"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hypostasis: How do we speak of the individual Persons in the Trinity?

As Westerners, we are good at talking about the unity of God. Western thinkers, however, have always had trouble speaking about the three Persons of the Trinity distinctively. In fact, we may even find Eastern ways of describing the Trinity strange and even bordering on Polytheism/Tritheism. Below is a popular depiction of the Trinity, derived from a place few modern Christians would think to look for such an image, Genesis 18:1-8.

When we see three, we become uncomfortable. To be sure, there are those who call themselves Christians who deny the three. They are Unitarians and Oneness Pentecostals. Though if one does not confess the three-ness of God, the rest of the Christian traditions will warn you not only that you are out of sync with 2000 years of Christian understanding, but your very salvation may be in question as the Athanasian Creed ends with this warning:

"This is the catholic faith. One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully."

How do we think of these Persons individually? What is different when I think of the Father than the Son, or the Son than the Spirit, or the Spirit than the Father? To be sure, not only is this a potential problem, but one that occurs regularly in worship and the life of the Christian mind. A friend of mine told me a story before of being in a church during worship singing "You are my King." The song is explicitly about the death and resurrection of the Son. The second time through the song, the worship leader shouted out: "Now sing it to the Father!" My friend's jaw dropped and he internally screamed, "NO!" The Father did not die for our sins. The Father is not the "Sonfather" of Sabellius and Modalism. Yet, when Christians get mentally lazy they fall back into Modalism. The previous story illustrates one way in which we must distinguish the Persons of the Trinity.


As we looked at the Nicene Creed, we notice that we confess that the Father is "Maker of Heaven and Earth." The Father is identified as the Initiator of Creation (Gen 1:1, 1 Cor 8:6).

In describing the actions of the Son, we find in the creed a biblical and nearly unknown function of the Son: "by whom all things are made." We may think that the Early Church was speculating here, perhaps on some theory of the "Word" as Christ's title and God "spoke" and creation happened. But, when we look at 1 Cor 8:6, we see the same language. In fact, we see the Son's role in sustaining all creation as it is through the Son "through whom we exist." Second of the Son, we see his role in Redemption, as the one who "came down" and took our sins for us, became sin for us. This is not spoken of the Father or the Spirit, but of the Son distinctly.

The Holy Spirit we see given the credit for inpiration of the prophets in Acts 28:25. We also see the credit for conversion given to the Holy Spirit in 1 Cor 2:11-14.

Yet, this is not the only means by which we can speak distinctively of the Persons of the Trinity. More important than the Persons' relation to us (though their relation to us is more interesting to self-interested humans) is Their relationship to each other.


Within the creed, all the Persons are defined by their relation to the Father, largely due to the fact that this is how Scripture defines Their relations. Again, our favorite, theology-packed verse, tells us that the Son is begotten of Father (John 3:16), as we have explored what that meant in the previous post. Of the Spirit, we are told the Spirit proceeds from Father (John 15:26). One may ask what the difference between begotten and proceeding are in meaning. The answer most pleasing, that I have found, is the difference between εδωκεν and εκπορευεται. In other words, we don't really know. This leaves us with the Father, of Whom we may say that he is not begotten or proceeding.

The relations between the persons are deeper and worthy of much more space than I have given them. To see how the "Father loves the Son" and what that means has filled the works of Jonathan Edwards and was of more interest to the early church than the few vaporous thoughts we allow it today.

For more on the relationships and roles, my brother has recommended Bruce Ware. I have heard Ware speak and he is insightful and at the same time easy to follow, which should encourage us to look into his book: Father Son and Holy Spirit for more on this topic.

No comments: