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Preface to Sound Doctrine

This study of biblical doctrines is the second part of a project designed for training Christians to be able to minister in their churches and communities. The project is called “The Exodus Project” because it is based on the teaching of the Bible first found in Exodus 19 and then restated in 1 Peter 2 that the redeemed of the LORD are to be a kingdom of priests. Accordingly, Deuteronomy 33:10 teaches that the ministry of the priests included:

Teaching the Word of God,

Making intercessory prayer (“burn incense”), and

Enabling people to find access to God through the sacrifice.

Part One, which will be posted on this web site in the spring, is a series of lessons designed to help people be able to teach the Bible. It will include the full introduction to this project and how it can be used in the churches.

Part Three, which will appear later in the spring, will focus on intercessory prayer and the related spiritual services that derive from it.

Part Two, presented here, is a survey of biblical doctrine. Israel’s priests were to make the sacrifices so that others could find access to the living God. This required that they understand what the sacrifices were all about, and how everything worked in God’s program to bring people into communion with Himself. In other words, those intrusted with this service had to know God, understand His attributes and works, be able to explain forgiveness and salvation, instruct others in the rituals of the congregation, and be able to articulate the covenant promises and the hope of glory. Being a worship leader, then, goes way beyond singing a song in front of the congregation--it requires that people be articulate in the doctrines of the faith. Sadly, what is missing in the church today is the articulate Christian, the one who knows the faith and can explain it clearly. And, even more sadly, that quality is disappearing in the clergy as well.

It is, of course, impossible to study all the doctrines included in the Bible, or even a creed like the Nicene Creed in a short period of time. Each doctrine deserves the full attention of a separate course of studies; in that way the doctrine could be fully defined and all the supporting evidence from Scripture and the subsequent writings on the doctrine could be taken into account. Nevertheless, in a survey such as this we will be able to gain a full picture of the beliefs of the historic Christian faith in one sweep. The survey should then inspire individual Christians to read further on the doctrines, or on a particular doctrine.

The doctrines of the church have come under attack again in this generation. Whereas in the past they have simply been denied, now they are being reinterpreted to mean something very different. This survey is not designed to be a defense of the faith, for that would have to include all the false teachings that have arisen over the centuries. But in surveying the historic faith one will be better equipped to discern these subtle challenges that if embraced will change the church completely.

There are a number of ways that this material could be surveyed. I have chosen to focus more on certain passages of the Bible that are basic texts for the doctrines. After the first part on the meaning of faith, each section will give a brief statement of the doctrine and its meaning, and then use a Bible study to elucidate it. In other words, this will be a series of Bible studies on doctrinal themes. But the point of each section will be that the believer who is going to function as a part of this kingdom of priests--which should be every believer--should understand the doctrine involved.

In passing we shall consider what the Nicene Creed left out, or why it said things the way that it did. This will lead to additional studies in other creeds for those who are interested.

Related Topics: Theology, Apologetics

The Judgments - (Past, Present, and Future)

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A great deal of confusion exists with respect to the subject of God’s judgments and particularly regarding the final judgment. It is the purpose of this study to cover all the major judgments (past, present, and future) that we find in Scripture to help resolve this confusion. For instance, many do not understand that instead of one final judgment, the Bible teaches that there are a series of five to seven future judgments (depending on how they are categorized) that differ in respect to time, purpose, subjects, and circumstances. Understanding these various judgments will give insight into God’s program, but the goal here is not just information. God wants Christians to understand the truth of the judgments to both comfort and motivate them to godly living. He wants those who have not trusted in Christ to understand the judgments that this might motivate them to trust in Christ as their personal Savior because He bore the judgment for their sin in their place. The Christian will not face the final judgment because Christ was judged for us, but all believers will face a judgment called the Judgment Seat of Christ, the nature of which will be covered in the material to follow. (See Appendix A for an explanation of how to become a Christian.)

Sin always has its consequences and the Doctrine of the Judgments calls our attention to both the reality and nature of the consequences of sin. The details of this will be developed in a summarized fashion in the material that follows.

Though one’s primary focus might be on the future judgments, this study will also cover the judgments of the past and the present because they are related and form a part of the total picture revealed in Scripture.

The Past Judgments

The Judgment of Satan and the Fallen Angels

Key Scriptures (Matt. 25:41; Isa. 14:12-14; Ezek. 28:11-19; Rev. 12:3-4)

This is God’s judgment to cast Satan down from his position in heaven as the anointed cherub with all those angels who followed him to this earth and its atmosphere as the primary abode of their operations (cf. Eph. 2:2 “the ruler of the kingdom of the air,” NIV [“air” is the Greek, aer, the atmospheric heavens]). Evidently, immediately after Satan’s fall, God sentenced Satan and his angels condemning them to the Lake of Fire (Matt. 24:41). Though anticipated as certain and viewed as accomplished, this sentence against Satan and his evil host will not be carried out until after the millennial reign of Christ (cf. John 12:31 with Rev. 20:10). The basis of Satan’s judgment and final disposal is the finished work of Christ on the cross first anticipated in the protevangelium of Gen. 3:15. Then in anticipation of His death on the cross, the Lord spoke of Satan’s judgment and doom in John 12:31; 16:11, and Luke 10:18-19. Compare also Romans 16:20; Ephesians 1:20-21; Colossians 2:14-15; Hebrews 2:14-17.

The Edenic Judgments of Genesis 3

After the fall of Adam and Eve, and as a judgment for mankind’s disobedience regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17), certain curses or judgments were placed upon Satan (the promise of his final doom), upon Adam and Eve, and upon the earth. Adam and Eve died spiritually and began to die physically. Physical death became a certainty for their future because they took of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Therefore, as the Scripture says, “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). The judgment of Genesis 3 included the loss of the perfect Edenic conditions and in its place, the curse of the earth with its often extreme weather conditions, disease, thorns, and the warfare with Satan and his hosts (cf. Rom. 8:18-22; Eph. 6:10-12; 1 Pet. 5:8).

The Judicial Judgment—All Are Under Sin

Galatians 3:22 But the Scripture has shut up all men under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

Romans 3:19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God;

Romans 5:12-15 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned— 13 for until the Law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many.

All of mankind without distinction are under the curse of sin and judged as sinful and separated from God apart from the saving grace of God in Christ. All fall short of the glory of God—the immoral, moral, and religious (Rom. 1:18-3:9, 23). The only exception is the person of Jesus Christ who, through the virgin birth, escaped the sin problem that is normally passed down from generation to generation.

The Judgment to Moral Degeneration

According to Romans 1:18-32, when men turn away from the knowledge of God revealed so vividly in creation, God, as an expression of His holy wrath, turns men over to their own devices and foolish imaginations. This always results in moral devolution and degeneration. Paul teaches us that the varied forms of the awful sinfulness of man have their beginnings in the rejection of the revelation of God in creation. Ungodliness is always the source of unrighteousness; ungodliness (turning away from God) leads to idolatry (man worshipping the products of his own mind and hands), and idolatry leads to unchained sensuality.

As they refused to follow the light, they were brought to folly in their thoughts—“became vain in their [corrupt] reasonings, and their foolish [senseless] heart was darkened.” The intellectual revolt against what they knew to be right was attended by a darkening of the whole understanding. The refusal to accept the truth destroys the power to discriminate between truth and error.1

But this happens as a judgment from God against man’s arrogant independence. This condition is the expression of God’s wrath (vs. 18) and twice we have the statement that this moral breakdown occurs because God “gave them over” (vss. 24 and 25). Compare also Ephesians 4:17-19:

This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.

The Judgment of Christ for the Sin of the World

This takes on two aspects:

(1) Christ’s judgment for sin, dying in the place of the sinner, bearing his sin and judgment on the cross as the sinner’s substitute.

Isaiah 53:4-6 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.

2 Corinthians 5:21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

1 Peter 2:24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.

Romans 3:24-26 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Sin requires a penalty, the penalty of death as God’s holy judgment on sin. Jesus Christ, the sinless and perfect Son of God, the only one who could qualify as our substitute, died to satisfy the demands of God’s absolute holiness. Sin calls for judgment and the cross of Jesus Christ became that place of judgment. It was there Christ paid the penalty for the sin of the world (1 John 2:2).

(2) Christ’s Judgment Unto Sin’s Reign; the Judgment of the Believer’s Sin Nature

Not only did Christ die for our sin as the Lamb of God (John 1:29), but He died to break the reign of sin in the lives of those who put their trust in Him as their Savior. This means that, through coidentification with Christ in His death on the cross, the believer’s sin nature was also judged, crucified, with Christ in His death so that its power has been broken or neutralized. Though the death of Christ does not obliterate the presence of the sin nature and though it is still a powerful enemy (Rom. 7:15-24), the believer’s union with Christ in His death provides for divine forgiveness for the fact of the sin nature and for victory over its reigning power.

Romans 6:4-11 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; 7 for he who has died is freed from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, 9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. 10 For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

See also Colossians 2:10-13; Galatians 2:20; and Romans 8:1-2.

The Present Judgments

The Self-Judgment of the Believer

An interesting and important passage to this study is Acts 24:15-16 because in this passage Paul implicitly made reference to two judgments which are closely related. The text reads:

Acts 24:15-16 having a hope in God, which these men cherish themselves, that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. 16 In view of this, I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men.

The resurrection of the just mentioned in verse 15 will be followed by the Judgment Seat of Christ or the Bema, the place and time when believers will be examined for rewards or their loss (see discussion below). Knowing and having the hope of the resurrection and all that this means to the Christian, the Apostle spoke of his commitment to maintain a clear conscience, one cleared by confession and the forsaking of all known sin (1 John 1:9; Prov. 28:13). He wanted to walk blamelessly, to keep short accounts with God, and to stay in close communion with the Lord lest he should become disqualified for rewards at the Bema (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10-15 with 9:24-27).

Though believers are saved and justified by faith in Christ as the crucified Saviour, the Scriptures assume that Christians will battle with sin and will not always be victorious. So it is necessary for believers to judge their own sins in the light of Scripture.2

This is a serious matter with consequences both for time and eternity since the failure to do so leads not only to the loss of rewards, but the judgment of God’s discipline of His believing children as a loving Father and as the Vine Dresser who must prune the vine for production (Heb. 12:4-11; John 15:1-7). A very interesting, enlightening, and important passage to this subject is 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 for in this passage we have a reference to both the self-judgment of the believer and the discipline judgment of God on believers.

1 Corinthians 11:27-32 Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly. 30 For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. 31 But if we judged ourselves rightly, we should not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord in order that we may not be condemned along with the world.

Some of the Christians at Corinth were being externally religious. They were assembling themselves with other believers and partaking of the Lord’s supper, but they were out of fellowship with the Lord and were controlled by the sinful nature, the flesh, rather than by the Holy Spirit. This is why earlier the Apostle called them “fleshly” (the Greek sarkikos, “adapted to, controlled by the flesh”) (3:3). Unfortunately, this condition had continued because some of these believers had failed to examine their hearts and judge their sin by honest confession followed by a commitment to deal with it in the power of the Spirit (11:28, 31). As a result, a number of things occurred: (1) they were making a mockery of the significance and meaning of the Lord’s supper (11:27); (2) they were experiencing personal discipline by the Lord which existed in three conditions, evidently progressively so (11:30, 32); and though not mentioned here, (3) they were producing wood, hay, and stubble—they were losing rewards (1 Cor. 3:14-15).

As to the immediate consequences, some were weak (feeble, a loss of energy), some were sick (probably chronic disease), and some were asleep (physical death, sin unto death) (11:30). But these were not the only consequences of failing to judge sin in their lives. There were also divisions and factions and the focus on personalities rather than the Savior. They were showing favoritism and hurting other believers rather than showing love and concern as it should be among believers in Christ. In other words, when we fail to honestly judge sin in our lives it spills over in one area after another. As the loving Father that He is, God must break out the board of discipline in His loving commitment to bring us back to Himself.

So Christians need to examine their hearts and actions for sin according to the Scripture and then judge the sin they find as sin and confess it to the Lord. Our tendency is to rationalize and excuse our sins, but God says we are to judge them as sin to God. Confession of sin restores us to fellowship and to the Spirit’s control. With the Spirit back in control and the believer in fellowship (in the state of abiding in the Vine) he or she can then produce fruit for which they will receive rewards at the Bema.

The Discipline Judgments of God

As seen in the above section dealing with self-judgment, the New Testament clearly teaches us that one of the ministries of our heavenly Father is the ministry of loving discipline. God’s discipline is patterned after the principles of Proverbs 13:24 which read: “He who spares his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.” Discipline is an evidence of love. So we read in Hebrews:

Hebrews 12:4-11 You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; 5 and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, Nor faint when you are reproved by Him; 6 For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, And He scourges every son whom He receives.” 7 It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. 11 All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

From this passage in Hebrews and others like 1 Corinthians 11:27-32, God disciplines His children for the following reasons:

(1) To bring a wayward child who refuses to judge himself back into fellowship (1 Cor. 11:31-32; Ps. 32:3-5).

(2) It is part of the training process by which God’s children are brought into the experience of God’s holiness (Heb. 12:10).

(3) It is an expression and a proof of God’s love (Heb. 12:6, 8).

(4) It is designed to produce obedience and to protect them against untimely physical death (Heb. 12:9; Rom. 8:13; 1 Cor. 11:30).

(5) It yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Heb. 12:11).

Human Judgment of Others

Generally speaking, the principle is stated in Matthew 7:1-5.

Matthew 7:1-5 Do not judge lest you be judged. 2 For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. 3 And why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

We are not to judge others in the sense of condemning them or passing judgment on the opinions of others on doubtful matters as discussed in Romans 14.

Romans 14:1-5 Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. 2 One man has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. 3 Let not him who eats regard with contempt him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 5 One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.

However, Scripture does call us to show what we might call critical discernment on certain matters. For instance, Matthew 7 which tells us not to judge, is immediately followed with the command, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (Matt. 7:6).

How do we know who falls into the category of swine, those incapable of appreciating the truth, if we do not make certain judgments? Furthermore, we are called upon to make judgments in the sense of evaluations when it comes to selecting elders and deacons, or in dealing with those who have fallen into sin (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:9-16; Gal. 6:1-5; 2 Thess. 3:6-15).

The Future Judgments

The Judgment of the Bema (The Judgment Seat of Christ)

The next prophetic event in God’s timetable will be the rapture or the catching up of the body of Christ, the church, as described in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. A number of things occur at this time. There is the glorification of living believers in glorified bodies, the resurrection of those believers who have died in the Lord also in glorified bodies, and the translation of both to meet the Lord in the air. This will be followed by their examination before the Judgment Seat of Christ. This is not the final judgment mentioned in Revelation 20:11-15 which is limited to only the unbelieving world. Rather, the Judgment Seat of Christ is for the body of Christ, the church. A similar judgment will occur for resurrected Old Testament and Tribulation saints, but probably not until after the Tribulation (cf. Dan. 12:1-3 with Rev. 20:4).

The Judgment Seat of Christ is not a place and time when the Lord will mete out punishment for sins committed by the child of God. Rather, it is a place where rewards will be given or lost depending on how one has used his or her life for the Lord. Both Romans 14:10 and 2 Corinthians 5:9 speak of the “judgment seat.” This is a translation of one Greek word, the word bema. While bema is used in the Gospels and in Acts of the raised platform where a Roman magistrate or ruler sat to make decisions and pass sentence (Matt. 27:19; John 19:13), its use in the epistles by Paul, because of his many allusions to the Greek athletic contests, is more in keeping with its original use among the Greeks.

This word was taken from Isthmian games where the contestants would compete for the prize under the careful scrutiny of judges who would make sure that every rule of the contest was obeyed (cf. 2 Tim. 2:5). The victor of a given event, who had participated according to the rules, was led by the judge to the platform called the Bema. There the laurel wreath was placed on his head as a symbol of victory (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-25).

In all of these passages, “Paul was picturing the believer as a competitor in a spiritual contest. As the victorious Grecian athlete appeared before the Bema to receive his perishable award, so the Christian will appear before Christ’s Bema to receive his imperishable award. The judge at the Bema bestowed rewards to the victors. He did not whip the losers.3 We might add, neither did he sentence them to hard labor.

In other words, it was a reward seat and portrayed a time of rewards or loss of rewards following examination. It was not a time of punishment where believers are judged for their sins. Such would be inconsistent with the finished work of Christ on the cross because He totally paid the penalty for our sins.

Though believers are under no condemnation in respect to their sins, having been justified by faith (John 3:18; 5:24; Rom. 8:1, 13-17), they are subject to judgment at the Judgment seat of Christ in relation to their works. At the Judgment Seat of Christ believers’ works will be evaluated to demonstrate whether they are good or bad, and rewards will be conferred (2 Cor. 5:10; cf. Rom. 14:10-12; 1 Cor. 3:9-14; 9:24-27). The goal of the Christian in his life is to be pleasing to God whether in time or eternity. The Judgment Seat of Christ is not related to salvation but to the bestowal of rewards, and every Christian is assured that he will receive some reward (1 Cor. 4:5; cf. Eph. 6:8; 2 Tim. 4:8; Rev. 22:12).4

See Appendix B for more on the Judgment Seat (Bema) of Christ.

The Judgments of the Tribulation

While the Bema is going on in heaven (with the church in the Lord’s presence) a series of terrible judgments will begin to unfold on the earth for a period of seven years to be culminated by the return and manifestation of Christ to earth as the Great White Horse Rider of Revelation 19.

The main point to see here is that this entire period is the expression of God’s wrath in increasing degrees of judgment to be poured out on the world. The world seeks to find answers to its problems through the one world movement of the last days and apart from the true God as He has revealed Himself in Christ. So, much as we see in Romans 1:18f, God turns the world over to the consequences of its choices. The result is the one world system of the Beast as described in Revelation. It will begin with an apparent time of prosperity and peace created by this one world government under the deceptions of the man of lawlessness. But even this will be God’s judgment and the expression of His wrath. While people are saying peace and safety, then sudden destruction will come as birth pains upon a woman in travail. The judgments of this time will grow in intensity and conclude with an awesome display of God’s wrath against a Christ-rejecting world.

See Appendix C for an overview of the Tribulation.

The Judgment and Reward of
Resurrected Old Testament and Tribulation Saints

While many would place the resurrection and reward of Old Testament saints with that of the church at the rapture, a number of factors favor this at the conclusion of the tribulation at the same time as the resurrection and reward of tribulation saints mentioned in Revelation 20:4.

(1) Daniel, who wrote concerning the termination of God’s program for Israel in chapter 9, places the resurrection of the righteous in Israel as occurring after “a time of distress such as never occurred …” Clearly this is the Tribulation, Daniel’s Seventieth Week, or “the time of Jacob’s Distress” mentioned by Jeremiah (Jer. 30:7; Dan. 9:27).

(2) Resurrection is viewed in Scripture as an event that terminates one program and initiates another, and one would not expect Israel’s resurrection could come until God had finished the seventy years decreed for His people, the Jews, according to Daniel 9:24-27. Since the events mentioned in Daniel 9:26 (the cutting off of Messiah and the destruction of city and sanctuary) had to occur after the 69 weeks of years had run their course but before the seventieth week begins, there has to be a space of time, the parenthesis of the church age, between the conclusion of the sixty-ninth week and the beginning of the seventieth.

(3) The resurrection (rapture) and Bema of the church concludes this parenthesis, the church age, but Old Testament saints (the righteous dead) are not resurrected and rewarded until after the seventieth week when God concludes His program with Israel as far as the seventy weeks of Daniel are concerned.

The order of God’s resurrection program which includes the judgment of rewards would seem to be:

(1) the resurrection of Christ as the beginning of the resurrection program (1 Cor. 15:23); (2) the resurrection of the church age saints at the rapture (1 Thess. 4:16); (3) the resurrection of tribulation period saints (Rev. 20:3-5), together with (4) the resurrection of Old Testament saints (Dan. 12:2; Isa. 26:19).5

The Judgment of Living Israel

    The Time of This Judgment

The Scripture teaches that before Messiah can begin to reign, there must be a judgment to determine who will enter into Messiah’s kingdom since “they are not all Israel (spiritually regenerated believers who put their trust in Jesus Christ as their Messiah) who are Israel (physical descendants only)” (Rom. 9:6). The rebels of unbelief must be removed so that only believing Israel will enter into the kingdom (cf. Ezek. 20:34-38; Matt. 25:1-30).

Part of this removal occurs through the Tribulation judgments themselves (Rev. 6-19; Zech. 13:8-9). But those who are not killed by these judgments will be gathered, judged, and the rebels removed with only believers going into the millennial kingdom.

Matthew 24-25 set the chronology and thus the time. The order is:

  • The Tribulation judgments (Matt. 24:4-26).
  • The visible return of Jesus Christ (Matt. 24:27-30).
  • The regathering of those Israelites who were left after the tribulation judgments, both believing and unbelieving Jews (Matt. 24:31; Ezek. 20:34-35a).
  • The judgment of the Nation of Israel (Matt. 25:1-30; Ezek. 20:35b-38).
    The Place of This Judgment

At the end of the Tribulation, the Lord Jesus will return personally to earth (Zech. 14:4), but Ezekiel 20:34-35 shows God brings Israel out from the nations where she has been scattered throughout the times of the Gentiles (gathers her to the last person, Ezek. 39:28). But Israel is first gathered at the borders, outside the land of Israel, called in Ezekiel 20:35 “the wilderness of the peoples,” for judgment, face to face, one by one as sheep pass under the shepherd’s rod.

    The Basis of This Judgment

Revelation 7:14 shows us that salvation in the Tribulation (as in the church age) is through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God. This is further confirmed by the message of the book of Romans where the Apostle shows Israel’s problem to be one of seeking to establish her own righteousness by keeping the Law rather than accept God’s righteousness by faith in Christ (Rom. 9-11). Matthew 25:1-30 shows that God will judge living Israel to separate the saved from the unsaved. In this passage and in Malachi 3:2-3, 5, and Ezekiel 20:37-38, the individual’s works will be brought into judgment, but not because they are saved by their works, but because their works demonstrate they are rebels who have failed to trust in Jesus.

The Judgment of Living Gentiles

Just as He judged the Jews still alive at the end of the Tribulation when Christ personally returns to earth, so He will also judge those Gentiles who remain (Matt. 25:31-46).

At the judgment of the Gentiles Christ will separate the sheep, representing the saved, from the goats, representing the lost (Matt. 24:31-46). Though salvation is by grace and through faith, the saved who come out of the Great Tribulation will be identified by their works in befriending their Jewish brothers. In the universal anti-Semitism of the Great Tribulation one who befriends Jews will by this evidence manifest his salvation.6

The Final Judgment of Satan and the Fallen Angels

Throughout the centuries as anticipated in the enmity mentioned in Genesis 3:15, there has been constant warfare between the holy angels who minister to God’s people and Satan and his unholy angels, the demonic spirits. Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier concerning the judgment of Satan, God has manifested His power by defeating Satan and his hordes. While, for God’s own purposes, Satan has been allowed to continue his nefarious schemes, Scripture speaks of three sure events regarding the activity of Satan and his demonic forces: his binding during the millennium, his short release, and his final incarceration in the Lake of Fire. Then all opposing powers against the Lord will be dealt with in judgment (Rev. 20:1-3, 7-10; 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6; 1 Cor. 15:24-26).

The Judgment of the Great White Throne

Revelation 20:11-15 And I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14 And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

This vision of the Great White Throne describes the last and final judgment of history. It is an awesome and solemn scene and one which should cause everyone to stop and think about the eternal implications of this future event. For the non-Christian, the one who has never trusted in the person and work of Jesus Christ, it should cause him to want to search out the truth regarding Jesus Christ, to embrace Him in faith as the Savior from his sin and eternal doom. For the Christian, the future reality of this event should cause deep concern because of the many (including some of our friends and relatives) who will face this throne of judgment because they never received the Savior by faith.

All who have scoffed at God, denied His being, rebelled at His rule, or rejected His sovereignty—and in the process, also rejected His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ—must at this time stand before this throne to be condemned to eternal judgment. May the reality of this judgment cause us to carefully reflect on the serious consequences of this passage on a Christ-rejecting world.

    The Time of This Judgment

Revelation 20:5 and 11-15 show this takes place after the conclusion of the millennium following the doom of Satan and the destruction of heaven and earth, but before the eternal state of the new heavens and earth of Revelation 21:1.

    The Place of This Judgment

Heaven and earth are seen fleeing from the face of Him who sits on this throne (20:11). In other words, they are destroyed, dissolved (2 Pet. 3:7, 10-12). The point is the Great White Throne Judgment does not occur on earth or in heaven as we know it, but somewhere beyond, perhaps in extreme outer space. This indication is also clear that it does occur in the new heavens and earth which are not created until after this event (cf. 20:11 with 21:1).

In other words, God has removed Satan and his demons, the False Prophet and the Beast, and is about to judge the rest of the unbelieving dead. So, it is only fitting that He also judge the old earth and heavens that has been the arena of Satan’s activity and man’s sin and rebellion. This evidently takes place after the resurrection of the unbelieving dead from the grave and Hades. They are resurrected, gathered before the throne and actually behold the dissolution of heaven and earth as a foreboding preparation for their judgment. All their hopes and dreams had been placed in an earth and system that was passing away (1 John 2:17), and now they see it dissolve before their very eyes.

“And no place was found for them,” i.e., for heaven and earth. In the eternal state there will be no place for that which reminds men of the rebellions of Satan and man with all its wickedness and sorrow (Rev. 22:3; 21:4; Isa. 65:17).

    The Character of This Judgment

It is called “great” because of the awesome intensity and the degree of its importance. Here each unbeliever’s eternal destiny is declared and determined with ample proof and reason. It is great because it is the final judgment and puts an end to all judgment for all time. It is great because all the unbelievers of all time, from Cain to the final revolt at the end of the Millennium, will be here assembled to face the bar of God’s holy justice.

It is called “white” because it will be the supreme and undimmed display of the perfect righteousness and justice of God to all mankind. Throughout history God has revealed Himself in creation (Rom. 1:18-21), a revelation man has ignored. Through the Scriptures and the remnant of His people, He has taught man that he must have God’s righteousness, that God is of purer eyes than to approve evil or to accept or look upon wickedness (Hab. 1:13), that all have sinned and come short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23), and that the penalty of sin is eternal death, separation from God (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23; Eph. 2:2). Now these facts will become evident to each individual and proven without question.

It is called a “throne” because here the Lord Jesus Christ will sit in absolute majesty and sovereign authority to consign a Christ-rejecting world to the eternal Lake of Fire. In Revelation 4:2 John beheld a throne set in heaven from which the Tribulation judgments proceeded. The word throne is used more than 30 times in Revelation, but this throne, the great white one, is to be distinguished from all others as the most significant one of all.

    The Participants of This Judgment

The judge is the Lord Jesus Christ (John 5:22-23, 27). All judgment has been placed into His hands as the perfect Son of man, Son of God, the one qualified to judge by virtue of his sinless humanity and defeat of Satan and sin through the cross (Rev. 5:1-14).

Those judged are “the dead, great and small,” those who had no part in the first resurrection (Rev. 20:5-6). Specifically, this is the dead of the second resurrection, the resurrection of the unjust, the resurrection unto the second death mentioned in Revelation 20:5-6, 12-14, and John 5:29b. “The dead, great and small” emphasizes that no one is exempt. All who have died without faith in Jesus Christ—regardless of their status in human history, religiously, politically, economically, or morally—must stand before this throne of judgment.

    The Source of Their Resurrection

Revelation 20:13a shows they come from:

(1) “The sea,” a reference to all those who died at sea and were not buried in the earth.

(2) “Death,” a reference to all those who were buried in graves in the ground, cremated, or destroyed in any other way on earth.

(3) “Hades,” a reference to the place of torments, the compartment which contains the souls of all unbelievers (Luke 16:23). The sea and death (i.e., the ground) contain the bodies and Hades contains the souls. At this resurrection the soul and body are reunited and the person is brought before the throne.

    The Basis of This Judgment

The basis of the judgment is what is found in the two sets of books—the books which are opened, and the other book, the Book of Life (Rev. 20:12b, 13b, 15a). Note that the text says “and the books (plural) were opened, and another book (singular) was opened, which is the Book of Life.” We have two sets, the books and the book which is mentioned again in verse 15a.

The Books: The identity of the books is not specifically revealed and we can only speculate from a comparison of other passages of Scripture and from the nature of these verses. I believe we have two books here.

(1) The first book opened will probably be the Scripture, the Word of God, which contains the revelation of God’s holy character, the moral law, the declaration of man’s sinfulness, and God’s plan of salvation through faith in Christ. This book also reveals that even when men do not have the written Word, they have the law of God written in their hearts (Rom. 2:14-16), and the revelation of God-consciousness in creation so that they are without excuse (Rom. 1:18-21; 2:12). Undoubtedly, then, the Scripture will be used to demonstrate the clearness of the plan of God and that man is without excuse. John 12:48 is very pertinent here:

He who rejects Me, and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day.

(2) The second book will be the book of works or deeds. Verses 13 and 14 state that the unbelieving dead will be judged according to their deeds (works). Undoubtedly then, one book is the book of works which contains a record of every person’s deeds as a witness of the true nature of their spiritual condition.

“Deeds” is the Greek word, ergon, which refers to anything that is done, “a deed, action, or work.” It is used of good deeds (Matt. 26:10; Mark 14:6; Rom. 2:7), of evil deeds (Col. 1:21; 2 John 11), of dead works (Heb. 6:1; 9:14), of unfruitful deeds (Eph. 5:11), of ungodly deeds (Jude 15), of deeds of darkness (Rom. 13:12; Eph. 5:11), and of works of the Law (Rom. 2:15).

The principle here is that Jesus Christ died for their sins no matter how evil that He might forgive them and give them a righteousness from God that they may have a perfect standing before God. As Paul declares in Romans 5:1-2:

Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.

But when men reject the knowledge of God and His plan of salvation, they in essence determine to stand on their own merit, or in their own righteousness. So, the book of works will contain a record of all the unbeliever’s deeds, good and bad, to demonstrate the truth of Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall (continually miss the mark) short of the glory (perfect holiness) of God.” All fall short of God’s perfect righteousness and have therefore no basis upon which to stand accepted (justified) before a holy and just God. This judgment proves them sinners and in need of the righteousness which God freely gives through faith in Jesus Christ.

The Book of Life: This book contains the names of all believers, of all who have put their faith in Christ and God’s plan of salvation or righteousness through the substitutionary death of Christ. Or, to put it another way, it is a record of those who have not rejected God’s plan of salvation and have responded to Christ in faith; for these their faith is reckoned for righteousness and their sins have not been imputed to them (Rom. 4:4-6, 22).

At the Great White Throne Judgment the Book of Life is produced to show that the participant’s name was not found written in the Book of Life because of their rejection of Jesus Christ. They, therefore, have no righteousness and cannot be accepted before God, but must be cast into the eternal Lake of Fire. The Book of Life contains the names of believers, those justified by faith and who have a righteousness from God imputed to their account. These and only these are accepted by God and will spend eternity with Him (cf. Rom. 10:1-4; Phil. 3:9).

    The Judgment or Punishment

Revelation 20:14 And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

“Death” refers to the body now resurrected while “Hades” refers to the soul, the immaterial part of man. Both body and soul are eternally separated from God in the eternal Lake of Fire, a very real, literal, and eternal place according the Scripture.

It is so important to note the emphasis here. The real issue is whether one’s name is in the Book of Life, not one’s deeds. The deeds of the unbeliever are only examined to show that the person, no matter how much good they have done, falls short of God’s holy demands. Paul shows us in Romans that all categories of people—the good, the bad, and the ugly—are really in the same boat and on their way to eternal separation from God. Obviously, most see that the immoral person deserves the wrath of God, as the Apostle describes in Romans 1:18-32. But he also shows us that the same applies to the good person and moral person as well as the religious person (Rom. 2:1-3:23). Nobody bats 1000 no matter how good they may appear to men. In the face of the awesome holiness of God, they are sinners and cannot stand in the presence of God on their own merit.

The awesome fact is that salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ. The loss of salvation, and ultimately the one sin that separates a person from God and confines him to the eternal Lake of Fire, is because of failure to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for forgiveness and a perfect righteous standing before God.

John 3:16-18 For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him. (NIV)

Regarding the coming of the Spirit and His ministry in the world after the resurrection and ascension to God’s right hand, Christ made the following promise:

John 16:8-11 And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment; 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; 10 and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you no longer behold Me; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged. (Emphasis mine.)

Since the Savior has died for the sin of the world (1 John 2:2), the ultimate issue is the sin of unbelief or rejection of Christ.


Friend, have you put your trust in the person of Christ as the God-man Savior who died for your sin? If you have not, may I encourage you to read Appendix A, investigate the claims of Christ, and receive Him as your Savior by faith.

Appendix A:
An Explanation of the Gospel


As the Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, Jesus said, “I have come that they (all mankind) may have life, and have it abundantly,” a life with meaning and purpose. The Bible teaches us that God loves all people and wants to bring them into a harmonious relationship with Himself. But man is separated from God by the problem of Sin. God has resolved that problem through the person of Jesus Christ. The following is a short presentation of the good news of how God has provided that men might know Him and experience eternal life.

God’s Plan of Salvation

While 1 John 5:11 and 12 are written to Christians to give them assurance of their salvation based on the testimony of God’s Word, this passage also highlights the key issue in God’s plan of salvation as it is centered in the person of Jesus Christ.

  • God’s Declaration to Man: “And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son” (verse 11).
  • The Important Issue: “He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (verse 12).

This passage teaches: (a) that God has given us eternal life and this life is in His Son, Jesus Christ, and (b) that the way to possess eternal life is to possess God’s Son.

Two important questions must be asked and answered:

  • Why is possession of God’s Son necessary to have eternal life?
  • How can a person possess or have the Son of God?

The Problem of Man’s Separation From God

According to Romans 5:8, God demonstrated His love for us through the death of His Son. Why did Christ have to die for us? Because Scripture declares all men to be sinful. We are all sinners. “To sin” means to miss the mark. The Bible declares, “we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory (the perfect holiness) of God.” In other words, our sin separates us from God who is perfect holiness (righteousness and justice) and who must therefore judge sinful man (Rom. 3:23; Hab. 1:13; Isa. 59:2).

The Problem of the Futility of Man’s Works

Scripture also teaches us that no amount of human goodness or human works or human morality or religious activity can gain acceptance with God or get anyone into heaven. The moral man, the religious man, and the immoral and non-religious are all in the same boat—they all fall short of the glory of God (God’s perfect righteousness). After discussing the immoral man, the moral man, and the religious man in Romans 1:18-3:8, the Apostle Paul declares “that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin,” that “there is none righteous, not even one,” and “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:9-10, 23).

Added to this are the declarations of the following verses of Scripture:

Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.

Titus 3:5-7: He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Romans 4:1-5: What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.

No amount of human goodness is as good as God. God is perfect righteousness. Because of this, He cannot have fellowship with anyone who does not have perfect righteousness (Hab. 1:13a). In order to be accepted by God, we must be as good as God is. Before God, we all stand naked, helpless, and hopeless in ourselves. No amount of good living will get us to heaven or give us eternal life. What then is the solution?

God’s Solution for Man’s Problem

God is not only perfect holiness (whose holy character we can never attain to on our own or by our works of righteousness) but He is also perfect love and full of grace and mercy. Because of His love, grace and mercy He has not left us without hope and a solution.

Romans 5:8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us.

This is the good news of the Bible, the message of the gospel. It’s the message of the gift of God’s own Son who became man (the God-man), lived a sinless life, died on the cross for our sin, and was raised from the grave proving both the fact He is God’s Son and the value of His death for us as our substitute (Rom. 1:4; 4:25).

2 Corinthians 5:21: He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

1 Peter 3:18: For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.

The All-Important Question

How then do we receive God’s Son that we may have the eternal life God has promised us? What becomes the issue for us today?

John 1:12: But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, {even} to those who believe in His name.

John 3:16-18: For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

Because of what Jesus Christ accomplished for us on the cross, the Bible states that “He that has the Son has life” and we can receive the Son, Jesus Christ, as our Savior by personal faith, by trusting in the person of Christ and His death for our sins.

This means we must each come to God the same way—as a sinner who recognizes his sinfulness, repudiates any form of human works for salvation, and relies totally on Christ alone by faith alone for our salvation.

If you would like to receive and trust Christ as your personal Savior, you may want to express your faith in Christ by the following prayer:

Dear God, I know I’m a sinner and that nothing I do can gain heaven or eternal life. I believe Jesus Christ died for me and rose from the grave. Right now I receive Him as my personal Savior by trusting in Him alone as my only way to heaven. Thank you for giving me eternal life through faith in your Son.

If you prayed this prayer and truly trusted in the person of Jesus Christ and His death for your sin, then you have been born anew into the family of God. You are now one of God’s children by faith in the Savior.

As a child of God, you are, however, a babe in Christ and you need to grow and be spiritually nourished and built up in the things of Christ. As with all Christians, you need fellowship with other believers in a Bible teaching church, personal time daily in God’s Word and regularly with other believers in a Bible teaching setting during the week.

Appendix B:
The Judgment Seat (Bema) of Christ

The Doctrine of Rewards

One of the prominent doctrines of the New Testament is the Doctrine of Rewards and the Judgment Seat of Christ. It is a doctrine often ignored or, when taught, it is misrepresented because of the term “judgment” that is used in translating the Greek text. Commenting on this Samuel Hoyt writes:

Within the church today there exists considerable confusion and debate regarding the exact nature of the examination at the judgment seat of Christ. The expression “the judgment seat of Christ” in the English Bible has tended to cause some to draw the wrong conclusion about the nature and purpose of this evaluation. A common misconception which arises from this English translation is that God will mete out a just retribution for sins in the believer’s life, and some measure of retributive punishment for sins will result.7

As it will be shown below, though it is tremendously serious with eternal ramifications, the judgment seat of Christ is not a place and time when the Lord will mete out punishment for sins committed by the child of God. Rather, it is a place where rewards will be given or lost depending on how one has used his or her life for the Lord.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20, the Apostle Paul drew courage and was motivated by the fact of rewards at the return of the Lord for the church which he mentions in every chapter in this epistle and becomes the primary subject of 2 Thessalonians. The Lord’s return and what this means not only to the world but to us individually is a very prominent subject of the New Testament.

It is significant that among the final words of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, we find these words of the Lord:

Rev. 22:12 Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done.

While salvation is a gift, there are rewards given for faithfulness in the Christian life and loss of rewards for unfaithfulness. Rewards become one of the great motives of the Christian’s life or should. But we need to understand the nature of these rewards to understand the nature of the motivation. Some people are troubled by the doctrine of rewards because this seems to suggest “merit” instead of “grace,” and because, it is pointed out, we should only serve the Lord out of love and for God’s glory.

Of course we should serve the Lord out of love and for God’s glory, and understanding the nature of rewards will help us do that. But the fact still remains that the Bible promises us rewards. God gives us salvation. It is a gift through faith, but He rewards us for good works. God graciously supplies the means by which we may serve Him. Indeed, He works in us both to will and to do as we volitionally appropriate His grace (Phil. 2:12-13), but the decision to serve, and the diligence employed in doing so, are our responsibility and our contribution and God sees this as rewardable. Compare the following passages:

1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.

Colossians 1:29 And for this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.

Key Verses on Rewards: Rom. 14:10-11; 1 Cor. 3:11-15; 2 Cor. 5:9-10; 1 John 2:28; Rev. 3:11-12.

The Meaning of the Judgment (Bema) Seat

Both Romans 14:10 and 2 Corinthians 5:9 speak of the “judgment seat.” This a translation of one Greek word, the word bema. While bema is used in the gospels and Acts of the raised platform where a Roman magistrate or ruler sat to make decisions and pass sentence (Matt. 27:19; John 19:13), its use in the epistles by Paul, because of his many allusions to the Greek athletic contests, is more in keeping with its original use among the Greeks.

This word was taken from Isthmian games where the contestants would compete for the prize under the careful scrutiny of judges who would make sure that every rule of the contest was obeyed (cf. 2 Tim. 2:5). The victor of a given event who participated according to the rules was led by the judge to the platform called the Bema. There the laurel wreath was placed on his head as a symbol of victory (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-25).

In all of these passages, “Paul was picturing the believer as a competitor in a spiritual contest. As the victorious Grecian athlete appeared before the Bema to receive his perishable award, so the Christian will appear before Christ’s Bema to receive his imperishable award. The judge at the Bema bestowed rewards to the victors. He did not whip the losers.8 We might add, neither did he sentence them to hard labor.

In other words, it is a reward seat and portrays a time of rewards or loss of rewards following examination, but it is not a time of punishment where believers are judged for their sins. Such would be inconsistent with the finished work of Christ on the Cross because He totally paid the penalty for our sins. Chafer and Walvoord have an excellent word on this view:

With reference to sin, Scripture teaches that the child of God under grace shall not come into judgment (John 3:18; 5:24; 6:37; Rom. 5:1; 8:1; 1 Cor. 11:32); in his standing before God, and on the ground that the penalty for all sin—past, present, and future (Col. 2:13)—has been borne by Christ as the perfect Substitute, the believer is not only placed beyond condemnation, but being in Christ is accepted in the perfection of Christ (1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 1:6; Col. 2:10; Heb. 10:14) and loved of God as Christ is loved (John 17:23).9

Again, Chafer writes concerning the Bema, “It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the judgment is unrelated to the problem of sin, that it is more for the bestowing of rewards than the rejection of failure.”10

The Time of the Bema

This event will occur immediately following the rapture or resurrection of the church after it is caught up to be with the Lord in the air as described in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

Arguments in support of this view:

(1) In Luke 14:12-14, reward is associated with the resurrection and the rapture is when the church is resurrected.

(2) In Revelation 19:8, when the Lord returns with His bride at the end of the tribulation, she is seen already rewarded. Her reward is described as fine linen, the righteous acts of the saints—undoubtedly the result of rewards.

(3) In 2 Timothy 4:8 and 1 Corinthians 4:5, rewards are associated with “that day” and with the Lord’s coming. Again, for the church this means the event of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

So the order of events will be (a) the rapture which includes our glorification or resurrection bodies, (b) exaltation into the heavens with the Lord, (c) examination before the Bema, and (d) compensation or rewards.

The Place of the Bema

It will occur somewhere in the heavenlies in the presence of the Lord. This is evident from 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and Revelation 4:2 and 19:8.

The Participants at the Bema

(1) All the passages dealing with the Bema or rewards are addressed to believers or pertain to believers of the church (Rom. 14:10-12; 1 Cor. 3:12f; 2 Cor. 5:9f; 1 John 2:28; 1 Thess. 2:19-20; 1 Tim. 6:18-19; Tit. 2:12-14 [note the emphasis on good works]).

The resurrection program and the thus the reward of Old Testament saints occurs after the tribulation, after church age saints are already seen in heaven and rewarded and returning with the Lord to judge the earth (cf. Rev. 19:8 with Dan. 12:1-2; Matt. 24).

(2) All believers, regardless of their spiritual state, will be raptured and will stand before the Bema to give an account of their lives and will either receive rewards or lose rewards. Some believe in a partial rapture theory which says that only those in fellowship with the Lord will be raptured as a form of punishment for their sin. As mentioned above, this is not only contrary to the finished work of Christ who once and for all paid the penalty for our sins, but it is contrary to the teaching of 1 Thessalonians 5:9-11.

9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, that whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him.

The context suggests that Paul has in mind the return of Christ for the church—the rapture (1 Thess. 4:13-18). The rapture is the means of our deliverance from the wrath he discusses in chapter 5:1-3. Further, the words “awake or asleep” of verse 10 refer to a spiritual or moral condition, not whether one is alive or dead when Christ returns as in 4:13-14. This is clear from both the context of 5:4-8 and by the fact he changed the words he used for sleep. He used the Greek katheudo in 5:10 rather than koimao, the word he used metaphorically in 4:13-14 of physical death. Though katheudo was used of physical sleep and even death, it was also commonly used of spiritual apathy or carnal indifference to spiritual matters, and this is clearly the context of chapter 5. The point, then, is this: Because of the perfect and finished nature of Christ’s death (note the words “who died for us” of verse 10), whether we are spiritually alert or not, we will live together with Him through the rapture to face the examination of the Bema.

The Examiner or Judge at the Bema

This is none other than the Lord Jesus who is even now examining our lives and will bring to light the true nature of our walk and works when we stand before Him at the Bema (Rev. 1-2; 1 Cor. 4:5f; 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 John 2:28). In Romans 14:10 the Apostle called this examining time the Bema of God while in 2 Corinthians 5:10 he called it the Bema of Christ. The Point: Jesus who is God is our examiner and rewarder.

The Purpose and Basis of the Bema

The purpose and the basis is the most critical issue of all and brings us face to face with the practical aspects of the Bema. Some crucial questions are: Why are we brought before the Bema? Is it only for rewards or their loss? Will any punishment be meted out? Will there be great sorrow? What’s the basis on which the Bema is conducted? Is it sin, good works, or just what?

    The Problem

Within the church, there exists a good deal of confusion and disagreement concerning the exact nature of the Bema. The use of the term “judgment seat” in most translations, ignorance of the historical and cultural background concerning the Bema, and foggy theology regarding the finished work of Christ have all contributed to several common misconceptions which, in one way or another, see God as giving out just retribution to believers for sin, or at least for our unconfessed sin.

    Three Views of the Bema

For a summary of three major views, let me quote Samuel L. Hoyt from Bibliotheca Sacra.

Some Bible teachers view the judgment seat as a place of intense sorrow, a place of terror, and a place where Christ display all the believer’s sins (or at least those unconfessed) before the entire resurrected and raptured church. Some go even further by stating that Christians must experience some sort of suffering for their sins at the time of this examination.

At the other end of the spectrum another group, which holds to the same eschatological chronology, views this event as an awards ceremony. Awards are handed out to every Christian. The result of this judgment will be that each Christian will be grateful for the reward which he receives, and he will have little or no shame.

Other Bible teachers espouse a mediating position. They maintain the seriousness of the examination and yet emphasize the commendation aspect of the judgment seat. They emphasize the importance and necessity of faithful living today but reject any thought of forensic punishment at the Bema. Emphasis is placed on the fact that each Christian must give an account of his life before the omniscient and holy Christ. All that was done through the energy of the flesh will be regarded as worthless for reward, while all that was done in the power of the Holy Spirit will be graciously rewarded. Those who hold this view believe that the Christian will stand glorified before Christ without his old sin nature. He will, likewise, be without guilt because he has been declared righteous. There will be no need for forensic punishment, for Christ has forever borne all of God’s wrath toward the believer’s sins.11

This last view I believe to be the one that is in accord with Scripture. Reasons for this will be set forth and developed as we study the nature, purpose, and basis for the Bema. But for now, lest we draw some wrong conclusions, we need to be ever mindful that God’s Word clearly teaches there are specific and very serious consequences, both temporal and eternal, for sin or disobedience. Though we will not be judged in the sense of punished for sin at the Bema since the Lord has born that for us, we must never take sin lightly because there are many consequences.

    The Present Consequences of Sin or Disobedience

While the following is not exhaustive, it demonstrates that sin in the life of a believer is not a small issue.

(1) Loss of Fellowship With the Lord. Known sin in one’s life causes a loss of intimate fellowship with the Lord with the consequent loss of His joy and peace (Ps. 32:3-4).

(2) Divine Discipline From the Lord Here in Time. We should not think of discipline as punishment. Discipline from God is the gracious work of a Father to train and develop His children. Sometimes this comes in the form of various kinds of testing, trials, failure, and predicaments which He uses to correct us, to train us, and, if we have been going our own stubborn way, to increase our misery. The goal, however, is always to bring us back to Him (Heb. 12:5-11). If the believer remains unrepentant, this can lead to the sin unto death as with Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), and some of the believers at Corinth who were failing to confess their sin and get right with the Lord (1 Cor. 11:28f; cf. also 1 John 5:16-17).

(3) Loss of Power and Production. When we fail to deal with our sinful ways through honest confession, we grieve the Spirit’s person and quench His power in our lives. This means that rather than operating by faith in God’s provision, we end up operating in the energy of the flesh. We turn to our personal bag of tricks by which we seek to handle life (Gal. 3:1-5; 5:5-15; Jer. 2:12-13). This results in the works of the flesh and their awful and fruitless consequences (Gal. 5:19-21, 26). Without the abiding life, the life of faith and obedience to the Savior, we can do nothing (John 15:1-7).

(4) Loss of Opportunities. When we are in charge of our lives rather than the Lord, we become insensitive to people and opportunities of ministry—we lack vision. Carnal believers have no vision other than their own personal agendas and selfish goals (cf. Jn. 4:34f).

(5) Loss of Desire and Motivation for Service. Carnal believers are occupied and controlled by their own self-centered desires (Gal. 5:16f). Perhaps this is a good place to discuss the concept of selfishness and rewards for some see an appeal to rewards as selfish and therefore carnal.

Zane Hodges has some good thoughts on this concept:

Scripture does not teach us to be uninterested in our own happiness or well-being. The very desire to escape eternal damnation is a legitimate and urgent self-interest. The instinct to preserve our lives is the same. Nor are pleasure and enjoyment illegitimate experiences.

When God put Adam and Eve in the garden, He furnished them with “every tree … that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen. 2:9). They could enjoy themselves freely provided they abstained from eating from the one forbidden tree. Similarly, Paul tells rich people that “God … gives us richly all things to enjoy.” (1 Tim. 6:17, italics added).

Selfishness ought not to be defined simply as the pursuit of our own self-interest. Instead, it should be defined as the pursuit of our self-interest in our own way, rather than in God’s way. Since “love” is a preeminent virtue in Christianity, true selfishness often involves a pursuit of self-interest that violates the law of love.12

Self-interest in God’s way is legitimate. Self-centeredness or selfishness is preoccupation with self at the expense of others and God’s will in one’s life. When Adam and Eve chose to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they acted in self-centered independence which was idolatry and sin. When they enjoyed each other and the fruit trees and blessings of the garden, they acted in their self-interest but they did so in dependence on and in obedience to the Lord.

(6) Broken Relationships and Disharmony. Carnality causes broken relationships and pain to those around us—our families, friends, associates, and co-workers in the body of Christ (Gal. 5:15; Heb. 12:15b).

(7) Loss of Physical Health and Vitality. Of course all sickness, weakness, or suffering is not a product of sin, but it can be and often is (1 Cor. 11:29-30; 1 John 5:16-17; Prov. 17:22; 14:30).

(8) Loss of Rewards at the Bema.

1 Cor. 3:13-15: “each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.”

    The Purpose of the Bema

It is not punitive. It is not to judge believers for sin of any kind, confessed or unconfessed. “Scripture teaches that for the believer God’s justice has already been fully and forever satisfied at the Cross in relation to the believer’s sins. If God were to punish the believer judicially for his sins for which Christ has already rendered payment, He would be requiring two payments for sin and would therefore be unjust. Such a concept (punishment for sin) erroneously disparages the all-sufficiency of Christ’s death on the cross.”13 Christ paid the penalty for the believer’s pre- and post-conversion sins. The believer will forfeit rewards which he could have received, but he will not be punished in the judicial sense of “paying” for his sins.

Scripture teaches that all sins, both confessed and unconfessed, have been forgiven and taken care of by the work of Christ on the Cross so the Christian will never face those sins again at the judgment.

The following verses demonstrate the basic principle of the complete and finished nature of Christ’s work:

Hebrews 10:14 For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

Romans 5:19 For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.

Colossians 2:10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority;

These verses state the complete results or conclusion:

Hebrews 8:12 For I will be merciful to their iniquities, And I will remember their sins no more.

Hebrews 10:17-18 And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more. 18 Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.

Isaiah 44:22 I have wiped out your transgressions like a thick cloud, And your sins like a heavy mist. Return to Me, for I have redeemed you.

Psalm 103:12 As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us.

Micah 7:19 He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities under foot. Yes, Thou wilt cast all their sins Into the depths of the sea.

Isaiah 38:17 Lo, for my own welfare I had great bitterness; It is Thou who hast kept my soul from the pit of nothingness, For Thou hast cast all my sins behind Thy back.

These verses show we cannot come into judgment. Why? Because Christ has born our judgment by being made a curse in our place:

Romans 5:1 Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,

Romans 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

John 3:18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

John 5:24 Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.

Then why do we have to confess sin in this life? And why does God judge believers for unconfessed sin as with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 and some of the believers in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 11:28f? Because this is a completely different matter.

(1) Unconfessed sin relates to fellowship in this life, not one’s relationship or standing with God. Unconfessed sin stands as a barrier to fellowship with the Lord and His control over one’s life. As Amos 3:3 says, “can two walk together unless they be agreed?” Obviously the answer is no. Confession means we agree with God concerning our sin and want to get back under God’s control. “Daily forgiveness of those who are within the family of God is distinguished from judicial and positional forgiveness which was applied forensically to all of a person’s sins the moment he believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.”14 We need to distinguish between fellowship forgiveness and legal or forensic forgiveness that justifies us and gives us a standing before God through Christ.

Key Scriptures: Heb. 12:5f and 1 Cor. 11:28-32. These passages:

  • Explain the nature of God’s judgment of believers in this life. It is discipline designed to train and bring believers back to a walk with God.
  • They teach us the basic cause of discipline is failure to examine and confess known sins because that hinders our fellowship with God.
  • “Condemned along with the world” in 1 Corinthians 11:32 most likely refers to the judgment of Rom. 1:24f, moral degeneration and the gradual breakdown in the moral fiber of men when they turn away from God. The same thing happens in the life of believers, but God brings discipline to stop the process.

(2) God does not judge us for our sin in the sense of making us pay the penalty for that sin.

Scripture teaches that Christ’s death was all-sufficient, completely satisfying God’s wrath toward sin in the believer. The question of sin in regard to God’s justice has been forever satisfied in the mind of God by the all-sufficient sacrifice of His Son. The penalty for the believer’s sins has been fully paid for by Christ, the believer’s substitute. The Christian has been in court, condemned, sentenced, and executed in his substitute, Jesus Christ. God cannot exact payment for sins twice since payment has been fully and forever paid. The believer is seen by the Father as clothed in the righteousness of Christ. God can therefore find no cause for accusing the Christian judicially any more than He can find cause for accusing Jesus Christ. Therefore, at the judgment seat of Christ forensic punishment will not be meted out for the believer’s sins.15

Rather, God disciplines us as a father disciplines his sons to bring us back into fellowship that we might be conformed to His Son. It is a family matter.

    The Positive Aspects of the Bema

(1) To evaluate the quality of every believer’s work whether it is good or bad, i.e., acceptable and thus worthy of rewards, or unacceptable, to be rejected and unworthy of rewards. Actually an evaluation is going on every day by the Lord (cf. Rev. 2-3).

(2) To destroy and remove unacceptable production portrayed in the symbols of wood, hay, and stubble. All sinful deeds, thoughts, and motives, as well as all good deeds done in the energy of the flesh will be consumed like wood, hay, and stubble before a fire because they are unworthy of reward. Why? This will be answered as we consider the basis on which rewards are given or lost.

(3) To reward the believer for all the good he or she has done as portrayed by the symbols of gold, silver, and precious stones, that which is valuable and can stand the test of fire without being consumed.


1 Cor. 3:13-15 each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.

“Evident” is phaneros which means “known, plain, visible, revealed as to it nature.” “The day” refers to a day well known and refers to the day of the Bema after the rapture of the church. “Declare it” is deloo which means “to make evident, clear.” “Be revealed” is apokalupto and means “to unveil.” “Test” is dokimazo and means “to test for the sake of approval.” “The quality” is hopoios, a correlative and qualitative pronoun meaning “of what sort or kind.”

1 Cor. 4:5 Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.

“Bring to light” is photizo, “to bring to light, make visible.” “Disclose” is phaneroo, “to manifest, reveal.” The issue should be extremely clear from these two verses: The Lord will evaluate the quality and nature of every person’s work. Compare also:

2 Corinthians 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.

Revelation 22:12 Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done.

    The Negative Aspects of the Bema

There are a number of passages that refer to the negative aspects of the Bema which need to be mentioned and explained. In these passages we read such things as “give account of himself,” “suffer loss,” “shrink away from Him in shame,” and “recompense for his deeds … whether good or bad.”

Will believers experience shame, grief, remorse at the Bema? If so, how do we reconcile this with passages like Revelation 7:17, “God shall wipe away every tear from their eye,” and Revelation 21:4, “and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away,” or with Isaiah 65:17, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; And the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind”?

The negative effects involve the following:

(1) The loss suffered in 1 Corinthians 3:15 refers to the loss of rewards, not salvation as the verse goes on to make clear. Please note that the clause “he shall suffer loss” would be better rendered “it (the reward) shall be forfeited.”

(2) The disqualification mentioned in 1 Corinthians 9:27 means disqualified from rewards, not loss of salvation. This is clear from the context and the analogy to the Greek athletic games.

(3) The “recompense” (NASB) or the “receive back” (KJV) of 2 Corinthians 5:10 refers to the dispensing of rewards or their loss. The verb used is komizo and means “to carry off safe,” “to carry off as booty.” In the middle voice as here, it meant “to bear for oneself,”16 or “to receive back what is one’s own.”17 Compare Matthew 25:27 and Ephesians 6:8.

(4) That dispensing of rewards is in view is also evident from the Greek words in 2 Corinthians 5:10 translated “good” (agathos—valuable like good fruit) and “bad” (phaulos—unacceptable like rotten or spoiled fruit). The idea is not good in the sense of righteousness versus bad in the sense of evil or sinfulness. For those ideas Paul would have most likely used kalos, “good,” and kakos, “evil.” For good works, those valuable like good fruit, we will receive back rewards, but for bad works, those rotten and worthless, we will receive no rewards or the loss of rewards.

This is no more a punishment than when a student turns in a worthless assignment and receives an F or a D. His poor work results in a just grade or recompense. This is what his work deserves. There used to be a sign in the registrar’s office at Dallas Seminary which read, “Salvation is by grace … Graduation is by works.”

(5) 1 John 2:28. This verse undoubtedly refers to the Bema and shows there will be both boldness as a result of abiding, and shame before the Lord as a result of failing to abide.

“And now little children.” John is writing to believers. This is his term of endearment for his readers as born again people.

“Abide in Him.” “Abide” is a synonym for fellowship which is the subject of the book (1:3-7). It means to remain in Him from the standpoint of drawing on His life as the source of ours and then to obey Him out of that relationship of dependence. This is the basis of rewards or the cause of their loss, the abiding, Christ-dependent life.

“So that” points us to the purpose, the return of the Savior and what it will mean.

“When He appears.” The “when” points to the imminency of the return of the Lord. It is literally “if He appears.” The conditional clause does not question the reality of Christ’s coming, only the time of it and thereby points to its imminency. “Appears” refers to the rapture which leads quickly into the Bema.

“We may have confidence.” “Confidence” is parrhesia and means “courage, boldness to speak.” Point: Though none of us are perfect or ever will be, still, faithfulness to abide and obey the Lord will give confidence of rewards.

“And not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming (presence).” Please note several things here. (a) The verb is what we call in Greek an aorist subjunctive, and with the basic meaning of this verb, the grammar points to a future act, but not a continuous state. This in no way suggests a permanent condition. (b) The voice of the verb is passive. The subject receives the action, that is, he is made to feel shame. But how? (c) There are two views:

(1) The believer who fails to abide is made to feel shame by the Lord, i.e., the Lord puts him to shame. This would be somewhat punitive and does not fit the concept of the Bema nor the promises of the Lord that we will not come into judgment.

(2) The believer who fails to abide experiences shame by the revelatory nature of Christ’s presence at the Bema. This is caused by the realization of what his own failure and sin has cost him in terms of the loss of rewards and loss of glory to the Lord. But this will only be momentary or short-lived at best in view of passages like Revelation 7:17; 21:4 and Isaiah 65:17.

Hoyt has a good summary of what this passage is talking about and involves:

The Bible suggests that there will be shame at the judgment seat of Christ to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the measure of unfaithfulness of each individual believer. Therefore it should be each believer’s impelling desire to be well-pleasing to the Lord in all things. Although Christians apparently will reflect on this earthly life with some regret, they will also realize what is ahead for them in the heavenly life. This latter realization will be the source of boundless joy. English strikes a proper balance on this subject.

“Joy will indeed be the predominant emotion of life with the Lord; but I suspect that, when our works are made manifest at the tribunal, some grief will be mixed with the joy, and we shall know shame as we suffer loss. But we shall rejoice also as we realize that the rewards given will be another example of the grace of our Lord; for at best we are unprofitable servants” (E. Schuyler English, “The Church At the Tribunal,” in Prophetic Truth Unfolding Today, ed. Charles Lee Feingberg [Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1968], p. 29)

The elements of remorse, regret, and shame cannot be avoided in an examination of the judgment seat of Christ. But this sorrow must be somewhat relative because even for the finest of Christians there will be some things worthy of unceasing remorse in the light of God’s unapproachable holiness. This would mean that the finest of Christians could be sorrowful throughout eternity. However, this is not the picture that the New Testament gives of heaven. The overwhelming emotion is joyfulness and gratefulness. Although there is undeniably some measure of remorse or regret, this is not the overriding emotion to be experienced throughout the eternal state.

The emotional condition of the redeemed is that of complete and unending happiness. Emotion proceeds from the realization of facts in personal experience. Hope will at last become reality for all those who are delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God (Rom. 8:18-25). Elimination of the curse, pain and death will also remove sorrow, tears and crying (Rev. 21:4).

The judgment seat of Christ might be compared to a commencement ceremony. At graduation there is some measure of disappointment and remorse that one did not do better and work harder. However, at such an event the overwhelming emotion is joy, not remorse. The graduates do not leave the auditorium weeping because they did not earn better grades. Rather, they are thankful that they have been graduated, and they are grateful for what they did achieve. To overdo the sorrow aspect of the judgment seat of Christ is to make heaven hell. To underdo the sorrow aspect is to make faithfulness inconsequential.18

The Nature of the Rewards

What are they and how are they described in Scripture? They are described in terms of generalities. What we know about rewards is given in terms that are more general than specific. These are:

(1) The Promise of Crowns. This seems to be used as a symbol of victory, authority, and responsibility.

(2) The Promise of Heavenly Treasure (Matt. 6:20; 1 Pet. 1:4). Stresses their eternal value and security.

(3) The Promise of Accolades or Commendations. This is seen in those passages where a reward is administered in the form of something like “well done thou good and faithful servant …” (cf. Matt. 25:21; Lk. 19:17; 1 Cor. 4:5b).

(4) The Promises to Overcomers. These could refer to special blessing of rewards to those believers who overcomer special trials and tests rather than a general promise to all believers. See Rev. 2:7; 2:11, 17, 26.

(5) The Promise of Special Responsibilities and Authority of the Lord’s Possessions (cf. Matt. 19:28; 24:45-47; 25:21, 23; Lk. 19:17-19; 22:29-30; Rev. 2:26).

    Analogies to Consider

(1) A Thanksgiving Dinner. At a Thanksgiving dinner, each person eats a different amount, but each is satisfied. After our glorification, there will be no sinful nature to produce envy, or jealousy, or resentment, or feelings of dissatisfaction. We will each be enthralled with God and our glorified state.

(2) A Bat Boy at the World Series. Any young man who loves baseball would probably be thrilled to be a bat boy in the World Series, but he would not be jealous or resentful because he was not one of the stars of the game. He would just be delighted to be there and do what he was doing.

(3) A Graduate at Commencement. All the graduates are there and excited about graduating, yet at the time of rewards, some sorrow might be experienced, but it is quickly overcome by the joy of the event.

(4) Our Spiritual Gifts. Our rewards may be likened to our spiritual gifts. Our rewards seem to primarily be a matter of responsibility and maybe opportunities, but they will not be like badges or medals we wear as in the military. Remember that all of our crowns will be cast at the feet of Christ, for only He is worthy (Rev. 4:10-11). Also, Matthew 25:21, 23 and Luke 19:17-19 show us our rewards consist of authority over either many things or many cities. They may include galaxies of the universe. All believers will live in the millennium and in eternity with the Lord. Some will reign with Him, but, because of loss of rewards, evidently some will not.

(5) In Scripture, the church is viewed as the heavenly kingdom and a universal priesthood. This may indicate something of our authority. We may rule over galaxies, celestial bodies, the heavens, and definitely over angels, and the world (cf. 1 Cor. 6:2-3; 4:8).

(6) Israel is the earthly kingdom and will undoubtedly have authority over portions and sections of the millennial kingdom and the eternal kingdom as emphasized in Matt. 25:21; Lk. 19:17-19; and Dan. 7:18, 22, 27.

The Crowns of the New Testament

    The Words Used for Crowns

(1) Stephanos. This was the victor’s crown, the wreath given to the victorious athlete before the judge at the Bema. It is the word used of the crowns promised to believers for faithfulness in the Christian life.

(2) Diadem. This was the royal crown, the crown of a king. It is used of the seven diadems of the Beast in Revelation 12:3 and 13:1. But, to stress that Christ is King of Kings, this word is also used of the many diadems the Lord will wear at His return (Rev. 19:12).

The Principle. The Lord Jesus is the victor, and our victory is really His victory which is appropriated by faith. Crowns are given as rewards for faithfulness to appropriate God’s grace and Christ’s victory in the Christian life. They remind us of our responsibility to abide in the vine.

    The Crowns and Their Significance

(1) The Crown of Thorns (Matt. 27:29; Mk. 15:17; Jn. 19:2, 5). Speaks of Christ’s work on the cross and stands for His victory over sin, Satan, and death.

(2) The Incorruptible Crown (1 Cor. 9:25). Two things: (a) This describes all the crowns. It contrasts our crowns with the temporal and temporary treasure of this life. (b) It is also a special crown given for faithfulness in running the race and exercising self-control in order to serve the Lord and finish the race.

(3) The Crown of Exultation or Rejoicing (1 Thess. 2:19; Phil. 4:1). This crown is a reward given for witnessing, follow-up, and ministry to others. In one sense, the Thessalonians will be Paul’s crown, and the effect at the Bema and throughout eternity will be rejoicing or exultation over their presence in heaven.

But what did Paul mean by this? In view of his use of “crown” (stephanos, the victor’s wreath) in other places, and the fact believers will cast their crowns before the Lord (Rev. 4:10), Paul may also have in mind a personal crown or reward that he will receive because of their presence at the return of the Lord. Though, in this passage the Apostle does not say he would receive a crown, this is suggested, if not here certainly in other passages. Though some of them were not living as they should, looking ahead and seeing them in glory brought joy and would bring great rejoicing.

(4) The Crown of Life (Jam. 1:12; Rev. 2:10). This crown is given for enduring testings (trials) and temptation. The crown is not eternal life which is a gift through faith alone in Christ alone (Jn. 4:10; Rom. 3:24; 5:15-17; 6:23; Eph. 2:8), but a reward for enduring trials and overcoming temptation.

(5) The Crown of Righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8). This crown is a reward given for faithfulness to use our gifts and opportunities in the service of the Lord and for loving His appearing. Note that these two things go together. To love His appearing is to live in the light of it.

(6) The Crown of Glory (1 Pet. 5:4). This crown is a reward promised to Elders for faithfulness in the discharge of their responsibilities in shepherding the people.

(7) The Casting of Crowns (Rev. 4:10, 11). Because Christ alone is worthy and because we can only be fruitful when we abide in Him allowing His life to fills ours, we will all cast our crowns before Him in recognition that all we have done is by His grace.

(8) The Many Crowns or Diadems (Rev. 19:12). The crowns of royalty which stand for Jesus Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lord who alone has the right to rule and judge the world.

Appendix C:
An Overview of the Tribulation

Definition of the Tribulation

Biblically, the word “tribulation” comes from the Greek word thlipsis which means “affliction, distress.” In the Bible it is used (1) in general of any kind of testing or affliction or distress which people experience throughout life, and especially of the church and her problems in this world (John 16:33; Rom. 2:9; 5:3; 8:35; 12:12; 1 Thess. 1:6; Rev. 1:9; 2:9, 10). But (2) Scripture also uses it of a very special and future time of tribulation that is to come upon the whole earth (Matt. 24:9, 21, 29; Mark 13:19, 24; Rev. 2:22; 7:14). As a result, Bible students have spoken of a time called “the Tribulation” as that specific future time of trouble as a judgment from God that will come upon the entire world. It will become unprecedented in its affliction as suggested by the description, “the Great Tribulation” (Matt. 24:21), and it will be culminated by the personal return of Jesus Christ to earth (Matt. 24:29-31).

The Source of the Tribulation

Some today refuse to distinguish between the general tribulations of this age that the church will endure, and the unique, universal, and unprecedented Tribulation that will come. They insist that the tribulation is not the judgment of God, but comes from man and Satan bringing persecution to all. They often see any future tribulation as merely the Devil’s wrath poured out against Christians.

Still others today see only the very tail end of the events of Revelation to be the outpouring of the judgment of God and assert that the rest of the events constitute only the wrath or wickedness of man. But the point of Scripture is that even this is a part of God’s judgment upon a world that has sought its answers apart from the true God. The Tribulation will witness Satan’s wrath and the persecutions of his man, the Beast (Rev. 12:12-17; 13:7). But Scripture shows that even this is a manifestation of God’s wrathful judgment that He will cause to rain on the earth. The clear emphasis of Scripture is that the events of Revelation 6-19 constitute a time of God’s special judgment poured out upon the earth. It is from God—a time of divine wrath.

Key Scriptures: Isaiah 24:1; Joel 1:15; Zeph. 1:18; Revelation 6:16-17; 11:18; 14:7, 10, 19; 15:4, 7; 16:1, 7, 19; 19:1-2.

The Participants of the Tribulation

Since the church is gone, caught up to be with the Lord (1 Thess. 4:13-18), the Tribulation begins with only unbelievers. It is particularly a time of judgment on “those who dwell upon the earth” which seems to be a technical term in Revelation meaning “earth dweller,” a reference to those who have no interest in the things of God (cf. Rev. 3:10; 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 14; 17:8 and Isa. 24:17). Soon, however, 144,000 will come to Christ from the nation of Israel and will evidently become the evangelists of the world who lead people to Christ from every tongue, tribe, and nation (Rev. 7:1-9).

    The Nature and Character of the Tribulation

(1) Though the Tribulation begins as a time of peace, it soon becomes a time of unprecedented trouble—Joel 2:2; Matt. 24:21. Everything about this time will be unprecedented (Zeph. 1:15).

(2) It is a time of God’s wrath or indignation and the vindication of God’s holiness—Zeph. 1:15, 18; Rev. 6:17; I Thess. 1:10; Rev. 14:7, 10; 19:2). God’s wrath against man’s sin and rebellion will be withheld no longer.

(3) It is a day of utter darkness, gloom, and extreme cloudiness (Joel 2:2; Zeph. 1:15).

(4) It is a day of destruction and global catastrophes (Joel 1:15; 2:3; 1 Thess. 5:3; Rev. 6-19).

(5) It is a day of extreme lawlessness, sin, and demonic activity (Rev. 9:20-21; 2 Thess. 2:12).

(6) It is a day of extreme deception and delusion (2 Thess. 2:9-12; Rev. 9:1f; 13:2-3, 11f; Dan. 8:24f). This is caused by (1) the removal of the church and (2) increase in demonic activity.

(7) It is a time of death (Rev. 6; 9:15, 18; 11:13). Large portions of the populations of the earth will be wiped out suddenly, both human and animal.

(8) It is a time of utter negative volition and rebellion (2 Thess. 2:10f; Rev. 6:14f; 9:20; 11:10, 18).

(9) It is a time of internationalism: religiously (Rev. 17); politically (Rev. 13; 17); economically (Rev. 18); militarily (Joel 3:2, 9-14; Rev. 17).

(10) It is a time of extreme anti-Semitism (Rev. 12; Matthew 24:9, 13f).

(11) It is a time of unprecedented apostasy and blasphemy against God (Rev. 11:1f; 13:1f; 2 Thess. 2:3f).

(12) It is a time of martyrdom of believers (Rev. 6:9; 7:14f).

(13) It is a time of global and universal war, human and angelic (Rev. 6:2-4; 16:14; 19:14f; Joel 3:2, 9f; Rev. 12:7).

(14) It is a time of unprecedented evangelism (Rev. 7:9; Matt. 24:14).

The Names of the Tribulation

Terms used of this period. Some of these suggest the judgmental character of this period.

(1) Jacob’s Trouble or distress (Jer. 30:7).

(2) Daniel’s Seventieth Week (Daniel 9:24-27).

(3) A time of trouble or distress (Daniel 12:1).

(4) The Great Day, the one of their wrath (Rev. 6:17).

(5) The hour of testing which shall try the whole earth (Rev. 3:10).

(6) The indignation (Isa. 26:26).

(7) The Great Tribulation (Matt 24:21).

(8) The Day of the Lord (Joel 1:15; 2:1; 1 Thess. 5:2).

In Scripture, the Day of the Lord is often associated with this time of great judgment which God will pour out on earth against Israel and the nations, but it is also associated with the time of millennial blessings which follow when the Lord will rule on earth. Compare Isaiah 13:6-22 = judgment; but 14:1-3 the result which is peace, Israel regathered and in blessing (Joel 1:15f 2:1f, 12-18f; 3:1f).

The Length of the Tribulation

Daniel 9:24-27 shows us that the Tribulation, Daniel’s Seventieth week, is seven years. This is further verified by the time periods of Revelation which divide the tribulation into two periods of three and one-half years (Rev. 11:2-3; 13:5; 12;6; Dan. 7:25; Rev. 12; 14).

1 James M. Stifler, The Epistle To The Romans, Moody Press, Chicago, 1960, p. 31.

2 Lewis Sperry Chafer Systematic Theology, Vol. II, Abridged Edition, John F. Walvoord, Editor, Donald K. Campbell, Roy B. Zuck, Consulting Editors, Victor Books, Wheaton, 1988, p. 501.

3 Samuel Hoyt, “The Judgment Seat of Christ in Theological Perspective,” Part 1, Bibliotheca Sacra, January-March, 1980, electronic media.

4 Chafer, p. 502.

5 Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, Dunham Publishing Co., Findlay, OH, 1958, p. 411.

6 Chafer, p. 503.

7 Hoyt, electronia media.

8 Hoyt, electronic media.

9 Lewis Sperry Chafer, Major Bible Themes: 52 Vital Doctrines of the Scripture Simplified and Explained, rev. John F. Walvoord, editor, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1974, p. 282.

10 Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. IV: Ecclesiology-Eschatology, Dallas Seminary Press, Dallas, TX, 1948, p. 406.

11 Hoyt, electronic media.

12 Zane Hodges, Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Autumn, 1991, p. 7.

13 Hoyt, electronic media.

14 Hoyt, p. 38.

15 Hoyt, p. 38.

16 G. Abott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1937, p. 252.

17 Fritz Rienecker, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Cleon L. Rogers, Jr., editor, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1980, p. 468.

18 Samuel Hoyt, “The Judgment Seat of Christ in Theological Perspective,” Part 2, Bibliotheca Sacra, electronic media.

Related Topics: Dispensational / Covenantal Theology, Eschatology (Things to Come)


Related Media

Key Ideas

The Fatherhood Of God
The Brotherhood Of Man
The Infinite Value Of The Human Soul
The Example Of Jesus, The Perfectly God-Conscious Man,
The Establishment Of The Moral-Ethical Kingdom Of God On Earth

Liberalism is a term that is much used and little understood. It is used in the political, religious, social, and intellectual arenas, often without definition. In a practical sense many individuals of a conservative bent would identify a Liberal as anyone more open-minded than they are. In fact, religious Liberalism involved a commitment to a central set of theological and religious propositions. These propositions, when worked out gave birth, in fact, to a new religion which retained orthodox terminology but radically redefined those terms to give them new meaning. For example, nineteenth century Scottish Old Testament scholar and theologian, W. Robertson Smith when told that he had been accused of denying the divinity of Christ, Smith responded by asking, “How can they accuse me of that? I’ve never denied the divinity of any man, let alone Jesus.”

Liberalism as a theological system did not arise in a vacuum, nor was its aim to destroy historic Christianity. Liberalism can only be understood in the historical and philosophical context out of which it arose. In a very real sense Liberalism as a system was trying to salvage something of Christianity from the ashes of the fire of the Enlightenment. B.B. Warfield observed of Liberalism near the turn of the century that it was Rationalism. But a Rationalism that was not the direct result of unbelief. Rather, it sprang from men who would hold to their Christian convictions in the face of a rising onslaught of unbelief which they perceive they were powerless to withstand. It was a movement arising from within the church and characterized by an effort to retain the essence of Christianity by surrendering the accretions and features that were no longer considered defensible in the modern world.1 The rising tide of unbelief that confronted the founders of Liberalism was the Enlightenment.

The Roots of Liberalism

The Effects of the Enlightenment: (The Age of Reason; The Aufklrung)

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement during the eighteenth century which elevated human reason to near divine status and ascribed to it the ability to discern truth of all types without appeal to supernatural divine revelation. The movement has been termed as The Modern Paganism2

The Enlightenment gave birth to much that we still see today as part of the modern mind. These features include:

    1. The beginning of scientific history

    2. Any truth must justify itself before the bar of reason

    3. Nature is the primary source of answers to the fundamental questions of human existence

    4. Freedom is necessary to advance progress and human welfare

    5. Literary and historical criticism are necessary to determine the legitimacy of our historical legacy

    6. The need for critical philosophy

    7. Ethics as separate and independent from the authority of religion and theology.

    8. A suspicion of and hostility to all truth claiming to be grounded in some kind of authority other than reason, e.g. tradition or divine revelation

    9. Raising to the value of science as the avenue by which man can find truth.

    10. Toleration as the highest value in matters of religion

    11. A self-conscious continuation and expansion of the humanism first developed during the Renaissance3

Philosophically during the Enlightenment man saw it as possible for him to reason his way to God. In a real sense this was the modern tower of Babel with all the hubris that implies.

During this age there arose a group of scholars who have come to be known as the Neologians (or Innovators). It was they who pioneered the work in biblical criticism, attacking the doctrine of biblical inspiration as it had been precisely articulated during the late Reformation period. The Neologians specifically assaulted traditional Protestant doctrines generally and Lutheran doctrines specifically. They attacked the supernaturalism of historic Christianity in general and such doctrines as the trinity, the deity of Christ, the atonement, the virgin birth, the resurrection, Chalcedonian Christology and the existence of Satan.

On another front this age saw the rise of Deism, which asserted while that God was indeed the creator, He had created a clockwork image universe which operated by natural law. God himself would not interfere with his creation, hence miracles became impossible because they would violate the inviolable laws of nature. Works appeared such as Christianity as Old as Time, arguing that Christianity merely republished the revelation of God which was available to man in nature. God himself was transcendent, separated, above and uninvolved in creation.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant marks the watershed between the Enlightenment and the Romantic period which followed. In a very real sense Kant is the last of the Enlightenment philosophers. But as an enlightenment philosopher his Critique of Pure Reason destroyed the hubris of the Enlightenment program of seeking all knowledge through the use of reason. Kant so revolutionized the way modern humanity thinks that philosophers still refer to “Kant’s Copernican Revolution.” As Copernicus changed the way scientists thought about the solar system, Kant revolutionized the way that modern man understands reality. Before Kant, philosophical epistemology had generally been divided into two camps, the idealists who saw ultimate reality in the mind (ratioalists) and the empiricists who said ultimate reality in the physical universe. Enlightenment philosophers debated the status of human knowledge empiricists arguing on the one hand that all knowledge came into the brain from the outside, with rationalists contending that knowledge arose out of the mind itself.

Kant asserted that neither side of the debate was right. Instead human knowledge arose from the interplay of incoming sensory data (absorbed through the five senses) and innate categories built into the human mind which processed that data and in turn made it “knowledge.” He further held that reality was to be divided into two realms, the phenomenal (the created order in which we live and which is open for us to experience) and the noumnenal (spiritual, metaphysical reality). According to Kant’s theory of knowledge the human mind is divided into categories. These included; Quantity (unity, plurality, totality), Quality (Reality, limitation, negation), Relation (Inherence and subsistence, causality and dependence, community), Modality (possibility-impossibility, existence-non-existence, necessity-contingency). These are the only categories possessed by the mind and thus the only categories by which to interpret data. Significantly, in Kant’s system there were no categories by which to receive data from the spiritual (noumenal) world. In this way, humanity is like the blind man. He has no organ to receive the light which surrounds him. He believes that light exists and things are there to be seen, but he has no faculty by which to perceive it. Since he is blind to noumenal reality of all types, man cannot know “the thing in itself.” All that can be known is things as they are experienced.

The Enlightenment Philosophers attempt to know God as he is in himself by reasoning up to Him. was, according to Kant, a vain attempt doomed from the outset. God inhabited the noumenal realm and thus could not be experienced by man. Kant did not entertain the possibility that God could break into the realm of history (the phenomenal realm) and reveal himself.

But Kant was not an atheist. He postulated the existence of God, but denied the possibility of any cognitive knowledge of him. It was man’s conscience that testified of God’s existence, and He was to be known through the realm of morality. Kant published another work Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone which set forth his conception that religion was to be reduced to the sphere of morality. For Kant this meant living by the categorical imperative-which he summarized in two maxims:

“Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

“Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.”

In other words, every action of humanity should be regulated in such a way that it would be morally profitable for humanity if were elevated to the status of law. In one sense this can be seen as a secularization of the Golden Rule.

Kant as a philosopher made no claims to being a Christian. Throughout his adult life was never known to utter the name of Jesus Christ, nor would he enter a Christian Church. When called upon to attend academic functions at the chapel of the University of Koenigsberg where he taught, he would march in his academic robes to the door of the chapel, then slip out of line and go home rather than enter the church.

Hegel: the philosopher of the nineteenth century

G.F.W. Hegel, a contemporary of Schleiermacher gave the dominant shape to idealistic philosophy during the nineteenth century. A philosopher of history and religion Hegel proposed that all of reality is the outworking of Spirit/Mind (Geist). History is the objectification of Spirit, i.e. Spirit/Mind is working itself out in the historical process and as such history carries its own meaning. From this it follows that there is a continual upward progress in history. History is undergoing a continual cultural and rational (although not biological) evolution, being pushed and pulled forcing culture upward toward its final form by means of the dialectic. Hegel saw historical evolution in terms of a pendulum swing between opposites (thesis-antithesis) which resolved themselves (synthesis) in a position that was higher than either of the opposites. The synthesis then became a new thesis in the upward pull of the historical process.

Whereas philosophy had traditionally been occupied with the concept of BEING Hegel substituted the process of BECOMING. Because all of history was seen as the process of the objectification of Spirit, and human beings were a part of the historical process, all human knowledge was said to be Absolute Spirit thinking through human minds.

An example of how Hegel saw this dialectic working itself out can be seen in his philosophy of history. The original thesis was the Despotism of the ancient period. The antithesis to Despotism was seen as the democracy of ancient Greece. The higher synthesis of these opposing forces was understood as Aristocracy. Aristocracy in turn became the new thesis which was opposed by Monarchy.

Hegel cast his long shadow over the entire 19th century giving it an optimistic cast which dogmatically asserted the progress in history and the perfectibility of humanity. Barth comments , “. . .it was precisely when it (the nineteenth century) was utterly ruled and completely ruled by Hegel that the new age best understood itself, and it was then at all events that it best knew what it wanted.”4 According to Barth, Hegel held sway until the catastrophe of 1914, World War I. His philosophy of history gave the structure adopted by the emerging schools of biblical criticism, as well as the mental cast to the entire century.

Hegel’s philosophy is the philosophy of self-confidence.5 The optimistic slogan that characterized the late nineteenth century Liberalism, “Every day in every way we are getting better and better,” reflects that optimism.

Schleiermacher: Father of Liberal Theology


Friederich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, the Father of Modern (Liberal) Theology and arguably the greatest theologian to live between the time of Calvin and Barth, was born into the intellectual ferment of the enlightenment and Kant’s criticism of its program. The son of a Reformed chaplain in the Prussian army, Shleiermacher was educated in the Pietism of the Moravians. From their fervent piety with its emphasis on the life in community and commitment to traditional Lutheran doctrine he received his early religious experiences. While studying with the Moravians he first read the Neologians’ critique of historic Protestant orthodoxy. He was so impressed by their arguments that he left the Moravians and enrolled at Halle, a center of Neologian teaching. The young Friederich accepted the Neologians’ criticism of Lutheran orthodoxy, but rejected their rationalistic and moralistic substitute. About this time Schleiermacher was drawn into the Romantic movement which arose in reaction to the sterile critical and analytical rationalism of the eighteenth century. Romanticism stressed the intuitive and synthetic nature of human reason insisting that truth was to be gained by grasping the whole rather than by an abstract analysis of the parts.

Schleiermacher’s theological program proceeded under three premises (1) The validity of the Enlightenment criticism of dogmatic Protestant Orthodoxy, (2) Romantic Idealistic philosophy gives a better soil in which to ground the Christian faith than the shallow moralistic rationalism of the Enlightenment, (3) Christian theology can be interpreted in terms of romantic idealism and thus allow mankind to be both Christian and modern while being intellectually honest.

In viewing the Neologians’ critique of orthodoxy as correct and in light of Kant’s perceived destruction of the possibility of a rational knowledge of God, Schleiermacher influenced by Romanticism, found a new seat for religion and theology, one that could not be touched by enlightenment criticism--the Gefuhl (the feeling). This feeling is not to be understood as mere emotion. It is the deep inner sense of man that he exists in a relationship of absolute dependence upon God. It is his “god-consciousness” This is the center of religion and piety.

3. The piety which forms the basis of all ecclesiastical communions is, considered purely in itself, neither a knowing or a Doing, but a modification of feeling, or of immediate self-consciousness

4. The common element in all howsoever diverse expressions of piety, by which these are conjointly distinguished from all other feelings, or, in other words, the self-identical essence of piety, is this: the consciousness of being absolutely dependent, or, which is the same thing, of being in relation with God.

In taking this route, Schleiermacher turned the traditional theological method on its head. Rather than starting with any objective revelation, religion was seen at its core as subjective. Experience was seen as giving rise to doctrine rather than doctrine to experience. Theological statements no longer were perceived as describing objective reality, but rather as reflecting the way that the feeling of absolute dependence is related to God. It is this experience which is seen as the final authority in religion rather than the objective revelation of an inerrant Scripture. He says “Christian doctrines are accounts of the Christian religious affections set forth in speech..”

Despite having the potential for God-consciousness, humans are by their nature in a state of “god-forgetfulness” from which they are unable to save themselves. Redemption is found through the experience of Christ through the corporate life of the church. Redemption is "mystical, “centered in the personal communion of the believer with the fully god-conscious man Jesus Christ.

For Scheleiermacher, Jesus Christ was unique. Not that he was the God-man of historic orthodoxy, but rather in that he demonstrated in his life a perfect and uninterrupted God-consciousness,. He displayed the “veritable existence of God in him.” This was the redemption which Jesus accomplished. and brought to mankind. In this understanding the cross is not in a sacrificial atonement, but rather it is an example of Jesus’ willingness to enter into ‘sympathy with misery.’ Redemption was then the inner transformation of the individual from the state of God-forgetfulness to the state of God-consciousness. To put it another way, redemption is that state in which god-consciousness predominates over all else in life. Thus his theology was utterly Christocentric in that it was concerned with the example of Jesus as the perfectly god-conscious one.

Ritschl: Theological Agnosticism

The second major stream in classic Liberalism (which synonomous with Liberalism in its later form) was established by Albrect Ritschl. Whereas Schleiermacher was mystic, seeing the center of religion in the feeling, Ritschl was more closely tied to Kant and saw religion in terms of morality and personal effort in establishing the Kingdom of God (a moral ethical Kingdom). According to Ritschl,

Christianity is the monotheistic, completely spiritual and ethical religion., which, on the basis of the life of its Founder as redeeming and establishing the kingdom of God, consists in the freedom of the children of God, includes the impulse to conduct form the motive of live, the intention of which is the moral organization of mankind, and the filial relation to God as well as in the kingdom of God lays the foundation of blessedness. (Justification and Reconciliation, III., ET 1900, 13)

Religious truth in the Ritschlian conception became different in kind from all other knowledge; it involved moral-ethical judgments which were subjectively determined by the individual. The system surrendered rational knowledge of God and things divine. In its place it substituted, as the essence of Christianity, a subjectively verified personal theism, a devotion to the Man Jesus Christ as the revealer of God and His kingdom, and a subjection to His moral-ethical principles.

Employing the epistemology of Kant (as modified by Lotze) as a foundation, Ritschlianism sought to separate religion and theology from philosophy and metaphysics, founding religion strictly upon phenomenological experience. Kant had asserted that the only knowledge available to mankind was that of experience, the phenomenological. With this proposition the Ritschlians agreed. "Theology without metaphysics" became the watchword of the entire school.6 Following in the Kantian tradition, the Ritschlians asserted that human knowledge was strictly limited to the world of the phenomena, a world which included the realm of verifiable history and the realm of personal experience. Knowledge of God as He was in Himself, His essence and attributes fell outside the possibility of human experience, so, no positive assertions concerning His nature could be made. This was how Ritschlianism represented a "theological agnosticism."7 Ritschl himself asserted (with Kant) that man could not know things "in themselves" but only on their phenomenological relations.8 Since man had no categories by which to perceive God in the world, knowledge of Him fell outside the realm of the "theoretic" (scientific/empirical). Since Ritschlianism was strictly empirical, the value of historical study was elevated as a means by which one could discover God's revelation in history: the person of Jesus Christ.9

Revelation of God and certainty in religion for the Ritschlians took place when one was confronted with the historic person of Jesus Christ10. The truth communicated in this revelation was not "theoretic" (scientific) but "religious." Such a distinction divorced faith from reason. According to the Ritschlians the two realms had to be kept entirely separate.11 Religious truth was no longer to be found in objective, verifiable propositions but in the realm of the subjective experience, in "value judgments". These "value judgments" were of a different nature than scientific knowledge. They gave no definite objective propositional knowledge, rather they set forth their subjective value for the individual.12 For example, the existence of God could not be rationally demonstrated. But since man needed Him, that was proof that He existed.13 However, nothing could be inferred concerning His nature, attributes, or His relationship to the world.14 The God of the Christian might be Jesus Christ, " . . or he may believe in one or another kind of God. His God may not be Christian at all. It may be Jewish, as Jesus' God was. It may be neo-Platonic. It may be Stoic or Hindu. It may be Deistic."15 One could not communicate objective truth about God from his revelation in Jesus Christ; the most one could say was that in Jesus Christ one received the impression that God was present and active before him.16 Thus, religious knowledge (in the objective sense) became the common shared experience of God.17

The whole enterprise was one of religious positivism. It began with the data of experience, the experience which the individual had with the historic Christ. That experience included the freedom and deliverance He imparted to the individual by virtue of His life and teachings. This deliverance could not be denied since it was within the realm of the individual's experience. But the enterprise also ended there. Although it professed to meet Christ in the pages of Scripture, it denied any knowledge of His preexistence, His atoning death, or second coming. Although Jesus was afforded the title "Son of God" and had divinity ascribed to Him, these were but titles of honor, communicating no ontological reality. Such knowledge was beyond the realm of experience.18

Ritschl believes Christ to be God because in Him he is conscious of a power lifting him above himself, into a new world of peace and strength. Why this should be he cannot tell, nor can he give an answer to the man who asks him for an explanation of the fact of his experience. Enough that he point to Christ as the one through whom he has received deliverance, leaving it to the other to make the test, try the experiment for himself.19

Since knowledge in the system was limited to phenomena, Ritschlianism was adamantly anti-mystic. It denied the soul any direct access to God.20 From the perspective of Ritschlianism the aim of mysticism was,

. . . ontologically unsound in that it involves getting back of phenomena to the noumenal. That one may assume a noumenon back of phenomena is of course true but that one can hold valid communion with it--that one can press back beyond phenomena and come into direct touch with it is a delusion.21

God was seen as personal yet unknowable in any real sense. Knowledge of God was mediated through the person of Jesus Christ as He appeared in history.22 Looking back of Christ to God was a vain proposition. Communion with Him involved, not mystic rapture, but moral effort on behalf of His kingdom.

To commune with God is to enter into his purpose as revealed in Christ--to make them our own and to fulfill them increasingly and to gain the inspiration and the power which come from knowing that they are God's will. . . . Genuine communion with God to the Christian is the conscious and glad fulfilling of God's purposes.23

Comparative Religions/History of Religions School


Another development which took place within the context of Liberalism was the birth of the study of comparative religions. Two factors underlie this new discipline which proved to be another threat to the distinctiveness of Christianity. The first was Romanticism. Romantic philosophy led to a curiosity about and appreciation for other peoples’ religions as authentic ways of expressing the human experience. The second factor was the increase of knowledge which came as a result of the colonization of the world by the Western European powers. Vast amounts of new knowledge about the world and competing cultures and their native religions became available. The burgeoning science of archaeology opened the past and now allowed for the Bible to be studied against its cultural milieu in a way that had not heretofore been possible.

These two factors combined to form a new area of scientific study, comparative religions. All religions were seen in their most basic form to lead to one truth (God) and to promote a common ethic of love for one’s neighbor. In Germany, comparative religions took the form of the History of Religions school which studied the religions of the nations surrounding Israel and concluded that Israelite religion had taken elements of the surrounding pagan beliefs and placed these within a structure of monotheism. For example, Israel’s tradition of creation and the flood were said to have been borrowed from the Babylonian Genesis and the epic of Gilgamesh.

The History of Religions school was hostile to Ritschlianism for Ritschl’s lack of sensitivity to the historical background of both Christianity and Judaism. It held that Biblical faith in both its Old and New Testament expressions was not distinct and a result of supernatural revelation, but represented humanity’s evolving conceptions about God and religion.

Adolf von Harnack

Harnack represents the apex of Liberal theology. He was the greatest historian of Christianity of the generation and his work has set a standard for scholarship for the succeeding century. His History of Dogma has been the definitive work on the subject since its publication. Harnack operated totally within the framework of Liberalism, seeing the pristine purity of the gospel as having been corrupted even within the New Testament era, transforming Christianity from the religion of Jesus to the religion about Jesus. Further corruption took place in the succeeding centuries as Christianity moved out of its Jewish background and confronted the Hellenistic world. Controversies over the trinity and the two natures of the incarnate Christ hopelessly confused the Gospel message in Hellenistic philosophy. He argued that the task of the theologian was to get back to the kernel of the gospel by stripping away the husks of Hellenism to find what was real and permanent.

Specifically, the Gospel was seen as having nothing to do with the Person of the Son. It dealt with the Father only.24 In this understanding, Jesus' preaching demanded "no other belief in his person and no other attachments to it than is contained in the keeping of his commandments."25 Any doctrine of the Person of Christ was totally foreign to His ideas. Such doctrine lay not in the teachings of Christ Himself, but in the modifications introduced by His followers, especially Paul.

Harnack held that it was through the work of Paul that the man Jesus Christ was first seen to have more than human stature. It was he who was seen to have introduced modifications to Christianity by which the simple gospel of Jesus was ultimately replaced by adherence to doctrines relating to the Person of Christ. Moreover, Paul was seen as having been the one who first invested the death and resurrection of Christ with redemptive significance.

If redemption is to be traced to Christ's person and work, everything would seem to depend on a right understanding of this person together with what he accomplished. The formation of a correct theory of and about Christ threatens to assume the position of chief importance, and to pervert the majesty and simplicity of the Gospel.26

In his brief but important work, What is Christianity?, Harnack distilled the essence of Christianity as, The Fatherhood of God, The Brotherhood of Man and the infinite value of the human soul. The kingdom he contended was an internal affair of the heart.

Social Gospel

The Social Gospel was the Liberal Protestant attempt to apply biblical principles to the problems associated with emerging urbanization. Key is that it saw the Kingdom as a social/political entity

Late nineteenth century America underwent profound sociological upheaval. The industrial revolution had thrust the problems of urban society upon a nation that had heretofore been primarily rural. As the problems of dynamic sociological revolution manifested themselves in the slums and work houses, the individualistic gospel of revivalism had little to say to the problems that faced the urban dwellers every day. Walter Rauschenbusch spent eleven years in the “Hell’s Kitchen” area of New York city ministering among the German speaking immigrants. Here he saw poverty, injustice and oppression. This led him to rethink the implications of the gospel and articulate A Theology of the Social Gospel. His premise was that

The social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensified. The individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart and has inspired us with faith in the willingness and power of God tot save every soul that comes to him, But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order and its share in the sins of all individuals within it. It has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion. Both our sense of sin and out faith in salvation have fallen short of the realities under its teaching. The social gospel seeks to bring men under repentance for their collective sins and to create a more sensitive and more modern conscience. It calls for the faith of the old prophets who believed in the salvation of nations.27

While Rauschenbusch was relatively conservative in his theological outlook, those who took up his mantle saw the message the gospel and the task of the church as working to end human suffering and establish social justice.

Major Theological Propositions of Liberalism


God is the loving immanent Father in constant communion with his creation and working within it rather than upon it to bring it to the perfection for which it is destined. God is the loving father who corrects his children but is not retributive in His punishment. “. . . The idea of an immanent God, which is the God of evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker who is the God of an old theology.”28 Such a position breached the traditional barrier between the natural and the supernatural. “Miracle is only the religious name for an event. Every event, even the most natural and common, is a miracle if it lends itself to a controlingly religious interpretation. To me all is miracle”29


No longer was man seen as radically sinful and in need of redemption. Rather he is in some sense in communion with God.. There was no infinite qualitative distinction between God and man. God was even to be known in measure and by analogy through study of the human personality. Emphasis was placed upon human freedom and ability to do all that God required, and eternity was interpreted as immortality of the spirit rather than the resurrection of the body.


Liberal Protestantism rediscovered the humanity of Christ, a truth that had been in practice ignored in previous generations. But, Liberalism went beyond a rediscovery of Christ’s humanity to a denial of his ontological deity. Instead of the incarnate God-man, Jesus Christ became the perfect man who has attained divine status because of his perfect piety (god-consciousness). Jesus is the supreme example of God indwelling man. There is no qualitative distinction between Jesus and the rest of humanity. The distinction is quantitative; He is more full of God that other humans.

    Religious authority:

Whereas previous generations had seen the Bible as the ultimate practical authority for the Christian, Liberalism made authority wholly subjective based on individual spiritual experience. Ultimate authority was not to be found in any external source, Bible, Church, or tradition, but on the individual’s reason, conscience and intuition. The Bible became the record of man’s evolving religious conceptions. The New Testament was normative only in the teachings of Jesus. The rest of the New Testament falls victim to changing the focus of the gospel from the religion of Jesus to a religion about Jesus.


Man is confronted with salvation in the person of Jesus. By following his teachings and the example of his life one enters into communion with him.

    The Kingdom:

This is a moral kingdom with God ruling in the hearts of humans. The kingdom is also manifested in society by the establishment of justice and righteousness in the political sphere. It will be finally established as God works through man in the historical process.


The guiding principles of were distilled by Harnack in his What is Christianity? These were:

    1. Universal Fatherhood of God

    2. Universal Brotherhood of Man

    3. Infinite value of the individual human soul

Additionally, Jesus Christ served as the Supreme example, the man who was perfectly God-conscious at all times, in whom God was perfectly immanent. HE lived his life by a "higher righteousness" governed by the law of love, independent of religious worship & technical observance. He lived out in his life the perfect example of which we may all become.


The term modernism was first used of a movement within Roman Catholicism and pointed to a mentality that was similar to Liberal Protestantism. However, in the United States the term came to be applied to the radical edge of liberal theology (beginning c.1910) . Whereas earlier liberalism was a kind of pathetic salvage movement trying to save the essence of Christianity from the ashes of the Enlightenment, Modernism posed a direct challenge to evangelical Protestantism and fostered a full scale response in the form of Fundamentalism. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the American religious scene was wracked with the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. Progressively effected were Congregationalism, Episcopalianism Northern Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist bodies so that by about 1930 many of these bodies were seen to have been “taken over.” This pitted those defenders of historic Christianity against the rising tide of a new “theology” that rejected the normative status of the Bible and even of Jesus Christ . In this Modernism signaled a step beyond Liberalism.

As a movement Modernism embraced the Enlightenment, an optimistic view of history based on the radical immanentism of God which saw the Holy Spirit as operative within both nature and culture perfecting them. This concept marked a direct dependence on Hegel’s philosophy history. The division between secular culture and the sacred were seen as invalid because the Holy Spirit was seen as operative in both realms making “the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Modernism emphasized autonomous human reason focusing on humanity’s freedom and self determination and it gave a religious authorization to modern efforts of man to improve his lot by relying on his own inherent goodness. The radical power of sin and evil were minimized to the level of inconvenience. Truth was seen in the latest findings of science rather than in any supernatural revelation or in any historic person. In this Modernism represented a step beyond Liberalism.

In the U.S. Modernism as a movement found its impetus from Shailer Matthews and the Chicago School (University of Chicago). Matthews used a sociohistorical approach to religion arguing that religion is functional in that it helps people to make sense of the environment in which they find themselves and that theology is “transcendantlaized politics” arising out of the church’s interaction with its particular culture. This meant that Christianity had to be “modernized” in every age in order to remain a live option for each new generation.. As a movement Modernism went into decline in the 1930s under the attacks of Neo-Orthodoxy but key ideas found revival during the radicalism of the 1960s.


Immanentism: loss of personality of God: radical immanentanism that became panentheism; denied miracles

Christianity had historically asserted the doctrine of God’s omnipresence, i.e. that he was present everywhere in the created order while remaining separate form it. The new stress on divine immanence in the world did not represent a return to the classical doctrine of omnipresence. Omnipresence as it had been traditionally understood emphasized the distinction between God and the world, whereas immanence implied an "intimate relationship, that the universe and God are in some sense truly one."30 Thus, a thoroughgoing doctrine of immanence led to a denial of the supernatural as traditionally understood. There were not two realms, a natural and a supernatural, but one. Nor were there miracles in the sense of God breaking into the natural order for God was not perceived as being “out there” to break in; rather, all was miraculous for God was in all.

Lack of a doctrine of sin:

Coupled with this loss of divine transcendence there was an accompanying elevation of the position of man. No longer was he viewed as depraved and separated from God. Rather there was a blending of the distinction between God and man, a blending which emphasized not human sinfulness but human perfectibility. It was a view of man which Machen called "essentially pagan."31

The catch phrase of liberalism: “Every day in Every way we are getting better and better.” gives clear evidence that the doctrine of man propounded by Liberalism was a return to the Pelagianism of the fourth century. Sin was treated as a minor peccadillo rather than a radical evil which necessitated the incarnation and atonement.

Lack of need for conversion/moralistic salvation: redemption as mystical communion with Christ in the community of the church or in establishing the kingdom of God on earth

Lack of an authoritative Bible: The rise of Biblical criticism

The rise of Biblical criticism in the mid to late nineteenth century represented a wholesale attack on the Sola Scruiptura foundation of the Protestant faith and the theology of the post-Reformation period which had articulated a precisely defined doctrine of inerrancy. In some of these explanations the doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy was extended even to the vowel pointing of the Hebrew text. The biblical critics blasted such doctrines. The rise of textual criticism shook the confidence of many as to the accurate transmission and preservation of the text. Literary (Higher) higher criticism applied to the Bible the methods of literary analysis used in secular documents. However the critics looked at the books of the Bible itself and concluded from their anti-supernaturalistic presuppositions for example that Moses did not write the Pentateuch. In the New Testament, the work of Strauss, Baur and others purported to demonstrate that much of the New Testament was to be dated from the second century, rather than arising from the hands of the apostles writing as Jesus’ authorized representatives. This all served to undermine the unique character and authority of the Bible both in the scholarly as well as in the worshipping community. No longer was it possible to proclaim “Thus saith the Lord.” This destroyed the possibility of the rational certainty of the faith.

Loss of uniqueness of Christ: The quest of the historical (merely human) Jesus

The identity and status of Jesus during the nineteenth century underwent continual revision. David F. Strauss first attacked the supernatural in the NT as mere myth. This launched the 19th century quest of the historical Jesus; which has been described as Liberalism “looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness [and seeing] only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face . . . at the bottom of a deep well.”

The Jesus of Liberalism, bore little resemblance to the Church's historic understanding of Jesus Christ as having both human and divine natures joined organically in one person. This was largely due to the radical empiricism that the Liberal school applied to the area of religious truth. This empiricism eliminated all but phenomenological data from any truth claim. As this method was applied to Christological doctrine a great reduction transpired. Rather than affirm the historic formulations, a "form of the dynamic Monarchianism of Paul of Samosota [was] revived by Harnack and his followers."32

Any metaphysical speculation about the two natures of Christ was seen as nonsense. A history of Christological doctrine could not rid one "of the impression that the whole fabric of ecclesiastical Christology [was] a thing absolutely outside the concrete personality of Jesus Christ."33 The starting place had to be the historical Christ, the "person" Jesus.34 Any assertion that Jesus was not limited by His cultural milieu and environment as any other individual was limited by his own cultural peculiarities, would be to assert that He was a "specter".35 In their eyes, to be a human implied a complete human body, soul and human personality.36 That Jesus was fully human but only human became the sine qua non upon which the Ritschlian understanding of Christ was built. This man Jesus was the One who was to be found in the pages of the gospels.

Jesus became the great example. He was the founder of a religion who embodied in His own life what He taught concerning God.37 In contrast to the majority of mankind, who came to a knowledge of God through some sort of crisis experience, this God-knowledge was in Jesus from the beginning, flowing naturally from Him "as though it could not do otherwise, like a spring from the depths of the earth, clear and unchecked in its flow."38 The means by which Jesus achieved this God-consciousness and His resulting mission to spread the kingdom of God among mankind was beyond human comprehension; it was "his secret, and no psychology will ever fathom it."39

"Knowledge of God" . . . marks the sphere of Divine Sonship. It is in this knowledge that he came to know the sacred Being who rules the heaven and earth as Father, as his Father. The consciousness which he possessed of being the Son of God is, therefore, nothing but the practical consequence of knowing God as the Father and as his Father. Rightly understood, the name of Son means nothing but the knowledge of God.40

In Jesus' own understanding, His God-knowledge was unique. He knew God "in a way in which no one ever knew Him before."41 It was this unique God-knowledge which constituted Him the Son of God. It was also from this knowledge that his vocation flowed. Jesus knew that it was "his vocation to communicate this knowledge of God to others by word and by deed--and with it the knowledge that men are God's children."42

Whether we shall call Christ divine depends on what we mean by God. If God is substance then Christ is not divine for there is no evidence of divine substance in him. If God is purpose then this does make Christ divine for there is nothing higher than his purpose. Christ's divinity is a conclusion not a presupposition. Yet it is not immaterial whether we call him divine or not. Such an interpretation has importance as showing our conception of God. It does not hurt Christ to not be called divine. If we recognize his supremacy that is enough. But if we do not call him divine it is because we have another and unchristian idea of God. We seek in God something not found in Christ. We get God elsewhere than from Christ. This procedure is due to the unfortunate fact that our theology is not christianized.43

Activity is society centered ignoring personal spirituality

As Liberalism developed in America it took on a decidedly activist cast. The social Gospel sought to right social injustice, but at the expense of a recognition of personal sin and emphasis upon personal piety. The church was the Public Church but it ignored the personal aspects of the gospel and faith. This led to a natural blending of the message of the church with the agenda of secularly dominated political systems, making the agendas often indistinguishable.


J. Gresham Machen denied that Liberalism was Christianity. Whereas Christianity was rooted in supernaturalism, Liberalism was rooted in naturalism. Liberalism as a religious system, was "the chief modern rival of Christianity" which was at every point opposed to historic Christianity.44

“A God without wrath,
led men without sin,
into a kingdom without judgment
through the ministrations of
a Christ without a cross.”

H. Richard Neibuhr


C. Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith.

A. von Harnack, What is Christianity?

J. Dillenberger & C. Welch, Protestant Christianity Interpreted Through Its Development.

K. Cauthen, The Impact of American Religious Liberalism.

L. Averill, American Theology in the Liberal Tradition.

W. R. Hutchinson, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism.

D. E. Miller; The Case for Liberal Christianity.

1 B. B. Warfield, "The Latest Phase of Historical Rationalism," Studies in Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), p. 591.

2 Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, The Rise of Modern Paganism, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977).

3 Bernard Ramm, After Fundamentalism, (New York: Harper & Row, 1983) 4-5.

4 Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, (Valley Forge:Judson Press), 386.

5 Ibid., 391.

6 James Orr, The Ritschlian Theology and The Evangelical Faith (New York: Thomas Whittaker, n.d.), p. 57.

7 A.B. Bruce noted that this agnosticism was not absolute, but a severe restriction of the knowledge of God attainable to man. (AJT 1:1-2.) Cf. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (New York: Oxford, 1976), pp. 122-132.

8 Albrecht Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, [eds.] H. R. Mackintosh and A. B. Macaulay (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1900), pp. 18-20

9 It is not without significance that both Harnack and McGiffert were primarily historians, who undertook to clear away the accretions of Greek metaphysical speculations from Christianity in order to discover the pristine gospel taught by Christ apart from philosophical considerations.

10 McGiffert, Christianity as History and Faith, pp. 172-178. By the "historic" person of Christ was understood the record of the life and teachings as presented in the pages of Scripture. The record of Scripture was seen as only historical, it was not divinely inspired and authoritative (see McGiffert, Apostolic Age, pp. 15-35; 116-121). Furthermore, the strict empiricism of the Ritschlians led them to deny the reality of miracles. Historical criticism became a matter of indifference since faith in Christ did not rest on any particular facet of Christ's life and teaching, but rather the "total impression of His person." Therefore criticism could not affect the fact that the individual had experienced Christ. (William Adams Brown, Essence of Christianity, p. 261.)

11 Ritschl, Doctrine of Justification, p. 207.

12 Ritschl, Doctrine of Justification, pp. 207, 225.

13 J. H. W. Stuckenberg, "The Theology of Albrecht Ritschl," AJT 2 (1899):276.

14 Bruce, "Theological Agnosticism," p. 4.

15 A. C. McGiffert, Christianity As History and Faith (New York: Scribner's, 1934), p. 145.

16 William Adams Brown, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Scribner's, 1902), p. 257.

17 Orr, Expository Essays, p. 8.

18 Adolf Harnack, What is Christianity? (New York: Putnam, 1902), p. 131.

19 W. A. Brown, Essence of Christianity, pp. 260- 261.

20 Orr, Expository Essays, p. 63.

21 McGiffert, Christianity as History and Faith, p. 176.

22 The restriction of religious knowledge to the Person of Jesus Christ was arbitrary. No attempt was made to show how or why Jesus had received a special knowledge of God. Rather it was an a priori assumption. (Sutckenberg, "The Theology of Ritschl," pp. 276-277.)

23 McGiffert, Christianity as History and Faith, pp. 177-178.

24 Ibid., p. 147.

25 Ibid., p. 129. Cf. McGiffert, p. 120. "But again when we assert our faith in the Lordship of Jesus, we declare that his moral standards and principles are the highest known to us, and we believe that they are the moral standards and principles of God himself. . . This was Jesus' ethical message to the world: 'Ye are all brethren,' 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.'"

26 Harnack, p. 186. (Italics original.)

27 Walter Rauchenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York, 1917) 5.

28 Henry Drummond, Ascent of Man (New York, 1894), 334.

29 F. Schleiermacher, On Religion, 88.

30 Ibid. p. 202. This insistence on the unity of God and creation led to a panentheism which at times became out and out pantheism. (Bernard Ramm, "The Fortunes of Theology from Schleiermacher to Barth," Tensions in Contemporary Theology, Eds. Stanley N. Gundry and Alan F. Johnson [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976], p. 19

31 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p. 65.

32 Charles A. Briggs, The Fundamental Christian Faith, (New York: Scribner's, 1913), p. 267.

33 Adolf von Harnack, What is Christianity? (London: Williams and Norgate, 1904), p. 234.

34 A. C. McGiffert, Christianity as History and Faith (New York: Scribner's, 1934), p. 107.

35 Harnack, What is Christianity?, p. 12.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid., p. 11

38 Ibid., p. 34.

39 Ibid. p. 132. McGiffert asserted of Jesus' kingdom mission: "The secret of Christ's permanent hold upon the world is largely this, that he saw visions loftier, more compelling and more enduring than those seen by other men before or since. . . . Jesus brought the vision of a divine Father who careth even for the meanest." (p. 235.)

40 Harnack, p. 131. (Italics original.)

41 Ibid., p. 131.

42 Ibid. Cf. McGiffert, pp. 118, 306-307.

43 McGiffert, p. 111.

44 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977 reprint), p. 2.

Related Topics: Theology, Apologetics

Establishing a Doctrinal Taxonomy: A Hierarchy of Doctrinal Commitments

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Prefatory Remarks:1

The following essay is taken from a larger work to be published by Zondervan in 2002, tentatively entitled The Survivor’s Guide to Theology. The purpose of the book is to explore the various aspects of Theological Introduction2 looking at the study of theology, from epistemological, methodological, and systematic perspective. My purpose in this section is to explore the idea of doctrinal taxonomy and look at the historic foundational doctrines of the Christian faith, not to expound my personal commitment to a particular tradition. Comments made about the various theological traditions and positions have reference to the official stated theology as embodied by the best of the traditions, as opposed to the popular piety. For example the popular piety of Roman Catholicism teaches that by being good enough and using the sacraments one can be saved. This is something very different from official Catholic doctrine about salvation. From the perspective of Calvinism, popular piety in some circles falls into a fatalism that is not reflected in the best of the theological expositions of the tradition. The fact that I place particular formulations of the doctrine of salvation on a second level of a taxonomy does not imply that I hold the Reformation understanding of justification sola fide as unimportant. Indeed, what can be seen at times only murkily in other traditions is brought into bold relief by the Reformers. That this truth was not clearly articulated until the Reformation should inform us that it is not necessary to cognitively understand forensic justification in order to be saved. Salvation involves faith in Jesus Christ as opposed to any particular formulation of doctrine. However, in this case a Protestant understanding of forensic justification may give a clarity to the proclamation of the gospel message and provide a firm foundation to living the Christian life that other traditions’ articulations of salvation cannot provide.

The Problem

As the sociological, political, and philosophical climate of the church has changed in various eras, the church has been confronted with challenges to the doctrinal commitments held as truth. These challenges in turn have repeatedly provoked reactions in the church. In these reactions, different doctrines have been raised to a new level of prominence. The changing situations did not necessarily bring about further development of doctrine; rather in some cases doctrines which had up to this time been considered less important were raised in importance to meet a current challenge.

An example of this phenomenon can be seen in the status of the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ and the doctrine of the inerrancy of the scriptures during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century. With the rise of liberalism, historic Christianity took a defensive posture and militantly reasserted the “fundamentals” of the faith. However, these “fundamentals” were not simply a restatement or a recasting of the content of the historic ecumenical creeds. The “fundamentals” of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy were often boiled down to five propositions.

  • The inerrancy of scripture
  • The deity of Jesus Christ
  • The virgin birth
  • Bodily resurrection of Christ
  • The personal return of Christ

Two out of these five “fundamentals,” the virgin birth and the inerrancy of scripture, are not echoes of the core of the historic faith, but rather demonstrate a raising of more historically minor doctrines to a primary level to fulfill an apologetic expediency. In the case of the virgin birth, the doctrine had always been contained in the Church’s understanding and creedal affirmation with reference to the means of the incarnation. But during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy the doctrine was elevated to a “touchstone” status. It became a test as to whether one believed in the supernatural activity of God in the world. The modernists denied the possibility of miracles in the sense of God breaking into history and violating the “laws of nature.” The apologetic rationale of the fundamentalists was that if one would admit the reality of as the virgin birth, he or she would not have a problem affirming the reality of “lesser” miracles.3

With reference to the doctrine of inerrancy, the church had always affirmed the utter truthfulness of the scriptures; as early as Augustine we find affirmations of the inerrancy of the scripture. Catholicism always held the truthfulness of scripture, but progressively throughout the medieval period tradition was elevated as a separate and equally valid source of revelation and authority. This position was formally creedalized at the Catholic counter-reformation Council of Trent. Protestants responded with the doctrine of sola scriptura. During the period of Protestant Scholasticism the doctrine and nature of divine inspiration was developed in new, more refined ways. There even arose a teaching among some of the Protestant scholastic theologians that the vowel points in the Hebrew text were inspired.4 In opposition to Roman Catholic claims of the authority of tradition and the Pope, the authority of scripture was consciously raised during the Reformation and immediate post-reformation period in an attempt to rescue scripture from the captivity of the official Catholic magisterial interpretation that obscured the message of the Bible. But even in the great Protestant confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth century the doctrine of inerrancy is not explicit.

During the nineteenth century higher-critical theories arose and attacked the literary and historical integrity of the scriptures. In response conservative representatives of historic Protestantism asserted the doctrine of the inerrancy of the scriptures. As noted, the concept of inerrancy is at least as ancient as Augustine, but the nineteenth-century response to the literary criticism of the sacred text involved a refinement, sharpening, and extension of the older concept of scriptural infallibility/inerrancy. This sharpening arose in the heat of controversy and became an apologetic tool to defend the veracity of the Bible and with it the historic Christian faith. Inerrancy became a touchstone doctrine for fundamentalists and their successors, evangelicals.5 Inerrancy has remained a touchstone for conservative evangelicalism to this day,6 with the doctrine functioning as the basis of scholarly societies such as the Evangelical Theological Society and also as a foundational doctrine for numerous Evangelical seminaries and Bible colleges. In fact, from a practical perspective the doctrine is often deemed as more critical than matters of Christology or understandings of the person of God.

Another recent historical example illustrates this same tendency to elevate doctrines to a primary level that have never been so seen historically. Throughout the early and mid-20th century heated and acrimonious debates raged between covenant theologians who adopted an amillennial eschatology and dispensational theologians who adopted a futurist eschatology. Here the issue was not even over the authority of scripture; the issue was over a doctrine that had never been agreed to by the consensus of the church. Yet, within dispensationalism a particular eschatological understanding had on a practical level been raised to a fundamental of the faith. In the eyes of many dispensational teachers a denial of their particular understanding of the details surrounding the return of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom was a denial of the faith.

Scripture clearly indicates that belief is important, and that the content of the Christian faith is to be jealously guarded. An individual or group can not take “the faith once delivered to the saints,” and modify it either by addition, deletion, or by twisting the received truth. Paul admonishes Timothy, “The things you have heard from me, these teach to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” The whole concept of a Christian tradition arose out of the second century in the church’s encounter with Gnosticism. Gnosticism might be likened to a second century New Age Movement that appeared on the surface to be very similar to Christianity. It formed the first major theological challenge to the young church. It was in the context of confrontation that the concept of tradition arose. The idea itself means literally “that which has been handed down or over” and echoes Paul’s admonition to Timothy (2 Tim 2:2). The early Church leaders argued that the content of the apostolic kerygma had been faithfully preserved by the leadership of the Church and that that preaching was also preserved in the emerging canon of the New Testament. This stood in opposition to the Gnostics who, although they claimed to have a secret knowledge handed down from the apostles outside the church, merely invented their teaching while claiming that they were Christian.

Within the evangelical fold there is a precommitment to scripture and a desire to base all doctrines on scripture through solid exegesis. However, it must be recognized that from a historical perspective the church’s theology did not arise directly out of the New Testament. Historically it arose out of the apostolic kerygma, a kerygma that predated the rise of the New Testament and a kerygma that centered around the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is this to which Paul refers when he commands Timothy to contend earnestly for the faith. It is this focus--the person and work of Jesus Christ--that forms the heart of Christian Theology. Virtually all recognize intuitively that issues, for example, of church government are of a qualitatively different nature than issues surrounding the Person of God or of Christ. Yet, despite this implicit recognition there is still in many quarters a mindset that insists that since truth is of God all truth must be defended with equal vigor. Many are willing to “go to the wall for” fine points of eschatology or ecclesiology or even finely developed and nuanced points of doctrine concerning core issues. These individuals tend to be ‘theological maximists,” i.e., they believe that we must discover and systematize all truth and commit ourselves absolutely to those maximums. They believe that to admit degrees of importance of truth is somehow an affront to the whole concept of Truth.

The matter of TRUTH as opposed to a human grasp of truth is crucial to understand at the very outset of any discussion of establishing a relative hierarchy of significance and importance of doctrines.

The very nature of Christian Theology demands from its practitioners and adherents a commitment to the fact that truth exists and that it can in some measure be grasped. Among evangelicals at least there is a precommitment to the Reformation cry of “Sola Scriptura.” Scripture stands as the final authority above tradition and ecclesiastical authority.7

In practice among Protestants at least since the time of the post-reformation period of Protestant Scholasticism, there has been the tendency to view the systematized whole of Christian doctrine as TRUTH. The scholastic method takes this even one step further, seeing all truth as on the same level and seeing a denial of any part of the system as a denial of the whole system. The scholastic practice of building frameworks and then within those frameworks deducing what must be true from that which is known lent itself to this mentality. Scholastic method was from one vantage point a magnificent achievement. The method caused theologians to build “cathedrals of the mind” magnificent structures that attempted to incorporate all theological knowledge into one comprehensive system, showing the place of each part and interrelationship of all the various parts. The down side was that the system tended to become an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, and there was a leveling of the importance of truth. The interrelatedness of doctrines led to the conclusion that to deny anything in the system was to deny the whole body of Christian doctrine and therefore the faith itself.

This methodology very naturally leads to a rigid doctrinaire mentality that sees for example, fine points of eschatology as on the same level of importance as the doctrine of the trinity or the hypostatic union of humanity and deity in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ. It further leads to the charge of heresy against anyone who does not hold the exact same formulation of doctrine as oneself. This mentality has over the centuries filtered its way down from the level of the theologians all the way to the educated layman in the pew. This is not a matter of knowledge; it is a matter of mindset.

Another negative side effect of the scholastic methodology and mindset is that it feeds an intellectual dishonesty because it places off limits study that could possibly threaten an existing systemic conclusion. With reference to this phenomenon it must again be stressed that theology is a human discipline and that theological systems and doctrines are human constructions which to a greater or lesser extent refract the truth of divine revelation. As human constructions they must by their very nature remain open to examination, criticism and correction because of the nature of human understanding. It remains finite, perspectival due to the historically bound nature of knowledge. Further it is twisted and warped due to the noetic effects of sin. Any time an individual or group places areas of investigation off limits because the “wrong” conclusions would threaten their orthodox understanding, that person or group has ceased to be a seeker of truth and understanding and theology becomes defensive and apologetic as opposed to a search for and verification of truth. Perhaps the best example of this mentality is seen in the great B.B. Warfield. Warfield has been called the greatest theologian seen in America after Jonathan Edwards. He is said to have had the theological mind of a Charles Hodge and a Wm G.T., Shedd rolled into one. Yet he never produced a systematic theology of his own. He believed that the Westminster Confession presented the apex of theology, and that Charles Hodge’s exposition of Reformed theology could not be improved upon. Any theological conclusion that challenged or threatened a conclusion of Westminster had to be discredited. Warfield’s collected works span ten sizable volumes, and the quality is superb. But the perspective is always critical and analytical not creative and probing. He took his stand on Westminster and never wavered from it. In fact his position at Princeton Seminary at the end of his life as Professor of Polemic theology!

To reiterate, in contrast to the scholastic methodology, we must recognize that beyond the basic apostolic kerygma, theologies and doctrines are human constructions which more or less adequately encapsulate, interpret and contextualize the teaching of scripture for later generations. Philip Schaff, the nineteenth century church historian, in describing the creedal commitments of the church observed that confessions are man’s answer to God’s word.8 And in the best case any creed or confession is only “an approximate and relatively correct exposition of revealed truth, and may be improved by the progressive knowledge of the church.”9 If we extend Schaff’s observation to theology generally the fallibility and limitedness of the human construction becomes more apparent since a theological system arises out of a single mind rather than the life of the church or a collection of minds.

Extending Schaff’s observations further, we must distinguish between the form of a doctrine and its substance.10 This criterion recognizes that by virtue of the fact that we live in specific historical situations we will conceptualize and express our understanding of the truth in concrete historical forms that arise out of our own zeitgeist. An example may prove helpful: a building contractor in the south uses bricks to build a house while a contractor in the northwest uses wood or a contractor in California uses stucco. These houses constructed of different building materials look different on one level, but they bear a “family resemblance” on a deeper level and all accomplish the same purpose, and we are comfortable moving from one type of house to another. The contractor uses the building material at hand, rather than import foreign material from afar. Likewise, the fathers used the intellectual material at hand to express the truth of the trinity to their society rather than import Hebrew thought into a Greek speaking and thinking world. And it may be appropriate to re-express the truth of a given doctrine in a form that is appropriate to the concrete historical situation in which we live to aid in understanding. A good example of the recasting of a doctrine can be seen in Alister McGrath’s recasting the doctrine of justification by faith in the categories of existentialism and personalist theology.11

This alerts us to the ever-present danger of placing too much emphasis on particular words and not going past the words to the meaning expressed by those words. In point of fact, doctrinal statements and creedal affirmations can easily become verbal shibboleths that obscure meaning and foster division over words rather than meaning. On the other hand, doctrinal statements can and are reinterpreted by individuals to mean something entirely different than the creed was meant to express. W. Robertson Smith, the nineteenth century Scottish Old Testament scholar, when told that he was accused of denying the divinity of Jesus Christ, is said to have replied, “How can they accuse me of that? I have never denied the divinity of any man, let alone Jesus.”12

While we are to contend for the truth, all truth is not of the same order, despite the mentality of many theologians and teachers. We must recognize that there are theological truths that transcend local and temporary historical situations, while other “truths” are so affected by the Zeitgeist out of which they arise as to be idiosyncratic. An example of this idiosyncratic tendency would be the tendency of some denominations to enshrine the spiritual experience of the denomination’s founder in doctrinal terms that become normative and “distinctive” of the denomination. For example, the spiritual experience of A.B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, is reflected in the two distinctive doctrines of that denomination, healing in the atonement and post-conversion crisis sanctification.13 This leads to the conclusion that some theological truths are more important than others. If this is the case, how are we to determine what are the criteria which upon decisions about the importance of a truth are to be made? What are the first order theological truths which must be maintained? What are the second order truths, etc.? And how are we to recognize them?

The ranking of theological truth affects not only the historical articulation of a doctrine and marginalization of that which is idiosyncratic, but also involves the ranking of truths arising out of scripture itself. In many cases the scriptural material is abundantly clear and the church has always clearly affirmed certain doctrines. In other cases the scriptural evidence is scanty or cloudy. In these cases any conclusions drawn must be held with a degree of tentativeness.

Millard Erickson has suggested the above ranking in theological statements in importance and authority.14 This ranking is suggestive and helpful to get the student to think about the relative certainty of things believed. But from the perspective of formal theological affirmation, this hierarchy of authority is not totally adequate, especially if it is lifted from a context of further qualification of these levels of authority. For example, direct statements of scripture which may on the surface sound absolute may be qualified or relativized by other scriptural evidence. Erickson speaks of “direct statements of scripture.” While there is no hint that Erickson intends this, one might infer a theological method whereby a teaching is supported by a verse of scripture pulled out of its context and absolutized without reference to the larger biblical theological teaching on the subject. This was the rabbinical method of “pearl stringing” of scriptural references together without regard to their literary or historical context. This method was also adopted by the scholastic theological method and too often is seen even in contemporary popular theological method. “Direct statements” can be and are used as a theological “trump card” to clinch an argument. The authority of “direct statements of scripture” must be understood in the sense that the statement is interpreted accurately within its literary and historical context and not erroneously made to be a contextless abstract and global assertion.

On the second level of authority we must draw the distinction between necessary inference and logical inference. Erickson draws the distinction between direct implications and probable implications of scripture. These distinctions, while helpful, are not the same as the distinction between necessary and logical inferences from scripture. Necessary implications are those which either undergird an assertion and without which underpinning the assertion would fall, or they are implications that are from a logical perspective included in an assertion and need only the application of a syllogism to draw out the implicit information. A logical implication would be an inference that would be in harmony with the statement, but not necessarily drawn in syllogistic fashion from the statement.

Near the top of his hierarchy of authority Erickson places inductive conclusions drawn from scripture. Again this level of authority/certainty needs further qualification. The scientific method is by its very nature inductive and thus can never yield absolute certainty in its conclusions. However, inductive conclusions can approach the level of practical certainty if all the data have been examined and accurately interpreted. Thus the degree of certainty of inductive conclusions depends on the thoroughness of the inductive study.

Erickson is implicitly drawing a distinction between the teaching of scripture and the phenomena of scripture. This type of arrangement of authority is seen particularly in discussions of biblical authority. It is generally recognized within evangelicalism that if one begins with the teaching passages of scripture and once having established the teaching moves to the phenomena of scripture, he or she will ultimately emerge with a doctrine of scripture that embraces inerrancy. Whereas if an individual begins with the phenomena of scripture and from the phenomena proceeds to the explicit teaching passages, that individual will not embrace inerrancy. It is at this point that the question of method inserts itself into the whole equation.15

Erickson places conclusions from general revelation near the top of the pyramid and outright speculations as at the top as having no authority. His statements with reference to the authority of general revelation need serious qualification. General revelation, taken broadly, refers to the God-created order, and forms the larger context within which we must interpret the special revelation given in scripture. The failure within the more recent evangelical tradition of not giving general revelation its proper place in setting the bounds on some issues that have scientific answers has led to all sorts of intellectual and theological mischief in making the supposedly direct statements of scripture speak to issues far beyond the purposes for which they were given and globalizing the authority of the Bible beyond its purposes. To say that conclusions drawn from general revelation must be subject to the more clear statements of scripture, slavishly applied, could be used to “prove” a flat earth or a geocentric universe. There must be some kind of reciprocal process by which general revelation can inform special revelation and special revelation interprets general revelation.

A bit on the troubling side is that this whole presentation of levels of authority seems to be based upon a Baconian/common sense assumption that the facts are pre-theoretical and “out there” as objective information. As chapter two has shown this is an inadequate conception of the reality of the situation. All the while we are cognizant of the primarily narrative nature of the text and the difficulties that come in transforming narrative statements into theological assertions.

The Components of Doctrine/Theology

Charles Hodge defined theology as the arrangement and display of the facts of the Bible. This simple definition is still the operative cognitive definition among many evangelicals to this day. As we have seen in previous chapters, there is much more that goes into the construction of a doctrine or a theological system than simply the biblical text. There are in fact numerous preunderstandings of various types that shape the Gestalt of any theological expression. Alister McGrath in his 1990 Bampton Lectures16 focused upon the elements of doctrinal construction and identified four elements that give shape to any articulation of doctrine.

Elements in Doctrine

    Doctrine as that which defines the community

McGrath traces this aspect of doctrine from the early church down through the Reformation. A couple of illustrations will demonstrate how doctrine functions in this role. Justification by faith became the doctrine that demarcated Lutherans from Roman Catholics. Likewise the Lutheran understanding of the nature of the Eucharist (often referred to as consubstantiation) defined Lutheranism vis a vis Reformed Protestants. Doctrine gives the theological justification for a group’s existence. It is key in a group’s self-definition. Even the council of Trent focused on the self-definition of the Roman Catholic Church rather than a definition of the heretics. Key in doctrinal articulation is the element of social demarcation defining who is in and who is out.

A more contemporary illustration might be the doctrine/practice of glossalalia within the Pentecostal/Charismatic/Third Wave tradition. At the outbreak of Pentecostalism in 1906 the defining phenomenon was the practice and doctrine of tongues. Major Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God have to this day doctrinal statements which insist that tongues is the evidence of salvation, and that a lack of a glossalaliac experience is evidence that an individual is not saved. This experience/doctrine was that which identified Pentecostalism early on. It is interesting to note that as the tradition matured and moved trans-denominationally the emphasis on tongues was downplayed, and at one point in the 1980’s only about 35% of those who identified themselves as Charismatic spoke in tongues.

Doctrine as Interpretation of Narrative

Doctrine is generated by and subsequently interprets the Christian narrative. During the modern era the emphasis has been on the propositional nature of truth. This whole perspective is closely aligned with the Enlightenment concept of universal truth. The advent of postmodernism has brought a reassertion on the power of the narrative, and the priority of the story over the didactic. In this respect the new era has returned to the power of the story, a position more in harmony with the perspective of scripture itself.

Ultimately, Christianity is about narrative, a story, the story of God’s dealings with humanity culminating in the life and work of Jesus Christ. Christian community is derived from the story of Jesus of Nazareth. It is that story which gives the Christian community its identity. The New Testament itself adopts this perspective. It insists that the believers’ identity is found with Christ. Paul develops the concept of ejn Cristw’/ (in Christ). Jesus’ story becomes the believers’ story; he has been co-crucified with Christ, buried with Him, and become a participant in His resurrection. Jesus is the paradigm of existence.

Narratives are grounded in history; they are not universal abstractions. Even the church’s sacraments are rooted in the story of Christ; they focus upon his life and death.

But stories need to be interpreted to have meaning. They can be interpreted at many different levels, and may have various interpretive frameworks imposed upon them. It is at this point that we look to the scripture. The scripture contains the foundational texts of Christianity, its story. But story is not doctrine/theology. They two are of fundamentally different as types of genre. McGrath suggests that the story itself contains the fundamental structure, the nascent interpretive framework out of which doctrine is constructed.

During my first year as a college professor, as I was expounding the doctrine of the Trinity to college juniors, I made the comment that the church didn’t have a formal doctrine of the Trinity until Nicea, in A.D. 325. The hand of one of the students shot up. “What do you mean, they didn’t have a doctrine of the Trinity? I open my Bible and I find it everywhere!” What he did not realize that he was looking at those scriptures through the framework that had been worked out during those early centuries. He was at the center of the interpretive spiral, if you will. The interpretive spiral is a well-known phenomenon in the discipline of hermeneutics, the goal of which is a fusing of the horizon of the author and the reader. McGrath suggests, rightly, that there is a similar process in the generating of doctrine from the narrative.17 The story contains a substructure of conceptual frameworks. These implicit frameworks serve as the starting point. They are the “hints” and “signposts” which guide the reader/interpreter/theologian in making initial doctrinal affirmations. Then the text is re-read in light of the initial doctrinal conclusions, and modifications and embellishments to the framework are made. There is a dynamic interplay, a dialectical interplay between the text and the doctrine.

In the process of constructing doctrine a transformation from narrative to propositional statements occurs. It must be realized that narrative, because it is given as story, is not to be approached deductively, but rather inferentially. The difference between the two methods of analysis is significant. All too often theologians have been guilty of treating the text as a series of premises from which conclusions could be deductively drawn. This is a serious methodological error. Rather, it is at this transformation point that we decisively shift genres and produce doctrines which are given in a form foreign to the scriptures and teach truths which the scripture does not necessarily explicitly expound.

The church has always had those that could be legitimately called theological primitivists, those who do not wish to step beyond the text. But the whole point of doctrine/theology is that simple reiteration of the statements of scripture is not enough. To return to the doctrine of the Trinity, the Apostolic Fathers simply repeat the baptismal formula without comment, affirming that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all God. But, if this is true, then there is a problem with the received doctrine of monotheism, which understood God as unity, not duality or tri-unity. The doctrine of the Trinity arose out of reflection on the nature of God as revealed in the text of scripture as an attempt to explain how the one God could also be three. It is not metaphysical speculation based on Greek philosophy, although those early theologians used philosophy in order to help them explain the concept.18 The doctrine of the Trinity is rather an interpretation of the narrative. We might illustrate this with the concept of an acorn. The acorn is not the oak tree, but it contains the material from which a tree will grow.19 In this sense it is legitimate to speak of the development of doctrine. We recognize that doctrine must be ultimately linked to the text of scripture as its primary source. As McGrath has noted: “The sola scriptura principle is ultimately an assertion of the primacy of the foundational scriptural narrative over any framework of conceptualities which it may generate”20

While the theologian may feel at liberty to explore other sources of potential interest, doctrine is historically linked with scripture on account of the historicity of its formulating communities. Christian communities of faith orientate and identify themselves with reference to authoritative sources which are either identical with or derived from scripture.21

Scripture’s primary function is not to give theological statements but to relate the story of God’s dealing with humanity, especially in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. “Scripture does not articulate a set of abstract principles, but points to a lived life.”22 Whether approached directly or through a filter of creeds and traditions, scripture constitutes the foundational documents of the Christian faith.23 These foundational documents provide the material from which theology is inferred and constructed.

Doctrine as an interpretation of Experience

When attention is turned to the third of McGrath’s four components, doctrine interprets experience, those within the evangelical tradition tend to get very uncomfortable. Evangelicals heartily assert that genuine Christianity involves experience, yet at least from the time of the Princetonians, evangelicals have compartmentalized theology and life into two separate areas, not letting experience inform or shape theology, or theology necessarily inform experience.24 Charles Hodge insisted that experience did not make a Christian; believing a set of facts about Jesus Christ did.25 Following in the common-sense tradition of Hodge and Princeton, Evangelicals have seen truth as absolutely separate from the knower, as something that exists “out there.”26 Additionally, experience has smacked of Schleiermacher and Liberalism on the one hand and the excesses of the Pentecostal tradition on the other. Yet, a closer examination of the scripture presupposes an experience, particularly an experience centered around the believing community.

McGrath’s appeal to experience is looking not at private religious experience, but at the communal experience of the Christian community. In particular, he notes that Christianity addresses the human experience of alienation. It is this experience which becomes a point of contact. Christianity “addresses such experiences in order to transform them, and to indicate what the shape of the experience of redemption through Jesus Christ might be like.”27 It is at this point he contends that we encounter a problem: the adequacy or inadequacy of language to express experience. McGrath invokes Wittgenstein’s musing that words cannot communicate the aroma of a cup of coffee as an example of this unhappy phenomenon. While words cannot adequately express experience, they can point to experience as signposts.

He notes that while the experiential aspect of doctrine in most frequently associated with Romantic theologies, such as Schleiermacher, we find roots and even specific explications of this concept even as early as Augustine.28 While McGrath does not explicitly draw the conclusion, it can be inferred that at the beginning of the Christian faith, experience preceded doctrine, i.e., the apostles experienced the risen Christ and that that experience led them (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) to write as they did. In so saying it must be noted that the experience could not have been a pre-linguistic mystic experience, but one that occurred within their existing framework of reality.29

The question of experience again raises the troubling question of the adequacy of human language. McGrath observes:

Underlying the profundity of human experience and encounter lies an unresolved tension—the tension between the wish to express an experience in words, and the inability of words to capture that experience in its fullness. Everything in human experience which is precious and significant is threatened with extinction, in that it is in some sense beyond words, and yet requires to be stated in words for it to become human knowledge. It is threatened with the spectre of solipsism, in that unless an experience can be communicated to another, it remains trapped within the private experiential world of the individual. Words can point to an experience, they can begin to sketch its outlines—but the total description of that experience remains beyond words. The words of John Woolman’s associate express this point: ‘I may tell you of it, but you cannot feel it as I do.’ Words point beyond themselves to something greater which eludes their grasp. Human words, and the categories they express, are stretched to their limits as they attempt to encapsulate, to communicate, something which tantalizingly refuses to be reduced to words. It is the sheer elusiveness of human experience, its obstinate refusal to be imprisoned within a verbal matrix, which underlies the need for poetry, symbolism and doctrine alike.30

C. S. Lewis has observed a similar tension on the aesthetic level:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things— the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of the worshippers. For they are not the thing in itself; they are only the scent of the flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.31

McGrath endorses a suggestion made nearly two centuries ago that “the function of doctrine is to effect a decisive transition within the language of the Christian community from the poetic and rhetorical to the ‘descriptive-didactic.’“ This means that poetic or rhetorical and doctrinal language are distinct, but related means of communication within the believing community. In fact, it is because rhetorical and poetic language are the primary language of the community that doctrine becomes necessary for responsible communication to the community in its primary language.32

Doctrine functions as the cognitive element within Christianity, the skeleton that supports and gives shape to the flesh of spiritual experience.

Concerning the relationship between poetic and religious language, C.S. Lewis has noted:

This is the most remarkable of the powers of Poetic language: to convey to us the quality of experiences we have not had, or perhaps can never have, to use factors within our experience so that they become pointers to something outside our experience—as two or more roads on a map show us where a town that is off the map must lie. Many of us have never had an experience like that which Wordsworth records near the end of Prelude XIII; but when he speaks of ‘the visionary dreariness,’ I think we get an inkling of it.33

The point here is that poetic language not only has the ability to communicate emotion but to arouse emotion in the hearer. Emotion can be communicated through words although it cannot be reduced to words.

In order for my experience to be expressed, communicated to or aroused by another, it demands statement in cognitive forms. That these cognitive forms fail to capture such an experience in its totality is self-evident, and hardly a matter for rhetorical exaggeration: it is one of the inevitable consequences of living in history and being obliged to communicate in historical forms.34

There is in doctrine an interplay between the cognitive and the experiential. T. S. Eliot expresses this interplay:

We had the experience but missed the meaning
An approach to the meaning restores the experience35

While the Enlightenment separated facts from interpretation and implicitly endorsed a view of knowledge that has been characterized as ‘brute empiricism’ it is now generally recognized that there is not such thing as bare, brute facts.36 Experience is not pre-theoretical, but is already theory laden, arising within an interpretive framework, however tentative that framework may be. Prior belief plays a vital part in interpreting experience.37

To try to sum up this most difficult point: doctrine arises out of the poetic and rhetorical and narrative language of scripture, language that points beyond itself to the experience of God and redemption. It gives cognitive form to the experience referenced in that language and in so doing provides a framework, a skeleton to support the life of the believing community. It does more than this however. The doctrine, the meaning, creates and restores the original experience in the life of the hearer. “Doctrine opens the way to a new experience of the experience.”38

To reiterate, for the church today, experience is an inadequate foundation for doctrine, nor does contemporary experience legitimately generate doctrine but doctrine informs experience and thereby gives significant insight into the existential side of Christianity.

Doctrine as a Truth Claim

In leaving this factor until last, some might infer that the truth claim of doctrine is of less than paramount importance. This is not the case. In fact, it is the truth claim of doctrine that underlies its importance and its fulfilling of the other functions. But this raises the question Pilate asked our Lord, “What is truth?”

Numerous definitions for truth have been propounded, and in answer to the question there is no universally accepted definition, Plato’s proclamation that the philosopher is the lover of truth notwithstanding. Disciplines have various criteria for truth, some explicit, some implicit. None universally agreed upon. One suggestion, traceable ultimately to Marx and Engels, is that truth is simply “correspondence with reality.” Truth is that which describes things as they actually are.

Classically there are several definitions of truth, all of which bear what Wittgenstein calls a family resemblance, despite their distinct but related emphases on the nature of truth. The Greek term ajlhvqeia carries the interpretation of truth as the “state of discoveredness or unhiddenness.” The term has primary reference to the thing itself and only secondarily to a statement about the thing. It is a description of how things are now, in the present moment. The Latin veritas by contrast carries a sense of precision of utterance or exactness. The truth is faithful and exact, without omission. It is complete. As opposed to ajlhvqeia,veritas has primary reference to past events, and is closely associated with history, or narrative. As Cicero said, “Who does not know the first law of history to be that an author must not dare to recount anything except the truth? And its second that he must endeavor to recount the whole truth.”39 The Hebrew emunah contains a sense of personal reference: truth related to a sense of trust. Thus the true God is not simply the only one who exists, but the God who is trustworthy and faithful to his promises. So in everyday language, the false friend is not one who is non-existent, but one who cannot be trusted. Thus, emunah has a proleptic aspect as it points toward future faithfulness. Like veritas, emunah has past reference, but not simply for the sake of the past. Rather, the focus is a shaping of the present and future through predictive hope, and gives a paradigm for understanding the goal of history.

Christian doctrine relates to these ideas of truth in that it is rooted in history. Theologians speak of the “Christ-event.” While the terminology is not popular among evangelicals, it does serve to call attention to the fact that Christianity is rooted in history with all its contingencies, rather than in timeless truths. Brunner has gone so far as to say that truth is something that happens. Jesus is truth (Jn 14:6). God is not to be identified with sterile philosophical concepts but rather with reference to Jesus, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Truth is then grounded in history and reflection upon historical event, Spinoza and Lessing notwithstanding.

Doctrine involves interpretation, as McGrath has suggested above. But in any interpretation the question asked is at least as importance as the answer given. Thus in examining Christian doctrine we must not only look at the cognitive statements, but also the questions that led to those statements. Does Jesus Christ, the “Christ-event,” precipitate the questions to which doctrines are the answer. The Church has always answered this question with a resounding “Yes!” There is an essential continuity of the core doctrines of the Christian faith throughout the ages. While doctrine has ventured beyond Christology, we must not forget that Christ is the lens through which our understanding of other doctrines is mediated. For example, for the Christian to affirm “God is love” involves an implicit christological reference. The affirmation links a hitherto undefined concept, love, to its concrete demonstration in the historic person of Jesus of Nazareth, God incarnate.

The truth of doctrine also involves internal self-consistency. Indeed heresy has been defined as the adherence to teaching that is inconsistent with the central affirmations of Jesus Christ and the Redemption that he provides. Doctrine/theology is an integrated whole with one doctrine informing another. We may speak of a doctrine of Christ, a doctrine of man, a doctrine of God, or of sin, but we recognize that these doctrines in order to be true must be internally consistent and consistent with the foundational doctrines of the faith. There must be an intra-systemic unity of the truth expressed in doctrine. By way of example we could show how the person of Jesus Christ controls what have been labeled as the four natural heresies of Christianity, all relating to either the need of, or the possibility of, redemption.40

The truth of doctrine is not simply a reflection on the past or even the “Christ-event.” The truth of doctrine is not simply information. This is, I believe, a great failure in evangelical tradition. We have tended at least since the time of old Princeton to view all truth as of the same type.41 Doctrine however must be orientated toward faith. It cannot be simple factual information. As Dorner contended, there is a personal demand upon the individual for facts to move from the realm of the abstract and theoretical to the realm of the vital. With this faith commitment arises a certainty that comes from personal encounter with the living God. This is the existential aspect of doctrine, associated with Kierkegaard, but implicit within the text itself. It was at this point that confessional faith failed in the Era of Protestant Scholasticism. This point also relates to the authority of experience. Doctrine involves an existential imperative that demands to be appropriated personally in one’s inner life.

Doctrine makes truth claims, but these claims are of necessity colored by the lenses of the theologian and the epistemology s/he employs. Hence it is necessary to be in conversation with past generations, the continuity of the Christian tradition. We all make mistakes, but we do not all make the same mistakes.

The Necessity of
Establishing a Doctrinal Taxonomy

As noted above, there is a general recognition that some doctrines are more important than others. Erickson speaks explicitly to this reality in his Christian Theology.42 As such, certain doctrines are to be given more prominence in discussion. He adds a second important observation in that, for example, “eschatology is a major area of doctrinal investigation. Within that area, the Second Coming is a major belief. Rather less crucial (and considerably less clearly taught in Scripture) is the issue of whether the church will be removed from the world before or after the great tribulation.”43 To unpack the significance of what Erickson says, there are certain doctrines that in and of themselves are major doctrines—we could say core doctrines—but finer developments of those doctrines are not to be considered of first order importance.

Establishing A Doctrinal Taxonomy Historically

A generation before the fundamentalist-modernist controversy Philip Schaff published The Creeds of Christendom; a few years later Charles Briggs published The Fundamental Christian Faith. In both of these works there is an explicit recognition that the doctrinal conclusions embodied in the creedal affirmations of the creeds of the ancient church represent the theological core of the Christian Faith. This perspective was also that of Vincent of Lerins in the fifth century. Vincent gave much thought to the issue of doctrine and concluded:

I have devoted considerable study and much attention to inquiring, from men of outstanding holiness and doctrinal correctness, in what way it might be possible for me to establish a kind of fixed and, as it were, general and guiding principle for distinguishing the truth of the Catholic faith from the depraved falsehoods of the heretics. . . . Holy Scripture, on account of its depth, is not accepted in a universal sense. The same statements are interpreted in one way by one person, in another by someone else, with the result that there seem to be as many opinions as there are people. . . . Therefore, on account of the number and variety of errors, there is a need for someone to lay down a rule for the interpretation of the prophets and the apostles in such a way that is directed by the rule of the Catholic Church. Now in the Catholic Church itself the greatest care is taken that we hold that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all people (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est). 44

Vincent recognized the inadequacy in a simple appeal to the text of scripture in that the scripture was subject to a variety of interpretations. Something more was needed. He settled on the principle of the “consensus of the faithful.” In other words, there had to be universal recognition by the laity as well as the clergy. A doctrine could not be local. A doctrine could not be new. Another way to sum up this teaching is catholicity. The substance of Christian doctrine must be universal. This is in fact the presupposition of Tom Oden in his systematic theology. Oden has endeavored to write a consensual theology using as his method the vincentian canon, focusing upon what is common to all branches of Christianity.

In so saying we must distinguish between the form and the substance of a doctrine. One of the amazing phenomena of language is that it is possible to say the same thing in a variety of ways, and even in a variety of languages. This should alert us to the necessity to probe what linguists call deep structure, the universal meaning, rather than stumbling over surface structure, specific verbal articulations of theological conclusions.

Having said this, the question remains, “What specifically belongs at the core of our theological commitment?”


First and foremost as noted above, the person and work of Jesus Christ belong at the heart of any theological taxonomy. These concepts involve a number of interconnected teachings and assumptions. As these were worked out historically the questions focused first upon the relationship of the pre-incarnate Son to God the Father. The early church struggled with finding adequate language to express the relationship between the Father and the Son, recognizing the deity of each without inadvertently falling into the trap of asserting two Gods. Early on several attempts were made to explain this relationship; these were adjudged to be inadequate. The crisis that precipitated the church’s formally declaring its understanding at the Council of Nicea was the teaching or Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria, who taught that the Son was the first created creature who became the creator of the cosmos. Arius summed up his teaching with the phrase, “there was a time when the son was not.” The church responded at Nicea in the Nicean creed asserting that the Son was consubstantial with the Father. This statement was an assertion of the eternal divinity of the Son, as a full participant in the deity of the Father. The council of Nicea did not address the question of the Holy Spirit as such. The understanding of the Holy Spirit’s full participation in the Godhead came as a result of the work of the three great Cappodocian fathers, especially Basil, and was codified at the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381). This statement gave explicit form to the already existing practice of recognizing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as fully and equally divine.

As explanations of the nature of the Trinity developed, the Eastern and Western church developed different frameworks of understanding for the doctrine—frameworks which especially from the perspective of Eastern Theology are incompatible. So, in a taxonomy of doctrine the fact that God exists as Trinity stands at the very core of the Church’s faith, while explanations of a framework of trinitarian understanding would be ranked as second level theological reflection.

    The Two Natures of Christ

The second major theological development of the ancient period was a precise articulation of nature of the incarnate person of Jesus Christ, specifically the doctrine of the two natures, deity and humanity, and the explanation as to how these two natures come together in one person (the hypostatic union). Since the birth of the church there had been an implicit recognition that Jesus was unique as both fully human and also fully divine. Early on, the church had simply repeated these assertions without trying to explain the nature of the incarnation or relate the divine and human together in the one historic person of Jesus Christ. As with the Arian controversy, the church’s understanding of the person of Christ also arose out of controversy. But in this case the understanding was refined in three successive controversies.

In order to understand the christological conclusions forged at Chalcedon, there must be an understanding of the theological climate of the ancient church in the fourth and fifth centuries. The question of the person of Christ was one that occupied the Greek-speaking church, a church which was divided into two theological schools. The first school, that of Alexandria, was heavily influenced by Platonic philosophy and was interested in spiritual realities. The tendency here was to emphasize the deity of Christ, often at the expense of his humanity. One of the staunch defenders of Nicene orthodoxy was Apollinarius, the Alexandrian theologian and friend of the great Athanasius, the architect of trinitarian orthodoxy. Apollinarius saw that one of Arius’ arguments was not properly trinitarian but focused upon the nature of the incarnation. Apollinarius responded with an explanation of the relationship of Christ’s deity to his humanity that in effect made Christ less than fully human. Apollinarius’ hypothesis was that in the incarnation Jesus Christ had a human body and soul, but the spirit (rational mind) had been replaced by the divine logos, the second person of the Trinity. The reaction against Apollinarius’ teaching was swift in coming, and his position was condemned as heretical by the council of Constantinople in A.D. 381.

Roughly a generation later, Nestorius was Patriarch of Constantinople and a representative of the other major theological school in the Greek-speaking east—Antioch. The Antiochean school was interested in historical interpretation of scripture and focused upon the true humanity of Christ. While not denying Christ’s deity their focus was upon Jesus’ humanity and the example he gave to his followers. Nestorius, as was typical of the school of Antioch, drew a sharp distinction between the humanity and the deity in the incarnate person of Jesus. So sharp was the distinction that he was understood to be teaching that Jesus was in reality two separate persons inhabiting a single body, Son of Mary and Son of God. This perception was exacerbated because of Nestorius’ opposition to the already popular designation of Mary as Theotokos (God-bearer).45 Nestorius was himself an intractable individual, and when Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, challenged Nestorius’ position, he defiantly refused to back down and challenged the orthodoxy of Cyril. After a series of confrontations, the Emperor convened a council that met at Ephesus in A.D. 429. This council condemned Nestorius and his doctrine of “two sons.” While historical research has questioned whether Nestorius himself did in fact hold the doctrine that bears his name, Nestorianism as popularly understood undermined the doctrine of salvation with its failure to adequately integrate the two natures into the one historic person who was Jesus Christ.46

Twenty years later another christological crisis arose. This time the nexus of the controversy was Eutyches, a well respected elderly but unimaginative and poorly trained monk in Constantinople who reacted with disfavor to the Council of Ephesus’ insistence that Christ existed in two natures after the incarnation. Heavily influenced by Alexandrian theology and spirituality, Eutyches taught that after the incarnation Jesus had but one nature, the divine. He was variously understood to be teaching that Jesus’ humanity was absorbed by his deity, or that in the incarnation the two natures fused to become one more than human but less than divine, a tertium quid (third something). Eutyches’ heresy did not violate the dictum arising out of the Apollinarian controversy, (“that which he did not assume he did not heal”) but did ultimately fall into a docetic heresy and violated the anti-docetic dictum “Grace never destroys nature.” Eutyches’ heresy destroyed the humanity of Jesus after the incarnation and also fed into the dualistic temptation to flee from the flesh. After much political maneuvering and a council that declared Eutyches orthodox (the Robbers Synod of Ephesus in A.D. 449), he was finally condemned at Chalcedon in A.D. 451.47

Chalcedon produced the final creed of the ancient church.48 Pronouncements since that time have been confessions. The Creed of Chalcedon addressed particularly the understanding of the incarnate person of Jesus Christ. However, a careful reading of the creed shows that the statements are apophatic rather than catophatic. It is a creed of negation rather than assertion. Rather than give a precise definition of the incarnate Christ, the creed draws parameters around what is allowed within orthodox christological theologizing. As later centuries proved, there was still much room for debate and discussion about particular emphases, but the boundaries were established. In looking taxonomically at the doctrine of the incarnate person of Christ, an affirmation of the truth of the creed arising out of Chalcedon is to be considered at the heart of the Christian faith. Further refinements and frameworks built within the boundaries, which from the very beginning accommodated Alexandrian and Antiochean emphases, are of second or third level importance.

    The Nature of Divine Grace

Implicitly the early church recognized the necessity of divine grace for salvation. From the immediate post-Apostolic period the church recognized the absolute necessity of divine grace for salvation and that, left to itself, humanity could not be saved. But the theological climate of Gnosticism kept the church from reflecting upon the nature of human depravity and the need of divine grace. During the fifth century a British monk, Pelagius, came to Rome and taught a gospel of moral reformation, stressing the full ability of humanity to obey God completely. At this time Augustine had already articulated his doctrine of human depravity and the accompanying spiritual inability to please God apart from a prior application of divine grace. The ensuing debate, the Pelagian controversy, brought into bold relief the issues concerning the nature of human depravity and divine grace. The church recognized the legitimacy and necessity of the concept of human depravity as being inexorably bound up in the nexus of the doctrine of salvation. It did not however unequivocally endorse Augustine’s doctrine of total depravity. Pelagianism was condemned at Ephesus and at a number of local synods, but it was not until the Reformation that the Augustinian doctrine was endorsed and incorporated into a formal theological matrix. Thus, it would be proper to say that an understanding of human depravity is at the center of the historic faith, but the historic faith does not endorse any particular articulation of depravity, whether it be Augustinian, Reformed, Semi-Augustinian, or even Semi-Pelagian. The doctrine of human depravity and its correlate doctrine, the necessity of salvation being of God and by grace belongs to the heart of the web of Christian proclamation; any particular articulation belongs at the most as a second level truth.

    The Canon of the New Testament

As we turn our attention to the rise of the New Testament canon, we must recognize that at this point we are not dealing with the foundational doctrines of the faith, rather we are dealing with the foundational documents of the faith. The early church adopted the Old Testament as its original scripture. Very early it recognized the canonicity of the gospels and the Pauline epistles. Gradually the rest of the New Testament writings were recognized as having divine imprimatur. However, with the text of the New Testament the process is qualitatively different than with the doctrinal controversies discussed above. Here the church never made a universal formal declaration of the extent of the New Testament. The lists that arose were associated with particular bishops, e.g., Athanasius in his festal letter of A.D. 369, and with local synods in Hippo and Carthage about 20 years later associated with the great Augustine. The canon of the New Testament was not imposed upon the church by ecclesiastical authority. Rather its authority arose by consensus.49 As a result of the way the canon of the New Testament arose, it was not formally closed until the Reformation period, although from a practical perspective it was virtually closed in the sixth century. Again due to the historic consensus of the church the shape of the canon of the New Testament would be understood as at the center of the faith, although from an epistemological rather than a formal doctrinal perspective. Certainly there has never been a serious attempt within the church to add any more books to the received canon, and any questioning of the legitimacy of any of the books of the New Testament have focused upon the fringes as opposed to the books that preserve the heart of the inspired apostolic proclamation of Christ and his Word.

Establishing a theological taxonomy exegetically

For the theologian and the exegete there is a constant tension.50 This tension arises out of contradictory expectations, expectations to preserve truth on the one hand and on the other hand to act as a scientist to test the validity of truth and to act as an explorer seeking new truth or a fuller grasp of truth. Along these lines, the theologian and exegete must wrestle with how we define orthodoxy and whether a simple pursuit of truth can be accomplished in light of the noetic effects of sin. Too many evangelicals do not nuance their theological convictions nor do they hold them up to critical examination. This smacks of a method that gives tradition an unqualified authority and is more in keeping with historic Roman Catholic method than having a Protestant spirit, for it regards the tradition (whatever that tradition may be) as unquestionable and undifferentiated. If we approach the question of the certainty of doctrine from an exegetical as opposed to a historical basis, the greatest certainty about doctrine comes from a two-pronged approach: empirical (solid exegesis, biblical theology, etc.) and pneumatological, i.e., the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit about certain truths, thus bringing home a greater degree of certainty about more central things. A taxonomy of doctrine is the result. To what does the Spirit bear witness? Essentially matters pertaining to Christology and soteriology. Practically, this tells us that rationalism and the Enlightenment cannot invade the Spirit’s territory; solid historical-critical exegesis cannot destroy one’s faith in the resurrection of the theanthropic Person because that faith though rooted in history is not based solely upon history. When it comes to less central issues, there needs to be a hierarchical order of certainty and a concomitant hierarchy of centrality as we develop a taxonomy of doctrine. Thus, for example, looking at issues of eschatology, the central truth of Christ’s bodily return is what unites believers. First John explicitly says that the Spirit bears witness to this fact. But when Christ comes is left to the church to hammer out on the basis of solid exegesis. Conviction in such issues dare not be as certain as convictions about the person and work of Christ. Otherwise, we succumb to the danger of “majoring on the minors,” of missing the central message of the Bible, and of suppressing the witness of the Spirit on the more crucial issues. There are, to be sure, less central issues of which we can have a very high degree of certainty—largely because any reasonable exegesis must come to such conclusions. But there are also topics on which one thinks that his views are Spirit-guided, but his own certainty of such matters is stated more humbly. It is intriguing to note in 1 Cor 7:40 that Paul uses this kind of language in his view of remarriage after the death of a spouse: “But if the husband dies, she is free to marry whom she will, provided the marriage is within the Lord’s fellowship. She is better off as she is; that is my opinion, and I believe that I too have the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 7:39b-40, REB). There seem to be degrees of certainty that the Spirit bears witness to. Issues of marriage and remarriage are not core doctrinal convictions, but must still be worked out in terms of sapiential preference and solid exegesis.

Thus, on the other hand, in those areas outside core theological commitments, we have both the freedom and the responsibility to do tough exegetical spadework and to follow where the evidence leads us.

As those who believe that God is truth, we must commit ourselves to pursue truth in our exegesis no matter the cost, as long as it is within the bounds of taxonomically core doctrinal commitments as defined by the Spirit’s witness and solid exegetical conclusions. This will by its very nature involve challenging (and maybe slaughtering) sacred cows. But it is the exegete’s and the theologian’s sacred responsibility to examine the text historically. Checks and balances are in place—both theologically and exegetically—via the witness of the Spirit, solid exegesis, and the fact that the theologian’s and the exegete’s labors are done in community with others who can evaluate and challenge conclusions.

A Theology of Minimums?

In all that has been said, the question may arise, “Are we not forced to accept a theology of minimums rather than organizing and arranging truth and bringing all things under the Lordship of Christ?” To this the response is, not necessarily. What we are arguing is that there is a central core of truth that has established itself through the centuries and been agreed to by all who name the name of Christ, regardless of the communion or denomination of Christianity to which they belong. It is this core that is the starting point of our theological understanding. It is the minimums that identify us as Christian as opposed to something else. This core represents the minimum theological commitment of a Christian. But beyond that minimum there is within the theologian an inward push to organize all understanding and systematize it into a comprehensive whole. This compulsion, it could be argued, is an inward human compulsion. We at least in the West must see how things fit together. We must “dismantle the universe” whether it be physical or theological and learn how it works, and coax out its hidden secrets.

In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “Clues” the crew of the Enterprise awakens after having been rendered unconscious by an energy field apparently for a few seconds. The ship is apparently unharmed although it was hurled several light years from its location. However, several small anomalies and inconsistencies lead Captain Picard to believe that something more sinister has happened to the ship and that Commander Data is somehow complicit in the affair. As the mystery unravels it is discovered that the ship has encountered a xenophobic alien race and in order to survive Captain Picard had to agree to have all memories of the encounter wiped from the consciousness of the crewmembers and all physical evidence eliminated. When the discovery of what really happened is made, the alien race again threatens to eliminate the Enterprise. Picard pleads the case noting that the reason that the ruse was discovered was that clues were left behind and that humans are compelled to figure out mysteries. It is precisely this compulsion to figure out mystery that has compelled modern science to its advances. It is the same force that compels the theologian to make further discoveries and advance theological understanding.

At this point we fall under the model of the theologian as explorer/scientist. We test, probe, investigate, and extend our theological knowledge and build a comprehensive understanding, an understanding that we believe is right and accurate. As we work we operate within a paradigm of understanding. And we seek to extend the paradigm. As we learn we develop a full orbed system that tries to incorporate all truth about God and his universe from any and every source under its umbrella. But eventually for a number of possible reasons, that paradigm cannot accommodate new data and another paradigm is proposed. That proposal is inevitably met with stiff resistance and the charge of heresy is leveled against those who would change the status quo.

Theology deals by definition with revelation. The ultimate database from which it draws is the entirety of creation. The subset database is the Bible, special revelation. The subset of special revelation is the salvific message of redemption. It is this that composes the “theological core,” the sine qua non of the faith. The theological enterprise is broader than the core; it seeks to organize and make sense first of the rest of special revelation and beyond that the totality of general revelation. It is as we move beyond the core that the conclusions become more tentative and open to interpretation and debate.

But when we step back from this system we have built, a system of maximums, we must recognize that our system arose out of a particular set of assumptions and pre-understandings that were universalized in our understanding and thought patterns, but in reality were not universal. Rather they were local and historically conditioned. That is not to say that all that understanding was wrong; it was the best that could be done at that place and at that time with the data and methods available.

To approach this question from another perspective, we recognize the core of the faith as having the status of metanarrative. It expresses universal and transcultural realities, although these realities arose out of particular historical events. The expansion upon the basic metanarrative encapsulates the timeless metanarrative within what is essentially a local narrative.

When conditions change, the local narrative51 may be challenged and even discarded, but this discarding is not a discarding of the metanarrative features encased in the local narrative. Rather it is the discarding of the local understandings/interpretations that have grown up around the core metanarrative, understandings that involve even the framework in which it has been encased.

The battle arises between those who have transformed the local narrative (be it Thomism, Lutheranism, Reformed, or whatever theology) into metanarrative and treat it as normative for all people, places, and times the minds of those who adhere to the systematization they equate it with metanarrative, and those who advocate a new (and as yet untested) paradigm that does not view the theological issues involved in the same manner or importance as does the old paradigm.

Ranking non-core issues

The historic faith of the Church expresses that which is at its core, the sine qua non of Christianity. A denial of the essential truth of any of the core doctrines places one outside the faith from the perspective of its essential proclamation and involves one is heresy. Yet there are many more doctrines and perspectives than those expounded in the historic and ecumenical creeds of the church. The church is divided into three major communions, Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism. Within Protestantism there are numerous traditions, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptist, and Arminian as well as innumerable denominations. While Christians agree on the fundamental doctrines of the faith,52 How are we to deal with the significant differences that exist between communions and narrower traditions? How are we to rank the authority of theological constructions that are narrower than those embodied in the ecumenical creeds?

The first reality that must be reiterated in this process is that all theological constructions are finite, limited approximations that represent, recontextualize, or redescribe the presentation of the scriptural material. Additionally, by virtue of the nature of language, there is a high degree of metaphor and figurative language in scripture and in the concepts there embodied. Grant Osborne has discussed the metaphorical nature of theological language with reference to hermeneutics and its implications for theological construction.53 Osborne argues rightly that theological statements are at their core metaphorical. The consequence is that “doctrinal statements are figurative representations of theoretical constructs, and the accuracy or ‘truth’ of their portrayal is always a moot point.”54 When added to the historical dimension this makes for a degree of tentativeness in the certainty of assumptions.

In Christian theology we are dealing with something analogous to what Thomas Kuhn would call “paradigm communities” in science. Those theological formulations which transcend the boundaries that separate the three major Christian communions must have the highest authority. Within particular communions, those doctrines that are common to the entire communion will be ranked next in level of authority. In actuality, this principle applies particularly within Protestantism since it, to a far higher degree than Catholicism or Orthodoxy, finds itself characterized by discrete traditions, sub-traditions and sub-sub traditions.

Within Protestantism we would look historically at such doctrines as:

  • justification sola fide, by faith apart from human works. This is the doctrine out of which Protestant was born.
  • an understanding of the sacraments as testimonies and reminders as opposed to sacerdotalism, which sees the sacraments as actually infusing divine grace into the recipient.
  • the centrality and the final authority of the scriptures, which ranks as a hallmark of Protestantism as opposed to Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
  • the extent of the canon as excluding the apocrypha.

These are all examples of what would be considered second level doctrines. They are important, maybe important enough to divide over, but not a part of the fundamental core of the apostolic kerygma, and hence not an explicit part of the historic faith.

Divisions also exist between Protestant traditions, particularly between the Reformed/Calvinist tradition and the Arminian and Wesleyan/Arminian tradition. Issues that separate these traditions focus particularly upon the understanding of the nature of human depravity and spiritual ability and the nature of divine grace. The battle between these two camps has often coalesced into heated and acrimonious debate over the issue of election/predestination. Often unrecognized is that in these doctrinal constructions there is a divergence in the theological methods by which the doctrines are established and defended. The Reformed camp particularly has committed itself to a scholastic theological method that Calvin himself would find objectionable. Conversely the Arminian camp has historically had no solid center around which it built its system and has tended to drift theologically in the direction of rationalism. While not denying that there are profound implications to the questions raised, looking taxonomically at the importance of these debates they must be ranked as third level. The doctrine of predestination did not die on the cross; Jesus did.

Many other questions beg to be addressed in this discussion. Questions about organizing principles,55 philosophical systems employed by various systems and theologians, hermeneutics and the application of hermeneutics to various genre of scripture, and the implications for the development and articulation of doctrine are all-important questions that need to be addressed. Unfortunately, to address all of these questions is beyond the scope of this discussion. What this chapter has tried to demonstrate is that it is a fundamental error to view all our doctrines as on the same level of importance. Some doctrines are fundamental to the faith. These are the consensus doctrines spelled out in the ancient creeds. Interestingly these are not the doctrines that evangelicals get upset about when they are challenged. Looking taxonomically, the irony is that the doctrinal discussions that engender the most heat and least light are those doctrines that are historically and exegetically the least well established, but have been raised to touchstone level by particular denominations and traditions in a sectarian fashion.

It is in the realm of ranking doctrine that the reality of theological politics rears its ugly head. After all, everyone believes that his or her theological construction is the biblical one. Very, very few consciously recognize that factors other than the biblical text come into play in their theological belief structure. The commitment to the truth of God leads them to adopt a defensive posture and attack those who challenge their beliefs at any point. A commitment to pursue understanding and truth done within a dogmatic or confessional community must often be accomplished quietly and without challenging the powers that be, for such a challenge could well cost the individual his job or ministry. This is not hyperbole; it is a reality that I have seen happen on numerous occasions over issues as seemingly trivial as advocating dialogue with other denominations, of adopting a hermeneutical principle that is perceived to threaten the existing structure, of declaring that a denomination’s “denominational distinctives” are not cardinal doctrine.

There tends to be a fundamental insecurity among those who wield the power in denominations and schools that often cannot tolerate the mind that dares to ask questions. Reactions to new perspectives are often swift and “knee jerk.” While addressing primarily the evangelical community on this point, the same intolerance is seen on the left wing of the theological spectrum. Numerous conservative students have found their theses and dissertations rejected because they did not toe the line with politically correct exegesis or ride a theological hobbyhorse of the party line at more liberal institutions.

The raising of issues that properly are fourth or fifth level concerns in a taxonomy to touchstone level reveals a fundamental flaw in the way theology is approached. While we would not normally think in these terms, this mentality becomes schismatic and culpable before Christ because it takes the focus of reflection off Him and His work and introduces division into His body, the church.

As has been said elsewhere, systematic theology does not arise directly from the Bible, the claims of adherents to particular systems notwithstanding. It is a human enterprise.56 Theological definition is a human response to God’s revelation, and the organizing principles are of human, not divine, origin.57

While God is truth, we are not God and only have an incomplete grasp of His truth. By recognizing the relative importance of the truths we hold, we are better able to maintain the bond in unity in love.

In essential things unity
In non-essential things tolerance
In all things charity

1 This essay is a preliminary and unedited draft of a chapter in a forthcoming book; see prefatory remarks for data.

2 Theological Introduction or Prolegomena is a field of study akin in to OT Introduction and NT Introduction. In this case introduction does not mean easy, but rather preliminary issues that must be understood before looking at any system of doctrine.

3 Millard Erickson explicitly recognizes this raising of the virgin birth to touchstone status as an apologetic ploy, and that the virgin birth is not absolutely necessary for maintaining the reality of the incarnation. It is in his understanding probably a second level doctrine, i.e. not necessary for salvation. Christian Theology 2nd ed, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998) 757-760, 772.

4 These vowel points were not added until the medieval period by the Masoretes because Hebrew had ceased to be a spoken language and there was a danger that the Jews would forget how to pronounce the text of the Hebrew scriptures .

5 The point here is not to attack or defend the doctrine of inerrancy, but merely to show how and why it achieved its central position among American evangelicals.

6 The 1970’s saw a renewal of the inerrancy controversy that had raged during the late 19th and early 20th century. The inerrancy controversy of the 1970’s and 80’s was an in-house fight among evangelicals who both asserted the characteristic essentials: “. . . conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorites that is the basis of Evangelicalism” (David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989], 3.) Traditionalists insisted upon the adequacy and authority of the formulations made in the late nineteenth century, while the opponents raised numerous objections to the doctrine based upon epistemology, linguistics, history, and the phenomena of the text.

7 We recognize with the historic Protestant tradition that sola scriptura means that scripture is the ultimate authority, not the only authority, a position that Donald Bloesch labels nuda scriptura (Theology of Word and Spirit, [Downers Grove: IVP, 1992] 193).

8 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom I, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977) 7.

9 Ibid.

10 Hubert Cunliffe-Jones (ed), A History of Christian Doctrine (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 19-20.

11 Alister McGrath, Studies in Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) 408-436. McGrath is supremely concerned about the communication of doctrine to generations unfamiliar with the categories of scripture and of the Reformation.

12 Cited by Millard Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed., 758.

13 To be sure these “truths” have been taught in other times and places, but the fact that Simpson experienced physical healing and had a crisis spiritual experience of the holiness variety that he identified as “sanctification” led to these doctrines being elevated to touchstone status in the denomination.

14 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 83-34.

15 See Chapter 00

16 Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990) 35-80.

17 Ibid, 60.

18 It is at this point particularly that we see the epistemological/philosophical substructure of the theologian affecting the Gestalt of the doctrine articulated.

19 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 61.

20 Ibid, 64.

21 Ibid, 55.

22 Ibid, 56.

23 Ibid, 55.

24 This stress on the objective nature of the Faith has led to the charge that Princeton was rationalistic in its approach to Christianity. Numerous historians and theologians have contended that the Princetonians compartmentalized faith and life. For example, C. R. Jeschke states of the Princetonians:

The strict compartmentalization of formal theology and the life of piety that came to prevail at Princeton reflected in part the growing irrelevance of traditional modes of thought and inherited statements of faith for the needs of the church in a rapidly changing world. The fact that Hodge and his colleagues, like most of their contemporaries, were unaware of the sickness in the theological body, only permitted the condition to worsen, and heightened the reaction of the patient to the cure, when its true condition was finally diagnosed. (“The Briggs Case: The Focus of a Study in Nineteenth Century Presbyterian History” [Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1966], p. 56.)

Andrew Hoffecker has challenged this perception of the Princetonians, contending that those who make such assertions ignore the wealth of devotional material left by Alexander, Charles Hodge and Warfield (Piety and the Princeton Theologians, [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981]). Despite Hoffecker’s defense of the Princetonians themselves, it is not too much to say that many even among the Old School read only the theological material of the Princetonians. This fact contributed to a cold creedal orthodoxy among a significant contingent of the Old School with its stress on pure doctrine. Even the great Greek grammarian Basil Gildersleeve, himself a Princeton graduate, decried the “baleful influence of Princeton” stating that there was from there “very little hope of a generous vivifying force” (Letter from Gildersleeve to Charles Augustus Briggs, Briggs Transcripts 5:470 located at Union Seminary Library, New York)..

25 Charles Hodge, as representative of the Princetonian position, displayed a great antipathy for any emphasis on the subjective nature of Christianity. At one point he stated: “The idea that Christianity is a form of feeling, a life, and not a system of doctrines is contrary to the faith of all Christians. Christianity always has a creed. A man who believes certain doctrines is a Christian.” (Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 29:693.)

26 See chapter 2 for the inadequacies of this presumption.

27 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 66.

28 Ibid, 66.

29 See Sue Patterson, Realist Christian Theology in a Post-modern Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 73-93. In this chapter entitled “The anatomy of language riddenness” she explores the way in which language actually creates and shapes our world.

30 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 67-68.

31 C. S. Lewis, Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 4-5.

32 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 69.

33 C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 133..

34 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine 70.

35 Quoted by McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 70.

36 See chapter 2, p. 00.

37 See chapter 2 p. 00. Thomas Kuhn’s classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, deals at length with the interpretation of data and how that it is given meaning within a framework. Only when data accumulates over a period of time which will not fit the framework do new understandings arise.

38 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 71.

39 Ibid., 73.

40 See Chapter 00 for a further discussion.

41 See M. James Sawyer, Charles Augustus Briggs and Tensions in Late Nineteenth Century American Theology (Lewiston, New York: Mellen University Press, 1994), 27-33.

42 Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed., 82-83.

43 Ibid., 82.

44 Vincent of Lerins, 000.

45 While most evangelicals intuitively side with Nestorius on the question of Theotokos vs. Christotokos there are important theological issues here cutting to the very heart of the incarnation. Protestant theologians from the Reformers to the 20th century have insisted that Mary is indeed Theotokos . For example Zwingli declared: “the Virgin should be called the Mother of God, Theotokos.” (An Exposition of the Fait, LCC XXIV, 256) Luther too concurred with this opinion. Calvin takes a whole paragraph in the Institutes defending the doctrine of Mary as Theotokos (2:14:4). In the twentieth century Karl Barth noted that it is “a test of the proper understanding of the incarnation” that “we do not reject the description of Mary as ‘mother of God’“ (Barth, CD I/2:138). The logic of the Theotokos designation is given by John of Damascus: “For as he who is born of her is true God, so she is truly Mother of God.” (John of Damascus, OF III.12, FC 37, 292.) The Council of Ephesus affirmed that this designation as Mother of God was “according to his human nature” but not “according to the divine nature.” Oden has summarized the significance of the title: Theotokos “does not mean that the nature of the Word or of his divinity received the beginning of its existence from the Holy Virgin, but that since the holy body, animated by a rational soul, which the Word united to Himself according to the hypostasis, was born from her, the Word was born according to the flesh” (Tomas Oden, The Word of Life (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989), 157.

46 For an excellent discussion of the implications of Nestorianism see C. FitzSimmons Allison, The Cruelty of Heresy (Harrisburg, PA: Moorehouse Publishing, 1994) 119-138.

47 See Appendix, p. 000 for the text of the creed.

48 The difference between a creed and confession is significant in that a creed is affirmed by all of Christendom whereas a confession is limited to a particular tradition.

49 See M. James Sawyer, “Evangelicals and the Canon of the New Testament” Grace Journal of Theology 11:1 (1990) 00.

50 This section addresses the question of taxonomy from the perspective of the work of the exegete and is drawn from unpublished work done by Daniel B. Wallace. Grant Osborne, too, discusses this topic in The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: IVP, 1991), 286-317.

51 I am using the term postmodern term “local narrative” here not in the more conventional sense of geographically or culturally local, but in the sense of a theological system/tradition that conceptualizes Christianity in a peculiar fashion and which those within that tradition tend to globalize as the one right understanding.

52 For the purposes of discussion, fringe groups and liberal Christianity are not in view here since both of these groups actively deny crucial elements of the historic faith. Even non-creedal groups such as the Baptists agree with the doctrines taught by the ecumenical creeds while not generally accepting the authority of the creeds themselves.

53 Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: IVP, 1991) 299-309.

54 Ibid., 307.

55 See here Vern Poythress, Symphonic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987) for an excellent discussion about issues surrounding the questions of system building and organizing principles.

56 See Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, volume 1, p. 3-11. Schaff’s discussion focuses upon the development of creeds in the life of the church. Systematic theology in this sense is a further extention of the theologizing found in the creeds of the church.

57 See B. B Warfield, “The Idea of Systematic Theology.” In The Necessity of Systematic Theology, John Jefferson Davis (ed.) (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978). Even as he insists on the objectivity of the facts of divine revelation, Warfield’s whole argument hinges upon the idea that theology is a science as geology or other natural sciences areas a sciences. It is the work of man to collect, to organize and to show the organic relationship of the data, integrating it into a concatenated whole. See also Vern Poythress, Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), Poythress’ argument is for the perspectival nature of human knowledge a perspectivalism that extends even to biblical and theological study. Implicit in his argument is that human understanding is finite and limited, thus while there may be objective truth in the mind of God, humans cannot attain to it. Therefore no one system of theology can give us ultimate truth. All systems are partial and incomplete.

Related Topics: Theology

Preface to God's Plan

Jesus warned about “straining gnats and swallowing camels” (Matthew 23:24). By this He was referring to a fixation on particular details of the Law, while loosing sight of the broad principles and purposes of the Law. Many of us get “lost in the details of Scripture,” and lose sight of the big picture of what God is doing in this world. We need to understand the details of the Bible in the light of the eternal “plan” which God is carrying out in history.

This series is dedicated to a study of this eternal plan, as it relates to time, to man, to Israel, to the Gentiles, to Jesus Christ, to Satan, and to us today. It is my hope that this study will help you to put today’s events into an eternal perspective.

The material in these sermons is available without charge for your personal study and to assist you in living, teaching and preaching God’s Word.

Related Topics: Man (Anthropology), Theology Proper (God)

The Trinity (Triunity) of God

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Because the word trinity is never found in the Bible some wonder about whether this is a biblical doctrine or not, but the absence of a term used to describe a doctrine does not necessarily mean the term is not biblical. The issue is, does the term accurately reflect what the Scripture teaches? In reality, due to the incomprehensible nature of the truth this term reflects, some believe it is a poor word to describe exactly what the Bible teaches us about this truth concerning God. When anyone studies a doctrine like this, reads about it in a theology book, or in an article like this one, it may appear that the writer is saying, “Here are the doctrines we believe, and this is what you must believe, so believe them!” But as Ryrie points out, “If that’s the case it is only because you are looking at the results of someone’s study, not the process”1 that led to their position on a particular doctrine.

The goal is to investigate the facts of Scripture so one can see from the process of investigation presented in this study just what the Bible teaches us about how God exists. Historically, the church has believed that He exists in Holy Trinity or Triunity. The tri-personality of God is exclusively a Christian doctrine and a truth of Scripture. It is this doctrine that will be investigated in what follows. Our purpose, then, is to demonstrate that the doctrine of the trinity (triunity) of the Godhead is another biblical revelation that teaches us more about the nature of God or how He exists. The Bible teaches us that God not only exists as a personal Spirit being, but that He does so in Holy Trinity.

The Nature
of this Revelation About God

Before we investigate the facts of Scripture, I want to begin by pointing out that this is a doctrine beyond the scope of man’s finite mind. It lies outside the realm of natural reason or human logic. The late Dr. Walter Martin points out:

No man can fully explain the Trinity, though in every age scholars have propounded theories and advanced hypotheses to explore this mysterious Biblical teaching. But despite the worthy efforts of these scholars, the Trinity is still largely incomprehensible to the mind of man.

Perhaps the chief reason for this is that the Trinity is a-logical, or beyond logic. It, therefore, cannot be made subject to human reason or logic. Because of this, opponents of the doctrine argue that the idea of the Trinity must be rejected as untenable. Such thinking, however, makes man’s corrupted human reason the sole criterion for determining the truth of divine revelation.2

So what’s the issue that faces us? The ultimate issue as always is, does the biblical evidence support the doctrine of the Trinity or tri-personality of God? If biblical evidence supports it, we can know it is true. Comprehending it is another matter. John Wesley said, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the triune God.”3

We should not be bothered by this fact. Why? Because God’s Word tells us that we should expect His revelation, the revelation of an infinite, omniscient, all-wise Creator, to contain an infinite depth that corresponds to His infinite mind. In Isaiah, God tells us about this and says:

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Kenneth Boa has an excellent word here concerning the concept of God’s thoughts being higher than ours:

It follows from all this that we cannot and should not expect to understand the Bible exhaustively. If we could, the Bible would not be divine but limited to human intelligence. A very important idea comes out of this, something over which many non-Christians and even Christians stumble: Since the Bible is an infinite revelation, it often brings the reader beyond the limit of his intelligence.

As simple as the Bible is in its message of sin and of free salvation in Christ, an incredible subtlety and profundity underlies all its doctrines. Even a child can receive Christ as his Savior, thereby appropriating the free gift of eternal life. Yet no philosopher has more than scratched the surface regarding the things that happened at the Cross. The Bible forces any reader to crash into the ceiling of his own comprehension, beyond which he cannot go until he sees the Lord face-to-face.

Until a person recognizes that his own wisdom and intelligence are not enough, he is not ready to listen to God’s greater wisdom. Jesus alluded to this when He said to God, “you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Luke 10:21).4

God has communicated to men truly though not exhaustively. Moses expressed this to us in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.”

An understanding of the way the Greek word mystery was used in the New Testament may help us here. It is the Greek word musterion and refers to what was previously hidden, but is now revealed to us through the revelation of the Word (1 Cor. 15:51; Eph. 3:3, 4, 9). Sometimes it is used simply of that which God makes known through His revelation to man which man could not know on his own (1 Cor. 2:7). But there is a sense in which some of God’s truth, though clearly revealed in the Bible, remains a mystery. Though it is a truth revealed in Scripture, like the doctrine of the incarnation of the Son of God or the divine/human nature of Jesus Christ, the Trinity is a kind of mystery in that it goes beyond the boundaries of human comprehension. God hasn’t explained all the mysteries of His revelation to us undoubtedly because we simply cannot yet grasp them.

The Apostle Paul wrote: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

A city like Corinth, famous for its bronze mirrors, would have particularly appreciated Paul’s final illustration. The perfection and imperfection mentioned in verse 10 were deftly likened to the contrasting images obtained by the indirect reflection of one’s face viewed in a bronze mirror and the same face when viewed directly. Such, Paul said, was the contrast between the imperfect time in which he then wrote and the perfect time which awaited him and the church when the partial reflection of the present would give way to the splendor of perfect vision. Then Paul would see God (cf. 15:28; 1 John 3:2) as God now saw Paul. Then partial knowledge (cf. 1 Cor. 8:1-3) would be displaced by the perfect knowledge of God.5

Because of our limited capacity in this life, some of the revelations of God given to us in the Bible defy explanation and illustration. When seeking to explain those truths that fall into this category, our explanations and especially our attempts to illustrate them must of necessity fall short of our ability to clarify and comprehend them.

Does this mean a doctrine cannot be true simply because it defies our human imagination or ability to comprehend it? The answer is, of course not. It would be nothing short of human arrogance to say it was. The truth is, we must recognize our need to simply trust in God’s special revelation to us, the Bible, and submit our minds to that teaching which is truly expressed in its pages. This does not mean we do not test the Scripture to make sure these things are truly taught, but once we are convinced that that is what the Bible says, we must lay hold of it by faith and wait on the eternal future for complete understanding.

It would be the height of egotism for a person to say that because an idea in the Bible does not make sense (does not conform to his or her reasoning), it cannot be true and the Bible must be in error on this point.6

The doctrine of the trinity or triunity is part of God’s revelation of One who is infinite to those who are finite. So again we must ask, doesn’t it seem logical that in our study about God we are going to find things that are incomprehensible, mysterious, and super-rational to finite man’s rational thinking capacity? So, let’s understand from the beginning of this study, “God in His existence as the Three-in-One is beyond the limits of human comprehension.”7

There is another important issue about the nature of this revelation in Scripture. We need to think a moment about the words, explicit and implicit for these two words are important to rightly understanding what Scripture teaches about this doctrine. Explicit means “fully and clearly expressed; leaving nothing implied; fully and clearly defined or formulated.” Implicit means “implied or understood, though not directly expressed.”

Ryrie writes:

Trinity is, of course, not a biblical word. Neither are triunity, trine, trinal, subsistence, nor essence. Yet we employ them, and often helpfully, in trying to express this doctrine which is so fraught with difficulties. Furthermore, this is a doctrine which in the New Testament is not explicit even though it is often said that it is implicit in the Old and explicit in the New. But explicit means “characterized by full, clear expression,” an adjective hard to apply to this doctrine. Nevertheless, the doctrine grows out of the Scriptures, so it is a biblical teaching.8

Historical Background

Though the Bible taught truth of the Triunity of God implicitly in both Old and New Testaments, the development and delineation of this doctrine was brought about by the rise of heretical groups or teachers who either denied the deity of Christ or that of the Holy Spirit. This caused the early church to formally crystallize the doctrine of the Triunity. Actually, Tertullian in 215 A.D. was the first one to state this doctrine using the term, Trinity.9 Concerning the struggle the early church went through, Walter Martin writes:

As the New Testament was completed toward the close of the first century, the infant church was struggling for its life against old foes—persecution and doctrinal error. On the one hand were the Roman empire, orthodox Judaism, and hostile pagan religions, and on the other hand were heresies and divisive doctrines. Early Christianity was indeed a perilous experiment.

Probably no doctrine was the subject of more controversy in the early church than that of the Trinity. Certainly the teaching of “one God in three Person” was accepted in the early church, but only as this teaching was challenged did a systematic doctrine of the Trinity emerge.

The Gnostic heresy, for instance, (which permeated Christendom in the lifetime of the apostles) drew strong condemnation in Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and John’s First Epistle. Denying the deity of Christ, the Gnostics taught that he was inferior in nature to the Father, a type of super-angel of impersonal emanation from God.

Following the Gnostics came such speculative theologians as Origen, Lucian of Antioch, Paul of Samosota, Sabellius, and Arius of Alexandria. All of these propagated unbiblical views of the Trinity and of the divinity of our Lord.

But perhaps the most crucial test of Christian doctrine in the early church was the “Arian heresy.” It was this heresy which stimulated the crystallization of thought regarding both the Trinity and the deity of Christ … 

Today there are still remnants of the Gnostic heresy (Christian Science), the Arian heresy (Jehovah’s Witnesses), and the Socinian heresy (Unitarianism) circulating in Christendom. All of these errors have one thing in common—they give Christ every title except the one which entitles Him to all the rest—the title of God and Savior.

But the Christian doctrine of the Trinity did not “begin” at the Council of Nicea, nor was it derived from “pagan influences.” While Egyptian, Chaldean, Hindu, and other pagan religions do incorporate so-called “trinities,” these have no resemblance to the Christian doctrine, which is unique and free from any heathen cultural vagaries … 10

The point, then, is simply this: While the term Trinity is never specifically used nor the doctrine explicitly explained in Scripture, it is nevertheless implicitly stated. The church councils, in their fight against heresy, were forced to think through what the Bible says about how God exists. The result was the doctrine of the Triunity, but let it be emphasized, the development of this doctrine was based on a careful study of Scripture.

Cairns discusses this time of theological controversy in the early church and the extreme care given to this issue:

It was an era when the main dogmas of the Christian Church were developed. The unfavorable connotation conveyed by the word “dogma” in a day of doctrinal laxity, such as the present, should not obscure the value to the Church of dogma. The word “dogma” came through the Latin from the Greek word dogma, which was derived from the verb dodeo. This word meant to think. The dogmas or doctrines formulated in this period were the result of intense thought and searching of the soul in order to interpret correctly the meaning of the Scriptures on the disputed points and to avoid the erroneous opinions (doxai) of the philosophers.11

Finally, it should be said that,

… the doctrine of the Trinity is the distinctive mark of the Christian religion, setting it apart from all the other religions of the world. Working without the benefit of the revelations made in Scripture, men have, it is true, arrived at some limited truths concerning the nature and Person of God. The pagan religions, as well as all philosophical speculations, are based on natural religion and can, therefore, rise to no higher conception than that of the unity of God. In some systems we find monotheism with its belief in only one God. In others we find polytheism with its belief in many separate gods. But none of the pagan religions, nor any of the systems of speculative philosophy have ever arrived at a trinitarian conception of God. The fact of the matter is that apart from supernatural revelation there is nothing in human consciousness or experience which can give man the slightest clue to the distinctive God of the Christian faith, the triune, incarnate, redeeming, sanctifying God. Some of the pagan religions have set forth triads of divinities, such as, for instance, the Egyptian triad of Osiris, Isis and Horus, which is somewhat analogous to the human family with father, mother and child; or the Hindu triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Schiva, which in the cycle of pantheistic evolution personifies the creative, preservative and destructive power of nature; or the triad set forth by Plato, of goodness, intellect and will—which are not examples of true and proper tri-personality, not real persons who can be addressed and worshipped, but only personifications of the faculties or attributes of God. None of these systems have anything in common with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity except the notion of “threeness.”12

Before we investigate the evidence for the Trinity, let’s define it and then study the evidence.

Definition of the
Trinity (Triunity) of God

Trinity: Webster’s dictionary gives the following definition of trinity: “The union of three divine persons (or hypostases), the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in one divinity, so that all the three are one God as to substance, but three Persons (or hypostases as to individuality).” Synonyms sometimes used are triunity, trine, triality. The term “trinity” is formed from “tri,” three, and “nity,” unity. Triunity is a better term than “trinity” because it better expresses the idea of three in one. God is three in one. Hypostases is the plural of hypostasis which means “the substance, the underlying reality, or essence.”

Ryrie writes:

A definition of the Trinity is not easy to construct. Some are done by stating several propositions. Others err on the side either of oneness or threeness. One of the best is Warfield’s: “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.”13

Person: In speaking of the Triunity, the term “person” is not used in same way it is in ordinary usage in which it means an identity completely distinct from other persons. Actually the word persons tends to detract from the unity of the Trinity. According to the teaching of Scripture, the three Persons are inseparable, interdependent, and eternally united in one Divine Being.

It is evident that the word “person” is not ideal for the purpose. Orthodox writers have struggled over this term. Some have opted for the term subsistence (the mode or quality of existence), hence, “God has three substances.” Most have continued to use persons because we have not been able to find a better term. “The word substance speaks of God’s essential nature or being and subsistence describes His mode or quality of existence.”14

Essence: In its theological usage, essence refers to “the intrinsic or indispensable, permanent, and inseparable qualities that characterize or identify the being of God.” The words triunity and trinity are used to refer to the fact that the Bible speaks of one God, but attributes the characteristics of God to three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the trinity states that there is one God who is one in essence or substance, but three in personality. This does not mean three independent Gods existing as one, but three Persons who are co-equal, co-eternal, inseparable, interdependent, and eternally united in one absolute Divine Essence and Being.

Typically, the words triunity and trinity are used to help us express a doctrine that is scriptural, though replete with difficulties for the human mind. Again, it needs to be emphasized that this is a doctrine that is not explicitly stated either in the Old or New Testaments, but it is implicit in both. Note the following points:

(1) Evangelical Christianity has believed in the doctrine of the Trinity, Triunity, or the Triune Godhead because of the teaching of the Bible as a whole (Old and New Testaments) and not because of one or two particular passages. As will be shown below, the whole of Scripture gives testimony to this doctrine.

(2) There are many specific passages which teach us there are three distinct Persons who possess deity, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, but the Bible also teaches us with equal emphasis that there is but one true God or one Divine Essence or Substance and Being.

(3) Taking the whole of Scripture, one can see that there is stress on: (a) the unity of God, one Divine Being and Essence, and (b) on the diversity of God in this unity, three Persons identified as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It speaks of these Persons in such a way that it ascribes absolute undiminished deity and personality to each while stressing that there is but one God in divine substance. It is the doctrine of the trinity that harmonizes and explains these two thrusts of Scripture—oneness in three personalities.

When we see that the Bible teaches these three things: (a) there is but one God, (b) that the Father, Son, and Spirit are each God, and (c) that each is set forth as distinct Persons, we have enunciated the doctrine of the Triunity of God. In a chart, it can be expressed as follows:

Ancient Diagram of the Holy Trinity

The three Persons are the same in substance, i.e., in essence or in their essential nature, but distinct in subsistence which describes God’s mode or quality of existence in three Persons. By mode of existence we do not mean one God acting in three different ways, but one Divine Being existing in three distinct Persons within one Divine Substance or Essence. Again, this is not exactly three individuals as we think of three personal individuals, but one Divine Being who acts and thinks as one within a three-fold personality. This is incomprehensible to our finite and limited minds, but it is the teaching of the Scripture. “In the Being of God there are not three individuals, but only three personal self distinctions within the one Divine Essence.”15

Recognizable and Important Distinctions

The New Bible Dictionary has an excellent summary of this point:

In the relationship between the Persons there are recognizable distinctions.

a. Unity in diversity

In most formularies the doctrine is stated by saying that God is One in his essential being, but that in his being there are three Persons, yet so as not to form separate and distinct individuals. They are three modes or forms in which the divine essence exists. ‘Person’ is, however, an imperfect expression of the truth inasmuch as the term denotes to us a separate rational and moral individual. But in the being of God there are not three individuals, but three personal self-distinctions within the one divine essence [italics mine]. Then again, personality in man implies independence of will, actions and feelings leading to behavior peculiar to the person. This cannot be thought of in connection with the Trinity. Each Person is self-conscious and self-directing, yet never acting independently or in opposition. When we say that God is a Unity we mean that, though God is in himself a threefold centre of life, his life is not split into three. He is one in essence, in personality and in will. When we say that God is a Trinity in Unity, we mean that there is a unity in diversity, and that the diversity manifests itself in Persons, in characteristics and in operations.

b. Equality in dignity

There is perfect equality in nature, honour and dignity between the Persons. Fatherhood belongs to the very essence of the first Person and it was so from all eternity. It is a personal property of God ‘from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named’ (Eph. 3:15).

The Son is called the ‘only begotten’ perhaps to suggest uniqueness rather than derivation. Christ always claimed for himself a unique relationship to God as Father, and the Jews who listened to him apparently had no illusions about his claims. Indeed they sought to kill him because he ‘called God his own Father, making himself equal with God’ (Jn. 5:18).

The Spirit is revealed as the One who alone knows the depths of God’s nature: ‘For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God … No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God’ (1 Cor. 2:10f.). This is saying that the Spirit is ‘just God himself in the innermost essence of his being.’

This puts the seal of NT teaching upon the doctrine of the equality of the three Persons.

c. Diversity in operation

In the functions ascribed to each of the Persons in the Godhead, especially in man’s redemption, it is clear that a certain degree of subordination is involved (in relation, though not in nature); the Father first, the Son second, the Spirit third. The Father works through the Son by the Spirit. Thus Christ can say: ‘My Father is greater than I.’ As the Son is sent by the Father, so the Spirit is sent by the Son. As it was the Son’s office to reveal the Father, so it is the Spirit’s office to reveal the Son, as Christ testified: ‘He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you’ (Jn. 16:14).

It has to be recognized that the doctrine arose as the spontaneous expression of the Christian experience. The early Christians knew themselves to be reconciled to God the Father, and that the reconciliation was secured for them by the atoning work of the Son, and that it was mediated to them as an experience by the Holy Spirit. Thus the Trinity was to them a fact before it became a doctrine, but in order to preserve it in the credal faith of the church the doctrine had to be formulated.16

Errors to Avoid
Concerning the Trinity

Tri-theism. This is the teaching that there are three Gods who are sometimes related, but only in a loose association. Such an approach, abandons the biblical oneness of God and the unity within the Trinity.

Sabellianism or Modalism. Sabellius (A.D. 200), the originator of this viewpoint, spoke of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but he understood all three as no more than three manifestations of one God. This teaching came to be known as modalism because it views one God who variously manifests Himself in three modes of existence: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Arianism. This doctrine had it roots in Tertullian, who made the Son subordinate to the Father. Origen took this further by teaching that the Son was subordinate to the Father “in respect to essence.” The result was ultimately Arianism which denied the deity of Christ. Arius taught that only God was the uncreated One; because Christ was begotten of the Father it meant Christ was created by the Father. Arius believed there was a time when Christ did not exist. Arius and his teaching was condemned at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325.17

Biblical Support for the Trinity

Since the Trinity involves the key aspects of oneness and threeness, support for this doctrine will be dependent on the discovery of these two aspects in Scripture as it reveals how God exists.

Scriptures on the Oneness of God

Old Testament Scriptures

(1) Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!”

Verse 4 is subject to various translations, though the statement is likely stressing the uniqueness of Yahweh and should be translated, “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.”

However, there is also a secondary emphasis—The Lord’s indivisibility. This is apparent in most English translations. This confession clearly prepares the way for the later revelation of the Trinity, but how? “God” (Elohim) is a plural word, and the word one (the Hebrew, echad) refers to one in a collective sense. As such, it is used of the union of Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:24) to describe two persons in one flesh. Further, it is used in a collective sense, like one cluster of grapes rather than in an absolute sense as in Numbers 13:23 when the spies brought back a single cluster of grapes. Furthermore, the oneness of God is implied in those Old Testament passages that declare that there is no other God beside Yahweh, the God of Israel.

(2) Deuteronomy 4:35 “To you it was shown that you might know that the LORD, He is God; there is no other besides Him.”

(3) Isaiah 46:9 “Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me.”

(4) Isaiah 43:10 “You are My witnesses,” declares the LORD, “And My servant whom I have chosen, In order that you may know and believe Me, And understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, And there will be none after Me.”

The New Testament is even more explicit:

(5) 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 “Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.”

(6) Ephesians 4:4-6 “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.”

(7) James 2:19 “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.”

Scriptures Demonstrating
God, Who is One, is Also Three

Old Testament Scriptures

While there is no explicit statement in the Old Testament affirming the Triunity, we can confidently say that the Old Testament not only allows for the Triunity, but also implies that God is a triune Being in a number of ways:

(1) The name Elohim, translated God, is the plural form of El. While this is what is called a plural of plenitude pointing to the power and majesty of God, it certainly allows for the New Testament revelation of the Triunity of God.

(2) There are many instances where God uses the plural pronoun to describe Himself (see Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8).

(3) In the creation account, both God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are seen in the work of creation. It is stated that God created heaven and earth (Gen. 1:1), but that it was the Holy Spirit who moved over the earth to infuse it with life in the sense of protecting and participating in the work of creation (Gen. 1:2).

(4) Writing about the Messiah, Isaiah reveals Him to be equal with God, calling Him the “Mighty God” and “Eternal Father” (Isa. 9:6).

(5) Several passages reveal a distinction of Persons within the Godhead.

  • In Psalm 110:1, David demonstrates there is a distinction of Persons between “LORD,” the one speaking, and the one addressed called by David, “my Lord.” David was indicating the Messiah was no ordinary king, but his own Lord, Adoni (my Lord), one who was God Himself. So God the first Person addresses God the second Person. This is precisely Peter’s point when He quotes this Psalm to show the resurrection of the Messiah was anticipated in the Old Testament.
  • The Redeemer (who must be divine, Isa. 7:14; 9:6) is distinguished from the Lord (Isa. 59:20).
  • The Lord is distinguished from the Lord in Hosea 1:6-7. The one speaking here is Yahweh, the Lord, yet, note the statement in verse 7, “I will have compassion … and deliver them by the Lord their God.”
  • The Spirit is distinguished from the Lord in a number of passages (Isa. 48:16; 59:21; 63:9-10).

(6) In the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, God made it clear that the One who would be born of the virgin would also be Immanuel, God with us.

(7) Two other passages which imply the Trinity are Isaiah 48:16 and 61:1. In Isaiah 48:16 all three Persons are mentioned and yet seen as distinct from each other. See also Gen. 22:15-16.

New Testament Scriptures

The case for the Triunity of God is even stronger in the New Testament. Here it can be unequivocally demonstrated the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. Furthermore, the New Testament teaches us that these three names are not synonymous, but speak of three distinct and equal Persons.

(1) The Father is called God (John 6:27; 20:17; 1 Cor. 8:6; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 4:6; Phil. 2:11; 1 Pet. 1:2).

(2) Jesus Christ, the Son is declared to be God. His deity is proven by the divine names given to Him, by His works that only God could do (upholding all things, Col. 1:17; creation, Col. 1:16, John 1:3; and future judgment, John 5:27), by His divine attributes (eternality, John 17:5; omnipresence, Matt. 28:20; omnipotence, Heb. 1:3; omniscience, Matt. 9:4), and by explicit statements declaring His deity (John 1:1; 20:28; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8).

(3) The Holy Spirit is recognized as God. By comparing Peter’s comments in Acts 5:3 and 4, we see that in lying to the Holy Spirit (vs. 3), Ananias was lying to God (vs. 4). He has the attributes which only God can possess like omniscience (1 Cor. 2:10) and omnipresence (1 Cor. 6:19), and He regenerates people to new life (John 3:5-6, 8; Tit. 3:5), which must of necessity be a work of God for only God has the power of life. Finally, His deity is evident by the divine names used for the Spirit as “the Spirit of our God,” (1 Cor. 6:11), which should be understood as “the Spirit, who is our God.”

Ryrie writes: “Matthew 28:19 best states both the oneness and threeness by associating equally the three Persons and uniting them in one singular name. Other passages like Matthew 3:16-17 and 2 Corinthians 13:14 associate equally the three Persons but do not contain the strong emphasis on unity as does Matthew 28:19.”18

The New Bible Dictionary, adds to this the following evidence:

The evidence of the NT writings, apart from the Gospels, is sufficient to show that Christ had instructed his disciples on this doctrine to a greater extent than is recorded by any of the four Evangelists. They whole-heartedly proclaim the doctrine of the Trinity as the threefold source of redemption. The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost brought the personality of the Spirit into greater prominence and at the same time shed light anew from the Spirit upon the Son. Peter, in explaining the phenomenon of Pentecost, represents it as the activity of the Trinity: ‘This Jesus … being … exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear’ (Acts 2:32-33). So the church of Pentecost was founded on the doctrine of the Trinity.

In 1 Cor. there is mention of the gifts of the Spirit, the varieties of service for the same Lord and the inspiration of the same God for the work (1 Cor. 12:4-6).

Peter traces salvation to the same triunal source: ‘destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ’ (1 Pet. 1:2). The apostolic benediction: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all’ (2 Cor. 13:14), not only sums up the apostolic teaching, but interprets the deeper meaning of the Trinity in Christian experience, the saving grace of the Son giving access to the love of the Father and to the communion of the Spirit.

What is amazing, however, is that this confession of God as One in Three took place without struggle and without controversy by a people indoctrinated for centuries in the faith of the one God, and that in entering the Christian church they were not conscious of any break with their ancient faith.19

From the above evidence, it should be clear that the Scripture teaches God is one and three.

Difficulties With the
Trinity Considered and Answered

The Meaning of “Only-begotten”

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:18 No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.

In John 1:18, the King James Version has huios, “Son,” in place of theos, “God,” and reads, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.”

Because to our mind the words “only begotten” suggest birth or beginning, some have tried to take the use of this designation of Jesus Christ to mean that Christ had a beginning, that He only became the Son of God. Such an understanding denies His eternality and also the concept of the trinity. So what does John mean by the term “only begotten?”

“Only begotten” is the Greek monogenes, a compound of monos, used as an adjective or adverb meaning “alone, only.” Kittel writes: “In compounds with genes, adverbs describe the nature rather than the source of derivation (emphasis mine). Hence monogenes is used for the only child. More generally it means ‘unique’ or ‘incomparable.’”20 In the New Testament the term occurs only in Luke, John, and Hebrews, but an instructive use is found for us in Hebrews 11:17 where it is used of Isaac as the monogenes of Abraham. Isaac was not the only Son of the Patriarch, but he was the unique son of the promise of God. The emphasis is not on derivation but on his uniqueness and special place in the heart of Abraham.

Vine has an excellent summary of the use of monogenes in John 1:14 and 18:

With reference to Christ, the phrase “the only begotten from the Father,” John 1:14, R.V. (see also the marg.), indicates that as the Son of God He was the sole representative of the Being and character of the One who sent Him. In the original the definite article is omitted both before “only begotten” and before “Father,” and its absence in each case serves to lay stress upon the characteristics referred to in the terms used. The Apostle’s object is to demonstrate what sort of glory it was that he and his fellow Apostles had seen. That he is not merely making a comparison with earthly relationships is indicated by para, “from.” The glory was that of a unique relationship and the word “begotten” does not imply a beginning of His Sonship. It suggests relationship indeed, but must be distinguished from generation as applied to man.

We can only rightly understand the term “the only begotten” when used of the Son, in the sense of unoriginated relationship. “The begetting is not an event of time, however remote, but a fact irrespective of time. The Christ did not become, but necessarily and eternally is the Son. He, a Person, possesses every attribute of pure Godhood. This necessitates eternity, absolute being; in this respect He is not ‘after’ the Father” (Moule).

In John 1:18 the clause “The Only Begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father,” expresses both His eternal union with the Father in the Godhead and the ineffable intimacy and love between them, the Son sharing all the Father’s counsels and enjoying all His affections. Another reading is monogenes Theos, ‘God only-begotten.’ In John 3:16 the statement, “God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son,” must not be taken to mean that Christ became the Only Begotten Son by Incarnation. The value and the greatness of the gift lay in the Sonship of Him who was given. His Sonship was not the effect of His being given. In John 3:18 the phrase “the Name of the Only Begotten Son of God” lays stress upon the full revelation of God’s character and will, His love and grace, as conveyed in the Name of One who, being in a unique relationship to Him, was provided by Him as the Object of faith. In 1 John 4:9 the statement “God hath sent His Only Begotten Son into the world” does not mean that God sent out into the world one who at His birth in Bethlehem had become His Son. Cp. the parallel statement, “God sent forth the Spirit of His Son,” Gal. 4:6, R.V., which could not mean that God sent forth One who became His Spirit when He sent Him.21

The Meaning of “First-born”

Another term that has been misinterpreted by some as it is used of Christ is the term “firstborn.” It is used of Christ in Romans 8:29; Colossians 1:15, 18; Hebrews 1:6; and Revelation 1:5. Again, because of the thought of birth that this word denotes in our minds, this passage has been used to teach that Christ was not the eternal second Person of the Trinity because He had a beginning as the firstborn of God. “Firstborn” is the Greek prototokos (from protos, first, and tikto, to beget), but this word may mean (a) first in time, or (b) first in priority. The point and focus of the word must be taken from the context in which it is used.

In Colossians 1:15, as verse 16 makes clear, it refers to Christ’s sovereignty expressing His priority to and pre-eminence over creation, not in the sense of time, the first to be born, but in the sense of (a) being the sovereign Creator, the One in Whom were the plans of creation as architect (“by Him all things were created” can also mean, “in Him …”), (b) by Whom all things were created as the builder (“all things were created by Him”), and (c) for Whom all things were created as the owner (“and for Him”). Colossians 1:15 is declaring Christ’s sovereignty as the Creator. We can see this meaning of prototokos to express sovereignty or priority in the Septuagint’s use of this word in Psalm 89:27 where the clause that follows explains the meaning of “firstborn” or prototokos. Psalm 89:27 reads, “I also shall make him My first-born, The highest of the kings of the earth.” Who is the firstborn? He is “the highest of the kings of the earth,” the sovereign Lord.

In the words of Colossians 1:18, “and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead,” it means first in time, the first one to rise in an immortal and glorified body. But even here, He is the first-born of the dead so that He might come to be pre-eminent in all things as the head of the body, the church (vs. 18b). The point is that prototokos can mean either first in time or first in priority and it is the context which determines the meaning. As the second Person of the Trinity, Christ is God and sovereign, but as the God-Man who died for our sins and was raised from the dead, He is the pre-eminent head of the body of Christ, the church. In Colossians 2:9, the Apostle confirmed this meaning when he wrote, “For in Him all the fulness of deity dwells in bodily form.”

The word for “Deity” is theotetos, a strong word (used only here in the NT) for Christ’s essence as God. The full deity of Christ is nonetheless in bodily form—a full humanity (cf. Col. 1:22). Both Christ’s deity and humanity were challenged by this early Gnostic-like heresy. Those heretics diminished Christ to an angel whose “body” was only apparent, not real. Paul affirmed here that Christ is both fully God and truly man (cf. 1 John 4:1-6).22

Practical Ramifications
of the Doctrine of Trinity

All doctrine is practical and has specific ramifications to life. This is no less true of the Triunity of the Godhead which draws our attention to the concept of the tri-fold personality of God. This communicates all the elements of personality—moral agency, intelligence, will, emotion, and communion that exists within the three Persons of the Godhead. What are some of the ramifications of this doctrine not only for theology, but for Christian experience and life?

(1) It teaches us that God is a God of revelation and communion.

Scripture teaches us that God is light, and one of the main functions of light is illumination. The act of revealing is as natural to God as it is for the sun. Before the creation of any being, angel or human, there was revelation and communication taking place within the Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Father to the Son, the Son to the Father, and so on with the Spirit. When, in the eternal decrees of God, He willed to create a universe with angelic and human beings, it was merely the expression of this very nature of God.

So if God is a fellowship within himself he can let that fellowship go out to his creatures and communicate himself to them according to their capacity to receive. This is what happened supremely when he came to redeem men: he let his fellowship bend down to reach outcast man and lift him up. And so because God is a Trinity he has something to share: it is his own life and communion.23

(2) It means that the Trinity is the basis of all true fellowship in the world.

Since God is within himself a fellowship, it means that his moral creatures who are made in his image find fullness of life only within a fellowship. This is reflected in marriage, in the home, in society and above all in the church whose koinonia is built upon the fellowship of the three Persons. Christian fellowship is, therefore, the divinest thing on earth, the earthly counterpart of the divine life, as Christ indeed prayed for his followers: ‘That they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us’ (Jn. 17:21).24

(3) It gives variety to the life of the universe.

There is … diversity in the life of God. God the Father designs, God the Son creates, God the Spirit quickens; a great diversity of life and operation and activity. For that reason we can realize that if the universe is a manifestation of God, we can expect a diversity of life within the whole of the created universe. We think that the so-called uniformity of nature is utterly untrue. All the wonders of creation, all the forms of life, all the movement in the universe, are a reflection, a mirroring, of the manifold life of God. There is no monotonous sameness, no large-scale uniformity of pattern, for nature reflects the many-sidedness of the nature and character of the living God.25

What Are the
Choices Regarding the Trinity?

As in the case of God’s sovereignty and man’s volition (or the God-man mystery), there are three basic responses a person can make concerning the biblical concept of the Trinity. First, historically, men have either ignored it or rejected it as illogical and incompatible with human reason. Second, finding it incompatible with human reason, men have sought to solve the problem by reducing it to their own reason and in the process, they typically gravitated toward one extreme or another maintaining that God is one, or God is three, but He can’t be both. Third, historically and for the most part, the church has accepted it completely by holding both truths (God is three in one, triune) in a proper balance. Based on all the data of the Bible, the church has accepted this doctrine by faith though it is incomprehensible to our finite minds.26

The Problem of the Two Extremes

Any time man elevates his own reason above the clear revelation of Scripture and he is faced with those truths in Scripture that defy his human logic, he usually goes in one of two extremes. For instance, when faced with two truths which seem to contradict each other (e.g., God’s sovereignty and man’s volition, or Christ’s undiminished deity and true humanity in one Person, or God is One and Three), one of two things happens. In his attempt to make the truth harmonize with his reason, he will inevitably move to one extreme or the other. He will accept one (truth A, God is one) either to the neglect of the other or reject it completely (truth B, God a tri-personality), or he will swing to the other side and either minimize or reject truth A and emphasize truth B.

Kenneth Boa has some excellent comments on this issue:

In an effort to water down the doctrine of the triune God many have fallen into error. One such error is unitarianism. This view regards God as only one Person. Since, for most this Person is God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are stripped of their genuine deity. Jesus is reduced to a mere man (“the humble teacher from Nazareth”), and the Holy Spirit is turned into an impersonal force or fluid that emanates from God. The Unitarian-Universalist Church is an example of this extreme.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are essentially unitarian because they deny the deity of Jesus Christ and view the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force (Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1965, p. 47). This new Arianism repudiates the Trinity because it holds it to be unreasonable.

The second extreme is tritheism. This is a variation of polytheism because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are regarded as three separate Gods. Sometimes this is carried a step further into the idea that there are many different gods, some perhaps associated with other worlds or realms. Mormonism is an example of tritheism, for it speaks of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as three distinct Gods (Ibid., p. 178). Mormonism is actually polytheistic since it indicates that there are other gods besides these three.

The only way to avoid these extremes is to accept all the biblical facts in a balanced way. The Trinity cannot be comprehended by the human mind because it is super-rational. Nevertheless, when anyone places his faith in God and the truth of His Word, he finds a satisfaction in this and other difficult areas of revealed truth. There is no need for a continual struggle.27


The doctrine of the trinity is truly beyond human comprehension or the limits of our finite minds, but it is nevertheless a vital truth of the Bible. It is a doctrine that is closely connected to other key doctrines like the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. In fact, our salvation is rooted in the mysterious nature of the Godhead who coexists as three distinct Persons all of whom are involved in our salvation in all its aspects, past, present, and future. It encompasses everything we know and practice as Christians—our sanctification, our fellowship, our prayer life, our Bible study, or our corporate worship. That this is true and a precious truth for us to rest in is evident in Paul’s closing benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14 and in Peter’s salutation and doxology in 1 Peter 1:1-5.

2 Cor. 13:14. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.

1 Peter 1:1-5. Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in fullest measure. 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, 5 who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

May the Lord bless you in your study of His precious Word and in your walk with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

1 Charles C. Ryrie, A Survey of Bible Doctrine, Moody Press, Chicago, 1972, p. 29.

2 Walter Martin, Essential Christianity, Vision House, Santa Anna, 1975, p. 21

3 Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, Assurance Publishers, p. 504.

4 Kenneth Boa, Unraveling the Big Questions About God, Lamplighter Books, p. 12.

5 The Bible Knowledge Commentary, NT, John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, Editors, Victor Books, Electronic Media.

6 Ibid., p. 16.

7 Ibid., p. 42.

8 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL, 1987, electronic media.

9 Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1967, p. 122.

10 Martin, pp. 22-23.

11 Cairns, p. 141.

12 Loraine Boettner, Studies in Theology, The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1976, pp. 80-81.

13 Ryrie, electronic media quoting B.B. Warfield, “Trinity,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, James Orr, ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1930, 5:3012.

14 Boa, p. 46.

15 R. A. Finlayson, “Trinity,” The New Bible Dictionary, Eerdmans, p. 1300.

16 The New Bible Dictionary, Electronic Media, Logos Bible Software.

17 Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, Moody Press, p. 199.

18 Ryrie, Basic Theology, p. 53.

19 The New Bible Dictionary, Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1962, Electronic Media, Logos Bible Software.

20 Kittel, Gerhard, and Friedrich, Gerhard, Editors, The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985.

21 W. E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1981, pp. 140-141.

22 Norman L. Geisler, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament edition, John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, Editors, Victor Books, p. 677.

23 The New Bible Dictionary, Logos Research Systems, Electronic Media.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Boa, p. 50.

27 Boa, pp. 50-51.

Related Topics: Trinity

The Self-Giving Triune God, The Imago Dei And The Nature Of The Local Church: An Ontology Of Mission

Related Media

For many years in Western society, the concept of a Holy Trinity has been one of those doctrines which we affirm to be Christian yet which for many has seemed largely irrelevant. German philosopher Immanuel Kant complained that, “Taken literally, absolutely nothing worthwhile for the practical life can be made out of the doctrine of the Trinity.”2

Today, however, many Christian thinkers are reaffirming the central importance of trinitarian theology for our daily lives. Stimulated in part by Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Catholic and Protestant theologians have produced in the last forty years a significant corpus on the subject. Especially notable are works by Karl Rahner, Eberhard Jüngel, Bernard Lonergan, Bertrand de Margerie, Jürgen Moltmann, Leonardo Boff, Colin Gunton, T. F. Torrance, Catherine LaCugna and Millard Erickson.3 Nearly every theological movement has recently sought in some sense to reflect upon and to reapply the doctrine of Nicea, and this has produced a harvest of literature in biblical, historical and contemporary trinitarian studies. By the early 1990’s, many concurred with Wolfhart Pannenberg’s judgment that the Trinity had become the most important of subjects in current theological discussion.4

As in any faith, one’s understanding of God should significantly define his worldview. It is my belief that the doctrine of the Three-in-One provides a macro-structure of reality that makes sense of life, one that gives a remarkable basis for our perception of ourselves as persons, for our relationships in marriage, family, the local church and community and, in point, the role of the local church in mission.

Nevertheless, many still feel what Kant expressed. At an ordination council in a large evangelical church in So Paulo, Brazil, after a pastoral candidate had floundered completely in trying to answer questions concerning the Godhead, a veteran denominational leader proffered in the young man’s defense that the doctrine of the Trinity did not really matter: “Most Evangelicals believe in three Gods anyway.” Apparently for this pastor, as for Kant, the concept of the Triune God was irrelevant. When Christian leadership assumes indifference toward trinitarian theology, it is hardly surprising that many people in the church feel the same.

In this article, I wish to develop three points:

1. The self-giving nature of the tri-personal God.

2. The implications of a self-giving God for man as the image of God.

3. How understanding the self-giving God should effect our concept of the local church and its role in the world.

In short, I will argue that the ontology of the Godhead is the foundation for personal and communitarian mission in the world.

Trinity As The Eternally Self-Giving God

Is the God of the Bible Selfish?

Tensions between Divine Glory and Love. Many suspect that God is selfish. Most would never say that of course. But we understand that the purpose of all existence is to glorify God. Even the French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre is said to have commented that, if there is a God, the purpose of the universe would be to glorify him. Christian creeds and catechisms such as the Westminster Confession are equally clear: God created the universe and man for his glory. And that is true. As Creator, the entire universe was created centripetal to his character and to his purposes. Everything finally exists for his glory.

But can the God of Scripture truly be love yet also desire his own glory? Interestingly, the Holy Spirit through Paul defines love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7: love “is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, … is not self-seeking … it keeps no record of wrongs.” Elsewhere we read “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). Yet the God of the Bible does indeed declare his own glory and does call upon all creation to worship him. At first glance the God of the Bible does not turn the other cheek but declares “vengeance is mine,” judging the living and the dead and condemning some to everlasting punishment. Whether such passages such as 1 Corinthians 13 can be directly related to God or not is, for many, somewhat beside the point. According to skeptic John Stuart Mill, God does every day that for which he regularly condemns man. For many others, whether Charles Baudelaire, Mark Twain or Pablo Picasso, God is the paradigm of selfishness.

Of course, the Almighty Creator of the Universe would have every right to be selfish, for he is God. This is essentially how the Moslem defends Allah. And many Christians inadvertently do the same. Yet for the Christian there is a fundamental contradiction: while the Creator may deserve all glory, how can the God of love covet his own glory? If Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit had not revealed the true nature of the Godhead, and if God were only one person, it would be difficult to avoid the conclusion that, in some sense, while we are not to be selfish, God himself is absolutely selfish.

The God of the Bible as Trinity. In the Old Testament, already we see implications of a tri-personal God: (1) the passages where God seems to speak of himself as plural (“let us make man in our own image” Ge 1:26; etc.). (2) The plural terms for God Elohim and Adonai — two of the three main terms for God in the Hebrew Scriptures — are topics of considerable scholarship and debate, not to mention numerous other plural titles of God with their singular modifiers. (3) In Isaiah the Lord God insists that he alone is God, there is no god either before or after him, yet in the same book the promised Messiah, Son of David, would be called El Gibbor “Mighty God”. Again, while insisting I will not give my glory to another, it is the Ancient of Days who calls upon all humankind to glorify and to worship “the Son of Man” (Da 7:14). (4) Many have noted, as well, the ambiguous plurality in the Hebrew God. The dabar or the word of God is seen sometimes as God speaking, but other times as a dynamic creative power distinct from God. The Holy Spirit is often identified as Almighty God, yet other times appears as a separate entity. The angel of the Lord appears both different from and yet sometimes identified as the Living God, one who speaks as God, is worshipped as God, and yet is many times distinct from God. Again, the Wisdom of God is personified as one “appointed from eternity,” present before the creation of the universe, a craftsman at Yahweh’s side (Pr 8:23-31) — not incidentally Paul speaks of Christ as “the wisdom of God” (1Co 1:24; cf. 1:30; Col 2:3). Intertestamental Jews were well aware of the mysterious diversity expressing the one true God.5

When coming into the New Testament we find Jesus Christ, one who is presented as the Son of God — one who is God, yet God distinct from God — and again God the Holy Spirit who, like the Savior, is personal and manifests all the attributes of deity. In more than 40 passages of the New Testament, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are spoken of together, yet each with distinctive roles in their personal relationships.6 As the Athanasian Creed later clarifies, the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God. Nor are there three Fathers but one Father, not three Sons but one Son, not three Holy Spirits but only one Holy Spirit.

Even more extraordinary, in the New Testament we see the Father delighting in and glorifying the Son, giving all things to the beloved One. Yet the Son appears delighting in and glorifying the Father. After conquering all things and reigning over his kingdom, the Son lays all things at the feet of the Father. And we find that the Holy Spirit delights in glorifying not himself but the Son and again in revealing the glory of the Father. As Gruenler remarks in his thematic commentary on John:

In Jesus’ disclosure of the divine Family the theme that runs repeatedly through his discourses is the generosity of the social God. The manner of Jesus’ speech indicates his conviction that the persons of the divine Community inwardly enjoy one another’s love, hospitality, generosity, and interpersonal communion, so much so that they are one God, and being one God, express such love to one another.7

In God’s own revelation, we encounter a Father, Son and Holy Spirit each loving the other, giving to the other, honoring the other, glorifying the other — this without confusing the high order of the Godhead, the roles that each divine person has fulfilled from eternity past.8

Which returns us to the question: Is the God of the Bible selfish? Quite the contrary. We discover that the three-personed God of Scripture is profoundly and infinitely self-giving. The God of Love in calling for glory is not necessarily selfish at all. His glory is a shared glory, each delighting in the other.

Beyond Self-Centeredness: Divine Inter-Relatedness as Primary

Placed before pagan and cultic concepts of deity, God’s own revelation as Holy Trinity is remarkably unique: a holy and perfect God who in three centers of consciousness manifests the deepest realities of personhood, each member thinking, feeling and choosing in relationship to one another in terms that far surpass our deepest understanding of intimacy.

Unfortunately, in much of Roman Catholic and later Protestant theological development, the New Testament personal dynamism of the Godhead was largely ignored. Western Fathers, beginning especially with Augustine and developing through Scholasticism, emphasized the unity of the divine substance of God, at times implicitly reducing God to a list of attributes or to an abstract Immovable Mover or to Pure Act. If Colin Gunton is correct, Western notions of God — owing to this emphasis on the oneness of the divine essence — became increasingly philosophic and remote, leading to a deism and finally an agnosticism in which God became completely unknowable.9

On the other hand, the Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century — Basil of Caesaria, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa (the formulators of Eastern trinitarianism) — envisioned God not so much as some divine essence in three subsistencies, but rather as a divine family that could be spoken of as Adam, Eve and Seth, or Peter, James and John. Whereas each member of the Godhead was understood as possessing the same nature, the Eastern Church has continually stressed the primacy of the relationships between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.10 It was believed that if Christ and the New Testament are God’s culminating revelation, then our understanding of the Trinity must center on the personal inter-relatedness witnessed so clearly in such texts as John 14-17.

But if one stresses the three divine persons, how then is the unity of the Godhead to be defined? For much of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, as for an increasing number of scholars in the West, the unity of the Trinity is to be found in perichoresis, the inner habitation (or coinherence) of each divine person in the other.11 That is, each member of the Godhead in some sense indwells the other, without diminishing the full personhood of each. The essential unity of the Godhead, then, is found both in their intrinsic equality of divine characteristics and also in the intensely personal unity that comes from mutual indwelling.

Whereas Western theology tended to begin with the unity and nature of God and then sought to explain the three persons, the East began with the three persons and then sought to resolve the nature of their unity. From the Eastern Orthodox perspective, therefore, it is out of the Godhead’s personal relatedness that all else flows: the creation of angels, man in the imago dei, and the great plan of redemption — all in order that finite beings might enter into the joyous fellowship of the Holy Trinity. Put another way, creation and salvation begin and end with God’s self-givingness, both internally (each to the other within the Godhead) and externally (the Triune God to all creation). And so, in the most profound sense as Trinity — and finally only as Trinity — God is love.

The Self-Giving God And Man In The Imago Dei

If God exists as Holy Trinity, what are the implications for man having been created in the divine image? And what might this mean for the nature of the Christian life? While scholars have debated the meaning of the imago dei for centuries, certainly the fact that even the Holy Spirit is revealed with real personhood — that he demonstrates intellect, chooses and guides the church and manifests profound emotions — is instructive.12

Densified Personhood

A Word of Testimony (or Why Theology Is Meaningful). At a point of crisis in my life I found it difficult to sense any basis for my own personhood. There were no anchors for my (or any other) human significance. The why was gone for simple personal actions like laughing or even talking. When I looked within to “find myself” — as so often suggested by psychologists — all the more I plunged into a bottomless pit with nothing to grasp or to secure the fall. The abyss left nothing to call me and nothing to call man.

Not surprisingly, the Bible does not present a single psychology or even a well-defined set of words for inner man. Terms such as soul, heart, spirit and inward parts, for example, neither carry technical definitions nor are necessarily used with the same definitions among the biblical authors.13 The implication is that it is not in “finding ourselves” that we discover what it means to be human. Scripture repeatedly points us to our Creator, the living God. When we focus upon him — looking upward not inward — then we begin to recover our humanity. As Barth put it, person means primarily what it signifies in relation to God14; that is, our definition of person must be finally situated in God himself. Although significant differences exist between the infinite and the finite, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit provide the ontological framework for our own personhood as human beings.15

Ontology vs. Straw men. The world has a caricature of the Christian. For many a secular observer, the believer is a human disaster. To become a Christian is to abnegate life. No more laughter, no more days of raucous shouting around a football game at a tavern with a good beer. The gusto is gone. The Christian convert has died. Too often, we must admit, this caricature is true. Many Christians have died, not just to sin — which is right — but somehow they have also died to their own humanity, which is wrong. Some have been bound by guilt and legalism, owing to religious inhibitions of every kind. As believers we can become forced, defensive, angry, afraid, isolated, morose, mechanical or spiritually artificial.

Yet if our God is truly three persons in infinitely meaningful relationship, then those who are redeemed and brought into relationship with this God have every reason be the most fulfilled and authentic of all the human race. When inhabited by the Holy Spirit, as we walk with the Son, as we take our place as sons and daughters of the Father, our humanness should come alive. Indeed, the Christian’s humanity should luster and glow. Our personhood should radiate because we are in loving relationship with the fount of all personal life. Christians should be the most powerful, sensitive, transparent and truly human of all the people on earth.

One might ask, who was the most extraordinary man that ever walked this earth? Even many atheists will declare that it was Jesus of Nazareth. Our Savior’s humanity was not erased or diminished by his submission to the Father. Rather, our Lord’s humanity appears densified, made more profound and real. Whether Anselm, Luther or Barth, the Christian faith affirms that Jesus Christ did not only reveal true God to man, he also revealed true man to man.16 He taught us how to become true human beings fulfilled in relationship with God.

In contrast to all atheism where human personeity exists as an arbitrary, meaningless instant in time and space, and in contrast to all pantheism where human distinctives separate man from the all-inclusive, apersonal One (and thus it must be extinguished), Christianity affirms that personhood is directly grounded in the three-personed God. It is in God himself that we find a basis for human reason and language, for our capacity to choose, for our profound diversity of emotions, for appreciation of beauty, for our propensity for creativity, for our sense of morality and eternality, for our social nature desiring relationship with others — all virtual enigmas for modern man who experiences these realities but has no adequate final explanation. Thus mission and missions begins with understanding who the God of the Bible is and what it means to be created in the divine image.

Perichoresis and the Imago Dei

When reconciled with God, man and woman are infused with his personal presence. In some sense, the capacity of each person of the Godhead to be indwelt (perichoresis) by the other while remaining fully an individual is reflected in man as created in the image of God (cf. Jn 14:8-11,20,23; 15:4-7; 17:20-23,26). Similar to how the Father indwells the Son and the Son indwells the Father, and to how the Holy Spirit is also literally “the Spirit of Christ” and “the Spirit of the Father,” so God has structured the human being so that he or she can be indwelled by God himself, notably the Holy Spirit. While indwelled by the divine Other, human beings are both conformed to the divine character and simultaneously strengthened in their unique individuality. Man’s capacity for a kind of perichoresis is why also, on the negative side, the human being can be inhabited by demonic spirits. In such cases, of course, malignant spirits typically enslave and depersonalize their human abode. Conversely, the Holy Spirit liberates the sinner, capacitates him to obey and conforms him to the image of Christ.

The Church Fathers nearly unanimously spoke of God’s habitation in man in terms of theosis, that is, of being divinized (God-infused) in character and person (cf. 2Pe 1:4). Unlike pantheism, spiritism and New Age thought, it is not that man becomes God, who is infinite and immutable in nature. Rather man becomes godly in character, resplendent with the divine presence and in this sense God-like.17 Thus, the divinization of man is directly related to his innate capacity for perichoresis through which God indwells his human creation. As such, the individual becomes alive, elevated and completed as a unique human individual through fellowship with the God of Life.

C. S. Lewis’ captures something of this reality in The Great Divorce,18 his parable of the afterlife in heaven and hell. Lewis takes the reader on a fictitious bus to visit the musty grayness of hell, where people are not so much suffering as simply going about their normal business. Yet the appearance of the residents of hell, depending on when they arrived, is increasingly translucent and ghostlike. Preoccupied with their selfish lives, they become utterly light of substance and less and less persons at all. In contrast, when the bus travels up to the outskirts of heaven, we discover the grass, flowers and trees vibrant with color and bigger and weightier than in earthly life. The residents of heaven, called the “Solid People,” are massive, magnificent human beings. They reflect the grandeur and presence of their Sovereign. In their devotion and obedience to the King, they are innocent and free to care for others, and therefore free to be themselves.

Exactly the opposite of the caricature the world portrays of the Christian, it is only in saving relationship to the God of the Bible that we can truly become “solid people” in the satisfying sense that we are designed to be. In short, through man’s design for perichoresis, those who experience God’s literal indwelling will be the most personal, resplendent and godly of all human beings.

The Self-Giving Nature of the Imago Dei

If right relationship with God is the foundation for true personhood, how is the divine image increasingly formed in the Christian’s life? What is the key to becoming man like Jesus Christ? We are not three persons, but one person. We are not infinite or self-sufficient, but finite and creaturely. Given that we are structured as persons in the imago dei, how does the Lord God make alive and perfect his image in us?

Christian Selfishness. From an historical and international perspective, it has often been said that Western Christianity has become increasingly self-serving. We offer Christianity because it will help set us free from our problems, make us feel good about ourselves, give us emotional ecstacy, nurture better marriages and happy families, lead us to physical health, psychological well-being and even success in business. Biblical principles do indeed bring a practical (albeit partial) salvation to our daily lives. But for all the helps available for bettering the life of the believer, too often the quality of his Christian devotion actually deteriorates. He becomes less interested in the Gospel and less still in sharing Christ with others. Too often we inadvertently present a Christian faith without its center.

Primary Themes of Jesus. It hardly needs to be said that Jesus repeatedly set forth in one form or another two great commandments: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as our self (Mk 12:29-33). The Savior further clarified that the distinguishing activity of the Christian disciple and of the true believing community would be love for one another. The admonition or reference to love one another appears some 24 times in the New Testament. As Richard of St. Victor (d.1173) articulated in De Trinitate, true love always necessitates another who can receive that love.19 While we might enjoy chocolate cake or value our family pet, in its highest and biblical form, love is given by one person to another person. Whatever is given for one’s own benefit ultimately is little other than selfishness. We are to love the Lord God and our neighbor as ourselves.

A second most repeated theme of Jesus is that “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life [yuchv, soul] for me will save it.” The statement is found in various contexts in each Gospel (Mt 10:39; 16:25; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; 14:27; Jn 12:24-25). In Beasley-Murray’s words, this is “the law of the kingdom of God: life is given through death,”20 exemplified powerfully by Jesus giving his own life for the sins of the world. The Savior emphasizes the principle of daily sacrifice of oneself in love and obedience to God — a continual letting go of life that daily refills the believer with the life of God. Cuban evangelist B. G. Lavastida put it this way: “There are three paradoxes of the Christian life: You must give in order to receive, you must let go in order to possess, and you must die in order to live.” Together with the commands to love wholeheartedly the Lord God, our brothers in Christ and our fellow human beings, the command to let go of self is one the most repeated of all the Savior’s admonitions.

The Divine Example. The self-giving nature of each person of the Trinity suggests that Jesus’ teaching on love and self-sacrifice relates to more than our simply being good. It seems to speak to the very nature of the imago dei of man. Self-sacrifice is not just an ethical extra for the pious. Rather, part of our human constitution is that we must give of ourselves in order to fulfill the way we are designed. One rightly supposes that members of the Godhead freely give of themselves and are not under obligation by design. However, the human being seems to be by very ontology under a kind of free obligation to give of himself to others. It may be that he can only enter more fully into the divine image, into full personhood, by giving himself away. By placing others first — God and then fellow man — he is completed as a human being and made truly “Christ-like” and “God-like” as a person. Thus, in understanding the self-givingness of the Triune God, we discover that what Christ asks us to do in taking up our cross is what the Holy Trinity exemplifies repeatedly in its own self-revelation. Indeed, in a sense, Jesus asks nothing of us that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit do not practice a million times over — without contradicting divine transcendence, sovereignty and glory.

Summarily, then, the key to human ontology is the imago dei within a trinitarian framework: (1) in man’s personal nature which, although fallen, reflects the personal aspects of the divine nature; (2) in his capacity for divine indwelling, paralleling the intra-trinitarian perichoresis; and (3) in his design for fulfullment through self-giving, mirroring the disposition of the Godhead itself.

If vestiges and potentialities of the divine image are found in the individual, then what might the imago dei indicate for the local church?

The Local Church In The Self-Giving Image

We have seen that (1), as Trinity, the Christian God is the eternally self-giving God and that (2) God created man in his self-giving image. This brings us to a final suggestion: God created not only the individual person but also the local church in the trinitarian self-giving image.21

A Collective Image of God

Tertullian once remarked, “Where the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are, there too is the Church which is the body of the Three.”22 Put a little differently, the expression of the Triune God is best reflected in the local church, the community of believers.

I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you … I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one. I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. [Jn 17:20-23]

Among the many lessons of this prayer, Jesus asks that the unity he has with the Father be experienced in the unity of Christians — a unity with himself (and through him with the Father) and again with one another.

But what is the nature of the Godhead’s unity? On the one hand, as we have seen earlier, divine unity is not to be conceived as simply the fellowship of three independent deities — an idea made popular in the Social Theory of the Trinity. The unity of the Triune God is unique and beyond what can be said of finite personal union. In the words of Colin Gunton:

[divine unity’s] central concept is that of shared being: the persons do not simply enter into relations with one another, but are constituted by one another in the relations. Father, Son and Spirit are eternally what they are by virtue of what they are from and to one another. Being and relation can be distinguished in thought but in no way separated ontologically; they are rather part of the one ontological dynamic … not a blank unity, but a being in communion.23

Gunton is not denying a divine essence. He is arguing that God’s being is best understood not in classical Western terms of abstract substance (or essence) but of eternal personal relatedness. That is, God is being in relationship, or personally shared being. Therefore, in an ultimate sense, the unity of God is unique to the Godhead. Both trinitarian unity and inter-relatedness exist on a transcendent level outside human understanding.

On the other hand, although divine oneness surpasses human understanding, believers are called to be “a finite echo or bodying forth of the divine personal dynamics.”24

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God … because God is love … This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No-one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. [1 Jn 4:7-13]

Those elect and redeemed by the Lord are called in a limited way to be a communal expression of the Trinity. First, even though divine perichoresis goes beyond human categories, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in believers mirrors a similar reality. As the Spirit inhabits a Christian community, he unites believers to the Son and to the Father through the Godhead’s own coinherence in him. There is fellowship with and the presence of the entire Trinity through the mediation of the Spirit. Second, the responsive love that believers share toward God is reflective of the reciprocal love experienced in the Godhead. In Eastern Orthodoxy’s thinking, such love allows the believer to enter into the beatific fellowship of the Trinity itself. Third, the love of God shown by members toward one another reveals the nature of God and so serves as a collective image of the Trinity. It might be suggested that, as man and woman become one flesh in marriage, the act of sexuality becomes the closest creaturely approachment to indwelling the other. So in a spiritual sense, believers in the local church who love and care for one another reflect a presence of the others in their hearts. In any case, the personal unity and diversity of the Triune God is reflected in the unity and plurality of the local church bound together in the Holy Spirit and in the love of God.

True Koinonia

Rarely in Christian history, however, has there been effort to conceive of the church as a community reflective of the trinitarian relationship. Instead, ecclesiology has been more patterned by the socio-political structures predominant in cultures where church organizations were formed. James Houston comments, “the tendency of ecclesial structures has been legal and essentially interpreted as political institutions.”25 Church forms of government typically have been little more than variations of monarchical (episcopal), federal (representative) and democratic (congregational) systems. Interestingly, Jürgen Moltmann suggests the opposite, that Western political (and ecclesiastical) systems from dictatorships to socialism simply have reflected poor theology — specifically an inadequate trinitarian theology, thus the loss of the freedom of the individual.26

Both organizationally and functionally, churches have fallen considerably short of reflecting trinitarian community. In Latin America, Evangelicalism has been characterized by coronelismo where a single pastor rules a church with an iron hand — continuance of both the spirit of the conquistadores and a papal religious heritage. Likewise, the African tribal structure led by chieftains and shamans is often carried directly into the pastoral roles of Christendom on that continent. And in North America, the sometimes fierce individualism of pioneers, cowboys and farmers is even yet occasionally passed into the working of the local church, where pastors assume unyielding authority or where individual members distrust anyone but themselves. More likely today, however, is the opposite extreme mirroring the ambiguities of postmodernism, in which churches tolerate such extreme plurality of doctrine, ethics and authority that there is hardly a unifying center. A reevaluation of ecclesial forms in the light of the New Testament and the Triune Lord of the church can only help us.

How might the local church reflect the triune divine image? I would like to the initiate discussion with several directives:

(1) Mutuality. Just as each member of the Holy Trinity is equally and completely God, so each believer in the local church is equally a son and daughter of God, coheir of the promises of the cross. Against the preacher-centered programs of many churches, local church functions (including the “worship service”) can better manifest the triune nature of God by involving, as much as possible, each member with spiritual activities.27 Believers are to be given real value and dignity by the local church, not left as anonymous spectators amidst professional performances. Creative biblical and cultural ways to include members should be encouraged, remembering that every believer is important and necessary in the Body of Christ. All members should be conscious of their responsibility of reciprocal submission and of giving of themselves to the other.

(2) Order. On the other hand, just as there is a functional or economic order in all the Godhead does (each divine person having distinct roles), so the New Testament defines a necessary order in the local church with pastor/presbyters, deacons, etc. Whether in the church, family or society, submission to another does not admit inferiority any more than the Son, by his obedience, is inferior to the Father (cf. 1 Pe 2:13-3:7; 5:1-5). Whereas reciprocal love and sensitivity on the part of the leader to those under his authority are important, these do not exempt him from leading, making difficult decisions and disciplining errant members. His love for God must outweigh his love of his brothers. Yet if one’s gift and role as leader has been given by God, then he should reflect the self-giving nature of God, even in the difficult task of discipline. Leadership itself would do well always to function in its own interdependency with order before the Lord.

(3) Deep friendships. If God exists as community, then real community is to be reflected in all the life of the church. In the words of Gordon Fee, “God is not just saving individuals and preparing them for heaven; rather, he is creating a people among whom he can live and who in their life together will reproduce God’s life and character.”28 Just as the Holy Trinity lives and functions not on the basis of rules, regulations or dogma but primarily on the basis of loving interdependency, so the church while standing for biblical truth is to nurture caring relationships among its members. Not surprisingly, the largest percentage of imperatives in the New Testament do not address the believer’s relationship directly to God, nor his relationship to the world, but his relationship to others in the local church. To imitate God, the local church must seek to cultivate deep friendships.29 Although doctrine is important, for it defines the nature and the will of the God we worship, the Christian life is primarily relational. It is learning to love and to respond to one another, in our limited ways, as do the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to one another. By encouraging a relational ecclesiology around love for the Lord, the local church prefigures the blessed communion of heaven and of the Godhead itself.

(4) Biblical ecumenicity. The same mutual caring is not limited to believers in the local church or single denomination. Sensitivity to the unity and diversity of the Body of Christ should extend our care to other Christian churches as well — seen not as religious competition or as “errant brethren” but as fellow congregations in the universal Church of our Lord. The triune nature of the Godhead reminds one of the value and beauty of traditional, cultural and ethnic diversity manifest in sometimes radically diverse styles of worship and service. Often local churches and denominations have failed to appreciate the pluralism of God’s people, a people nevertheless united by “one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph 4:4-5).

Self-Giving to the World

The Question of Creation. Returning to a larger perspective, one of the greatest of all questions is, Why is there something instead of nothing? Or why does anything exist at all? If God were selfish, it would be hard to understand why he would create something outside himself. Perhaps a God who is only one person would create in order to satisfy his own desire (or need) for glory, for relationship or so that he might exercise his sovereignty. But in an eternal Trinity where each member glorifies the other, where profound interpersonal relationships already exist and where God is completely self-sufficient, what would be the motive for the creation? As has been alluded to earlier, various scholars conclude that the Triune God created the vast realm of heaven — with its diversity of angelic beings — and our immense universe and tiny earth — with its vast diversity of plants, animals and people — as a overflow of the life and creative love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This divine overflow is not in pantheistic or deterministic senses, but rather God’s creative artistry that gives being to the other while maintaining God’s own freedom and independence. If such a deduction is true, then all creation exists as the result of God’s own self-giving beyond the internal personal relations of the Godhead. As Luther said, creation is grace.

If earth’s very existence owes itself to divine self-giving, then the local church created in the divine image would seem called to give itself to the world as well. Believers are called to manifest the saving presence of Jesus Christ through their own collective sacrifice among a hurting and hopeless humanity.

Selfish Churches. Just as an individual Christian focused upon himself becomes less Christ-like (and so less human), so a local church when it becomes centered on its own well-being will become a hollow shell of what it is intended to be. Too often churches, whether traditional or contemporary, have become content to orient nearly everything to their own members: programs, finances and even prayer concentrate repeatedly on themselves, their own preferences, patterns and goals. Not that members of a church should not nurture and care for one another. As we have seen, the imperative to love one another in the church — as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit love one another — is very important. Yet the local church cannot remain absorbed in itself. Just as the persons of the Trinity did not confine themselves to loving themselves but rather created the worlds and entered redemptively into our existence, so the local church is called to give of itself to an alienated world.

A Missionary Image. In a sense, we might think of God the Father as the Sender, and both God the Son and God the Spirit as the divine missionaries. In Ireneaus’ well-worn terms, both are the ministering hands of God to bring mankind to salvation and into the family of God.30 In this sense, then, the Holy Trinity is the archetype of the local church and mission.31 As the Triune God came to a lost world in both the Son and the Holy Spirit, so this same God has structured the local body of Christians in such a way that in order to be fulfilled it too must collectively give of itself.

Among multiple examples of unselfish sacrifice, the Assembly of God in Brazil has mushroomed in relatively few years to over 12 million members. One of the extraordinary characteristics of the movement is the emphasis on lay-member church planting. Nearly any mechanic, salesman or teacher who senses a call from God and proves himself faithful in the local church might be commissioned to start a new congregation. Often at considerable personal cost, the “layman” will begin to preach and to teach evangelistic Bible studies while also working to sustain his family. A new congregation will be built around him, gradually rise to provide financially for him, and then strive to send out its own members to do the same again. A vibrant mother church will lose many of its strongest participants. Yet it is precisely by “giving itself away” that the Assembly of God has grown in large proportions. And they are not alone. Among various evangelical denominations in Latin America, a church is not considered a church until it has given birth to daughter churches. While appearing to lose its most devout members, the local church that imitates the Godhead in sacrificial love for the world is the one which multiplies.

In the words of Alistair McGrath, “Evangelism is something intrinsic to the identity of the Church — not an optional extra, but something part and parcel of its very being.”32 We know this to be true experientially, but often we fail to ask why it is so? It is because, as the individual, so the local church is created in the imago dei. Self-giving to a lost world is intrinsic not only for its own reflection of God, but also for its ontological fulfillment. The local community is divinely designed to give itself away. There is no other way. As Emil Brunner observes, “The church lives by mission as a fire lives by burning.”33 Our Lord’s imperative is to, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). Because of our right relationship with the Godhead, reasons Paul, “We are therefore ambassadors” with the message “Be reconciled to God” (2 Co 5:20). To truly reflect the character of the tri-personal God, believers in the local church must take such New Testament imperatives seriously, giving themselves not only to one another but to a needy, sometimes hostile world. In so doing, we discover that in imitating the Triune Self-Giving God, we have unlocked the very ontology of ourselves, our churches and mission.


We have seen that, first, far from being selfish, the tri-personal God of the Bible reveals the most profound depths of self-giving. Each member of the Godhead freely gives of himself to the other, delighting in glorifying the other. God is love. Second, the key to human ontology is the imago dei within a trinitarian framework. The divine image is reflected not only in man’s innate personal nature but also through divine indwelling (a finite perichoresis) and the ontological obligation to give of oneself to God and to others. Thirdly, it is suggested that the local church also should reflect the trinitarian image, both in its internal and external relationships.

How unfortunate that the doctrine of the Trinity, with its implications for all of life, has lost its centrality in defining our worldview. Not only have we often not adequately understood the doctrine of the Godhead but, when understanding it, our tendency has been to separate theology from practice. We have done little to consciously express trinitarian belief in our daily lives and in the community and mission of the church.

Yet, as James Houston puts it, “God’s very being is expressive of our own being.”34 The Triune God is committed to us by his own self-giving nature. The Christian is created and redeemed to respond in like manner, giving himself to God and to fellow human beings. And so is the local church.

In the end, is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity irrelevant, Immanuel Kant? To the contrary, the revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the center and absolute of all human reality. And, therefore, rather than a barrier to belief for non-Christians around the world, the truth of the Triune God becomes our greatest apologetic.

1 J. Scott Horrell, Th.D., is professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is formerly the graduate chairman of Systematics at the Faculdade Teolgica Batista de So Paulo and editor of Vox Scripturae: Revista Teolgica Latino-Americana.

2 Immanuel Kant, Der Streit der Fakultten, PhB 252, in Ronald J. Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., eds., Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement: Philosophical and Theological Essays (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame, 1989) 4.

3 Along with Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, primary works include: Karl Rahner, The Trinity, trans. J. Donceel (Grm. ed. 1967; New York: Herder & Herder, 1970); Eberhard Jüngel, The Doctrine of the Trinity. God’s Being Is in Becoming, trans. H. Harris (2d Grm. ed., 1966; Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1976); Bernard Lonergan, The Way to Nicea: The Dialectical Development of Trinitarian Theology, trans. C. O’Donovan (Rome ed., 1964; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976); Bertrand de Margerie, The Christian Trinity in History, trans. E. J. Fortman (Fr. ed. 1975; Still River MA: St. Bede’s, 1982); Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, trans. M. Kohl (Grm. ed. 1980; London: SCM Press, 1981); Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, trans. P. Burns (Port. ed. 1985; Wellwood, Kent: Burns & Oates, 1988); Colin Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991); Catherine Mowery LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991); Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1993); Torrance, Trinitarian Perspectives: Toward Doctrinal Agreement (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994); Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995). Recent overviews include Christoph Schwbel, ed., Trinitarian Theology Today (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1995); John Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives (Oxford: Oxford Univ., 1994); and Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed., The Trinity in a Pluralistic Age: Theological Essays on Culture and Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).

4 In Millard J. Erickson, Where Is Theology Going? Issues and Perspectives on the Future of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994) 122.

5 See Aubrey R. Johnson, The One and the Many in the Israelite Conception of God (2d ed., Cardiff: Univ. of Wales, 1961) 1-37; Larry Hurtado, One God One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (London: SCM Press, 1988); Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (London: SPCK, 1992); Felix Christ, Jesus Sophia. Die Sophia-Christologie bei den Synoptikern (Zürich: Zwingli-Verlag, 1970); and Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Pre-Existence, Wisdom and the Son of Man (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1973).

6 Biblical studies include: A. W. Wainwright, The Trinity in the New Testament (London: SPCK, 1962) 237-247; G. A. F. Knight, A Biblical Approach to the Doctrine of the Trinity (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1953); Peter Toon, Our Triune God: A Biblical Portrayal of the Trinity (Wheaton: BridgePoint/Victor, 1996); Royce Gordon Gruenler, The Trinity in the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986); Gordon D. Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996) 9-46; and Erickson, God in Three Persons, 159-210.

7 Gruenler, The Trinity in the Gospel of John 121, cf. 89-140.

8 Two qualifying remarks are in order. First, it must be admitted that there is not full biblical evidence of trinitarian mutuality in every respect — particularly regarding the Holy Spirit in relation to the Father; the deduction is partially implicit and therefore made with caution. Second, concerning the accusation that the NT and early church were not explicitly trinitarianism, Fee observes, “We tend to think that a person is not a true trinitarian unless that person has a working formula in response to this question [of how God exists as Trinity]. To put the question this way, however, is to get ahead of Paul [and all the NT authors], not to mention to define trinitarianism by later standards … Paul affirms, asserts, and presupposes the Trinity in every way; and those affirmations — that the one God known and experienced as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each distinct from the other, is yet only one God — are precisely the reason the later church took up the question of how.” Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God 38.

9 Colin Gunton, “Augustine, the Trinity and the Theological Crisis of the West,” Scottish Journal of Theology 43:1 (1990) 33-58; The Promise of Trinitarian Theology 31-57; and The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1993).

10 See G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (2d ed., London: SPCK, 1952) 219-301; T. R. Martland, “A Study of Cappadocian and Augustinian Trinitarian Methodology,” Anglican Theological Review 47:3 (1965) 252-263; William G. Rusch, The Trinitarian Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980)149-179; and Basil Studer, Trinity and Incarnation: The Faith of the Early Church, trans. M. Westerhoff, ed. A. Louth (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1993) 139-153. Eastern Orthodoxy defends the apophatic nature of God, i.e., that divine essence transcends human understanding and can only be spoken of as to what it is not. See Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God, eds. J. H. Erickson and T. E. Bird (Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1974) 13-29;

11 Cf. Jn 17:21. The Greek term perichoresis is often referred to as circumincession (Latin). See Michael O’Carroll, “Circumincession,” in Trinitas: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Holy Trinity (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1987) 68-69; and Brian Hebblethwaite, “Perichoresis — Reflections on the Doctrine of the Trinity,” Theology 80:676 (1977) 255-261.

12 See, Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994) 829-845.

13 Walter F. Taylor, Jr., “Humanity, NT View of” in ABD III:321: “there is no independent reflection on anthropology in the NT dealing with humanity’s qualities, constituent parts, or nature, and therefore little definition of terms and no standardization of their usage. Rather, the anthropos is always understood in terms of the relationship with God.” Cf. 321-325.

14 Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, 272.

15 See Alistair I. McFadyen, The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theology of the Individual in Social Relationships (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1990); John Zizioulas, Being As Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1985); David Brown, “Trinitarian Personhood and Individuality,” in Feenstra and Plantinga, eds., Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement 48-78.

16 Cf. Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, trans. T. Wieser and J. N. Thomas (Grm. ed. 1956; Richmond: John Knox, 1960).

17 See Petro B. T. Bilaniuk, “The Mystery of Theosis or Divinization,” in The Heritage of the Early Church, eds. David Neiman and Margaret Schatkin (Rome: Pontificus Institutum Studiorum Orientalium, 1973) 337-359; Vladmir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, trans. Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius (London: James Clarke, 1957) 67-134; Lossky, The Image and Likeness of God 97-140; and Dumitri Staniloae, “Image, Likeness and Deification in the Human Person,”Communio 13:1 (1986) 64-83. Not all church fathers (nor all moderns) are clear on the fundamental distinction between the divine nature and the nature of the believer. But, in time, Eastern theologians clarified that the believer partakes of (2Pe 1:4) what they termed divine energies, but not the divine essence which, as we have noted, was seen as mysteriously unique to God alone.

18 C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Macmillan, 1946).

19 J. Ribaillier, Richard de Saint-Victor, De Trinitate. Texte critique (Paris, 1958) I.20.

20 George R. Beasley-Murray, John (Waco: Word, 1987) 211, WBC; he notes “hates his life” sometimes carries the meaning of “love less” in Hebrew idiom (Ge 29:30-31; Mt 10:37; Lk 14:26). It seems our Lord, rather than encourage a masochistic view of life — life which itself is a gift from God — insists that our obedience to God far surpass any thought of self-preservation and well-being.

21 Heinz Schutte documents that the trinitarian nature of the local church was a fairly common conception among patristic writers, as seen in Tertullian, Clement of Rome, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria and even Cyprian of Carthage, in spite of his argument for a hierarchical catholicism, who commented that the church is a “people made one in the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” In Schutte, Im Gesprch mit dem Dreieinen Gott. Elemente einer Trinitrischer Theologie. Festscrift für Wilhelm Breuning, eds. Michael Bohnke and Hans-Peter Heinz (Düsseldorf: Patmos, 1985) 361-362.Implications of the tri-personal God for marital and familial relations have been developed by Margerie, The Christian Trinity in History; Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., “The Perfect Family,” Christianity Today (March 4, 1988) 24-27; Larry R. Thornton, “A Biblical Approach to Establishing Marital Intimacy. Part 1: Intimacy and Trinity,” Calvary Baptist Theological Journal 4:2(1988) 43-72.

22 Tertullian De baptismo VI,1; see Boff, Trinity and Society 106. See also Schutte, Im Gesprch mit dem Dreieinen Gott, 361-363, and Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives, 80, 92. While Luther and Calvin made oblique references to the church and the Trinity, they never drew out the implications.

23 Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many 214. See also Boff, Trinity and Society 123-154.

24 Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology 74.

25 James Houston “Community and the Nature of God” (Chapel lecture no. 2526 (tape), Regent College, Vancouver BC).

26 Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom 191-222; see also Charles Sherrard MacKenzie, The Trinity and Culture (New York: P. Lang, 1987); Douglas M. Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989); John Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives 106-123; and Daniel L. Migliore, “The Trinity and Human Liberty,” Theology Today 36:4 (1980) 488-497. On the other hand, one could hardly argue that Eastern trinitarianism has contributed to ecclesial and political balance in Eastern history.

27 Moltmann rightly argues that the traditional ecclesial forms of the church have typically usurped the primacy of function, “so that it is hardly possible for the community which is charismatic in itself to develop, because the community remains passive …” J. Moltmann, “The Reconciling Power of the Trinity in the Life of the Church and the World,” in The Reconciling Power of the Trinity. Conference of European Churches. C. E. C. Occasional Papers, No. 15 (Geneva: C. E. C., 1983) 53-54, cited in Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives 82-83, 92. See also J. S. Horrell, “A Essncia da Igreja,” in Ultrapassando Barreiras, ed. J. S. Horrell, 2 vols. (So Paulo: Vida Nova, 1994-95) 1:7-28.

28 Fee, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God 66.

29 Houston, “Community and the Nature of God” (tape). See also Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology 81-85; John J. O’Donnell, “The Trinity as Divine Community,” Gregorianum 69:1 (1988) 5-34; and Plantinga, “The Perfect Family” 24-27.

30 Irineaus, Adversus Haereses 5.6.1.

31 For this reason the term missio Dei was coined at the Willingen missionary conference in 1952 to express that mission is based on and reflective of the Triune God’s nature, will and action. In the words of Irish theologian John Thompson, “What he does in and for the world corresponds to who he is in himself.” (68) Thus, “The ultimate basis of mission is the triune God — the Father who created the world and sent his Son by the Holy Spirit to be our salvation. The proximate basis of mission is the redemption of the Son by his life, death and resurrection, and the immediate power of mission is the Holy Spirit. It is, in trinitarian terms, a missio Dei.” Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives, 72.

32 Alistair McGrath, Christianity Today (June 19, 1995) 21.

33 Emil Brunner, cited in op. cit.

34 Houston, “Community and the Nature of God” (tape).

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Trinity, Missions

In The Name Of The Father, Son And Holy Spirit: Constructing A Trinitarian Worldview

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It is part of the pathos of Western theology that it has often believed that while trinitarian theology might well be of edificatory value to those who already believe, for the outsider it is an unfortunate barrier to belief, which must therefore be facilitated by some non-trinitarian apologetic, some essentially monotheistic ‘natural theology.’ My belief is the reverse: that because the theology of the Trinity has so much to teach about the nature of our world and life within it, it is or could be the centre of Christianity’s appeal to the unbeliever, as the good news of a God who enters into free relations of creation and redemption with his world. In the light of the theology of the Trinity, everything looks different. [Colin Gunton]1

A worldview is the framework through which we understand and evaluate existence. It is the set of assumptions we hold regarding the basic constitution of the world and our place within it. Whether it be eclectic or coherent, conscious or assumed, our worldview determines how we understand ourselves, other human beings and the values by which we function from day to day.

At the core of each basic worldview is the question of God. Our belief or non-belief regarding a divine Being is influential, if not determinative, for virtually everything else. A pantheist presumes that because God is everything and everything is God, the individual himself is innately divine. Because God (e.g., Brahma) is absolute unity, usually it is assumed that the world of particulars is illusion — thus one’s human individuality is also mere illusion. To enter into oneness with this all-inclusive deity (itself apersonal, arational and amoral) a person must through one means or another erase his individual consciousness. When a worldview begins with an all-inclusive, apersonal deity, there is no final place for the human being or for ethics on either an individual or a social level.

Whereas pantheism has no place for the individual, polytheism (as in ancient religions, tribal animism, some forms of modern spiritism and Mormonism) allows a place for the individual but offers no absolute which unifies the universe. Without an infinite God, such cosmologies lack a sufficient framework that gives meaning to the particular and therefore to finite existence. For example, Mormonism asserts that God the Father is finite and in a process of development through a cosmic hierarchy of wives and offspring. Yet by what measure is God’s development assessed? Without a truly infinite deity everything else becomes philosophically relative, if not arbitrary.

The atheist suffers a similar dilemma. Without an infinite point of reference, all particulars finally lack meaning. Nietzsche’s why is lacking? Whether individually or collectively, the human being becomes his own criterion for determining all significance and values. To be sure, the individual has a place in atheism. But without an ultimate structure beyond himself that provides meaning, his freedom is finally meaningless. Postmodernism carries human pointlessness yet another step by rejecting not only faith but also rationality and hope for understanding ultimate truth.

Classical theism believes in a personal, infinite Being who created the universe out of nothing and the human individual in his finite personal image. As such, human ontology (one’s fundamental personhood) is grounded in divine personaity itself. In theism, therefore, man has unique meaning and special distinction over all impersonal creation. Nevertheless, a monotheism which defends God as a single-personned being (e.g., Judaism, Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses) is markedly inadequate, and that for several reasons as will be shown.

By historic confession, a Christian worldview is centered in the Trinitarian concept of God. Through biblical revelation, we understand that the one God exists as three persons in dynamic relationship.2 If Colin Gunton is correct (as cited above), the most powerful apologetic for Christian faith is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity with its broad-sweeping and extraordinary implications for human existence.

The purpose of this monograph is to outline a transcultural Trinitarian worldview, one that attempts to define a universal framework of Christian faith for believers today. It is presupposed that the biblical basis and historical development of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity are essentially correct as expressed in the Niceno-Constantinoplan Creed. Rather than a detailed discussion of any single aspect, the work is designed to be a synthesis of important Trinitarian themes. The seven-part overview presents the Godhead’s internal and external relationships from before the beginning of creation, through various aspects as related to creation, and on to the eternal future. These seven aspects of Trinitarianism are designed to serve as biblical-theological anchors which help unify varying contextualized Christian perspectives of faith from the different cultures of the world.

Of course, given the cultural plurality of “worldviews,” such an attempt may already be viewed as misguided by some. It is said that each culture should develop its own theology, as has indeed been the effort by many since the 1960s. However, all classical Christian faith is heir both to Scripture and tradition, particularly in the doctrines of the Holy Trinity and the hypostatic union of Christ. Moreover, with the unraveling of many Christian truths in the wave of contextualization in the 1970 and 80s, not a few in the “Third World” have expressed the need to reaffirm the central truths of Christian faith. Increasingly over the last fifteen years, evangelical and Roman Catholic theologians of various parts of the world — while continuing the process of theological inculturalization — have also sought to reaffirm the essential truths Christian tradition.3 The following presentation attempts to construct an elemental Trinitarian structure that is transcultural, apologetic and practical for the life of the believer and the church.

I. The Trinity Before Creation

Before any and all creation, God was completely self-sufficient and all-inclusive. All that existed was God. There was nothing that was not God.4 Without beginning, the Supreme Being is infinite in each of his many characteristics. Yet rather than contain all opposites, God eternally chooses to be himself, and his choosing is forever expressive of his nature. God’s attributes are not contradictory but rather entirely consistent with one another, for God is simple and God is one.

Moreover, the Supreme Being is profoundly personal. “Though alone” before creation, as Hippolytus remarks, “he was multiple.”5 In Holy Scripture, God reveals himself as three persons. Whereas order and function differ, each person is shown to be equal and one with the other, of the same essence and quality. Yet each is also eternally distinct as person.6 Thus, the members of the Holy Trinity can be known and worshiped together as God, or known and worshiped individually as God.

Ultimately, this Most High God is mystery. Some aspects of the divine nature may not be revealed nor could they be comprehended by finite beings. Rather our understanding of God is based upon revelation given in a finite situation and in conditions that have meaning for us as finite beings. It is through God’s grace in self-revelation (especially through Jesus Christ and the Bible) that he can be known. Yet what God has revealed of himself is true to what he is and fully sufficient to know and to love him.7 We conclude that God, before any and all creation, existed as all-inclusive, self-sufficient and tri-personal as Holy Trinity.

II. The Trinity And Impersonal Creation

Although some propose a created order that is co-eternal in the past with God, classical Christian faith affirms creation as being called into existence out of nothing (ex nihilo).8 There was an absolute beginning to creation. When God created, he deliberately chose to limit himself because he created something that was not himself. In creating something out of absolute nothing, God no longer remained all-inclusive.9 The rock, the tree and the animal were not God. In contrast to all pantheistic theologies, the God of the Bible did not flow or emanate out into the physical world.10 To the contrary, all space, energy, matter and time exist as God’s creation and artistry and not as his essence. Nevertheless, the existence of these dimensions is entirely sustained by the personal Creator’s presence intertwined with creation while remaining wholly other.

The question of why God created is not easily answered, apart from the classical Christian response, “to the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:12-13). Some deduce that the divine motivation for creation is best found in the overflow of loving self-givingness between the three persons of the Godhead. The deep love, goodness and joy of each member of the Trinity toward the other spills forth in the creation of that which is external to God, the realms of angels and mankind.11 As such, all creation exists and is sustained, not by necessity nor by divine selfishness, but by the abundance of Trinitarian grace.

So, God brought the created order into existence out of nothing. He freely sustains it and is personally involved with all dimensions of existence. Yet the creator God is never to be confused with his creation.

III. The Trinity And Personal Creation

Besides space, time and matter, the Triune God chose to create other persons. By creating finite beings in the divine image, God limited himself again. Now he was no longer the only personal and moral agent in existence. Unlike God, of course, all created beings are finite — whether in heaven or on earth (e.g., it seems that Satan, though spirit, is not capable of being directly present in more than one place at the same time). In creating finite personal beings, God remained infinite but he was no longer personally and morally all-inclusive.

Contrary to the atheist and pantheist, the theist affirms that human personhood and dignity are based on the nature of the Creator. While broader than the commonly referred to aspects below, divine personhood includes the capacities of thought, volition and emotion: (1) God thinks and reasons in a logical manner, although not necessarily in the same thought patterns that we use;12 (2) God chooses voluntarily, makes decisions and possesses absolute freedom of will;13 and (3) the God of the Bible apparently manifests a multiplicity of emotions — all as a moral, purposeful Being. Just as Scripture establishes that each member of the Godhead reasons, exercises free will and manifests a plurality of feelings, so we as finite persons evince similar characteristics. Even at the turn of the twenty-first century, modern science is without response as to how the several pounds of chemicals and water that compose the human brain can express self-consciousness, intelligence, self-direction and a plethora of emotions. Creativity, aesthetic appreciation, dominion, moral motions and a sense of eternality seem also to be aspects of the divine image in which man is created.

Classical Christian faith asserts, therefore, that although human beings have fallen into sin and suffer the scars of the fall, the imago dei is not disfigured beyond recognition. In contrast to the existentialist and the determinist, the Christian has a basis to find meaning in all human activities and functions: in man’s acts of creativity, kindness and justice; in his emotions of joy, sadness and anger; in his thoughts, language, scientific praxis and study of the objective history; and in the distinction between fantasy and reality. We are truly persons with eternal value because the Creator and Absolute of the universe is also personal and has made us for relationship with himself and others.

Not only is human personaity patterned after the divine, it is suggested that the imago dei includes the capacity to be indwelled by a spiritual being. As the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son, and as the Spirit is in the Father and the Son and bears them in himself (as “the Spirit of Christ” and “the Spirit of the Father”) — in brief, as each member of the Godhead mutually inhabits the other, in a similar way the human being is structured perichoretically, that is, for the indwelling of another (Jn 17:20-26). As corporal beings, we cannot inhabit one another (although human sexual intercourse approaches the same concept and therefore is sacred). But, because he images the divine persons themselves, a human being is capable of and designed to be inhabited by another. This is why a man or woman can be indwelled by the Holy Spirit or by a demonic spirit, while retaining his or her own individuality. The habitation by another personal agent does not replace or generally subsume the human being who normally retains some ability to yield or not to a spiritual presence. It is suggested, therefore, that the divine image includes not only personhood but also the capacity for indwelling by another as a reflection of divine perichoresis.14

IV. The Trinity And Unity-Diversity In The Universe

Since the ancient philosophers, the tension between the unity and the diversity of the universe has been a major and enduring problem, largely without solution. The pole of absolute unity presents man locked in cosmic determinism. Whether religious or secular, the human being is ultimately a tiny part in a massive machine where he has neither control nor value. This is implicit in the religious determinism of Hinduism and Islam, and in the secular determinism expressed in aspects of behavioral psychology, health sciences and philosophies such as dialectic materialism. Conversely, the pole of absolute diversity presents the human being as free, yet within an absurd cosmos without purpose or direction. Without a unifying absolute, everything exists by chance and chance alone — a position expressed in secular existentialism and the works of many twentieth century artists. The human being is reduced to either a cog in a cosmic machine or an astronaut adrift in space with neither spacecraft nor planet in sight. If there is no infinite, absolute point of reference in the universe, then all of the particulars (the rock, the man, societal values, etc.) have absolutely no meaning. Moreover, if such a point of reference is to give significance to all existence, it must be personal — or more properly, it must be an infinite, personal Supreme Being.

Outside of biblical Christianity there is no structure that satisfies the tension between the one and the many.15 Different from other forms of theism, the Holy Trinity as three persons in one God incorporates unity and diversity within itself. This divine reality is reflected in virtually all creation, be it in the estimated 50 billion galaxies spanning 500 million light years across the known universe, or in sub-atomic particles with their mysterious compositions of quarks, leptons and gauge bosons (where a single top quark can emit 30 billion volts of energy). Whether vastly enormous or incredibly small, the universe manifests unity in its diversity and diversity in its unity. There is order between individual components and the total scheme of creation.16 In contrast to all other religions and philosophies, the concept of the Holy Trinity presents meaningful relationship between the one and the many in the universe. While Eastern Christendom has emphasized the diversity of the three persons in mysterious unity, and while Western Christianity has stressed the unity of the divine essence expressed in three persons, both views fit within the Niceno-Constantinoplan Trinitarian formula that has defined classical Christian faith through the centuries.

Summarily, then, the Trinity embodies unity and diversity within itself and that unity and diversity is reflected in all of God’s creation. Every thing and every person has real significance because each is created by and finally exists in relationship to the Triune God.

V. The Trinity And Humanity As Family And Society

Christian faith implies that apart from the tri-personal God of the Bible, human society lacks an adequate ontological foundation. Many in the twentieth century argue that personal relationships have become increasingly “without reason,” that language is meaningless, that loving intimacy is simply the rustle of biological hormones, that mankind’s societal and “friendship” associations merely float “within the context of no context.”17 In the midst of these anti-humanitarian affirmations, the Christian faith proclaims that family, friendship and social order assume profound meaning when we understand people as created in the communitarian image of the Triune God.18

Because human ontology derives from God’s own relational reality, intrinsic to every person is the need and yearning for social relationships. We are in fact dependent upon interpersonal activity for even the most rudimentary elements of human development — for example, thought itself is dependent upon language, which is acquired within a social milieu. The Bible indicates that innate to mankind is the capacity not only to think, will and feel but also to commune at the most intimate and transparent levels with both the Creator and one another.

Because the divine image is described as male and female and because divine persons assume titles such as Father and Son, many in Christendom perceive the imago dei as familitas.19 In the Godhead, there is equality of nature yet distinctions of roles. The Holy Trinity shares deity without inferiority yet evinces eternal distinctions of relation and function within the hierarchy of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Although some today disagree, classical Christian faith has often drawn implications for the human family based upon essential equality with distinctive roles as husband, wife and children. Fundamental, however, in the divine example are the honor, love and self-givingness of each member of the Godhead toward the other.

Since the earliest church fathers, parallels have also been drawn between the Trinity and the church. Applications are drawn from divine unity-in-diversity, the headship of Christ over variously gifted believers, and the role of church leadership in light of the universal filiation and priesthood of every member. The imago dei as ecclesia has rich implications for the believing community on every level.20 One clear implication is that as the Godhead prior to creation did not content itself with itself but brought creation into existence and then provided redemption to sinful mankind through the cross, so the local church is called to give itself to a lost world. As the Son and the Spirit are the two hands of God extended to a lost world, so self-sacrifice and mission are integral to the life of the church as the communtarian image of God.

Finally, too, the Trinity is sometimes set forth as imago civilis, a model of social and political structure.21 Dictatorial models of political (and ecclesial) structures are as far removed from a Trinitarian worldview as are anarchistic and egalitarian structures in which all authority is rejected. While the sinfulness of the humanity in the world must always qualify socio-political applications, the doctrines of the Trinity and creation provide the foundation for absolute equality among human beings whatever gender, race or socio-economic class. Simultaneously, the Christian God serves as a model for order, authority and submission on a diversity of social functions..

As evidenced in the remarkable person Jesus Christ, therefore, the Christian faith leads us to the depths of our humanity. Rather than obscure our personhood and significance (as in both atheism and pantheism), biblical Trinitarianism is the seedbed in which our humanity grows to transcend horizontal limitations and blossoms red-bright in relationship with the infinitely personal God. In short, whether individually or socially, the human being fits nicely in the order of creation. In Trinitarianism, his humanity has found a home.

VI. The Trinity, Love And Forgiveness

A significant characteristic of the Christian God along with moral perfection (holiness) is love. Divine love not only defines the intra-Trinitarian relations but also serves to unite the Creator with his creation, and even creation with other creation.22 In that God is love, each person of the Trinity loves not so much himself but especially the other two persons. As defined in 1 Corinthians 13, love by nature is not directed inwardly but outwardly — as Richard of St. Victor observed — in the sharing and giving of oneself to the other.23 In contrast to Islam, Judaism and other religions which defend God as exclusively one person, the Triune God of the Bible cannot be accused of selfishness or egocentrism. Nor is this God lonely, needing someone to love, or with whom to communicate or to actualize himself reciprocally as Person. Not surprisingly, mono-personal concepts of God tend either to minimize divine infinity (so that God is perceived as personal) or to minimize divine personhood (so that God be perceived as infinite). In short, it seems from every vantage that for God to be infinitely personal and to be love, he must exist as at least two persons.24 A mono-personal God is not “big enough” to be God.

In a similar way, the nature of forgiveness is a serious dilemma for non-Trinitarian theists. How does a holy God forgive? No human being is morally perfect as God is perfect. Yet if God, as Moral Absolute of the universe, shows mercy and forgives the sinner then he has violated his righteous justice. And if God exercises justice against the sinner, then he has denied his mercy. For a mono-personal God, compassion contradicts holiness, forgiveness is finally contrary to justice. God’s judgment and mercy are arbitrary, if not capricious. In Islam, Allah is believed to stand above the bridge of death that connects earthly life with paradise. Underneath this narrow bridge is the flaming chasm of hell. A man who lived a life of 90% good and 10% evil may be granted permission to cross the bridge of death into paradise. But a man with less virtue (85%) would be pushed off the bridge by Allah into the abyss below. The truth is that neither man nor woman can have any peace that Allah will forgive. Ultimately Allah must compromise his justice to grant mercy. Conversely, the Bible declares that God of Christian faith is both just and the justifier of those who believe (Ro 3:23-26). As tri-personal, the Christian God is the Holy Judge, the Sacrificial Lamb (who pays the price that divine justice demands), and the sanctifying Spirit who works in the fallen world convicting and leading sinners to salvation. With God’s absolute holiness satisfied at the cross, true forgiveness can be freely offered to all who believe.

VII. The Trinity In Time And Space

Unlike the cyclical concepts of time in classical pantheism, the biblical perspective of time is linear; that is, history has a beginning, direction and finality.25 The Christian faith takes objective history seriously. In this light, Judeo-Christianity is the only major religion with a large number of prophecies; more than one fourth of the Old and New Testaments is prophetic genre. God enters time and interacts in dynamic relationship with human beings. Simultaneously, this same sovereign God also exists above time, transcending time in any sense common to his creation.26 Because time itself is a dimension of his own creation, God is not limited or restricted by time (although some would argue that he chooses to restrict himself). While there are mysteries left unexplained in revelation, it is possible that God may even stand above all time instantly, the end being as real as the beginning. But having affirmed God’s unique eternality (whatever the qualifications), we must also insist that the Godhead is not static or without dynamism. The Trinity is infinitely alive and personal within itself, and acts accordingly toward all his creation. As God enters linear history, he works in the life of each of human being in a way that is personal, authentic and free. While he may know of a non-believer’s refusal of faith in the future or of a believer’s moral failure during the next week, God personally relates to us — and often graciously — in the present.

Seen from a biblical viewpoint, time and space have beginning but they have no end. For example, the regenerate person becomes heir of eternal life, having himself a beginning but he never will cease to exist. This does not mean that he or she in the afterlife becomes timeless or omnipresent as is God himself (ideas of afterlife borrowed from Greek pantheism). Rather, the child of God will live forever with a glorified body in some form of linear time, although the categories and dimensions of time and space may be very different. Eternal life for the Christian means not atemporality but everlasting life filled with the plenitude of the Lord — a never-ending life of elevated quality. Conversely, those who reject God’s grace are destined to, in Jesus’ words, “eternal fire/punishment” (Mt 25:41,46). Although the nature of future existence seems very unlike the present, the basic categories of time and space will remain (“the new heaven and new earth”) as they appear essential to the existence of finite personal beings. God has committed himself forever to his creation.

Not only does the Holy Trinity operate dynamically in history, more remarkable still, God enters his creation. The Son has entered creation in the incarnation and further sealed his bond with creation through bodily resurrection and corporal glorification.27 In Jesus Christ, spiritual and physical realities were forever yoked together as the Logos assumed human nature and then a glorified body. Yet, as Athanasius (d. 373) expressed, “The Word was not confined within the body; neither was he there and no place else.” Instead, “when he was in human bodily form, he himself gave life to that body; and at the same time, he was giving life to the entire universe and was present in all things; yet he was distinct from the universe and outside of it.”28 God the Son exists simultaneously inside and outside creation, not confined to but active within the orders of time and space. As with the Son, so the Holy Spirit continually works in history and particularly indwells the lives of believers, yet he too exists both inside and outside the created order.29 Thus, the Holy Trinity’s presence embraces creation and non-creation, preserving God’s transcendent reality while recognizing also God’s profoundly personal engagement within creation.

Conclusion: The Trinity And Eternal Glory

Our outline has attempted to construct a basic Trinitarian worldview that is transcultural and universal. Perhaps, better said, it serves as a scaffold to begin the process. Yet certain affirmations can be made with relative certainty: (1) before any creation, the Triune God was self-sufficient and all-inclusive; (2) in creating ex nihilo, God is distinct from finite existence yet sustains it by his presence; (3) infinitely tri-personal, God created man and woman in his image, thus human ontology is grounded in the divine; (4) as three persons of one essence, the Trinity incorporates the unity-in-diversity reflected in all creation; (5) the equality-in-order of the Godhead informs proper social relationships for family, church and society; (6) as a plurality of persons, the Christian God can be both holy and loving, holding perfect justice and forgiveness together at the cross; and (7) the Triune God stands beyond all time and space yet is eternally committed to creation and mankind through Jesus Christ.

Nearly everything mentioned until now is related to our existence, our own limited experiences. However, if God existed as all-inclusive before creation, then he is now in all “places” and all “dimensions” where there is no finite creation or divinely ceded nihil. Surrounding and through the few dimensions of creation resides the infinite Lord, the Lord of all, exercising his magnificent character.30 For those who are Christians, redeemed by the work of Christ at Calvary, finite creation constitutes an enormous crib over and around which the Triune God hovers, affectionately caring for his own. All creation will someday recognize the greatness and beauty of God, together with the unfathomable debt it owns to the Almighty for its existence, preservation and provision of salvation in Jesus Christ. This overwhelming understanding of our indebtedness to God may be our primary role as his creation. In glorifying the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit we are fulfilled as finite persons in the eternal plan of God. Nevertheless, there is no more blessed glory than that glory given by one member of the Holy Trinity to the other, each wholly comprehending and exalting the magnificence of the other.

The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed31

  • We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
  • We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,
  • God of God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
  • We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father (and the Son). With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets.
  • We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
  • We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
  • We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

1 Colin E. Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991) 7.

2 Recent works on the biblical, historical and contemporary development of Trinitarianism include: E. Calvin Beisner, God in Three Persons (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1984); Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, trans. P. Burns (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988); Gerald Bray, The Doctrine of God (Leicester: InterVarsity, 1993); Gordon H. Clark, The Trinity (Jefferson MD: Trinity Foundation, 1985); David S. Cunningham, These Three Are One: The Practice of Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998); Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995); Ronald J. Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., eds., Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement: Philosophical and Theological Essays (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame, 1989); Bruno Forte, The Trinity as History: Saga of the Christian God, trans. P. Rotondil (New York: Alba House, 1989); Edmund J. Fortman, The Triune God: A Historical Study of the Doctrine of the Trinity (new ed., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982); Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology; William J. Hill, The Three-Personed God: The Trinity as a Mystery of Salvation (Washington: Catholic Univ. of America, 1982); Eberhard Jüngel, The Doctrine of the Trinity: God’s Being Is in Becoming, trans. H. Harris (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1976); G. A. F. Knight, A Biblical Approach to the Doctrine of the Trinity (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1953); Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991); Bertrand de Margerie, The Christian Trinity in History, trans. E. J. Fortman (Still River: St. Bedes, 1982); Alister E. McGrath, Understanding the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988): Jürgen Moltmann, History and the Triune God: Contributions to Trinitarian Theology, trans. J. Bowden (London: SCM Press, 1991); Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God, trans. M. Kohl (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981); Robert Morey, The Trinity: Evidence and Issues (Grand Rapids: World, 1996); Michael O’Carroll, Trinitas: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Holy Trinity (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1987); John J. O’Donnell, The Mystery of the Triune God (London: Sheed & Ward, 1988); Karl Rahner, The Trinity, trans. J. Donceel (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970); William G. Rusch, The Trinitarian Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980); Christoph Schwbel, ed., Trinitarian Theology Today: Essays on Divine Being and Act (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1995); John Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994); Peter Toon, Our Triune God: A Biblical Portrayal of the Trinity (Wheaton: Bridgepoint, 1996); Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1996); Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988); Torrance, Trinitarian Perspectives: Toward Doctrinal Agreement (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994); Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed., The Trinity in a Pluralistic Age: Theological Essays on Culture and Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997); Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); and A. W. Wainwright, The Trinity in the New Testament (London: SPCK, 1962).

3 See Andrew D. Clarke and Bruce W. Winter, eds., One God, One Lord: Christianity in a World of Religious Pluralism (2d ed., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993) and Ada Beanson Spencer and William David Spencer, eds., The Global God: Multicultural Evangelical Views of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998). In terms of Nicea, less orthodox attempts at reconceiving the Godhead are found in Jung Young Lee, The Trinity in Asian Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996); A. Okechukwu Ogbonnaya, On Communitarian Divinity: An African Interpretation of the Trinity (New York: Paragon House, 1994); and L. Boff, Trinity and Society, where Jesus and Mary are prototypical of the eschatological hypostatic union of the Logos in all men and the Spirit in women.

4 Tertullian (d. c. 225) wrote, “before all things God was alone, being his own universe, location, everything. He was alone, however, in the sense that there was nothing external to himself.” Adversus Praxean, 5. Zwingli echoed the same idea: “Since we know that God is the source and creator of all things, we cannot conceive of anything before or beside him which is not also of him. For if anything could exist which was not of God, God would not be infinite.” “An Exposition of the Faith,” in G. W. Bromiley, ed., Zwingli and Bullinger, trans. G. W. Bromiley (London: SCM Press, 1953) 249.

5 Hippolytus (d. c. 236), Contra Noetus, 10.

6 The words essence and person are difficult to define, nor is there consensus as to their precise meanings within the broader structure of the Niceno-Constantinoplan Creed. Beginning with the oneness of God, the Western view has largely understood the divine essence (Lat. substantia; Gr. ousia) as a spiritual reality (the sum of divine attributes) expressed in three subsistencies — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. From Augustine to Barth, analogies tended to conceive of Trinity in psychological terms (the threefold expression of one Being). Conversely, adopting social analogies, Eastern Orthodoxy focused on the relationships of three persons who share the same divine nature. Divine unity was confessed but left undefined (“mystery”) except in terms of perichoresis — the mutual indwelling of each member of the Godhead in the other. In the last thirty years, Western Augustinian-Thomistic essentialism has been increasingly set aside for Eastern Orthodoxy’s stress on Trinity as community.

7 Karl Rahner is famous for his repeated argument that “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and vice versa.” While most question the “vice versa,” few would deny that what God has revealed of himself in salvation history is true to what he actually is. Classical Christian faith holds that the biblical record reveals exactly but not necessarily completely (against Rahner) what God is in his transcendence and ontology. Against the Arians, the church fathers argued that God would exist as Trinity whether creation existed or not. At the same time, they employed biblical terms to articulate the eternal distinctions of the Godhead (while doing little to define the terms): the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and, in the West, from the Son.

8 Cf. Jn 1:1-3; Ro 11:36; Col 1:16-17; Heb 1:2; 11:3; Rev 3:14. Leonard Verduin, in Somewhat Less Than God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970) 11-13, questions the concept of ex nihilo creation, arguing that it assumes a time when God was uncreative — thus a state contrary to his nature. Verduin proposes a creation eternal in the past but ontologically dependent on God for its existence.

9 3The notion of God creating space within himself for creation is seen in mystical Judaism (the zimsum or self-limitation of God), Nicholas de Cusa, F. W. J. Schelling, E. Brunner and is articulated by Jürgen Moltmann in God in Creation, trans. M. Kohl (New York: Harper, 1985) 87: “1. God makes room for his creation by withdrawing his presence… The space which comes into being and is set free by God’s self-limitation is a literally God-forsaken space… 2. God ‘withdraws himself from himself to himself’ in order to make creation possible. His creative activity outwards is preceded by this humble divine self-restriction… 3. If God is creatively active into that ‘primordial space’ which he himself has ceded and conceded, does he then create ‘outwards’? Of course it is only through the yielding up of the nihil that a creatio ex nihilo is conceivable at all. But if creation ad extra takes place in the space freed by God himself, then in this case the reality outside God still remains in the God who has yielded up that ‘outwards’ in himself…” See also Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theodramatik II, 1 (Einsiedeln: Johannes, 1983); Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World, 376-396; O’Donnell, The Mystery of the Triune God, 159-182; and Thomas N. Finger, Self, Earth and Society: Alienation and Trinitarian Transformation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998) 306-312.

10 Various modern theologians propose forms of Christian panentheism (all is in God but God is more than the material universe) where God is said to incarnate hypostatically in the material world: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Heart of the Matter, trans. Rene Hague (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978) 15-102; Charles Birch and John B. Cobb, Jr. The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1981); Sally McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987) esp. 69-78; Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); and L. Boff, Trinity and Society, 230-231.

11 Especially the Cappadocians taught that the purpose of the Christian life was to enter into Trinitarian fellowship through theosis or divinization — a theology that continues central to Eastern Orthodoxy. Vladmir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, trans. Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius (London: James Clarke, 1957) 67-134; Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God, eds. J. H. Erickson and T. E. Bird (Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1974) 97-140; Thomas Hopko, “The Trinity in the Cappadocians,” in Christian Spirituality. Vol. 1: Origins to the Twelfth Century, eds. B. McGinn and J. Meyendorff (New York: Crossroad, 1989) 305-509.

12 In non-theistic philosophy the reason for reason is largely lacking, often determined by arbitrary factors such as language and genetics. Christian theologians (E. J. Carnell, R. Nash, N. Geisler) often assert that principles of reason are based on God’s own character. See John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio (1998); T. F. Torrance, God and Rationality (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1997); Norman Geisler, Philosophy of Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974, 1982) 87-309; Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason and Revelation (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1961).

13 Human choice or “free-will” is another phenomenon without adequate explanation in the non-theistic world, despite the fact that existentialism and humanism presuppose autonomous choice as foundational to their systems. Likewise, the pantheist has little if any explanation or place for human volition. Indeed, individual human consciousness (non-Atman) is what separates man from God, it must be denied in order to enter into unity of the All-Inclusive.

14 This is argued more extensively in J. S. Horrell, “O Deus Trino que se d, a imago dei e a natureza da igreja local,” Vox Scripturae 6:2 (Dec 1996) 243-262. See Jn 17:21-26. The Greek term perichoresis is often referred to in Latin as circumincession.

15 See Colin Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity. The 1992 Bampton Lectures (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1993); and R. J. Rushdoony, The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy (Philadelphia: Craig, 1971).

16 Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, 142-161, observes that, against Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin’s static vision of the universe, Trinitarian creation better corresponds with recent scientific discoveries reflecting more “freedom” and dynamism in the structure of the universe. Also T. F. Torrance, Reality and Scientific Theory (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985), 160-206.

17 From George W. S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1981, 1997).

18 See Alistair I. McFadyen, The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theology of the Individual in Social Relationships (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1990); Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) esp. 243-317; John Zizioulas, Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1985); and Donald Macleod, Shared Life: The Trinity and the Fellowship of God’s People (Fern, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 1994).

19 The Cappadocians understood the Godhead as communal, Basil even likening the Trinity to the first family of Adam, Eve and Seth (Epistula 38.4). Divine family has long been a secondary idea in Roman Catholic Mariology, as has (in all Christendom) the Savior’s self-sacrifice for the church as a marital model in Eph 5. See also Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., “The Perfect Family,” Christianity Today (March 4, 1988) 24-27; R. P. Stevens, “The Mystery of Male and Female: Biblical and Trinitarian Models,” Themelios 17:3 (April/May 1992) 20-24; and Randall E. Otto, “The Imago Dei as Familitas,” JETS 35:4 (Dec 1992) 503-513.

20 Tertullian, Clement of Rome, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria and the Cappadocians drew out various implications of a Triune God for church, although Luther and Calvin did not — Heinze Schutte, Im Gesprch mit dem Dreieinen Gott: Elemente einer Trinitrischer Theologie. Festschrift für Wilhelm Breuning, eds. M. Bohnke and H.-P. Heinz (Düsseldorf: Patmos, 1985) esp. 361-362. See also Miraslov Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, trans. Doug Stott (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) esp. 191-220; Stanley J. Grenz, Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living (2d ed., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998); and works in footnote 19.

21 Notable works include Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom; L. Boff, Trinity and Society; Charles Sherrard MacKenzie, The Trinity and Culture (New York: Peter Lang, 1987); Douglas M. Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989); and John Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives, 106-123.

22 In a helpful series, D. A. Carson, “The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God,” 1998 Griffith Thomas Lectures, Dallas Theological Seminary (pending Bibliotheca Sacra 156:621-624 (1999), discusses five different biblical foci of divine love: (1) the special intra-Trinitarian love; (2) God’s providential love over all creation; (3) God’s salvific love toward the fallen world; (4) God’s peculiar selecting love toward the elect; and (5) God’s conditional love toward believers related to their faith and obedience.

23 Richard of St. Victor (d. 1173), De Trinitate, 1.20, speaks of God as the Supreme Good and love: “It is never said of anyone that he possesses charity because of the exclusively personal love that he has for himself — for there to be charity, there must be a love that is directed towards another. Consequently where there is an absence of a plurality of persons, there cannot be charity.” He goes on to say that the only adequate expression of this infinite love (and joy and glory) is toward another person of equal capacity to receive it and to respond in a like manner. Although in Scotland, Richard of St. Victor’s elaboration on the Trinity as a community of love approximates the Eastern Orthodox perspective.

24 Brian Hebblethwaithe, “Perichoresis — Reflections on the Doctrine of the Trinity,” Theology 80:676 (July 1977) 257 states: “If personal analogies are held to yield some insight into the divine nature (perhaps because man is supposed to be made in the image of God), then there can be no doubt that the model of a single individual person does create difficulties for theistic belief. It presents us with a picture of one who, despite his infinite attributes, is unable to enjoy the excellence of personal relation, unless he first creates an object for his love. Monotheistic faiths have not favoured the idea that creation is necessary to God, but short of postulating personal relation in God, it is difficult to see how they can avoid it. There does seem to be something of an impasse here for Judaism and Islam. Hinduism, at least in its more philosophical forms, avoids this problem by refusing to push the personal analogies right back into the absolute itself. The personal gods of Hindu devotional religion are held by the philosophers to be personifications at a lower level of reality of the one absolute being, beyond all attributes. (Hence, incidentally, the so-called Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva is no real analogue for the Christian Trinity)” — as in Raimundo Pannikar, The Trinity and the Religious Experience of Man: Icon — Person — Mystery (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1973).

25 Scripture includes micro and macro (creation-destruction-recreation) cycles in linear time. Christian and Trinitarian perspectives of time are discussed in: James Barr, Biblical Words for Time (London: SCM Press, 1962); Emil Brunner, “The Christian Understanding of Time,” Scottish Journal of Theology 4 (1951) 1-12; Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time, trans. F. V. Filson (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964); John J. O’Donnell, Trinity and Temporality (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983); Arthur H. Williams, “The Trinity and Time,” Scottish Journal of Theology 39:1 (1986) 65-81.

26 Church fathers debated the concept of eternity, some defending that God exists in time, others that God in his transcendence exists outside of time. Siding with the latter, Augustine, The City of God XI, 6, suggested that time was created along with the universe. The debate continues today between classical Christian theologians and process and freewill theism advocates.

27 See T. F. Torrance, Space, Time and Incarnation (London: Oxford Univ., 1969) and Space, Time and Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976).

28 Athanasius, De incarnatione, 17.

29 If not merely metaphorical, the language of Scripture suggests that God the Father also can assume finite form within the order of creation (e.g., “the Ancient of Days,” “He Who Sits Upon the Throne”) — as can the Spirit (“like a dove”). See Amos Funkenstein, “The Body of God in 17th Century Theology and Science,” in Millenarianism and Messianism in English Literature and Thought 1650-1800, ed. Richard H. Popkin (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988) 150-175, traces how God “lost his body” in Christian theology; and Robert W. Jenson, “The Body of God’s Presence: A Trinitarian Theory,” Creation, Christ and Culture: Studies in Honour of T. F. Torrance, ed. Richard W. A. McKinney (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1976) 85-91.

30 Thomas Finger, “Modern Alienation and Trinitarian Creation,” Evangelical Review of Theology 17:2 (April 1993) 205: “As long as this space remains ‘empty’ enough for creatures to retain distinct identities, this image need not be panentheistic. I think it can help us conceive how the divine love is not really distant from our world, but still surrounds us; and how sin may not be running from God so much as pushing away the One who longs to draw near.”

31 From the Alternative Service Book of the Church of England (ICET, 1980) in Gerald Bray, Councils, Creeds and Christ (Leicester: InterVarsity, 1984) 206-207 (italics reflect the additions of the Council of Constantinople in 381).

Related Topics: Apologetics, Trinity

Preface to the Attributes of God

No study is of more importance or value than a study of the nature and attributes of God. It is our hope that these messages will enhance your knowledge of God, resulting in a greater love for Him and for others.

This material is from a series of messages on the attributes of God delivered by Bob Deffinbaugh, a teaching elder at Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas. Anyone is at liberty to use this material for educational purposes, with or without credit. Community Bible Chapel believes the material contained in this series to be true to the Word of God, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid to the study of God’s Word.

Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)


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We are going to study the life of Jacob today, and I find his story particularly intriguing because we get to see his whole family and how they interact. In modern language Jacob came from a real dysfunctional family, and we will see the influence bad parents can have on their children.

Just so you will know where we are headed in our study, it is my premise that Jacob’s messed up family life helped shape him into being a manipulative person. Jacob’s style of relating was one of manipulating others. He tried to control life and depended on himself, not God. God had to break Jacob of this bad pattern of relating. So, we are going to study what is revealed to us about the life of Jacob and his family and see how it is that God finally got through to him.

It is significant that the author of Genesis spends ten whole chapters on Jacob. He only spent 11 chapters describing the period from creation to the flood to the tower of Babel. He spends 14 chapters on Abraham (12-25) in which we see the establishment of God’s covenant with His people, the Jews. After a brief mention of the descendents of Ishmael (Abraham’s mistake, at least from a human perspective), we begin the saga of Jacob. It also significant that following the extended treatment of Jacob (the independent man), we have an extended section dealing with Joseph who was the epitome of faithfulness and dependence on God.

Jacob’s Family

Before we deal directly with Jacob, we will look at the rest of the family.

His Father - Isaac

What about Isaac? If you read Genesis and look for all the things Isaac did. You’ll find that not much space is devoted to him and he really didn’t do anything significant.

I was making a chart of Genesis and plotting the main characters or patriarchs to show what their main contribution and character were, and all I could come up with to describe Isaac was “Passive Acceptance.” He accepted his father’s near sacrifice of him, which is good, but the main point of that event is Abraham’s faith. Isaac did nothing else of significance in the entire book.

Isaac didn’t go out to find his own wife. I’ve been told, that it is a literary device in ancient Hebrew literature to have men first meet their wives at some well or spring. What happens at the well is indicative of the relationship. For instance, Moses met his wife at the well. He delivered her from the bandits. What he did there was a foreshadowing of his deliverance of Israel. Jacob met his wife at a spring. He had difficulty removing the stone so he could drink. That was a foreshadowing of the fact that Rachel’s womb would be closed and they would have difficulty having children. But Isaac didn’t even go to the well. His father’s servant went and found a wife (at the well) for him and brought her back home. I think this gives the reader an early clue as to his passive nature.

We will see other clues as we read through the narrative.

His Mother - Rebekah

All this weakness in Isaac let Rebekah take over. It was her natural tendency. I say that because it is every woman’s tendency is to want to take over when the man does not lead. In Gen 3:16, when it says the woman’s desire will be for her husband, it means that the woman’s desire will be to rule over her husband, because the next phrase is, “but he will rule over you.”

Isaac’s natural tendency was to be passive, so she took over the family and Jacob’s life.

Rebekkah had problems. When her twins are born, she shows partiality to Jacob, the non-hairy weaker looking one. Gen 25:27 says Jacob spent most of his time at home. So Rebekah takes over his life and arranges everything for him. She teaches him how to cook. She arranges for him to get the blessing, she arranges for his deliverance from Esau by sending him to her brother Laban, telling him everything will work out fine.

I think if we go to Gen 24:15 we might see one reason that Rebekah was like this. Notice that the marriage arrangements made by Abraham’s servant for Isaac and Rebekah are all made with Laban. Why? Their father is not dead. Rebekah’s father, Bethuel, is only mentioned in vs 15 as being the father and in verse 50 where he just acquiesses and gives permission for Abraham’s servant to take Rebekah. All the negotiations were made with Laban. I don’t think it is reading too much into the text to conclude that Bethuel was an uninvolved father. We can see the results in Rebekah. She had no advocate, so she took over and became a controlling woman. When she got married, she took over her family.

His Brother - Esau

The first thing that we learn about Esau is that he was a skillful hunter. I’m not sure this is such a great compliment though. Henry Morris points out that hunting was unnecessary because with the large heard of sheep, there was plenty to eat. This may mean that Esau was always away hunting as opposed to being at home helping with the chores and the sheep. We might conclude that he was irresponsible.

We do know that Esau was impulsive. He didn’t take his birthright seriously. He lived for the moment and didn’t care about God’s laws concerning marrying foreign women. Esau later married a daughter of Ishmael to try to please his father (not God). But it was too late and, even this is a paradox, because it shows that Esau cannot escape being out of the chosen line. His new wife is not of the chosen line either.

So I think we can see that Jacob came from a fairly typical family. His mother had a tendency to want to take control. The father let her. His brother was just a natural man concerned with the things of this world. This is the kind of family that Hollywood models for us. For example, The Cosby Show.

So how did all this affect Jacob? We’ve already seen some of it as we talked about the rest of the family, but let’s work through the ten chapters and see what we can learn.

The Stolen Birthright
(Genesis 25)

In verse 28 we see that Isaac favored Esau because he “had a taste for game.” Esau was the strong hunter. He was everything that Isaac was not, and perhaps Isaac, a weak man, was trying to re-live his life through his son’s life. Whatever the reason, it was an illegitimate one because it is never good to play favorites. I’m sure this had its ill effects on Jacob. He probably had to manipulate his father to get attention.

I’m not so sure this is as great an indictment against Jacob as it is against Esau. The author of Genesis only has comments about Esau and says, “Thus Esau despised his birthright” (vs 34).

I do think we can assume that Jacob knew that he was supposed to end up with the birthright eventually. I’m sure his mother told him what the Lord had told her. What this event shows us is that Jacob was not willing to wait on the Lord.

The Importance of the Birthright
(Genesis 26)

In chapter 26 we do see something significant. It is not what Isaac did, though. It is what God did for Isaac. Chapter 26 gives us examples of how God blessed Isaac. When the famine hit, God said He would be with Isaac and bless him—because of His promise to Abraham. Consequently, Isaac prospered in everything. Even though he lied to Abimelech about his wife being his sister, God looked out for him (10). His crops produced a hundredfold (12). He became rich (13). When the Philistines filled in his wells, he had no trouble digging and finding water (18-19). The significance of this chapter is that it demonstrates that the blessing which Isaac was to pass on in chapter 27 was something worth having. It wasn’t just a double portion of a sizable inheritance. It was the very blessing of God.

Chapter 26 sets the stage for what happens in chapter 27.

The Stolen Blessing
(Genesis 27)

It is very interesting to take chapter 27 as a play and separate it into scenes. Notice the interchange between characters. Who deals with whom throughout the play? Fokkelman points out the following:

Isaac sends Esau to get game Rebekah tells Jacob to prepare food for Isaac Isaac blesses Jacob
Esau returns but is not blessed Rebekah warns of Esau’s anger Rebekah tells Isaac to send Jacob away Isaac Rebekah Isaac Isaac Rebekah Isaac Esau Jacob Jacob Esau Jacob Rebekah

Act One - (27:1-4) - Isaac tells Esau to go get game

  • Isaac is about to disregard God’s word.
  • Esau is not going to honor his agreement with Jacob when he sold his birthright.
  • Rebekah overhears the conversation - Eavesdropping perhaps?
  • We don’t have this directly stated, but Fokkelman points out that when the author represents “Rebekah as an eavesdropper behind the scenes [that] is more pregnant than dwelling upon her plans and intentions.” And of course, it is her idea to deceive Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing.

Act Two - (27:5-17) - Rebekah tells Jacob to deceive Isaac

This is a perfect example of how she manipulated events to achieve what she thought was best. She knew God had said that Esau would serve Jacob. She knew Isaac knew it too. When Isaac decided to ignore God’s word, it was not Rebekah’s duty to go around Isaac and trick him. We know that because of the results that were achieved, namely, a torn up family. If she had had any type of relationship with Isaac, then she should have been able to talk to him, but they obviously did not.

I think this also illustrates how Rebekah has denied her husband and her marriage. Her priority should be to become one with and to support her husband. But we see that her child is more important to her than her husband.

Act Three -- (27:18-29) - Isaac blesses Jacob

Isaac is fooled by the smell of the clothing and the hairy arms and blesses Jacob.

Act Four - (27:30-41) - Esau is cursed

Esau had not forgotten his promise to Jacob. He mentions it in vs 36.

Act Five - (27:42-45) - Rebekah warns Jacob

Rebekah tells Jacob that Esau is going to kill him and that he must leave.

Act Six - (27:46) - Rebekah convinces Isaac to send Jacob away.

Another prime example of her manipulative style is seen in 27:46. When Rebekah fears for Jacob’s life, she goes to Isaac, and by using a logical reason that Jacob needed a wife, she manipulates Isaac into sending Jacob away. Her real goal was to protect him, not to find him a wife.

Rebekah never saw Jacob again. That was her reward for her meddling.

This is not a close knit family. There are definite problems in the relationships.

  • Notice that Esau and Jacob do not interact.
  • Notice that Esau and Rebekah do not interact.
  • It looks like we have Isaac and Jacob interacting, but remember that Isaac thinks it’s Esau.
  • And finally and perhaps most importantly, Isaac and Rebekah do not interact until the whole thing is over and she wants Isaac to send Jacob away.

So chapter 27 shows us again that Jacob could not wait on God to fulfill His promise to Rebekah.

The Dream
(Genesis 28)

It is ironic but Jacob is now leaving the promised land which was part of his blessing. It ought to be obvious to Jacob that there is something wrong with this picture. It ought to indicate that the way Jacob got the blessing was not what God would have planned.

However, we see that in spite of Jacob’s deceitful way of obtaining the blessing, God is going to honor it. I think in vss 20-21 we see that Jacob is still being a manipulator and he is trying to manipulate God. “If God will do ________, then He will be my God.” God has just promised that He will bless Jacob, but Jacob doesn’t really believe Him. He is trying to cut a deal.

We can also see by Jacob’s bargain that he is focused on physical blessings. He is a very horizontal man.

Dealing With Laban
(Genesis 29-31)

Jacob finally met his match. He finally meets someone who is as deceitful as he is. Laban had the same upbringing as Rebekah and he was a manipulator too. Perhaps the point is this: “There is always someone out there or some situation that you can’t handle.”

Chapters 29-31: tell how Jacob worked seven years for Rachel and then on his wedding night, Laban sent Leah into the tent instead of Rachel. He then worked seven more years for Rachel. Then he worked another six or seven years to build a flock of his own to provide for his family. There was much deception going on between Laban and Jacob as each tried to make his flocks grow larger, but in the end God blessed Jacob and he became very prosperous. He finally decides to sneak away to get away from Laban.


  • The father (Isaac) who goes against the oracle, ends up fulfilling it in the end with his own blessing.
  • Jacob’s own efforts to become lord of his own family only lead him into slavery to Laban.
  • Jacob, the younger brother, supplants the older brother. Laban says, “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the first-born.” (29:26) You know that has to remind him of his own deception.

The Wrestling Match With God
(Genesis 32)

In Genesis 32: we have the account of the wrestling match with God. Jacob is coming back to meet Esau and is wondering how his brother is going to react. When he left the land Esau was trying to kill him. He has sent his servants ahead (vs 3-5), bearing gifts to bribe Esau. He had resources he could use to save himself.

In verse 6 the messengers come back and say that Esau is coming to meet them with 400 men. It looks like Esau is bringing warriors to destroy them.

In verses 7-8 we see that Jacob devises another plan to save himself. He decides to divide his family putting Leah and her children and servants in one group and Rachel and her children and servants in another group. That way he can cut his losses if one group is destroyed.

Verses 9-12 show Jacob praying to God for deliverance. It looks like Jacob is going to finally give up and depend on God, but verses 13-23 show that he was really still trying to control the situation and save himself.

So I went back and re-studied his prayer in verses 9-12. It may be my imagination, but I think Jacob is trying to manipulate God in his prayer. In verse 9 he is claiming God’s promise that He would bless Jacob. In verse 10 he gives God the credit for his prosperity and then he again claims God’s promise to bless him in verses 11-12. It seems to me that Jacob was almost saying to God, “Come through for me God. You promised me. You owe me!”

So I don’t think his prayer was one of total dependence on God. Verse 13 proves it when we see he is going to continue with his plan to bribe Esau and to divide his family into two groups. The next few verses (13-23) lay out the elaborate scheme he had devised to protect himself.

But that night God, who is still trying to get through to Jacob, meets with Jacob. Verse 24 says, “Jacob was left alone.” It is such a little phrase, but I think it is very, very important. He had run out of resources. Jacob has finally been broken. Jacob is at the end of his rope. His life is a mess. He is all alone, he has exhausted his own resources and has to face Esau alone. I think Jacob is finally broken to the point where he will now trust in God.

What did God do to Jacob when He wanted to get hold of Jacob’s life? He revealed Himself to him.

As soon as we see that Jacob is alone, it says that “a man wrestled with him.” That man is God. We know that because Jacob is given a new name, “Israel” which means “he fights with God.”

Why does God say “let me go” in vs 26? Because daybreak would have revealed His face to Jacob and Jacob would have died. But Jacob wouldn’t let go. He says, “I won’t let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob has finally come to the point where he would rather die than live without God’s blessing.

Notice also that Jacob’s name was changed to Israel when he finally began to trust in God. Israel was God’s covenant name for the new nation. The name “Jacob” represents independence from God and “Israel” represents dependence on God. It is not a hard and fast rule, but it seems to me that there are certain places in the OT where God calls the nation, “Jacob,” instead of, “Israel,” and it is because they are acting independent.

Incidentally, after he meets with God, we turn to Gen 33:3 and see that although he left the people divided into two groups, instead of hiding behind them, he now goes out in front of them to face Esau alone. He now is depending on God and not his own resources. Esau receives him openly and it seems that there are no hard feelings. God has paved the way for Jacob to return to the promised land.

The story doesn’t end with the words, “And he lived happily ever after.” I’m sure Jacob continued to struggle with his tendency toward manipulation. But I think he had learned his lesson. What we’ve studied this morning gives us a good picture of possible circumstances and problems and the process involved in depending on God.


We’ve looked at Jacob’s family and Jacob himself this morning. So we need to ask the “So what” questions.

What about Jacob’s family? I think we can conclude that he was raised in a less than desirable family. His mother dominated and manipulated. His father was passive and did not follow God’s will. His brother was very worldly. He had no good role models to follow. So he developed a wrong style of relating to people.

Does this give Jacob an excuse? No! That is something we really need to emphasize because of the way our society thinks. We are not helpless victims. We either react wrongly to our environment or we act correctly I spite of our environment. Jacob reacted wrongly to his upbringing.

What was Jacob’s problem? He wanted to control his life, so he manipulated people. Jacob’s problem was he thought he could make it on his own without God.

We are just like Jacob because we try to handle life on our own without God.

  • Maybe we are looking for a best friend who is going to be there when we need them.
  • Maybe we are looking for that perfect job which is going to offer us security through a regular paycheck or give us enough money to buy the things we want.
  • Maybe we manipulate our spouses or other people to get the things we want.

But all this doesn’t work. I continually go back to Hosea 2:5-6 which says

5 Their mother has been unfaithful and has conceived them in disgrace. She said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my food and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink.’ 6 Therefore I will block her path with thornbushes; I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way. 7 She will chase after her lovers but not catch them; she will look for them but not find them. Then she will say, ‘I will go back to my husband as at first, for then I was better off than now.’

Jacob did this. And we do this. We think we can find happiness apart from God. We think we are in control of our lives. But God will not allow us to succeed without him. He will block our efforts to satisfy ourselves and lead us back to Him. I think we can see how he did this with Jacob. And if we reflect on our own lives a little, I think we can see how He does this to us.