The Church, the Bible, and the Trinity of Divine Persons

Did you know that the word “person” comes to us through Catholic philosophy and theology?

Theatrical masks of Comedy and Tragedy, Roman mosaic, (2nd c.).

It’s true, although the word existed before Christianity in a different context. Etymologically, the word “person” originally comes from a Latin word meaning “sounding through” (personare), which referred to actors speaking through a mask in the theater. In other words, the character in the play was a “person.” “Persons,” in the theatrical sense, weren’t just extras, but characters with speaking parts. From this, the word came to denote an individual of rank or dignity (a connotation still preserved in the word “personage”).

Later, this word would be expanded to all humans. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, since “subsistence in a rational nature is of high dignity, therefore every individual of the rational nature is called a ‘person.’” Put another way, our rational natures make each of us “persons,” in the sense of having been imbued with God-given dignity and nobility. We’re not stage props or even extras in the drama of salvation history.  Rather, each and every one of us is an important character (with “speaking parts,” if you will), and in whom the Director is keenly interested.

The word “person” took on all of its modern connotations during the Trinitarian and Christological debates in early Christianity. We needed some way to describe the distinction and relation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we needed a way to describe the relationship of the Divine and Human natures in Jesus Christ. But all of this terminology is a theological development that took centuries. Aquinas acknowledged this, explaining why the word “Person” should be applied to God, even though it is not found applied to Him anywhere in  Scripture:

Although the word “person“ is not found applied to God in Scripture, either in the Old or New Testament, nevertheless what the word signifies is found to be affirmed of God in many places of Scripture; as that He is the supreme self-subsisting being, and the most perfectly intelligent being. If we could speak of God only in the very terms themselves of Scripture, it would follow that no one could speak about God in any but the original language of the Old or New Testament. The urgency of confuting heretics made it necessary to find new words to express the ancient faith about God. Nor is such a kind of novelty to be shunned; since it is by no means profane, for it does not lead us astray from the sense of Scripture. The Apostle warns us to avoid “profane novelties of words” (1 Timothy 6:20).

As Aquinas notes, we must use non-Biblical language, when the Biblical language is being interpreted heretically (the alternative being to define the Biblical word with itself). So, for example, a lot of Catholic-Protestant debates have important terminological disputes: what St. Paul means by “faith” and “works,” for example. By Aquinas’ logic, it may be helpful to clear up these disputes by using word other than “faith” and “works,” to try to get at what we mean in clear and precise language that hasn’t been clouded by heresy.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo,
Pope St. Clement Adoring the Trinity (1738)

So why do I bring this up? Because it has important implications for how we understand the relationship of Scripture to the faith.  All orthodox Christians accept the doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that there is One God Who is Three Persons. But to accept this requires accepting the ability of the Church to develop doctrine and refine terms, even using non-Biblical language, in order to preserve the Biblical truth.

But this is a concession that quite a few Evangelicals stumble over. I’ve heard more than a few sola Scriptura-believing Protestants argue against Catholic doctrines on the basis that the wording or phrasing isn’t Biblical: some variation of the argument, “Where is the word ‘Purgatory’ in the Bible, anyhow?” But you cannot have it both ways: if “Purgatory” is out for lack of an explicit mention, so are the Three “Persons” of the Trinity.

With that in mind, consider the first two prongs of the US National Evangelical Alliance Statement of Faith:

  1. We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God. 
  2. We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I mentioned on Monday how different these confessional statements are from the ancient Creeds, since “unlike every Protestant statement of beliefs that I know of, there are no references to Scripture in the early Creeds.” Both the Apostles’ Creed and the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed follow a basic pattern: they start with the Father, and proceed to the Son, then to the Holy Spirit, then to the Church, and then to any specific doctrines. That order makes sense. The Father sends the Son, who sends the Holy Spirit, who leads the Church, who defines and declares doctrines. It’s top-down, from God to the Church to us. We trust in the Church’s doctrines because we trust in the Church; we trust in the Church because we trust in the Triune God.

In contrast, the above Statement of Faith begins with a declaration of faith, not in God, but in Scripture. The authority of Scripture, whose canon and authority cannot be proven but through the Church, is simply accepted as a starting assumption. This statement even goes so far as to describe Scripture, rather than Jesus Christ, as the only “Word of God.” Contrast that claim with John 1:1, 14, Revelation 19:13, Hebrews 11:3, etc.

But the point of the first prong of the Statement of Faith is to cut out a need for the Church: you can get everything you need from the Bible, so the Church needn’t be infallible. But this exposes an absurd irony.The first prong undermines the authority of the Church, while the second prong relies upon the authority of the Church, and upon Her ability to develop, define, and refine doctrinal issues. Without that development, definition, and refinement, you can’t get to “there is one God, eternally existent in three persons.” It’s easy for the US National Evangelical Alliance Statement of Faith, but only because the Catholic Church did the work for them.

In describing God as Three Persons, they’re using precise Catholic theological language, just as much as they would be if they called Him Three Hypostases in One Ousia. In trying to cut out the role of the Church (to affirm “the only infallible, authoritative Word of God,” Scripture), they end up cutting out the branch they’re sitting on.

For more on the role of doctrinal development within Catholicism, check out this post: Su Doku and the Development of Doctrine.

15 Comments

  1. Joe said,

    But the point of the first prong of the Statement of Faith is to cut out a need for the Church: you can get everything you need from the Bible, so the Church needn’t be infallible.

    Except is it by the grace of infallibility that the Church wrote the New Testament infallibly, that is, without any errors.

    And if the Church is not infallible, what certainty do they have that the canon of Scripture is correct?

    At some point, the Church was infallible, at what point did it cease to be infallible?

    Did Jesus really establish a Church in order that everyone could snub their nose at her?

  2. Your post is sheer genius. To maintain sola Scriptura in working order, certain things like the canon and the doctrine of the Trinity must be accepted as a given, because they simply cannot be proved from Scripture alone. The less discussion about these “givens” in a Protestant context, the better….

    1. Thanks! And yes, that’s exactly what I would argue: that Protestantism relies upon the Catholic Church for all sorts of core beliefs (Trinitarianism, Chalcedonian Christology, the Scriptures, etc.) which it cannot achieve authoritatively by its own lights. It then rejects the authority of this same Church to adjudicate those issues on which Catholics and Protestants disagree.

      I.X.,

      Joe

  3. Joe,
    Forgive me of my ignorance of how these blogs work:

    Is it possible to solicit your response on a previous blog/thread….perhaps even one of a few years ago?
    I have been reading past blogs with great interest but did not know how to contact you to reactivate a previous conversation.

    Again my apologies to the normal flow of your blog site and my intrusion into this specific thread topic.

    Tom

    1. Tom,

      Thanks for asking. I’m generally okay with comments on old posts. Due to time constraints, I don’t respond to every comment, and I tend to give preference to comments on current posts over old ones.

      As a general rule of thumb, the clearer your question is (and the less background reading it requires to answer), the more likely that I (or someone else) will be able to get to it. God bless!

      Joe

  4. Thanks Joe,
    I understand how busy you must be. To the point:

    Ref: Tuesday, June 1, 2010
    Matthew 23:37, Free Will, and Irresistable Grace

    You stated that:

    “So even the desire for Baptism is a grace from God not our own.” AND
    (Paraphrasing): Our free will enables us to reject God and therefore lead us to damnation.

    My question is therefore, why isn’t the ‘desire’ for God (love of God, desire to repent, etc) also possible as the positive essence of free will just as the swimmer has the rejecting negative essence of free will? Isn’t free will in both the negative and positive senses an artifact of our God-given, created in His image, gift of creation?

    [Note: I couldn’t tell by your comment if it was appropriate to state a question to an old post here or limit it to that old post area. Sorry if I violated a protocol. [This question was also added to that referenced blog post.]]

    1. If I understand your question, the answer is “yes”. We can choose to do right and we can choose to do wrong.

      CCC 1711 Endowed with a spiritual soul, with intellect and with free will, the human person is from his very conception ordered to God and destined for eternal beatitude. He pursues his perfection in “seeking and loving what is true and good” (GS 15 § 2).

      Romans 6:16
      Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?

      Sincerely,

      De Maria

    2. De Maria,

      Thank you so much for your reply but the fundamental issue is still unanswered:

      In the referenced post, Joe concluded that:
      “So even the desire for Baptism is a grace from God not our own.” Which basically says that we can not, because of our sinful nature, even desire God.

      My question is really one that addresses that conclusion with respect to free will. In the analogy of the drowning swimmer, Joe rightfully concludes that we can not save ourselves; that is only the result of God’s grace. I agree.

      However, what is precluding the drowning swimmer from ‘desiring’ God’s (salvation) due to the swimmer’s God-given free will to know good and evil? It seems to me that even the drowning swimmer, unable to save himself, would still have the desire to be saved, given his God-given free will which allows him to know good and evil thus accepting or rejecting God’s saving grace.

      Blessings

      Tom

  5. TRUTH AND AUTHORITY?

    Where should Christians look for God’s authoritative truth? Should it be the Bible? Should it be the church of your choice or the church you belong to by chance?

    The Bible was completed in 95 A.D. when the apostle John wrote Revelation. Who wrote the Bible? Was it God or was it the church?

    John 14:24-26 He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent me. (THE WORDS JESUS SPOKE WERE FROM GOD THE FATHER) 25 “These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all the I said to you.

    The words of Jesus were from God the Father and He said that The Father would send the apostles the Holy Spirit so they could remember all that He said. The words of the apostles were God’s word, their words were Scripture, their words were the Bible.

    In, John 14:24-26, Jesus was not talking to the Pope, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Billy Graham, Joesph Smith Jr, Mary Baker Eddy, cardinals, bishops, elders, so-called modern day apostles, preachers, pastors, nor any one claiming to speak for God. If the church or theses men as individuals, were speaking for God by new revelation, then, we would have added books to the Bible. There would the books of the Popes, the book of John Calvin, the book of Billy Graham, the books of elders, the books of churches, the book of Joesph Smith Jr. etc.

    THE BIBLE IS THE AUTHORITY IN THE CHURCH.
    THE CHURCH HAS NOT BEEN GIVEN THE AUTHORITY TO CHANGE OR OVERRULE THE AUTHORITY OF THE BIBLE. THE CHURCH CANNOT ADD TO OR TAKE AWAY FROM SCRIPTURE!

    YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY CHRISTIAN BLOG. Google search>>> steve finnell a christian view

    1. Steve,

      You’re not really interacting with any of the serious arguments. Both Catholics and Protestants believe that the Bible is authoritative. The Protestant view is that the Bible is the only authority. Catholics reject this as unbiblical, and view it as logically incoherent, since no Book of the Bible tells you which Books belong in the Bible. Nor is this merely a theoretical danger: Martin Luther immediately removed seven Books from the Bible.

      So without some authority outside of Scripture, the canon of Scripture falls completely apart.

      The only serious question is whether that extra-Scriptural authority will be the Church, manmade Protestant Tradition, or your gut feeling about which Books belong in the Bible.

      I.X.,

      Joe

  6. If you are interested in some new ideas on the Trinity and religious pluralism, please check out my website at http://www.religiouspluralism.ca. It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or “Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the “body of Christ” (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    For more details, please see: http://www.religiouspluralism.ca

    Samuel Stuart Maynes

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