Trinity and the Bible — Dr. Carl L. Beckwith
This was the most clear and accessible presentation I heard. It was precise, extremely helpful, and most edifying. It was one of the few to actually exhort and encourage, while also being academically sound. This under- recognized scholar of the LCMS wrote the excellent book The Holy Trinity in the Confessional Lutheran Dogmatic Series.
Dr. Beckwith used two Bible passages (Jn. 5:19 and Jn. 16:13) to highlight the stark contrast between modern and pre-modern interpretation. He did so by tracing the change in understanding of these significant trinitarian texts. He illustrated that grounding the theology of the Trinity in God’s Word is massively important, especially in the face of errors creeping in among supposedly Christian theologians. As modern scholars give up trying to base the historic understanding of the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the words of Scripture, the name of God and the salvation given in Baptism are sure to be lost as well.
The modern situation is bleak in regards to how academic theologians and professional interpreters treat this important doctrine. Major theologians were cited as saying that the doctrine of the Trinity is “absurd,” and not at all to be found in Scripture. It is claimed by some that there did not exist any such teaching when any part of the Bible was written. In the scholarly domain today, some more “conservative” critical scholars might say that the so-called theory of the Trinity, if alluded to in Scripture, was not “fully formed,” since in their view it developed and evolved later in the Christian church. The “scholarly anti-trinitarianism of our day” is rampant and widespread in the academy. Real exegesis—bringing the truth of God’s nature out of the inspired words of the Bible—is quite rare.
The early church fathers, though, insisted that Scripture not only was compatible with the Nicene exposition of the Trinity, but that it explicitly taught it. Our confession of God must actually be derived from and founded upon God’s Word. The source of the teaching of the Trinity must be God’s Word, in order to be the true, revealed doctrine. The Roman church, in more recent times, has taught that this uniquely Christian confession of God is implicit in Scripture, but is to be believed on the authority of the church, not Scripture itself. Luther and the Reformers who followed him said that they believed the Nicene Creed because of Scripture.
Particular interpretations of key trinitarian passages have shifted in large part due to how Scripture is now read and approached. Moderns read Scripture differently. To read like the pre-moderns is considered unscholarly and virtually impossible. But in taking this attitude, the doctrine itself becomes detached from Scripture, thereby making it “false doctrine.” At best, the old trinitarian formulations are irrelevant to modern theologians, destroying the basis for the Trinity, so that it is lost. This is why the same texts teaching the Trinity are read so divergently today.
The error of the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) is an ancient heresy that has become in vogue, especially among morally conservative theologians trying to use the idea of the Trinity to uphold God’s order of creation and combat female ordination.
Dr. Beckwith explained the teaching of the Trinity using Baptism—in other words, the Christian life. He did not start in the theoretical realm, but with the sacrament Christ instituted to give life to every disciple. The teaching of the Trinity is not an intellectual appendage or impractical theory. Through Baptism and its divine calling, the name and nature of God affects all worship and daily life lived in Christ. It is a sad fact that for many so-called Christians removing the Trinity from their lives would not change much for them, illustrating that perhaps the God they think they worship is not actually relevant to them.
For the Christian baptized into God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit the Trinity is the most practical and necessary knowledge, since Baptism “defines our whole life.” The whole Trinity works salvation, and the words of Baptism deliver it. Dr. Beckwith cited the Small and Large Catechism, along with the Formula of Concord, to show that a correct understanding of Baptism—the Christian calling— involves the whole Trinity. For those who buy into the error of ESS, the minimizing of Baptism must also follow.
Pre-modern Christians spoke highly of Baptism, because of the Triune God who works through it. They could even speak of Baptism as “illumination” itself, since it gives the new birth to God. Even though moderns use the language and traditional creedal formations about the Trinity, without a firm biblical grounding it becomes merely a creative analogy. Many modern theologians use the idea of the Trinity to make some intellectual point or to build a theology according to their personal aims. Those who do this redefine God and establish their trinitarian ideas only by their own authority, not God’s Word.
Post-enlightenment theologians in the academic world are preoccupied with method. They see interpreting Scripture not as a sacred task to be done in the Spirit, but a mechanical, scientific activity. It is assumed that if the method is good, the correct meaning will be churned out, regardless of the actual belief or attitude of the one interpreting. The text is held at arm’s length, so that even an atheist expects the meaning to be extracted by his neutral method.
The early Christian theologians approached Scripture much differently. It was not a foreign item to be studied objectively, without bias or presupposition. Rather, the Word was to be worshipped and adored, so that reading and understanding it, even for the religious scholar, was a spiritual activity, requiring the Spirit given in Baptism. How the reader approached it was most crucial. If we approach it without faith, it cannot be understood by man’s own reason or might. Augustine’s favorite dictum (from Is. 7:9), according to the Latin version, was “unless you believe you will not understand.” To know God is to hear and understand His Word—and vice versa. The Spirit, not a method, is the most crucial aspect to reading Scripture and doing right theology. Understanding is given by the Spirit. Reading Holy Scripture is an act of worship, and therefore to be done in accordance with our Baptism.
Various historical interpretations of John 5:19 were cited to show exactly how the doctrine of the Trinity is affected by different orientations to Scripture. Heretics modern and ancient plying the subordination of the Son (ESS) have misused this particular verse to say that the Father is superior in authority to the Son, from eternity, thereby making the Son (and the Spirit) lesser than the Father—denying that He is of the same substance or divine essence (homoousios, which is used in the Nicene Creed). This makes God more than one, or Christ merely a creature, if carried through logically. In our version of the Nicene Creed it reads: “Being of one substance (homoousios) with the Father,” affirming that the Son is not less divine than the Father, but equal in power, authority, and divinity.
The verse in question reads (in the ESV): “So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise’.” Since the Council of Sirmium in 357, trinitarian errorists have said this verse must mean that Son is not equal to God, but dependent and subordinate to the Father. The “forgotten exegesis,” as Dr. Beckwith labeled it, is that this verse was used to prove the equality of the Son to the Father. The pre-modern argument goes: If the Son does the things only God can do, then he must also be God. Jesus does the things only God can do: create, forgive sins, raise the dead, etc. Oneness of works shows oneness of nature—not a hierarchy of authority. In fact, Christ Himself authorizes this line of reasoning: “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:37-38). Since what Christ gives (His spiritual gifts) belongs to the divine majesty, He is truly God—one in power and authority with the Father.
How did the vast majority of pre-Enlightenment orthodox Christians understand the phrase “the Son can do [perhaps better read as does] nothing of his own accord?” The Father is from no one, unbegotten. The Son is the only-begotten of the Father, therefore all He does is not separate from the Father, but from and of the Father. The eternal Son, equal in power to the Father, is never independent or self-existing—rather, He is eternally begotten of the Father. Therefore all the works of the Son are done from the Father, since the Son is from the Father eternally.
The Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and Son, is described in a similar way: “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take from Mine and will disclose it to you” (John 16:13-14). Again, this is not a functional ranking of power or authority, but speaks of the very nature and essence of God and the eternal relations between the three persons. Since the Spirit is revealed in Scripture as eternally proceeding, He does nothing on His own.
These verses speak of the eternal relations between the three co-equal persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They do not describe an ordered ranking within the Godhead. The origin of each person defines His works. In this careful reading the other verses of Scripture affirming the equality and co-eternity of each person of the Trinity are kept inviolate. Using the two passages from John, it is asserted that the Son works as He is, and the Spirit works as He is—from eternity.
The Baptist theologian Bruce Ware is singled out for explicitly saying that the “Father possesses the place of supreme authority,” so that Christ submits from eternity, being of supposedly lesser authority and divinity. This is not speaking of just the human obedience of Christ in His humiliation, but denies the biblical understanding of God the Son from eternity.
Dr. Beckwith brought to light troubling points in the ESV translation and one major error in the ESV Study Bible. John 16:13-14 reads in the ESV: “for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” The word “authority” is inserted without cause—it is not in the original Greek text. In John 12:49 the same intrusion of the word “authority” occurs: “For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak.” The NASB renders it more accurately: “For I did not speak on My own, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak.”
Dr. Beckwith exposed the fact that the ESV Study Bible notes make the Father to have supreme authority and the Son to have a lesser delegated authority—so they cannot be equal in divinity. While the verses are poorly translated, they do not equate to an anti-Nicene doctrinal error, but they could easily lead to it. The study notes of the ESV, however, are guilty of the ESS heresy. Unfortunately, some who are promoting this error use the traditional terms, but with radically different, and heretical, meanings. The meaning is what counts.
Though not mentioned in the presentation, it appears that all of the offensive notes teaching ESS have been removed or replaced in Lutheran Study Bible, which is based on the ESV Study Bible (Mt. 11:27, Mt. 28:18; Mk. 10:40, Jn. 3:34-35, 5:18-19, 12:49; Acts 1:7, 2:33, Eph. 1:4; the note for 1 Cor. 11:3 reads “The relationship does not make the Son inferior”).
The Bible teaches the Trinity directly and clearly. But it is helpful to read with those who have gone before us to help us avoid these sorts of errors. Tradition does not establish doctrine, but it does have value in that we can learn from those who have wrestled with the holy text, in the Spirit, before us. We are exhorted to practice our Baptism, to live in the calling God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gave us. We are to confess the true God, just as He reveals Himself, and live in the salvation He gives us. –ed.