5 Principles for Studying the Trinity

The Trinity has been “trending” lately in the blogosphere. I think that is a good thing insofar as theological debate often leads to greater theological clarity. Rather than wade into the contested areas, I thought it might be helpful to offer a broader, more constructive post for those of us (like myself) who, particularly in light of the controversy, see our need to keep “beefing up” our understanding of the Trinity. So here are 5 basic principles that I have reflected on in my own study of the Trinity that may be helpful for others. I have in mind especially lay Christians who are less involved in all the technicalities of the current debates, although in the fourth point I engage the current conversation a tiny bit.

Jonathan Edwards wrote in his Personal Narrative, “God has appeared glorious to me, on account of the Trinity. It has made me have exalting thoughts of God that he subsists of three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” May it be with us as we study this awesome doctrine.

1. Church history can significantly help our understanding of the Trinity

As modern evangelicals we often function as though all we need is the Bible to articulate the Trinity. Amidst other things that we might also say about this common sentiment, it is important to recognize that it is not a classically Protestant mentality. It is out of step with what sola Scriptura meant for the Reformers, who very much leaned upon the early creeds and confessions and “doctors” of the church. As Michael Horton puts it, “for the Reformers, sola scriptura did not mean that the church and its official summaries of Scripture (creeds, confessions, catechisms, and decisions in wider assemblies) had no authority. Rather, it meant that their ministerial authority was dependent entirely on the magisterial authority of Scripture. Scripture is the master; the church is the minister.”

Luther, for instance, affirmed the Apostles Creed as well as the Chalcedonian and Nicene formulations, and defended the use of terms like Trinity and homoousios against Martin Bucer who protested that we must use strictly biblical language. Writing to distinguish his cause from the Anabaptists, Luther even went so far as to declare:

“We do not reject everything that is under the dominion of the Pope. For in that event we should also reject the Christian church. Much Christian good is to be found in the papacy and from there it descended to us” (quoted in Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 81-82).

Calvin likewise drew much from earlier church history, especially the church fathers, to articulate the Trinity. He believed that words like ousia and hypostases were necessary to confront heresy, and he regularly appealed to arguments made by the church fathers. In the section on the Trinity in his draft of the French Confession, he wrote, “we receive what was determined by the ancient councils, and we hate all sects and heresies which were rejected by the holy doctors from the time of St. Hilary and Athanasius until St. Ambrose and Cyril.” In his dispute with Cardinal Sadolet, he insisted:

“Our agreement with antiquity is far greater than yours, but all that we have attempted has been to renew the ancient form of the church … [that existed] in the age of Chrysostom, and Basil, among the Greeks, and of Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine, among the Latins” (quoted in Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity, 266).

The best of the later Protestant tradition likewise drew from the wisdom of earlier generations, and never contented itself to simply repeat the language of Scripture. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “I am not afraid to say twenty things about the Trinity which the Scripture never said (Miscellanies #94).” According to Robert Letham, John Owen’s Communion with the Triune God contains 44 clear references to church theologians, and 27 of them are patristic, 7 medieval, and 10 Reformation/post-Reformation. He cited Augustine most, then Aquinas, then Tertullian, then Gregory of Nazianzus. Carl Trueman notes that several of Owen’s writings have “appendices containing quotations from a variety of patristic authors, Greek and Latin, as a means of reinforcing the arguments made in the main text.” He also notes that throughout his writings, Owen quotes Augustine more than any other single author (John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man, 11-12).

Like our Protestants forebearers, we modern evangelicals need to learn from the church catholic, and I would suggest that we especially need those parts of the Christian tradition that are furthest from our historical consciousness: early and medieval Christianity, and especially Eastern Christianity. One reason for this is that different doctrines have been sorted out to different degrees at different times in church history. So, for instance, if you want to grow in your understanding of sanctification, you do well to look at the 17th century Puritans; if you want to grow in your doctrine of Scripture, you do well to study the Old Princetonians; and so forth. If you want to grow in your understanding of the Trinity, you do well to study our patristic and medieval heritage—and not just the Western tradition from Augustine through Aquinas, but Eastern theologians like the Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil the Great), John of Damascus, Photius, and Gregory Palamas.

These Christians fought costly battles over the doctrine of the Trinity. Though their efforts were not infallible or comprehensible, they bequeath to us a shared technical vocabulary and a remarkable level of clarity and insight that we would be foolish to ignore.

If you want to dig into some classic historical theology on the Trinity, here are three classic texts:

An outstanding summary of the development of the trinitarian doctrine in the early church is provided by Hermann Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, pp. 279-296. Another excellent contemporary overview of the church’s reflection on the Trinity is “Part 2” of Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity.

Finally, though it is not as widely known as its earlier parts, “Book Four” of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity is outstanding. It’s called “Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity,” and basically you get classical trinitarianism in Lewis’ accessible, popular-level prose. In general its the clearest and simplest account of the Trinity I’ve ever read.

2. The Trinity is the God of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament

This might seem like a simple point, but its methodologically decisive for how we study the Trinity, and its contrary to the way Christians often think and function. We might not say it, but we often subtly conceive of the God of Noah, Samuel, and Daniel as some generic, vaguely uni-personal Deity. Or we give the impression that only God the Father is active in the Old Testament, with the Son and Spirit apparently lying dormant waiting for Bethlehem. At the very least, we often think of the revelation of the Trinity as exclusively a matter of the New Testament (even the brilliant William Lane Craig concedes this in his debate with Jewish apologist Tobia Singer).

But if the God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old Testament, then the God of Moses’ burning bush, the God who felled the walls of Jericho, the God who put fire in Jeremiah’s bones must be none other entity than the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is striking, for instance, that the New Testament authors will apply non-messianic texts to Christ (e.g., Psalm 102:25-27 in Hebrews 1:10-12). The revelation of the Trinity in the New Testament was not a contradiction of Jewish monotheism (as Singer portrays it), but its deepest fulfillment and clarification.

In the first place, the strict monotheism of the Old Testament is not at odds with the Trinity. For instance, the word echad (“one”) in the Shema need not entail absolute unity without qualification—the same word is used to describe how a man and woman become “one flesh” in marriage (Genesis 2:23). But more significantly,  I would argue that throughout the Old Testament there are partial, murky, hints of a plurality within the (one) God, to which New Testament revelation of God as a Trinity relates as a flower relates to a seed. While the Old Testament certainly doesn’t give you the clarity of the Athanasian creed, there are nonetheless indications that the God of Israel is more than simply and strictly “one” without qualification. Thus, I believe that if you had explained the Trinity to thoughtful, informed, Old Testament saints, they would not have replied, “no, this is contrary to our faith;” but rather, “ah, so that’s it! Much clearer now.”

Passing over other potential examples such as the plurals of Genesis 1:26-28, the identity of the “Angel of the Lord,” the personification of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22ff., Abraham’s three visitors in Genesis 18, and other texts like like Genesis 1:2, Daniel 7:14, Micah 5:2-5a, I here list five examples. None of these passages explicitly teach the Trinity, of course, but they are quite enigmatic and perplexing until you have the Trinity.

1) Isaiah 9:6: “His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Traditionally, Jewish interpreters see Hezekiah as the referent of these four titles. But it’s difficult to conceive of Hezekiah as “Everlasting Father,” let alone “mighty God”—all the more so in light of his despicable self-centeredness in Isaiah 39. So if this figure is not Hezekiah, who is it? How can a human being be “mighty God” (El Gibbor)? J. Alec Motyer comments, “translations like ‘Godlike Hero’ are linguistically improbable, sidestepping the implication that the Old Testament looked forward to a divine Messiah” (Tyndale commentary, p. 89). But a divine Messiah, of course, implies some kind of differentiation within the Godhead.

2) Psalm 110:1: “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’”

I am sure this one really puzzled the Rabbis. Who is this figure, differentiated from YHWH, yet nonetheless Lord (adonai) over David (v. 1) and ruling the nations (vv. 2ff.)? Jesus himself appealed to this verse in Mark 12:37 to confound the expectation of a mere human messiah: “David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” In its witness to this divine king-priest through whom God will rule the nations, this verse, too, hints at some kind of differentiation in the Godhead. Ultimately, it must be understood not only in light of the incarnation, but the ascension and glorification of Christ (cf. Peter’s use of this verse in Acts 2:34-35).

3) Joshua 5:13-15

“When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you for us, or for our adversaries?’ And he said, ‘No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, ‘What does my lord say to his servant?’ And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, ‘Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.”

The fact that this figure receives worship, and that the ground is made holy because of him (recalling the Lord’s manifestation to Moses in Exodus 3) suggests that he is more than a mere angel. Yet he is also referred to as “a man.” While perhaps this could be a generic theophany, the title “commander of the army of the Lord” seems to differentiate this figure from the Lord. (Is YHWH commander of the army of YHWH?) Many Christians have regarded this figure as some kind of pre-incarnate manifestation of the Son of God, sometimes connecting him with “the angel of the Lord” throughout the Old Testament. For instance, Matthew Henry claimed, “this Man was the Son of God, the eternal Word.” At the very least, we have hints here of some kind plurality within God.

4) Zechariah 12:10: “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”

In context, the speaker is YHWH: he is the “me” who is “pierced” (the word implies a “piercing” that results in death). There are grammatical complexities in this passage, and in general it is a difficult one to interpret (e.g., it’s unclear what comparison is being drawn in verse 11—mourning of the death of Baal in Caananite ceremony, or mourning for Josiah’s death in battle, etc.). But reading verse 10 in light of John 19:37 (and Revelation 1:7), as well as in light of other cryptically Messianic verses in Zechariah (e.g., 9:9, 13:7), we are justified in seeing the crucifixion of Christ here. Until you have an incarnate, divine, crucified Messiah, the notion of YHWH being pierced  must have been quite inexplicable.

5) Psalm 45:6-7: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”

If God is “one” in a strict, Unitarian sense, who is God’s God here? I recognize that even some Christians see the reference here strictly to the Davidic King’s throne and scepter, but that feels unnatural to me reading through these verses in the flow of the entire psalm, and I think I have warrant for that instinct in Hebrews 1:8-9. If that is right, then this passage, like the others, seems to suggest some kind of differentiation of persons within the Godhead. In light of the oddness of this verse on non-Trinitarian grounds, it is also worth noting Derek Kidner writes: “the faithfulness of the pre-Christian LXX in translating these verses unaltered is striking” Tyndale commentary, 189).

Space does not allow treatment of all the complexities of these passages, but hopefully these brief comments are enough to suggest that we have some data to work with in the Old Testament with respect to the Trinity. Historically Christians have detected the Trinity in these texts, and in most cases (except Joshua 5) we have precedent in the New Testament for taking them that way as well.

Therefore, when we read the Old Testament, we must remember that we are encountering the Trinity; and when we want to learn more about the Trinity, we should not neglect studying the Old Testament. In books as diverse as Leviticus, Job, and Micah, we have to do with the one God who is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

3. The Trinity is not just an abstract doctrine, but highly relevant to practical Christian living

We tend to think of the Trinity as an irrelevant, esoteric dogma, pursued only by ivory tower theologians. It’s important to affirm, of course, but other than that, its not good for much. But in the New Testament, the doctrine of the Trinity is part of the basic fabric of our witness, worship, unity, and mission. In John, for example, Christian unity is rooted in Trinitarian unity (17:11, 21); Christian mission is rooted in Trinitarian mission (20:21); Christian love is rooted in Trinitarian love (17:26). In their book Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: The Trinity in John’s Gospel, Andreas Kostenberger and Scott Swain show how especially important the motif of mission is to John’s understanding of the Trinity (e.g., 107, 171), which casts everything related to the doctrine of the Trinity in a practical light. As they put it:

“Belief in the Trinity is not merely needed on the intellectual, cognitive level as part of subscribing to an orthodox Christian creed; it is that very triune God who is rightly the ground, energizing force, and goal undergirding the Christian mission. The love and power of the triune God at once send us out and draw us in” (164).

This point came upon me forcefully when I was sitting at the Los Angeles Theology Conference in 2014 listening to Fred Sanders give a talk on the Trinity. (Fred has written a really helpful book on the Trinity called The Deep Things of God.) At some point early in his address Fred said something about how the Trinity is uniquely designed to do salvation, and I remember being quite struck with this thought. The question arose in my mind: could a Unitarian God become incarnate? Could a Unitarian God effect atonement? Could we have a “gospel” as such if God were uni-personal rather than tri-personal? The more I considered it, the more it became incomprehensible to me to consider how Jesus could have provided an effectual “atonement” on the cross if He and the Father were not personally distinct.

The Trinity really changes everything about the Christian life. You cannot even have a very distinct, reflective prayer life unless you think something about the Trinity, because when we pray, we are praying to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. John Owen argued that we should commune distinctly with each member of the Godhead, while also acknowledging that to commune with one divine person is to commune with the one God. So also our worship and service should be directed distinctly to each member of the Godhead—the Nicene Creed, for instance, says that the Holy Spirit “with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.”

I don’t think this entails that our worship and prayer cannot also be directed to the one triune God all at once. In our thinking of God, and in our worship and prayer to Him, we must hold together both God’s threeness and oneness. They should reinforce one another: the threeness should lead us to the oneness, and the oneness should lead us back to the threeness. But there is always the danger of the one divine essence morphing to function as a kind of hidden “fourth member” of the Godhead in our consciousness, as though there were something “left over” in the Godhead beyond and behind the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it: “the Trinity is not a further specification of a more determinative reality called god, because there is no more determinative reality than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (With the Grain of the Universe, 15). Karl Barth put it cleverly: “even Godhead exists only in and with the existence of Father, Son and Holy Ghost…. Only the One who is God has Godhead.”

In the Western tradition, we must be wary of the danger of emphasizing the oneness of God over and against his threeness. It is wrong to think of the threeness as a secondary elaboration of the more basic reality of oneness. This is an occasional tendency among evangelicals (sometimes reinforced by our systematic theology textbooks and our church tradition) that I believe leaves us with more impersonal, less intimate thoughts of God. Calvin claimed that this statement by Gregory Nazianzus “vastly delighted” him, and I believe it captures a healthy instinct for us to consider:

“No sooner do I conceive of the one than I am illuminated by the splendor of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one. When I think of any one of the three I think of him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that one so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light” (quoted in Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity, 267).

The most amazing and beautiful practical import of the Trinity, at least for me, is the way it recasts the nature of our heavenly worship, and thus the very purpose of our human existence. Looking at the world through a Trinitarian lens, the most basic reality is love and joy among Persons, and the most basic impetus behind creation and redemption is the spreading of this same love and joy to other persons. The whole point of our existence is that we be caught up into the explosions of glory happening within the intra-Trinitarian fellowship. As Jesus prays in John 17: “The glory that you have given me I have given to them” (John 17:22); “I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).

This is what George Marsden summed up as the core of Jonathan Edwards theological vision. It is a stunningly beautiful way to look at the world:

“God’s Trinitarian essence is love. God’s purpose in creating a universe in which sin is permitted must be to communicate that love to creatures. The highest or most beautiful love is sacrificial love for the undeserving. Those—ultimately the vast majority of humans—who are given eyes to see that ineffable beauty will be enthralled by it…. They will be drawn from their self-centered universes. Seeing the beauty of the redemptive love of Christ is the true center of reality, they will love God and all that he has created.”

4. It is problematic to either collapse or divorce the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity

The immanent (or ontological) Trinity refers to the interior life of the Father, Son, and Spirit in their eternal relations; the economic Trinity refers to the roles of the Father, Son, and Spirit in creation and redemption. In recent times some have wanted to obliterate this distinction altogether, often appealing to the famous rule of Karl Rahner that the immanent Trinity is the economic and vice versa. And it is certainly a valid concern that this distinction can be used in such a way as results in two distinct Gods, one revealed and one hidden (Karl Barth is always worrying about this). But in my view the distinction itself is a useful construct for safeguarding divine transcendence, since God is never exhaustively given over to us in the act of revelation, even while he is truly revealed to us. As Matthew Barrett puts it: “while we might allow the economic to reveal something about the immanent, it shouldn’t exhaustively define it.” This means we need to be especially careful, for instance, about applying verses about the incarnate Son to the eternal Son.

In the other direction, some place such an emphasis on the distinction between the immanent Trinity and the economic that they give the impression that we can virtually know nothing about the immanent from the economic. This is very much out of step with church history, particularly in the Western church, where the consistent instinct has been to recognize a genuine and vital relationship the economic and the immanent Trinity while nonetheless resisting the temptation to collapse them into one another. In Kostenberger and Swain’s book on the Trinity, they show that there has been a pattern of exegesis in the Western, Augustinian tradition in which “the triune missions reveal not only three distinct persons, but also how those three distinct persons eternally relate to one other” (Father, Son, and Spirit, 179). In the ways Augustine regularly argues in his De Trinitate, for instance, “temporal missions reveal and are rooted in eternal processions” (180).

This movement from the economic to the immanent has also been at the heart of the Western defense of the filioque (necessarily so, since there is no verse that says the Spirit proceeds from the Son in their eternal relationship). Similarly, Anselm will refer to the same principle when explaining why it is fitting, rather than arbitrary, that the Son became incarnate instead of the Father and the Spirit. In addition, this principle of arguing from the economic to the immanent has been at the heart of the church’s affirmation of the eternal generation of Son of God. This is important to see, since the doctrine of eternal generation is sometimes written off as a speculative leap based upon the mis-translation of monogenes (“only-begotten,” rather than “unique”). But in fact, the church’s belief in eternal generation has never depended on just one word, but on a variety of considerations rooted in the broader conviction that the triune God’s work in history is not arbitrary but a trustworthy revelation of who he really is. Bavinck even spoke of the incarnation as having its “eternal archetype” in the eternal generation of the Son (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, p. 320).

This principle is obviously relevant to the current controversy, as some have pointed out. Others have already addressed many of the larger points in the discussion (e.g., see the careful work of Luke Stamps and Matt Emerson)—here just I offer one small contribution, for whatever its worth, stemming from this immanent/economic distinction.

I would not depict the eternal relations of the Father and the Son in terms of “eternal functional subordination,” but along the more classical lines of generation (and procession, for the Spirit), with a clear affirmation of the unity of the divine will and the principle that the external works of the Trinity (ad extra) are indivisible. I also think there are many potential dangers in arguing for complementarianism on the basis of the Trinity, and I don’t think that should be our emphasis when engaging either doctrine.

Nonetheless, I’m not sure its right to remove the Trinity from gender conversations altogether. It seems to me that if you wade into the doctrine of the Trinity within a strictly egalitarian framework, you are going to have some slippery paths to navigate, even strictly on the grounds of eternal begottenness. Even leaving terms like “authority” or “submission” completely off the table, a Father/Son relationship is not exactly what you’d expect if the divine persons were the democratic, voluntary community of mutual deference and mutual submission that egalitarians tend to envision —”Brother, Brother, Spirit” would be vastly preferable, or perhaps simply “Three Friends.” (I know these labels are nonsensical, I am just throwing them out for conceptual comparison.) Granted, the divine Father/Son relationship is utterly unique, only analogically correlated to our own father/son relationships as human beings—but nonetheless it has been revealed to us specifically in these categories, and they cannot be simply arbitrary. And though I know that it is disputed, its difficult for me to envision how to cash out a father/son relationship as egalitarian in any real sense—it rubs too much against the presupposition that “equal status requires equal roles.” This is all the more the case if some kind of connection is allowed from the immanent Father/Son relationship to its economic expression, as has been the historical tendency. Therefore, although I would not rush to the Trinity to establish complementarianism as the first thing to do in all of theology, I think it is also a mistake to forbid the Trinity from doing any tampering with our modern conceptions about the nature of equality.

For some insightful and provocative examples of what it might look like for the Trinity to puncture egalitarian assumptions, C.S. Lewis’ novels are without rival. There is the scene towards the end of Perelandra, for instance, where the main character Ransom sees the two Oyarsa (angels) of Mars and Venus, and notices that one is masculine and one is feminine. As Lewis depicts, Ransom then realizes that gender is a “more fundamental” reality than sex, and therefore that “Masculine and Feminine meet us on planes of reality where male and female would be simply meaningless.” The follow-up book, That Hideous Strength, dramatizes this insight more thoroughly through the conversion of Jane Studdock. Jane is a quintessentially “modern” person with a distinctly egalitarian perception of the universe. She comes to believe in “a world beyond nature,” but regards it as “some neutral, or democratic vacuum where differences disappeared, where sex and sense were not transcended but simply taken away.” In the course of her spiritual journey, however, Lewis narrates that

“the suspicion dawned on (Jane) that there might be differences and contrasts all the way up, richer, sharper, even fiercer, at every rung of the ascent. How if this invasion of her own being in marriage from which she had recoiled, often in the very teeth of instinct, were not, as she had supposed, merely a relic of animal life or patriarchal barbarism, but there the lowest, the first, and the easiest form of some shocking contact with reality which would have to be repeated—but in ever larger and more disturbing modes—on the highest level of all?”

There is much more that needs to be said about Lewis’ views of gender, but what is most helpful is his way of showing the relevance of our conceptions of ultimate reality to our conceptions of the meaning of gender and equality. Which leads to my final point.

5. The Trinity reminds us of the Godness of God.

Studying the Trinity is a bit like studying subatomic particle movement in that it is so blatantly counter-intuitive that at points that at times you wonder how you can know anything at all about the subject matter. “The complex God of the Athanasian Creed,” in the words of G.K. Chesterton, is an “enigma for the intellect.” Nonetheless, in its very strangeness it has the ring and allure of truth. Truth is like that, the more you press into it: knotty, ambiguous, tangled. As C.S. Lewis put it:

“If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.”

I remember slogging through Barth literature years ago and hearing the phrase, “the Godness of God.” I like that phrase. It calls to mind the totality of the Creator/creation distinction. “God” is a different kind of thing than every other thing. The Trinity reminds us of that. It places him way above our intellectual means. It leaves us beggars.

John Calvin used the Trinity like this, to distinguish the true and living God from human idols and abstractions:

“God … designates himself by another special mark to distinguish himself more precisely from idols. For he so proclaims himself the sole God as to offer himself to be contemplated clearly in three persons. Unless we grasp these, only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God” (quoted by John Webster in Engaging the Doctrine of God, 114).

Bavinck said something similar: “the doctrine of the Trinity makes God known to us as the truly living God, over against the cold abstractions of Deism and the confusions of Pantheism” (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 260).

In the spirit of these statements, I find that studying the doctrine of the Trinity is valuable for reinforcing our awareness of God’s utter transcendence and uniqueness, as well as our own limitations in knowing him, and consequent need to bow low before His revelation of Himself to us, with awe and humility and striving at every point. Years ago I was writing about the Trinity and I wrote something of my reaction to this feeling. With a little updated language, I reproduce it here to finish this post:

The doctrine of the Trinity should either be dismissed at the outset, or is must restructure all our thinking. It must either be rejected or become the root and starting point for everything else. It is not one truth among other truths, waiting to be incorporated into an already functioning worldview. It must, if it is accepted at all, beget a new worldview in which everything else must now be looked at in the new light that it shines.



  1. Brilliant.


  2. Jeremy B.

    Great post, Gavin! Very helpful for a non-academic like myself.


  3. […] 5 Principles for Studying the Trinity | Gavin Ortlund […]


  4. […] 5 Principles for Studying the Trinity Gavin Ortlund (Soliloquium) “Here are 5 basic principles that I have reflected on in my own study of the Trinity that may be helpful for others. I have in mind especially lay Christians who are less involved in all the technicalities of the current debates, although in the fourth point I engage the current conversation a tiny bit.” […]


  5. […] Continue reading: https://gavinortlund.com/2016/07/12/5-principles-for-studying-the-trinity/ […]


  6. […] Gavin Ortlund – 5 Principles for Studying the Trinity […]


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