The Lutheran Church of the Triune God

The Triune God

Author: Rev. Holger Sonntag - Lutheran Confessions

The Triune God, for whom this church is named, is the God of the Christian Bible, of the Old and New Testaments. He is the One who created the world in six days out of nothing. He is the One who redeemed the world from its sin. He is the One who sanctifies the world through faith in the gospel. In other words, the Triune God is the one true God in three equal Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For “triune” means “three in one.”

1 Bible
1.1 God is one in three Persons
Three human persons correspond to three human beings or substances. This is different in God: three divine Persons correspond to only one divine Being or Substance, the one Godhead. The Bible teaches this. On the one hand, it states clearly that there is only one God and Lord (Deuteronomy 6:4; Mark 12:29; John 10:30; 1 Cor. 8:6). On the other hand, it clearly teaches that the Father is the one true God (John 6:27; 1 Corinthians 8:6), that the Son is the one true God (John 20:19; Romans 9:5; 1 John 5:20), and that the Holy Spirit is the one true God (Acts 5:3-4).

This means, negatively put, one cannot have the one God apart from his being three Persons. Conversely, one cannot have the three Persons apart from their being one Substance. Nor can one have one or two of the three Persons without the other one or two. All these constructs deny God’s being one in three. In other words, they mean a different god. All attempts to identify the Father of Jesus Christ with “father gods” of other religions fail because of the thoroughly Trinitarian teachings of God’s Word, the Bible. Positively put, this means, he who has the Son has the Father also (John 14:9-10; 1 John 2:23).

1.2 Relations between the Persons within the Godhead
The three Persons of the one Godhead, while being equal as to their one substance, are distinct as to how they relate to one another. The Father, whose deity is derived from no one, eternally begets the Son, not the Son the Father. The Son is eternally begotten by Father, not the Father by the Son (Psalm 2:7). Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son, not the Father and the Son from the Holy Spirit (John 15:26; Galatians 4:6). As the adverb “eternally” indicates, the inner-Trinitarian relations between the three Persons are not subject to change, because in God there is no change (Malachi 3:6; James 1:17).

1.3 Relations of the Persons with creation
Ever since Augustine (354-430), one of the most influential theologians of the Western Church, it has become customary to say that the works of the one Godhead in relation to creation are indivisible. The underlying truth, however, is as old as creation: The one true God has created the world. Yet all three Persons of the one Godhead have been involved in this work in their specific way (Genesis 1:1-3; Psalm 33:6; John 1:3; Colossians 1:16). Furthermore, the one God redeemed the world. Again, all three Person of the Godhead were involved in this work in their specific way (Isaiah 63:16; John 3:16; 1 John 4:14; Luke 1:35). Finally, the one God sanctifies the world. All three persons of the Trinity do this in their particular way and office (Jude 1; Hebrews 10:29; 1 Peter 1:2).

The inner-Trinitarian distinctions in the one God receive further evidence in specific self-revelatory events: Only the Father speaks in a voice from heaven (Matthew 3:17; 17:5). Only the Son became man in Jesus (Galatians 4:5). Finally, only the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove or in that of flames (Matthew 3:16; Acts 2:2-4). As becomes especially evident in the case of the incarnation, these events do not destroy or negate the essential unity of the Godhead: On the one hand, Scripture affirms that only the Son became man. On the other hand, it affirms that the entire undivided Godhead dwells in Jesus bodily (Colossians 2:9).

The fact that the three articles of the Creed – creation, redemption, sanctification – are ascribed each to one specific Person of the Trinity is due to the inner- and extra-Trinitarian relations and, respectively, revelations: That is, creation is attributed chiefly to the Father; redemption is attributed chiefly to the Son; sanctification is attributed chiefly to the Spirit.

2. History
Because the one true God is triune in his very nature, belief in the Triune God is not the result of human speculation based on ambiguous human encounters with the divine. God has revealed himself as triune through his Word because he is triune by nature. The correct doctrine of the Trinity is not the transitory result of historical or intellectual evolution. It is the Spirit of God, not man’s spirit, who leads man to acknowledge, and join in the praise of, the Triune God (1 Corinthians 2:10, 14).

It is true, however, that the Christian church has struggled over the centuries to speak back to God in a correct, faithful way what he has first revealed about himself in his Word, the Bible. She found herself confronted with false teachings who denied the Unity in the Trinity and the Trinity in the Unity. This has had a confusing impact on some, at times many, Christians so that schisms arose within the Christian Church. This is not altogether surprising: Even in the Christian, sin’s crippling impact on human reason in matters divine is not totally healed during his earthly life (1 Corinthians 2:14; Galatians 5:17, 19-20). This ongoing sinfulness is the origin of false teachings in the church, also concerning the Triune God.

The following paragraphs give a brief overview over the major controversies regarding the doctrine of the Trinity, which took place between the 2nd and 4th centuries. They culminated in the two councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381). These two ecclesiastical assemblies reaffirmed the Scriptural teaching in the form of what is known today as the Nicene Creed.

The greatest challenge to the biblical doctrine of the Trinity appeared in the form of what is known as Monarchianism. This system of thought replaces the biblical revelation of God’s unity (three divine Persons in one divine Being) by a common-sense definition of unity (one being = one person). Therefore God’s three-in-oneness cannot be confessed anymore. In modifications these ideas continue to enjoy popularity to this very day due to their appeal to human reason (e.g., in Unitarianism). They have received much support from today’s liberal biblical scholarship because this scholarship accepts human reason as the ultimate judge in matters biblical and divine.

Two basic configurations of Monarchianism have appeared historically: The first could be called Dynamism; one of its chief representative is Theodotus the Tanner. He teaches that Jesus of Nazareth was a mere man of natural birth on whom an extraordinary but impersonal power (Greek: dynamis, hence Dynamism) was bestowed at his baptism. First after his resurrection this extraordinary man was united with the Father. Another representative of this model is Paul of Samosata.

The second variety of Monarchianism is also known as Modalism. It teaches that the one true God appeared at different times in different forms or modes or under different names. One divine being here corresponds to one divine person (at a time). To be sure, the Son and the Holy Spirit have the same divine essence as the Father; but they never exist at the same time. This understanding obviously makes God’s becoming man, the incarnation, only a transitory event in the ongoing life of the Godhead. The most well-known representative of this model is Sabellius. Hence Modalism is at times also referred to as Sabellianism.

Another version of Monarchianism is Arianism, that is, the understanding of the Trinity as set forth by Arius, an Egyptian priest at the beginning of the 4th century. Arius, whose teacher was a student of Paul of Samosata, also taught the Unity of God in such a way that he became unable to confess the Trinity of Persons. For him, the Son of God was God only in a figurative sense because he had been created by the Father. He pointed out that Christians are called gods as well in the Bible (e.g., John 10:34-36). Christ, for Arius, was such a god, just to a higher degree. In effect, then, God’s Son originally stood, not on God’s side, but on the side of creation.

The main champions for the biblical doctrine of the Trinity in the 4th century were Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzen. The key words in the Nicene Creed concerning God the Son that formulate the biblical answer to the challenge of Arianism are: “true God from true God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father.” The formulations of the Nicene Creed are later (i.e., 5th / 6th century) elaborated on in the so-called Athanasian Creed which is a confession that quite appropriately first states the doctrine of the Trinity and second the doctrine of Christ in concise sentences. For it should have become clear from the above that the denial of the Trinity is intimately linked to the denial of Christ’s being true God and true man in one indivisible Person.

At times, Martin Luther (1483-1546), the great Reformer of the Christian church, is portrayed as having had no real interest in the doctrine of the Trinity. Allegedly, he was preoccupied entirely with the doctrine of justification. It is true, on the one hand, that the doctrine of justification – that man is declared innocent, and thus saved, solely on account of Christ’s life and death, without any works of the law (Romans 3:28) – is the centerpiece of the biblical teaching of Luther. It is also true, on the other hand, that justification is not his only teaching. Luther showed a keen interest also in the doctrine of the Trinity, e.g., in his treatise, “On the Last Words of David” (1543, see Luther’s Works, ed. J. Pelikan, H. Oswald (Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, 1972), 15:299-316). He was very well aware of the fact that a gospel that is not grounded in the nature of God is, at best, a good idea, but no abiding, saving word.

While Luther unwaveringly defended the doctrine of the Trinity (and that of Christ’s two natures), he also warned against reason’s speculation beyond, or against, what Scripture has revealed to faith concerning these matters. This stance is absolutely biblical (see 1 Corinthians 2:10; 1 Timothy 6:16). “Scripture simply confesses the trinity of God and the humanity of Christ ... But how these things can be, Scripture does not say ..., nor is it necessary to know” (“The Bondage of the Will,” 1525, Luther’s Works, ed. H. Lehmann (Fortress: Philadelphia, 1972), 33:28). In one instance Luther, therefore, calls the doctrine of the Trinity an “extremely mysterious and incomprehensible article of faith” (Luther’s Works, 15:310). Elsewhere he remarks concerning the response of the Church to Scripture’s revelation: “We recite these words like parrots without understanding” (“Lectures on Psalm 2,” 1532, Luther’s Works, ed. J. Pelikan (Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, 1955), 12:52).

Two things should be noted in closing: First, the three Ecumenical Creeds – that is, the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds – with their clear Trinitarian confession are set at the beginning of the Book of Concord (1580). This book is a collection of several confessions of faith that historically have been recognized by the Evangelical Lutheran Church as the correct exposition of Holy Scripture. They are therefore normative for those who want to be Lutherans. Second, the chief Lutheran confession of faith authored in the 16th century, the Augsburg Confession (1530), begins with an article on the Holy Trinity that reaffirms the Nicene Creed. Luther’s Smalcald Articles (1537), which are also part of the Lutheran Confessions, likewise begin with a repetition of this central article of the Christian faith. Finally, the last document adopted as a normative confession of the Lutheran Church, the Formula of Concord (1577), clearly restates the ancient condemnations of anti-Trinitarian teachings that have been reappearing ever since the 16th century.