Finding a Biblical Christology Within a Trinitarian Monotheism
Tertullian (c. 160-220 AD) is officially given credit for coining the term “Trinity” to refer to the triune nature of the Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The term itself is nowhere used in the Biblical text, but the majority of Christian traditions have accepted “Trinity” as a sufficient way of describing the three-in-one relationship of God.
The Biblical text, specifically the NT, references the Father, Son, and Spirit in about 120 different passages (e.g. Matt 28:18-20; Jn 14-17; Acts 2, etc.). Jesus of Nazareth began a fringe movement within a strict monotheistic Second Temple Judaism that would in time overtake the entire Roman Empire.
In the beginning, Christ’s claims to divinity set forth an early “binitarian devotional pattern” which revealed a plurality within the one God. The doctrine of the Trinity would eventually arise during the patristic age in an effort to accommodate the lordship of Jesus and the experience of the Holy Spirit into a Trinitarian monotheism.
Larry Hurtado makes the following observation:
It may not be sufficiently recognized by historians of dogma or contemporary theologians that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is essentially a christologically shaped statement of monotheism. To be sure, the earliest Christian texts reflect a triadic experience of “God,” comprising the sense of “God” (“Father”) as the source and ultimate destination of all things, Jesus as the essential and unique agent of divine purposes through whom creation is now to be seen and through whom also redemption is provided, and the Spirit is the impartation and gift of “God” that is at the same time also the advocate and medium through which believers receive a filial status that derives from Jesus’ own unique divine sonship. So, if it is a bit anachronistic to speak of “trinitarian” theology in the NT, it is right to see the roots of this doctrinal development in this body of texts.
Questions of Jesus’ relationship to God within a Trinitarian monotheism, while being the very God-man himself, naturally leads the student to consider the incarnation of Christ—the divine and human natures of Jesus. How can both natures coexist in one person? How can Jesus be fully God and fully man at the same time?
In pursuit of discovering the truth about the real identity of Jesus, the scholar must ask: “Can the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history be held together?” Millard Erickson concludes: “Since the Jesus of history is approached through reason and the kerygmatic Christ is seized by faith, we are apparently dealing with a case of the classic faith-reason dichotomy.”
The kerygmatic Christ and the historical Jesus are the same person. Therefore, faith in the divine Christ does not exclude the use of reason, it makes it necessary.
In his Theology for the Community of God, Stanley Grenz writes:
Of the various aspects of our Christian understanding of God perhaps none is as difficult to grasp as the concept of God as triune. At the same time, no dimension of the Christian confession is closer to the heart of the mystery of the God we have come to know. In fact, what sets Christianity apart from the other religious traditions is the confession that the one God is Father, Son, and Spirit. As a consequence, no teaching lies at the center of Christian theology, if not of Christian faith itself, as does the doctrine of the Trinity.
There are several historical traditions that have sought to make sense of Trinity and the incarnation of God in Christ. The purpose of this paper is to take a defendable position on the Trinity and incarnation by: (1) giving a brief critical examination of each major historical Trinitarian formulation, (2) surveying and critiquing the historical development of incarnational Christology, (3) constructing a Biblical theology that is sensitive to the Biblical texts in their original context.
This paper will conclude with a challenge to remain committed to a practical Trinitarian monotheism and faithful to a functional Christology that is rooted in the Scripture.
HISTORICAL TRINITARIAN CONSTRUCTIONS
The Eastern Orthodox Formulation
The two most historic of traditions are the Eastern Orthodox and Western views. Both of these formulations were largely constructed in response to the Arian controversy.
Arius, a deacon in the Alexandrian church, taught that the Son was the first creation of the Father. He said that God “beget” Jesus—the Father made the Son. Therefore, Arianism stated that Christ was not co-eternal with God.
Arius’ teaching was especially concerning because of the way in which he argued from the Scripture and Greek philosophy to make his case. Arius was opposed by the theologian Athanasius at the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325.
The church unequivocally affirmed the NT and the full divinity of Christ.
Arianism was denounced as a heresy and Arius himself was banished as a heretic. In the Nicean Creed, the council asserted that the Son is “begotten of the Father, of the substance of the Father, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.”
Tertullian used the Latin phrase tres personae, una substantia (“three persons, one substance”) to describe the Trinity, which the Cappadocian fathers would later refine to produce the classic formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity in order to avoid tritheism and modalism.
Tertullian and the church historian Eusebius are remembered as promoters of the Eastern Orthodox view. This view is heavily rooted in Greek philosophical (Stoic Logos) thought of the second and third centuries. Proponents of the Orthodox tradition believe in “eternal procession” from God the Father—the Spirit and the Son both proceeded from God. They are merely an extension of the Father, who is the source.
The incarnation is then the generated Son invading a (Neo-Platonic) human spirit and soul. The greatest weakness of the Eastern formulation is that it relies more heavily upon philosophical rhetoric and categories than it does the Biblical text.
The Western Formulation
Augustine was a major proponent of what is known as the Western view. He expressed that the “eternal generation” within the Trinity describes ontological relationships. He believed that any distinction of persons must reside within the relationships found in Triune community. Each member of the Trinity is equally God and they have always operated together according to one will.
The Western view emphasizes the threeness characteristic of God as relational. This can be seen in the use of the triangle as a symbol for the shared relationships within the Trinity. Augustine saw human beings as a triad of being, knowing, and willing. He developed several analogies to further the idea that the Trinity has implications for living.
Augustine’s view was much more balanced with a concern for the relationality of God within himself and creation. He nevertheless constrained himself to philosophical categories.
This philosophical understanding of God will reach its climax with Aquinas and continue to dominate until the Reformation.
The Biblical Theology Formulation
There are two modern views that seek to modify the Eastern Orthodox and Western views. Dale Moody and Doug Kennard promote a Biblical Theology view that is careful to point out that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all God, but the Son is not the Father and the Father is not the Son.
These scholars hold that the philosophical language of “eternal procession” in understanding John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18 and 1 John 4:9 is logically contradictory and not helpful in discussions of Trinity and incarnation.
Instead, Jesus should be seen as being sent by God, not as the “only begotten” Son (Jn 3:16), but as the monogenes, from mono (single) and genos (kind)—Jesus is the only one of his kind. Just as Isaac was the uniquely chosen son of Abraham, not the only son (Ishmael), Jesus is the chosen one sent by God (Gen 21:12; Heb 11:18).
In the Johannine writings the word monogenes is used exclusively to speak of Jesus’ unique historical birth. From this perspective, Biblical Theology proposes that there is an economic procession of Trinitarian ministry. There are three who’s and one what. Each member of the Trinity is unique in function.
Doug Kennard believes it is best to discard the ancient philosophical rhetoric:
Since the Biblical texts used to defend the doctrine of generation emphasize monogenes to be the historical birthing of Jesus’ humanity in incarnation, it is best to reject the ancient tradition that Jesus Christ was generated before all ages in eternity. As a historical oddity eternal generation does not reflect the Bible. At this point, the unanimous voice of scholarly commentators agree, further confirming the exegetical view that the generation of the Son should be Biblically understood as an initiation of an economic ministry of the divine Word incarnating to reveal the Father through His humanity.
The Social Trinity Formulation
The Social Trinitarian view has been popularized by Leonard Hodgson, Stanley Grenz, and Jurgen Moltmann. This formulation emphasizes the ontological relationships shared within the Godhead.
This view incorporates the language of “generation,” but it is more specifically concerned to preserve the interpersonal relationships within the God who binds together all things in love. God is love because he is himself a social “familial” Trinity.
Therefore, Christ is fulfilling his divine familial role within the Trinity and incarnation. The Father is the originator, the Son is the revealer, and the Spirit is the completer of the divine program.
Grenz writes, “The ontological differentiations facilitate an economic as well as an ontological diversity in the one God. Each of the three Trinitarian members fulfills a specific role in the one divine program.”
THE DOCTRINE OF THE INCARNATION
Since Trinity and incarnation go hand in hand, it is necessary to briefly examine a few historical views regarding the incarnation of Christ before taking a position on the best Biblical explanation for the Trinity.
James D.G. Dunn reminds the student of the great importance in the unfolding of incarnational theology within the Biblical text:
We have found nothing in pre-Christian Judaism or the wider religious thought of the Hellenistic world which provides sufficient explanation of the origin of the doctrine of the incarnation, no way of speaking about God, the gods, or intermediary beings which so far as we can tell would have given birth to this doctrine apart from Christianity.
Hurtado adds to the significance of incarnational theology: “In historical terms we may refer to a veritable “big bang,” and explosively rapid and impressively substantial Christological development in the earliest stage of the Christian movement.”
This development begins with the NT writers revealing the full humanity and deity of Christ, and continues through to the creeds of Nicea (325 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD)—affirming that Jesus is both God and man.
The first major philosophical explanation employed during the second and third centuries was known as Logos Christology. John declared that Jesus is the Word (Logos) in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel. The term corresponded with the Hebrew concept davar (Word of God) and the Stoic logos (inner law which humans ought to orient their lives).
As stated previously concerning the Eastern Orthodox thinkers, this means that the incarnation is then the generated Logos invading a human spirit and soul. Folks like Justin Martyr and Origen utilized Stoic concepts to make sense of the Trinity and incarnation.
Kennard points out that, “the early church comes out strongly against embracing a Stoic world view, even though a few Stoic concepts contributed to Christology.” It is understandable why the apologists would make use of philosophical concepts of their day to explain and defend the doctrine of Christ, but it quickly becomes a matter of debate and confusion (Arianism).
Logos Christology is built upon Greek concepts and it is explained in philosophical rhetoric that goes far beyond Biblical language.
There does not seem to be any agreement as to how the early church articulated the paradox of Christ having two natures in one person. Nestorius (c. 386-451 AD) proposed that the two natures of Christ should be held apart from one another.
Was Nestorius promoting the heretical idea that two distinct persons resided in Jesus? It is hard to say because of the political and ecclesiastical rivalries that involved him in the church. Also, his ambiguous language was easily misunderstood among the many heresies swirling about (e.g. adoptionism, docetism, Apollonarianism, etc.) Nestorius was viewed as not fully appreciating the unity of Christ’s person.
The West resolved the debate of the two-natures at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD):
Therefore, following the holy Fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood; truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the Fathers has handed down to us.
It should be acknowledged that Chalcedon did not entirely remove the mystery of the paradox that exists in the person of Christ. At best, the Chalcedonian Creed states what the “two natures in one person” does not mean.
The Eastern Church continued with a Logos Christology. And others would come along and express dissatisfaction with the older explanations.
In the modern era of Protestant scholasticism, Sartori sought to resolve the problem of the relationship between the two natures with his interpretation of Philippians 2:7.
“Kenosis” is the Greek term used to say that Christ “emptied himself” (RSV) to take on human form. This view theorizes that Christ gave up or emptied himself of those divine attributes that were incompatible with his human existence (especially omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience).
Some proponents go so far to say that Christ set aside all divine attributes. This great flaw in the theory inevitably leads to confessing that Jesus is less than God. Therefore, a modified Kenosis theory is necessary.
Grenz says the appearance of setting aside those attributes is actually the Son’s giving up the “independent exercise of those powers.” Christ submitted his divine capabilities to the Father’s will.
Since it is right to affirm that all the fullness of God dwells in Christ (Col 1:19), it is most appropriate to accept a modified Kenosis theory. Jesus emptied himself of those attributes that were incompatible with his humanity in order to be fully human. He was obedient to the Father and did not consider equality with God something to be exploited (Phil 2:5-8).
This view is preferred to all the rest.
CONCLUSION—FINDING A BIBLICAL CHRISTOLOGY
The historical views of Trinity and incarnation have laid a foundation on which future generations may construct, and deconstruct if necessary. It is likely that each generation of believers will seek to express a Christology that speaks directly to the needs of their own Christian community.
As for the historical constructions, I believe it is the best of Biblical Theology and the Social formulation that combine for the strongest presentation of the Trinity. The relevant NT passages should not be read through Greek philosophical lenses of the patristic era in defense of a Trinitarian monotheism and the incarnation of God in Christ.
Christ was uniquely born (Jn 3:16), sent into the world as the exact representation of God (Heb 1:3), and only subordinate to the Father in an earthly temporal sense (Phil 2:6-11). Christ is fully man and fully God. The NT writers do not leave this open to readers.
Jesus claimed to be divine and equal with the Father on multiple occasions (Matt 16:13-20; 26:63-65; Jn 1:1-14; 8:19-59; 10:30-33), God vindicated him through his resurrection from the dead (Jn 20), and he even received worship of himself (Jn 20:28-29). The Holy Spirit is economically sent by Christ after his ascension as the completer of God’s will (Jn 14:15-21; 16:12-15). The Father, Son, and Spirit are wholly God in a mysterious community of love (2 Cor 13:14; Gal 4:6; 1 Pet 1:2).
Oscar Cullmann said, “in the light of the New Testament witness, all mere speculation about his (Christ’s) natures is an absurdity. Functional Christology is the only kind which exists.”
The church will continue to discuss and debate Trinity and incarnation. What matters most is that the church maintain a working Christology that leads to the perpetual celebration of the incarnation of the Trinitarian God, and faithful adherence to the Christ who has revealed the new way to be human.
May the continued pursuit of a Biblical Christology bless heaven and earth—until the Lord joins them together forever, and mystery gives way to perfect understanding.
D.D. Flowers, 2011.
 Fisher Humphreys, “The revelation of the Trinity.” Perspectives In Religious Studies 33, no. 3 (September 1, 2006): 287.
 Ibid., 292.; Not all of the references include the three persons together.
 Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 134-153.
 Hurtado, God in New Testament Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 46-47.
 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 689.
 Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 53.
 Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds. Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 27.
 C.C. Pecknold, “How Augustine used the trinity: functionalism and the development of doctrine.” Anglican Theological Review 85, no. 1 (December 1, 2003): 134.
 R.L. Saucy, “Doctrine of God” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. ed. Walter A. Elwell, 500-504 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 503.
 Dale Moody, “God’s only Son : the translation of John 3:16 in the Revised Standard Version.” Journal Of Biblical Literature 72, no. 4 (December 1, 1953): 213.
 Douglas Kennard, Messiah Jesus: Christology in His Day and Ours (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 503.
 Grenz, 67. Also see Moltmann’s The Trinity and the Kingdom. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981; and Hodgson’s How Can God Be Both One and Three? London: SPCK, 1963.
 James D.G. Dunn, Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989), 253.
 Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, 135.
 See Daniel L. Migliore’s “Christology in Context: The Doctrinal and Contextual Tasks of Christology Today.” Interpretation 49, no. 3 (July 1, 1995): 242-254.
 Oscar Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 326.