From ABC to PhD: A Thorough Trinitarian Summary

Review of B. B. Warfield, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Collected Works, vol. 2, (NY: Oxford UP, 1929; Reprint Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 133-72.

            The belief that there is “one only and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and coequal Persons, the same in substance but distinct in subsistence” defines the doctrine of the Trinity (133). The term Trinity and much of the language expressing the doctrine is not found in Scripture. Yet the Church is justified in using this language because it does not amount to us “passing from Scripture, but entering more thoroughly into the meaning of Scripture, in our articulation of it” (133). After a brief survey of polytheistic religions that function with triads of divinity, some of which are merely an analogy of the human family of father, mother and son, Warfield affirms that the only similarity they bear to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is “Threeness” (134).

            Warfield denies that the doctrine can be proven or grasped by human reason alone; there are no analogies for it, because “in his Trinitarian mode of being” God is utterly unique (135). Yet, the history of theology is marked by failed attempts to prove it. These provide a negative support to the doctrine as revealed by God alone in his written word.

            The “mystery of the Trinity underlies the Old Testament” yet the New Testament “perfected, extended and enlarged” what was present in the Old (142). The doctrine is “not so much inculcated, but presupposed” in the NT (143), and is revealed through deed, that is, “in the incarnation of God the Son, and the outpouring of God the Holy Spirit (144). God’s redemptive purpose dictated the timing for the revelation of the doctrine and it became “the common property of all Christian hearts” because its revelation was “made in the actual occurrences of redemption” (145).

            All four gospels reveal that the whole course of Jesus’ ministry is “conditioned” by references to and explanations of the Trinitarian relations. Jesus “removes all doubt as to the essential nature of His oneness with the Father by explicitly asserting his eternity” and this is done in such a way that he clarifies what it means that he is God’s Son. Consistent with the “idea of sonship in Semitic speech (founded on the natural implication that whatever the father is that the son is also)” Jesus affirms his equality with God or that he is “just ‘God’” (149).

            Matthew 28:19 is where we find the closest thing “to a formal announcement of the doctrine of the Trinity” from Jesus (153). Warfield stresses the singular of the Baptismal name and the repeated use of the article in the Greek. Christians baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The Hebrew conception of name means Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the “adequate expression” of God’s “innermost being” (154). Through several Old Testament quotes, we are shown that God’s name is “virtually equivalent to God Himself” (154) and thus Jesus did not introduce anything essentially new regarding God that was not present in the Old Testament. Jesus’ statement was not the “birth” but the “enunciation of the doctrine of the Trinity,” and his apprehension of it is the “distinguishing characteristic of Christians” (155).     

            Paul’s letters are “impressive” for the “richness of their testimony to the Trinitarian conception of God” (157) that is often alluded to rather than asserted, and “constitutes the determining basis of all Paul’s thought of the God of redemption” (159). Citing numerous NT passages Warfield concludes that there is a “naturalness” and “simplicity” in affirming God as Trinity and “no effort to distinguish between what have come to be called the ontological and economic aspects of the Trinitarian distinctions” (161). Since the NT writers have a relationship to God that differs in meaningful ways from Jesus’ relationship to the Father and Holy Spirit, they use different Trinitarian terminology than Jesus. Moreover, Paul does not always maintain the same sequential order of names within the Triune name, which raises the question regarding the essence of the doctrine, or the “interrelations of the Persons of the Trinity” (162).

            It might be “very natural” to think that the terms Son and Spirit intimate “subordination and derivation of Being” (163), but they do not. Instead, they communicate “equality” and “likeness.” In turn, the designation “only begotten” expresses uniqueness not derivation (164). John 5:18 and 1Cor. 2:10-11 provide nearly “formal definitions of the two terms ‘Son’ and ‘Spirit’” and they stress “equality” or “sameness” (164).

            While “modes of operation” or “operations by which redemption is accomplished” communicate that there is subordination among the Persons, “it is not so clear” that in “modes of subsistence” or the “necessary relation of the Persons of the Trinity” that subordination is revealed or holds (165). Warfield argues that the “very richness and variety of expression” regarding the subordination 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” (165).

            The question is raised whether the subordination in modes of operation is not due to a covenant between the Persons of the Trinity where each “voluntarily” takes a “distinct function in the work of redemption” (166). In the Son’s incarnation and subsequent “assumption of a creaturely nature into union with Himself,” he enters into a new relation with the Father that introduces an insurmountable difficulty of ascribing subordination to modes of subsistence (166). Father, Son and Spirit are “applied to the eternal and necessary relations” among the Persons and “a complete identity” of the Son and Spirit with the Father in Being and powers rules out attributing subordination within their eternal and necessary relations (167).

            Redemption and the doctrine of the Trinity stand and fall together. Their union compelled the church to find in the deity of Christ and the Baptismal Formula of Mt. 28:19 the basis for formulating the doctrine. Warfield concludes with a small survey of the historical process of the doctrine’s articulation culminating in the Nicene and Athanasian creeds that remove all suggestion of derivation or subordination. He admits that periodically the Church has to “vigorously reassert the principle of equalization” against “the elements of subordinationism which still hold a place in the traditional language in which the church states” the doctrine (171).                

            The article provides a concise summary of all the relevant issues regarding the doctrine of the Trinity and insight into Warfield’s scholarship and thinking on the matter.

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.  


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