by R.C. Sproul
The most basic affirmation the Scriptures make regarding the nature of God is that He is one. The shema of Deuteronomy 6 reads as follows: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (v. 4). These words that preface the great commandment are axiomatic to the biblical understanding of the nature of God. Old and New Testaments together bear witness to the eternal truth that there exists one God — monotheism. Another term for monotheism is the word monarchianism, meaning that the God of the Bible is a monarch. Monarch comes from a Greek word that has a prefix and a root. The prefix mono means “one” or “single.” The root word archē means “beginning, chief, or ruler.” We hear of archbishops, archenemies, archangels, all of which employ the root term archē.
A monarchy is a form of government in which the rule is restricted to one person, a king or a queen, as distinguished from the rule of the few (oligarchy) or the rule of many (plutarchy). The doctrine of the Trinity, central to Christian confession, is not the result of abstract speculation. Rather, it is the result of the church’s reflection on the teaching of the Bible. With respect to the doctrine of the Trinity, or what I call “triune monarchy,” the church was faced with two distinct issues. The first was the responsibility to exercise fidelity to the Bible. The second was to be clear in its rejection of heretical doctrine.
Two virulent monarchian heresies emerged in the first three hundred years of the Christian church. The first was called Modalistic Monarchianism, as expressed in the heretical views of Sabellius. This form of monarchianism will be treated in another article in this issue of Tabletalk. Suffice to say, it was condemned at Antioch in 267 ad. Perhaps even more serious was the “Dynamic Monarchianism” of Arius, which threatened Christian orthodoxy in the beginning of the fourth century. It resulted in the Council of Nicea and the Nicene Creed. The theological struggles of the first three centuries were based upon the church’s desire to be faithful to biblical monotheism (monarchianism) and at the same time to be faithful to the attribute of deity for each of the three persons in the Godhead.
The church looked at the role of Jesus in creation and in redemption as the only begotten Son of the Father who wrought for us our redemption. There are multiple manifestations of biblical claims for Jesus as God, as seen, for example, in the kenotic hymn of Philippians 2:6–11, in the high Christology of the book of Hebrews, in the “I AM” sayings found in the gospel of John, in the worship that is given to Jesus without rebuke (Matt. 14:33), such as in the case of Thomas at Christ’s resurrection appearance (John 20:24–29). But there is no passage of Scripture that more occupied the attention of the theologians of the early church than that found in the prologue to the gospel of John (1:1–18). In this prologue, Jesus is identified as the incarnate Logos, the Word who became flesh. This concept is so profound in the opening verses of John’s gospel that it preoccupied the finest minds of the church for the first three hundred years of the church’s existence.
What is so striking about John’s prologue is found in its opening words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (1:1–4). These few verses are staggering in their affirmation. On the one hand, the Logos is distinguished from God, inasmuch as John writes that in the beginning the Word was with God. By using the term with, the Logos is distinguished from God, even though He was with Him from the beginning. But then the profundity intensifies in the very next clause where the affirmation is made that the Word was God. On the one hand, the Word is distinguished from God. On the other hand, the Word is identified with God. A Christology that honors these two affirmations of the prologue of John must include an identification of the second person of the Trinity with God, while at the same time having some distinction in it that would distinguish the Father from the Son and, subsequently, from the Holy Spirit.
So in the formula of the Trinity, the church bows to sacred Scripture, honoring both the unity of God and the distinctions among the persons of the Godhead. The formula made use of terms such as person, subsistence, hypostasis, in an attempt to get at the unity and the distinction within God Himself. In addition to affirming the deity of Jesus, without which deity it would be blasphemous for Him to be an object of worship in the church, the Holy Spirit is also described in the Scriptures in terms of divine attributes. He is omnipotent. He is omniscient. He is infinite. He is eternal. He is actively involved in the divine work of creation, and in conjunction with His being the author of life and human intelligence, He is active in empowering the work of Christ in redemption. We see in the Bible that the work of creation involves the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, just as the work of redemption includes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. All three are testified to uniformly by the Scriptures as being divine. They are not three gods, because the unity of God remains axiomatic in the monarchianism of sacred Scripture. The church still declares that the Lord our God is one. He is one being, though we must distinguish within that one being the subsistences of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Therefore, the church distinguishes among the three persons but sees these distinctions as not essential in character. They are essential in the sense of being absolutely vital and important for a true understanding of God, but they are not essential insofar as the distinctions among the three persons of the Godhead are not distinctions of essence, substance, or being, for God is one.