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The Mystery of the Trinity – T. J. Crawford (2/2)

Category Book Excerpts
Date May 9, 2024

The following excerpt is from The Mysteries of Christianity: Revealed Truths Expounded and Defended, ‘Lecture 6: The Trinity’. This post is the second part of the chapter, and it is recommended that the reader begins with the first part, on the mystery of God’s unity.

Having made these remarks on the unity of God in its bearing on the mysterious subject of our present discussion, we now proceed to consider in the same connection the threefold plurality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, by each of whom, according to the Scriptures, the attributes and prerogatives of divinity are alike possessed.

We cannot now attempt to set forth the scriptural grounds on which the equal divinity of these three ‘persons in the Godhead,’ as we are wont to call them, may be established. It must for the present suffice to say on this subject, that names and titles distinctive of God are in the same unqualified manner applied to them; that attributes which pertain to God alone, and works which God alone is able to accomplish, are severally ascribed to them without the least distinction; that the same divine worship is claimed for them and rendered to them; and that all the three are inseparably associated in the administration of the most solemn religious ordinances, as being alike the objects of confiding faith, supreme love, and reverent adoration to all believers.

But, as was formerly observed respecting the divine unity, so may we now observe respecting this divine plurality,— that it is not so much the fact of its existence, as the distinctive nature or mode of its existence, that we are now concerned with, our object being to determine whether it be of such a kind as may anyhow be reconciled with the oneness of the Godhead.

What, then, is the nature of this plurality? How is it constituted? Wherein does it consist? In what respect are these three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, numerically distinct from one another? In what sense or on what ground can we speak of them as more than one? How are we to define or denote the distinction between them?

Perhaps it may be thought that the wisest course to be adopted in dealing with such questions as these is simply to return them upon those by whom they may be proposed. For certainly it would be alike hazardous and presumptuous to lay down any affirmative definition of the nature of the plurality in the Godhead. At the same time, when we find that others have attempted in various ways to solve this great mystery, we may without presumption negative their solutions of it, in so far as these appear to us to be inconsistent with the clear testimony of Holy Scripture.

1. One such solution which we may negative on scriptural grounds is that which represents the Son and the Holy Spirit as merely the first and most exalted of God’s creatures,— possessed, indeed, of a like nature with him who made them, but wholly distinct from him, and essentially dependent on him. This in reality is not so much a solution as an absolute negation of the fact to be explained. For it recognizes the Father alone as truly and properly divine, and sets itself in utter opposition to those scriptural testimonies by which the divinity of the Son and of the Holy Spirit may be conclusively established.

2. Another solution which may be negatived on scriptural grounds is that according to which the Father is represented as the only self-existent and independent Being; and the Scriptures are held to allude to him alone when they speak of ‘the one God,’ or of God by way of eminence; while the Son and the Holy Spirit, although of a like substance, are not believed to be of the same substance with the Father, and though existing with him from the beginning, are not regarded as self-existent, but as deriving their being and their attributes from him, and that, too, not by any necessity of nature, but by a sovereign exercise of the Father’s power and will.

This opinion we are warranted to set aside; for it evidently implies, that if the Father had so willed, the Son and the Holy Spirit might never have existed at all, or might not have possessed those attributes which distinguish them; and in this respect it is at variance with those statements of Holy Writ which speak of them as equal in power and glory with the Father. Besides, it is inconsistent with the unity of God, and with his exclusive claim to the worship and homage of his rational creatures; for it recognizes one supreme God and two subordinate gods that are not necessarily connected with him; ascribes to the latter the same divine attributes, with the single exception of self-existence, as to the former; and claims for them the same divine honours and prerogatives.

3. We are equally warranted to negative a third solution, according to which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are merely three names given to one and the same divine Person, indicative of three several aspects in which he presents Himself, three several relations which he sustains to us, or three several offices or functions which he discharges. Thus, as our Creator he is ‘the Father,’ as our Redeemer he is ‘the Son,’ and as our Sanctifier he is ‘the Holy Spirit.’ This representation of the matter has certainly the advantage of strictly maintaining and clearly exhibiting the unity of God. But on scriptural grounds it is altogether indefensible. For in the New Testament we have evident indications of some farther distinction as subsisting between the sacred Three than any mere diversity of names assigned to the same Person, or of aspects presented, or of relations sustained, or of operations conducted by him, will account for. We there find the Father saying ‘thou’ to the Son, the Son saying ‘thou’ to the Father, and both the Father and the Son employing the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’ in reference to the Spirit. The Father is said to ‘give the Son,’ and to ‘send him into the world.’ The Son undertakes the Father’s work, and ‘comes to do, not his own will, but the will of the Father that sent him.’ The Son ‘was in the bosom of the Father,’ and ‘had glory with the Father before the world was,’ and while as yet there were no creatures in existence to whom any relations could be sustained by him. The Spirit, again, is spoken of as ‘another Comforter’ whom the Father is to give in compliance with the prayer of the Son. The Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father,’ and ‘testifies of the Son;’ and ‘through the Son we both [i.e., Jews and Gentiles] have access by one Spirit unto the Father.’ Now these and suchlike scriptural statements are utterly irreconcilable with the supposition that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are only three names for one and the same divine Person presenting Himself in different aspects or relations, or executing different offices or functions.

Besides, if this were all that is meant by the plurality in the Godhead, there seems to be no assignable reason for restricting a plurality of this description to a trinity. There ought, one should think, to be as many such distinctions as there are different modes of divine manifestation. And these are not only threefold, but manifold. God manifests Himself in one way as the Creator, in another way as the Preserver of his creatures, in a third as the Lawgiver and Moral Governor of the human race, in a fourth as the Redeemer, in a fifth as the Sanctifier, in a sixth as the Judge. Thus might it be easy to specify with respect to God a great number of distinctions of a relative or functional nature, which are just as capable of being clearly and sharply defined as those in consideration of which some would have us to distinguish him as exhibiting Himself in no other than the threefold capacities of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

On these grounds we hold ourselves warranted to deny that the plurality in the Godhead can be resolved into a mere plurality of aspects, offices, relations, or modes of action. And it is with the view simply of negativing this erroneous opinion that Trinitarians are accustomed to speak of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as ‘persons’ and not with the view of affirming anything in the way of precise and accurate description, respecting the nature of the distinction between the three. We use this expression, as I observed in a former lecture, in the way only of approximation or analogy, as the most convenient term which the poverty of language can supply to indicate the existence of real distinctions in the Godhead, without precisely defining wherein they exactly consist. And we are careful to accompany our use of it with a certification, that it is not to be understood in the same sense which it ordinarily bears when applied to human persons; and in particular, that it is not to be regarded as conveying any positive information (such as we freely admit we do not possess and therefore cannot convey) respecting the manner in which the divine plurality are metaphysically distinguishable from one another.

4. I need only further observe with reference to the question before us, that we are warranted to negative the supposition of Tritheism—that is to say, of three distinct and separate Gods. Although mention is made of this notion as having been entertained by one or two individuals, it has never been avowedly held by any considerable body of Christians. But, inasmuch as the charge of Tritheism has been pertinaciously advanced against Trinitarians by those who are opposed to them, it is necessary that we negative or disclaim it. And that we are warranted and bound to do so, on scriptural grounds, is undeniable. For if there be one truth more plainly declared in Scripture than another, it is the numerical unity of God. And therefore, whatever plurality may be implied in the ascription of divine attributes to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, it cannot be such as would constitute them three Gods.

The ancient Trinitarians sought to repel the charge of Tritheism by laying down two positions. The first was, that the Father is the fountain of Deity, from whom the Son and the Holy Spirit were eternally derived,—not as the Arians supposed, by an act of the Father’s will, but by an absolute necessity in the divine nature. Their second position was, that the three persons in the Godhead are necessarily and inseparably joined together, insomuch that the Father never existed without the Son and the Holy Spirit, and these were not separated from him when produced out of his substance. And in order to mark the indissoluble connection of all the three, they used a Greek word, περιχώρησις (perikhōrēsis), which they defined as meaning ‘that union by which one being exists in another, not only by a participation of its nature, but by the most intimate presence with it; so that, although the two beings are distinct, they dwell in and interpenetrate one another.’

It must be confessed that the principles thus enunciated are not very easily, if at all, to be apprehended. But this only proves, as Dr Hill has shrewdly observed, that ‘it is a vain attempt to apply the terms of human science to the manner of the divine existence; and that the multiplication of words upon such a subject does not in any degree increase the stock of our ideas.’ It is not necessary, however, to have recourse to any such subtleties in order to repel the imputation of Tritheism. All that is necessary is strictly to adhere to that negative course which we have hitherto adopted. For, so long as we do not hazard anything affirmatively, either with respect to the internal unity of the Godhead, or with respect to the distinctions that subsist in it, there is evidently no possibility of involving us in any collision or contrariety between the two. The precise nature of both would need to be much more specifically defined than we have either capacity or authority to define them, before it can be alleged that they are inconsistent with one another.

Thus have we endeavoured to give a negative answer to the question, What is the plurality in the Godhead? Or, to speak more correctly, we have negatived certain attempts to answer this question, which do not appear to us to be in accordance with the doctrine of Scripture. If it be here asked, ‘What have you to substitute in the room of those tentative solutions of the question which you would set aside? You have given us a sufficiency of negations as to this matter; but what have you now to state affirmatively respecting it?’—our answer is a very short and simple one,—that we have nothing. The Scriptures have not told us, positively or affirmatively, what is the precise nature of that plurality which they nevertheless reveal as subsisting in the Godhead. And where Scripture is silent, it becomes us to be silent also, lest, by intruding into things which are not revealed, we ‘darken counsel by words without knowledge.’ Thus much we may venture to say (speaking still in the way of negation), that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit cannot be three in the same sense in which they are one. But, as we before observed, it is perfectly conceivable that they should be three in one sense, and one in another. In what sense they are three, and in what sense they are one, the Scriptures have not affirmatively defined. And were we to attempt an affirmative definition of matters so far beyond the reach of human intellect, we should probably fall into the same or similar errors with those which we have endeavoured to expose.

Nor have we any reason to feel ashamed of our inability to give more than a negative answer to the proposed question. The fact is, that we are exactly in the same predicament with reference to many other things pertaining to God, of which, notwithstanding, we have the most assured conviction. Take, for example, his underived existence. There is nothing in the universe to which we can liken it; for all other beings have an origin or cause. It is only by negations that we can approach towards a conception of it. We can say what it is not—namely, that ‘it is not derived;’ but we cannot define what it is.—Or take his eternity. If asked to define it, we may say that there never was a time when he did not exist, and there never shall be a time when he will  not exist. But this too is only a negative definition. It is simply denying certain things concerning God, and then averring that, in respect of such denial, he is eternal.—Or take his unity. The only conceptions we can frame of it are indivisibility, simplicity, solitariness, and the like,—which amount to no more than a negation of divisibility, a negation of foreign, heterogeneous, or discordant elements, and a negation of the existence of other gods besides him. Thus there is nothing exceptional or unexampled in our inability to give a positive or affirmative definition of the plurality in the Godhead. For we labour under the same inability with reference to some of the most fully ascertained and most universally acknowledged attributes of the divine nature.

On the whole, then, it appears that the doctrine of the Trinity may truly be represented as a great mystery, in respect not only of the unsearchably profound and transcendental nature of the subject to which it relates, but also of the limited extent of the disclosures of it which God has been pleased to give us in his revealed word.

In regard to the threefold plurality in the Godhead, the Scriptures enable us negatively to define it, to the extent of saying that it is not a plurality either of three separate and equal Gods, or of one supreme and two subordinate Gods; and farther, that it is not a plurality of mere names, relations, offices, or modes of action. But anything like an affirmative definition of what it exactly is has not been supplied to us.

In regard to the unity of God, on the other hand, the Scriptures have left us in precisely the same position. In teaching us that ‘there is no God besides him,’ they merely negative the existence of all other gods, and decide nothing as to what the one only living and true God may in Himself be. And if their statements upon this subject can be viewed as referring at all to the oneness of God as an essential attribute of the divine nature, it is certain that they do not define it or explain it, so as to enable us positively to affirm anything as to what it really is, or wherein it exactly consists.

Such, then, being the position in which we stand in respect of the nature and extent of the information which Scripture has given us on this mysterious subject, you will readily see that by closely adhering to this position, and not venturing in the way of unauthorized conjectures to advance a single step beyond it, our doctrine is perfectly unassailable by those assertions which have frequently been brought against it, of its being in its very nature contradictory and incredible. It is above our reason. The Scriptures have not taught us, and we have no independent means of ascertaining, wherein consists either the divine unity or the divine plurality. And hence it is impossible for any man to show that they are incompatible with one another, or that it is against reason to affirm their coexistence. For what is it that is to be shown to be against reason? It is something we know not what,—something of the nature of which we are not able to form any definite conception. To a certain extent we can say what it is not, by negativing some attempted definitions of it, which do not accord with the teaching of Holy Scripture, our only source of information upon the subject. But we are quite unable to state affirmatively what it is. And so long as this is the case, we are evidently incompetent and unwarranted to pronounce any judgment in regard to it. It is above our reason, and on that very account our reason is incapacitated to deal with it to any effect whatsoever, and specially to the effect of proving that it is contrary to reason.

Let it not be thought that this negative position, which alone appears to be warrantable and defensible respecting the unity and plurality in the Godhead, has anything in common with that ‘negative theology’ which shrinks in all cases from definite opinions and articulate statements in matters of revealed doctrine. A negative position is certainly to be maintained in regard to ‘secret things’ which God has not disclosed to us. But whatever his word has positively affirmed, it is our clear duty broadly and distinctly to utter. We must not ‘shun to declare all the counsel of God,’ or give out any ‘uncertain sound’ respecting it. It is only where the Scriptures have revealed nothing affirmatively that it becomes us to withhold our affirmations, lest, by affecting a knowledge which we do not possess, we darken or pervert instead of faithfully expounding the truth.

Further reading:

‘The Mysteries of Christianity’: A Book Review – David Campbell

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