Doctrine of the Trinity: An Interview with Dr. Dennis Jowers
The confession penned in the Apostles Creed and confirmed by Christians around the world is that God is one, and we worship him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is unique to Christianity, and worth thinking about. It is also a concept difficult for many Christians to understand. Because of this I have decided to interview Dr. Dennis Jowers on the topic of the doctrine of the Trinity. Dr. Jowers is the Professor of Theology & Apologetics at Faith Evangelical College & Seminary. He holds a M.Th. and Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh and has written several articles concerning the Trinity, including analysis and critiques of the conceptual framework of scholars like; Thomas Aquinas, Karl Rahner, Jurgen Moltmann and Karl Barth. He has also edited a book on the topic, The New Evangelical Subordinationism? I hope this is a helpful discussion for anyone interested in learning more about the our Triune God. - Dan Marino
1. Why does the doctrine of the Trinity matter?
The doctrine of the Trinity matters for many reasons, the most important of which are three. First, two other central doctrines of the Christian faith, viz. the Incarnation of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit, presuppose it and are unintelligible without it. Second, the doctrine of the Trinity identifies for us the God whom we worship. We do not address our prayers “to whom it may concern,” but to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Spirit, or alternatively to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Third, the doctrine of the Trinity radically distinguishes the Christian God, the one true God, from all members of the pantheon worshipped by adherents of other religions.
2. How would you articulate the doctrine of the Trinity?
The doctrine of the Trinity consists fundamentally in five claims: (a) there is only one God; (b) the Father is God; (c) the Son is God; (d) the Holy Spirit is God; and (e) the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are really and eternally distinct from each other. Too frequently, Christians and others misconstrue the first of these claims, taking it to be consistent with the view that the divine essence constitutes a species of which the Father, Son, and Spirit are members. You and I, however, are distinct members of a single species, and when Christians predicate unity of God, they usually mean to attribute to him a unity vastly more intimate than which unites, say, all human beings or all frogs.
One can express the doctrine of the Trinity more precisely, therefore, by stating that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, albeit really and eternally distinct, are one and the same individual substance. This formulation of the doctrine, however, generates a quandary: how can the divine persons be the same individual substance without sacrificing their distinctness? Two considerations suffice to ameliorate, if not entirely to resolve, this difficulty. First, a merely rational distinction, i.e. a distinction in one’s ideas of two entities that may themselves be ontologically the same, between each of the persons and the divine essence, suffices to block inferences from each of the persons’ real, i.e. ontological, identity with the divine essence to their real identity with each other. This technical point of logic suffices to invalidate inferences from the divine persons’ ontological identity with the same essence to their ontological identity with each other. This consideration, however, supplies nothing approaching a positive explanation of how the persons could be really distinct from each other although they are not really distinct from the divine essence.
A second consideration moves one closer to this objective. Augustine famously observed that a human father and son are distinct as to their substances and as to their relations with each other. No one is his own father or his own Son. Manifestly, there can be no distinction of substances in one and the same divine substance. This does not imply, however, that opposed relations like those of fatherhood and sonship could not co- exist in the divine substance, i.e. God. One can express the doctrine of the Trinity more precisely, therefore, by asserting that although the Father, Son, and Spirit are one and the same God, they differ from each other by virtue of their opposed relations.
At this point, I am not even near a full and precise formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. To get there, one has to work into all this the doctrines of divine simplicity, the eternal generation of the Son by the Father, and the eternal procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son. Suffice it to say that a full and precise formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity as traditionally professed by Western Christians would include all that we have already said and the propositions (a) that in God, all things are one where no opposition of relation intervenes; (b) that two or three divine persons are not greater than one divine person; (c) that the Father eternally generates the Son; (d) that the Father and the Son, acting as a single principle, eternally spirate the Holy Ghost; (e) that the act of generation and spiration just mentioned, although real, are not really distinct from the opposed relations in the Godhead; (f) that the three divine persons, who possess only one will and one, undistinguished power, act as a single principle vis-à-vis creatures; and (g) that, notwithstanding all this, Christ’s human nature subsists only in the person of the Word, not in the person of the Father or in that of the Spirit. For the details, I recommend that readers consult Topic III in Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology or qq. 27–43 in the prima pars of Aquinas’ Summa theologiae.
3. How does the doctrine of the Trinity fit into the story of the Bible?
Scripture attributes various acts performed by all three persons of the deity to one in particular in order to produce in salvation history a pattern of relations that imprecisely images the divine persons’ actual, eternal relations. One can understand this, however, only if one considers Scripture’s narrative in the light of those didactic portions of Scripture that explicitly teach about the three persons of the Godhead.
4. What is the most common misunderstanding regarding the Trinity that you have seen in the Church and how would you respond to it?
Too often, persons take no account of divine simplicity. That which explains everything else cannot itself consist in parts; for, then, those parts would account for the being of the supposed universal explanans so that they, rather than he, would be the first principle from which everything else originates. There can be no composition in God, therefore: no real distinction even of attributes.
This, a traditional Western understanding of the doctrine of divine simplicity, makes the doctrine of the Trinity mysterious. The doctrine of the Trinity claims that God, in whose being there can be no division, no fissure of any kind, consists nevertheless in three really and eternally distinct persons. Because relations are orientations toward another and possess no being in and of themselves, incidentally, they can distinguish the divine persons from each other without introducing composition into the divine substance.
Too often, furthermore, persons imagine that the divine persons are a kind of club that consists in three distinct centers of consciousness and action. This is not the case at all. Each of the divine persons qualifies as a person, because he is identical with the one divine essence, which possesses will, freedom, intelligence, the power to act, etc.: everything one needs to qualify as a person except incommunicability, i.e. incapability of being shared by more than one subject, which the persons’ distinguishing relations supply. The notion that God has three minds, three wills, or three powers is highly unorthodox.
5. What are some good resources for someone wanting to study the Trinity?
Besides the books recommended above, Augustine’s On the Trinity merits reading and re-reading, and the second volume of Herman Bavinck’s Dogmatics is also quite helpful.
6. How would you encourage someone struggling with the idea of a Triune God?
I would encourage such a person to attend to two considerations. First, whatever created this vast universe must be profoundly different from and superior to the universe as a whole and everything contained in it. One should expect God to be incomprehensible, therefore. A god who is small enough to be comprehensively understood by human beings can only be an idol.
Second, even if someone finds himself incapable of resolving a difficulty for Christianity himself, this does not justify him in defecting from Christianity. For theologians have composed countless reams of books that answer virtually every skeptical question one could ask about Christianity many times and in many different ways. One should not assume that because he cannot resolve a problem, the problem must be utterly insoluble.
Only extremely shallow persons, moreover, fail to recognize and grapple with profound difficulties for their world views. If someone really wants truth, therefore, he will encounter the same kind of intellectual difficulties he confronts as a Christian, regardless of which worldview he adopts. Instead of imagining that we can rid ourselves of the burden of thinking hard and living with mystery, Christians should remember Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question about whether his closest disciples would also leave him: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” One who cares about truth will inevitably struggle with intellectual difficulties for his entire life, regardless of which religion or worldview he chooses to profess.