which qualifies Unity, or usurps the place of it, or destroys it. It is not a relation of mutual exclusiveness, but of mutual inclusiveness. No one person is or can be without the others.…The personality of the supreme or absolute Being cannot be without self-contained mutuality of relations such as Will and Love. But the mutuality would not be real, unless the subject which becomes object, and the object which becomes subject, were on each side alike and equally Personal..…The Unity of all-comprehending inclusiveness is a higher mode of unity than the unity of singular distinctiveness.…The disciples are not to have the presence of the Spirit instead of the Son, but to have the Spirit is to have the Son. We mean by the Personal God not a limited alternative to unlimited abstracts, such as Law, Holiness, Love, but the transcendent and inclusive completeness of them all. The terms Father and Son are certainly terms which rise more immediately out of the temporal facts of the incarnation than out of the eternal relations of the divine Being. They are metaphors, however, which mean far more in the spiritual than they do in the material sphere. Spiritual hunger is more intense than physical hunger. So sin, judgment, grace, are metaphors. But in John 1:1–18 ‘Son’ is not used, but ‘Word.’ ”

(b) The necessary qualification is that, while three persons among men have only a specific unity of nature or essence—that is, have the same species of nature or essence,—the persons of the Godhead have a numerical unity of nature or essence—that is, have the same nature or essence. The undivided essence of the Godhead belongs equally to each of the persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each possesses all the substance and all the attributes of Deity. The plurality of the Godhead is therefore not a plurality of essence, but a plurality of hypostatical, or personal, distinctions. God is not three and one, but three in one. The one indivisible essence has three modes of subsistence.

The Trinity is not simply a partnership, in which each member can sign the name of the firm; for this is unity of council and operation only, not of essence. God’s nature is not an abstract but an organic unity. God, as living, cannot be a mere Monad. Trinity is the organism of the Deity. The one divine Being exists in three modes. The life of the vine makes itself known in the life of the branches, and this union between vine and branches Christ uses to illustrate the union between the Father and himself. (See John 15:10—“If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love”; cf. verse 5—“I am the vine, ye are the branches; he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit”; 17:22, 23—“That they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me.”) So, in the organism of the body, the arm has its own life, a different life from that of the head or the foot, yet has this only by partaking of the life of the whole. See Dorner, System of Doctrine, 1:450–453—“The one divine personality is so present in each of the distinctions, that these, which singly and by themselves would not be personal, yet do participate in the one divine personality, each in its own manner. This one divine personality is the unity of the three modes of subsistence which participate in itself. Neither is personal without the others hers. In each, in its manner, is the whole Godhead.”

The human body is a complex rather than a simple organism, a unity which embraces an indefinite number of subsidiary and dependent organisms. The one life of the body manifests itself in the life of the nervous system, the life of the circulatory system, and the life of the digestive system. The complete destruction of either one of these systems destroys the other two. Psychology as well as physiology reveals to us the possibility of a three-fold life within the bounds or a single being. In the individual man there is sometimes a double and even a triple consciousness. Herbert Spencer, Autobiography, 1:459; 2:204—“Most active minds have, I presume, more or less frequent experiences of double consciousness—one consciousness seeming to take note of what the other is about, and to applaud or blame.” He mentions an instance in his own experience. “May there not be possible a bi-cerebral thinking, as there is a binocular vision? … In these cases it seems as though there were going on, quite apart from the consciousness which seemed to constitute myself, some process of elaborating coherent thoughts—as though one part of myself was an independent originator over whose sayings and doings I had no control, and which were nevertheless in great measure consistent; while the other part of myself was a passive spectator or listener, quite unprepared for many of the things that the first part said, and which were nevertheless, though unexpected, not illogical.” This fact that there can be more than one consciousness in the same personality among men should make us slow to deny that there can be three consciousnesses in the one God.

Humanity at large is also an organism, and this fact lends new confirmation to the Pauline statement of organic interdependence. Modern sociology is the doctrine of one life constituted by the union of many. “Unus homo, nullus homo” is a principle of ethics as well as of sociology. No man can have a conscience to himself. The moral life of one results from and is interpenetrated by the moral life of all. All men moreover live, move and have their being in God. Within the bounds of the one universal and divine consciousness there are multitudinous finite consciousnesses. Why then should it be thought incredible that in the nature of this one God there should be three infinite consciousnesses? Baldwin, Psychology, 53, 54—“The integration of finite consciousnesses in an all-embracing divine consciousness may find a valid analogy in the integration of subordinate consciousnesses in the unit-personality of man. In the hypnotic state, multiple consciousnesses may be induced in the same nervous organism. In insanity there is a secondary consciousness at war with that which normally dominates.” Schurman, Belief in God, 26, 161—“The infinite Spirit may include the finite, as the idea of a single organism embraces within a single life a plurality of members and functions.…All souls are parts or functions of the eternal life of God, who is above all, and through all, and in all, and in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” We would draw the conclusion that, as in the body and soul of man, both as an individual and as a race, there is diversity in unity, so in the God in whose image man is made, there is diversity in unity, and a triple consciousness and will are consistent with, and even find their perfection in, a single essence.

By the personality of God we mean more than we mean when we speak of the personality of the Son and the personality of the Spirit. The personality of the Godhead is distinct and separate from all others, and is, in this respect, like that of man. Hence Shedd, Dogm. Theol., 1:194 says “it is preferable to speak of the personality of the essence rather than of the person of the essence; because the essence is not one person, but three persons.…The divine essence cannot be at once three persons and one person, if ‘person’ is employed in one signification; but it can be at once three persons and one personal Being.” While we speak of the one God as having a personality in which there are three persons, we would not call this personality a superpersonality, if this latter term is intended to intimate that God’s personality is less than the personality of man. The personality of the Godhead is inclusive rather than exclusive.

With this qualification we may assent to the words of D’Arcy, Idealism and Theology, 93, 94, 218, 230, 236, 254—“The innermost truth of things, God, must be conceived as personal; but the ultimate Unity, which is his, must be believed to be superpersonal. It is a unity of persons, not a personal unity. For us personality is the ultimate form of unity. It is not so in him. For in him all persons live and move and have their being.…God is personal and also superpersonal. In him there is a transcendent unity that can embrace a personal multiplicity.…There is in God an ultimate superpersonal unity in which all persons are one—[all human persons and the three divine persons].…Substance is more real than quality, and subject is more real than substance. The most real of all is the concrete totality, the all-inclusive Universal.…What human love strives to accomplish—the overcoming of the opposition of person to person—is perfectly attained in the divine Unity.…The presupposition on which philosophy is driven back—[that persons have an underlying ground of unity] is identical with that which underlies Christian theology.” See Pfleiderer and Lotze on personality, in this Compendium, p. 104.

(c) This oneness of essence explains the fact that, while Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as respects their personality, are distinct subsistences, there is an intercommunion of persons and an immanence of one divine person in another which permits the peculiar work of one to be ascribed, with a single limitation, to either of the others, and the manifestation of one to be recognized in the manifestation of another. The limitation is simply this, that although the Son was sent by the Father, and the Spirit by the Father and the Son, it cannot be said vice versa that the Father is sent either by the Son, or by the Spirit. The Scripture representations of this intercommunion prevent us from conceiving of the distinctions called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as involving separation between them.

Dorner adds that “in one is each of the others.” This is true with the limitation mentioned in the text above. Whatever Christ does, God the Father can be said to do; for God acts only in and through Christ the Revealer. Whatever the Holy Spirit does, Christ can be said to do; for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit is the omnipresent Jesus, and Bengel’s dictum is true: “Ubi Spiritus, ibi Christus.” Passages illustrating this intercommunion are the following: Gen. 1:1—“God created”; cf. Heb. 1:2—“through whom [the Son] also he made the worlds”; John 5:17, 19—“My Father worketh even until now, and I work.…The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father doing; for what things soever he doeth, these the Son also doeth in like manner”; 14:9—“he that hath seen me hath seen the Father”; 11—“I am in the Father and the Father in me”; 18—“I will not leave you desolate: I come unto yon” (by the Holy Spirit); 15:26—“when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth”; 17:21—“that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee”; 2 Cor. 5:19—“God was in Christ reconciling”; Titus 2:10—“God our Savior”; Heb. 12:23—“God the Judge of all”; cf. John 5:22—“neither doth the Father judge any man, but he hath given all judgment unto the Son”; Acts 17:31—“judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he hath ordained.”

It is this intercommunion, together with the order of personality and operation to be mentioned hereafter, which explains the occasional use of the term ‘Father’ for the whole Godhead; as in Eph. 4:6—“one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all [in Christ], and in you all” [by the Spirit]. This intercommunion also explains the designation of Christ as “the Spirit,” and of the Spirit as “the Spirit of Christ,” as in 1 Cor. 15:45—“the last Adam became a life-giving Spirit”; 2 Cor. 3:17—“Now the Lord is the Spirit”; Gal. 4:6—“sent forth the Spirit of his Son”; Phil. 1:19—“supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (see Alford and Lange on 2 Cor. 3:17, 18). So the Lamb, in Rev. 5:6, has “seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent forth into all the earth” = the Holy Spirit, with his manifold powers, is the Spirit of the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent Christ. Theologians have designated this intercommunion by the terms περιχώρησις, circumincessio, intercommunicatio, circulatio, inexistentia. The word οὐσία was used to denote essence, substance, nature, being; and the words πρόσωπον and ὑπόστασις for person, distinction, mode of subsistence. On the changing uses of the words πρόσωπον and ὑπόστασις. see Dorner, Glaubenslehre, 2:321, note 2. On the meaning of the word ‘person’ in connection with the Trinity, see John Howe, Calm Discourse of the Trinity; Jonathan Edwards, Observations on the Trinity; Shedd, Dogm. Theol., 1:194, 267–275, 299, 300.

The Holy Spirit is Christ’s alter ego, or other self. When Jesus went away, it was an exchange of his presence for his omnipresence; an exchange of limited for unlimited power; an exchange of companionship for indwelling. Since Christ comes to men in the Holy Spirit, he speaks through the apostles as authoritatively as if his own lips uttered the words. Each believer, in having the Holy Spirit, has the whole Christ for his own; see A. J. Gordon, Ministry of the Spirit. Gore, Incarnation, 218—“The persons of the Holy Trinity are not separable individuals. Each involves the others; the coming of each is the coming of the others. Thus the coming of the Spirit must have involved the coming of the Son. But the specialty of the Pentecostal gift appears to be the coming of the Holy Spirit out of the uplifted and glorified manhood of the incarnate Son. The Spirit is the life-giver, but the life with which he works in the church is the life of the Incarnate, the life of Jesus.”

Moberly, Atonement and Personality, 85—“For centuries upon centuries, the essential unity of God had been burnt and branded in upon the consciousness of Israel. It had to be completely established first, as a basal element of thought, indispensable, unalterable, before there could begin the disclosure to man of the reality of the eternal relations within the one indivisible being of God. And when the disclosure came, it came not as modifying, but as further interpreting and illumining, that unity which it absolutely presupposed.” E. G. Robinson, Christian Theology, 238—“There is extreme difficulty in giving any statement of a triunity that shall not verge upon tritheism on the one hand, or upon mere modalism on the other. It was very natural that Calvin should be charged with Sabellianism, and John Howe with tritheism.”

Article by: Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology, "The Present Work Is a Revision and Enlargement of My ‘Systematic Theology,’ First Published in 1886."–Pref. (Bellingham, Wa.: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004), 330.

God as Trinity

Posted on: December 22nd, 2010 by Matt No Comments

Article by Robert L. Reymond

God as Trinity

In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. (Westminster Confession of Faith, II/iii)

In conformity with Western dogmatic tradition going all the way back to before Augustine, the last chapter treated the issue of God’s attributes without specific reference to those matters which relate to the doctrine of the Trinity, explicating God’s nature as God. This chapter takes up the dogma of God as Trinity, with the full awareness that all that has been said about God as such, if Triune Godhead there be, must be equally true of the three Persons of the Godhead, which is to say that the Father as divine spirit is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, the Son as divine spirit is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, and the Holy Spirit as divine spirit is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, and yet the three are not three Gods but one God.1

Three propositions (or doctrines) are essential to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: (1) there is but one living and true God who is eternally and immutably indivisible (the doctrine of monotheism); (2) the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each fully and equally God (the doctrine of the three Persons’ “sameness in divine essence”)2; and (3) the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each distinct Persons (the doctrine of the three Persons’ “distinctness in subsistence).”3 These three concepts represent in capsule form the biblical doctrine of the Trinity.4


The word “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible, and neither do the expressions “sameness in substance” and “distinctness in subsistence.” Nevertheless, the church from the third century on found such expressions helpful when explicating the teaching of Scripture on the tripersonality of the Godhead, being convinced, as Benjamin Warfield states in a somewhat startling fashion, that “it is better to preserve the truth of Scripture than the words of Scripture.”5 Which is just to say, contrary to what Unitarians would think and say, that the church has propounded its distinctive view of the tripersonality of the one true God, not because it became enamored of Greek thought or followed a spurious hermeneutic but because it was convinced that the Trinity is a revealed doctrine—not in the sense that it lies before us on the pages of Scripture as a “formulated definition” but in the sense that it appears therein in the form of “fragmentary allusions”; accordingly,

when we assemble the disjecta membra into their organic unity, we are not passing from Scripture, but entering more thoroughly into the meaning of Scripture. We may state the doctrine in technical terms, supplied by philosophical reflection, but the doctrine stated is a genuinely Scriptural doctrine.6

Where is the doctrine revealed in Scripture? The answer to this question will occupy a major portion of this chapter, but it will not be superfluous to sketch out here its revelational modus before considering its revealed details.


It is unlikely that anyone familiar with or reading only the Old Testament today, with no knowledge of the New Testament, would conclude that within the inner life of the divine being resides a real and distinct personal manifoldness. This is not to suggest, however, that the Old Testament is not “Trinitarian,” for it is—to the core. Nor is it to suggest that the saints of the Old Testament who had the benefit of enlightened prophets of God living among them and who could therefore consult them respecting the meaning of their writings were totally ignorant of a personal manifoldness in God. It is just taking seriously the fact that the Old Testament revelation per se, as a written corpus—to use Warfield’s delightful metaphor—is like

a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted; the introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what is in it but was only dimly or even not at all perceived before. The mystery of the Trinity is not revealed in the Old Testament; but the mystery of the Trinity underlies the Old Testament revelation, and here and there almost comes into view. Thus the Old Testament revelation is not corrected by the fuller revelation which follows it, but only perfected, extended and enlarged.7

The New Testament writers—thoroughly “Trinitarian” in their theology—evidently saw no incongruity between their doctrine of God and the monotheism of the Old Testament. Accordingly, it is quite proper to suggest that the following phenomena are all to be viewed as adumbrations of the doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament:

1. the plural cohortative “Let us make” and the plural pronoun “our” in Genesis 1:26: “Let us make man in our image” (see also Gen. 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8);8

2. those close juxtapositions of some title for God which differentiate God in one sense from God in another sense, as in

Psalm 45:6–7: “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever … You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore, God, your God, has set you above your companions” (see Heb. 1:8);

Psalm 110:1: “The Lord (יהוה, yhwh) says to my Lord (אֲדנִי, ˒aḏōni–): ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’ ” (see Matt. 22:41–45; also Num. 6:24; Isa. 33:22; Dan. 9:19);

3. the “angel of the Lord” who is both identified as God and yet differentiated from God (Gen. 16:7–13; 22:1–2, 11–18; 24:7, 40; 28:10–17 and 31:11–13; 32:9–12, 24–30; 48:15–16; Exod. 3:2–6; 13:21 and 14:19; 23:20–23 and 33:14; 32:34; Josh. 5:13–15; Judg. 6:11–24; 13:3–22; 2 Sam. 24:16; Hos. 12:4; Zech. 12:8; and Mal. 3:1).

4. those passages which depict God’s Word and Spirit as virtually co-causes with God of his work, as in

Genesis 1:2: “and the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters”;

Psalm 33:6: “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth” (see John 1:1–3; also Isa. 42:1; 43:9-12; Hag. 2:5–6);

5. those passages which tend to “personalize” God’s Word, as in

Psalm 107:20: “He sent forth his Word and healed them” (see also Gen. 1:3; Ps. 33:6; 147:15–18; Isa. 55:11);

and which tend to do the same with God’s Spirit, as in

Isaiah 63:10: “they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit” (see also Isa. 48:16; Ezek. 2:2; 8:3; Zech. 7:12);

6. those passages in which the Messiah as a divine Speaker refers to the Lord and/or the Spirit as having sent him, as in

Isaiah 48:16: “From the first announcement I have not spoken in secret; at the time it happens I am there. And now the sovereign Lord has sent me, with his Spirit”;

Isaiah 61:1: “The Spirit of the sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor” (see Luke 4:16–18);

Zechariah 2:10–11: “ ‘Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Many nations will be joined with the Lord in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you’ ”;

7. those passages in which the prophet speaks of the Lord, the Angel of his presence, and his Holy Spirit as virtually distinct Persons, as in

Isaiah 63:9–10: “In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. Yet they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit. So he turned and became their enemy and he himself fought against them”;

8. and finally, those passages in which a plural noun is employed to refer to God (these could be plurals of intensification, however, on the analogy of אֱלֹהִים, ˓elōhîm), such as

Psalm 149:2: “Let Israel rejoice in his Maker [בְּעֹשָׂיו, be˓ōsåayw; lit., “Makers”]; let the people of Zion be glad in their King”;

Ecclesiastes 12:1: “Remember your Creator [בּוֹרְאֶיךָ, bōre˒eykā; lit., “Creators”] in the days of your youth”;

Isaiah 54:5: “For your Maker [עֹשַׂיִךְ, ˓ōsåayik; lit., ‘Makers’] is your husband [בֹעֲלַיִךְ, ḇō˓alayik; lit., ‘husbands’]—the Lord Almighty is his name.”

On the other hand, when we turn to the pages of the New Testament we find the doctrine of the Triune character of God everywhere assumed (see Matt. 28:19; Mark 1:9–11; John 14:16–26; 15:26; 16:5–15; 1 Cor. 12:3–6; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 1:3–14; 2:18; 4:4–6; Gal. 4:4–6; Rom. 8:1–11; 2 Thess. 2:13–14; Titus 3:4–6; 1 Pet. 1:2; Jude 20–21; Rev. 1:4)—not struggling to be born but already on the scene and fully assimilated into the thought forms of the Christian community. That is to say, in the New Testament the doctrine is not in the making through rigorous debate and theological reflection but already made (Warfield). How do we account for the fact that the Old Testament seems to have been written “before” its revelation while the New Testament seems to have been written “after” its revelation? To cite Warfield:

The revelation itself was made not in word but in deed. It was made in the incarnation of God the Son, and the outpouring of God the Holy Spirit. The relation of the two Testaments to this revelation is in the one case that of preparation for it, and in the other that of product of it. The revelation itself is embodied just in Christ and the Holy Spirit.9

It has been often said, as the reason lying behind the determination of the divine wisdom to reveal the fact of the Trinity in this manner, that it was the task of the Old Testament “to fix firmly in the minds and hearts of the people of God the great fundamental truth of the unity of the Godhead; and it would have been dangerous to speak to them of the plurality within this unity until this task had been fully accomplished.”10 But, as Warfield argues, it is more likely that the full revelation of the Godhead’s personal manifoldness was necessarily tied to the unfolding of the redemptive process, and that as that process materialized the revelation of the Trinity necessarily was disclosed as its corollary:

the revelation of the Trinity was … the inevitable effect of the accomplishment of redemption. It was in the coming of the Son of God in the likeness of sinful flesh to offer Himself a sacrifice for sin; and in the coming of the Holy Spirit to convict the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment, that the Trinity of Persons in the Unity of the Godhead was once for all revealed to men. Those who knew God the Father, who loved them and gave His own Son to die for them; and the Lord Jesus Christ, who loved them and delivered Himself up an offering and sacrifice for them; and the Spirit of Grace, who loved them and dwelt within them, a power not themselves, making for righteousness, knew the Triune God and could not think or speak of God otherwise than as triune. The doctrine of the Trinity, in other words, is simply the modification wrought in the conception of the one only God by His complete revelation of Himself in the redemptive process. It necessarily waited, therefore, upon the completion of the redemptive process for its revelation, and its revelation, as necessarily, lay complete in the redemptive process.

     The fundamental proof that God is a Trinity is supplied thus by the fundamental revelation of the Trinity in fact: that is to say, in the incarnation of God the Son and the outpouring of God the Holy Spirit. In a word, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are the fundamental proof of the doctrine of the Trinity. This is as much as to say that all the evidence of whatever kind, and from whatever source derived, that Jesus Christ is God manifested in the flesh, and that the Holy Spirit is a Divine Person, is just so much evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity; and that when we go to the New Testament for evidence of the Trinity we are to seek for it, not merely in the scattered allusions to the Trinity as such, numerous and instructive as they are, but primarily in the whole mass of evidence which the New Testament provides of the Deity of Christ and the Divine personality of the Holy Spirit.11

Louis Berkhof agrees:

The Old Testament does not contain a full revelation of the trinitarian existence of God, but does contain several indications of it. And this is exactly what might be expected. The Bible never deals with the doctrine of the Trinity as an abstract truth, but reveals the trinitarian life in its various relations as a living reality, to a certain extent in connection with the works of creation and providence, but particularly in relation to the work of redemption. Its most fundamental revelation is a revelation given in facts rather than in words. And this revelation increases in clarity in the measure in which the redemptive work of God is more clearly revealed, as in the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And the more the glorious reality of the Trinity stands out in the facts of history, the clearer the statements of the doctrine become. The fuller revelation of the Trinity in the New Testament is due to the fact that the Word became flesh, and that the Holy Spirit took up His abode in the Church.12

It was, in sum, the two great objective redemptive events of the Incarnation and Pentecost which precipitated and concretized the modification in the thinking of the first Christians about the one living and true God. Because they were convinced that men had been confronted by nothing less than the unabridged glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6) and that the Holy Spirit possessed a personal subsistence with the Father and the Son, the first Christians were given the impetus to formulate their understanding of God in Trinitarian terms.

The evidence for the Trinity, then, since the deity and personal subsistence of the Father may be viewed as a given,13 is just the biblical evidence for the deity of Jesus Christ and the distinct personal subsistence of God the Holy Spirit. Said another way, whatever biblical evidence, wherever expressed in Holy Scripture, which can be adduced in support of the deity of Christ and the personal subsistence of the Holy Spirit is evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity. Accordingly, the larger portion of the remainder of this chapter will be devoted to the adduction of the biblical evidence for the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit’s personal subsistence.


The biblical evidence for the deity of the Son includes (1) the Old Testament adumbrations and predictions of a divine Messiah, (2) Jesus’ self-testimony in both words and deeds, (3) his resurrection, (4) the New Testament writers’ united witness, and (5) specifically, the nine New Testament passages in which “God” (θεός, theos) is used as a title for Christ.

Old Testament Predictions of a Divine Messiah

The Old Testament’s testimony to the deity of the promised Messiah is so pervasive that only a few of its highlights can be listed:14

1. A careful study of the references to the “angel of the Lord” will disclose that he is differentiated from God as his messenger by the very title itself as well as by the fact that God refers to him or addresses him (see Exod. 23:23; 32:34; 2 Sam. 24:16). And yet in his speeches the angel lays claim to divine prerogatives and powers, indeed to identity with God (see Gen. 31:11–13), thus establishing the pattern present in such Old Testament passages as Psalms 2:7, 45:6–7, and 110:1 and such New Testament passages as John 1:1, 18, Hebrews 1:8, and 1 John 5:20. Geerhardus Vos states that the only way to do justice to both features—the differentiation and the identity—is to

assume that back of the twofold representation there lies a real manifoldness in the inner life of the Deity. If the Angel sent were Himself partaker of the Godhead, then He could refer to God as His sender, and at the same time speak as God, and in both cases there would be reality back of it. Without this much of what we call the Trinity the transaction could not but have been unreal and illusory.

He notes further that the angel’s declarations of identity with God (which he terms God’s “sacramental” intent) underscores God’s desire to be present with his people in order to support them in their frailty and limitations; but without the angel’s differentiation from God (which he terms God’s “spiritual” intent), the real spiritual nature of the Deity would have been threatened. Hence, the angel speaks of God in the third person. From this analysis Vos concludes:

In the incarnation of our Lord we have the supreme expression of this fundamental arrangement.… The whole incarnation, with all that pertains to it, is one great sacrament of redemption. And yet even here special care is taken to impress believers with the absolute spirituality of Him Who has thus made Himself of our nature. The principle at stake has found classical expression in John 1:18: “No man has seen God at any time; God only begotten, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.”15

2. David, in Psalm 2:7, identifies the Messiah as God’s unique Son, a title in this context carrying implications of deity, according to the writer of Hebrews, for all the angels of God are ordered to worship Him (Heb. 1:5–6). Moreover, when the writer explicates the content of this “more excellent name,” he does so by ascriptions to Christ of the supreme titles of θεός, theos, and κύριος, kyrios—not new names additional to the title “Son,” but explications of the content of the more excellent “Son” title itself of Psalm 2.

3. In Psalm 45:6–7 the Messiah is called “God”: “Your throne, O God [אֱלֹֹהִים, ˒elōhîm], is forever and ever” (see Heb. 1:8).

4. In Psalm 102:25–27 the Messiah bears as his name the sacred Tetragram (יהוה, yhwh), possessing accordingly the attributes of creative power and eternality (see Heb. 1:10–12).

5. In Psalm 110:1 the Messiah bears the title of אֲדֹנִי (˒aḏōnî, “my Lord”), a title again carrying implications of deity since the One who bears this title sits on the right hand of Yahweh, a supra-angelic position (Heb. 1:13). Some angels are privileged to stand before God (Luke 1:19), but none are ever said to sit before him, much less sit upon his throne. The One who so sits with God must surely share in the divine reign as being himself divine.

6. In Isaiah 7:14 the virginally conceived Messiah is “God with us” (עִמָּנוּ אֵל, ˓immānû ˒ēl) (see Matt. 1:23).

7. In Isaiah 9:6 the Messiah is the bearer of the “four wonderful titles”: “Wonderful Counselor,” “the Mighty God” (אֵל גִּבּוֹר, ˒ēl gibbôr), the “Everlasting Father,” and “the Prince of Peace.”

8. In Daniel 7:14 the Messiah is the “manlike Figure,” manlike only to distinguish his kingdom in character from the four “beast” kingdoms preceding his, but himself divine as evidenced by (a) his free access to the Ancient of Days, (b) his “coming on clouds” (employed as a descriptive metaphor only of deity; see Nahum 1:3), (c) the universal and everlasting kingdom which the Ancient of Days bestows upon him, and (d) the worship which the peoples and nations of the world offer him.

9. In Malachi 3:1 the Messiah, the Messenger of the Covenant, before whom his own messenger (“Elijah”) goes in order to prepare his way, is Yahweh of Hosts (see the “before me”).16

10. If we include John the Baptist among the Old Testament prophets as the “Elijah who was to come” (see Matt. 11:13–14), then we have John’s testimony to (a) the Messiah’s preexistence (John 1:15, 30),17 and (b) the Messiah’s divine Sonship (John 1:34). In regard to this latter testimony, Vos notes:

That [the title “Son of God”] cannot be lower in its import than the same title throughout the Gospel [of John] follows from the position it has as the culminating piece of this first stage of witnessing, when compared with the statement of the author of the Gospel (20:31). According to this statement the things recorded of Jesus were written to create belief in the divine sonship of the Saviour. With this in view a series of episodes and discourses had been put in order. Obviously the John-the-Baptist section forms the first in this series, and therein lies the reason, why it issues into the testimony about the Sonship under discussion. That it carried high meaning also appears from [John’s declaration in John 1:15, 30], in which nothing less than the preexistence of the Messiah had already been affirmed.18

Here then are several lines of Old Testament evidence for the coming of a Messiah who would be divine in nature. The stage was thus set for the appearance to his world of the virginally conceived divine Messiah who gave testimony concerning his deity in many unmistakable ways.

Jesus’ Self-Testimony to His Deity


A truly vast literature has grown up around the Son of Man title in the Gospels, and only a brief discussion can be given here.

The title itself (ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, ho huios tou anthrōpou, anarthrous only in John 5:27, but this anomaly is accounted for by Colwell’s rule)19 occurs sixty-nine times in the Synoptics, appearing in all four of the alleged earlier documentary sources (Ur-Markus, Q, M, and L), and thirteen times in the Fourth Gospel, for a total of eighty-two occurrences in the Gospels. The Son of Man sayings themselves depict the Son of Man figure in three distinct situations: that of his current ministry, that of his suffering at the hands of men (maltreated, betrayed, executed, and buried), and that of his rising and appearing in glory on the clouds of heaven. Who is this Son of Man, or are these situations so disparate that we must more accurately speak of more than one Son of Man?

Assuming the authenticity of these sayings as containing the ipsissima vox Jesu, the church has traditionally understood the phrase “Son of Man” as the title Jesus chose as a self-designation precisely because, although assuredly messianic (see Dan. 7:13), the title was ambiguous in meaning to the current popular imagination. This enabled him to claim to be the Messiah with little danger of the current erroneous views being read into it before he had the opportunity to infuse it with the full-orbed content of the messianic task which was foreshadowed in and predicted by the Old Testament.

Furthermore, according to the church’s traditional understanding, Jesus spelled out his messianic task as the Son of Man precisely in terms of the three situations of serving, suffering, and glory and applied these situations to himself, the former two being fulfilled in connection with his first Advent, the last to be fulfilled first in the “lesser (typical) coming in judgment” in the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70 (to which most probably Matt. 10:23; 24:27, 30 and perhaps others refer), and second in his grand and final apocalyptic revelation in eschatological glory.

That the church was correct when it understood the title as a self-designation of Jesus and when it applied these situations of the Son of Man to Jesus is evident from the following four lines of evidence:

1. Where Matthew (5:11) reads “on account of me,” Luke (6:22) reads “for the sake of the Son of Man”; where Matthew (10:32) has “I,” Luke (12:8) has “the Son of Man.” Where Mark (8:27) and Luke (9:18) have “I,” Matthew (16:13) reads “the Son of Man,” but where Mark (8:31 and 8:38) and Luke (9:22 and 9:26) have “the Son of Man,” Matthew (16:21 and 10:33) correspondingly reads “he” and “I.” Clearly the title, at least at times, was simply a periphrasis for “I” or “me,” demonstrating that Jesus intended himself as its referent. And always standing in the background was the eschatological figure of Daniel 7.

2. When Judas kissed Jesus, according to Luke 22:48 (see also Matt. 26:23-24, 45), Jesus asked: “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”

3. As Royce G. Gruenler argues:

     Matt. 19:28 is especially instructive on the matter of who the glorified Son of man is, for Jesus promises his disciples with the authoritative “Truly, I say to you” that “in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Surely Jesus, whom they have followed and in terms of whom they shall reign, will not be excluded from reigning with them. Are there then to be two enthroned central figures? The sense of the passage exegetically would imply that only one central person is assumed, namely, Jesus the Son of man.20

He argues further:

     It is likely that non-supernaturalist assumptions lie behind the refusal to allow that these sayings [which portray the Son of Man as a glorified divine being] are Jesus’ own prophetic vision of his vindication and glorification in the coming judgment. Certainly there is no suggestion elsewhere in the Gospels that he anticipated any other figure to appear after him. In fact, among the Marcan sayings … 9:9 [Matt 17:9; see also Mark 8:31 (Luke 9:22; 24:7); 9:31 (Matt 17:22–23); Mark 10:33–34 (Matt 20:18–19; Luke 18:31–33)] clearly refers to his own rising as the Son of man from the dead, and 14:62, the scene before the high priest, couples his “I am” confession that he is the Christ, the Son of the Blessed, with the surrogate for “I,” the Son of man, “sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”21

4. When Jesus asked the man born blind, whom he had just healed: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”22 the man asked “Who is he, Lord? Tell me, that I may believe in him.” Jesus replied: “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you” (John 9:35–37).

Thus it is clear that all four Evangelists intended their readers to understand that Jesus is the Son of Man in the roles both of suffering Servant “who came to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10), who also came “not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; Matt. 20:28), and of coming Judge and eschatological King.

As for its background, both the evangelical and the growing critical consensus is that Daniel 7:13–14 is the primary source.23 A common objection that is raised against Daniel’s “manlike figure” being made the source of Jesus’ “Son of Man sayings” is the alleged absence of the motif of suffering in the description of this figure in Daniel 7 while the idea of suffering is often attached to the title in Jesus’ usage.This problem has been adequately answered by evangelical New Testament scholarship.24 When Jesus employed the title he was self-consciously claiming to be the Danielic Son of Man and hence the Messiah, uniting within the one Old Testament figure both the motif of suffering (the work of Isaiah’s suffering servant) and the motif of his apocalyptic coming to judge the earth and to bring the Kingdom of God to its consummation.

Commenting upon the significance of the “Son of Man” title, Geerhardus Vos writes:

In close adherence to the spirit of the scene in Daniel from which it was taken, it suggested a Messianic career in which, all of a sudden, without human interference or military conflict, through an immediate act of God, the highest dignity and power are conferred. The kingship here portrayed is not only supernatural; it is “transcendental.”25

Even a cursory examination of Jesus’ Son of Man sayings will bear out all that Vos asserts here and more. For example, this title in the Fourth Gospel “connotes the heavenly, superhuman side of Jesus’ mysterious existence,”26 expressing what is commonly called his preexistence (John 3:13; 6:62). As the Son of Man, Jesus in the Synoptics claimed to have the authority to forgive sins (Matt. 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24) and to regulate even the observance of the divine ordinance of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8; Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5)—clearly prerogatives of deity alone. To speak against the Son of Man, he said, although forgivable, is blasphemy (Matt. 12:32). As the Son of Man the angels are his (Matt. 13:41), implying thereby his own superangelic status and lordship over them. As the Son of Man he would know a period of humiliation, having no place to lay his head (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58) and finally even dying the cruel death of crucifixion; but he, the Son of Man, would suffer and die, he declared, only to the end that he might ransom others (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45). A man’s eternal destiny would turn on his relationship to the Son of Man, he taught, for unless the Son of Man gives a man life, there is no life in him (John 6:53). As the Son of Man, he would rise from the dead and “sit at the right hand of power,” and “come in clouds with great power and glory” (Matt. 24:30; Mark 13:25; Luke 21:27)—coming with all his holy angels in the glory of his Father, true enough (Matt. 16:27; Mark 8:38), but coming in his own glory as well (Matt. 25:31). And when he comes, he declared, he would come with the authority to execute judgment upon all men precisely because (ὅτι, hoti) he is the Son of Man (John 5:27). Clearly the Son of Man sayings embodied Jesus’ conception of Messiahship; and its associations were supernatural, even divine, in character. Warfield does not overstate the matter then when he writes:

     It is … in the picture which Jesus Himself draws for us of the “Son of Man” that we see His superhuman nature portrayed. For the figure thus brought before us is distinctly a superhuman one; one which is not only in the future to be seen sitting at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven … ; but which in the present world itself exercises functions which are truly divine,—for who is Lord of the Sabbath but the God who instituted it in commemoration of His own rest (2:28), and who can forgive sins but God only (2:10, see verse 7)? The assignment to the Son of Man of the function of Judge of the world and the ascription to Him of the right to forgive sins are, in each case, but another way of saying that He is a divine person; for these are divine acts.27


Jesus claimed, as the Son of God, essential divine oneness with God in the Synoptic Gospels in Matthew 11:27 (Luke 10:22); 21:37–38 (Mark 12:6; Luke 20:13); 24:36 (Mark 13:32); and 28:19; and in the Gospel of John in (at least) 5:17–29; 6:40; 10:36; 11:4; 14:13; 17:1. To these must be added those instances in the Fourth Gospel when he claimed that God was his Father in such a unique sense that the Jewish religious leadership correctly perceived that he was claiming a Sonship with God that constituted essential divine oneness and equality with God and thus, from their perspective, was the committing of blasphemy (John 5:17–18; 10:24–39, especially verses 25, 29, 30, 32–33; 37, 38; see also 19:7).

The Four Great Parallels

In Matthew 11:25–27 (Luke 10:21–22), judged by Vos to be “the culminating point of our Lord’s self-disclosure in the Synoptics,”28 Jesus draws four parallels between God as “the Father” and himself as “the Son” of 1 Chronicles 17:13; Psalm 2:7; Isaiah 9:6, and Matthew 3:17 (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). The unique and intimate nature of the Father-Son relationship asserted here by Jesus finds its expression in terms of these parallels.

The first parallel has to do with the exclusive, mutual knowledge that the Father and the Son have of each other. Jesus declares in Matthew 11:27: “No one knows [ἐπιγινώσκει, epiginōskei] the Son except the Father, and no one knows [ἐπιγινώσκει, epiginōskei] the Father except the Son.” Jesus puts emphasis upon the exclusiveness of this mutual knowledge (“no one knows except”). But just as striking is the inference that the nature of this knowledge which Jesus claims to have lifts him above the sphere of the ordinary mortal and places him “in a position, not of equality merely, but of absolute reciprosity and interpenetration of knowledge with the Father.”29 Vos observes:

That essential rather than acquired knowledge is meant follows … from the correlation of the two clauses: the knowledge God has of Jesus cannot be acquired knowledge [it must, from the fact that it is God’s knowledge, be direct, intuitive, and immediate—in a word, divine—author]; consequently the knowledge Jesus has of God cannot be acquired knowledge either, [it must be direct, intuitive, and immediate—author] for these two are placed entirely on a line. In other words, if the one is different from human knowledge, then the other must be so likewise.30

The only conclusion to be drawn is that God has this exclusive and interpenetrating knowledge of the Son because he is the Father of the Son, and that Jesus has this exclusive and interpenetrating knowledge of God because he is the Son of the Father. And inasmuch as the knowledge Jesus here claims for himself could not possibly have resulted from the investiture of the messianic task but must have originated in a Sonship which, of necessity, would have been antecedent to his messianic investiture, it is plain that Jesus’ Sonship and the messianic task with which he had been invested are not descriptive of identical relationships to the Father—the former must have logically preceded the latter and provided the ground for it.

The second parallel, which rests upon the first, involves Jesus’ assertion of the mutual necessity of the Father and the Son to reveal each other if men are ever to have a saving knowledge of them. This parallel may be seen in Jesus’ thanksgiving to the Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that he—the Father—had hidden (ἔκρυψας, ekrupsas) the mysteries of the kingdom which are centered in the Son (for it was he whom that generation [11:19] and the cities of Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum [11:20–24] were rejecting) from the “wise” (that is, spiritual “know-it-alls”) and had revealed (ἀπεκάλυψας, apekalypsas) them to “babies” (that is, to men like Peter; see Matt. 16:17) (11:25), and his later statement that “no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son wills to reveal [ἀποκαλύψαι, apokalypsai] him” (11:27). The reason that the messianic task was invested in the Son becomes even plainer from this parallel: not only does the Son alone know the Father with sufficient depth (that is, to infinity) to give a faithful revelation of him, but also, and precisely because he alone has such knowledge, the Son alone can be the revelatory channel of salvific blessing to the Father (John 14:6). Therefore, the Messianic investiture had to repose in him.

The third parallel is evident in the mutual absolute lordship each is said to possess, the Father’s expressed in the words, “Lord of heaven and earth,” the Son’s in his declaration: “All authority is given to me.”

The fourth parallel is that of the mutual absolute sovereignty each exercises in dispensing his revelation of the other. The Father’s sovereignty is displayed in Jesus’ words: “for this was your good pleasure” (εὐδοκία, eudokia) (11:26), the Son’s in his words: “to whomever the Son wills to reveal” (βούληται ἀποκαλύψαι, boulētai apokalypsai) (11:27).

A higher expression of parity between the Father and the Son with respect to the possession of the divine attributes of omniscience and sovereignty in the dispensing of saving revelation is inconceivable. Warfield writes concerning this “in some respects the most remarkable [utterance] in the whole compass of the four Gospels”:

in it our Lord asserts for Himself a relation of practical equality with the Father, here described in most elevated terms as the “Lord of heaven and earth” (v. 25). As the Father only can know the Son, so the Son only can know the Father: and others may know the Father only as He is revealed by the Son. That is, not merely is the Son the exclusive revealer of God, but the mutual knowledge of Father and Son is put on what seems very much a par. The Son can be known only by the Father in all that He is, as if His being were infinite and as such inscrutable to the finite intelligence; and His knowledge alone—again as if He were infinite in His attributes—is competent to compass the depths of the Father’s infinite being. He who holds this relation to the Father cannot conceivably be a creature.31

Such a parity with the Father is the basis upon which our Lord grounds his invitation to the weary that follows this utterance—an invitation to come not to the Father but to himself as the Revealer of the Father—an unholy usurpation of divine place and privilege if he were not himself deity. And it is not without significance that his invitation, in its all-encompassing comprehensiveness (“all you who are weary and burdened”) and the absolute certainty of its unqualified promise of blessing (“I will give you rest”), parallels in form the divine invitation in Isaiah 45:22, as is plain if one only places the two invitations in their several parts beside each other as follows:

Isaiah 45:22: “Turn to me, all the ends of the earth, and be saved [that is, I will save you].”

Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Clearly, by his promise to succor all who come to him, Jesus was asserting for himself a place of power and privilege as the Son of the Father altogether on the level of deity.

The Parable of the Wicked Farmers

In the parable of the wicked farmers recorded in Matthew 21:33–39 (Mark 12:1–11; Luke 20:9–15), Jesus tells the story of a landowner who leased his vineyard to some farmers. When the time arrived for him to receive his rental fee in the form of the fruit of the vineyard, he sent servant after servant to his tenants, only to have each one of them beaten, stoned, or killed. Finally, he sent his son (Luke: his “beloved son”; Mark: “yet one [other], a beloved son” which evokes the earlier words of the Father from heaven [1:11; 9:7]), saying: “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw him, they said: “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and take his inheritance.” This they did, throwing his body out of the vineyard. When the landowner came, he destroyed the tenants and leased his vineyard to others.

The intended referents of the parable are obvious: the landowner is God, the vineyard the nation of Israel (Isa. 5:7); the farmers the nation’s leaders, the servants the prophets of the theocracy (Matt. 23:37a); and the son is Jesus himself, the Son of God. The central teaching of the parable is also obvious, just as it was to its original audience (Matt. 21:45): God, the true Owner of Israel, after having sent his prophets repeatedly to the nation and its leaders to call it back to him from its rebellion and unbelief, only to have them rebuffed and often killed, had in Jesus moved beyond sending mere servants. In Jesus God had finally sent his beloved (that is, his “one and only”) Son who was to be similarly rejected. But his rejection, unlike the rejections of those before him, was to entail, not a mere change of politico-religious administration, but “the complete overthrow of the theocracy, and the rearing from the foundation up of a new structure in which the Son [the elevated Cornerstone] would receive full vindication and supreme honor.”32 The parable’s high Christology—reflecting Jesus’ self-understanding—finds expression in the details of the story, as Vos explains:33

1. By virtue of his Sonship, Jesus possesses “a higher dignity and a closer relation to God than the highest and closest official status known in the Old Testament theocracy.” This is apparent from the highly suggestive “beloved” attached to the title “Son,” not to mention the title “Son” itself over against the word “servant.”

2. The Son’s exalted status in the salvific economy of God is apparent from the finality of the messianic investiture which he owns. From the word ὕστερον (hysteron, “finally”) (see Mark’s “He had yet one other” and his ἔσχατον [eschaton, “finally”]; also Luke: “What shall I do?”), it is clear that Jesus represents himself as the last, the final ambassador, after whose sending nothing more can be done. “The Lord of the vineyard has no further resources; the Son is the highest messenger of God conceivable” (see Heb. 1:1–2).34

3. The former two points cannot be made to answer merely to a functional “messianic sonship,” as some theologians claim. This is apparent from the two facts that Jesus represents himself as the Son before his mission and that he is the “beloved Son” whether he be sent or not! “His being sent describes … His Messiahship, but this Messiahship was brought about precisely by the necessity for sending one who was the highest and dearest that the lord of the vineyard could delegate.… The sonship, therefore, existed antecedently to the Messianic mission.”35 And because he was, as the Son, the “heir” (in all three Synoptics; see also Psa. 2:8; Heb. 1:2, where the Son is the Heir of all things prior to his creating the world), his Sonship is the underlying ground of his messiahship.

There is a strong suggestion here of Jesus’ preexistence with the Father as the latter’s “beloved Son.” And his divine station in association with his Father prior to his messianic commitment in history is confirmed. The “Son” in this parable of Jesus, a self-portrait one may say with ample justification, is clearly divine.

The Ignorant Son

Already in his 1901 article, entitled “Gospels,” appearing in Encyclopaedia Biblica, Paul Wilhelm Schmiedel had included Mark 13:32 among his infamous nine “foundation-pillars for a truly scientific life of Jesus,” meaning by this entitlement that they “prove that in the person of Jesus we have to do with a completely human being,” and that “the divine is to be sought in him only in the form in which it is capable of being found in a man.”36 For Schmiedel, these nine passages (Mark 3:21; 6:5; 8:12, 14–21; 10:17; 13:32; 15:34; Matt. 11:5; 12:31) could serve as a base for “a truly scientific life of Jesus” because each in its own way affirms of him something which would be appropriate to a human Jesus but which would be impossible for a divine Jesus. The reason for his inclusion of Mark 13:32 among these nine is Jesus’ admission of his ignorance of the day and hour of his return in glory. But does this passage show that Christ could not have been divine?

It would be facile to assume, as did Schmiedel, that the passage places the Son entirely within the category of the merely human. This fails to take into account Jesus’ clear claim in Matthew 11:27 to a knowledge all-encompassing in character—equal to that of the Father himself.37 But it is equally facile simply to declare, as does the Roman Catholic decree, Circa quasdam propositiones de scientia animae Christi (1918), that Christ does not mean here that as man he did not know the day of judgment, that the idea of any limitation to the knowledge of Christ cannot possibly be taught in view of the hypostatic union of the two natures. Clearly it is dogmatic bias that is governing Roman Catholic exegesis here. How then is one who is really interested in “hearing” the text to understand this passage?

That Jesus speaks here as one with a divine self-consciousness is apparent for three reasons: first, this is the connotation of the simple “the Son” when it is associated as it is here with “the Father,” as we have already had occasion to observe in Matthew 11:27 and will observe when we treat Matthew 28:19; second, it is of his coming as the Son of Man in glory that Jesus speaks in this passage (and in 25:31), which Danielic figure is supernatural, even divine in character; and third, coming as the phrase “not even the Son” does after his reference to angels, Jesus places himself, on an ascending scale of ranking, above the angels of heaven, the highest of all created beings, who are significantly marked here as supramundane (see Matthew’s “of heaven,” Mark’s “in heaven”). Clearly, he classifies himself with the Father rather than with the angelic class, inasmuch as elsewhere he represents himself as the Lord of the angels, whose commands they obey (Matt. 13:41, 49; 24:31; 25:31; see Heb. 1:4–14). And if this be so, and if for these two Synoptists, Jesus is not merely superhuman but superangelic, “the question at once obtrudes itself whether a superangelic person is not by that very fact removed from the category of creatures.”38

But if Jesus is speaking here out of a divine self-consciousness, as we believe we have just demonstrated is the case, how can he say of himself that he is ignorant of the day and hour of his coming in glory? In response, I would submit that Jesus’ language reflects a theological construction concerning himself which is also quite common in the language of the New Testament writers when they speak about him. The theological construction to which I refer is this: because of the union of the divine and human natures in the one divine person, Christ designates himself here and is occasionally designated by others elsewhere in Scripture in terms of what he is by virtue of one nature when what is then predicated of him, so designated, is true of him by virtue of his other nature. As the Westminster Confession of Faith says:

Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet, by reason of the unity of the person that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature. (VIII/vii)

This means that, regardless of the designation which Scripture might employ to refer to him, it is always the person of the Son and not one of his natures who is the subject of the statement. To illustrate: when what is predicated of Christ is true of him by virtue of all that belongs to his person as essentially divine and assumptively human, for example, “that he might become a … high priest” (Heb. 2:17), it is the person of Christ, as both divine and human, and not one of his natures, who is the subject. Again, when what is predicated of Christ, designated in terms of what he is as human, is true of him by virtue of his divine nature, for example, he is “the man [ἄνθρωπος, anthrōpos] from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:47–49) and “a man [ἀνήρ, anēr] who … was before [John]” (John 1:30), it is still his person and not his human nature who is the subject. Finally, when what is predicated of Christ, designated in terms of what he is as divine, is true of him by virtue of his human nature, for example, Elizabeth’s reference to Mary as the “mother of my Lord” and Paul’s “they crucified the Lord of Glory” (1 Cor. 2:8), again it is his person and not his divine nature that is the subject.

So in Mark 13:32 we find Christ designating himself in terms of what he is as divine (“the Son” of “the Father”), but then what he predicates of himself, namely, ignorance as to the day and hour of his return in heavenly splendor, is true of him in terms of what he is as human, not in terms of what he is as divine. As the Godman, he is simultaneously omniscient as God (in company with the other persons of the Godhead) and ignorant of some things as man (in company with the other persons of the human race). So what we have in Mark 13:32, contrary to Schmiedel’s “pillar for a truly scientific life of Jesus” as a mere man, is as striking a witness by our Lord himself as can be found anywhere in Scripture (1) both to his supremacy as God’s Son over the angels—the highest of created personal entities (2) and at the same time to his creaturely limitations as a man, (3) as well as to the union of both complexes of attributes—the divine and the human—in the one personal subject of Jesus Christ. I conclude that in this saying which brings before us “the ignorant Son,” Jesus, as “the Son,” places himself outside of and above the category even of angels, that is, outside of and above creatures of the highest order, and associates himself as the divine Son with the Father, while testifying at the same time to his full, unabridged humanity.

The “Son” of the Triune Name

Sometime between his resurrection and his ascension, our Lord gathered with his eleven disciples and commissioned them to “go and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:19).

As a prelude to the Great Commission itself, our Lord declared that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him, words reminiscent of Daniel 7:13–14, claiming thereby an all-encompassing, unrestricted sovereignty over the entire universe. In his postlude to it, he declared he would be with his church (“I am with you”), words reminiscent of the Immanuel title of Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23, implying that the attributes of omnipresence and omniscience were his. In the additional words (“always, even to the end of the age”), he implied his possession of the attribute of eternality. Between the prelude and the postlude—both pregnant with suggestions of deity—comes the Commission itself (Matt. 28:19–20a). In its words, “all nations … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you,” his universal lordship is affirmed. Sovereignty, omnipresence, omniscience, eternality, and universal lordship—all demonstrating that the risen Christ claimed to be divine.

Particularly interesting is the precise form of the baptismal formula. Jesus does not say, “into the names [plural] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” or what is its virtual equivalent, “into the name of the Father, and into the name of the Son, and into the name of the Holy Spirit,” “as if,” to quote Warfield, “we had to deal with three separate Beings.”39 Nor does he say, “into the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (omitting the three recurring articles), again citing Warfield, “as if ‘the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost’ might be taken as merely three designations of a single person.” What he does say is this: “into the name [singular] of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” first “[asserting] the unity of the three by combining them all within the bounds of the single Name, and then [throwing up] into emphasis the distinctness of each by introducing them in turn with the repeated article.”40

To comprehend fully the import of Jesus’ statement, one must appreciate the significance of the term “the Name” for the Hebrew mind. In the Old Testament, the term does more than serve as the mere external designation of the person. Rather, it refers to the essence of the person himself. Warfield writes, “In His name the Being of God finds expression; and the Name of God—‘this glorious and fearful name, Jehovah thy God’ (Deut. xxviii. 58)—was accordingly a most sacred thing, being indeed virtually equivalent to God Himself” (see Isa. 30:27; 59:19). “So pregnant was the implication of the Name, that it was possible for the term to stand absolutely … as the sufficient representation of the majesty of Jehovah” (see Lev. 24:11). Warfield concludes:

When, therefore, our Lord commanded His disciples to baptize those whom they brought to His obedience “into the name of …” He was using language charged to them with high meaning. He could not have been understood otherwise than as substituting for the Name of Jehovah this other Name “of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” and this could not possibly have meant to His disciples anything else than that Jehovah was now to be known to them by the new Name, of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The only alternative would have been that, for the community which He was founding, Jesus was supplanting Jehovah by a new God; and this alternative is no less than monstrous. There is no alternative, therefore, to understanding Jesus here to be giving for His community a new Name to Jehovah and that new Name to be the threefold Name of “the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”41

What are the implications for his person of a saying that places Jesus as “the Son,” along with the Father and the Holy Spirit and equally with them, “even in the awful precincts of the Divine Name itself”?42 The answer is obvious: Jesus is affirming here his own unqualified, unabridged deity! And that this is his intent may be seen still further from an analysis of that portion of the saying that precedes the mention of “the Son,” namely, the phrase “the name of the Father.” Clearly, in this abbreviated expression, the phrase “the name” must carry the highest connotation, even that of deity itself, inasmuch as it is the Father’s name and thus the Father’s nature which is so designated. But it is precisely this same “name” which also governs the genitives “of the Son” and “of the Holy Spirit,” and to which the Son (along with the Holy Spirit) stands related, evincing his equality with the Father insofar as his deity is concerned.

Thus the significance of the title, “the Son,” for the Synoptic Evangelists is consistent and pervasive: as “the Son” of “the Father” Jesus Christ is deity incarnate. And when we press our investigation of the meaning of Jesus’ “Son [of God]” sayings into the Fourth Gospel, we find no new doctrinal content in them respecting his person but rather only a more pervasive testimony to the same doctrine of Jesus’ divine Sonship which we find in the Synoptic Gospels.

While it is true that the Synoptic Gospels only infrequently report Jesus’ use of “the Son” as a self-designation, preferring to preserve for the church the memory that Jesus favored the title “Son of Man” as his public self-designation (which fact, of course, John does not ignore, as for example, in 1:51; 3:13; 5:27; 6:62; and 9:35, and which, as we have seen, connotes through its association with the Danielic “Son of Man” a divine Messiah), John informs us that our Lord employed with great frequency and as a self-designation the title “the Son” in direct association with “the Father.” Jesus also uses “the Father” by itself some seventy additional times and “my Father” by itself almost thirty more times.

The Divine Son

That the title “the Son of God” is, for John, messianic is borne out from its appearance in his Gospel alongside the clearly messianic titles of “the King of Israel,” “the Christ,” and “he who was to come into the world” (1:49; 11:27; 20:31). But that it connotes more than the messianic office per se is also apparent in several of Jesus’ discourses recorded in John. In John 5:17–29, after healing the lame man on the Sabbath day, Jesus justified his act before the offended religious hierarchy by claiming both the ability and the prerogatives of “seeing” and “doing” as “the Father” does: “My Father is working still, and I am working” (5:17); “The Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he himself is doing” (5:20); therefore, he said: “The Son does … what he sees the Father doing” (5:19a). Indeed, “Whatever he [the Father] does, that the Son does likewise [ὁμοίως, homoiōs]” (5:19b). Furthermore, as “the Son,” Jesus claimed to have the “Father-granted” sovereign right to give life: “The Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it” (5:21b). There are no limitations here: both spiritual and physical life is intended; for as spiritually dead men hear the voice of “the Son of God,” they “live” (5:24–25; see also 6:40a), and as physically dead men someday hear his voice, they will come forth from their graves (5:28–29; see also 6:40b). And when they do the latter, he declared, they do so only to stand before him in the Judgment because the Father has committed all judgment to him (5:22–27). These are clearly activities within the province and powers of deity alone; Jesus claimed, as “the Son,” to be coordinate with “the Father,” the Sovereign of life, of salvation, of the resurrection, and of the final judgment. But perhaps his most emphatic claim to equality with the Father comes in 5:23 when he makes one’s honoring of “the Father” turn on the issue of whether one honors “the Son,” that is, himself. With these words Jesus laid claim to the right to demand, equally with the Father, the honor (that is, the devotion and worship) of men!43 Is it any wonder, given the assumption of the religious leaders that he was only a man, that they thought him, under Jewish law (Lev. 24:16), to be worthy of death: by the unique relationship he was claiming with the Father, he was making himself “equal [ἴσον, ison] with God” (5:18).

In view of Jesus’ express statements that “the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing” (5:19), and “by myself I can do nothing” (5:30), and his later declaration that “the Father is greater than I” (14:28; see also 1 Cor. 15:28), Unitarians have concluded that the charge that he was making himself “equal with God” was unfounded and one which Jesus himself expressly disavowed. It is true that in making these statements, our Lord was asserting in some sense a subordination to the Father. But in what sense—in an essential, covenantal, or functional sense? Warfield sensitizes us to the problem and offers words of caution here:

There is, of course, no question that in “modes of operation,” as it is technically called—that is to say, in the functions ascribed to the several persons of the Trinity in the redemptive process, and, more broadly, in the entire dealing of God with the world—the principle of subordination is clearly expressed.… The Son is sent by the Father and does His Father’s will (Jn. vi:38).… In crisp decisiveness, Our Lord even declares, indeed: ‘My Father is greater than I’ (Jn. xiv.28).… But it is not so clear that the principle of subordination rules also in “modes of subsistence,” as it is technically phrased; that is to say, in the necessary relation of the Persons of the Trinity to one another. The very richness and variety of the expression of their subordination, the one to the other, in modes of operation, create a difficulty in attaining certainty whether they are represented as also subordinate the one to the other in modes of subsistence. Question is raised in each case of apparent intimation of subordination in modes of subsistence, whether it may not, after all, be explicable as only another expression of subordination in modes of operation. It may be natural to assume that a subordination in modes of operation rests on a subordination in modes of subsistence; that the reason why it is the Father that sends the Son … is that the Son is subordinate to the Father.… But we are bound to bear in mind that these relations of subordination in modes of operation may just as well be due to a convention, an agreement, between the Persons of the Trinity—a “Covenant” as it is technically called—by virtue of which a distinct function in the work of redemption is voluntarily assumed by each. It is eminently desirable, therefore, at the least that some definite evidence of subordination in modes of subsistence should be discoverable before it is assumed.44

In the context we are considering it is not at all evident that, in “subordinating” himself to “the Father,” Jesus was denying that he was in essence one with the Father. When the charge of blasphemy for making himself “equal with God” was leveled against him, a charge which hounded him to the very end of his life and which became finally the basis for the judgment of death against him (see 8:58–59; 10:33; 19:7; in the Synoptics, Matt. 26:65–66; Mark 14:61–62; Luke 22:70–71), he said nothing to allay the suspicions of the religious leaders concerning him, but followed their charge with the very discourse we have been considering in which he laid claim to the powers and privileges which belong to deity alone.


In his Good Shepherd discourse in John 10:22–39, Jesus asserted that the security of his sheep is grounded in their being kept by both himself and the Father (John 10:28, 29). Then our Lord explained that this coordinated keeping on his and the Father’s part was based on the essential oneness of “the Father” and “the Son”: “I and the Father are one [ἕν ἐσμεν, hen esmen],” he declared (John 10:30; see also 12:45; 14:9, 23). Concerning this declaration B. F. Westcott writes:

It seems clear that the unity here spoken of cannot fall short of unity of essence. The thought springs from the equality of power (my hand, the Father’s hand); but infinite power is an essential attribute of God; and it is impossible to suppose that two beings distinct in essence could be equal in power.45

When Jesus was then confronted by the religious leaders who took up stones to kill him, charging him again with blasphemy (John 10:33), if they were hoping that some word from him would relieve their suspicions, they were to be disappointed, for instead of declaring that they had misunderstood him, to the contrary, arguing a minori ad majus (“from lesser to greater”), he insisted that if human judges, because they had been made recipients of and were thus the responsible administrators of the justice of the Word of God, could be called “gods” (see Ps. 82:6), how much greater right did he—“the One whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world” (John 10:36)—have to call himself “the Son of God.” The fact that Jesus’ claim to be “the Son of God” both here (10:36) and earlier (5:25) invoked on both occasions the same response from the Jewish opposition, namely, the charge of blasphemy, points up how wrong the modern popular perception is that concludes that Jesus’ claimed “Sonship” intended something less than the claim of deity. “He was not claiming to be God; he was only claiming to be the Son of God,” the saying goes. Such a perception completely overlooks the fact that the religious leadership of his day understood his claim to involve the claim to deity. And that Jesus’ answer intended the claim to deity is evident also from the fact, as Vos notes with respect to the word order of “sanctified” and “sent” in Jesus’ explanation of his right to the title “the Son of God,” that “He places the sanctifying before the sending into the world, because it preceded the latter, and a suggestion of pre-existence accompanies the statement.”46 Jesus asserts here that he is not “the Son” because he was sent, but rather was “the Son” and was “sanctified” (that is, was “set apart” and invested with the messianic task) before he was sent; and he was sent precisely because only One such as himself as “the Son” could complete the task which the messianic investiture entailed.


This last observation of Vos catapults us into the center of a controversy that is raging around the person of Christ: Did Jesus claim for himself preexistence, and if so, in what sense: in the ontological (essential) or in the ideal (“foreknown”) sense? The Gospel of John witnesses that Jesus claimed eternal preexistence: “Glorify me, Father,” Jesus prayed, “with yourself, with the glory which I had with you before the world was” (John 17:1, 5), indeed, with “my glory which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (17:24). This claim on Jesus’ part to an eternal preexistence with his Father is not an aberration, for he speaks elsewhere, though in somewhat different terms, of that same preexistence:

John 3:13: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man.”

John 6:38: “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” (See also 6:33, 50, 58)

John 6:46: “[No one] has seen the Father except him who is from [παρά, para, with genitive; that is, from the side of] the Father.”

John 6:62: “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending where he was before [τὸ πρότερον, to proteron]?”

John 8:23: “You are from below, I am from above; you are from this world, I am not from this world.”

John 8:38: “I speak of what I have seen with the Father.”

John 8:42: “I came out and came forth from [ἐκ, ek, with genitive] God.”

John 16:28: “I came out from [ἐκ, ek, παρά, para] the Father, and have come into the world” (see also 9:39; 12:46; 18:37).

But perhaps the greatest assertion to eternal preexistence is to be found in Jesus’ “I am” saying of John 8:58. Most of his “I am” sayings, it is true, are supplied with a subjective complement of some kind, such as:

“I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35, 48, 51);

“I am the Light of the World” (8:12; 9:5);

“I am the Door of the Sheep” (10:7, 9);

“I am the Good Shepherd” (10:11, 14);

“I am the Resurrection and the Life” (11:25);

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (14:6); and

“I am the Vine” (15:1, 5).

But according to D. A. Carson, “two are undoubtedly absolute in both form and content … and constitute an explicit self-identification with Yahweh who had already revealed himself to men in similar terms (see esp. Isa. 43:10-11).”47 The two sayings Carson refers to are in John 8:58 and 13:19, but there could well be others such as his “I am” usage in John 6:20; 8:24, 28; and 18:5–8. In John 8:58, standing before men who regarded him as demonic, Jesus declared: “Before Abraham was, I am,” invoking not only the term which Yahweh in the Old Testament had chosen as his own special term of self-identification, but claiming also a preexistence (see “before Abraham was”) appropriate only to one possessed of the nature of Yahweh. His meaning was not lost on his audience, for “they took up stones to throw at him” (8:59). They understood that Jesus was claiming divine preexistence for himself and was thus making himself equal with God. In the case of his “I am” in 13:19 Jesus himself explicated its implications for his unity with the Father and in turn his own Yahwistic identity when he declared in the following verse: “he who receives me receives him who sent me.” In 6:20, by his “I am” in “I am; be not afraid,” Jesus admittedly might have been simply identifying himself to his terrified disciples, but as Carson notes: “Yet not every ‘I’ could be found walking on water.” Then in 8:24, following immediately as it does his declaration that he was “from above” and “not of this world,” Jesus’ “I am” in his statement, “If you do not believe that I am, you will die in your sins,” surely carries with it divine implications. Finally, in the case of his “I am” in 18:5–8, as soon as he uttered these words, his would-be captors “drew back and fell to the ground.” John surely intended to suggest by this that his readers were to recognize in Jesus’ acknowledgement that he was Jesus of Nazareth also his implicit self-identification with Yahweh.


In addition to his mighty miracles (“powers”) which were designed to authenticate his messianic claim (Matt. 11:2–6; John 5:36; 10:25; 38; 14:11; Acts 2:22) and to reveal his glory (John 2:11), instances of Jesus’ exercise of other divine prerogatives (like his public claims to deity itself, as we have seen) occur with sufficient frequency to warrant our taking note of them.

Forgiving Sins

Jesus claimed, as the Son of Man, to have the authority to forgive sins (Matt. 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24) and, in fact, forgave men of their sins against God as evidenced not only by the spoken word (Matt. 9:2; Mark 2:5; Luke 5:20; 7:48) but also by his willingness to eat meals with sinners (Luke 15:1–2). This authority, as the teachers of the law who were present on the occasion of Jesus’ healing of the paralytic rightly judged, is the prerogative of God alone. The one factor which they did not recognize but which would have explained his act to them is the factor of his deity. It is true, of course, that a man may forgive the transgressions of another man against him, but Jesus forgave men of their sins against God! Only One who is himself divine has the right to do that.

Hearing and Answering Prayer

Jesus declared that he will answer the prayers of his disciples (John 14:13), but equally significant for our purpose, he represents himself as One to whom prayers may properly be addressed. In verse 14, Jesus stated again that he himself will answer his disciples’ prayers—surely an implicit claim to deity since one would have to be divine to hear, in all the languages of the world, the myriads of prayers being offered up to him at any one moment and then wisely to answer each prayer. While many other examples might be cited, the instances of prayer addressed to Jesus in Acts 1:24, 7:59, 9:10–17, 2 Corinthians 12:8, 1 Thessalonians 3:11, and 2 Thessalonians 2:16 bear out the literalness with which the disciples understood Jesus’ promise, and reflect the immediacy on their part of the recognition of his divinity.

Receiving Men’s Adoration and Praise

Immediately after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when asked by the indignant chief priests to silence the children who were praising him (Matt. 21:16), Jesus defended their praise of him by appealing to Psalm 8:2 (Heb. 8:3), which speaks of children praising God. Concerning Jesus’ appeal to Psalm 8:2, Carson writes:

God has ordained praise for himself from “children and infants.” … Jesus’ answer is a masterstroke.… 1. It provides some kind of biblical basis for letting the children go on with their exuberant praise.… 2. At the same time thoughtful persons, reflecting on the incident later (especially after the Resurrection), perceive that Jesus was saying much more. The children’s “Hosannas” are not being directed to God but to the Son of David, the Messiah. Jesus is therefore not only acknowledging his messiahship but justifying the praise of the children by applying to himself a passage of Scripture applicable only to God.48

After his resurrection, Jesus accepted Thomas’s adoring ascription of him as his “Lord and God.” There can be no doubt, in light of these clear instances when Jesus accepted and approved the adoration and praise of men, that he was endorsing the notion of his own deity.

The Object of Men’s Faith

In the familiar saying of John 14:1, whether the two occurrences of πιστεύετε εἰς (pisteuete eis, “believe in [with unreserved trust]”) are both to be rendered indicatively (“you believe in”) or imperatively (“believe in”), or whether the former is to be translated indicatively with only the latter to be rendered imperatively, makes no difference relative to our present purpose; Jesus places himself on a par with the Father as the proper object of men’s trust. If Jesus was not in fact divine, such a saying would constitute blasphemy. The only ground upon which his goodness may be retained in the light of such teaching is to affirm his Godness. He cannot be a mere man and at the same time good while teaching men to trust him as they would trust the Father.


Jesus, in addition to exercising divine powers and claiming divine prerogatives, claimed to possess divine attributes as well. We have noted the attribute of preexistence; other divine attributes of Jesus include:

Sovereignty and Omnipotence

In claiming the authority to reveal the Father to whomever he chooses (Matt. 11:27) and to give life to whomever he chooses (John 5:21); in claiming both the prerogative and the power to call all men someday from their graves (5:28–29) and the authority to judge all men (John 5:22, 27); in claiming the authority to lay down his life and the authority to take it up again (John 10:18); in declaring he would return someday “in power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30); in claiming that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him by the Father (Matt. 28:18), our Lord was claiming, implicitly and explicitly, an absolute sovereignty and power over the universe—claims, were they to be made by any other man, deserving only the judgment of madness, but made by him deserving our adoration and our praise.


When Jesus promised that “where two or three gather together in my name, there am I with them [ἐκεῖ εἰμι ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν, ekei eimi en mesō autōn]” (Matt. 18:20), and when he promised “I am with you always [ἐγὼ μεθ᾽ ὑμῶν εἰμι πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας, egō meth hymōn eimi pasas tas hēmeras] (Matt. 28:20), not only was Jesus invoking the language of the Immanuel title but he was also claiming that he is himself personally always with his own, not just in the power and presence of his Holy Spirit but present himself as the omnipresent Savior.


When Jesus surprised Nathaniel with his comment: “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you” (John 1:48), Jesus was revealing a level of knowledge not available to the sons of men and above that of the merely human. And when Jesus claimed for himself the prerogative to hear and to answer the prayers of his disciples, he was making an implicit claim to the possession of omniscience. One who can hear the innumerable prayers of his disciples, offered to him night and day, day in and day out throughout the centuries, keep each request infallibly related to its petitioner, and answer them in accordance with the divine mind and will would need himself to be omniscient. And when Jesus claimed to have not only an exclusive knowledge of the Father, but also a knowledge whose object is just God the Father himself in all the infinite depths of his divine being (Matt. 11:27), he was again claiming to be in possession, as “the Son,” of a degree of knowledge falling nothing short of omniscience itself.


Other indications that Jesus’ self-understanding entailed the perception of his own deity are (1) the authoritative manner in which he expounded the Law of God to his contemporaries, (2) the manner in which he related himself to the Kingdom of God, and (3) his reference to two other Persons and his special employment at times of plural verbs.

His Authoritative Exposition of the Law

Jesus claimed to know the will and true intention of God which lay behind the Law (see his “I say to you”—Matt. 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44, and his many sayings introduced by ἀμήν [amēn, “Truly”]—Matt. 6:2, 5, 16). In speaking the way he did, writes I. Howard Marshall, Jesus

made no claim to prophetic inspiration; no “thus says the Lord” fell from his lips, but rather he spoke in terms of his own authority. He claimed the right to give the authoritative interpretation of the law, and he did so in a way that went beyond that of the prophets. He thus spoke as if he were God.49

His Perception of His Relation to the Kingdom of God

Another indication, although indirect, that Jesus’ self-understanding included the self-perception of deity may be discerned in his teaching concerning the Kingdom of God. According to Jesus, while the kingdom or rule of God will come some day in the future in power and great glory in conjunction with his own παρουσία, parousia (Matt. 25:31–46, particularly v. 34), it had already invaded history in the soteric/redemptive sense (its “mystery” form) in his own person and ministry (see Matt. 11:2–6 against the background of Isa. 35:5–6; Matt. 12:28; 13:24–30, 36–43). In him God’s Kingdom had invaded the realm of Satan, and he had bound the “strong man” himself (Matt. 12:29; Mark 3:27), a claim clearly carrying messianic implications. But Jesus was equally explicit that the Kingdom of God is both supernatural in nature and supernaturally achieved. George Ladd explains:

     As the dynamic activity of God’s rule the kingdom is supernatural. It is God’s deed. Only the supernatural act of God can destroy Satan, defeat death (I Cor. 15:26), raise the dead in incorruptible bodies to inherit the blessings of the kingdom (I Cor. 15:50ff.), and transform the world order (Matt. 19:28). The same supernatural rule of God has invaded the kingdom of Satan to deliver men from bondage to satanic darkness. The parable of the seed growing by itself sets forth this truth (Mark 4:26–29). The ground brings forth fruit of itself. Men may sow the seed by preaching the kingdom (Matt. 10:7; Luke 10:9; Acts 8:12; 28:23, 31); they can persuade men concerning the kingdom (Acts 19:8), but they cannot build it. It is God’s deed. Men can receive the kingdom (Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17), but they are never said to establish it. Men can reject the kingdom and refuse to receive it or enter it (Matt. 23:13), but they cannot destroy it. They can look for it (Luke 23:51), pray for its coming (Matt. 6:10), and seek it (Matt. 6:33), but they cannot bring it. The kingdom is altogether God’s deed although it works in and through men. Men may do things for the sake of the kingdom (Matt. 19:12; Luke 18:29), work for it (Col. 4:11), suffer for it (II Thess. 1:5), but they are not said to act upon the kingdom itself. They can inherit it (Matt. 25:34; I Cor. 6:9–10, 15:50), but they cannot bestow it upon others.50

Jesus viewed himself as the One upon whom rested the responsibility of bringing in this supernatural kingdom. But “if Jesus saw himself as the one in whom this kind of Kingdom was being inaugurated, then such a perception is a Christological claim which would be fraudulent and deceptive if Jesus was ignorant of his Godness.”51

His Reference to Two Other Persons and His
Special Employment of Plural Verbs

Christ spoke directly and unmistakably of two other Persons, alongside himself, within the Godhead. In the following passages observe the reiterative references to “I,” “the Father,” and “the Spirit,” and specifically the use of plural verbs:

John 14:16–26: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another [ἄλλον, allon] Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.… If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come [ἐλευσόμεθα, eleusometha] to him and we will make [ποιησόμεθα, poiēsometha] our home with him … the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

John 15:26: “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.”

John 16:5–15: “I am going to him who sent me.… It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.… But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears.… He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.

Thus not only in the specific titles that he employed, but also in the explicit claims he made and the deeds he did, Jesus showed that he believed himself to be in possession of attributes and prerogatives that are the property of God alone, and in this way he was claiming to be God incarnate.

Paul’s Christology

Paul reveals his assessment of Jesus as divine in many ways. For example, he (1) prayed to Christ (2 Cor. 12:8–9), (2) declared “the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” to be the name to be “called upon” in the church (1 Cor. 1:2; Rom. 10:9–13), (3) coupled “the Lord Jesus Christ” with “God our Father” as the co-source of those spiritual blessings of grace, mercy, and peace that God alone can grant (Gal. 1:3; Rom. 1:7; etc.), (4) applied to Christ the title κύριος, kyrios, which in the Septuagint is employed to translate the sacred name of Yahweh, (5) applied directly to Christ Old Testament passages in which Yahweh is the subject (for example, Isa. 45:23 and Phil. 2:10), and (6) implied Christ’s preexistence as God’s Son ( Rom. 8:3; 2 Cor. 8:9; Gal. 4:4; Phil. 2:6–7; Col. 1:15–16; Eph. 4:8–9).

But there are eight specific pericopes where Paul makes explicit his view of Christ—Romans 1:3–4; 9:5; Titus 2:13; Colossians 1:15–20, 2:9; Philippians 2:6–11; and 1 Timothy 1:15 and 3:16.

ROMANS 1:3–4

While all of the New Testament writers know of and apply the significance of Christ’s resurrection to the believer in one way or another, it is particularly Paul who highlights the significance of Jesus’ resurrection for his divine Sonship.

In the early verses of Paul’s theological treatise to the church at Rome, he informs us of certain characteristics of the gospel. He tells us that it is God’s gospel, that it had been promised in the Old Testament Scriptures, and that it “concerned his Son.” It is what he then says in 1:3–4 concerning Jesus as “God’s Son” that concerns us here. A literal rendering of these verses would be:

concerning his Son,

who became [or “came to be,” that is, “was born”] of the seed of David,
according to the flesh,

who was marked out the Son of God in power, according to the spirit of
holiness, by the resurrection from the dead,

Jesus Christ, our Lord.

The “Bracketing” Phrases

Note that the two participial clauses (indented in the translation above for easy identification; the participles are italicized) are “bracketed” between the two phrases “his Son” and “Jesus Christ, our Lord”; and were it the case that Paul had omitted the intervening participial clauses entirely, we would still have here the highest kind of incarnational Christology. The former phrase (“his Son”) indicates both the relationship in which Jesus, as God’s Son, stands with God the Father and what he is in himself, while the latter phrase (“Jesus Christ, our Lord”) designates what he is, as such, to us. In view of several contexts where Paul employs the title “Son,” specifically those in which he speaks of God “sending [πέμψας, pempsas] his own Son” (Rom. 8:3), “sparing not his own Son” (Rom. 8:32), and “sending forth [ἐξαπέστειλεν, exapesteilen] his Son” (Gal. 4:4), it is clear that for Paul the Son enjoyed an existence with God the Father prior to his being sent, and that in this preexistent state he stood in a relation to the Father as the Father’s unique Son (see also Col. 1:13, 16–17 where the Son is said to be “before all things”). The reflexive pronoun and possessive adjective respectively in Romans 8:3 and 8:32 (ἑαυτοῦ, heautou, and ἰδίου, idiou), in the words of John Murray, also highlight

the uniqueness of the sonship belonging to Christ and the uniqueness of the fatherhood belonging to the Father in relation to the Son.… In the language of Paul this corresponds to the title monogenes [“only one of a kind”] as it appears in John (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9). It is the eternal sonship that is in view and to this sonship there is no approximation in the adoptive sonship that belongs to redeemed men. The same applies to the fatherhood of the first person. In the sense in which he is the eternal Father in relation to the Son he is not the Father of his adopted children.52

This being so, Murray is justified when he also writes concerning the phrase “his Son” in Romans 1:3:

     There are good reasons for thinking that in this instance the title refers to a relation which the Son sustains to the Father antecedently to and independently of his manifestation in the flesh. (1) Paul entertained the highest conception of Christ in his divine identity and eternal preexistence (see 9:5; Phil. 2:6; Col. 1:19; 2:9). The title “Son” he regarded as applicable to Christ in his eternal preexistence and as defining his eternal relation to the Father (8:3, 32; Gal. 4:4). (2) Since this is the first occasion in which the title is used in this epistle, we should expect the highest connotation to be attached to it. Furthermore, the connection in which the title is used is one that would demand no lower connotation than that which is apparent in 8:3, 32; the apostle is stating that with which the gospel as the theme of the epistle is concerned. (3) The most natural interpretation of verse 3 is that the title “Son” is not to be construed as one predicated of him in virtue of the process defined in the succeeding clauses but rather identifies him as the person who became the subject of this process and is therefore identified as the Son in the historical event of the incarnation. For these reasons we conclude that Jesus is here identified by that title which expresses his eternal relation to the Father and that when the subject matter of the gospel is defined as that which pertains to the eternal Son of God the apostle at the threshold of the epistle is commending the gospel by showing that it is concerned with him who has no lower station than that of equality with the Father.53

C. E. B. Cranfield concurs:

It is clear that, as used by Paul with reference to Christ, the designation, “Son of God” expresses nothing less than a relationship to God which is “personal, ethical and inherent,” involving a real community of nature between Christ and God. The position of the words τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ [tou huiou autou, “his Son”]— .… they are naturally taken to control both participial clauses—would seem to imply that the One who was born of the seed of David was already Son of God before, and independently of, the action denoted by the second participle.54

The latter phrase (“Jesus Christ, our Lord”) Paul obviously intends as explanatory of the former phrase. That is to say, he who stands in relation to God the Father as his own unique Son and who is in himself the preexistent Son of God is also as to his historical identity just “Jesus” of Nazareth, who because of his antecedent Sonship received the messianic investiture (“Christ”) and as such is not only “Lord,” the One who has been exalted to the Father’s right hand (Ps. 110:1; Phil. 2:9–11) and who exercises there all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18), but also “our Lord,” the One to whom we owe absolute obedience and who properly exercises such lordship over the creature as is the prerogative only of One who is himself the divine Creator.

The two bracketing phrases are thus a summary statement of Paul’s Christology: for Paul, the Son, in his preexistent state, is both equal with the Father as God and distinguishable from the Father as his Son. This One, in keeping with the terms of his messianic investiture, became man, and by virtue of his work as the incarnate Son was exalted to the highest place of honor in the heavens and was given a name above every name (“Lord”), “that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11).

The “Bracketed” Clauses

As we turn to the participial clauses between the bracketing phrases, it is imperative that we keep constantly in mind that what the apostle now tells us about Christ is thrown up against the background of his deity implicit in the “bracket” phrases. This backdrop must be allowed to serve as a governing control over all of our subsequent exegesis. For example, we should realize immediately that something is amiss in our exegesis if, in determining the meaning intended by the second participle, we conclude that Paul teaches that at his resurrection Jesus was “constituted” or “appointed” as “Son of God.” Such an adoptionistic Christology is precluded at the outset by Paul’s representation of his Subject as being the Son of God prior to and independently of either his “being born” of the seed of David or his being “marked out” as the Son of God. Whatever one makes of Paul’s second clause, the “bracket” phrases preclude any form of adoptionism.

There is little dispute regarding the meaning of the first clause, “who became [that is, ‘came to be’ or ‘was born’] of the seed of David, according to the flesh.” Paul simply intended that his reader understand that in one sense, that is, “according to the flesh,” the Son of God had a historical beginning as the Son of David. He says essentially the same thing in Galatians 4:4: “When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born [the same word as in Rom. 1:3] of a woman,” only in Romans 1:3 he specifies the lineage out of which he came, namely, the Davidic line. By making specific mention of Jesus’ Davidic lineage, Paul intended to make it clear that Jesus, standing as he did in the Davidic line on his human side, was the promised Messiah and king.

Note that Paul does not simply say that Jesus was born of the seed of David but adds the qualifying phrase “according to the flesh.” What does he intend by this additional thought? As in Romans 9:5, the phrase intends a specificity and limits the sense in which it may be said that Jesus had a historical beginning as the seed of David. There can be no question that the word “flesh” denotes Christ’s human nature in its entirety. In New Testament usage, σάρξ (sarx, “flesh”), when applied to Christ (see John 1:14; 6:51; Rom. 8:3; 9:5; Eph. 2:14; Col. 1:22; 1 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 5:7; 10:20; 1 Pet. 3:18; 4:1; 1 John 4:1; 2 John 7), denotes not simply the material or physical aspect of his human nature over against the nonmaterial aspect, that is, over against his human spirit. Rather, it uniformly refers to him in the totality of his humanness as a man. Accordingly, when Paul says that Jesus had a historical beginning “according to the flesh,” he intends, as Cranfield states,

that the fact of Christ’s human nature, in respect of which what has just been said is true, is not the whole truth about Him. “Son of David” is a valid description of Him so far as it is applicable, but the reach of its applicability is not coter-minous with the fullness of His person.55

The sense in which the lineal description of Jesus as the Son of David ceases to be applicable as a full description has already been implicitly stated in the first of the “bracket” phrases—Jesus is not only David’s son but also “his [“God’s”] Son.” Paul makes this explicit in the second participial clause. It reads: “who was marked out the Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead.” This clause has proven to be difficult for exegetes, but it seems that, whereas the former clause speaks of Jesus’ historical beginning as “the Son of David” on his human side, this latter clause speaks of Jesus’ historical establishment, by his resurrection from the dead, as the Son of God on his divine side. My reasons for this conclusion follow.

The participle ὁρισθέντος, horisthentos, the aorist passive of ὁρίζω, horizo, I suggest, should be translated “was marked out,” “was delineated,” or “was designated.” The verb is used in the Septuagint in the sense of “fixing” or “marking out” or “delineating” boundaries (see Num. 34:6; Josh. 13:27; 15:12; 18:20; 23:4), and the noun ὅρια, horia, is used in both the Septuagint and the New Testament for “boundaries” or “borders” (see Matt. 2:16; 4:13; 8:34; 15:22, 39; 19:1; Mark 5:17; 7:24, 31; 10:1; Acts 13:50).

In accordance with its uniform usage as a periphrasis for the adverb “powerfully” (see Mark 9:1; Col. 1:29; 1 Thess. 1:5; 2 Thess. 1:11), I would construe the phrase ἐν δυνάμει (en dynamei, “in power”), in concert with Meyer, Hodge, Sanday and Headlam, H. Alford, F. Godet, and Warfield, with the participle rather than with “the Son of God,” and translate the participle and the prepositional phrase by “was powerfully marked out” or “was powerfully delineated.”

The preposition ἐκ, ek, introducing the phrase “the resurrection from [ablative use of the genitive] the dead,” has a different nuance from the ἐκ, ek, in the former clause. Whereas the preposition ἐκ, ek, in the former clause, after the participle of “begetting,” clearly denotes “origin,” that is, “came to be [or “was born”] out of [or “from”] the seed of David,” in the second clause, after the passive participle “was marked out,” it denotes “instrumentality” or even “result” (on the analogy of its use in Heb. 11:35). Accordingly, I would render the last phrase of the clause by “through the instrumentality of [or “as the result of”] the resurrection from the dead.” This can, of course, and probably should be, be reduced to the simpler “by the resurrection from the dead.”

The final phrase to be discussed is “according to the Spirit of holiness.” It is universally agreed that the phrase stands in contrast to “according to the flesh” in the first clause. Since “flesh” in the former clause denotes Christ’s humanity in its totality, including both corporeal and noncorporeal aspects of his human nature, “spirit” in the latter clause cannot refer to the human spirit of Jesus. His human spirit is already included within the Davidic “flesh” which he assumed at his birth. Its referent must be sought outside of his humanity. Many, if not most, modern commentators assume that the phrase refers to the Holy Spirit, but I would disagree. On every occasion in the New Testament where the word “holy” is attached to the noun “spirit” to refer to the Holy Spirit, the adjective ἅγιος, hagios, is employed. But here, precisely to avoid reference to the Holy Spirit, I would suggest, Paul employs the genitive form of the noun ἁγιωσύνη, hagiōsynē: “the Spirit of holiness.”

If “Spirit” does not refer to Christ’s human spirit or to the Holy Spirit, then to what does it refer? I suggest that it refers to Christ’s divine nature, to what he is, as the Son of God, on his divine side. There are two reasons for this: first, because the phrase stands in contrast to “flesh” in the former clause which refers to what Christ, as the Son of David, is on his human side, the implication is that “Spirit” in the latter clause must also refer to something intrinsically inherent in Christ. But standing as it does in such close correlation to the title “the Son of God” in the same phrase which denotes Christ in terms of his Godness, it follows that its referent here is to what he is, as the Son of God, on his divine side, that is, to his deity. Second, in the same letter, some chapters later (9:5) Paul refers again to Christ as “from the fathers, specifically according to the flesh,” intimating that something more can and must be said about him. In this later context, what this “something more” is, Paul himself provides us in the phrase “who is over all, God blessed forever.” In other words, in Romans 9:5 Paul declares that Christ is “of the fathers according to the flesh,” but in the sense that he is not “of the fathers” and not “flesh” he was and is “over all, God blessed forever.” Similarly in Romans 1:3–4 Paul informs us that Christ is “of David, according to the flesh,” but in the sense that he is not “of David” and not “flesh,” he was and is, as the Son of God, “the Spirit of holiness” (see 1 Cor. 15:45), that is, divine Spirit, intending by this phrase what he explicitly spells out in the later Romans 9:5 context. Warfield explains:

[Paul] is not speaking of an endowment of Christ either from or with the Holy Spirit.… He is speaking of that divine Spirit which is the complement in the constitution of Christ’s person of the human nature according to which He was the Messiah, and by virtue of which He was not merely the Messiah, but also the very Son of God. This Spirit he calls distinguishingly the Spirit of holiness, the Spirit the very characteristic of which is holiness. He is speaking not of an acquired holiness but of an intrinsic holiness; not, then, of a holiness which had been conferred at the time of or attained by means of the resurrection from the dead; but of a holiness which had always been the very quality of Christ’s being [see Luke 1:35; 5:8; John 6:69].56

Thus the entire clause can be paraphrased as “who was powerfully marked out the Son of God in accordance with his divine nature by his resurrection from the dead.”

John Murray (Cranfield as well) is persuaded that the verb ὁρίζω, horizo, means “appoint” or “constitute” in this context and connotes, as does the former clause, a new “historical beginning” of some kind commencing with the resurrection. Accordingly, he regards the two clauses as depicting the “two successive stages” of humiliatio and exaltatio in the historical process of Jesus’ incarnate messianic state. He carefully avoids what would otherwise be an adoptionist Christology by affirming that in the second of the two stages what was “constituted” was not Jesus as the Son of God per se but Jesus as the Son of God “in power.” This addition, he writes, “makes all the difference.”57 The successive stages stand in Murray’s construction in a certain kind of antithesis to each other, the former clause denoting what Jesus was before his resurrection, the latter clause denoting what he was after his resurrection. In other words, in the former stage, having been “born of the seed of David according to the flesh,” Jesus, as the Son of David, was in a state of apparent weakness; but with his resurrection, Jesus entered a new stage of messianic existence, one of powerful “pneumatic endowment” (according to Murray this is the meaning of “according to the spirit of holiness”) commensurate with his messianic lordship, a lordship “all-pervasively conditioned by pneumatic powers.”58 He writes, “The relative weakness of his pre-resurrection state, reflected on in verse 3, is contrasted with the triumphant power exhibited in his post-resurrection lordship.”59 But the traditional view that what Paul intended to teach is that Jesus was powerfully marked out as the Son of God in accordance with what he is on his divine side by his resurrection seems to have stronger arguments on its side.

Murray’s view, representing the two clauses as “successive stages,” injects a contrast between the clauses (what Jesus was before, and what he was after his resurrection) which is not in the text. Murray implies that being “the Son of David according to the flesh” meant a certain state of lowliness and weakness, this former clause needing to be read, at least to a degree, depreciatingly or concessively (“although he was born …”). But as Warfield says of the former clause:

To say “of the seed of David” is not to say weakness; it is to say majesty. It is quite certain, indeed, that the assertion “who was made of the seed of David” cannot be read concessively, preparing the way for the celebration of Christ’s glory in the succeeding clause. It stands rather in parallelism with the clause that follows it, asserting with it the supreme glory of Christ.60

In other words, while there is the intimation of the idea of a second successive stage within the second clause itself simply because of the mention of the resurrection, it is not the dominant idea in the passage. As for succession between the clauses, it is absent from the context. The two clauses, as is evident from the parallelism of the two genitive participles (τοῦ γενομένου, τοῦ ὁρισθέντος, tou genomenou, tou horisthentos) with no connecting particle, stand parallel to one another as together representing all that the Son of God is in his incarnate state. This is also made clear by Paul’s similar statement in 2 Timothy 2:8, where he writes, as an encouragement to Timothy: “Remember Jesus Christ, having been raised out of the dead, is of the seed of David, according to my gospel.” Clearly Christ’s descent from David, was, in Paul’s mind, a truth which should cause the beleaguered Christian to rejoice, for it speaks of Christ’s messianic majesty. It in no way speaks of weakness and it is not to be set off over against his state inaugurated by his resurrection, for it is precisely Jesus Christ as the One who “has been raised” (the same theme as in Romans 1:4) and who “is of the seed of David” (the same theme as in Romans 1:3) who is in both aspects to be remembered by the Christian in distress. The relation of the second participial clause to the first in Romans 1:3–4 is not then one of opposition or contrast but rather one of climax, not one of supersession but one of superposition. This is obvious from the fact that Jesus did not cease to be either “the Son of David” or “flesh” at his resurrection; indeed, the resurrection insured that he would continue to be both (a fact which Murray recognizes). So what Paul is saying by the first clause is that the Son of God was born as the Davidic Messiah with all the glories that such an investiture entails; what he is saying by the second clause is that

the Messiahship, inexpressibly glorious as it is, does not exhaust the glory of Christ. He had a glory greater than even this. This was the beginning of His glory. He came into the world as the promised Messiah, and He went out of the world as the demonstrated Son of God. In these two things is summed up the majesty of His historical manifestation.61

Thus Paul offers us in these two verses a magnificent Christology: the eternal Son of God, who was born of the seed of David according to his manhood, was also the Son of God according to his deity. And this latter fact was powerfully marked out or displayed by his resurrection from the dead, as not only he himself exercised that divine power which he had displayed in raising others from the dead by raising himself from the dead (John 2:19; 10:18), but also his Father placed his stamp of approval on all that his Son had done by raising him from the dead “in accordance with the working of the might of his strength which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (Rom. 4:24; 6:4; 8:11; Eph. 1:19–20).

Thus Romans 1:3–4, which may well be a portion of an early Christian confession, teaches us that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was both his and his Father’s powerful witness to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate and not simply a man.


This verse reads: “from whom came the Messiah according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.” The debate surrounding this verse arises not from a divergence of opinion over textual variants or the meaning of words but rather over the question of punctuation. The most natural way to punctuate the verse is to place commas after both “flesh” and “all” and a period after “forever,” as above. This punctuation is supported by both the context and the grammatical and implicatory demands of the verse itself.

No one expresses the significance of the context for the meaning of Romans 9:5 with greater depth of insight that E. H. Gifford:

St. Paul is expressing the anguish of his heart at the fall of his brethren: that anguish is deepened by the memory of their privileges, most of all, by the thought that their race gave birth to the Divine Saviour, whom they have rejected. In this, the usual interpretation, all is most natural: the last and greatest cause of sorrow is the climax of glory from which the chosen race has fallen.62

As for the grammatical demand of the verse, it can hardly be denied that the most natural way to handle “who is” (ὁ ὢν, ho ōn, the definite article and present participle) is to view the phrase as introducing a relative clause and to attach it to the immediately preceding ὁ Χριστὸς, ho Christos.

The implicatory demand of the verse flows from the presence of the words τὸ κατὰ σάρκα (to kata sarka, “insofar as the flesh is concerned”). This expression naturally raises the question: in what sense is the Messiah not from the patriarchs? The second half of the implied antithesis is supplied in the words which follow: “who is over all, God blessed forever.” This treatment of the verse ascribes full, unqualified deity to the Messiah, and has enjoyed the support of many early Fathers, the large majority of commentators, and also the av (1611), rv (1881), asv (1901), nasv (1971), niv (1978), and the nkjv (1982).

Because they judge that to refer to Christ as “God” is an un-Pauline locution, opposing scholars (see rsv [1946] and neb [1970]) have proposed two alternative punctuations, the first detaching the last expression, θεὸς εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, theos eulogētos eis tous aiōnas, and construing it as a doxology, from the preceding, the second detaching the entire expression after σάρκα, sarka, from the preceding, again construing the clause as a doxology.

As for the objection itself, it is a clear case of “begging the question” to declare a reference to Christ as God “un-Pauline” in a Pauline letter where all the syntactical evidence indicates that this may well be the very time that he has done so. Can a writer never express a theological hapax legomenon (“said one time”)? And to assert that he does so nowhere else requires the additional judgment that Titus 2:13 is at best “deutero-Pauline,” that is, non-Pauline in authorship though “Pauline-like” in style and essential substance. Furthermore, it is to ignore the words of Colossians 2:9, not to mention the profusion of exalted terminology throughout Paul’s writings which ascribe deity to Jesus.

And what about the two alternative proposals? The first, as we indicated, suggests that the last words of the verse should be construed as a disconnected doxology (“May God be blessed before!”). But Bruce M. Metzger certainly seems to be correct when he writes: “Both logically and emotionally such a doxology would interrupt the train of thought as well as be inconsistent with the mood of sadness that pervades the preceding verses.”63

Furthermore, if this detached clause is a doxology to God, it reverses the word order of every other such doxology in the Bible (over thirty times in the Old Testament and twelve times in the New), where the verbal adjective always precedes the noun for God and never follows it (as here). It is difficult to believe that Paul, whose ear for proper Hebraic and Hellenistic linguistic and syntactical formulae was finely tuned, would violate the established form for expressing praise to God which even he himself observes elsewhere (Eph. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:3).

Finally, if this clause is an ascription of praise to God, it differs in another respect from every other occurrence of such in Paul’s writings. Invariably, when Paul would ascribe blessedness to God, he connects the expression either by some grammatical device or by direct juxtaposition to a word which precedes it. There is, in other words, an antecedent reference to God in the immediately preceding context. For example, he employs ὅ ἐστιν, ho estin (Rom. 1:25), ὁ ὢν, ho ōn (2 Cor. 11:31), ᾧ, hō (Gal. 1:5; 2 Tim. 4:18), αὐτῷ, autō (Rom. 11:36; Eph. 3:21), and τῷ δὲ θεῷ, tō de theō (Phil. 4:20; 1 Tim. 1:17) to introduce ascriptions of praise to God. In the cases of Ephesians 1:3 and 2 Corinthians 1:3, even here there is an antecedent reference to God in the immediately preceding contexts. Thus all of Paul’s doxologies to God are connected either grammatically or juxtapositionally to an immediately preceding antecedent reference to God. Never is there an abrupt change from one subject (in this case, the Messiah in 9:5a) to another (God in 9:5b) as suggested by this proposal.

The second proposal is the one preferred by most of the scholars who reject the idea that Paul is referring to Christ as God, and it is commended by the Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies), the rsv, and the neb. But not only do the objections against the former proposal tell equally against it as well, but an additional objection may be registered. By disconnecting everything after σαρκα, sarka, and construing the disconnected portion as an independent ascription of praise, it denies to the participle ὢν, ōn, any real significance. Metzger highlights this failing:

If … the clause [beginning with ὁ ὢν, ho ōn] is taken as an asyndetic [unconnected] doxology to God, … the word ὤν [ōn] becomes superfluous, for “he who is God over all” is most simply represented in Greek by ὁ ἐπὶ πάντων θεός [ho epi pantōn theos]. The presence of the participle suggests that the clause functions as a relative clause (not “he who is …” but “who is …”), and thus describes ὁ Χριστός [ho Christos] as being “God over all.”64

Nigel Turner also points out that detaching the words beginning with ὁ ὢν, ho ōn, from the preceding clause “introduces asyndeton and there is no grammatical reason why a participle agreeing with ‘Messiah’ should first be divorced from it and then be given the force of a wish, receiving a different person as its subject.”65 It is strange that some scholars can recognize the presence and natural force of the relatival ὁ ὢν, ho ōn, in 2 Corinthians 11:31, where we find precisely the same syntactical construction (“God … , who is blessed forever”), and yet fail to recognize it in Romans 9:5.

There can be no justifiable doubt that Paul in Romans 9:5, by his use of θεός, theos, as a christological title—surrounding it with the particular descriptive phrases that he does, ascribes full deity to Jesus Christ who is and abides as (the force of the present participle) divine Lord over the universe, and who deserves eternal praise from all.

TITUS 2:13

The debate surrounding this verse is whether Paul intended to refer to one person (Christ) or to two persons (God the Father and Christ) when he wrote: “while we wait for the blessed hope, even the appearing of the glory [or, glorious appearing] of the great God and Savior of us, Jesus Christ” (author’s translation). There are five compelling reasons for understanding Paul to be referring to Christ alone throughout the verse and thus for translating the relevant phrase as “the appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

First, it is the most natural way to render the Greek sentence, as numerous commentators and grammarians have observed. Indeed, more than one grammarian has noted that there would never have been a question as to whether “God” and “Savior” refer to one person if the sentence had simply ended with “our Savior.” Second, the two nouns both stand under the regimen of the single definite article preceding “God,” indicating (according to the Granville Sharp rule, formulated in 1798, which states that when two nouns of the same case are connected by kai, a single article before the first noun denotes conceptual unity, whereas the repetition of the article with both nouns denotes particularity) that they are to be construed as one, not separately, that is to say, that they have a single referent. If Paul had intended to speak of two persons, he could have expressed this unambiguously by inserting an article before “Savior” or by writing “our Savior” after “Jesus Christ.” Third, inasmuch as “appearing” never refers to God the Father but is consistently employed to refer to Christ’s return in glory, the prima facie conclusion is that the “appearing of the glory of our great God” refers to Christ’s appearing and not to the Father’s appearing. Fourth, the terms θεὸς καὶ σωτήρ (theos kai sōtēr, “god and savior”) were employed in combination together in the second and first century b.c. secular literature to refer to single recipients of heathen worship. James H. Moulton, for example, writes:

A curious echo [of Titus 2:13] is found in the Ptolemaic formula applied to the deified kings: thus GH 15 (ii/b.c.), τοῦ μεγάλου θεοῦ … καὶ σωτῆρος … , tou megalou theou … kai sōtēros.… The phrase here is, of course, applied to one person.66

And Walter Lock writes in the same vein:

The combination σωτὴρ καὶ θεός [sōtēr kai theos] had been applied to Ptolemy I, θεὸς ἐπιφανής [theos epiphanēs] to Antiochus Epiphanes, θεὸν ἐπιφανὴ καὶ…σωτῆρα [theon epiphanē kai … sōtēra] to Julius Caesar [Ephesus, 48 b.c.].67

It is very likely in light of this data that one impulse behind Paul’s description of Christ here was his desire to counteract the extravagant titular endowment that had been accorded to human rulers. Fifth, contrary to the oft-repeated assertion that the use of θεός, theos, as a christological title is an “un-Pauline locution” and thus the noun cannot refer to Christ here, our exposition of Romans 9:5 has demonstrated that this is not so. Grammatically and biblically, the evidence would indicate that Paul intended in Titus 2:13 to describe Christ as “our great God and Savior.”

If we could look no further for Paul’s Christology than to these two texts—Romans 9:5 and Titus 2:13—we would have to conclude that his was a Christology of the highest kind. The One who had identified himself to Paul on the Damascus Road as “Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 22:8), who as his Lord had called Paul to himself and whom Paul now served, was “over all things, the ever-blessed God” (Rom. 9:5, author’s translation) and his “great God and Savior” (Titus 2:13). And considering the extensiveness of Paul’s missionary travels and the significance of the church (Rome) and the man (Titus) to whom he wrote these letters, this same high Christology would have become widely held and regarded as precious by all those who accepted Paul’s apostolic authority. Paul and his churches would have held to a high, ontological, incarnational Christology.


In this hymnic pericope, beginning in 1:15 with the words “who is,” the antecedent of which is “the Son of his [that is, “the Father’s”; see 1:12] love” in 1:13, Paul gives us a magnificent description of the person of our Lord:

Lord of the Natural Creation:

Who is the Image of the invisible God,

the Firstborn of all creation,

because by him were created all things in heaven and earth,

things visible and things invisible—

whether thrones or dominions,

whether rulers or authorities—

[because] all things through him and for him have been created,

and he is before all things, and all things by him endure.

Lord of the Spiritual Creation:

And he is Head of the body, the church,

who is the Beginning,

the Firstborn from the dead, in order that he might come to have first place in all things,

because in him he [the Father] willed all the fullness to dwell, and

[because] through him [the Father willed] to reconcile all things for him,

by making peace through the blood of his cross—

through him,

whether things upon earth,

or things in heaven. (author’s translation)

The first thing that Paul tells us is that Christ, as the Father’s Son, is “the Image of the invisible God.” What does he mean by this? In view of Paul’s equation of “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the Image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4) with “the light of the glory of God [imaged] in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6), it appears that he is saying that in Jesus Christ the glory of God, indeed God himself, becomes manifest. When one recalls, in addition, that the writer of Hebrews (Paul?) also described God’s Son as “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (1:3), and that James described “our Lord Jesus Christ” as “the Glory” of God (2:1; see Zech. 2:5), there can be little doubt that Paul, with the New Testament writers in general, intended to assert that Jesus Christ is the invisible God made visible.

This understanding—that Paul intended here to assert Jesus’ divine nature—receives further support by the hymn’s accompanying descriptions of him. That the Son enjoyed preexistence with the Father, prior to the creation of the universe, Paul explicitly affirmed when he tells us that (1) the Son is (“exists”) “before all things” (1:17; see John 1:15, 30; 8:58), and (2) that God created “all things in heaven and on earth—things visible and things invisible—whether thrones or dominions, whether rulers or authorities” by (ἐν, en) him, through (διά, dia) him, and for (εἰς, eis) him (1:16). (3) The Son’s divine character is also apparent in Paul’s declaration that “all [created] things” are dependent upon him for their continuance in existence: “all things by him endure [or “hold together”]” (1:17; see Heb. 1:3). (4) Finally, Paul’s description of Christ as “the Firstborn of all creation,” in light of the entire context, is to be understood, as in Romans 8:29, in the Hebraic sense of an ascription of priority of rank to the firstborn son who enjoys a special place in the father’s love.68

The recent attempts of some scholars to empty Paul’s description of all references to the Son’s personal preexistence and to make his words mean nothing more than that the power that God exercised in creation is now fully revealed and embodied in Christ fall far short of the passage’s full import. Furthermore, Paul’s intention behind his description of Jesus as “the Firstborn of all creation” is a universe away from the Arian interpretation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses that would insist that the word shows that the Son was the “first” of all other created things; the entire context demands that the term is to be understood in the Hebraic sense as an ascription of that priority which the firstborn son enjoyed in the father’s love.

That the Son is also preeminent over the church is stated in Paul’s description of him as “the Head of the body, the church,” “the Beginning [of the new humanity],” “the Firstborn from the dead, that he might come to have first place [as the Father’s exalted Son] over all things” (1:18a, b, c; see Rom. 8:29) and the One through whose peacemaking cross work God is finally to reconcile all things for his (Christ’s) glory (1:20).

It is difficult to find any biblical passage that more forthrightly affirms the full and unabridged deity of Jesus Christ than Colossians 1:15–20, spelling out as it does on a scale of cosmic dimensions his role in creating and preserving all things and his divine preeminence over all created things as Creator and Redeemer. Here Paul explicitly declares that Jesus Christ, as God’s Son, was existing with the Father prior to the creation of the universe, was himself God’s Agent in creation, and as the Image of the invisible God, that is, as God himself, by his incarnation made the invisible God visible to men. Then, as the exalted “Firstborn from the dead,” his eschatological preeminence is implied in Paul’s assertion that God willed to reconcile all things for Christ’s glory (εἰς αὐτόν, eis auton) which is finally to be fulfilled in the “Eschaton.”


I postponed the discussion of the phrase in 1:19, “all the fullness,” to this point, because Paul uses the phrase in 2:9 with even greater clarity of meaning and the phrase almost certainly means the same thing in both contexts.

In Colossians 1:19, Paul wrote: “In him [God] willed all the fullness to dwell.” Here in 2:9 Paul says virtually the same thing, but he specifies the nature of the “fullness” and the manner in which the “fullness” dwells in Jesus. To see this, let us follow his thought. In the last verses of Colossians 1 Paul discussed the “mystery” of God, which, he says, is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (1:27). A few verses later, Paul affirmed again that God’s “mystery,” only recently fully revealed (it had been anticipated in the Old Testament revelation), is Christ (2:2) “in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are deposited” (2:3). This highlights the uniqueness of Christ as the sole true repository and integrating point of all knowledge. Paul then gives the reason why his readers are to “walk” in Christ and to “be on guard” that no one should take them captive through the pursuit of the knowledge that springs from human philosophy and tradition. Translated literally, 2:9 reads: “because in him [Christ] dwells all the fullness of deity bodily.”

To assess Paul’s intention here, it will be necessary to give some attention to three of his words. By “fullness” (πλήρωμα, plērōma), which is perhaps an example of his employment of his (pre-Gnostic?) opponents’ terminology, Paul means plainly and simply “completeness,” “totality,” or “sum-total.” To insure that no one would miss his intention, Paul qualifies this noun with “all,” that is, “all [not just some of] the fullness.”

If it is an allusion to his opponents’ language, this phrase already carries overtones of “fullness of deity,” but Paul clarifies his intention by the following defining genitive “of deity.” The word for “deity” here is θεότης, theotēs, the abstract noun from θεός, theos, meaning “the being as God,” or “the being of the very essence of deity.” Putting these two words together, Paul is speaking of the “totality of all that is essential to the divine nature.” Concerning this “totality of divine essence” Paul affirms that it “dwells [permanently]” (for this is the force of the preposition κατά, kata, prefixed to the verb and the present tense of the verb κατοικέω, katoikeō) in Jesus.

Precisely how it is that this “totality of the very essence of deity” permanently “dwells” in him, Paul specifies by the Greek adverb σωματικῶς, sōmatikōs. Some scholars suggest that the word means “essentially” or “really” (as over against “symbolically”; see the contrast in 2:17 between “shadow” and “reality” [σῶμα, sōma]), but much more likely it means “bodily,” that is, “in bodily form,” indicating that the mode or manner in which the permanent abode of the full plenitude of deity in Jesus is to be understood is in incarnational terms. In short, Paul intends to say that in Jesus we have to do with the very “embodiment” or incarnation of deity. Christ is God “manifest in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16). Here we have the Pauline equivalent to the Johannine “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). Finally, to underscore Jesus’ uniqueness as such, Paul throws the “in him” forward in the sentence to the position of emphasis, implying by this, against his opponents’ claim that “fullness” could be found elsewhere, that “in him [and nowhere else]” permanently resides in bodily form the very essence of deity!

To interpret Paul so is clearly in keeping with his earlier “hymn” to Christ in 1:15–20, as virtually every commentator acknowledges. This view alone coincides with the rich language of the hymn where, as we have seen, Christ is described as the “Image of the invisible God,” who was “before all things” and by, through, and for whom God created all things, and in whom all things “hold together.”

Some modern scholars believe that Paul’s language should be construed, both in 1:15–20 and in 2:9, as functional language, but such an interpretation fails to take seriously the nature of the salvation envisioned in 2:10, its import only being meaningful if the Savior who effects it is the One in whom resides the fullness of deity. Here, then, is another context in which Paul asserts Christ’s full divine status.


What we may actually have preserved for us in this famous pericope is portions of two early Christian hymns—the first comprising 2:6–8 and based on Genesis and Isaianic material, the second comprising 2:9–11 and based mainly on Isaianic material. I would submit the following structural arrangement of the two proposed hymns, which arrangement leaves the text as it comes to us in Paul’s letter intact and allows the content of the material to govern the strophic arrangement and division. The “first hymn” I would arrange as follows:

Who [refers antecedently to “Christ Jesus” in 2:5],

Strophe 1:

though in the form of God existing,

did not regard equality with God a thing to be seized,

but himself he poured out,

having taken the form of a servant.

It should be noted that there are four lines in this strophe, the first and the fourth being participial clauses, separated by the second and third lines (“did not regard …” and “but poured out …”). That the first and fourth lines appear to belong together strophically is evident from the occurrence of μορφή, morphē (“form”) in both, and the occurrence of participles in both, suggesting also that they are to be viewed as “bracketing” clauses, tying these lines together.

Strophe 2:

In the precise likeness of men having been born,

and having been found by external appearance to be a man,

he humbled himself,

having become obedient unto death—

Climactic addendum:

even the death of the cross.”

Postponing for the moment any discussion of the climactic addendum, which may have been an original short choral refrain at the end of the hymn or Paul’s own addendum intended to highlight the shameful character of the death which our Lord died, I would point out that again we have a strophic arrangement of four lines, and again the first and the fourth are participial clauses separated by the second and third lines (“and having been found …” and “he humbled …”). That these four lines appear to form a natural and single strophe is evident from the fact that the participles in the first and fourth lines are the same in both (γενόμενος, genomenos), though it is true that their nuance of meaning is different and that they appear in inverted word order—in last place in the first line, in first place in the last line. Again, I would suggest that these participial clauses serve as “brackets” to set the strophe apart from the preceding strophe and those which follow. Further evidence that these lines are to be construed together strophically is the climactic parallelism of thought between the first and second lines and the occurrences of the word for “man” in the first and second lines (though it is true that they differ in number, being plural in the first line and singular in the second line).

Note now the parallels between the two strophes that suggest that they form a single hymn:

1.     The two strophes have the same number of lines.

2.     Both first lines begin with the preposition ἐν (en, “in”), which is then followed in each case with a dative noun, then a genitive noun, concluding with a participle.

3.     The first lines of the two strophes contain an antithetic parallelism: “form of God” and “likeness of men.”

4.     The third line in both strophes ascribes to Christ a reflexive action, the relation of the reflexive pronoun ἑαυτόν (heauton, “himself”) to the verb appearing in inverted order—in the former, “himself he poured out,” in the latter, “he humbled himself.” This striking similarity suggests that the two actions mean essentially the same thing, a possibility that receives further support from the likelihood that the former phrase has Isaiah 53:12 as its background while the latter phrase echoes the thought of Isaiah 53:8 (LXX), which is quoted in Acts 8:33 (“In his humiliation he was deprived of justice”), both Isaianic statements, of course, describing the suffering Servant.

5.     Postponing the reason for my interpretation until later, but assuming its validity here for the sake of grouping together the several parallels between the strophes, the hymn moves from the idea of “death” (“poured himself out”) in strophe 1, line 3, to “servitude” (“he humbled himself”) in strophe 2, line 3; but it moves in reverse order from the idea of “servitude” (“the form of servant”) in strophe 1, line 4, to “death” (“obedient unto death”) in strophe 2, line 4.

6.     In strophe 1 the word “God” occurs in the first and second lines; in strophe 2 the word “man” occurs in the first and second lines, suggesting an antithetic parallel between these lines of the two strophes.

7.     Both strophes deal with the same subject, namely, Jesus’ state of humiliation.

The “second hymn” is to be arranged as follows:

Therefore [in light of Christ’s “servant work” depicted in the first hymn],

Strophe 1

God has highly exalted him,

and he has given to him the name,

the “above everything” name,

These lines are separated both from the preceding hymn by the “therefore” preceding them and from the lines that follow them by the following purpose particle “in order that,” which introduces the purpose behind the divine action of this strophe. Further evidence that these lines are to be distinguished from the preceding strophes is the shift in the subject of the actions from Christ in the earlier strophes to the Father here. But the most obvious indication that these lines may be hymnically distinguished from the previous two strophes is the fact that in this strophe we find only three lines, as over against four in the previous strophes. The three lines here follow the pattern of “independent line, independent line, dependent (or modifying) line.”

As evidence that these lines are to be construed together strophically, we may cite the undeniable synonymous parallelism in thought between the first two lines, and the three internal lexical parallels, namely, the repeated “him” (αὐτόν, auton, and αὐτῷ, autō) in lines 1 and 2 (in both cases in the emphatic position), the repeated preposition ὑπέρ (hyper, “above”) in lines 1 and 3, and the repeated reference to “the name” in lines 2 and 3.

in order that

Strophe 2

at the name of Jesus

every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord—

Climactic addendum

to the glory of God the Father!”

Postponing again for the time being any discussion of the climactic addendum, we are immediately conscious that we have again only three lines to consider. But it is also immediately apparent that in strophe 2 the structural arrangement is the precise reverse of strophe 1: where earlier we had the arrangement “independent line, independent line, dependent line,” here we find the arrangement “dependent (or qualifying) line, independent line, independent line.” Within the strophe itself, again we have an undeniable synonymous parallelism in thought between lines 2 and 3. This parallelism is underscored by the presence of the word “every” in both lines, the aorist subjunctive verb form in both lines, and the adverbial modifying phrase in both lines, the former anticipating the question “where?” or “whose?” and the latter anticipating the question “what?” There is also a lexical connection between lines 1 and 3 through the repetition of the proper name “Jesus,” found here and nowhere else in the hymn.

Having distinguished between the two strophes, we may now note the following parallels between them:

1.     The phrase “the name” is found in the dependent line of both strophes.

2.     The word “every” is found in line 3 of both strophes.

3.     Both strophes are concerned with the same subject, namely, Jesus’ state of exaltation, the former stating the fact itself, and the latter stating the Father’s design behind the fact.

Concerning now the climactic addenda, “even the death of the cross” and “to the glory of God the Father,” which may have been either original to both hymns or Pauline additions to both: it is apparent that a marked antithesis lies between them, each of them capturing the mood of its respective hymn. The former, by designating the particular kind of death Christ died, underscores the depth of the humiliation that Christ voluntarily underwent. The latter highlights the Father’s glory that Christ’s exaltation entailed. The former concentrates our attention on the death of Jesus; the latter focuses our attention on the glory of the Father. The former brings the first hymn to a close by focusing on the cross; the latter brings the second hymn to a close by focusing on the glory that followed. These addenda neatly summarize for us the essential flow of the apostle’s thought: from humiliation to exaltation, from cross to crown.

The very first line of the first strophe is directly related to the concern of this present study. What does Paul mean when he declares that Christ Jesus was “existing in the form of God”? Those who are advocates of what is called Adam Christology insist that this is the equivalent to the Genesis description of Adam as created in the image of God—meaning that Christ, like Adam, was truly a man. Now it is true that the two Greek words εἰκών (eikōn, “image”) and μορφή (morphē, “form”) are both employed to translate the same Semitic root in the Septuagint, εἰκών, eikōn, translating the Hebrew noun צֶלֶם, ṣelem, in Genesis 1:26 and μορφή, morphē, translating the Aramaic noun צְלֶם, ṣelem, in Daniel 3:19. But this is hardly sufficient evidence to warrant the conclusion that they are interchangeable or synonymous, and μορφή, morphē, is not the word used in the Septuagint to render either צֶלֶם, ṣelem, or דְּמוּת, demûṯ, in Genesis 1:26–27. Moreover, this ignores the occurrence of μορφή, morphē, three lines later, for clearly Jesus did not assume the mere “image” of a servant but became in very fact the Servant of Yahweh. Thus the denotative connection between Adam as the “image of God” and Christ as the “form of God” cannot be made on the basis of such slim linguistic evidence.

Others urge that the meaning of μορφή, morphē, should be established on the basis of its usage in the Septuagint, but the problem here is that it is only used four times in the Septuagint, and each time as the translation of a different Hebrew word (see Judg. 8:18; Job 4:16; Isa. 44:13; and Dan. 3:19). At best, taken together, the idea of μορφή, morphē, in the Septuagint seems to be that of “visible form,” but the number of samples is just too small and too diverse to draw any hard and fast conclusions. Besides, if it means “visible form,” it is questionable whether this meets the conditions of the first occurrence in Philippians 2:6, for there Christ is not said to be “the μορφή, morphē, of God” but “in the μορφή, morphē, of God.” But “in the ‘visible form’ of God” would be scripturally inappropriate inasmuch as God is “invisible,” as Colossians 1:15 reminds us.

Still others maintain that μορφή, morphē, in 2:6a is equivalent in meaning to δόξα (doxa, “glory”), but it can hardly be argued that this same equivalency is appropriate in the phrase “form of a servant” three lines later.

In light of these problems, it appears that the weight of linguistic evidence is still on the side of J. B. Lightfoot, who demonstrated from a study of both its usage throughout the history of Greek thought and the occurrences of the μορφ- root in the New Testament that μορφή, morphē, refers to the “essential attributes” of a thing, and that Christ’s being in the form of God, while not the linguistic equivalent, is the connotative equivalent to the Pauline description of Christ in 2 Corinthians 4:4 and Colossians 1:15 as the “[essential] image of the [invisible] God.”69 Warfield concurs:

“Form” is a term which expresses the sum of those characterizing qualities which make a thing the precise thing that it is. Thus, the “form” of a sword (in this case mostly matters of external configuration) is all that makes a given piece of metal specifically a sword, rather than, say, a spade. And the “form of God” is the sum of the characteristics which make the being we call “God,” specifically God, rather than some other being—an angel, say, or a man. When our Lord is said to be in “the form of God,” therefore, He is declared, in the most express manner possible, to be all that God is, to possess the whole fulness of attributes which make God God.70

Murray agrees,71 and David F. Wells declares that it “appears inescapable that by ‘form’ we are to understand that Paul meant the essence or essential characteristics of a thing.”72 This understanding of the term fits both occurrences in 2:6: “form of God” and “form of servant.” When then the force of the present participle is also taken into account which conveys the idea of “continually subsisting,” which in turn excludes the idea that this mode of subsistence came to an end when he assumed the form of servant, we have here a bold and unqualified assertion of both the preexistence and the full and unabridged deity of Jesus Christ.

The classical evangelical interpretation of the entire pericope contends that these verses depict a great parabola, starting with God the Son in the glory of his preexistent condition of sharing the divine essence with God the Father (“in the form of God existing”), then tracing his “downward” movement by means of the Incarnation (“himself he emptied”) to his “cross work” as the Father’s Servant, and then recording his “upward” movement by means of the Father’s exaltation through resurrection and ascension to his present session at his Father’s right hand as “Lord.” No evangelical will take exception either to the sentiment behind or to the high Christology itself which is thus extracted from these verses by such an exposition. Certainly I do not. Nor do I for a moment have any intention of denying to our Lord in the slightest degree his rightful claim to full unqualified deity or to equality with the Father in power and glory. This I have already shown from my exposition of 2:6a. Nor do I dispute the fact that the New Testament does set forth the work of Christ precisely in terms of “descent-ascent” (κατάβασις, katabasis-ἀνάβασις, anabasis) in some contexts. But it is precisely this “descent-ascent” motif that has created for evangelical scholars in this particular context a major difficulty, or rather two difficulties.

The first difficulty is this: if we understand the beginning point of the “flow” of the passage, as the classical view does, to be the preincarnational state of the Son of God (“in the form of God being”) and take the phrases, “himself he emptied, taking the form of a servant,” as the metaphorical allusion to the “downward” event of the Incarnation, it is only with the greatest difficulty, because of the intervening clause, that the conclusion can be avoided that the “emptying” involved his surrender of the “form” (“very nature”—niv) of God. I grant that the verb κενόω, kenoō, may have a metaphorical meaning, as in its other occurrences in the New Testament (Rom. 4:14; 1 Cor. 1:17; 9:15; 2 Cor. 9:3), and that it need not be literally rendered “emptied” in Philippians 2:6. (I too in the end attach a nonliteral meaning to it.) But even a metaphor has a literal meaning when it is divested of its metaphorical “wrapping.” What does this metaphor mean literally when it is “unpacked” in the interest of interpretation? The ready answer of those who hold the classical view is that it refers to the event of the Incarnation (“He made himself of no reputation, by means of taking the form of a servant”). But it is just here that the difficulty arises. For according to the classical view, the intervening clause (“He did not regard …”), in the “flow” of the hymn, has to mirror an attitude in the preexistent Son that prevailed on the “prior side” of the event of Incarnation. But if this clause describes what the preexistent Son of God as God the Son “thought” (ἡγήσατο, hēgēsato) of his equality with God, it does not matter, I would suggest, whether ἁρπαγμὸν, harpagmon (from the root ἁρπάζω, harpazō, meaning “to seize”) is construed res rapta, that is, “a thing to be held onto,” or res rapienda, that is, “a thing to be seized”—neither is appropriate as a description of what the Son “thought” with regard to his “equality with God.” The former is theologically heretical for it implies that the Son was willing to and did in fact divest himself of his deity (“the form of God”) when he took the “form of a servant,” for that is what “equality with God” means lexically, contextually, and according to John 5:18 and 10:28–33. The latter is also theologically suspect for it suggests that the Son did not already possess equality with God. But this introduces confusion into the passage in light of the fact that it is clearly affirmed in the first clause of 2:6, as we have seen, that the Son was God and was thus as such “equal with God.”

If one should reply that the reason it is said that the Son did not “grasp after” equality with God is because he already had it as the first clause affirms, I would respond that this now introduces a certain theological barrenness, if not an exegetical inanity, into the text at the very point where, obviously, a highly significant insight is intended, for one does not need to be informed of the obvious—that the Son did not seek after something which was already in his possession. Accordingly, I would submit, from the perspective of the classical interpretation of the pericope, that it is only the res rapta interpretation of ἁρπαγμὸν, harpagmon, that circumvents this barrenness of meaning, but then it is only with the greatest difficulty that the evangelical scholar can escape, if escape at all, the conclusion that the Son is represented, by the implication of his willingness to forego his “equality with God,” that is, his essential divine attributes, as having divested himself of his “very nature” character of God when he became a man. (We are not debating at this moment what all admit is the impossibility of One who is God doing such a thing. We are only concerned here with interpreting the text in a grammatical fashion.) One has only to peruse the evangelical literature on these verses to see what hermeneutical contortions are resorted to to affirm, on the one hand, that the Son did not regard equality with God (“the form of God”) a thing to be held onto, and that he accordingly “emptied himself” (or, “made himself nothing”) by becoming a man, and yet, on the other hand, that he still retained all that he essentially is and was from the beginning. For example, it is said: “He did not divest Himself of His divine attributes, but only the independent use of His attributes.” But when did the Son ever exercise his attributes independently from the Trinity? Or, “He did not divest Himself of His deity, but only the glory of His deity.” But is not his “divine glory” just the sum and substance of his deity? And how does one square this interpretation with John 1:14 and 2:11? Or, “He did not divest Himself of His deity, but only His rights as deity.”73 But what rights did he forego as God when he became a man? While I do not agree with the “kenotic” theologians who teach that the Son, according to the teaching of this passage, divested himself of at least something that was essentially his as God when he became a man, I can understand, if it is assumed that the passage begins with the preexistent Son, how they come to this conclusion.

The second difficulty is this: if the flow of the passage commences with God the Son in his preexistent state, what meaning can his later exaltation possibly have had for him? Exaltation must involve elevation to a state not in one’s prior possession. But such an elevated state is simply nonexistent with regard to God the Son as God. If one should reply that his later exalted state involved his being elevated, as the second hymn declares, to the position of lordship over all things, I must ask whether the Scripture will permit us to believe that God the Son, often identified by Scripture itself as the God and Yahweh of the Old Testament, was not already de jure and de facto Lord over creation, nature, religious institutions such as the Law and the Sabbath, and, most significantly, over the lives of men, prior to the exaltation spoken about in Philippians 2:9–11. Does not careful reflection on simply what is entailed in being God the Son force one to conclude that the Son as God the Son continued ever, even during the days of his earthly ministry, to be the same Lord he was from the beginning? So what meaning can be attached to an exaltation of One who cannot be exalted more highly than he already is? It is only with the greatest difficulty that the evangelical scholar can escape the conclusion, if he insists that the exaltation was indeed the exaltation of the preexistent Son of God per se, that the Son’s former state was lower in dignity than his latter state, and that the Son’s latter state elevated him to a state which was above the state which he enjoyed when “existing in the form of God” prior to his incarnation. But Scripture and right reason simply will not permit such a conclusion.

These two difficulties ought to make us willing to consider another interpretation that avoids both problems and at the same time affirms the vere deus vere homo (truly God, truly man) doctrine of classical Christology.

The key to the solution of both of these difficulties and to the proper interpretation of these verses is to recognize that it is not God the Son in his preincarnate state as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who is the subject of the first two strophes and to whom reference is made by the “him” in verse 9 of the third strophe, but rather “Christ Jesus” (see 2:5 and references to “Jesus” and “Jesus Christ” in 2:10–11 respectively)—God the Son certainly, for this is the meaning of “though in the form of God existing,” but God the Son already incarnately present with men as himself the God-man.74 The hymn begins with “Christ Jesus” and affirms that, as the God-man, he refused to follow an alternative path to glory to the one which his Father had charted for him. Nor does it refer to the “downward” movement (the κατάβασις, katabasis) of the Incarnation event itself, so vital a part of the classical view, save as an event that had already taken place, presupposing it in its affirmation that he “though existing as God,” had “taken the form of servant.” By this construction, all that is said of him is said of him as the Messiah, the Son-already-dispatched-on-his-mission. It is possible, and this is only a conjecture, that the first hymn has been “decapitated,” and that a previous strophe dealt with his pure preexistent state as God the Son and eternal Son of the eternal Father.

How does this elimination of the Son’s preexistent state and his incarnational “descent” from the hymn’s “flow” circumvent the two difficulties just mentioned? The answer is that now we are no longer interacting at the point of Philippians 2:6 with the Incarnation as a future event, but with the Incarnation as from the outset the God-man’s existing state of being. Accordingly, the clauses under discussion may now be interpreted within the context of the Incarnation as a fait accompli and not within the context of the Incarnation as a fait anticipé. But are meaningful interpretations ready at hand? To this I would reply in the affirmative. With respect to the clause, “He did not regard equality … ,” I would urge that it may now be construed res rapienda, that is, “He did not regard equality with God a thing to be seized,” and that it should be interpreted against the background of his temptation recorded in Matthew 4. We know that Paul is willing to contrast Adam and Christ in Romans 5:12–19 and 1 Corinthians 15:45–49, actually referring to Christ in the latter passage as the Last Adam and the Second Man. Here the Philippians hymn draws a further contrast between the respective temptations of Adam and Christ. Unlike Adam, the first man, who did “regard equality with God [τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ, to einai isa theō] a thing to be seized,”75 Christ, the Last Adam and Second Man, when urged to demonstrate his equality with God (see Matt. 4:3, 6: “Since you are the Son of God, …”) refused to take matters into his own hands and assert his rights as the Son. He steadfastly resisted the Tempter’s suggestion to “seize equality,” that is, to walk no longer in the path of the Servant of the Lord and to achieve “lordship” over “all the kingdoms of this world” (Matt. 4:8) by a route not charted for the Servant in the economy of salvation.

There is another Old Testament motif, beyond the Adam-Christ contrast that assists us when we address the meaning of “himself he emptied,” and that is the “Servant” motif of Isaiah’s “Servant Songs.” In what I have called the second hymn, clearly lines 1 and 2 of strophe 1 borrow a sentiment from Isaiah 42:1–8, and lines 2 and 3 of strophe 2 directly reflect the language of Isaiah 45:23. And in what I have called the first hymn, Paul’s references to the “servant” in strophe 1, line 4, and to Christ’s “self-humbling” and “obedience unto death” in lines 3 and 4 of strophe 2 are general allusions to the “servant” motif of Isaiah’s songs (see Isa. 53:8 [LXX] and Acts 8:33). (Paul also relates Christ to both Adam and the “servant” motif in Romans 5:12–19.) Some Old Testament scholars have therefore suggested that the phrase “himself he emptied” is Paul’s Greek dynamic equivalent to the Isaianic expression “He poured his soul out unto death” (which means, “He voluntarily died”) in Isaiah 53:12, climactically descriptive of the Suffering Servant’s self-sacrificing work so often referred to elsewhere in the New Testament (see, for example, Matt. 8:17; Luke 22:37; Acts 8:32–35; 1 Pet. 2:21–25). The phrase, thus interpreted, derives its meaning against the incarnational backdrop of the high-priestly ministry of our Lord rather than against the backdrop of his preexistence, referring to the sacrifice of his life and not to a “self-emptying” which occurred in and by his incarnation. I would suggest then that the aorist participle λαβών, labōn, in the first hymn, strophe 1, line 4, is to be construed as a participle denoting antecedent action,76 thus placing Christ’s “self-emptying” subsequent in time to the “taking.” That is to say, the participle does not explain the means of the “self-emptying” (“emptied by taking”) but rather denotes a prior action that was the necessary precondition to the “self-emptying.” The following paraphrase of the first strophe will assist the reader in understanding this suggestion:

Though Christ Jesus was and still is God [now, of course, God incarnate],

He did not regard equality with God a thing to be seized [at his temptation by a self-willed exercise of power],

But “poured himself out” [unto death],

Having taken the form of the Servant [of Isaiah 53].

By this construction we have both precluded at the outset a kenotic christological interpretation and the first difficulty I mentioned earlier, and have been able to give substantive meaning to 2:6–7b, something the classical view is able to do only with the greatest exegetical ingenuity.

But we are now also in a position to give substantive meaning to the act of exaltation asserted in the second hymn, for now we may refer it, not to God the Son per se but to God the Son in his incarnate state as the Messiah. It is, in other words, the divine-human Messiah, Christ Jesus, who is exalted. And because we are compelled by the historical fact itself to describe the Son, now incarnately existent in Jesus Christ, as “the divine-human Messiah,” we can boldly say, without fear of denigrating his divine honor, that the Father’s exaltation of Jesus Christ entailed for the Son, as the Messiah, a new and genuine experience of exaltation. Precisely because we must use the word “human” as part of our description of him now, we can also say that something truly new and unique occurred at the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ: the man Christ Jesus—the Last Adam and Second Man—assumed de facto sovereignty over the universe, over all of the principalities and powers in heavenly places, and over all other men, demanding that they submit to the authority of his scepter. That King’s name is Jesus, at the mention of whose office some day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ—the divine-human Messiah—is Lord!

In conclusion, this pericope ascribes deity to “Christ Jesus.” It does so in three ways: first, by its description of Jesus as “in the form of God [continually] being”; second, by its tacit ascription to him of “equality with God” when it affirms that he did not “seize” this station in the sense that at the time of his temptation he did not assert himself in a self-willed show of power commensurate with his divine station; and third, by the very nature of his delegated lordship, the entail of his exaltation. It is true that this lordship was “delegated” to him, in his role as Messiah, as the result of his labors (see the “because” of Isa. 53:12 and the “therefore” of Phil. 2:9). But this lordship, described as it is in terms of Isaiah 45:23, where it is declared to be Yahweh’s prerogative alone, has a covenantal basis upon which it was determined that this One should “receive” this specific kind of lordship as the Messiah upon the completion of his suffering by right of his own divine Sonship, the antecedent condition to his messianic investiture. Said another way, it is because he was, as the Messiah, “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” that he was exalted to lordship, but it is also because he is “in the form of God” and “equal with God,” as the divine Messiah, that the lordship he was delegated could assume the proportions which it does and involve the universal obligation upon men to worship him.

1 TIMOTHY 1:15

In Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 1:15: “Christ Jesus came into the world—sinners to save” (author’s translation)—the first of the five “faithful sayings” in his pastoral letters—again Christ’s preexistence is implied and, as a corollary to his preexistence, his divine Sonship as well.

It is true, just as the “he ascended” in Ephesians 4:8 does not in itself require a prior descent, that the phrase “came into the world” does not necessarily contain within itself the notion of preexistence per se (see Rom. 5:12; 1 Tim. 6:7). But as George W. Knight III observes at this point:

It is one thing to point out that the phrase ἦλθεν [ἔρχεσθαι] εἰς τὸν κόσμον [ēlthen (erchesthai) eis ton kosmon] itself does not imply preexistence and it is another to make this evaluation of the phrase when it is used by Christians with Christ Jesus as the subject. Is it not, as a matter of fact, evident that the uniform usage of that phrase with reference to Christ Jesus is to both his preexistence and also his incarnation?77

He then proceeds to show from an analysis of the six occurrences of the phrase in John’s Gospel (1:9; 3:19; 11:27; 12:46; 16:28; 18:37)—the only other book of the New Testament where the expression is found—that when the phrase is applied to Christ Jesus, it “demands the understanding of preexistence as well as incarnation.”78

1 TIMOTHY 3:16

With the aid of a succinct compendium of the great “mystery of godliness” (that is, the “revealed secret” of the faith, even Jesus Christ; see Col. 1:27; 2:2–3) in the form of a quotation from an early Christian hymn, Paul elaborates his Christology—the Great Mystery—in six phrases:

who [that is, Christ Jesus]

was manifested in the flesh,

was vindicated in the spirit,

was seen by angels,

was proclaimed among the nations,

was believed on in the world,

was taken up in glory. (author’s translation)

As with the other christological hymns we have considered, this one has undergone considerable analysis with regard to its strophic arrangement. Some see strict chronological progression throughout the six lines, with each line therefore receiving independent treatment. Others see two strophes of three lines each (or two strophes of two lines and a refrain). And still others—the majority view today— divide the quotation into three couplets.

The hymn appears to be a finely crafted piece of poetry with not one but two patterns of internal relationships that bind the six lines together in a remarkable literary unit. There are first the six dative nouns—flesh, spirit, angels, nations, world, and glory—which almost certainly are intended to be construed both antithetically and chiastically, that is to say, the hymn moves from that which is earthly (“flesh”) to that which is heavenly (“spirit”), then from that which is heavenly (“angels”) back to that which is earthly (“nations”), then back again from that which is earthly (“world”) to that which is heavenly (“glory”). This being so, it seems that the poet was thinking in terms of the couplets following an a/b, b/a, a/b pattern, with the hymn’s movement being not primarily chronological but spatial, emphasizing the truth that both the earthly and the heavenly spheres find their center in Christ.

Robert H. Gundry has observed that when the six lines are considered individually in their entirety, there seems also to be a synthetic parallelism between lines 2 and 3—”vindicated, seen”—and lines 4 and 5—”proclaimed, believed on,” both of which are framed between line 1 commemorating the Lord’s “descent” and line 6 commemorating the Lord’s “ascent.”79 The first of these synthetic parallels (lines 2 and 3) takes place in the realm invisible to men; the second of these parallels (lines 4 and 5) takes place in the realm visible to men, while the third (lines 1 and 6) begins in the visible realm and passes into the invisible. The pattern here would be a, bb, aa, b. This strophic analysis or one very similar to it has a wide currency today. Turning to a consideration of the individual lines themselves, we note the following:

Line 1: “was manifested in the flesh.” It is commonly acknowledged that “was manifested in the flesh” refers to the Incarnation, and by the constative aorist speaks of Christ’s entire incarnate life as a revelation of the divine Son “in the sphere of human being.” That it has reference to the Incarnation, implying as well Christ’s preexistence as the Son of God, is evident not only from the fact that we do not speak this way about an ordinary man, but also from the fact that the New Testament speaks elsewhere of Jesus’ incarnate life in terms of “manifestation” (John 1:31; Heb. 9:26; 1 Pet. 1:20; 1 John 1:2; 3:5, 8; see John 1:14; Col. 2:9).

Line 2: “was vindicated in the spirit.” Opinions vary concerning the meaning of this line. Because σάρξ (sarx, “flesh”) in the preceding line has reference to Christ’s human nature in its entirety, including his human spirit (see exposition on Romans 1:3–4), it is most unlikely (contra Gundry) that his human spirit is the intended referent of πνεῦμα (pneuma, “spirit”) here. The choice lies between understanding the referent to be the Holy Spirit or Christ’s divine nature. Are there any indications as to which is intended? If it refers to the Holy Spirit, the preposition ἐν, en, must be construed instrumentally (“by”), and while this is certainly possible, it does violence to the symmetry present in the uniform locative sense of all of the other occurrences of ἐν, en. Therefore, since Paul has instructed us in Romans 1:3–4 that Christ was “powerfully marked out the Son of God according to the Spirit of holiness [his own holy divine spirit] by the resurrection from the dead,” his resurrection there clearly being represented as a vindicating event, I would urge that the verb “was vindicated” here refers to that same vindicating event, and that “in the spirit”—as the antithesis to “in the flesh,” that is, “in the sphere of human being”— means “in the sphere of divine being.” A paraphrase of the line would then be “was vindicated [as the Son of God by the resurrection] in the sphere of [his divine] spirit.”

Line 3: “was seen by angels.” Since this line contains no ἐν, en, “angels” is probably to be construed as a true rather than an instrumental dative. This means in turn that ὤφθη, ōphthē, which “nearly always means the self-exhibition of the subject” (Gundry), quite probably means “appeared” rather than “was seen.” The upshot of these two points is that the phrase means something on the order of “appeared to angels,” which is not substantively different from the traditional translation. There is little question that this line refers both to Christ’s triumph over the angelic forces of evil by his cross and to his exaltation over all the angelic powers at his ascension (see Eph. 1:21; Col. 2:15; Phil. 2:9–11; Heb. 1:4–14; 1 Pet. 3:22; Rev. 5:8–14). It certainly implies his superangelic dignity.

Lines 4, 5, and 6. There is little substantive disagreement among scholars over the meanings of lines 4, 5, and 6. Line 4, “was proclaimed among the nations,” reflects the church’s conviction that Christ is properly the Subject of worldwide proclamation and also the fact that the church was in the process of proclaiming him as such. Line 5, “was believed on in the world,” reflects the church’s confidence in the outcome of that proclamation—the nations of the world will become his disciples. And line 6, “was taken up in [not “into”] glory,” brings the hymn to a close with the imagery of Jesus’ ascension to heaven in the glory attendant upon him on that occasion (see the “glory cloud” in Acts 1:9; see also Acts 1:11 and Matt. 24:30; 26:64; Mark 14:62).

From beginning to end this hymnic confession of faith (see the adverb ὁμολογουμένως, homologoumenōs, “by common confession,” in Paul’s prefatory introduction to the hymn) extols Christ—the preexistent Son who became “enfleshed,” who was then “vindicated” as the divine Son of God by his resurrection from the dead, who, having “ascended,” is properly the acknowledged Lord among the “angels” and the “proclaimed” Lord in the world of men. Thus the Christology found in the confessional framework of this early Christian hymn is in accord with that high Christology found throughout the Pauline corpus which confesses a Messiah who is Deity incarnate.

Thus Paul portrays Christ as the preexistent Creator and Yahweh of the Old Testament (Col. 1:15–17) and the Co-source with the Father of all spiritual blessings, whose name is to be called upon in the church, at whose name every knee is to bow and every tongue is to confess that he is Lord (Rom. 10:12–13; Phil. 2:9–11). As the Son of God incarnate, he is the visible “Image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), who “being in the form of God,” possesses all the essential attributes of God and is “equal with God” (Phil. 2:6–7). “In [Christ] dwells all the fullness of deity bodily” (Col. 2:9), the result of the Son of God having become “enfleshed” within the royal line of David as a man like other men (Rom. 1:3; Phil. 2:7; 1 Tim. 3:16), who as a man died for other men’s sins and was buried, but who rose on the third day and ascended to the right hand of God, assuming mediatorial sovereignty over the universe. He is, for Paul, Lord “over all, God blessed forever” (Rom. 9:5) and “our great God and Savior” (Titus 2:13).

While it is undoubtedly true that some of Paul’s descriptions of Jesus are to be viewed as “functional” (for example, Christ, Servant, Head of the church, even Lord in the mediatorial sense), many are not (for example, Son, Son of God, Lord in the Yahwistic sense, Image of the invisible God, and God). And even the functional descriptions of Jesus derive their power to evoke our religious interest and devotion ultimately from the ontological descriptions of Christ which surround them and lie behind them.

It will not satisfy all of the data to acknowledge on the one hand that Jesus was for Paul both vere deus and vere homo, but to assert on the other that his Christology was an anomaly in the thinking of the first-century church. As Warfield wrote:

Paul is not writing a generation or two [after the generation of those who had companied with Jesus in His life], when the faith of the first disciples was a matter only of memory, perhaps of fading memory; and when it was possible for him to represent it as other than it was. He is writing out of the very bosom of this primitive community and under its very eye. His witness to the kind of Jesus this community believed in is just as valid and just as compelling, therefore, as his testimony that it believed in Jesus at all. In and through him the voice of the primitive community itself speaks, proclaiming its assured faith in its divine Lord.80

Since Warfield wrote these words even more evidence has come to light that this is true, for there is a general consensus today among both critical and evangelical scholars that in Colossians 1:15–20, Philippians 2:6–11, and 1 Timothy 3:16 we have in hymnic form reflections of the primitive Christology of the early church that may very well antedate the letters of Paul in which they appear. Then in 1 Corinthians 15:3–5 and Romans 1:3–4 we have what may well be reflections of primitive church confessions, while in 1 Timothy 1:15 we have an early church confession in the form of a non-Pauline “faithful saying” which Paul endorsed by declaring it to be “worthy of acceptance.” All of these pericopes reflect the highest kind of Christology in which Jesus is regarded as the divine, preexistent Son of God who through “descent” became “flesh” for us men and for our salvation and who through “ascent” assumed mediatorial Headship over the universe and the church. And in the case of 1 Timothy 1:15 it is significant that here we have the spokesman of the so-called Pauline community commending what is now commonly recognized as a piece of teaching framed in the wording of the “Johannine community.” So instead of there being competing communities in the early church, each headed up by a specific apostle and each vying with one another for the minds of the masses, here is indication that the primitive church, at least that majority portion of it which followed the lead of the apostles and for whom the apostles were authoritative teachers in the church, was one in its essential understanding of Christ. When one also takes into account that the Jerusalem apostles approved Paul’s gospel (which surely would have included an account of who Jesus was for Paul) when he informed them of it on his second visit to Jerusalem (Gal. 2:2, 6–9), plus the fact that for both the (Palestinian?) Aramaic-speaking and (Hellenistic?) Greek-speaking Christians in the primitive church Jesus was “Lord” (see the occurrence of both κύριος [kyrios, “Lord”] and Μαρανα θα [Marana tha, Aramaic, meaning either “Our Lord has [or will] come” or “Our Lord, come”] in 1 Cor. 16:22), we must conclude that such strict distinctions as have been drawn by some modern scholars between an early Christology of the Jewish Palestinian church, a later Christology of the Jewish Hellenistic church (or mission), and a still later Christology of the Hellenistic Gentile church (or mission) (all stages of development before Paul) exist more in the minds of those who espouse them than in the actual first-century church itself. Paul’s testimony, reflected throughout his letters, gives evidence of the fact that for Christians generally who lived at that time, Jesus was, as Warfield writes:

a man indeed and the chosen Messiah who had come to redeem God’s people, but in His essential Being just the great God Himself. In the light of [Paul’s] testimony it is impossible to believe there ever was a different conception of Jesus prevalent in the Church: the mark of Christians from the beginning was obviously that they looked to Jesus as their “Lord” and “called upon His name” in their worship.81

The Non-Pauline New Testament Witness


Among modern critical scholars who support a pre-Pauline date for James’s letter, the opinion is commonly expressed that his “unobtrusive Christology”—A. M. Fairbairn spoke in 1893 of “the poverty of [James’s] Christology”82—reflects “an important type of Christianity overshadowed by and misinterpreted through the figure and influence of Paul.”83 The fact that he makes no mention of Jesus’ death and resurrection, for example, is interpreted to mean that “the author did not realize the importance of them.”84 For those scholars who urge that James was written contemporaneously with the Pauline corpus, the same silence respecting Jesus’ death and resurrection is interpreted to mean that its author wrote “to provide a counterblast to Pauline Christianity in the interests of Judaistic Christianity.”85

But James’s Christology is neither “ante-Pauline” nor “anti-Pauline.” J. Adamson notes:

Evidence such as that from the Dead Sea and Nag Hammadi has almost miraculously revealed or confirmed … the continuity preserved in the distinctive Jewish character, thought, and language of early Christian theology. We can now see that the Jewish first Christians had grown up in a wealth of ancient but lively tradition of messianic Christology, so that James, writing to Jewish converts who had accepted the Christian message, “This is he,” was able to give most of his Christian letter not to Christian theology but to Christianity in everyday life.86

In other words, James took for granted the great events that centered in the historical person of Jesus as he set about the task of writing his guide to Christian behavior. Whatever reasons lay behind his decision not to speak directly of Jesus’ death and resurrection (and any number of other things could also be mentioned, such as his supernatural conception in Mary’s womb, his mighty miracles, his ascension, and his present session at the right hand of his Father), it certainly goes beyond the evidence to conclude that James was unaware of these things and their significance—witness his own response in faith to Jesus’ resurrection appearance to him—or that he opposed Paul’s Christology—witness his approval of Paul’s gospel in Galatians 2:9 and his judgment at the Jerusalem council after listening to the testimonies of Peter and Paul. In fact, if we had no more than his one letter to draw upon, we would still have to conclude that James’s Christology in no way contradicts and in every way is consistent with the Christology of Jesus’ self-testimony and of the other New Testament writers.

There are sufficient parallels between the Sermon on the Mount and James’s letter to suggest that James had heard Jesus preach on numerous occasions.87 And while it is true that he speaks of Jesus by name only twice (1:1; 2:1), on both occasions he not only speaks of him as “the Lord Jesus Christ”—designations of reverence, speaking of both his messiahship and lordship—but also in each case this exalted designation is enhanced by a contextual feature that places him on a par with God the Father. In the former case (1:1), James describes himself as a “servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”—a genitival coordination of God and Jesus that implies the latter’s equality with God. In the latter case (2:1), James appositionally describes Jesus as, literally, “the Glory” (τῆς δόξης, tēs doxēs),88 undoubtedly intending by this term not only to ascribe to him the glory attendant upon his resurrection and ascension but also to describe him as the manifested or “Shekinah” (“dwelling”) Glory of God (see John 1:14; 2 Cor. 4:4; Heb. 1:3; Rev. 21:3). As Warfield observes:

The thought of the writer seems to be fixed on those Old Testament passages in which Jehovah is described as the “Glory”: e.g., “For I, saith Jehovah, will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and I will be the Glory in the midst of her” (Zech 2:5). In the Lord Jesus Christ, James sees the fulfillment of these promises: He is Jehovah come to be with His people; and, as He has tabernacled among them, they have seen His glory. He is, in a word, the Glory of God, the Shekinah: God manifest to men. It is thus that James thought and spoke of his own brother who died a violent and shameful death while still in His first youth!89

James also speaks of Jesus as “the Lord” (which title from New Testament usage elsewhere presupposes his resurrection and ascension) who, as such, is the One in whose name Christians are to pray and who answers their prayers (5:13–14), who heals and forgives (5:14–15), and whose coming Christians are patiently to await (5:7–8). And while it is true that James also refers to the Father as “the Lord” (see 1:7; 4:15; 5:10–11), precisely because he can pass back and forth between the Father and Jesus in his use of κύριος, kyrios, he implies the fitness of thinking of Jesus in terms of equality with God. There is even sound reason for believing that it is Jesus who is before his mind when he speaks in 4:12 of the Lawgiver and Judge (see particularly 5:9).

Then, as Jesus’ half-brother, James surely knew of Jesus’ death. And as he had experienced firsthand an encounter with the glorified Christ (1 Cor. 15:7), he knew of and believed in Jesus’ resurrection. From his references to Christ as “Lord” and to Christ’s coming (παρουσία, parousia) in 5:7–8, we may surmise that James was also aware of his ascension and present session at the Father’s right hand. Therefore, it is not going beyond the available data to insist that James knew about and accepted the great objective central events of redemption.

So while James’s declared Christology is hardly an exhaustive Christology, what he does say about Jesus is explicit and exalting, falling nothing short of implying what would come to be known later as the metaphysically divine Sonship of Jesus.


The Christ of Hebrews is as fully and truly human as everywhere else in Scripture—he shared our humanity (Heb. 2:14), was made like his brothers in every way (2:17), was a descendant of Judah (7:14), could sympathize with human weakness, having been tempted in every way like we are (2:18; 4:15), and who “in the days of his flesh” offered up prayers and petitions with loud crying and tears (a reference to Gethsemane?) (5:7) as he “learned obedience from the things which he suffered” (5:8). And he was finally put to death outside Jerusalem (13:12). All this points to a genuinely human life and death.

But the Christ of Hebrews is divine as well. While the usual New Testament designations of Christ may be found scattered throughout the letter,90 the author’s favorite title for Jesus is “[the] Son” (1:2, 5 [twice], 8; 3:6; 5:5, 8; 7:28) or its fuller form “[the] Son of God” (4:14; 6:6; 7:3; 10:29). Indeed, it is as God’s Son in the preeminent (divine) sense of that title that the author of Hebrews first introduces Jesus to his readers (1:2).

As God’s “Son” he is the highest and final form of revelation to men, and as God’s “Son” he is higher than the greatest representatives of God on earth, that is, the prophets of the Old Testament (1:1–2), higher even than Moses, who in comparison was only a servant in God’s house (3:5–6). Finally, his name as “Son,” the Bearer of which is represented as (1) the Heir of all things, (2) God’s cooperating Agent in the creation of the world, (3) the Radiance of God’s glory, (4) the very Image of his nature, (5) the Sustainer of all things, (6) the Purifier from sin, and (7) the Lord (of Ps. 110:1) sitting at the right hand of the Majesty on high (1:2–3), is “more excellent” even than that of the highest of creatures, that of “angel” (1:4), whose bearers are only “ministering spirits” (1:14), and whose duty it is to worship him (1:6).

As explications of the content of that superangelic “more excellent name” of “Son,” and not simply new names adduced in addition to that of “Son,” he is the “God” (θεός, theos) of Psalm 45:6–7 and “the Lord” (κύριος, kyrios), that is, the Yahweh, of Psalm 102:25–27.

When he wrote, “To the Son, on the other hand, [God says], ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever’ ” (1:8), the author of Hebrews, as did Thomas, Paul, Peter, and John, uses θεός, theos, as a title for Christ. The controversy surrounding this verse is over whether ὁ θεός, ho theos, is to be construed as a nominative (if so, it may be a subject nominative: “God is your throne for ever and ever,” or a predicate nominative: “Your throne is God for ever and ever”) or a vocative, which would yield the translation given above. With the “overwhelming majority of grammarians, commentators, authors of general studies, and English translations,”91 I believe that the writer applies Psalm 45:6 to Jesus in such a way that he is addressed directly as God in the ontological sense of the word. This position requires (1) that ὁ θεός, ho theos, be interpreted as a vocative, and (2) that the theotic character ascribed to Jesus be understood in ontological and not functional terms.

The fact that the noun ὁ θεός, ho theos, appears to be nominative in its inflected form means nothing. The so-called articular nominative with vocative force is a well-established idiom in classical Greek, the Septuagint, and New Testament Greek. So the case of the noun in Hebrews 1:8 must be established on other grounds than its case form, and that it is vocatival is apparent for the following reasons: first, the word order in Hebrews 1:8 most naturally suggests that ὁ θεός, ho theos, is vocatival. A vocative immediately after “Your throne” would be perfectly natural. But if ὁ θεός, ho theos, were intended as the subject nominative (“God is your throne”), which Nigel Turner regards as a “grotesque interpretation,”92 it is more likely that ὁ θεός, ho theos, would have appeared before “your throne.” If it were intended as a predicate nominative (“Your throne is God”), which Turner regards as “only just conceivable,”93 it is more likely that ὁ θεός, ho theos, would have been written anarthrously, appearing either before “your throne” or after “for ever and ever.” Second, in the LXX of Psalm 45, which the writer is citing, the king is addressed by the vocative δύνατε, dynate (“O Mighty One”), in 45:4 and 45:6. This double use of the vocative heightens the probability, given the word-order, that in the next verse ὁ θεός, ho theos, should be rendered “O God.” Third, although “about” or “concerning” is probably the more accurate translation of the preposition πρὸς, pros, in Hebrews 1:7 (given the cast of the following quotation), it is more likely that πρὸς, pros, in verse 8 should be translated “to” in light of the second-person character of the quotation itself and on the analogy of the formula in Hebrews 1:13, 5:5, and 7:21. This would suggest that ὁ θεός, ho theos, is vocatival. Fourth, the following quotation in Hebrews 1:10–12 (from Ps. 102:25–27) is connected by the simple καί, kai, to the quotation under discussion in verses 8–9, indicating that it too stands under the regimen of the words introducing verses 8–9. In the latter verses the Son is clearly addressed as κύριε, kyrie (“O Lord”). These five textual and syntactical features clearly indicate that ὁ θεός, ho theos, should be construed vocativally, meaning that the writer of Hebrews intended to represent God the Father as addressing the Son as “God.”

But what did the writer intend by this address? Opinions run from Vincent Taylor’s comment that “nothing can be built upon this reference, for the author shares the same reluctance of the New Testament writers to speak explicitly of Christ as ‘God,’ ”94 to Oscar Cullmann’s comment that “the psalm is quoted here precisely for the sake of this address,”95 and declaration that “Jesus’ deity is more powerfully asserted in Hebrews than in any other New Testament writing, with the exception of the Gospel of John.”96

I would urge from the context of Hebrews 1 itself that the Son is addressed as God in the ontological sense. This may be seen from the fact that, as a “Son-revelation” and the final and supreme Word of God to man (Heb. 1:2), he is the Heir of all things and the Father’s Agent in creating the universe. He abides as (see the timeless ὤν, ōn, in v. 3) the “perfect Radiance of God’s glory” and the “very Image of his nature” (v. 3). As God’s Son, he is superior to the angels, such that it is appropriate that they be commanded to worship him (v. 6). He is the Yahweh and the Elohim of Psalm 102, who eternally existed before he created the heavens and earth (Heb. 1:10), and who remains eternally the same though the creation itself should perish (1:11–12; see 13:8). Because he is all these things, it is really adding nothing to what the writer has said to understand him as describing the Son as God in the ontological sense in 1:8.

E. C. Wickham and others have suggested that if ὁ θεός, ho theos, is really ascribing ontological deity to the Son, the climax of the argument would come at verse 8, since nothing higher could be said about him. Since in fact the author goes on in verse 10 to describe the Son as κύριος, kyrios, this further development of the Son’s character becomes the climax, indicating that the former description cannot be construed ontologically. But this objection fails to apprehend the significance of the two terms. While θεός, theos, is indeed a term of exalted significance when used ascriptively of the true God, it speaks only of his divine essence. It is κύριος, kyrios, coming to us out of the Old Testament citation here, that is God’s personal name. In the covenantal sense, it is the more sacred of the two! So actually the writer’s argument, even though it ascribes ontological deity to the Son in 1:8, does not reach its climax until it ascribes the character of Yahweh himself to the Son, indicating by this ascriptive title that the Son is not only the Creator but the covenant God as well. The writer truly can say nothing higher than this.

Two of the descriptive phrases above deserve further comment. In addition to ascribing to him the divine work of creating and sustaining the universe, the writer describes the Son as “the radiance [ἀπαύγασμα, apaugasma] of God’s glory [δόξα, doxa]” and “the very image [χαρακτήρ, charaktēr] of his nature [ὑπόστασις, hypostasis].” In the former expression, with God’s “glory” denoting his nature under the imagery of its splendor, as his “radiance” (from ἀ̓παυγάσω, apaugasō, “to emit brightness”), Jesus is pictured as the personal “outshining” of God’s divine glory as the radiance shining forth from the source of light. In the latter expression, with God’s hypostasis denoting his “whole nature, with all its attributes” (Warfield), his “real essence” (F. F. Bruce), or his “very essence” (P. E. Hughes), as his χαρακτήρ, charaktēr (from χαράσσω, charassō, “to engrave, to inscribe, to stamp”), Jesus is described as God’s “very image,” by which is meant “a correspondence as close as that which an impression gives back to a seal” (Warfield), his “exact representation and embodiment” (Bruce), or the “very stamp” (Hughes) of God. Clearly such descriptions intend the ascription of divine status to the Son. Accordingly, it is altogether likely, inasmuch as the Son is the Yahweh of Psalm 102:25–27 who remains forever the same (1:11–12) and who in the person of Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (13:8), that he is also the subject of the doxology in 13:21, to whom eternal glory is ascribed. Certainly, the collocation of the relative pronoun and the title “Jesus Christ” in 13:21 favors such an interpretation.

J. A. T. Robinson, however, has urged that all of these exalted descriptions are true of Jesus as “God’s Man,” with only his functional relationship to God as God’s “son” being “decisively different” from the relationship that obtains between God and other men.97 He adduces in support of his view (1) the supposed derivation of the descriptions of 1:3 from Philo and Wisdom 7:26 and (2) what he terms “adoptionist” terminology in 1:2, 4, 9, 13; 2:9, 10, 12f, 16; 3:2f; 5:1–6, 8, 10; 7:28.98 James D. G. Dunn also insists (1) that “there is more ‘adoptionist’ language in Hebrews than in any other NT document,”99 and (2) that “the element of Hebrews’ christology which we think of as ascribing pre-existence to the Son of God has to be set within the context of his indebtedness to Platonic idealism and interpreted with cross-reference to the way in which Philo treats the Logos,” that is to say, “what we may have to accept is that the author of Hebrews ultimately has in mind an ideal pre-existence [of the Son], the existence of an idea [of the Son] in the mind of God,”100 and this within a strict monotheism in which the concept of preexistent Sonship is “perhaps more of an idea and purpose in the mind of God than of a personal divine being.”101 In sum, for Dunn, Hebrews views Jesus in terms of Wisdom language, so that “the thought of pre-existence is present, but in terms of Wisdom Christology it is the act and power of God which properly speaking is what pre-exists; Christ is not so much the pre-existent act and power of God as its eschatological embodiment.”102

I concur with I. Howard Marshall’s assessment that this impersonal construction of the doctrine of divine Sonship in Hebrews is “very alien to the biblical understanding of God as personal, quite apart from imposing a very artificial interpretation upon the biblical text.”103 For while it is true that the Son “was appointed” Heir of all things (1:2), and “sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become by so much better than the angels, as he has inherited a more excellent name than they” (1:4), this need not be “adoptionist” language. Rather it is language that envisions the glory which became the Son’s following the conclusion of his humiliation in his role as Messiah and Mediator (see Heb. 2:9; Ps. 2:8). Philip E. Hughes concurs that this is how the so-called adoptionist language should be construed, writing on 1:4:

It is true, of course, that by virtue of his eternal Sonship he has an eternal inheritance and possesses a name which is eternally supreme—the name signifying, particularly for the Hebrew mind, the essential character of a person in himself and in his work. But our author at this point is speaking of something other than this: the Son who for our redemption humbled himself for a little while to a position lower than the angels has by his ensuing exaltation become superior to the angels (2:9 below), and in doing so has achieved and retains the inheritance of a name which is more excellent than theirs.104

And if he is said to have “inherited” the name of “Son,” as Bruce declares,

this does not mean that the name was not His before His exaltation. It was clearly His in the days of His humiliation: “Son though He was, He learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (Ch. 5:8). It was His, indeed, ages before His incarnation: this is the plain indication of the statement in Ch. 1:2 that God has spoken to us “in his Son, … through whom also he made the worlds.”105

All of the so-called adoptionist language urged by Robinson and Dunn can be similarly explained; none of it requires that the Son’s personal preexistence has to be forfeited in deference to an ideal, impersonal preexistence in the mind of God. And even if the writer’s language is that of Philo and the Book of Wisdom, Bruce points out that,

his meaning goes beyond theirs. For them the Logos or Wisdom is the personification of a divine attribute; for him the language is descriptive of a man who had lived and died in Palestine a few decades previously, but who nonetheless was the eternal Son and supreme revelation of God.106

Martin Hengel even declares that

the divine nature of the “Son” in Hebrews is … established from the beginning. The approach … is the same as in the hymn [Phil 2:6–11] which Paul quotes; the difference is that [in Hebrews] it is made more precise in terms of the metaphysical substantiality of Christ.107

Viewed, then, from the scriptural perspective of the humiliatio-exaltatio paradigm, the supposed “adoptionist” passages in Hebrews are not “adoptionist” at all, and the letter to the Hebrews throughout supports the full deity of the Son.


We find Peter’s Christology in his Gospel utterances, in Acts, and in his epistles.

Peter’s Gospel Utterances

Luke 5:8: Peter’s Confession of Jesus as “Lord.”

On one occasion after Jesus had addressed the crowds from Peter’s boat (Luke 5:1–11), he invited Peter to put out into deep water and to let down his nets for a catch. Although Peter mildly protested that it would do no good inasmuch as he had been fishing all night and had caught nothing, nevertheless, addressing Jesus as his “Master” (Ἐπιστάτα, Ēpistata), he agreed to do as he was instructed. Immediately upon carrying out Jesus’ order, he caught so many fish that his nets began to break, and when the second boat came alongside to render assistance, the catch was so plentiful that both boats began to sink!

Because certain details in the story resemble the miracle in John 21:1–14, Bultmann and his school have urged that Luke has antedated a post-Easter story, but C. H. Dodd has shown that the account lacks the essential “form” of a resurrection story and must be placed in the preresurrection period. The mere fact that the two accounts of the two incidents resemble one another in some details does not necessarily mean that they both reflect one original story in the “tradition.” There are numerous examples in the Gospels of pairs of similar but distinct incidents (see Matt. 9:27–31 and 20:29–34; Luke 7:37–38 and John 12:1–3). There is no reason to deny either the historicity or the authenticity of the Lukan account.

At this display of Jesus’ supernatural knowledge and power, overcome with an awareness of his own sinfulness in the presence of Jesus’ holiness, Peter fell at Jesus’ knees, crying: “Depart from me, because I am a sinful man, O Lord!” Although Marshall states that “no precise connotation (e.g., of divinity) can necessarily be attached to [Peter’s use of κύριος, kyrios, ‘Lord’],”108 Peter’s act of prostrating himself at Jesus’ knees, accompanied by an acknowledgement of his sinfulness, can only be viewed as an act of religious worship. Whereas godly men and angels always rejected such prostration as an act of misplaced devotion, indeed, as an act of idolatry (see Acts 10:25–26; 14:11–15; Rev. 19:9–10), Jesus issued no such prohibition to Peter. To the contrary, he endorsed Peter’s adoration by calling him to follow him as a “fisher of men.” Concerning Peter’s address of Jesus as “Lord” here, Warfield remarks that it

seems to be an ascription to Jesus of a majesty which is distinctly recognized as supernatural: not only is the contrast of “Lord” with “Master” here expressed (see v. 5), but the phrase “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man” (v. 8) is the natural utterance of that sense of unworthiness which overwhelms men in the presence of the divine [see Job 42:5–6; Isa 6:5; Dan 10:16; Luke 18:13; Rev 1:12–17], and which is signalized in Scripture as the mark of recognition of the divine presence.109

John 6:69: Peter’s Confession of Jesus as “the Holy One of God”

If the last few days prior to this confession had been a period of acute signifi-cance for the disciples with regard to the question of Jesus’ person, all the more so had they been for Peter, since it had been he who had actually walked with Jesus on the Sea of Galilee. Now on this occasion, presumably only some hours or days later, certainly not weeks (see John 6:22), Peter had just listened to his Lord’s discourse on the Bread of Life, in which Jesus had claimed that he had come down from heaven (John 6:33, 38, 51, 62), was the Giver of eternal life to the world (6:33, 40, 50, 51, 53, 54, 57, 58), and was the Lord of resurrection (6:39, 40, 44, 54). Because of these exalted, exclusive, and universal claims and Jesus’ insistence on man’s inherent inability to believe on him (6:44–45, 65), many of his followers departed and no longer followed him. At this defection, Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked: “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Although the question was put to all of them, it was Peter who answered for the group: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and we know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68–69).

Since there is no miracle in this pericope, most critical scholars concede the general authenticity of Peter’s remarks. Some, however, insist that this is the Fourth Gospel’s variant account of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, taken out of its historical setting and placed here against the betrayal that was growing in Judas’ heart (see John 6:70–71). Against such an identification, however, may be arrayed the differences of place, Jesus’ approach, the circumstances, and the wording of the confession itself, and I will approach this as a separate, distinct, and earlier confession on Peter’s part.

In light of the several indications in the Gospels of Peter’s growing appreciation of the deity of Christ, though it is true that his term of address here (“Lord”) “could mean much or little” in itself, in this context, Morris writes, “there can be no doubt that the word has the maximum, not the minimum meaning” of the ascription of deity to Jesus.110

As for his statement “You are the Holy One of God,” while it is certainly a messianic title, several things can also be said in favor of viewing it as including the further affirmation, by implication, of Jesus’ divine origin and character. The first factor is Peter’s growing appreciation of who Jesus was. We noted earlier his confession of Jesus as his “Lord” (and that in the divine sense) on the occasion of his call to become a “fisher of men” in Luke 5 when, awed by Jesus’ supernatural knowledge and power over nature, he acknowledged his own sinfulness over against the majestic and ethical holiness of Jesus. We noted that his title of address there and here (“Lord”) suggests deity, and, once a man has begun to apprehend that Jesus is divine, no title (with the exception of those that clearly mark him out as true man) he ever employs in referring to him can be totally void of intending the ascription of deity.

Second, while this title (“the Holy One of God”) is applied to Jesus on only one other occasion, leaving little room for extensive comparative study of the title, that one other occasion does cast some light on its meaning here. The title occurs in the mouth of the demoniac in the synagogue at Capernaum, clearly revealing the demon’s awareness of who Jesus was (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). The demon was obviously fearful of Jesus and implied that he had the power to cast it into hell, suggesting thereby that Jesus possessed divine authority and power as “the Holy One of God.”

Third, the stress on holiness in the title is significant. It reminds us of the frequently occurring title for God, “the Holy One of Israel,” in the Old Testament. In this connection, Morris writes: “There can be not the slightest doubt that the title is meant to assign to Jesus the highest possible place. It stresses his consecration and his purity. It sets Him with God and not man.”111

Finally, C. H. Dodd calls attention to the similarity between Peter’s words here, “we have believed and we have come to know” and Yahweh’s words, “that you may know and believe that I am he” (LXX, Isa. 43:10). Dodd writes:

The combination [in Peter’s confession] πιστεύειν καὶ γινώσκειν [pisteuein kai ginōskein] follows Isaiah closely; but for ὅτι ἐγώ εἰμι [hoti egō eimi, “that I am”] is substituted ὅτι σὺ εἶ ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ [hoti su ei ho hagios tou theou, “that you are the Holy One of God”]. The content of knowledge is the unique status of Christ Himself, which is an equivalent for knowledge of God.112

For these reasons it appears likely that Peter’s confession, stressing as it does Jesus’ inward character of holiness, marks him out not only as the Messiah, but also, by virtue of his possessing a majestic and ethical holiness identical to that of God himself (see Luke 5:8), as being divine himself. And again Jesus accepted Peter’s tacit assessment of him as the Messiah and his implied identification of him as divine.

Matthew 16:16: Peter’s Confession of Jesus as
“the Christ, the Son of the Living God”

At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus through questioning the disciples drew from Peter his great confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16; see Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20).

Bultmann regarded the whole episode as a legend of the early church intended to undergird its “Easter faith” in Jesus’ messiahship, and R. H. Fuller regards Matthew 16:17–19 as a “Matthean expansion” and thus “clearly secondary” and Mark 8:30–32 as both Marcan redaction and later tradition, the end result being that Jesus is represented as positively rejecting all claims to messiahship as a “diabolical temptation.” But there is no legitimate ground to question either the historicity of the event or the authenticity of Jesus’ recorded response.

Given the fact that all three Synoptic Evangelists report that Peter confessed faith in Christ’s messiahship (Matthew and Mark: “You are the Christ”; Luke: “You are the Christ of God”), and that in Matthew Jesus gives express approval and in Mark and Luke tacit approval to this confession, I conclude that here is a clear and incontrovertible instance when Jesus claimed to be the Messiah.

But Matthew reports Peter’s confession as containing a second part: “[You are] the Son of the living God.” We have no way of knowing why Mark and Luke do not report this second part; we can only assume that it did not serve their respective purposes. It has been suggested that the second part is only a further elucidation or synonym for Peter’s “the Christ,” and that the two Evangelists saw no need for the elucidation. But there are four cogent reasons for believing that Peter intended to go beyond the ascription to Jesus of messianic investiture and to confess him as God’s Son both as to nature and origin.

First, in the disciples’ earlier act of worship in Matthew 14:33, their united confession of Jesus as “truly the Son of God” ascribed divine Sonship to him.113 The title, “the Son of the living God” in 16:16 can hardly carry lower import on this later occasion than the same phrase did on the former occasion. In fact, the additional word “living” in this latter expression, if anything, adds weight to the import of Peter’s confession, in that it particularizes the God whose Son Jesus is and by extension particularizes him as well.

Second, if the second part of Peter’s confession does not intend more than the ascription of messiahship to Jesus, then it follows that all that Peter was confessing here is just Jesus’ messiahship. But such a confession, expressed both by Peter and others on other occasions (see John 1:41, 49; 6:69), hardly explains Jesus’ unusual response to Peter’s confession here. Why would Peter’s confession of the mere fact of Jesus’ messiahship on this occasion elicit Jesus’ declaration that Peter’s confession was the effect of a special, supernatural revelation when “the ordinary means of self-disclosure during our Lord’s long association with Peter would have sufficed for the basis of a mere confession of Jesus’ messiahship.”114 The question cannot be intelligently answered on the assumption that Peter’s confession entailed simply the recognition of Jesus’ messiahship.

Third, the two facts—(1) that the two Evangelists who do not report the second part of Peter’s confession do not report Jesus’ response to Peter either, whereas Matthew reports both, and (2) that Jesus referred to God in his response to Peter not as “God,” which would have been appropriate in light of Peter’s reference to “the living God,” but as “my Father”—strongly suggest that Jesus’ benediction was not primarily a response to the first part (although the first part cannot be divorced from the universe in which Jesus’ response is to be interpreted) but was rather his response primarily to the second part. Now if it is true that any correct assessment of Jesus must be finally traced to the Father’s “teaching” (John 6:45), especially is it true that the Father’s “teaching” is necessary with respect to the essential Sonship of Jesus. Jesus expressly declared this to be so in Matthew 11:25–27: “No one knows the Son except the Father,” he said, and if one is to know “the Son,” he also stated, it will be through the Father’s act of revelation and by his good pleasure. Now Jesus declares Peter’s confession to be the result of a supernatural revelation (16:17); and by his reference to “my Father” in 16:17, it is apparent (1) that Jesus regarded Peter’s confession of his Sonship as just such an instance of the revealing activity by the Father which he had spoken of in 11:25–26, and (2) that the disclosure made to Peter had reference to the paternal (“Father”) and filial (“Son”) relationship between God and Jesus and not simply to the messianic investiture per se.

Fourth, the juxtaposition of the two occurrences of σὺ εἶ (su ei, “you are”) in this context should not be overlooked: Peter’s “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16), and Jesus’ “You are Peter (or “a rock”)” (v. 18). They are very significant in determining the intent of Peter’s confession, the correspondence between them being highlighted by Jesus’ words: “And I, on my part, say also to you” (16:18). The import of Jesus’ “You are” lifts Peter, as an apostle confessing the Father’s revelation, by his title as “a rock” to an altogether new and higher category, the confessing representative of all of the apostles and thus the very foundation of the church which Jesus was erecting (Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14; see Gal. 2:9). The correspondence, then, between Peter’s “You are” and Jesus’ “You are” suggests that Peter’s prior confession be construed similarly as elevating Jesus beyond a purely official interpretation, to a supramessianic ascription in which his anterior supernatural nature and origin receive special stress. And as a matter of historical record, it is a fact that the church which Jesus erected on the foundation of (the doctrine of) the apostles and prophets has never confessed Jesus simply as the Messiah but has also declared him to be the divine Son of God with respect to both nature and origin.

For these reasons I would urge that by his confession Peter self-consciously intended, as the result of the Father’s revelatory activity, to affirm full, unabridged deity to Jesus as “the Son” of “the Father,” and that Jesus, by declaring him in making such a confession to have been directly blessed by his Father, tacitly claimed to be God incarnate.

Peter’s Witness to Jesus in his Pentecost Sermon

E. Zeller, A. Loisy, and E. Haenchen view the event of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2 as the dogmatic construct of Luke’s theological genius, that is, as his own redactional adaptation of an early Jewish legend in which God’s voice is divided into seventy languages at the time of the law-giving at Sinai, which adaptation Luke intended as an explanation of the origin of the church. Without giving a detailed refutation of this view here, suffice it to say that there is no evidence to support it and every reason to believe that Luke, as a historian, was simply reporting under inspiration an incident with roots deep in the earliest common Christian tradition concerning the first days of the church after Christ’s resurrection and ascension.

As for the popular hypothesis associated with the name of E. von Dodschütz that the Pentecost event is actually a variant account of the resurrection appearance to the five hundred brethren which Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15:6, but stripped of its appearance features by Luke in order to highlight the distinctive significance of Pentecost, here again the power of imagination has been at work!

Regarding the source-critical analysis of the event that urges that Luke (or his source) took an account of an experience of ecstatic glossolalia from the primitive church and, under the influence of the Babel story or his own desire to portray symbolically the church’s universal embrace, transformed it into a miracle of speaking foreign languages, it must be said again that this approach lacks evidence, is highly subjective, and appears to be an attempt to explain on rationalistic grounds what Luke intended as a supernatural event of deep and abiding significance.

Finally, the modern attempts to explain the Acts account psychologically on the basis of what is known about the modern Pentecostal movement reverses the true order of things by making the modern movement the norm for determining the nature of the Pentecost event, rather that making the Acts account the norm for evaluating the validity of the current occurrences of glossolalia.

I therefore propose to take the Acts account as a straightforward narrative rendition of what actually occurred and set forth the evidence in it for Peter’s view of the divine nature of Christ.

The Contextual Setting of Pentecost

The events that occurred on the Day of Pentecost are set in the context of Jesus’ statement, made just prior to his ascension, that he would baptize his disciples with the Holy Spirit “in a few days” (Acts 1:5). In light of the teaching of Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, 24:49, and John 1:33, there can be no doubt that Jesus’ statement “you will be baptized” (Acts 1:5) means “I will baptize you.” This fact—that Jesus baptized his church on that occasion—provides the hermeneutical paradigm for understanding the event of Pentecost.

The Meaning of Pentecost

While the facts of Pentecost are described clearly enough in Acts, what is often misunderstood is the meaning of this event. People have tended to concentrate their attention either on the Holy Spirit who was “poured [or “breathed”] out” and/or on the empirical phenomena accompanying his “out-pouring,” rather than on the “Baptizer” himself, the One who did the “pouring.” But Peter explained the meaning of the event in his sermon that responded to the people’s query “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12).

For the disciples the “Spirit-filling” meant their “empowering” as witnesses, as we know from our Lord’s statements in Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:8, and from Peter’s sermon itself, which classically illustrates this effect. But from the perspective of the history of redemption, it meant something else, and it is this that Peter brings out in his sermon.

Peter begins by citing Yahweh’s promise in Joel 2:28–32a that in the last days he would pour out his Spirit on all kinds of “flesh”—sons and daughters, young men and old men, and men and women servants (Acts 2:16–21). By his “This is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel” (2:16), Peter identified the events of Pentecost as the (initiatory phase[?] of the) fulfillment of that prophecy. Then he argues from the events of Pentecost for the lordship and messianic investiture of Jesus Christ. The argument concludes and culminates in 2:36: “Therefore, let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” Further indication that Peter intended his remarks as an apologetic of Jesus’ lordship and messiahship may be seen in his reference to God’s having accredited Jesus by doing authenticating miracles through him and in his insistence that his audience knew of Jesus’ mighty works. These features indicate that Peter’s remarks prior to his 2:36 “therefore” are to be regarded as an argument intended to buttress this conclusion.

In Acts 2:24 Peter remarks that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Why had God done this? “Because,” Peter says, “it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” And why not? Because David had prophesied concerning Jesus’ resurrection in Psalm 16:8–11. Peter argued that David was speaking of the Messiah rather than of himself, because David died and his body did decay, and because as an inspired prophet, David had been informed of the Messiah’s resurrection and heavenly enthronement (2:29–31).

In Acts 2:33, with Psalm 110 in mind, Peter describes Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of God. But how do we know that David was speaking of the Messiah in Psalm 110? Because, Peter says, “David did not ascend to heaven”(2:34)—employing the same form of argument from history he had used earlier. So David was not speaking of himself in Psalm 110:1 but of the Messiah, who would be exalted to the right hand of God, every detail of which prophecy had been accomplished in Jesus.

To this point Peter has demonstrated that David had foretold all that had come to pass with respect to “this Jesus,” that he would be raised from the dead and would be exalted to God’s right hand and would pour out his Spirit. But why did Peter use the Pentecost event to argue for the messiahship of Jesus? The answer is that for Peter Pentecost was to be viewed as one more concrete miraculous self-attestation on Jesus’ part that he was the Messiah, and so he concludes his remarks with a strong “therefore”—”therefore … let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Thus for Peter the meaning of the event was not primarily in the fact that the Holy Spirit had been manifested in a unique and striking fashion, but rather in the fact that Jesus, the exalted Lord and Messiah, by this further display of his authority, had attested once again to his divine lordship and messiahship by “breathing upon” (“baptizing”) his disciples.

Because men’s minds have tended to focus on the empirical phenomena of Pentecost rather than on the Baptizer himself, the church’s understanding of the significance of Pentecost has become warped and distorted. The point of emphasis has shifted away from viewing the miracle as a self-attestation to Israel of Christ’s divine lordship and has come to rest upon the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith were more perceptive when they wrote:

To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same, making intercession for them, and revealing unto them, in and by the Word, the mysteries of salvation; effectually persuading them by his Spirit to believe and obey; and governing their hearts by his Word and Spirit; overcoming all their enemies by his almighty power and wisdom, in such manner and ways as are most consonant to his wonderful and unsearchable dispensation. (VII/viii; emphasis supplied)

The Westminster divines are here only stating in a different fashion what they confess elsewhere when they affirm that Christ executes the offices of Prophet, Priest, and King, not only in his estate of humiliation but also in his estate of exaltation (Shorter Catechism, Questions 23–28).

Here then is the real significance of Pentecost in the history of redemption: It was Jesus’ self-attestation to the truth that he was Israel’s Lord and Messiah. And the nonrepeatable “Samaritan Pentecost” (Acts 8:14–17) and the non-repeatable “Gentile [or “ends-of-the-earth”] Pentecost” (Acts 10:44–46) are to be viewed in the same light: both were Jesus’ self-attestations to the church and to the people involved, at the critical junctures of the missionary endeavor that he had delineated in Acts 1:8, of his messiahship and saving lordship over the nations (see 8:14; 11:17–18).

Pentecost’s Implications for Christ’s Nature

In explaining the meaning of Pentecost, Peter also said certain things that carry implications with respect to Jesus’ divine nature.

First, the very fact of his ascension and of his session at the Father’s right hand suggests that Jesus is divine. F. F. Bruce comments

The most exalted angels are those whose privilege it is to “stand in the presence of God” like Gabriel (Luke 1:19), but none of them has ever been invited to sit before Him, still less to sit in the place of unique honor at His right hand.115

To the divine Son alone this honor has been accorded (Heb. 1:4, 13).

Second, the fact that it was the ascended Jesus who poured out the Spirit (2:33) moves in the same direction, for the connection between what Peter emphasizes in 2:17 by his insertion of the words “God says” into the Joel prophecy (“ ‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my spirit’ “) and his later statement in 2:33 (He [the ascended Jesus] has poured out this which you now see and hear” cannot have been unintentional. Peter connects the God and Yahweh of Joel 2 who promised to pour out his Spirit to the ascended Jesus who poured out the Spirit.

Third, the fact that the authority to apply the benefits of his redemption by his Spirit to whomsoever he pleases in his role as Baptizer of men by his Spirit (salvation) and by fire (judgment) means that the prerogatives and functions of deity are his to exercise, and therefore that he himself is God.

Fourth, when Peter, in response to his listerers’ query “Brothers, what shall we do?” urged them to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (2:38), it appears that he was urging them to follow the way of salvation Joel had spoken of: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21). So for Peter Jesus was the Lord of Joel 2:32a (see Rom. 10:9–13), the Yahweh who spoke through Joel.

Peter’s Epistolary Witness to Jesus

As we turn to Peter’s letters, we should bear in mind that from the numerous experiences he had as one of the original twelve disciples he had gained firsthand insight into the character and work of his Lord. And he was among the disciples in the upper room who confessed to Jesus: “You know all things and do not need to have anyone ask you questions [in order for you to know what is on his mind]. This makes us believe that you came from God” (John 16:30).

In addition to seeing the miracles which Jesus performed publicly, Peter was also among that inner circle of disciples who witnessed his transfiguration and heard the Father’s attestation to his unique Sonship (Matt. 17:2–6). He was also the private beneficiary of one of Jesus’ postresurrection appearances (he probably was the first apostle to see him) (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5), and he saw him on several other occasions, hearing Thomas’s confession of Jesus as “Lord and God” during one of them (John 20:28). He witnessed Jesus’ ascension into heaven, and it was Peter who preached the sermon on the Day of Pentecost in which he acclaimed both the messiahship and mediatorial lordship of the divine Jesus. We should not overlook the fact, finally, that Peter was surely aware of Paul’s Christology and was approving in his assessment of it (Gal. 1:19; 2:1–9; 2 Pet. 3:15–16). Consequently, one should not be surprised to find Peter espousing the highest kind of Christology “from above” in his letters.

1 Peter

In his first letter Peter refers to Jesus as “[the] Christ”—his most common designation for him (1 Pet. 1:11, 19; 2:21; 3:15, 16, 18; 4:1, 13, 14; 5:1, 10, 14), “Jesus Christ” (1:1, 2, 3, 7, 13; 2:5; 3:21; 4:11), “[the] Lord” (2:3, 13; 3:15; perhaps also in 1:25; 3:12), and “our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3). What Peter says about Jesus in these contexts reveals a fully developed incarnational Christology. He implies his preexistence with the Father (1:20a), affirming that it was Christ’s Spirit who had inspired the prophets in Old Testament times (1:11) and that he had been “manifested” in these last times (1:20b). In accordance with Old Testament prophecy (1:11), as our sinless substitute (2:22, a citation of Isa. 53:9) he suffered death vicariously on the cross (1:2, 11, 19; 2:21, 23, 24; 3:18; 4:1, 13; 5:1), was raised from the dead (1:3, 21; 3:18, 21), ascended to the right hand of God and to glory (1:11, 21; 3:22), and will be revealed in the Eschaton (1:7, 13; 5:1, 4). He is the Mediator between God and man (1:21; 2:5; 4:11; 5:10, 14) and the One in whom men must trust for salvation (2:6).

Not only does Peter place Christ in the Trinitarian context of the Father and the Spirit (1 Pet. 1:2, 3, 11; 4:14), but three times he refers to Old Testament passages in which Yahweh is the subject and uses them of Christ in a way that suggests that Christ is to be equated with the Yahweh of the Old Testament Scriptures. In 2:3, alluding to Psalm 34:8 (“Taste and see that the Lord is good”), he writes with reference to Christ: “if you tasted that the Lord is good.” In 2:8, citing Isaiah 8:14b, he equates the Lord of Hosts there, who would become “a stone that causes men to stumble, and a rock that makes them fall” with Christ, the “stone laid in Zion” (2:6, citing Isa. 28:16), and the “stone the builders rejected [who] has become the capstone” (2:7, citing Psa. 118:22). And in 3:14–15, alluding to Isaiah 8:12–13, he equates the Lord of Hosts who is to be sanctified with Christ (“Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts”).

Finally, Peter provides us with two pastoral descriptions of Christ: “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet 2:25) and the “Chief Shepherd” (5:4).

2 Peter

In his second letter Peter refers to Jesus as “Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:1), “[the] Lord” (3:8, 9, 10, 15; perhaps 2:9), “the Lord and Savior” (3:2), “our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (1:11; 2:20; 3:18), and finally, “our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (1:1).

This last reference is very important, for now we find Peter—like Thomas, Paul, and the author of Hebrews before him—employing θεός, theos, as a christological title. This assertion has not gone unchallenged, the alternative suggestion being that by θεός, theos, Peter intended to refer to the Father. As earlier with Titus 2:13, the issue turns on the question whether by the phrase, “the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ,” Peter intended to refer to two persons (God the Father and Jesus) or to only one person, Jesus alone. It is my opinion, as well as that of the kjv, rv, rsv, nasv, neb, niv, and the nkjv, that Peter intended to refer only to Christ. I would offer the following six reasons for this:

First, it is the most natural way to read the Greek sentence. If Peter had intended to speak of two persons, he could have expressed himself unambiguously to that effect, as he does in the very next verse (“knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord”), by placing “our Savior” after “Jesus Christ” or by simply inserting an article before “Savior” in the present word order. Charles Bigg rightly observes: “if the author intended to distinguish two persons, he has expressed himself with singular inaccuracy.”116

Second, both “God” and “Savior” stand under the regimen of the single article before “God,” linking the two nouns together as referents to a single person. Bigg again rightly states: “It is hardly open for anyone to translate in I Pet. 1.3 ὁ θεὸς καὶ πατὴρ [ho theos kai patēr] by ‘the God and Father,’ and yet here decline to translate ὁ θεὸς καὶ σωτήρ [ho theos kai sōtēr] by ‘the God and Saviour.’ ”117

Third, five times in 2 Peter, including this one, Peter uses the word “Savior.” It is always coupled with a preceding noun (the other four times always with κύριος, kyrios) in precisely the same word order as in 1:1. Here are the last four uses in their precise word order:

1:11: “kingdom of the Lord of us and Savior Jesus Christ”

2:20: “knowledge of the Lord of us and Savior Jesus Christ”

3:4: “commandment of the Lord and Savior”

3:18: “knowledge of the Lord of us and Savior Jesus Christ”

In each of these four cases, “Lord” and “Savior,” standing under the regimen of the single article before “Lord,” refer to the same person. If we substitute the word θεός, theos, for κύριος, kyrios, we have precisely the word order of verse 1: “righteousness of the God of us and Savior Jesus Christ.” In other words, the phrases in these verses are perfectly similar and must stand or fall together. The parallelism of word order between the phrase in 1:1 and the other four phrases, where only one person is intended, puts it beyond all reasonable doubt that one person is intended in 1:1 as well.

Ernst Käsemann’s opinion is that “our Lord and Savior” in the four occurrences reflects a “stereotyped” christological formula, and that therefore the employment of θεοῦ, theou, in 1:1 stands outside of the stereotype, the phrase thus referring to two persons.118 But there is no reason why a variant of a stereotyped formula could not occur, and here the grammar clearly indicates that it has occurred.

Fourth, the doxology to “our Lord Jesus Christ” in 3:18 ascribes “glory both now and forever” to him, an ascription suggesting a Christology in which Christ may be glorified in the same manner in which God is glorified. There would be, then, nothing incongruous in describing Christ as God in 1:1.

Fifth, Peter was surely present on the occasion of Thomas’s confession of Jesus as both Lord and God (John 20:28), which confession had received Christ’s approval. The memory of that confession, not to mention his own confession in Matthew 16:16, would have dissolved any reticence on Peter’s part to refer to Jesus as θεός, theos, and a description of Jesus here as God is in line with those earlier confessions.

Sixth, since Peter was almost certainly aware of the content of Paul’s letter to the Roman church—he seems to allude to it in 2 Peter 2:19 and 3:15 (compare 2:19 with Rom. 6:16, and 3:15 with Rom. 2:4; 9:22–23, 11:22–23)—he would most likely have been aware that Paul in Romans 9:5 had referred to Christ as “over all, the ever-blessed God” (author’s translation). According “scriptural status” to Paul’s letters as he does (2 Pet. 3:16), he would have seen nothing inappropriate or “unscriptural” about his own description of Christ as God, just as his “dear brother Paul” had done some years earlier.

We conclude then that 2 Peter 1:1 takes its place alongside Romans 9:5, Titus 2:13, and Hebrews 1:8 as a verse in which Jesus is described as God by the use of θεός, theos, as a christological title.

While Peter’s Christology in 2 Peter is not as full with respect to detail as in his first letter, it is still the same high Christology. That Jesus is God incarnate is attested by Peter’s description of him as “our God” (2 Pet. 1:1), and by his being, with the Father, the Co-source of grace and peace (1:2). Divine power (τῆς θείας δυνάμεως, tēs theias dynameōs), divine essence (θείας φύσεως, theias physeōs), and divine majesty (μεγαλειότητος, megaleiotētos) are assigned to him (1:3, 4, 16). His is an eternal kingdom (1:11), into which Christians will be welcomed when he comes in power (1:16) on his “Day” (3:10), which is “the Day of God” (3:12), to destroy the heavens and earth with fire (3:10-12). He is the Owner (δεσπότην, despotēn) of men (2:1), whose commands they are to obey (3:2), and through the knowledge of whom all spiritual blessing and Christian virtue come (1:2, 8; 2:20; 3:18). Finally, to him is directed the doxology in 3:18 (“To him be the glory both now and forever”), a doxology not unlike those addressed both to him (2 Tim. 4:18; Heb. 13:20–21; 1 Pet. 4:11; Rev. 1:5b–6) and to the Father (1 Pet. 5:11; Jude 24–25) elsewhere. And yet he is distinct from his Father as the Son of the Father, who in his mediatorial role receives honor and glory from his Father (1:17). All of this agrees with what we have seen elsewhere in the Petrine witness to Jesus and adds the weight of its testimony to the New Testament’s depiction of the deity of Jesus Christ.


It was most likely during the seventh decade of the first century—the decade in which several of the New Testament letters were written and also in which Peter and Paul were martyred—that the Synoptists wrote their Gospels. In their accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry not only did they report Jesus’ witness concerning himself but also they revealed what they themselves believed regarding Jesus. Thus it can be said that Jesus’ reported self-witness reflects also their understanding of him—that for all three authors Jesus was the divine Son of God who, being equal to the Father as to his deity, was dispatched on the messianic errand and thus became man and died for man’s sins, but who then rose from the dead and who now sits at the right hand of God, awaiting the time when he will return in power and great glory to judge the world. But there are authorial distinctions between the Evangelists, and these are also important to note.

Mark’s Christology

It is true that Matthew and Luke are in some ways more explicit than Mark regarding their views of Christ. But it is still the case that Jesus is for Mark divine: “Son of God” as a christological title occurs in Mark 3:11 and 15:39, with the variants “Son of the Most High God” and “Son of the Blessed” occurring in 5:7 and 14:61 respectively. Beside these stand the simple “a son” (12:6), “the Son” (13:22), and “my Son” (1:11; 9:7). In each of these instances the title intends the ascription to Jesus of a unique filial relationship to the Father, this unique Sonship being ultimately grounded in his transcendent coessentiality with the Father.

Mark’s “Son of Man” sayings also indicate that, although Jesus as the Danielic “Son of Man” would suffer and be betrayed into the hands of sinners and be killed (8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34; 14:21, 41), he is, as that same Son of Man, also a superhuman, superangelic figure of transcendent dignity who does mighty works, is the Lord of the Sabbath (2:28), has the authority to forgive sins (2:10), actually gives his life as a ransom for many (10:45) in accordance with the prophetic Scriptures (14:21), but rises from the dead (8:31; 9:9, 31; 10:34), sits on the right hand of the Mighty One (14:62), and will return in clouds with the holy angels and with great power and glory to judge the world (8:38; 13:26–27).

E. Lohmeyer correctly declares that, as the Son of God, Jesus for Mark is

not primarily a human but a divine figure.… He is not merely endowed with the power of God, but is himself divine as to his nature; not only are his word and work divine but his essence also.119

And William L. Lane notes that “it is widely recognized that the figure of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is altogether supernatural.”120

Matthew’s Christology

For Matthew, as for Mark, Jesus is the Son of God (Matt. 2:15; 3:17; 4:3, 6; 11:27; 14:33; 16:16; 17:5; 21:37–38; 22:2; 24:36; 26:63–64; 27:54; 28:19), by which title he intends all that Mark means by it—that Jesus stands in a unique filial relationship to the Father because, as the Father’s Son, he is divine. But Matthew makes explicit at some points what Mark takes for granted. Matthew reports Jesus’ supernatural entrance into the world as “Immanuel,” “God with us” (1:18–25). In the “embryonic Fourth Gospel” in 11:27, he brings out the truth that Jesus’ knowledge of the Father is on a par with the Father’s reciprocal knowledge of him, and his sovereign disposition of that knowledge to people is also on a par with the Father’s reciprocal sovereign disposition of his knowledge of the Son (11:27). And it is in Matthew’s account of the Great Commission that we see Jesus placing himself even in the “awful precincts of the divine Name” (Warfield) as the One who shares with the Father and the Spirit the one ineffable Name or essence of God (28:19).

As the messianic Son of Man, Matthew’s Jesus undergoes a period of humiliation as he serves men (20:28) and suffers all kinds of indignities—even death—at their hands (12:40; 17:12, 22–23; 20:18–19, 28; 26:2, 24, 45). But as the same Son of Man he possesses the authority to forgive sins (9:6) and is the Lord of the Sabbath (12:8). Although he is killed, according to Matthew his death was a self-sacrifice—“a ransom for many” (20:28)—in accordance with prophetic Scripture (26:24), but he rises from the dead (12:40; 17:9, 23; 20:19), assumes authority at the right hand of the Mighty One (26:64), and will return on the clouds with his angels (16:27; 24:31) in power and great glory to judge the nations of the world (19:28; 24:27, 30, 39, 44; 25:31–46; 26:64).

Thus Matthew’s Jesus, while a man, is, as “the Christ” (11:2), also of supernatural origin, and is superhuman, superangelic, indeed, equal with the Father in essential nature though submissive to the Father’s will in his mediatorial role as the Messiah.

Luke’s Christology

Luke’s witness to Jesus’ divine Sonship is as clear as that of the other Synoptists (Luke 1:32, 35; 3:22; 4:3, 9, 41; 8:28; 9:35; 10:22; 20:13; 22:70). With Matthew he reports Jesus’ supernatural birth and claim to a knowledge of the Father equivalent in every way—complete, exhaustive, and unbrokenly continuous—to the Father’s knowledge of him, by virtue of which he is the only adequate Revealer of the Father to men, just as the Father is the only adequate Revealer of the Son to men (10:21–22). With the other Synoptists, Luke’s Jesus, as the Danielic Son of Man, suffers for a time at the hands of men “in order to seek and to save that which was lost” (9:22, 44; 18:31–32; 19:10) as it had been predicted in Scripture (18:31; 22:22). But then he rises from the dead (9:22; 18:33; 24:7), ascends to the right hand of the Mighty God (22:69), and will return in a cloud with power and great glory (9:26; 21:27) to determine the destinies of men—certainly a divine prerogative and function (9:26; 12:8; 21:36). Again, as in the other Synoptic Gospels, Luke’s Jesus as the Son of Man is a figure of transcendent proportions.

But Luke’s Gospel contains a feature that is absent from the other Synoptic Gospels. Though it is true that Jesus is also for Mark and Matthew “the Lord” (see Mark 1:3; Matt. 3:3), Luke makes this characterization of Jesus explicit through his recurring narrative use of “the Lord” (Luke 7:13, 19; 10:1, 39, 41; 11:39; 12:42; 13:15; 17:5, 6; 18:6; 19:8; 22:61; 24:3; see the numerous occurrences of the same feature in Luke’s Acts), no doubt reflecting the terminology of the early church.121 As for the significance of Luke’s usage, after noting that “what was in the OT [LXX] the name of God has been applied to Jesus,” and that ὁ κύριος (ho kyrios, “the Lord”) “is used of both God and Jesus quite indiscriminately [in Acts], so that it is often hard to determine which Person is meant,” Marshall declares that in his Gospel Luke employs it particularly to introduce authoritative statements by Jesus and concludes that “Jesus … is for Luke the Lord [in the Yahwistic sense] during his earthly ministry,”122 although Luke is careful not to place the title with that significance on the lips of the disciples in an indiscriminate, anachronistic way.


In this short letter of only twenty-five verses, Jude refers to Jesus six times by name and always in conjunction with one or more additional titles: “Jesus Christ” (Jude 1 [twice]), “our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 17, 21), “Jesus Christ, our Lord” (v. 25), and “our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (v. 4). All ascribe to Jesus both the messianic investiture and lordship, while the contexts in which they occur suggest that for Jude Christ’s station was not below the Father himself insofar as divine status is concerned. For if it is in God the Father that the called are loved, it is in or for Jesus Christ that they are kept (v. 1). If they are to keep themselves in the Father’s love, they are no less to wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to grant them eternal salvation (v. 21). If it is the Father who is to be glorified for the final salvation of the called, it is through Jesus Christ, our Lord, that such praise is to be mediated (v. 25). If it is the Father who is the “only God” (v. 25), it is Jesus Christ who is “our only Master and Lord” (τὸν μόνον δεσπότην καὶ κύριον, ton monon despotēn kai kyrion, v. 4). And if Jude sees himself as a servant, it is as a servant of Jesus Christ (v. 1) precisely because it is Jesus Christ who is “our only Master and Lord” (v. 4).

There is some debate, it must be admitted, as to whether the full title in verse 4 refers only to Christ (“our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ”) or to both God the Father (“the only Master”) and to Jesus (“our Lord Jesus Christ”). Many commentators argue that the latter is the more likely interpretation, but two factors militate against this view. First, both nouns (“Master” and “Lord”) stand under the regimen of the single article before “Master,” suggesting that they are to be construed together as characterizations of the same person. While it is certainly true that κύριος (kyrios, “Lord”) does not require the article, it is also true that had Jude intended to refer both to God the Father and to Jesus, he could have made that intention explicit either by placing “our Lord” after “Jesus Christ” as he does in verse 25, or by employing a second article before “our Lord Jesus Christ” as he does in the other two places where he refers singly to Jesus by that title (vv. 17, 21). Second, 2 Peter 2:1, reflecting this phrase here, evidently understood Jude 4 to refer to Jesus as the Master. Thus Jude intended to describe Jesus as both our Master and our Lord.

Since it is doubtful that the two titles are a pleonasm or tautology, what did Jude intend to imply by the former title? In addition to the fact that Jesus is “our Lord,” Jude by this title highlights the fact that Jesus is the “Owner” of Christians by virtue of his messianic work, with the right that inheres in such ownership to command his followers and to expect their immediate and humble response.

But Jude implies still more. In addition to the six direct references to Jesus by name, there is reason to think that he had Jesus in mind when he refers to “the Lord” in verses 5 and 14. Consider the latter context first. Regardless of who the referent is in 1 Enoch 1:4–9, it seems that Jude intended to refer to Jesus when he wrote: “Behold, the Lord will come [ἤλθεν, ēlthen, an aorist with prophetic (future) intention] with his myriad holy ones” (see Matt. 16:27; 25:31; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26; 1 Thess. 3:13; 2 Thess. 1:7–10). In light of consentient Christian testimony, no other referent will suffice. But then, this being so, Jude here ascribes the divine prerogative of eschatological judgment to Jesus.

In the former verse (Jude 5), apart from the fact that “Jesus” may well be the original reading instead of “Lord,” there is every reason to believe that Jesus may still have been Jude’s intended referent. Consider the following facts. First, there is no question that Jude employed “Lord” to refer to Jesus four times (vv. 4, 17, 21, 25). Second, we have just seen that the almost certain referent of “Lord” in verse 14 is Jesus. And third, this occurrence of “Lord” in verse 5 comes hard on the heels of Jude’s certain reference to Jesus in the immediately preceding verse as “our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” So it is not only possible but also virtually certain that it is to Jesus, in his preincarnate state as the Yahweh of the Old Testament, that he ascribes, first, the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and then the destruction of those within the nation who rebelled; second, the judgment of the angels at the time of their primeval fall; and third, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. And if this is so, Jude was clearly thinking of Jesus Christ in terms that encompass the Old Testament Deity. But however one interprets this last verse, it is apparent from the others that, for Jude, Christ was the sovereign Master and Lord of men, who at his coming will exercise the prerogative to dispense eschatological salvation and judgment as the Savior and Judge of men. There can be no doubt that for him Christ was divine.


John’s Christology is set forth in his Gospel utterances, his epistles, and the Revelation.

John’s Gospel Christology

Sometime during the last four decades of the first century (it is impossible to be more specific), John the Apostle wrote his Gospel, the Christology of which is explicitly incarnational, as even the most radical critics recognize.

John 20:28

Even though the occurrence of θεός, theos, as a christological title in Thomas’s great confession is not John’s direct and personal confession, its incorporation in his Gospel shows that it reflects his own christological thinking.

The verse in which Thomas’s confession occurs, in the words of Raymond E. Brown, is a critically secure text “where clearly Jesus is called God.”123 As such, Thomas’s confession of Jesus as his “Lord [κύριος, kyrios] and God [θεός, theos]” is the “supreme christological pronouncement of the Fourth Gospel.”124 Here within a week of Jesus’ resurrection, in the presence of the other disciples who would surely have learned from Thomas’s words and Jesus’ favorable response the appropriateness of doing so, a disciple for the first time employs θεός, theos, as a christological title. This demonstrates that there is no basis in fact for the view of some form-critical scholars that the church only gradually came to the view of an incarnational Christology. Christians virtually from the beginning believed that in Jesus they had to do with God incarnate.

No modern scholar has shown any interest in following the opinion of Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. a.d. 350–428) that Thomas’s words do not refer to Christ “but having been amazed over the wonder of the resurrection, Thomas praised God who raised the Christ.”125 This opinion was rejected by the Second Council of Constantinople in a.d. 553. The closest one comes to finding this idea expressed today is in the insistence of Jehovah’s Witnesses that the first title was addressed to Jesus while the second was addressed to Jehovah. But Bruce M. Metzger is justified when he writes:

It is not permissible to divide Thomas’ exclamation.… Such a high-handed expedient overlooks the plain introductory words, “Thomas said to him: ‘My Lord and my God!’ ”126

Moreover, the fact that both appellations appear to be nominative in form should occasion no difficulty for the view that the terms are addressed to Jesus. The articular nominative with vocative force is a well-known idiom in classical, Septuagint, and New Testament Greek.

Thomas’s confession is all the more amazing when one reflects, first, on the incongruity of a confession of this magnitude coming from probably the least likely of the Twelve to utter it—a man given to melancholy and gloom (John 11:16) and to theological dullness (John 14:5), and, second, on the fact that it is Thomas who “makes clear that one may address Jesus in the same language in which Israel addressed Yahweh” (see Pss. 35:23; 38:15, 21).127 John doubtless intended his report of Thomas’s ascent from skepticism to full faith in Jesus as Lord and God, under the impact of the historical reality of the resurrection, to illustrate what he thought should be the response of everyone when provided the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.

Two contextual features of Thomas’s confession are also worthy of note. The first is that only a week earlier Jesus in his conversation to Mary had spoken of his Father as “My God,” using precisely the same words that Thomas used later of him. He also said on that occasion that his God was also his disciples’ God. And yet now, only a week later, he accepts Thomas’s description of himself as his disciple’s God! Clearly in Jesus’ mind there was a personal manifoldness in the depth of the divine being which would permit his Father to be regarded as their God and also himself to be regarded as their God.

The second interesting contextual feature is that Thomas’s confession is followed immediately by a statement of John’s intention in writing his Gospel, namely, that his readers “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (20:31). If John had intended by the title “Son of God” something other than or less than an ascription of full deity to Jesus, it is odd that he would have brought this lesser title into such close proximity to Thomas’s confession of Jesus’ full, unabridged deity. Clearly, the only adequate explanation for the near juxtaposition of the two titles is that, while “Son of God” distinguishes Jesus as Son from the Father, it does not distinguish him as God from God the Father. To be the Son of God in the sense John intended it of Jesus is just to be God the Son.

John 1:1

John begins his Gospel with a powerful statement concerning the Logos (ὁ λόγος, ho logos)—a term, according to his usage, meaning “[the independent, personalized] Word [or Wisdom] [of God].” He deliberately repeats the term three times in verse 1 to refer to the Son of God—against the background of the first-century forms of pre-Gnostic and Stoic theology—in order to warn his readers against all of the false forms of the Logos doctrine.128 Translated literally, verse 1 reads:

In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and God was the Word.

The term occurs in each clause, each time in the nominative case (subject nominative), and three times ἦν, ēn, the imperfect of εἰμί, eimi, occurs, expressive in each case of continuous past existence.

In the first clause, the phrase “In the beginning,” as all commentators observe, is reminiscent of the same phrase in Genesis 1:1. What John is saying is that “in the beginning,” at the time of the creating of the universe, the Word “[continuously] was” already—not “came to be.” This is clear not only from the imperfect tense of the verb but also from the fact that John declares that the Word was in the beginning with God and that “all things were made by him, and without him nothing was made which has been made” (John 1:3). In short, the Word’s preexistent and continuous being is antecedently set off over against the becoming of all created things.

In the second clause, the Word is both coordinated with God and distinguished in some sense from God as possessing an identity of its own. The sense in which the Word is distinguishable from God may be discerned by comparing the phrase in 1:1, ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, ēn pros ton theon, with its counterpart in 1 John 1:2, where we read that “the Word,” which was “from the beginning” (v. 1), “was with the Father” (ἦν πρὸς τὸν πατέρα, ēn pros ton patera). This shows that John intends by “God” in John 1:1b God the Father. The Word which stands coordinate with and yet distinguishable from God as Father is by implication then the preexistent Son, which means that John is thinking of the Word in personal terms. This thought is reminiscent of Hebrews 1:8–9, where the Son is both identified as himself God but distinguished from God the Father.

In the third clause, John now asserts the obvious: “And the Word was God” (kjv, rv, asv, rsv, nasv, niv, nkjv). That ὁ λόγος, ho logos, is the subject with θεὸς, theos, as the predicate nominative is evident from the fact that the former is articular while the latter is anarthrous. But the fact that θεός, theos, is anarthrous does not mean that it is to be construed qualitatively, that is, adjectively (“divine,” as Moffatt’s translation suggests) or indefinitely (“a god,” as the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation suggests). No standard Greek lexicon offers “divine” as one of the meanings of θεός, theos, nor does the noun become an adjective when it “sheds” its article. If John had intended an adjectival sense, he had an adjective (θεῖος, theios) ready at hand. That the anarthrous noun does not connote indefiniteness is evident from the recurring instances of the anarthrous θεός, theos, throughout the Johannine Prologue itself (John 1:6, 12, 13, 18), where in each case it is definite and its referent is God the Father.

That θεός, theos, is to be construed as definite in meaning is suggested by its position in the clause before the copula ἦν, ēn, in accordance with E. C. Colwell’s observation. But that John wrote θεός, theos, anarthrously is also due most likely to his desire to keep the Word hypostatically distinct from the Father to whom he had just referred by τὸν θεόν, ton theon. If John had followed 1:1b by saying, “and ὁ θεός [ho theos] was the Word” or “and the Word was ὁ θεός [ho theos],” he would have implied a retreat from, if not a contradiction of, the clear distinction which he had just drawn in 1:2b, and thus fallen into the error later to be known as Sabellianism. Ladd concurs:

If John had used the definite article with theos, he would have said that all that God is, the Logos is: an exclusive identity. As it is, he says that all the Word is, God is; but he implies that God is more than the Word.129

Here then John identifies the Word as God (totus deus) and by so doing attributes to him the nature or essence of deity. When John further says in 1:2 that “This One [οὗτος, houtos, the One whom he had just designated “God”] was in the beginning with God,” and in 1:3 that “through him all things were created,” the conclusion is that as God his deity is as ultimate as his distinctiveness as Son, while his distinctiveness as Son is as ultimate as his deity as God.

When John then declares that the Word, whom he had just described as eternally preexistent, uncreated, personal Son and God, “became flesh,” he not only goes beyond anything in the first-century pre-Gnostic theology but also ascends to an incarnational Christology. Marshall has observed:

the prologue of the Gospel comes to a climax in the statement that the Word who had been from the beginning with God and was active in the work of creation and was the light and life of men became flesh and dwelt among us. It is noteworthy that the subject of the passage is the Word or Logos. It is the career of the Logos which is being described, and not until verse 17 is the name Jesus Christ used for the first time, thereby identifying the Word who became flesh with the historical figure of that name. From that time onwards John ceases to use the term Logos and writes about Jesus, using his name and a variety of Jewish messianic titles to refer to him.

     For John, then, Jesus is undoubtedly the personal Word of God now adopting a fleshly form of existence. When we talk of incarnation, this is what is meant by it, for it is here that the New Testament offers the closest linguistic equivalent to the term “incarnation”: ho logos sarx egeneto.130

John 1:18

In this verse we face a problem which we have not faced before in our appraisal of verses in which Jesus is either described or addressed as θεός, theos. Here any conclusions we reach must be made on the basis of determining the original reading in the Greek text. Did the original text of John 1:18 read (1) ὁ μονογενής, ho monogenēs, (2) ὁ μονογενής υἱός, ho monogenēs huios, (3) μονογενὴς θεός, monogenēs theos, or (4) ὁ μονογενὴς θεός, ho monogenēs theos?

The first reading, although it has in its favor the fact that it is the shortest, may be dismissed because it has no Greek manuscript support whatever. The second reading has in its favor the support of the Greek uncials A, the third corrector of C, K, a later supplement to W, X, D, Q, 063, and many late minuscule manuscripts from the Byzantine tradition. It is also found in the Old Latin, the Latin Vulgate, the Curetonian Syriac, the text of the Harclean Syriac, and the Armenian version. It is also found in about twenty church fathers. In addition, it has in its favor the fact that, apart from John 1:14 where it stands alone, in the other three places where μονογενής, monogenēs, occurs in the Johannine literature, it appears in a construction with υἱός, huios (John 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9). But this reading has three strikes against it. First, on the basis of the text-critical canon that “manuscripts are to be weighed, not counted,” the textual support for this reading, in comparison with the two remaining readings, is not impressive, being found mainly in inferior and late manuscripts. Second, the fact that it is found in some significant church fathers is not a substantive argument in its favor, inasmuch as the Ante-Nicene Fathers tended to “follow the analogy of the versions,” υἱός, huios, being “one of the numerous Ante-Nicene readings of the ‘Western type’ … [which fail to] approve themselves as original in comparison with the alternative readings.”131 Third, while it can be readily understood, if θεός, theos, were the original reading, how υἱός, huios, could have arisen, namely, through the scribal tendency to conform a strange reading to a more common one (in this case, to the formula in John 3:16, 18, and 1 John 4:9), it is difficult to explain why a scribe would have changed υἱός, huios, to θεός, theos.

The two remaining readings, both supporting an original θεός, theos, differ only in that the former omits the article while the latter retains it before μονογενής, monogenēs. The manuscript support for the former is Bodmer Papyrus 66, the original hand of א, B, the original hand of C, and L, plus the Syriac Peshitta, the marginal reading of the Harclean Syriac, the Roman Ethiopic, the Diatesseron, and about seventeen church fathers, including the heretical Valentinians and Arius. The manuscript evidence for the latter is Bodmer Papyrus 75, the third hand of א, the Greek minuscule 33 (the best of the cursives), and the Coptic Bohairic. Of these two, the former has the better manuscript support. But the combined weight of both lends exceedingly strong support for the originality of θεός, theos, in John 1:18. It has also in its favor the fact that it is the harder reading (the lectio difficilior). Because the nature of the problem calls for a judgment of evidence, the final decision will always have an element of uncertainty about it, but the evidence is weighty that θεός, theos, is the original reading. Indeed, if it were not for the christological implications in the reading itself (“[the] only [Son], [himself] God”) one suspects that the evidence would be sufficient to carry the field of scholarly opinion. Even so, there is a trend in modern translations to adopt θεός, theos, as the original reading (nasv, niv). Therefore, I would suggest that John 1:18 be translated as follows:

God no man has seen at any time;

the only [Son], [himself] God,

who is continually in the bosom of the Father—

that One revealed him.

The present participle ὁ ὢν, ho ōn, in the third line indicates a continuing state of being: “who is continually in the bosom of the Father.” Leon Morris comments:

The copula “is” expresses a continuing union. The only begotten is continually in the bosom of the Father. When the Word became flesh His cosmic activities did not remain in abeyance until the time of the earthly life was ended. There are mysteries here that man cannot plumb, but we must surely hold that the incarnation meant the adding of something to what the Word was doing, rather than the cessation of most of His activities.132

Thus very probably here in John 1:18 we have another instance of θεός, theos, as a title for Christ, and the context clearly shows that John regarded Jesus as God the Son incarnate.


John’s Gospel explicates Jesus’ self-understanding particularly in his “Son of God” sayings (see John 5:17–26; 10:30, 36), his “Son of Man” sayings (see 3:13; 6:62), and his “I am” sayings (see 8:24, 58). There is also corroborative evidence supporting Christ’s deity in John’s record of his “works” and his report of Jesus’ disciples’ testimonies respecting him (see 1:34, 49; 6:69; 11:27; 16:30; 20:28). Now in that John incorporated these data in his Gospel, we may assume that they reflect his own Christology as well, for he expressly declares that he wrote what he did in order to bring his readers to faith in Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31). Surely, for example, the high incarnational Christology in his Prologue reflects his personal Christology. But there are three other features in John’s Gospel which we have not yet treated in any direct way that afford still further insight into his personal Christology.

First, there are the two paragraphs in John 3:16–21 and 3:31–36, which may be in their contexts continuing remarks by Jesus and by John the Baptist respectively (the niv seems to construe them as such), but which may be reflections by John the Evangelist himself on the themes touched upon by Jesus and the Baptist. If the latter case is correct, we have in both instances discourses by John upon the transcendent nature and origin of Jesus. In 3:16–21, he speaks of Jesus as God’s “unique Son” (ὁ υἱος ὁ μονογενής, ho huios ho monogenēs, 3:16, 18), whom God “sent into the world” (3:17), who himself, as the Light, “has come into the world” (3:19), and through faith in whom eternal life is mediated (3:16, 18). In 3:31–36, the same themes are advanced: Jesus is God’s Son whom God “sent” (3:34) and who may be thus characterized as himself “the One who comes from above” (3:31a) and “the One who comes from heaven” (3:31b). What Jesus declares is what he himself has seen and heard in heaven (3:32). He is “over all” (3:31) in that his Father “has given all things into his hand” (3:35), including the Spirit without limit (3:34). And, as in the former paragraph, the destiny of men and women turns upon their relation to him (3:36). These features—the “descent” of Christ from the supernal world, the experiential character of his knowledge of the things of heaven, his identification with God so that to hear him is to seal the veracity of God, his all-comprehensive authority in the sphere of revelation, the function of faith in him as mediating eternal life while unbelief results in exclusion from life and permanent abiding under the wrath of God—these feature all underscore both the preexistence and the absolutely transcendent character of Jesus Christ.

Second, when this perception of Jesus is coupled with John’s citation of Isaiah 6:10 in 12:40, bringing out the divine sovereignty in salvation and reprobation, and concerning which citation John declares: “These things Isaiah said because he saw his [the preincarnate Son’s] glory, and spoke concerning him,” one must conclude that the transcendent character of Jesus Christ is the transcendence of Yahweh himself, for it was “Yahweh, seated on a throne, high and exalted” (Isa. 6:1; see 57:15) whom Isaiah reports that he saw. As Leon Morris remarks:

John sees in the words of the prophet primarily a reference to the glory of Christ. Isaiah spoke these things “because he saw his glory.” The words of Isaiah 6:3 refer to the glory of Yahweh, but John puts no hard and fast distinction between the two. To him it is plain that Isaiah had in mind the glory revealed in Christ.133

This being so, it should not go unnoticed that it was the preincarnate Christ who commissioned and sent Isaiah on his prophetic mission, a fact which Jesus himself noted in Matthew 23:34 (see Luke 11:49) and to which Peter alludes in 1 Peter 1:11.

Third, since for John the glory of Christ is equivalent to the glory of Yahweh himself, it is highly probable that when John refers to Christ as “the Lord” (ὁ κύριος, ho kyrios) in the narrative of his Gospel (see 4:1; 6:23; 11:2; 20:20; 21:12), he intends the title, used as it is in the Septuagint to translate the divine name Yahweh, in its most eminent, that is to say, in its divine, Yahwistic sense.

There can be no doubt that John’s Gospel Christology is incarnational in the highest conceivable sense, Jesus Christ being true God and true man. No view of John’s Christology which would claim otherwise can claim to be exegetically sound.

John’s Epistolary Christology

It is immediately evident from even a cursory reading of John’s letters that “the same concept of incarnation which one finds in the Gospel is present in 1 and 2 John, and indeed it is the principal Christological idea in these Epistles.”134 This is plain from the fact that John defends (1) the dual confession that Jesus is both the Christ (1 John 2:22; 5:1) and the Son of God (1 John 2:22–23; 4:15; 5:5; see 1:3, 7; 2:24; 3:8, 23; 4:9, 14; 5:9, 11, 12, 13, 20), and (2) the incarnational prerequisite that God the Father “sent” his Son into the world (1 John 4:9, 10, 14), and that, having been “sent,” the Son was “sent” in such a way that he “came in the flesh” (1 John 4:2; 2 John 7; see 1 John 5:6, 20) and thus was “manifested” to men (1 John 1:2 [twice]; 3:8) in such a way that, while still “the Eternal Life, which was with the Father” from the beginning (1 John 1:1–2), he could be heard, seen with the human eye, gazed upon, and touched by human hands. So intense is John’s conviction regarding the necessity of a real incarnation that he makes the confession, “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh,” a test of orthodoxy—to confess the same is to be “of God”; to deny it is to be “not of God” but “of Antichrist” (1 John 4:2–3). The incarnate Christ was also sinless (3:5).

1 John 5:20

One verse in 1 John requires special notice, for in it John quite likely intends to employ θεός, theos, as he does in John 1:1, 18, and 20:28, as a christological title. Translated literally, 1 John 5:20 reads:

And we know that the Son of God has come, and he has given us understanding in order that we may know the True One. And we are in the True One in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.

The issue is to determine who it is that John had in mind when he wrote, “This is the true God and eternal life,” the Father or the Son. I am personally persuaded that a better case can be made for understanding θεός, theos, as referring to the Son.

The case for the Father being the referent of “the true God” highlights the following features in the verse. First, reference to the Father is indirectly but clearly present in the genitives “of God” and the “his” following the two occurrences of “the Son.” Second, it is likely that the two occurrences of “true One” (τὸν ἀληθινόν, τῷ ἀληθινῷ, ton alēthinon, tō alēthinō) both refer to the Father because (1) it would be a harsh rendering to interpret John as saying that “he [the Son] has given us understanding that we may know the true One [that is, himself]”; (2) the Father clearly seems to be the referent of the second occurrence of “true One” because of the αὐτοῦ, autou, in the phrase immediately following it, “in his Son” (the niv rendering, “even in his Son,” implies the presence of a καί, kai, before the prepositional phrase, but there is no καί, kai, in the Greek text); (3) it is truer to Johannine thought to represent the Son’s messianic mission as a revelation of the Father than as a revelation of himself (see John 1:18; 17:3–4). These features, it is urged, since it is highly unlikely that John would have referred to two different persons so closely in the same verse by the one adjective “true,” point to the Father as the referent of John’s phrase “the true God.” This would accord with John’s clear reference to the Father as “the only true God” in John 17:3. Accordingly, John’s assertion at the end of 5:20, “This is the true God and eternal life,” it is urged, has as its referent the Father. Both exegetically and theologically, this interpretation is possible, and it has been espoused by Brooke (ICC), Westcott, and Dodd. Murray J. Harris also urges this interpretation in his Jesus as God.135

But there are four grammatical or exegetical considerations which tell against this interpretation. First, the nearest possible antecedent to οὗτός, houtos, (“This One”) is the immediately preceding phrase “Jesus Christ,” and it is a generally sound exegetically principle to find the antecedent of a demonstrative pronoun in the nearest possible noun to it unless there are compelling reasons for not doing so. There are no such reasons here, as there are in the oft-cited counter examples of 1 John 2:22 or 2 John 7, which would require that one go further forward in the sentence to “his” or to “true One” or to “God.” (The suggestion of some critics that “in his Son, Jesus Christ” is a gloss and should therefore be omitted, this being suggested in order to make “the true One” the nearest antecedent, has no manuscript support and is a mere expediency.)

Second, to choose the more distant antecedent—that is, the Father, injects a tautology into the verse, for one does not need to be informed that the Father, who has just been twice identified already as the “true One,” is “the true God,” whereas John advances the thought and avoids the tautology if he is saying that Jesus Christ is “the true God.” It is true that Jesus describes the Father as “the only true God” in John 17:3, but there the Father has not been previously identified as the “true One.”

Third, both the singular οὗτός, houtos, and the fact that “true God” and “eternal life” both stand under the regimen of the single article before “God,” thereby binding the two predicates closely together on the pattern, for example, of “the true God who is (also for us) eternal life” (unless both are titles of a person, which seems preferable for this avoids placing a person and an abstract concept under the regimen of a single article) indicate that one person is before the mind of the apostle. This eliminates the suggestion of some that the first title refers to the Father and the second refers to the Son. And while it is true that the Father has life in himself (John 5:26; 6:57) and gives to men eternal life (1 John 5:11), he is nowhere designated “the Eternal Life” as is Jesus in 1 John 1:2 (see also John 1:4; 6:57; 11:25; 14:6). “This predicate fits Jesus better than it fits God,” writes Raymond E. Brown.136 But then if Jesus Christ is the referent of “Eternal Life,” and if both titles refer to one person, it would follow that he is also the referent of “the true God.”

Fourth, while John reports that Jesus describes the Father as “the only true God” (John 17:3), he himself either describes or records that Jesus describes himself as “the true Light” (John 1:9; 1 John 2:8; see John 1:14, 17), “the true Bread” (John 6:32), “the true Vine” (John 15:1), “the true One” (Rev. 3:7; 19:11), “the true Witness” (Rev. 3:14), and “the true Sovereign” (Rev. 6:10). We have already established that John is not at all reticent about designating Christ as “God” (see John 1:1, 1:18, 20:28). So just as “the true One” can refer as a title both to the Father (1 John 5:20) and to the Son (Rev. 3:7), there is nothing that would preclude John from bringing together the adjective “true,” which is used of Jesus elsewhere, and the noun “God” which he himself has used of Jesus, and applying both in their combined form as “the true God” to Jesus Christ. These considerations make it highly probable that 1 John 5:20 is another occurrence of θεός, theos, as a christological title. Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, Jerome, Bede, Luther, and Calvin in earlier times, and Charles Hodge, Bengel, R. L. Dabney, B. B. Warfield, Raymond E. Brown, F. F. Bruce, R. Bultmann, I. H. Marshall, John Murray, Olshausen, Schnackenburg, and the translators of the niv, to name only a few in more modern times, have so interpreted John here.

Portraying Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, then, as just “the true God and Eternal Life” (1 John 5:20) and the Co-source with the Father of the blessings of grace, mercy, and peace (2 John 3), who “came in the flesh” and who also came “through water and blood, not with the water only but with the water and with the blood,” John asserts a “real and lasting union between the Son of God and the flesh of Jesus”137 from the very beginning of Jesus’ life and throughout his ministry, including even the event of his death. Presupposing the same concept of incarnation as is found in John 1:1–3, 14, John leaves no room for a docetic or an adoptionist Christology. Only the real incarnation of the Son of God satisfies all the doctrinal affirmations of these letters.

There is no explicit Christology in 3 John, the only allusion to Christ being the reference to “the Name” in verse 7. But about this term Westcott writes: “From the contexts it is evident that ‘the Name’ is ‘Jesus Christ’ … , or, as it is written at length, ‘Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (John xx.31; I John iv.15). This ‘Name’ is in essence the sum of the Christian Creed.… When analyzed it reveals the triune ‘Name’ into which the Christian is baptized, Matt. xxviii.19.”138

John’s Christology in the Revelation

The nature of the Revelation as “apocalyptic,” being unique within the New Testament corpus, one should not be surprised to find its Christology to be more “marvelous,” if not more “other-worldly,” than elsewhere in the New Testament. But this is not to suggest that its representation of Christ differs in any essential way from the Christology of Christ himself or of Paul, or of the Synoptic Evangelists, or of the writers of the General Epistles, or of that of the rest of the Johannine corpus. But it must be acknowledged that its Christology is more consistently “advanced,” to use Beasley-Murray’s term,139 in that it portrays Christ almost singularly from the perspective of his state of exaltation.

The customary names and titles for Jesus are still present—”Jesus” (1:9 [twice]; 12:17; 14:12; 17:6; 19:10 [twice]; 20:4; 22:16), “Christ” (20:4, 6; see also “his [the Lord’s] Christ,” 11:15; “his [God’s] Christ,” 12:10), “Jesus Christ” (1:1, 2, 5), “Lord” (11:8; probably 14:13; see also “the Lord of lords,” 17:14; 19:16; and “the Lord’s Day,” 1:10), “Lord Jesus” (22:20, 21), “a son of man,” meaning “a man” (1:13; 14:14; see Dan. 7:13–14), “the Son of God” (once, in 2:18; but see “My Father,” 2:27; 3:5, 21; and “his God and Father,” 1:6), and “the Word of God” (19:13). But by far, the most common (twenty-eight times), almost personal, “new” name which John (1:1, 9; 22:8) uses for the glorified Christ is “the Lamb” (ἀρνίον, arnion, 5:6, 8, 12, 13; 6:1, 16; 7:9, 10, 14, 17; 12:11; 13:8; 14:1, 4 [twice], 10; 15:3; 17:14 [twice]; 19:7, 9; 21:9, 14, 22, 23, 27; 22:1, 3), a representation found elsewhere in the New Testament only at John 1:29, 36, and 1 Peter 1:19 (see Acts 8:32) where the word is ἀμνός, amnos. What is remarkable about this title in the Revelation is the fact that, while “the Lamb” is identified as “the Lamb that was slain” (5:6, 9, 12; 13:8), with allusions to his death in such an expression as “the blood of the Lamb” (7:14; 12:11), and while the term itself, as Warfield notes, always carries the “implied reference to the actual sacrifice,”140 never is the One so designated still a figure of meekness in a state or condition of humility. Isbon T. Beckwith observes:

[Lamb] is the name given to him in the most august scenes. As the object of the worship offered by the hosts of heaven and earth, chapts. 4–5; as the unveiler of the destinies of the ages, chapts. 5–6; as one enthroned, before whom and to whom the redeemed render the praise of their salvation, 7:9ff.; as the controller of the book of life, 13:8; as the Lord of the hosts on mount Zion, 14:1; as the victor over the hosts of Antichrist, 17:14; as the spouse of the glorified Church, 19:7; as the temple and light of the new Jerusalem, 21:22f.; as the sharer in the throne of God, 22:1, —Christ is called the Lamb. Nowhere in the occurrence of the name is there evident allusion to the figure of meekness and gentleness in suffering.141

In other words, if Jesus is “the Lamb” in the Revelation, it is as the “Lamb glorified” that he is depicted. And it is this depiction of Christ as the glorified Lamb which is dominant throughout the Apocalypse.

Of course, he is certainly a human Messiah still, as the “male child” (Rev. 12:5, 13), the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” (5:5), and the “Root and Offspring of David” (5:5; 22:16) who is capable of dying, but who by his exaltation is the “Firstborn from the dead” (1:5), and thus the “Ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5), indeed, the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (19:16; see 17:14). But while he is set off over against God in that he is the Son of God (2:18) and the Word of God (19:13), and in the sense that God is his Father (1:6; 2:27; 3:5, 21; 14:1), indeed, even in the sense that God is his God (1:6; 3:2, 12; see 11:15; 12:10) who gives to him both the authority to rule (2:27) and the Revelation itself to show to his servants (1:1), he is represented as being himself divine. Beckwith observes again in this connection:

     Nowhere else are found these wonderful scenes revealing to the eye and ear the majesty of Christ’s ascended state, and these numerous utterances expressing in terms applicable to God alone the truth of his divine nature and power. He is seen in the first vision in a form having the semblance of a man, yet glorified with attributes by which the Old Testament writers have sought to portray the glory of God; his hair is white as snow, his face shines with the dazzling light of the sun, his eyes are a flame of fire, his voice as the thunder of many waters; he announces himself as eternal, as one who though he died is the essentially living One, having all power over death, 1:13–18. He appears in the court of heaven as coequal with God in the adoration offered by the highest hosts of heaven and by all the world, 5:6–14. He is seen coming forth on the clouds as the judge and arbiter of the world, 14:14–16. Wearing crowns and insignia which mark him as King of kings and Lord of lords, he leads out the armies of heaven to the great battle with Antichrist, 19:11–21. In keeping with these scenes, attributes and prerogatives understood to belong to God only are assigned to him either alone or as joined with God; he is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, 22:13, 1:17, 2:8—a designation which God also utters of himself, 1:8, see Is. 44:6, 48:12; worship is offered to him in common with God, 7:10, 5:13—a worship which angelic beings are forbidden to receive, 19:10; doxologies are raised to him as to God, 1:6; the throne of God is his throne, the priests of God are his priests, 3:21, 22:1, 20:6; life belongs essentially to him as to God, compare 1:18 with 4:9, 10.142

In this same regard H. B. Swete writes:

     What is the relation of Christ, in His glorified state, to God? (i) He has the prerogatives of God. He searches men’s hearts (2:23); He can kill and restore to life (1:18; 2:23); He receives a worship which is rendered without distinction to God (5:13); His priests are also priests of God (20:6); He occupies one throne with God (22:1, 3), and shares one sovereignty (11:15). (ii) Christ receives the titles of God. He is the Living One (1:18), the Holy and the True (3:7), the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End (22:13). (iii) Passages which in the Old Testament relate to God are without hesitation applied to Christ, e.g., Deut. 10:17 (Apoc. 17:14), Prov. 3:12 (Apoc. 3:19), Dan. 7:9 (Apoc. 1:14), Zech. 4:10 (Apoc. 5:6). Thus the writer seems either to coordinate or to identify Christ with God. Yet he is certainly not conscious of any tendency to ditheism, for his book … is rigidly monotheistic; nor, on the other hand, is he guilty of confusing the two Persons.143

Beasley-Murray likewise affirms:

     Constantly the attributes of God are ascribed to Christ, as in the opening vision of the first chapter, which is significantly a vision of Christ and not of God. The lineaments of the risen Lord are those of the Ancient of Days and of his angel in the book of Daniel (chs. 7 and 10). Christ is confessed as Alpha and Omega (22:13), as God is also (1:8). The implications of the claim are drawn out in the book as a whole.… In the closing vision of the city of God … God and the Lamb are united as Lord of the kingdom and source of its blessedness. It is especially noteworthy that John depicts the throne of God and the Lamb as the source of the river of water of life in the city, thereby conveying the notion of a single throne, a single rule, and a single source of life. He adds, ‘his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads’ (22:3f.). In the context it is difficult to interpret the pronoun ‘his’ as meaning anything other than ‘God and the Lamb’ as a unity. The Lamb remains the mediator … , yet he is inseparable from the God who enacts his works … through him.144

John’s Revelation thus unites its “other worldly” witness to the prior consentient testimony of the entire New Testament in support of the full and unabridged deity of the Son of God.

Old Testament Yahweh Passages Applied to Jesus

The New Testament writers show no hesitancy in applying to Christ Old Testament descriptions and privileges that are reserved specifically for Yahweh. For instance, (1) Moses’ description of Yahweh as “King of kings” (Deut. 10:17) John applies to Christ (Rev. 17:14; 19:16); (2) the author of Hebrews applies the entirety of Psalm 102:25–27 to him (1:10–12); (3) Proverbs 18:10 provides the background for Peter’s assertion in Acts 4:12; (4) Joel’s summons to trust in Yahweh (2:32) Paul employs to summon men to faith in Christ (Rom. 10:13); (5) when Isaiah looked upon Yahweh (Isa. 6:1–3), according to John he was beholding the glory of the preincarnate Son of God (John 12:40–41); (6) Isaiah’s call to sanctify Yahweh in the heart (8:12–13) Peter applies directly to Christ—he is the one who is to be sanctified as Lord in the heart (1 Pet. 3:14–15); (7) Isaiah’s representation of Yahweh as a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall (8:14) Paul applies to Christ (Rom. 9:32–33); (8) Yahweh, whose coming would be preceded by Yahweh’s forerunner (Isa. 40:3; Mal. 3:1; 4:5), is equated with Christ (Matt. 3:3; 11:10; Mark 1:2–3; Luke 1:16–17; 3:4; John 1:23); (9) Jesus himself employs Yahweh’s words in Isaiah 43:10 and 45:22 to summon men to be his witnesses and to rest in him (Acts 1:8; Matt. 11:28); (10) Isaiah’s description of Yahweh as “the first and the last” (44:6) John employs to describe the glorified Christ (Rev. 2:8; 22:12–13); (11) Yahweh, “before whom every knee shall bow and by whom every mouth shall swear (Isa. 45:23), Paul identifies as Christ (Rom. 14:10; Phil. 2:10); and (12) Yahweh, the pierced One upon whom men would look and mourn (Zech. 12:10), John tells us is the Christ (John 19:37).

A Summary of Θεός, Theos, as a Christological Title

In light of this overwhelming amount of evidence for Jesus’ full, unabridged deity, it is not at all surprising, as noted, that upon occasion the New Testament writers actually refer to him as θεός, theos, the title normally reserved for the Father. For example,

1. Exactly one week after Jesus’ resurrection, in the presence of the other ten disciples, Thomas worshiped him by his acclamation: “[You are] my Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

2. In his letter to the Romans Paul speaks of him as “over all, the ever-blessed God” (Rom. 9:5).

3. In his letter to Titus Paul speaks of Christ as “our great God and Savior” (Titus 2:13).

4. In his farewell address to the Ephesians elders at Miletus, Paul charged: “Be shepherds of the church of God which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

5. In his second letter Peter refers to him as “our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:1).

6. In the Letter to the Hebrews God himself is represented as referring to the Son as “God” (Heb. 1:8).

7. In the first verse of his Gospel John informs us: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and then he writes: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

8. In John 1:18, the closing verse of his prologue, John writes: “No one has seen God at any time. But his only [Son, himself] God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.”

9. In 1 John 5:20, John writes: “we are … in his Son, Jesus Christ. This One is the true God and Eternal Life.”

Thus the New Testament intends to teach that Jesus Christ is divine in the same sense that God the Father is divine.


The third person of the Godhead is referred to in Scripture in many striking ways. In the Old Testament, in addition to the numerous references to him simply as “the Spirit of God” (Gen. 1:2 et al.) and “the Spirit of Yahweh” (Judg. 3:10 et al.), he is designated “the Spirit of the Lord God” (Isa. 61:1), God’s “good Spirit” (Neh. 9:20), God’s “Holy Spirit” (Ps. 51:11), Yahweh’s “Holy Spirit” (Isa. 63:10, 11), “the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding” (Isa. 11:2), “the Spirit of counsel and of power” (Isa. 11:2), “the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord” (Isa. 11:2), and “the Spirit of grace and supplication” (Zech. 12:10).

In the New Testament, in addition to the numerous references to him as “the Spirit of God” (Matt. 3:16 et al.), he is designated as “the Spirit of the living God” (2 Cor. 3:3), “the sevenfold Spirit of God” (Rev. 1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6; see Isa. 11:2), “the Spirit of your Father” (Matt. 10:20), “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead” (Rom. 8:11), “the Spirit of [God’s] Son” (Gal. 4:6), “the Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9; 1 Pet. 1:11), “the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:19), “the Holy Spirit” (Luke 11:13), “the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13), “the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14), “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17; 15:26 16:13), “the Spirit of sonship [or adoption]” (Rom. 8:15), “the Spirit of life” (Rev. 11:11), “the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29), “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation” (Eph. 1:17), “the Spirit of glory and of God” (1 Pet. 4:14), and the “Counselor [or Comforter]” (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7).

In several other ways, in addition to these titles, the Scriptures affirm the full, unabridged deity of the Holy Spirit:

1. He is identified as God: according to Peter, when Ananias “lied to the Holy Spirit,” he was “lying to God” (Acts 5:3–4).

2. He is identified as the Yahweh of the Old Testament: (a) what Isaiah reports that Yahweh said in Isaiah 6:9–10, Paul asserts that the Holy Spirit said (Acts 28:25–27), (b) what the Psalmist puts in the mouth of Yahweh in Psalm 95:7–11, the author of Hebrews puts in the mouth of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 3:7–9), and (c) where Leviticus 26:11–12 foretells Yahweh’s “dwelling with his people,” Paul, citing the Leviticus passage, speaks of the church in 2 Corinthians 6:16 as the antitypical “temple of the living God” with whom Yahweh dwells. And how does Yahweh dwell in his church? In the person of the Holy Spirit (who, according to Romans 8:9, is also both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ).

3. Though distinguished from them, he is represented as equal with the Father and the Son in the great Trinitarian passages of the New Testament (Matt. 3:16; 28:19; 1 Cor. 12:4–6; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 2:18; 4:4–6; 1 Pet. 1:2). In Matthew 28:19 he is, along with the Son, brought into and included within the divine Name itself, surely divine since it is the “name” of the Father.

4. He possesses divine attributes: he is eternal (Heb. 9:14; see also “with you forever” in John 14:16), omnipresent (Ps. 139:7–10), omnipotent (Ps. 104:30; Rom. 15:19), omniscient (Isa. 40:13–14; 1 Cor. 2:10–11), and sovereign (John 3:8).

5. He comes from the Father (John 15:26), and is sent by the Father and the Son (John 16:7; 14:26; see also John 14:18; Acts 2:33; 16:7; Rom. 8:9–10).

6. Accordingly, he does divine works: he creates (Gen. 1:2; Job 26:13a; 33:4; Ps. 104:30a), regenerates (Ezek. 37:1–14; John 3:5–6; Titus 3:5), resurrects (Ezek. 37:12–14; Rom. 8:11), and exercises divine authority in Christ’s church (Acts 13:2, 4; 15:28; 16:6–7). More specifically, he effected Mary’s virginal conception (Matt. 1:18–20; Luke 1:35), he anointed and empowered Christ throughout his earthly ministry and in the hour of his death (Isa. 11:1–2; 42:1–3; 61:1–2; Matt. 12:28; Luke 4:1–18; John 1:32–33; 3:34; Acts 10:38; Heb 9:14), glorifies Christ (John 16:13–14), inspired the Scriptures (John 14:26; 16:13–14; Eph. 6:17; 1 Pet. 1:11; 2 Pet. 1:20–21), convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8–11), invites men to come to Christ (Rev. 22:17), builds the church (Eph. 2:22), “comes upon” and indwells believers as the “seal,” the “down payment,” and “firstfruits” of their full inheritance (Joel 2:28; Ezek. 36:24–27; John 7:38; Acts 2:17; 8:15–17; 10:44–45; 11:15; Rom. 8:9–11, 23; 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13–14; 4:30), baptizes (that is, regenerates; John 3:8), which leads to faith in Christ (1 John 5:1), dominion over sin (1 John 3:9; 5:18), works of righteousness (1 John 2:29), and love for others (1 John 4:7), induces believers to their perception of Jesus as Lord (1 Cor. 12:3) and to their filial consciousness of God as their Father (Rom. 8:15–16; Gal. 4:6), empowers believers to boldness, love, and self-discipline (Acts 4:29; 2 Tim. 1:7), sanctifies (1 Cor. 6:11; Rom. 15:16; Gal. 5:16–18), produces holy fruit in the believer (Gal. 5:22–23), gives “gifts” to the believer (1 Cor. 12:1–11), intercedes for them in their ignorance (Rom. 8:26–27), and raises them to glory from the dead (Rom. 8:11).

Thus the Holy Spirit is represented in Holy Scripture as fully divine. The more pertinent issue relative to the Holy Spirit and the doctrine of the Trinity is whether Holy Scripture represents the Holy Spirit not only as personal but also as a person distinct from the persons of the Father and the Son. This I believe it does, for the following reasons:

1. Personal pronouns are used of him (John 15:26; 16:13–14; see particularly Acts 10:19–20: “the Spirit said to him, ‘Simon, three men are looking for you.… I have sent them’ ” (see 11:12); Acts 13:2: “the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ ”);

2. Personal properties are ascribed to him, such as understanding or wisdom (Isa. 11:2; 1 Cor. 2:10–11), will (1 Cor. 12:11; John 3:8), and power (Isa. 11:2; Mic. 3:8; Acts 10:38; Rom. 15:13; Eph. 3:16).

3. Personal activities are ascribed to him: he speaks (Mark 13:11b; Acts 13:2; 21:11; 1 Tim. 4:1; Heb. 3:7; 10:15), he reveals (Luke 2:26; 1 Pet. 1:11), he guides into all truth (John 16:13), he teaches (Luke 12:12; John 14:26), he comforts, counsels, helps, and loves the believer (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; Rom. 15:30; James 4:5), he encourages (Acts 9:31), he warns (1 Tim. 4:1), he appoints to office (Acts 13:2; 20:28), he may be grieved (Isa. 63:10; Eph. 4:30), may be lied to (Acts 5:3), may be resisted (Acts 7:31), and may be blasphemed (Matt. 12:31–32).

These data show that the Holy Spirit is, like Christ, a divine Person. Thus we have to do with three divine Persons in the Godhead—God the Father (for whose deity we have offered no separate argument since it has never been seriously questioned in the church), God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

* * * * *

Today many modern “doctors of the church” would seek to liberate the church from its “bondage to all arcane models of vertical transcendence.” But the Christian need have no doubts that the biblical evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity is on his side: the Bible knows no other God than the one living and true God who has eternally existed as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—tres personae in una substantia. It was his recognition of this fact that lay behind the statement of Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329–c. 389): “I cannot think of the One, but I am immediately surrounded with the splendor of the Three; nor can I clearly discover the Three, but I am suddenly carried back to the One.”145 John Calvin also declared that God “so proclaims Himself the sole God as to offer Himself to be contemplated clearly in three Persons. Unless we grasp these, only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God” (Institutes, 1. xiii, 2). Moreover, if the triune Personhood of God is given its proper place in biblical soteriology, the several aspects of salvation, as we shall see, fit together “hand in glove” and form one glorious and harmonious whole; if one rejects the triune Personhood of God, both Old and New Testament salvation—particularly the latter—is left in total confusion. And one loses all but an empty perception of God to boot.

The church of Jesus Christ, accordingly, has gladly included within its hymnody such beloved hymns as Reginald Heber’s

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty!

Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;

Holy, holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty!

God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

and the anonymous hymn:

Come, thou Almighty King, Help us thy Name to sing,

Help us to praise:

Father, all glorious, O’er all victorious,

Come and reign over us, Ancient of Days.

Come, thou Incarnate Word, Gird on thy mighty sword,

Our prayer attend:

Come, and thy people bless, and give thy Word success;

Spirit of Holiness, On us descend.

Come, Holy Comforter, Thy sacred witness bear

In this glad hour:

Thou who almighty art, Now rule in every heart,

And ne’er from us depart, Spirit of pow’r.

To the great One in Three Eternal praises be,

Hence evermore.

His sovereign majesty May we in glory see,

And to eternity Love and adore.


1 Theologians routinely distinguish between the ontological Trinity and the economical Trinity, intending by the former what God as Trinity is in himself and by the latter what God as Trinity is for or toward his creation. In this chapter we are primarily concerned with the doctrine of the ontological Trinity, some evidence for which is drawn from the scriptural teaching on the economical Trinity as it was revealed in the progressive unfolding of the redemptive process.

2 In the Latin substantia, literally “that which stands under,” was used to designate God’s “essence.” This doctrine is also referred to as the doctrine of the homoousia (Gk., ὁμοούσια, literally “sameness in essence”).

3 In the Latin subsistentia, literally “standing or remaining under,” came to mean “substance viewed as individualized essence.” Other words which were employed to refer to the distinct Persons of the Godhead were the Latin persona (“character”), the Greek prosōpon, “face,” and later hypostasis, “actual being.”

4 To deny the first proposition is to fall into the error of tritheism; to repudiate the second is to embrace some form of essential subordinationism within the Godhead; to reject the third is to embrace some form of modalism.

5 Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1952), 22; F. Turretin concurs (see Institutes of Elenctic Theology [Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1992], 1:263).

6 Warfield, “Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” 22.

7 Ibid., 30.

8 As was discussed in the last chapter, אֱלֹהִים, ˒elōhîm, is not to be construed as a numerically plural noun and advanced as evidence for the Trinity: to construe it as such would necessitate that it be translated “Gods,” and the Christian church has never believed in three Gods. This noun is consistently employed with singular verbs and modifiers, showing that it is to be taken as a singular noun. Its -ı̂m ending should probably be understood as a majestic plural.

9 Warfield, “Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” 33.

10 Ibid., 33–34.

11 Ibid., 33, 35, emphasis supplied.

12 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1932), 85, emphasis supplied.

13 For a treatment of the Father’s “Godness,” see Benjamin B. Warfield, “God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” in Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1992), 60–78.

14 See Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Divine Messiah in the Old Testament,” in Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1952), 79–126.

15 Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1948), 85–89.

16 For extended expositions of Psalms 2:7; 45:6–7; 102:25–27, 110:1; Isaiah 7:14; 9:6; Daniel 7:14; and Malachi 3:1, see Robert L. Reymond, Jesus, Divine Messiah: The Old Testament Witness (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1990).

17 See Vos, Biblical Theology, 347: “ … ‘protos’ with the imperfect of the verb signifies absolute anteriority as to mode of existence; it relates to the eternal existence of the Lord, usually called his preexistence.”

18 Ibid., 351.

19 See E. C. Colwell, “A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 52 (1933): 12–21. Some New Testament scholars (e.g., Nigel Turner, D. A. Carson) have expressed reservations concerning this “rule,” though Bruce Metzger endorses its general validity in “On the Translation of John 1:1, ” The Expository Times 63 (1951–52): 125–26, and “The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jesus Christ,” Theology Today (April 1953): 75, as do Leon Morris (Gospel According to John [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1971], 77, n. 15) and C. F. D. Moule, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), 115–16.

20 Royce G. Gruenler, “Son of Man,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1984), 1035–1036.

21 Ibid., 1035.

22 See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (New York: United Bible Societies, 1971). 228–29, for his note on this textual variant.

23 Delbert Burkett, in his “The Son of Man in the Gospel of John,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Supplement Series 56 (1991), basing his thesis on his own translation, argues that the background to the “Son of Man” sayings in John is Proverbs 30:1–4, in which oracle the character who designates himself as “the Man” is actually God, describing himself in supernatural terms to his son Ithiel. Jesus is said to see himself as the antitypical Ithiel and so by his use of the title “Son of Man” to be claiming to be the Son of God. The thesis is intriguing but has little data to support it. Why would God the Father identify himself as “the Man”? Who is Ucal, God’s second son? And why ignore the more plentiful evidence from the Synoptics that it is Daniel 7:13–14 that provides the background for Jesus’ self-designation, “the Son of Man”?

24 See my Jesus, Divine Messiah: The New Testament Witness (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1990), 60–1.

25 Geerhardus Vos, The Self-Disclosure of Jesus (1926; reprint, Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978), 254.

26 Ibid., 239.

27 Benjamin B. Warfield, The Lord of Glory (1907; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1974), 41.

28 Vos, Self-Disclosure, 143.

29 Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Person of Christ According to the New Testament,” in The Person and Work of Christ (Philadephia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1950), 65.

30 Vos, Self-Disclosure, 149.

31 Warfield, Lord of Glory, 82–83.

32 Vos, Self-Disclosure, 162.

33 Ibid., 161–63.

34 This parable clearly rules out as false any later religion’s claim to being a higher revelation of God than Jesus, such as Islam’s claim regarding Mohammed.

35 Vos, Self-Disclosure, 161–63.

36 Schmiedel, “Gospels,” Encyclopaedia Biblica, ed. T. K. Cheyne and J. Sutherland Black (New York: Macmillan, 1914), 1881.

37 The fact that this claim is found in Matthew 11:27 might explain why a scribe would have omitted “not even the Son” from Matthew 24:36 (see x1, K, L, W, Δ, 33, and some Fathers), but would have allowed it to remain in Mark 13:32 since Mark does not contain the “thunderbolt from the Johannine heaven” (Matt. 11:27).

38 Warfield, Lord of Glory, 37.

39 Warfield, “Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” 42.

40 Ibid., 42.

41 Ibid., 43–44.

42 Warfield, Lord of Glory, 156.

43 Christians do not worship the human nature of Christ—that would be idolatry, since it would involve worshiping the creature. In worshiping Christ we understand that we worship the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Son, who by the Incarnation became man for us and for our salvation.

44 Warfield, “Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” 54.

45 B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John (1881; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1958), 159.

46 Vos, Self-Disclosure, 198.

47 D. A. Carson, “ ‘I Am’ Sayings,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1984), 541.

48 D. A. Carson, Matthew, Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1984), 443.

49 I. Howard Marshall, The Origins of New Testament Christology (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1976), 49–50.

50 George Ladd, “Kingdom of God, Heaven,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1984), 609.

51 David F. Wells, The Person of Christ (Waco, Tex.: Crossway, 1984), 38.

52 John Murray, Romans (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1960), 1:279.

53 Ibid., 1:5.

54 C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975), 1:58.

55 Ibid., 1:60.

56 Warfield, “The Christ That Paul Preached,” 87–88; so also Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, n.d.) 1:472, and Robert Lewis Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (1878; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1972), 208.

57 Murray, Romans, 1:10.

58 Ibid., 1:11.

59 Ibid.

60 Warfield, “The Christ That Paul Preached,” 81.

61 Ibid., 80.

Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Lectures Delivered at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Mo. and Knox Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1998), 204.

62 E. H. Gifford, Romans (London: John Murray, 1886), 168–69.

63 Bruce M. Metzger, “The Punctuation of Romans 9:5, ” in Christ and Spirit in the New Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 108.

64 Ibid., 105–6. Metzger’s discussion of Romans 9:5 in Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (New York: United Bible Societies, 1971), is an excellent treatment of the issue.

65 Nigel Turner, Grammatical Insights into the New Testament (Edinburgh: Clark, 1965), 15.

66 James H. Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1930), 1:84.

67 Walter Lock, The Pastoral Epistles, International Critical Commentary series (London: T. & T. Clark, 1928), 145.

68 See Robert L. Reymond, “Firstborn,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A.Elwell, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1998).

69 J. B. Lightfoot, Philippians (1868; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1953), 110.

70 Warfield, “The Person of Christ According to the New Testament,” The Person and Work of Christ, 39.

71 John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth), 3:359.

72 Wells, Person of Christ, 64.


Even Larger Catechism, Question 46, teaches that “the estate of Christ’s humiliation was that low condition, wherein, he, for our sakes, emptying himself of his glory, took upon him the form of a servant.… ” The allusion to Philippians 2:7 here is clear on the face of it and in fact is one of the supporting references given by the Catechism for its assertion here.

The Catechism is not urging, of course, any divestiture of attributes on the Son’s part in His act of becoming incarnate as is evident from its explanation in Question 47, but I would counsel against using such language to describe the incarnational act itself for that is not what Paul intended by his term “emptying,” and it could be very misleading.

74 I do not deny that in other contexts, for example, 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus,” as a titular description, does designate the Son of God in his preincarnate state.

75 See Genesis 3:5, where the Serpent’s temptation is framed in the words “you will be like [ךּ], ke, translated by isa in the LXX at Deut. 13:6; Job 5:14; 10:10; 13:28; 27:16; 29:14; 40:10; Isa. 51:23] God, knowing good and evil.”

76 “Having taken.” Contrary to what some grammarians urge, an aorist participle following a main verb in the aorist tense can express antecedent action, as Moulton, Grammar of New Testament Greek, 1:132, acknowledges.

77 George W. Knight III, The Faithful Sayings in the Pastoral Letters (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, n.d.), 36–37.

78 Ibid., 38.

79 Robert H. Gundry, “The Form, Meaning and Background of the Hymn Quoted in 1 Timothy 3:16, ” in Apostolic History and the Gospel, ed. Gasque and Martin (Exeter, U.K.: Paternoster, 1970), 230.

80 Warfield, Lord of Glory, 257.

81 Ibid., 255–256.

Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Lectures Delivered at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Mo. and Knox Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1998), 245.
82 A. M. Fairbairn, The Place of Christ in Modern Theology, 10th ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1902), 328.

83 E. M. Sidebottom, James, Jude and 2 Peter (Camden, N.J.: Thomas Nelson, 1967), 24.

84 Ibid., 24.

85 G. R. Beasley-Murray, The General Epistles (Nashville: Abingdon, 1965), 21.

86 J. Adamson, The Epistle of James (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1976), 23.

87 See James 1:2 and Matthew 5:10–12; James 1:4 and Matthew 5:48; James 1:5 and Matthew 7:7–8; James 1:17 and Matthew 7:11; James 1:20 and Matthew 5:22; James 1:22–27 and Matthew 7:21–23; James 1:22–24 and Matthew 7:24; James 1:23 and Matthew 7:26; James 2:13 and Matthew 6:14ff.; James 2:5 and Matthew 5:3; James 2:13 and Matthew 5:7; James 2:14 and Matthew 7:21–23; James 2:15–16 and Matthew 6:11; James 3:2 and Matthew 12:36, 37; James 3:10–13 and Matthew 7:16; James 3:17–18 and Matthew 5:9; James 4:3 and Matthew 7:7; James 4:4, 8 and Matthew 6:22, 24; James 4:11–12 and Matthew 7:1; James 4:13–14 and Matthew 6:34; James 5:2–3 and Matthew 6:19; and James 5:12 and Matthew 5:34–37.

88 J. B. Mayor’s exposition of tēs doxēs is still the fullest and finest in English; see his The Epistle of James (London: Macmillan, 1913), 79–82.

89 Warfield, Lord of Glory, 265.

90 See the simple “Jesus” (Heb. 2:9; 3:1; 6:20; 7:22; 10:19; 12:2, 24; 13:12), “[the] Christ” (3:6, 14; 5:5; 6:1; 9:11, 14, 24, 28; 11:26), “Jesus Christ” (10:10; 13:8, 21), “[the] Lord” (1:10; 2:3; 7:14; perhaps 12:14; the first two instances are clearly intended in the Yahwistic sense), “Lord Jesus” (13:20), and “Jesus, the Son of God” (4:14).

91 See Murray J. Harris, “The Translation and Significance of ὁ θεός [ho theos] in Hebrews 1:8–9, ” Tyndale Bulletin 36 (1985): 146–48; see fns. 56, 57, 58, 59. Also see Harris, “The Translation of אלהים [˒lhym] in Psalm 45:7–8, ” Tyndale Bulletin 35 (1984): 65–89.

92 Turner, Grammatical Insights into the New Testament, 461.

93 Nigel Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1965), 3:34.

94 Vincent Taylor, The Person of Christ in New Testament Teaching (London: Macmillan, 1958), 96. Raymond E. Brown commented: “We cannot suppose that the author did not notice that his citation had this effect” of addressing the Son of God (“Does the New Testament Call Jesus God?” Theological Studies 26, no. 4 [1965]: 563).

95 Oscar Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament (London: SCM, 1980), 310.

96 Ibid., 305. Cullmann is, however, a “functional Christologist” and writes: “We must agree with Melanchthon when he insists that the knowledge of Christ is understood only as a knowledge of his work in redemptive history.… All speculation concerning his natures is … unbiblical as soon as it ceases to take place in the light of the great historical deeds of redemption” (Christ and Time, trans. Floyd V. Filson [Philadephia: Westminster, 1950], 128). He also says: “We come to the conclusion that in the few New Testament passages in which Jesus receives the title ‘God,’ this occurs on the one hand in connection with his exaltation to lordship … and on the other hand in connection with the idea that he is himself the divine revelation” (Christology, 325). In other words, for Cullmann Jesus is not God in himself but only God in Heilsgeschichte (“holy-” or “salvation-history”).

97 John A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God (London: SCM, 1973), 156.

98 Ibid., 156–61.

99 James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation (London: SCM, 1980), 52.

100 Ibid., 54.

101 Ibid., 56.

102 Ibid., 209.

103 I. Howard Marshall, “Incarnational Christology in the New Testament,” in Christ the Lord: Studies in Christology Presented to Donald Guthrie, ed. H. H. Rowdon (Leicester: Inter–Varsity Press, 1982), 11, fn. 25.

104 Philip E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1977), 50.

105 F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964), 8.

106 Ibid., 5.

107 Martin Hengel, The Son of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 87.

108 Marshall, Gospel of Luke, 204.

109 Warfield, Lord of Glory, 142.

110 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1971), 389.

111 Ibid., 390.

112 C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), 168.

113 The disciples’ act of worship we may deduce from the Matthean word προσεκύνησαν, prosekynēsan, “they [fell down and] worshiped, did obeisance to, prostrated before, reverenced.” At the very least the word connotes an attitude of reverence, but because of the character of the miracle itself (see Pss. 89:9; 106:9; 107:23–30, which Jewish fishermen must surely have known by heart), the word should be given its full meaning of “worship.” Their earlier question, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” (Matt. 8:27) receives here its answer: “You are truly the Son of God!” This can only mean that they believed that they were in the presence of One who was supernatural, indeed divine. Vos remarks that in its dissociation from the idea of messiahship, the confession of Matthew 14:33 stands even higher than Peter’s confession, “for through it, the disciples for a moment caught a vision of this [superhuman] character of Jesus as such, apart from its reflection in the Messiahship” (Self-Disclosure of Jesus, 178–79).

114 Vos, Self-Disclosure of Jesus, 180.

115 Bruce, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 24.

116 Charles Bigg, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1902), 251.

117 Ibid., 251.

118 Ernst Käsemann, “An Apologia for Primitive Christian Eschatology,” in Essays on New Testament Themes (London: SCM, 1964), 183.

119 E. Lohmeyer, Das Evangelim des Markus 12th ed., (Göttingen: Vandenhoech and Ruprecht, 1953), 4 (author’s translation).

120 William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1974), 44, fn. 23.


Vos writes on this Lukan feature in his The Self-Disclosure of Jesus, 119:

In [the case of Luke using the title “the Lord” of Jesus] we have, of course, nothing but an instance of the custom which generally prevailed at the time the Gospels were written, of referring to Jesus as “the Lord.” The Evangelist must have followed this custom in his daily speech, and no reason can be discovered why he should have refrained from following it in writing, even though it should have been, strictly speaking, an anachronism. For not only the Evangelist, but also the readers for whom he proximately wrote, daily so expressed themselves. Grammatically analyzed … the language means simply this: “He, whom we now call the Lord.… ”

122 I. Howard Marshall, Luke, Historian and Theologian (Exeter, U.K.: Paternoster, 1970), 166–67.

123 Brown, “Does the New Testament Call Jesus God?” 561.

124 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII–XXI, Anchor Bible Series (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970), 1047.

125 See H. Denzinger and A. Shönmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum (Freiburg: Herder, 1976), 150, sec. 434.

126 Metzger, “The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jesus Christ,” 71, n. 13.

127 Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII–XXI, 1047.


The Logos idea goes back to Heraclitus (sixth century b.c.), who taught that in the midst of all the constant ebb and flow in the universe there is an eternal principle of order—the Logos—that makes the world a “cosmos,” that is, an ordered whole. The Stoics, faced with the common Greek dualism of form and matter, employed the notion of a seminal Logos that pervades all things to solve the problem of dualism and to provide them the basis for a rational moral life. Philo of Alexandria employed the Logos as a means of mediation between God, who is absolutely transcendent and separate from the material universe, and the universe itself. For him the Logos was both the divine pattern of the world and the power that fashioned it. In Jewish wisdom literature one may find Wisdom personified in Proverbs 8:22–31. All this led C. H. Dodd to conclude in his The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), 280:

The opening sentences … of the [Gospel] Prologue are clearly intelligible only when we admit that the Logos, though it carries with it the association of the Old Testament Word of the Lord, has also a meaning similar to that which it bears in Stoicism as modified by Philo, and parallel to the idea of Wisdom in other Jewish writers. It is the rational principle in the universe, its meaning, plan or purpose, conceived as a divine hypostasis in which the eternal God is revealed and active.

George Eldon Ladd in A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1974) notes, however, that never is the Logos personalized or is it incarnated in these earlier usages of the concept: “the theological use John makes of the Logos … can be paralleled neither in Hellenistic philosophy nor in Jewish thought” (241). Leon Morris concurs in The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1971), 115–26, esp. 116, 123–25.

129 Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 242.

130 Marshall, “Incarnational Christology in the New Testament,” 2–3.

131 F. J. A. Hort, Two Dissertations (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1876), 7–8. Hort’s dissertation laid the groundwork for virtually all subsequent text–critical work on John 1:18 and provided the single greatest impulse toward the conclusion that θεός, theos, is the original reading. What is most telling as an indication of his careful scholarship is that Hort did his work without the advantage of having the two great Bodmer papyri 66 and 75, the later discovery of which vindicated his conclusion. Bruce Metzger writes: “With the acquisition of p66 and p75, both of which read θεός, theos, the external support of this reading has been notably strengthened” (Textual Commentary, 198).

132 Morris, The Gospel According to John, 114.

133 Ibid., 605.

Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Lectures Delivered at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Mo. and Knox Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1998), 270.
134 Marshall, “Incarnational Christology in the New Testament,” 5.

135 Murray J. Harris, Jesus as God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1992), 239–53.

136 Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982), 626.

137 Marshall, “Incarnational Christology in the New Testament,” 5.

138 B.F. Westcott, The Epistles of St. John, 3d ed. (London: Macmillan, 1892), 238–39; see also Warfield, Lord of Glory, 274.

139 G. R. Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation (London: Oliphants, 1974), 24.

140 Warfield, Lord of Glory, 290.

141 Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John (1919; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1967), 315.

142 Ibid., 312–13.

143 H. B. Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John, 3d ed. (London: Macmillan, 1911), clxii.

144 Beasley-Murray, Revelation, 24–25.

145 Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 41, Patrologia Graeca, ed. by J.P. Migne (Paris, 1857–1866), 36, 417.

Article by: Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Lectures Delivered at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Mo. and Knox Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1998),


The Trinity in the Creeds

Posted on: December 22nd, 2010 by Matt No Comments

Article by: Robert L. Reymond

Analysis of the Nicene Creed and It’s Christology

It was in light of such biblical data as we have surveyed in Chapter Eight that the Christians of the first three centuries—as monotheistic in their outlook as ancient Israel and who in fact believed that they were worshiping the God of Israel when they worshiped God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit—began to formulate their doctrine of God in Trinitarian terms. That is to say, the early church’s Trinitarianism was a proper and necessary deduction from its conviction that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were both divine persons. The formulating process itself, precipitated in the first three centuries particularly by the emergence of second-century Gnosticism and the Logos Christology, by third-century Sabellianism and early fourth-century Arianism, brought the church to a basic but real crystallization of the doctrine in the Nicene Creed of 325 a.d. That creed of the First Ecumenical Council reads as follows:

We believe in one God the Father, Almighty, Creator of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father [ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ πατρός, ek tēs ousias tou patros], God from God [θεὸν ἐκ θεοῦ, theon ek theou], Light from Light, true God from true God [θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ, theon alethinon ek theou alēthinou], begotten not created, of the same essence of the Father [ὁμοούσιον τῷ πατρί, homoousion to patri], through whom all things came into being, both in heaven and in earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate, becoming human. He suffered and the third day he rose, and ascended into the heavens. And he will come to judge both the living and the dead.

And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit.

But those who say, Once he was not, or he was not before his generation, or he came to be out of nothing, or who assert that he, the Son of God, is of a different hypostasis or ousia, or that he is a creature, or changeable, or mutable, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.1

Its Major Affirmations

By its Creed the Nicene Council affirmed, first, that the church would continue to be a Trinitarian church (see the earlier “Trinitarian” form of the earlier Old Roman Symbol). Its Trinitarian commitment is evident in the very cast of the Creed itself: “We believe in one God the Father, Almighty, Creator of all things visible and invisible, and in one Lord Jesus Christ … , of the same essence of the Father, through whom all things came into being, both in heaven and in earth…, and in the Holy Spirit.”

Second, by confessing faith in the ὁμοούσια, homoousia, (“same essence”) of the Son with the Father, which is an essential part of the doctrine of the Trinity, and describing him as “true God,” the Council affirmed the church’s continuing commitment to the full deity of the Son of God.

Third, confessing its faith in the terms that it did, the Council, with its doctrine of the ὁμοούσια, homoousia, distanced the church from all forms of polytheism, tritheism, and Arianism.

Fourth, by distinguishing between the Father and the Son the way it did (the Father eternally begets the Son; the Son is being eternally begotten of the Father), the Council distanced the church from all forms of Sabellianism.

Fifth, by confessing that the one Lord Jesus Christ, who as both “true God” and “of the same essence of the Father,” “for us men and for our salvation came down and became flesh, becoming man, suffered and rose the third day, ascended into heaven, and is coming to judge the living and the dead,” the Council declared that the church would continue to represent itself as a redeemed community with a message of redemption, at the center of which message stands the real Incarnation of God in the Person of the Son, the result of which event is the divine-human Lord Jesus Christ.

In sum, the Council declared that the church would continue to retain at the heart of its faith, as the centerpiece of its doctrinal life and devotional piety, the truth of the one living and true God (its monotheism being assured by the “same essence” clause), who eternally subsists as three distinct self-conscious Selves in the one divine unity who stand in “I—You” relation each to the other (the doctrine of tres personae in una substantia). The church, it determined, would also continue to confess that the triune Godhead revealed itself in the Incarnation of the Son through the power of the Spirit for redemptive purposes.

Three Issues

This conciliar description of the God of Christian theism raises three issues in particular with regard to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity: (1) the meaning of “person” in the Trinitarian construction, (2) the relationship of the three Persons to the one divine essence, and (3) the theological meaning of the doctrinal instrument which the Nicene Fathers employed to distinguish between the Father and the Son, namely, the Father’s eternal generation of the Son. Each of these requires comment.

The Meaning of “Person”

What is the meaning of “person” in the orthodox representation of the Trinity? Etymologically, the word is from the Latin persona, from per, “through,” and sono, “speak,” hence, “speak through” and thus the “mask” through which the Roman actor spoke, and hence the specific “character” he portrayed. The word, it is true, does not appear in the Nicene Creed per se. But it is the word with a history of doctrinal usage that went back as far as Tertullian and which eventually came to be universally used by the church to designate the Three Selves in the One God and to distinguish them from the one divine essence which each is as God.

Today it is commonly understood by orthodox theologians to refer in the Trinitarian context to a “conscious self or ego,” that is, a “center of self-consciousness.” But it is often alleged that persona did not mean in the fourth and fifth centuries what it means today, that it originally referred only to “roles” which God assumed, and that it has only been since the days of Descartes and Locke that “person” has been defined as a self-conscious center of individuality, and that, therefore, because of its modern divergence in meaning away from its first and original intention, “person” should be abandoned as a theological term which has lost its usefulness. What are we to say in response? Here we need to be reminded of Calvin’s opinion that all such words as the church finds useful after the close of the canon to aid in the understanding of Scripture are admissible provided they attest to what Scripture itself teaches. There is nothing, I admit, sacrosanct about the word “person,” and if the church were to discover another word which more accurately conveyed the intention of Scripture, I would welcome it. Indeed, I am certain that John Calvin speaks for every Christian when he writes:

I could wish they [that is, the Greek words, ὁμοούσια, homoousia, οὔσια, ousia, πρόσωπον, prosōpon, and the Latin substantia, persona] were buried, if only among all men this faith were agreed on: that Father and Son and Spirit are one God, yet the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that they are differentiated by a peculiar quality.2

John Murray also warns:

We must jealousy avoid the danger of attaching the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity to certain terms of merely human device if these terms are shown to be inadequate or misleading, and we must not allow the doctrine of the Trinity to be prejudiced by the fluctuations of meaning to which words are subjected in different periods of thought.3

But having issued these caveats, Murray also writes:

With reference to the word ‘person’ … , it does not appear … that the alleged change since the time of Descartes and Locke has ruled out the propriety of the use of the word ‘person’ … with reference to the distinctions and differentiations that are immanent and eternal in God … why should we have any hesitation in thinking of ‘self-consciousness’ as predicable of each of the persons of the Godhead? Why should we have difficulty in viewing each person as ‘a distinct centre of consciousness’? … Does not the Scripture represent the Father as addressing the Son as ‘Thou’ and the Son the Father as ‘Thou’? … And the same must hold true of the Holy Spirit if trinitarian distinction applies to him as well as to the Father and the Son. And does not the Scripture teach us to address the persons of the Trinity in their distinctiveness as well as in their unity? If we are to address the Father in his distinctiveness as the Father in heaven, his ‘Thou’ must be distinct from the ‘Thou’ of the Son and of the Spirit. It undermines the biblical witness to the elements of the doctrine of the Trinity to plead the unity … of essence as in any way impinging upon or inconsistent with the reality of the distinctive self-consciousness of the persons in reference to one another … One can hardly avoid the suspicion of a unitarian bias in the failure to appreciate distinguishing self-consciousness in the three persons of the Godhead.4

I concur, and would urge, in spite of the reservations which some modern theologians have expressed regarding the term, that until another term comes along which serves the church better, the church should continue to employ the term “person” to designate and to distinguish between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as real and distinct self-conscious Egos within the Godhead.

The Relation of the Three to the One

What is the relation of the three Persons in the Godhead to the one divine essence? This is admittedly an extremely complex matter.

The Trinitarian creeds (Nicene, Niceno-Constantinopolitan), in conformity with Scripture, teach that there is only one God (Deut 6:4; Isa 45:5; Rom 3:30; 1 Cor 8:4; 1 Tim 2:5; Jam 2:19). They also teach, again in conformity with Scripture, that three Persons have eternally existed in the Godhead, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19; John 14:16–26; 15:26; 16:5–15; 1 Cor 12:3–6; 2 Cor 13:14; Gal 4:4–6; Eph 1:3–14; 2:18; 4:4–6; Titus 3:4–6; 1 Pet 1:2; Jude 20–21; Rev 1:4). So whatever we say with respect to this matter we must be careful to preserve both God’s oneness (his numerically single, indivisible, and immutable eternal being) and his threeness (his eternal tri-personality).

This means, first, since each Person of the Godhead is fully God, that each Person has the entire fulness of God’s being in himself (see Col 2:8). We must not think of the three Persons as each occupying a third of God’s being. Being God as each is, each Person possesses the one whole being of God. This means that the three Persons taken together are not to be regarded as a greater divine being than any one of the Persons viewed singly and also that any one of the Person viewed singly is not to be regarded as a lesser divine being than when the three are viewed together. This means also that each Person possesses all of the attributes of the one God, or to say this differently, each Person possesses the entire undivided being of God.5

This means, second, because the three Persons are as real and eternal as the one divine being which each possesses is real and eternal, that we must conceive of the Persons as distinct (not separate) “egos,” with each possessing his own distinguishing incommunicable property which differentiates him from the other two. It is commonly said that the Father’s distinguishing property is his paternity or fatherhood, the Son’s distinguishing property is his filiation or sonship, and the Spirit’s distinguishing property is his spiration or procession.

This representation of the “one” and the “three” does not mean that the Trinity is a contradiction. The creeds of the church have been jealous to avoid the very appearance of contradiction by employing the one noun—”God” or “Godhead”—with the numeral “one” and the second noun—”Persons”—with the numeral three. The church has always taught that “in the unity of the Godhead there are three persons” (Westminster Confession of Faith, II/iii). Thus when the Bible refers to “the Father,” “the Son,” and “the Holy Spirit,” it intends that we think of the three Persons. When it refers to “God,” it refers either to the triune Godhead construed in its unitary wholeness (see Gen 1:26) or to one of the persons of the Godhead, specifically which one to be determined by the context. Thus construed, the triune God is a complex Being but not a contradiction!

This means, third, that while we must affirm, if we would be faithful to Scripture, that each Person is a distinct Person, nevertheless, because of the reality of their sameness in divine essence (the famous Nicene ὁμοούσια, homoousia), we can never properly think of the three Persons as existing independently of each other. God the Father is eternally “the Father of the Son” and God the Son is eternally “the Son of the Father” while God the Holy Spirit is eternally “the Spirit of God [the Father]” and “the Spirit of Christ [the Son].”

Describing then the oneness of the Trinity, that oneness pertaining to their divine essence, we should speak of the sameness of their “substance,” “essence,” “being” or “nature.” That is to say, each Person possesses the one divine substance, essence, being, or nature. For example, each Person is essentially omniscient, that is, each knows all things (Father, 1 John 3:20; Son, Matt 11:27; Holy Spirit, 1 Cor 2:11). But designating the distinctions between the self-conscious Egos themselves, we should employ “persons” (or “hypostases”) to underscore the truth that there are real self-conscious, subjective differentia in the depth of the one divine Being that correspond to the titles Father, Son, and Spirit.

Some critics have argued that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity cannot avoid tritheism, the view that the Trinity is not one God but three Gods. But is this true? I think not, for every form of real tritheism requires three separable and distinguishable Gods, that is to say, one could be eliminated without impinging upon the “godness” of the others in any way. But if any one of the three “centers of self-consciousness” within the Trinity were to be eliminated from the Godhead, that elimination would rend the unity of the Godhead asunder and immediately and directly necessitate eliminating data from the knowledge of the other two, which in turn would impinge upon their omniscience which is immutable. Simply the immutable, shared omniscience possessed by the three Persons of the Godhead means that all tritheistic separability is out of the question. So we must affirm that there is only one divine being and that each Person of the Godhead possesses this one entire divine being, a Unity in Trinity and a Trinity in Unity.

The Father’s Eternal Generation of the Son

We take up now the extremely difficult matter concerning the Nicene distinction between the Father and the Son by means of its doctrine of eternal generation, which doctrine Louis Berkhof defines approvingly as “that eternal and necessary act of the first person in the Trinity, whereby he, within the divine Being, is the ground of a second personal subsistence like his own, and puts this second person in possession of the whole divine essence, without any division, alienation, or change.”6

The Ancient and Medieval Meaning

We must begin by making clear what the Nicene Fathers intended by their phrases “begotten out of the Father,” “out of the being [οὐσίας, ousias] of the Father” and “God out of God, Light out of Light, very God out of very God.” From personal investigation, I have discovered that many evangelical pastors who use the last expression “very God of very God” from their pulpits as a description of Christ believe that the phrase is simply a literary convention, on the analogy of the phrases “King of kings” and “Lord of lords,” to denote the superlative degree. Only slight reflection, however, will show that if this were the intention of the phrase, the second occurrence of “God” would have to be plural with a lower case “g,” making then the attached “very” inappropriate. Since this is not the way the phrase is turned, it should be obvious that the phrase is not intended merely to exalt the Son above all the false gods which men fashion and worship.

The phrase is, of course, Nicene. And when the Nicene Fathers employed the phrase, they did so in order to distance the church from Sabellianism—a very proper and commendable concern. They were saying that the Father and the Son possess distinguishing properties (ἰδιότητες, idiotētes] which will not allow “Father” and “Son” simply to be revelational modes by which the “one undifferentiated divine Monad” manifested himself to his creation (the modalistic heresy). The Father is alone unbegotten, they said. The Son, however, is begotten by the Father and that by an act of eternally continuing generation on the part of the Father but in such a sense that the Son is being “begotten, not made.” What does all this mean precisely? It means that these Fathers taught that the Father is the Source of the Son and that the Son derives his essential being as God from the Father (see their “out of the being of the Father”) through an eternal “always continuing, never completed” act of begetting on the Father’s part. In sum, the Father alone has being from himself; the Son eternally derives his being from the Father. In both Nicene and Post-Nicene times, this doctrine of the Father’s eternal generation of the Son was supported by four arguments in the main: (1) the very titles “Father” and “Son” were said to imply that the Father generates the Son; (2) the term μονογενής, monogenēs, (John 1:14, 18; 3:16; 1 John 4:9) was thought to teach that the Father begat the Son; (3) John 5:26, expressly declaring that the Father who has life in himself “gave to the Son also to have life in himself,” was thought to teach that the Father communicates the divine essence to the Son; and (4) 1 John 5:18b—”the one who was begotten by God keeps him”—was said explicitly to teach that the Son was generated by the Father.7

With regard to the first argument, the titles “Father” and “Son” must not be freighted respectively with the occidental ideas of source of being and essential superiority on the one hand and of subordination and dependency on the other. Rather, they should be viewed in the biblical sense as denoting, first, sameness of nature and, in Jesus’ case, equality with the Father with respect to his deity (see John 10:30–36), and second, infinite reciprocal affection.8 Regarding the second, there is a general consensus among scholars today that μονογενής, monogenēs, does not mean “only begotten,” alluding to some form of generation, but rather “one and only” or “only one of a kind” or “unique.”9 Warfield, for example, writes: “The adjective ‘only begotten’ conveys the idea, not of derivation and subordination, but of uniqueness and consubstantiality: Jesus is all that God is.”10 As for the third, a consensus has by no means been reached among theologians and commentators that the words of John 5:26 refer to an ontological endowment. It is entirely possible, indeed, much more likely, that they refer to an aspect of the incarnate Son’s messianic investiture. John 5:22–23 which precedes the verse refers to his designated authority to judge, clearly an aspect of his Messianic role, and so is the similar thought of 5:27 which follows it. Accordingly, 5:26, paralleling 5:27, seems to be giving the ground upon which the Son is able to raise the dead, namely, it is one of the prerogatives of his Messianic investiture.11 With regard to the fourth argument, it is not at all certain that 1 John 5:18b teaches that the Father eternally generates the Son. Raymond E. Brown, for example, discusses five interpretations which have been proposed by scholars for the relevant statement, opting finally himself for the idea that “the one who was begotten of God” refers to the Christian whom God enables to keep himself.12 Even those who contend that the phrase refers to Jesus (and most translators opt for this view) must acknowledge that it is not certain that John had an essential begetting in mind. In fact, of the many commentators I consulted, not one who applied the phrase to Jesus argued that John was referring to the Father’s eternal generation of the Son. The only conclusion that one can fairly draw from this data is that Scripture provides little to no clear warrant for the speculation that the Nicene Fathers made the bedrock for the distinguishing properties of the Father and the Son. In fact, when they taught that the Father is the “source” (ἀρχή, archē, or fons), “fountain” (πηγή, pēgē) and “root” (ῥίζα, rhiza) of the Son and that the Son in turn is God out of (ἐκ, ek) God, that is, he was begotten out of the being of the Father by a continuing act of begetting on the Father’s part, they were, while not intending to do so, virtually denying to the Son the attribute of self-existence, an attribute essential to deity. There were exceptions among the Fathers, such as Cyril and the later Augustine, who did not teach so.

The Nicene Fathers were satisfied that they had carefully guarded the full deity of the Son by their affirmation of the homoousia and by their insistence that the Son was “begotten not made.” And no doubt his deity was guarded. But their language (“out of the being of the Father,” “God out of God”), regardless of their commendable intention to distance the church from Sabellianism by it, suggests the Son’s subordination to the Father not only in modes of operation but also in a kind of essential subordinationism in that he is not God of himself. And this became by and large the doctrine of the church and it went unchallenged for well over a thousand years.

The Reformation Qualification

In the sixteenth century John Calvin contended against all subordination of the Son to the Father with respect to his divine essence in his debates with the heretic Valentinus Gentilis who contended that the Father alone is αὐτόθεος, autotheos—”God of himself,” and with Michael Servetus the Unitarian. Citing Augustine, Calvin writes:

Christ with respect to himself is called God; with respect to the Father, Son. Again, the Father with respect to himself is called God; with respect to the Son, Father. In so far as he is called Father with respect to the Son, he is not the Son; in so far as he is called the Son with respect to the Father, he is not the Father; in so far as he is called both Father with respect to himself, and Son with respect to himself, he is the same God.

Calvin then concludes from this:

Therefore, when we speak simply of the Son without regard to the Father, we well and properly declare him to be of himself; and for this reason we call him the sole beginning. But when we mark the relation that he has with the Father, we rightly make the Father the beginning of the Son. (Institutes, I.xiii.19, emphasis supplied)

What Calvin affirms here is that the Son with reference to himself is God of himself,13 but in relation to his Father, he derives his hypostatic identity from his relation to the Father. In this relational sense, Calvin is willing to speak of the Father’s “begetting” the Son (see Institutes, I.xiii.7, 8, 18, 23, 24). Calvin also declares, in that the New Testament employs the divine name Yahweh as a titular ascription of Christ, that all that is implied in this name, including self-existence, is true no less of the Son than of the Father (Institutes, I.xiii.23).14 Furthermore, while Calvin will say that the term “God” is sometimes applied to the Father “because he is the fountainhead and beginning of deity—and this is done to denote the simple unity of essence” (Institutes, I.xiii.23), he explains that what he means by his phrase “the beginning of deity” is “not in the bestowing of essence… , but by reason of order” (Institutes, I.xiii.26). Therefore, he will “admit that in respect to order … the beginning of divinity is in the Father” (Institutes, I.xiii.24). So there is no question that Calvin espoused the doctrine of the Son’s eternal generation as being true with respect to his hypostatic identity, that is, with respect to his Sonship, and he employed the doctrine to distinguish between the Father and the Son as to their order, but he did not espouse the doctrine as being true with respect to the Son’s divine essence. And he concluded his treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity by declaring that the ancient speculation that the “eternal generation” of the Son always continues was of “little profit,” unnecessarily “burdensome,” “useless trouble,” and “foolish”:

… while I am zealous for the edification of the church, I felt that I would be better advised not to touch upon many things that would profit but little, and would burden my readers with useless trouble. For what is the point in disputing whether the Father always begets? Indeed, it is foolish to imagine a continuous act of begetting, since it is clear that three persons have subsisted in God from eternity. (Institutes, I.xiii.29)

Not wanting the heretic Valentinus Gentilis to be able to declare that he, with his insistence on the self-existence of the Son, was in any way out of accord with the ancient church’s creedal tradition, Calvin writes in the Preface to his Expositio impietatis Valen. Gentilis (1561):

… the words of the Council of Nice run: Deum esse de Deo. A hard saying [dura locutio], I confess; but for removing its ambiguity no one can be a more suitable interpreter than Athanasius, who dictated it. And certainly the design of the fathers [he could have Cyril and Augustine particularly in mind here] was none other than to maintain the origin which the Son draws from the Father in respect of Person, without in any way opposing the sameness of essence and deity in the two, so that as to essence the Word is God absque principio [without beginning], while in Person the Son has His principium [beginning (but with reference to order)] from the Father.

By his phrase “A hard saying” Calvin seems to have meant that “the form of the statement is inexact—the term Deus requiring to be taken in each case of its occurrence in a non-natural personal sense—and that, being inexact, it is liable to be misused in the interests of a created God,”15 which is what the heretic Gentilis was teaching. He may also have intended to suggest that a less ambiguous way (he specifically states that there is “ambiguity” about it) should have been chosen of saying that the Son draws his origin with respect to his Person from the Father than the harsh locution Deus de Deo which certainly is capable of being misunderstood as teaching that the Son owes his divine essence to the Father. But in either case, it is quite clear that Calvin, speaking elsewhere of the Creed’s “battology,”16 was willing to be critical of the language of the Nicene Creed and doubtless some of the understanding lying behind it!

Calvin’s successors at Geneva, Theodore Beza and Josiah Simler, as well as a whole mass of representative Reformed teachers, such as Danaeus, Perkins, Keckermann, Trelcatius, Tilenus, Polanus, Wollebius, Scalcobrigius, Altingius, Grynaeus, Schriverius, Zanchius, Chamierus, Zadeel, Lectius, Pareus, Mortonus, Whittaker, Junius, Vorstius, Amesius, Rivetus, and Voetius all taught that Christ is properly to be called αὐτόθεος, autotheos. It is surely the presence of such a mass of representative Reformed teachers that led Gerald Bray to state that

the Protestant Reformers, in spite of their links with the Augustinian tradition,… had a vision of God which was fundamentally different17 from anything which had gone before, or what has appeared since.18

And one of the ways their “fundamentally different” view of God is to be distinguished from the past, according to Bray, was precisely their belief that “the persons of the Trinity are equal to one another in every respect,”19 a position, Bray says, which, though rooted in the Athanasian Creed, had been qualified in the medieval tradition to mean that “the Father was recognized as the source of divinity in a way that the other two persons were not.”

More recent Reformed opinion

Since the days of the Reformation many respected Reformed theologians have discussed this doctrine and Calvin’s handling of it. Some Protestant churchmen, such as George Bull and John Pearson, have written defenses of the Trinitarian statements of the Nicene Creed. Here is what three American Reformed theologians have written about Nicea and Calvin’s treatment of the Trinity:

Charles Hodge. Hodge, Princeton Theological Seminary’s nineteenth-century systematician, declares that exception must be taken, not to the facts themselves of both the subordination of the Son and the Holy Spirit to the Father and the nature of the Son’s eternal generation, but to the Nicene Fathers’ explanations of them.20 He explains what he means this way:

… the fathers who framed [the Nicene] creed, and those by whom it was defended, did go beyond [the] facts [of Scripture concerning the Son’s subordination to the Father as to the mode of subsistence and operation]. They endeavored to explain what was the nature of that subordination.… they still spoke of the Father as the Monas, as having in order of thought the whole Godhead in Himself; so that He alone was God of Himself (αὐτόθεος, autotheos, in that sense of the word), that He was the fountain, the cause, the root … of the divinity as subsisting in the Son and Spirit; that He was greater than the other divine persons.…

… It is no doubt a Scriptural fact that the relation between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity is expressed by the relative terms Father and Son. It is also said that the Son is begotten of the Father.… The relation, therefore, of the Second Person to the First is that of filiation or sonship. But what is meant by the term, neither the Bible nor the ancient creeds explain. It may be sameness of nature.… It may be likeness.… It may be derivation of essence.… Or, it may be something altogether inscrutable and to us incomprehensible.

The Nicene fathers, instead of leaving the matter where the Scriptures leave it, undertake to explain what is meant by sonship, and teach that it means derivation of essence. The First Person of the Trinity is Father, because he communicates the essence of the the Godhead to the Second Person; and the Second Person is Son, because He derives that essence from the First Person. This is what they mean by Eternal Generation. Concerning which it was taught,—

1. That it was the person not the essence of the Son that was generated. The essence is self-existent and eternal, but the person of the Son is generated (i. e., He becomes a person) by the communication to Him of the divine essence. This point continued to be insisted upon through the later periods of the Church.

(Hodge’s points 2 through 5 follow on the next page.)21

With respect to the Reformers’ attitude toward these Nicene speculations, Hodge writes:

The Reformers themselves were little inclined to enter into these speculations. They were especially repugnant to such minds as Luther’s. He insisted on taking the Scriptural facts as they were, without any attempt at explanation.… 22

Calvin also was opposed to going beyond the simple statement of the Scriptures.23

After citing a lengthy passage in the Latin (as he was wont to do) from Calvin’s Institutes, I.xiii.19–20, Hodge concludes:

We have here [that is, in Calvin’s understanding of the Trinity] the three essential facts involved in the doctrine of the Trinity, namely, unity of essence, distinction of persons, and subordination without any attempt at explanation.24

Benjamin B. Warfield. Warfield, Princeton Theological Seminary’s early-twentieth-century theological giant, asserts in his essay on Calvin’s doctrine of the Trinity:

Although [Calvin] taught that the Son was begotten of the Father, and of course begotten before all time, or as we say from all eternity, he seems to have drawn back from the doctrine of “eternal generation” as it was expounded by the Nicene Fathers. They were accustomed to explain “eternal generation”… not as something which has occurred once for all at some point of time in the past … but as something which is always occurring, a perpetual movement of the divine essence from the first Person to the second, always complete, never completed. Calvin seems to have found this conception difficult, if not meaningless.25

As proof of his assertion, Warfield cites Calvin’s own closing words in Institutes, I.xiii.29, the words which I cited above. Warfield also states in a second article:

Under the leadership of Athanasius this doctrine [the Triune God, one in being, but in whose unity there subsists three consubstantial Persons] was proclaimed as the faith of the church at the Council of Nice in 325 a.d., and by his strenuous labors and those of “the three great Cappadocians,”… it gradually won its way to the actual acceptance of the entire church.… The language [of the later so-called Athanasian Creed] still retains elements of speech which owe their origin to the modes of thought characteristic of the Logos-Christology of the second century, fixed in the nomenclature of the church by the Nicene Creed of 325 a.d., though carefully guarded there against the subordinationism inherent in the Logos-Christology, and made the vehicle rather of the Nicene doctrines of the eternal generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit, with the consequent subordination of the Son and Spirit to the Father in modes of subsistence as well as of operation.… It has been found necessary … from time to time, vigorously to reassert the principle of equalization, over against a tendency unduly to emphasize the elements of subordinationism which still hold a place thus in the traditional language in which the church states its doctrine of the Trinity. In particular, it fell to Calvin, in the interests of the true Deity of Christ—the constant motive of the whole body of Trinitarian thought—to reassert and make good the attribute of self-existence (autotheotēs) for the Son. Thus Calvin takes his place, alongside of Tertullian, Athanasius, and Augustine, as one of the chief contributors to the exact and vital statement of the Christian doctrine of the Triune God.26

Then, commenting approvingly on Calvin’s doctrine of the Trinity in the first article cited, Warfield writes:

The principle of [Calvin’s] doctrine of the Trinity was not the conception he formed of the relationship of the Son to the Father and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, expressed respectively by the two terms “generation” and “procession”; but the force of his conviction of the absolute equality of the Persons. The point of view which adjusted everything to the conception of “generation” and “procession” as worked out by the Nicene Fathers was entirely alien to him. The conception itself he found difficult, if not unthinkable; and although he admitted the facts of “generation” and “procession,” he treated them as bare facts,27 and refused to make them constitutive of the doctrine of the Trinity. He rather adjusted everything to the absolute divinity of each Person, their community in the one only true Deity; and to this we cannot doubt that he was ready not only to subordinate, but even to sacrifice, if need be, the entire body of Nicene speculation. Moreover, it would seem at least very doubtful if Calvin, while he retained the conception of “generation” and “procession,” strongly asserting that the Father is the principium divinitatis [beginning of divinity], that the Son was “begotten” by Him before all ages and that the Spirit “proceeded” from the Father and the Son before time began, thought of this begetting and procession as involving any communication of essence. His conception was that, because it is the Person of the Father which begets the Person of the Son, and the Person of the Spirit which proceeds from the Persons of the Father and the Son, it is precisely the distinguishing property of the Son which is the thing begotten, not the essence common to Father and Son, and the distinguishing property of the Spirit which is the product of the procession, not the essence which is common to all three persons.28

Finally, Warfield asserts,

the direct Scriptural proof which had been customarily relied upon for [the] establishment [of the Nicene Fathers’ doctrine of “eternal generation”], [Calvin] destroyed, refusing to rest a doctrinal determination on “distorted texts.” He left, therefore, little Biblical evidence for the doctrine … , except what might be inferred from the mere terms ‘Father,’ ‘Son’ and ‘Spirit,’ and the general consideration that our own adoption into the relation of sons of God in Christ implies for Him a Sonship of a higher and more immanent character, which is His by nature.… Certainly other explanations of these facts are possible.… 29 Nothing, meanwhile, could illustrate more strikingly the vitality of the ecclesiastical tradition than that in such a state of the case the Nicene construction of the Trinity held its ground: held its ground with Calvin himself in its substantial core, and with the majority of his followers in its complete speculative elaboration.30

Here Warfield draws a distinction between the Nicene tradition’s “substantial core” which he says Calvin held (with which conclusion I agree) and the tradition’s “complete speculative elaboration” which he says the majority of Calvin’s followers continue to hold. That is to say, Calvin rejected that body of speculation in the Nicene tradition respecting the doctrine of the Trinity which would have included, as Warfield stated earlier, the ancient Fathers’ conception of a continuing “generation” and “procession” entailing the ongoing communication of essence from the Father to the Son and from the Father and the Son to the Holy Spirit. At this point in his exposition of Calvin’s doctrine, Warfield strikingly acknowledges what for him are three “astonishments”:

We are astonished at the persistence of so large an infusion of the Nicene phraseology in the expositions of Augustine, after that phraseology had really been antiquated by his fundamental principle of equalization in his construction of the Trinitarian relations: we are more astonished at the effort which Calvin made to adduce Nicene support for his own conceptions: and we are more astonished still at the tenacity with which his followers cling to all the old speculations.31

While it was never Calvin’s intent to create a party—he simply wanted to reform the church by restoring a scriptural theology in it—Warfield observes that Calvin’s position, nevertheless, marking an epoch in church history,

did not seem a matter of course when he first enunciated it. It roused opposition and created a party. But it did create a party: and that party was shortly the Reformed Churches, of which it became characteristic that they held and taught the self-existence of Christ as God and defended therefore the application to Him of the term ἀυτόθεος [autotheos]; that is to say, in the doctrine of the Trinity they laid the stress upon the equality of the Persons sharing the same essence, and thus set themselves with more or less absoluteness against all subordinationism in the explanation of the relations of the Persons to one another.32

Warfield had elaborated upon this “aroused opposition” earlier in this same essay in these words:

… strange as it may seem, theologians at large had been accustomed to apply the principle of consubstantiality to the Persons of the Trinity up to Calvin’s vigorous assertion of it, with some at least apparent reserves. And when he applied it without reserve it struck many as a startling novelty if not a heretical pravity. The reason why the consubstantiality of the Persons of the Trinity, despite its establishment in the Arian controversy and its incorporation in the Nicene formulary as the very hinge of orthodoxy, was so long in coming fully to its rights in the general apprehension was no doubt that Nicene orthodoxy preserved in its modes of stating the doctrine of the Trinity some remnants of the conceptions and phraseology proper to the older prolationism of the Logos Christology,33 and these, although rendered innocuous by the explanations of the Nicene Fathers and practically antiquated since Augustine, still held their place formally and more or less conditioned the mind of men—especially those who held the doctrine of the Trinity in a more or less traditional manner. The consequence was that when Calvin taught the doctrine in its purity and free from the leaven of subordinationism which still found a lurking place in current thought and speech, he seemed violently revolutionary to men trained in the old forms of speech and imbued with the old modes of conception, and called out reprobation in the most unexpected quarters.34

John Murray. Murray, professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, states regarding Calvin’s view of the “catholic” doctrine of the Father’s eternal generation of the Son:

Students of historical theology are acquainted with the furore which Calvin’s insistence upon the self-existence of the Son as to his deity aroused at the time of the Reformation. Calvin was too much of a student of Scripture to be content to follow the lines of what had been regarded as Nicene orthodoxy on this particular issue. He was too jealous for the implications of the homoousion clause of the Nicene creed to be willing to accede to the interpretation which the Nicene fathers, including Athanasius, placed upon another expression in the same creed, namely, ‘very God of very God’ (θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ [theon alēthinon ek theou alēthinou]). No doubt this expression is repeated by orthodox people without any thought of suggesting what the evidence derived from the writings of the Nicene fathers would indicate the intent to have been. This evidence shows that the meaning intended is that the Son derived his deity from the Father and that the Son was not therefore αὐτόθεος [autotheos]. It was precisely this position that Calvin controverted with vigour. He maintained that as respects personal distinction the Son was of the Father but as respects deity he was self-existent (ex se ipso). This position ran counter to the Nicene tradition. Hence the indictments levelled against him. It is, however, to the credit of Calvin that he did not allow his own more sober thinking to be suppressed out of deference to an established pattern of thought when the latter did not commend itself by conformity to Scripture and was inimical to Christ’s divine identity.35

I would suggest, therefore, with Calvin and these American theologians, that Christians should not believe that the Father, through an eternal act of begetting in the depth of the divine being that is always continuing, is begetting the Son’s essential being as God out of his being, which act thereby “puts this second person in possession of the whole divine essence.”36 They should believe, rather, that the Son, with respect to his essential being, is wholly God of himself (αὐτόθεος, autotheos). They should also believe that the Son, as the second Person of the Godhead, derives his hypostatic identity as the Son from the “generated” relation “before all ages” which he sustains to God the Father, the first Person of the Godhead (what this means beyond “order” I cannot say and will not attempt to say), and that the Father precedes the Son by reason of order. This means that there is no essential subordination of the Son to the Father within the Godhead.


Consumed as the Nicene Council was with working out the doctrine of the person of the Son over against the claims of the Arians, it said nothing about the Holy Spirit beyond the simple declaration that the Church believed in him. It was but natural that until the Church had settled the issue of the deity and personal subsistence of the Son it could not make much progress regarding the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. This lack was addressed at the Council of Constantinople in 381 a.d. when, in addition to addressing the teaching of Apollinaris (or –ius) which damaged the full humanity of Christ, it declared against the Arian and Semi-Arian parties who were teaching that just as the Father had created the Son so also the Son had created the Spirit,37 that the Church believes “in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [τό ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον, to ek tou patros ekporeuomenon], who, with the Father and Son, is worshiped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets.” By the phrase “who proceeds from the Father” (the Vulgate had translated the Greek with qui a Patre procedit) the Council intended to point out the unique property (ἰδιότης, idiotēs) of the Spirit which distinguished him from the Father and the Son, and by this confession it meant to say that just as the Son is essentially, necessarily, and eternally generated by the Father, so also the Spirit essentially, necessarily, and eternally proceeds from the Father. The later doctrine of the Double Procession—that the Spirit proceeds also from the Son—can be traced back to Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine and was current at Rome in the fifth century with Pope Leo I declaring it an aspect of the orthodox faith.38 It is also reflected in the et Filio in verse 23 of the fifth-century Athanasian Creed. Accordingly, the Third Council of Toledo in 589 a.d. proclaimed it a tenet of orthodoxy and may have had the words “and the Son” (Lat. filioque) inserted in the third article of the Creed, reflecting Western Christianity’s anti-Arian theology by announcing in the fact of the Spirit’s procession from both the Father and the Son the latter’s co-equality with the Father.39 Louis Berkhof approvingly defines the Holy Spirit’s “spiration” as “that eternal and necessary act of the first and second persons in the Trinity whereby they, within the divine Being, become the ground of the personal subsistence of the Holy Spirit, and put the third person in possession of the whole divine essence, without any division, alienation or change.”40

The actual scriptural ground for this doctrine, beyond the names of the Persons of the Godhead, is quite slight at best. The New Testament teaches that the Father and the Son “send” (John 14:26, πέμψει, pempsei, 15:26, πέμψω, pempsō, 16:7, πέμψει, pempsei) the Holy Spirit, and that the Son “breathed” (John 20:21, ἐνεφύσησεν, enephysēsen) and “poured out” (Acts 2:17, ἐκχεῶ, ekcheō; 33, ἐξέχεεν, execheen) the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. But these expressions are descriptive of the Father’s and the Son’s soteric activity as well as the Spirit’s operational submission to them in the economy of redemption and not of an inscrutable mysterious process transpiring eternally within the Trinity. In fact, only one verse in the entire New Testament even remotely approaches such a teaching, namely, John 15:26, which contains the phrase, “who is coming forth [παρὰ … ἐκπορεύεται, para … ekporeuetai] from the Father.”41 But even here, the much more likely meaning, in accordance with John 14:26, is that the Spirit “comes forth from the Father” into the world on his salvific mission of witnessing to Jesus Christ. B. F. Westcott, commenting on this verse, declares:

The original term ἐκπορεύεται [ekporeuetai] may in itself either describe proceeding from a source, or proceeding on a mission. In the former sense the preposition “out of” (ἐκ, ek) would naturally be required to define the source (Rev. i.16, etc.); on the other hand the preposition “from” (παρά, para) is that which is habitually used with the verb “to come forth” [ἐξέρχομαι, exerchomai] of the mission of the Son, e. g. xvi.27, xvii.8. The use of the latter preposition [παρά, para] in this place [15:26] seems therefore to show decisively that the reference here is to the temporal mission of the Holy Spirit, and not to the eternal Procession.… it is most worthy of notice that the Greek Fathers who apply this passage to the eternal Procession instinctively substitute ἐκ, ek, for παρά, para, in their application of it.42

Alfred Plummer concurs:

It seems best to take this much discussed clause as simply yet another way of expressing the fact of the mission of the Paraclete … there seems to be nothing in the word [ἐκπορεύεσθαι, ekporeuesthai] itself to limit it to the Eternal Procession. On the other hand the παρά, para, is strongly in favour of the reference being to the mission.43

J. H. Bernard writes:

Here [in John 15:26 ἐκπορεύεσθαι, ekporeuesthai] is used … of the Spirit “coming forth” from God in His mission of witness. To interpret the phrase of what is called “the Eternal Procession” of the Spirit has been a habit of theologians … But to claim that this interpretation was present to the mind of Jn. would be to import into the Gospel the controversies and doctrines of the fourth century. [The clause] does not refer to the mysterious relationships between the Persons of the Holy Trinity, but only to the fact that the Spirit who bears witness of Jesus Christ has come from God.44

H. R. Reynolds declares:

[John 15:26] is the great text on which the Western Church and the Greeks have alike relied for their doctrine concerning the “procession of the Spirit,” the timeless, pre-mundane relations among the Personalities of the Godhead.… There are those … who urge that these passages do not bear at all upon the internal relations of the Godhead, but simply refer to the temporal mission of the Holy Spirit … and much may be said in favour of this view. If this verse does not furnish the basis of an argument, there is no other which can be advanced to establish the view either of the Eastern or Western Church.45

Raymond E. Brown concurs with these studied opinions, as do F. F. Bruce, Leon Morris, and J. I. Packer.46 And D. A. Carson declares:

The procession of the Spirit was understood [by the creed of Nicaea and of Constantinople] in metaphysical terms, i. e. this clause was understood to refer to the Spirit’s ontological relationship with the Father, not to the mission on which he was sent. [But] it is almost certain that the words ‘who goes out from the Father’, set in synonymous parallelism with ‘who I will send to you from the Father’, refer not to some ontological ‘procession’ but to the mission of the Spirit.47

Loraine Boettner writes:

In the original Greek [of John 16:28] the phrase “came out from,” which is here used of Jesus, is stronger than the “proceedeth from” [in 15:26], which is used of the Spirit; yet the context of John 16:28 makes it perfectly clear that what Jesus said of Himself had reference to His mission and not to what is commonly termed His eternal generation; for His coming forth from the Father into the world is contrasted with His leaving the world and going back to the Father. We are, of course, told that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and by the Son; but the mission as He comes to apply redemption is an entirely different thing from the procession. It seems much more natural to assume that the words of John 15:26, which were a part of the Farewell Discourse, and which were, therefore, spoken within the very shadow of the cross, were not philosophical but practical, designed to meet a present and urgent need, namely, to comfort and strengthen the disciples for the ordeal through which they too were soon to pass … Hence, John 15:26, at best, carries no decisive weight concerning the doctrine of the procession of the Spirit, if, indeed, it is not quite clearly designed to serve an entirely different purpose.48

With this basic conclusion I am in essential accord. Therefore, I would suggest that Christians should not believe that the Holy Spirit, through an eternal act of proceeding in the depth of the divine being that is always continuing, is continually proceeding out of the Father and the Son as to his essential being as God, which act thereby “puts the third person in possession of the whole divine essence.”49 They should believe, rather, that the Holy Spirit, with respect to his essential being, is wholly God of himself (αὐτόθεος, autotheos). They should also believe that the Holy Spirit, as the third Person of the Godhead, derives his hypostatic identity as the Holy Spirit from his “spiration” “before all ages” from God the Father, the first Person of the Godhead, and God the Son, the second Person of the Godhead (what this means beyond “order” and how spiration differs in nature from generation I cannot say and will not attempt to say except to assert that the former is from both the Father and the Son and the latter is from the Father alone), and that the Father and the Son precede the Holy Spirit by reason of order. This means that there is no essential subordination of the Spirit to the Father and the Son within the Godhead.


As I bring this chapter to a close, I would offer two cautions. First, I would insist, precisely because the Bible advocates the existence of the one tri-personal Deity, that the three Persons of the Godhead do necessarily exist and that they have distinguishing properties that are real, eternal, and necessary. Indeed, without these distinguishing personal properties there would be no Trinity. The distinguishing property of the Father is paternity (paternitas) from which flow “economical” activities which are unique to his paternity; the Son’s is filiation (filiatio) from which flow “economical” activities which are unique to his filiation; and the Holy Spirit’s is spiration (spiratio) from which flow “economical” activities which are unique to his spiration, all descriptions which can be justified by Scripture. But I would also insist that the church must be extremely cautious in asserting what these distinguishing properties mean lest we go beyond Scripture. There can be no question that in his paternity the Father is the Father of the Son. But we must not attempt to define, beyond the fact of the clearly implied order, a modal “how” of the Father’s paternity. And there can be no question that the Son is the Son of the Father. We know that his Sonship means that he is equal with the Father with respect to deity (John 5:18; 10:33–36), and we also know that as the Son he is to be distinguished from the Father with respect to his personal property of filiation (John 1:1–3, 18). We know also that his Sonship implies an order of relational (not essential) subordination to the Father (which is doubtless what dictated the divisions of labor in the eternal Covenant of Redemption) in that it is unthinkable that the Son would have sent the Father to do his will. But beyond this we dare not go. We must not attempt to define, beyond the fact of the clearly implied order, a modal “how” of the Son’s filiation. It is enough to know that the Scriptures affirm that the titles “Father” and “Son” speak of a personal, differentiating manifoldness (that is, real “subjective conscious selves”) within the depth of the divine Being.

Finally, there can be no question that the Holy Spirit is a divine Person who is both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9), and that he “proceeded” or “came forth from” the Father and the Son (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7; 20:22) at Pentecost on his salvific mission of bearing witness to the Son. But we must not attempt to define, beyond the fact of the clearly implied order, a modal “how” of the Spirit’s spiration. It is enough to know that the Scriptures affirm that this title distinguishes a third subjective conscious self in the depth of the divine Being. So I would suggest that it was not in their concern to distinguish between the persons of the Godhead that the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers made their mistake. Not at all. That task had to be undertaken in the face of the Sabellian heresy which denied any real personal distinctions between them. Where they made their mistake was in their speculative attempts to explain how it is that the Son “became” the Son of the Father and how it is that the Spirit “became” both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. The explanations that were generally offered (there were clear exceptions here such as Cyril and Augustine) have the Son acquiring his essence and personal subsistence from the Father through an eternally continuing act of being begotten and the Spirit acquiring his essence and personal subsistence from the Father and the Son through an eternally continuing act of proceeding from both of them. But in doing so they went beyond Scripture and concluded to formulations that in effect make God the Father alone autotheotic and that deny to the Son and the Spirit their self-existing autotheotic nature—the very opposite effect to the dominant intention which governed them throughout their labors and which led them to affirm the doctrine of the ὁμοούσια, homoousia, in their attempt to write a statement that defended the one undivided and unabridged deity of all three Persons of the Godhead.

Second, I would caution that these two early creeds are not evangelical creeds, that is, creeds explicating soteric matters. They were framed in the context of the Trinitarian debates in the fourth century and are underdeveloped respecting and virtually silent on soteriological matters. As has been often pointed out, there is nothing in them that the Judaizers whom Paul confronted in his letter to the Galatians could not also have endorsed. Nevertheless, Paul condemned the Judaizers in the strongest terms possible because they were preaching “another gospel which is not another” when they corrupted his doctrine of justification by faith alone. Quite obviously, according to Paul there is no saving value in holding to an “orthodox view” of God as Trinity if one is at the same time also holding to an “unorthodox” view of the saving work of the Trinity.

Herman Bavinck, professor of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam, has rightly observed in this regard that “the Reformation has brought to light that not the mere historical belief in the doctrine of the trinity, no matter how pure, is sufficient unto salvation, but only the true heart-born confidence that rests in God himself, who in Christ has revealed himself as the triune God.”50 So one must clearly see that there is a danger in reciting even the revered, time-honored, truth-laden Apostles’ Creed if one assumes that by simply believing its tenets one is thereby necessarily saved. For it is possible to believe the Apostles’ Creed, as well as all the other Trinitarian creeds, but believe at the same time that if one would go to heaven when he dies he must still put an “and” or a “plus” of his own good works after the triune God’s saving work. But he who would trust in God’s saving work plus his own “good works” that presumably possess some merit before God has, according to Paul, made Christ’s cross-work, as the Judaizers did before him, of no value to him (ὑμᾶς οὐδὲν ὠφελήσει, humas ouden ōphelēsei, Gal 5:2); he has been alienated from Christ (κατηργήθητε απὸ Χριστοῦ, katērgēthēte apo Christou, 5:4a); he has fallen away from grace (τῆς χάριτος ἐξεπέσατε, tēs charitos exepesate, 5:4b); he has abolished the offense of the cross (κατήργηται τὸ σκάνδαλον τοῦ σταυροῦ, katērgētai to skandalon tou staurou, 5:11); he is trusting in a “different gospel which is no gospel at all” (1:6–7), and he is doing so at the peril of his soul, because he shows thereby that he has never been truly regenerated by the Holy Spirit (or he would submit to the teaching of Holy Scripture in the matter of salvation51) but is still lost in his sin.

1 See Chapter Sixteen, 583–601, for my discussion of the theological and historical antecedents leading up to the Council and the Council’s proceedings.

2 John Calvin, Institutes, I.xiii.5.

3 John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), 4:278.

4 Murray, Collected Writings, 4:278–79.


The Cappadocian doctrine known as the περιχώρησις, perichōrēsis (Lat. equivalent, circumincessio) (the doctrine of the ontological interpenetration of Persons or mutual co-inherence or indwelling of the three Persons within the Godhead)—thought to be taught by Jesus in his declaration: “The Father is in me, and I [am] in the Father” (10:38; see 14:10, 11; 17:21)—teaches that this mutual indwelling is a vital characteristic of the divine unity. While the doctrine is necessarily true, given simply the fact that the triune God is one divine being, I would caution that it is not entirely clear from the John context that our Lord intended to speak of this ontological interpenetration between the persons of the Father and the Son when he said this. How could Jesus’ contemporaries, simply by observing his works, have deduced the doctrine of the ontological coinherence or interpenetration of the Persons of the Godhead? They could, however, have deduced from an observation of his miraculous works that his ministry was in accord with the Father’s will and enjoyed the Father’s blessing and therefore that the Father was in some sense in union with Jesus and that Jesus was in some sense in union with the Father.

Then when Reformed theologians interpret the preposition ἐν (en) in Paul’s ἐν Χριστῷ, en Christō, phrase and his Χριστὸς ἐν ὑμῖν, Christos en humin, phrase (Col 1:27), the same preposition found in John 10:38, do they not consistently say that Paul’s phrases speak of the Christian’s vital spiritual union with Jesus Christ? Would any say that the phrases speak of a mutual ontological coinherence or interpenetration of persons one with the other? When Jesus prayed that all of his people “may be one, Father, just as [καθὼς, kathōs] you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us” (John 17:21), and when he stated that the glory the Father had given him he had given to his people “that [ἵνα, hina] they may be one just as [καθὼς, kathōs] we are one” (John 17:22), would any say that he was teaching that Christians would eventually know a mutual ontological coinherence or interpenetration of persons with each other or with the Godhead? Do Reformed theologians not say that he was praying for the church’s observable spiritual oneness in purpose, in love, in action in this world?

Whatever one may finally decide about the doctrine of the perichōrēsis (which I accept, not because of John 10:38, but because of the unitary oneness of God), one still has sufficient warrant in the Bible’s teaching that the three Persons (Matt 28:19), each fully God (Col 2:8), are still one God (Rom 3:30; 1 Cor 8:4; 1 Tim 2:5; James 2:19) to affirm the three Persons’ numerically identical essence.

6 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 94.

7 Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenchtic Theology (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994), Third Topic, Question XXIX, argues that the doctrine is also taught in and proven by Psalm 2:7, Proverbs 8:22–31, Micah 5:2, Colossians 1:5 and Hebrews 1:3. His exegesis, however, is more assertive than probative, more scholastic than biblical.

8 See Benjamin B. Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (Reprint: Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), V:278, fn. 136.

9 It should be noted in passing that if Jesus had been Mary’s “only” biological son, as Roman Catholicism avers, Luke could have informed his readers of this fact by using μονογενής, monogenēs, in Luke 2:7 just as he did in Luke 7:12, 8:42, and 9:38. As it is, however, he employed πρωτότοκος, prōtotokos, meaning “firstborn,” implying that she had other children after she gave birth to Jesus.

10 Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Person of Christ,” Works, II:194; see also Dale Moody, “God’s Only Son: The Translation of John 3:16 in the Revised Standard Version,” Journal of Biblical Literature LXXII (1953), 213–19; and Richard N. Longenecker, “The One and Only Son,” in The Making of the NIV (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 117–24.

11 See Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, n. d.), I:470–71.

12 Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John (AB) (New York: Doubleday, 1982), 620–22.

13 I concur, but when I say that the three Persons of the Godhead are “of themselves” I do not mean that they possess the quality of aseity independently of each other. That would imply tritheism. What I mean is that, in that each is fully God, they share the quality of aseity which inheres in the one divine essence.

14 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, I:467, declares Calvin’s argument here to be “conclusive.”

15 Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:249.

16 In his dispute with Peter Caroli Calvin refers to the Nicene Creed’s “battology,” not to controvert the words but simply to make it clear to all that he did not feel “confined to the very words of the old formulas in his expression of the doctrine of the Trinity” (Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:210–11).

17 “Fundamentally different” is probably a bit strong. “Different in some respects” would be truer as a description, I think.

18 Gerald Bray, The Doctrine of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1993), 197.

19 Bray, The Doctrine of God, 200.

20 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, I:468. Quite interestingly, both Hodge (Systematic Theology, I:462) and Warfield drew a distinction between the Nicene Creed as such and the theology of the Nicene Fathers who produced it (Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:250). By drawing this distinction both Hodge and Warfield give their endorsement to the Creed as written while at the same time calling into question some of the doctrinal thinking of the Nicene Fathers that lay behind some of the Creed’s particular formulations. I find this distinction somewhat strange, to say the least. A creed will normally contain the doctrine and reflect the theology of those who compose it. This means in the present case that if one would be critical of the Nicene Fathers’ doctrine in certain areas, he ought to be equally critical of those formulations which are the products of that doctrine should they appear in the Nicene Creed.

21 Hodge, Systematic Theology, I:465, 468, emphasis supplied.

22 See Martin Luther’s comment on Psalm 2:7, for example, in What Luther Says, compiled by Ewald M. Plass (St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia: 1959), 1387, entry 4469.

23 Hodge, Systematic Theology, I:466.

24 Hodge, Systematic Theology, I:466–67, emphasis supplied.

25 Benjamin B. Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:247, emphasis supplied.

26 Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, II:170–71, emphasis supplied.

27 What Calvin meant by his use of the terms was the idea of order, that is to say, that the Father with respect to hypostatic order is, as the Father, the “beginning of deity” and that the Son was “begotten” by the Father with respect to hypostatic order.

28 Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:257–58, emphasis supplied.

29 For these explanations, see Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:278, fn. 136.

30 Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:277–79; for evidence of this assertion, see 277, fn. 135.

31 Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:279, emphasis supplied.

32 Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:251, emphasis supplied.

33 The “prolational” remnants of the conceptions and phraseology of the Logos Christology that Warfield says were preserved in Nicene orthodoxy were preserved, in my opinion, precisely in the following series of “eternal generation” phrases of the Nicene and Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creeds: “begotten out of [ἐκ, ek] the Father … , that is, out of [ἐκ, ek] the essence [οὐσίας, ousias] of the Father” (The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of a.d. 381 eliminates this explanatory phrase beginning with “that is” and substitutes for that phrase the phrase “from all eternity.”), “God out of [ἐκ, ek] God,” “Light out of [ἐκ, ek] Light,” “true God out of [ἐκ, ek] true God.”

34 Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” Works, V:233, emphasis supplied. Opposition during the Reformation Age came from Romanists (primarily), some Lutherans and later from some Arminians.

35 John Murray, “Systematic Theology, “ Collected Writings (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1982), 4:8, emphasis supplied. Murray cites in a footnote on the same page evidence from Athanasius’ Expositio Fidei “where it is clearly stated that the Father has being from himself … whereas the Son derives his Godhood [θεότης, theotēs] from the Father.… See also his De Decretis Nicaenae Synodi, paragraphs 3 and 19.”

36 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 94.

37 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Fifth revised edition of the original 1910 publication; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), III:663.

38 In his letter, Quam laudabiliter, to the Spanish bishop Turibius of Asturica, dated July 21, 447, Leo I, following an earlier Latin tradition, declared that he wanted to see the doctrine of the double procession of the Spirit affirmed at a council to be held in Toledo. See Enchiridion Symbolorum (ed. by Denzinger and Schönmetzer), 284.


The filioque clause, adopted officially at Rome around 1017, has continued to this day to be a major difference between Western Christendom and the Eastern churches which reject it because it was endorsed by the Third Council of Toledo without consulting with or seeking the theological insights of a broader ecumenical gathering. This clause contributed to the prevention of the reunion of the churches in 1274 and 1439.

The Patriarch Photius of Constantinople, who reigned 864 to 867 and 880 to 886, added after the words “from the Father” the word “alone” in his exposition of the Cappadocian theology because, first, John 15:26 refers to the Spirit proceeding only from the Father, and second, the Double Procession tends to fuse the Father and the Son into one archē, giving rebirth to either semi-Sabellianism or ditheism. Other Eastern theologians have added a third and fourth reason, namely, third, the Double Procession no longer allows the Person of the Father as the sole source of the Son and the Spirit to be the ground of unity within the Godhead but must ground the Persons’ unity in the divine essence which they share, thereby overshadowing by the divine essence the diversity of the Persons and thus depersonalizing the Trinity and turning God into an abstraction; fourth, because the Spirit is thus subordinated to the Son, he has been neglected in the west and the Western church thereby regards itself too much as an institution of the world, governed in terms of earthly power and centralized jurisdiction. This in turn contributed to papal authority in the west. In my opinion, only the first of these four reasons has any real merit. It is quite a reach, to say the least, to contend that the Double Procession leads to Sabellianism, depersonalizes the Trinity, and contributes through neglect of the Spirit to papal authority in the west.

40 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 97.

41 John Calvin writes a lengthy treatise on the Trinity in his Institutes, I.xiii, as we have already indicated. But while it is replete with discussion of Christ’s deity and autotheotic character, I can find only two allusions to the Spirit’s procession from the Father (1.xiii.17, 18). Turretin in his Institutes of Elenchtic Theology, Third Topic, Question XXXI, advances even less biblical evidence for this doctrine than he did for the Father’s eternal generation of the Son (which was virtually nil). Here he refers to John 15:26; 16:7, 13–15; 20:22; Galatians 4:6. But again, his exegesis is slight, to say the least, and at every point assumes the position he wishes to prove. The Spirit’s coming forth or being sent in these verses actually has reference to his salvific mission in this world and not to an intra-Trinitarian relationship.

42 B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John (1881; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1962), 224–25 (emphasis supplied).

43 Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to St. John (1882; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1981), 288–89.

44 J. H. Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928), 2:499.

45 H. R. Reynolds, The Gospel of John (reprint of The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1962 ), 2:276 (emphasis supplied). .

46 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (xiii-xxi) (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1970), 29a:689; F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 316; Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 683 (see also his comment in New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Academie: 1986), 265, fn. 18: “…[ἐκ]πορεύεται [(ek)poreuetai] in [John 15:26] is not describing the eternal relations between the Persons of the Trinity, but referring to the sending of the Spirit into the world after the departure of the Son.”); J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1973), 59.

47 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 528–29.

48 Loraine Boettner, Studies in Theology (Phillipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1985, eighteenth printing), 123.

49 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 97.

50 Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, translated by William Hendriksen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1951), 285.

51 In light of John 4:41–42, 8:47, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, and 1 John 4:9–10, the Westminster Confession of Faith, XIV/ii, reminds us that the Christian who has saving faith “believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein.”

Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Lectures Delivered at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Mo. and Knox Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1998), 317.

TRINITY: A Definition, Explanation and History

Posted on: January 1st, 2010 by Matt No Comments

A commonplace of contemporary trinitarian theology is the priority it grants to the narrative and symbolic discourse of Christian worship and proclamation over the leaner, conceptual discourse of theological theory itself. Theology continues to employ conceptual forms of thought in probing the meaning of Trinity, but recently deepened appreciation of the more spontaneous discourse of lived Christian praxis—both biblical and ongoing in the life of the church—suggests a more conscious subordination of trinitarian theory to what might be called the “semantic aim” of Christian proclamation and worship.


The Trinity And Christian Missions To Muslims

Posted on: January 1st, 2010 by Matt No Comments

  Islam has engaged the attention of Christians ever since its rise in Arabia in the seventh century. One obvious reason is the fact that most early Muslim conquests took place within Christian lands. “The People of the Book,” as Jews and Christians were called, faced the choice of adopting the faith of their conquerors, or of remaining in their particular religion. Those who persisted in their Christian commitment gave a reason for this decision. They could not, and would not forsake the biblical Messiah, their Lord and Savior. By implication, they refused to believe in the “heavenly” mission of Muhammad who claimed to be God’s final messenger commissioned to call the world to Islam. From the beginning of the Christian-Muslim encounter, the main debate centered on these fundamental teachings: the authenticity of the Christian Scriptures, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.


Ways Of Describing The Holy Trinity

Posted on: January 1st, 2010 by Matt No Comments

In this article I want to distinguish distinctions between three ways of speaking of the Lord who is “The Trinity.” These are the biblical presentation(s) of God as a unity in plurality; the church dogma of God as the “immanent” Trinity and the teaching of theologians of God as the “economic” Trinity.


The Formation Of The Doctrine Of The Trinity In The Early Church

Posted on: January 1st, 2010 by Matt 1 Comment

The doctrine of the Trinity requires explanation. Over almost two millennia and throughout the world it has been one of the most central and distinctive elements of Christian faith. Yet the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible, and for that reason pastors who follow a rigidly expository method in their preaching may never find themselves preaching on the Trinity. Churches that observe the framework of the Christian year should hear about the Trinity annually when Trinity Sunday comes around. Nevertheless, many churches that cordially assent to the historic creeds as well as Reformation and post-Reformation confessions appear to have a tenuous awareness of this fundamental doctrine.


The Undivided Three: The Doctrine Of The Trinity In Church History

Posted on: January 1st, 2010 by Matt No Comments

Among the greatest achievements of the early church is the forging of the doctrine of the Trinity. It received classical expression in the fourth-century creedal statement known to history as the Nicene Creed, in which Jesus Christ is unequivocally declared to be “true God” and “of one being (homoousios) with the Father” and the Holy Spirit is said to be the “Lord and Giver of life,” who “together with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.”1 Some historians have argued that this document represents the apex of the Hellenization of the church’s teaching, in which fourth-century Christianity traded the vitality of the New Testament church’s experience of God for a cold philosophical formula. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. The Nicene Creed served to sum up a long process of reflection that had its origins in the Christian communities of the first century. As Douglas Ottati, an American professor of theology who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, has recently put it: “Trinitarian theology continues a biblically initiated exploration.”2 Or, in the words of an earlier twentieth-century orthodox theologian Benjamin B. Warfield: the “doctrine of the Trinity lies in Scripture in solution; when it is crystallized from its solvent it does not cease to be scriptural, but only comes into clearer view.”3


The Doctrine Of The Trinity: Is It Biblical?

Posted on: January 1st, 2010 by Matt No Comments

Among the many things that ought to humble us is how little we know about God. We may measure this ignorance in several ways. First, we must feel keenly how little we know of the revelation of God that we have in the Scriptures. We have found Augustine’s oft-quoted maxim true: “The Scriptures are a river in which an infant may wade and an elephant may swim.”1 Some of us who once hoped to be elephantine in mastering the Book have, in fact, demonstrated the clumsiness of an elephant while wading in its fringes.


A Case for the Existence of the Trinity in the Book of Hebrews

Posted on: January 1st, 2010 by Matt No Comments

This section will focus on what the Epistle of Hebrews displays concerning the triune God. First, each Person of the Trinity will be surveyed to find out a common ground that speaks of the Trinitarian presence in Hebrews. Due to the author’s Christological emphasis, God the Son1 will be discussed extensively. Then, the analysis will concentrate on God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit, respectively. How does the Book of Hebrews speak of the second Person of the triune God?

God the Son

From the very outset, Hebrews speaks of Jesus Christ as God’s Son, Heir, Creator, Sustainer, Savior, and Ruler, who sits at the right hand of God (1:2–3). Heb. 1:1–2 introduces a contrast of God’s revelation to the fathers in the prophets (ἐν τοῖς προφήταις), and His revelation “to us in His Son” (ἐν υἰῶ). This


Islam and Understanding The Trinity

Posted on: December 28th, 2009 by Matt No Comments

A Defense of the Trinity

As Christian doctrine, the deity of Christ and the Trinity are inseparable. If one accepts the biblical teaching about the deity of Christ, then he has already acknowledged that there is more than one person in the Godhead. Conversely, if the doctrine of the Trinity is received, then the deity of Christ is already part of it. This is precisely why Muslims reject both, since to accept either is to them a denial of the absolute unity of God.

Muslim Misunderstanding of Biblical Data on the Trinity

There are several obstacles in the Muslim mind that hinder accepting the Christian doctrine of the triunity of God. Some are philosophical and others are biblical. We have already discussed how Islamic scholars engage in an arbitrary and selective use of the biblical texts as it suits their purposes (see Chapter 10). However, even the texts they pronounce "authentic" are twisted or misinterpreted to support their teachings. An examination of several of the more important ones will illustrate our point.