What I Can’t Know If I Don’t Know the Trinity

the trinityI’ve already written of the recent controversy over the Trinity and my hope that solid, theological and spiritual reinvigoration would come from it. All the same, I ran across a fantastic passage in the great divine Herman Witsius’ treatment of the Trinity in his Sacred Dissertations on the Apostle’s Creed (a remarkably careful and pastoral work).

In his comment on the Trinitarian shape of the Apostle’s Creed, he has a short segment arguing for the importance of our knowledge of this chief point of Christian doctrine. It’s not only that a proper understanding of the Trinity is some sort of arid proposition we need to check off a list of “need to know” facts to be “good Christians.” Rather, it’s that without a knowledge of the Trinity, we are simply robbed of all of the chief comforts of Christian faith:

When the Trinity is not known, the necessary consequence is, that the principal foundation of our faith and comfort, are unknown. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid in the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ.

In order to explain this, he goes on to expound the importance of recognizing the work of each person individually, beginning with the Father:

I cannot know how God can show mercy to a sinner in a manner worthy of himself, unless I know he has a Son whom he could send to make satisfaction for sin, and a Spirit who can apply to me the merits of the Son.

Right off the bat, you see the Trinitarian shape of the heart of God’s atoning, justifying, and sanctifying work with the Father sending the Son in the economy of redemption and the Spirit’s application. Continuing on:

If I know not that the Father is God, I shall be ignorant that I am a Son of God,–which is the sum of our felicity.

Without a knowledge that God is eternally Father to the Son, we will not understand the marvel of that highest privilege of the gospel: the adoption unto Sonship into which are admitted in union with Christ by which we can cry “Abba, Father!”

But according to Witsius, that Fatherhood is only good news to us if we recognize God the Son:

If I know not that the Son is God, I shall not form a right estimate of the love of God the Father who has given him to me, nor of the grace of the Son, who, though possessing inconceivable majesty, humbled himself so wonderfully for my sake;

It’s fascinating to see how Witsius is at once trying to point out the importance of each of the persons in the work of salvation, but can only do so with reference to the other persons. (Indeed, earlier on, he spends a good deal of space explaining the unified activity of the whole Trinity in every act ad extra, the one will, mind, and operation of the Godhead and so forth.) But here we see that we can only understand the love of God the Father being magnified in the gift of the eternal Son, whom we can only recognize as majestic in his self-humbling in the working of salvation.

But he pushes on to point out further how the Son’s divinity is crucial to our soul’s peace:

 –nor shall I be able to place a firm dependence upon his satisfaction, which could not be sufficient unless it were of infinite value, or to rely securely on his power, which cannot save me unless it be evidently omnipotent;–it will be impossible for me, in short, to regard him as my Saviour and my Chief Good, because none excepting the true God of Israel is Israel’s God and Redeemer.

The Son’s divinity matters because otherwise, any satisfaction he makes would be merely finite, insufficient for the weighty work of a cosmic atonement. Second, we have strong enemies—sin, death, and the devil—how can I have assurance of the Son’s victory if he is not almighty God himself? Only the “the true God of Israel is Israel’s God and redeemer.”

Finally, he turns to the person of the Holy Spirit:

If…I am not sure that the Holy Spirit, to whose direction and government I ought to commit myself, is God, I shall not be able to esteem my subjection to him as true liberty, to maintain a holy acquiescence in his protecting care, or to rely on his testimony respecting my salvation as a most ample security.

If the Spirit is not God, then submitting to him isn’t the true freedom and dignity of serving the highest Lord. Nor is receiving the Holy Spirit as another counselor the great gift that Jesus says it is (John 16). And listening to his internal witness or testimony via Scripture isn’t hearing the voice of God himself assuring me of my salvation.

For Witsius, then, the Trinity isn’t the doctrine that you get to once you’ve built up all the rest of your faith and you sort of add it as the cherry on top. No, it’s foundation upon which everything is built, and if the foundation is weak, everything comes crumbling down:

Christian faith is of so delicate a character, that it can firmly acquiesce in none but the Most High God. It must, then, be of the first importance and necessity for us to know a doctrine, one which the knowledge of so many necessary points depends.

He concludes this point with a historical example:

This argument is confirmed by experience; for, as we see in the Socinians, the same men who deny the Trinity, deny, also, the satisfaction of Christ, the invincible power of the Spirit in our regeneration and conservation, the certainty of salvation, and the full assurance of faith. The mystery of our salvation through Christ is so intimately connected with the mystery of the Trinity, that when the latter is unknown or denied, the former cannot be known or acknowledged.

The Socinian heretics were remarkable in their day for having denied just about every chief point of doctrine from the deity of Christ, to the atonement, assurance of salvation, an everything else. Witsius says that their chief mistake was the loss of the Trinity. To miscontrue the nature of God is to inevitably misconstrue the nature of God’s salvation. When you lose the Trinity, you pull on the thread that unravels the seamless garment of Christian salvation and comfort.

The point is, when you don’t know God as Trinity, there’s not much you can know about the Gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria

15 thoughts on “What I Can’t Know If I Don’t Know the Trinity

  1. So, if as I believe scripture teaches (and represents) the Holy Spirit is the presence and power of God rather than a distinct “person” (in any sense that we can comprehend as humans) would I necessarily not know the trinitarian form of God? Where in the New Testament do we find an assertion that one has to understand God in trinitarian form in order to have faith? That is your argument isn’t it?

    • I don’t think we need to understand the Trinity to have faith — in that case, who does? — but when we come to faith by accepting our need for salvation from our sins by Christ’s atonement alone, our faith and our Christian life only grows and deepens to the extent that our understanding of what’s been revealed about the Trinity grows and deepens.

      • Fair enough if what has been revealed is directly from apostolic/canonical revelation and not primarily from the teaching of the church hundreds of years later in and through conciliar debates, conclusions, and statements. Otherwise, how would following church teaching rather than scriptural revelation bring us closer to knowing the God of the Bible? The assumption that the trinitarian teaching of church tradition is an appropriate replication or reasonable representation of scriptural revelation seems to skip over the reality that Jewish believers and the cultural context of scriptural revelation were absent during the development of the specifically trinitarian conception and understanding of the “nature” of God. So, how do you know “what’s been revealed about the Trinity”? I’m doing my best to stick to scriptural over traditional conceptions and relationships. Help me out on this is you can. I have to admit that my efforts to understand God has sometimes gotten in the way of knowing God through knowing Christ–but growth in life in Christ isn’t simply deepened by understanding of the concepts of the trinity passed own through christian tradition, OSISTM.

    • I believe it is better to say that the core doctrines of our faith that are readily found inside of Scripture point to a Trinitarian God, and vice versa. To remove the Triune God would be to naturally remove the truths that the biblical trinity-attesting doctrines teach. In which case what are you left with? Not the biblical faith.


      • I’m pretty sure that is a circular argument–conclusions stated as the conclusion (or something like that); in any case too simple a statement to refute, so you must be right. 8>)

  2. Nice. So it seems obvious then that eternal generation and eternal subordination are at poles against one another.

  3. Really? “When the Trinity is not known, the necessary consequence is, that the principal foundation of our faith and comfort, are [sic] unknown”? So, knowing God in Christ is equivalent to knowing the “trinity”? The trinity is the “principal foundation of our faith”? Really? I don’t suppose it is the doctrine or concept of the trinity that is being referred to here, but it does beg the question of whether circular argumentation is being used. “All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid in the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ.” No mention of the Spirit immediately here; does that not suggest some weakness in the line of reasoning? Father and Son are clearly the focus in the apostles’ preaching and teaching in the book of Acts. If the doctrine of the trinity is equivalent to “the principal foundation of our faith and comfort” would/could someone kindly show me the apostolic preaching that declares this statement’s validity? Oh, being that the ” treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid in the mystery of God” I’d guess we can all trump our arguments with “mystery.” My apologies for the pedantic sarcasm, but theologically circular arguments just don’t hold any significance for me. Any theologically significant arguments need to dig deeply into the Hebrew/Jewish scriptures, history, and culture to hold any sway in the conceptual scheme of Christian faith and life. I’d guess you all are aware that a tri-fold form of God wasn’t a common Jewish belief. I’m rather skeptical of appeals to doctrines developed hundreds of years after the Jewish origins of the gospel story and history are obscured in gentile insensitivities.

    • Yes, this is pedantic sarcasm. And it leads you to ignore a number of important factors. First, I have excerpted a small chunk from the much larger work that comes after the author has spent a good deal of time establishing that the Trinity is a Biblical Doctrine from Scriptural sources. So yes, and your Rush to type you’re very pedantic tirade, you have failed to consider some important contextual issues regarding the kind of post that is being written.

      As for the very tired line of argument about the Trinity being developed hundreds of years away from the Hebrew sources and Gentile insensitivities, there are a good number of historical and theological works that have been demonstrating precisely the fact that trinitarian reflection is a very natural development from its early Hebrew sources. I would recommend Wesley Hills book Paul and the Trinity as one such work. Another recent work is Matthew Bates his book, The Birth of the Trinity.

      • I apologize for the sarcasm; though it wasn’t all sarcasm, maybe more (literally) tired pendantry. 8>) Thanks for the reading suggestions for the “natural development” of the doctrine. It seems one can’t argue against the ‘nature’ of the development (a little pun intended there).

        My recommendations for reading are Jimmy Dunn’s and Larry Hurtado’s works, particularly the latter. I’m inclined to think Hurtado is on to something significant, both in confirming the early spontaneous inclusion of Jesus the messiah / Son of God in the apostles’ worship and devotional practices AND the dyadic structure of the beliefs evident in the earliest history of the church. He now prefers the word dyadic instead of binitarian, but he used the later extensively in developing his treatment of early Christian beliefs and particularly practices (in other words his studies of the historical evidence). He doesn’t make a big point of this, but it seems to me to be particularly significant that there is no New Testament evidence that the Holy Spirit was prayed to or included in the worship practices of the apostles and New Testament authors. It sure seems rather unnatural to me to go from this Jewish dyadism to full trinitarianism, a bit hard to explain why it was necessary to develop a belief and practice that includes the Holy Spirit as fully equal to and to be worshiped along with the Father and Son when it was in the early Church. It is one thing to say it is a natural development from and another to say it is in the New Testament, which I don’t think it is.

  4. I just read a review of Wesley Hill’s _Paul and the Trinity_ in which the reviewer most likely accurately repeatedly noted that Hill advocated and implemented an approach to Paul’s writing in terms of Trinitarian understanding–coming to Paul’s writings with trinitarian expectations. If one brings such presuppositions to the text the conclusions are embedded in the presuppositions, not necessarily the other way around, and hence altogether relativised.

    • Everybody comes to the texts with a certain set of presuppositions. They’re not ironclad or indefeasible, but they’re there nonetheless. Part of the point is figuring out which set help you make the most sense of the text in front of you. Which lens, which set of baseline understandings, help you actually grapple with the shape of the text. Hill is arguing that certain categories of later Trinitarian theology actually help us read Paul better than a number of recent, standard views such as the rubric of “low” or “high” Christology that has set the terms of the debate for the last 40 or 50 years.

      This, incidentally, is why I have found Dunn so thoroughly unhelpful on this point. Dunn’s work on Christology in the Making is brilliant and careful, but there are so many places where it seems like he goes *out of his way* to avoid a reading that fits with later dogmatic statements of a trinitarian nature that it distorts his ability to read the text. “Because we simply *know* that a first-century Jew in this milieu couldn’t have been thinking in X fashion, we should rather think that he is merely saying Y.”

      So, the question isn’t one of a presuppositionless reading v. a reading with presuppositions. The question is which set of assumptions helps us make better sense of the materials in front of us.

      Which, when you think about the way later Trinitarian theology actually developed, makes sense. Trinitarian doctrine is, in one sense, a reading strategy. It’s the end-result of grappling with the texts we have in front of us. Hill and others are suggesting that the church Fathers weren’t far off-base.

  5. Pingback: What I Can’t Know If I Don’t Know the Trinity
  6. Pingback: Owen’s Polemical, Trinitarian Spirituality | Reformedish

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s