Should we abandon the substance of the Trinity?
Garry Williams, MA, MSt, PhD
Last month’s article laid out the basic facts of the doctrine of the Trinity – that the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God; and there is one God. Implicit in these statements is the distinction between the persons – that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, and so forth.
In this month’s article we will look more closely at the unity of the three persons. How are the distinct persons of the Trinity one?
Two errors loom here – modalism, and tritheism. Modalism involves reducing the distinction between the persons so that they become just different ways in which God appears from time to time. This leaves no eternal distinction between the persons.
Tritheism is the opposite error: so distinguishing the persons that they become in effect three gods.
The church has traditionally avoided these errors by speaking of the three persons having the same one, divine substance. More recently it has become fashionable to reject the language of substance and teach what is known as a ‘social Trinity’.
This approach favours starting with the persons and then maintaining that they are so united in loving one another as to be one God. The category of substance is rejected as being too philosophical. This view of the Trinity is traced to the eastern writers in the early church and is set against the substance-based doctrine of Augustine in the West.
It is easy to see why the language of substance is suspect. The term is not a biblical one. Handled carelessly, it can also suggest that the real God is somehow a divine substance behind the three persons, a fourth thing, leaving in effect a ‘quarternity’ rather than the Trinity.
Nonetheless, I believe that this recent turn in Trinitarian theology is a serious mistake. The absence of a word from the Bible is hardly a reason not to use it. The word ‘Trinity’ is not in the Bible either. Lots of words which are faithful summaries of the Bible’s teaching are not themselves in the Bible.
The danger of making divine substance a fourth thing is one that must be guarded against. Interestingly, Augustine saw the danger too. For example, in one of his letters, he held ‘not that the divinity, which they have in common, is a sort of fourth person, but that the Godhead is ineffably and inseparably a Trinity’.
In terms of history, it is not true that the West started with substance and the East with the persons. The eastern writings are just as full of the category of substance as the western. Indeed, there is no ancient Trinitarian theology that does not use this category.
Leave the wheel alone
Why does substance matter, and what exactly does it mean? Taken properly, to assert that the Father and the Son share the same substance is simply to assert that what the Father is the Son is – except that he is not the Father.
In other words, the Son shares the attributes of the Father. For example, if the Father is eternal (Isaiah 41:4) and omniscient (1 Kings 8:39), then so is the Son (Revelation 1:8 and 2:23).
We need, therefore, to retain the category of substance because it is mandated by the way Scripture speaks of the Son as having the same divine life as the Father.
Without this category we will struggle to affirm the full deity of each of the three persons, to teach that what the Father is the Son is. And if we do find another way of saying it, then we will simply be saying what was intended by speaking of substance in the first place! Hours will have been spent stirring controversy and reinventing the wheel.
We must remember that the category of substance, coupled as it is with a denial that God is material like a created thing, certainly does not mean that he is made of some stuff. That way lie most of the trinitarian heresies of the past and present, which conceive of ‘parts’ of divinity being shared (or not shared).
Making God known
Recall our basic assertions – that the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God; and there is one God. These assertions must be understood to maintain the distinction between the persons. These persons then are distinct, but they are one. Their oneness has traditionally been expressed by the category of substance, which is a helpful summary of the Bible’s teaching that all that the Father is the Son is, all that the Son is the Holy Spirit is.
It is on this basis, the unity of substance, that the Son can make the Father known – because he is all that the Father is. Of course, the one exception is that the Son is not the Father, so he does not make the fatherhood of the Father known by being the Father himself. Rather, he makes the fatherhood of the Father known by being the Father’s Son.
Here we see the glorious practicality and centrality of the Trinity to our faith. It is because the Son shares the substance of the Father that he can make him known. And it is because he is not the Father that he can make the Father known as Father, by being his Son. Were God not Trinity, we could not know him as he is.