Basics of Christianity: The Trinity

I am troubled by the fact that some Seventh-day Adventists are turning their back on the doctrine of the Trinity–that is, the confession that we believe in one God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This is fundamental to Christianity. We are baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And the New Testament narrative is of the Father sending his Son, the Son being anointed by the Spirit, the Father breathing the Spirit on the disciples, and the Spirit testifying about Jesus, and empowering the church in its witness. We confess the one God of Israel, and we confess that he is one God in three persons who are in eternal relationship with one another. We confess that Jesus is the eternal Son of God–he didn’t merely become the Son as a role played in history. We confess that through the Son all things were created.

Early Adventism had disputes over the Trinity because the believers in Miller’s preaching came from a variety of traditions, including some orthodox Christian movements like the Methodists and the Baptists, and some from the “Christian Connexion” movement, which started orthodox but gradually became Arian, according to Joshua Himes.

This isn’t a research paper, so I won’t get into all the documentation now. This is just a statement of the issues as I see them.

Ellen White’s book, The Desire of Ages, stressed the full divinity and eternality of the Son. Through the 1950s into the 70s, Adventists became more comfortable with their place as evangelicals, and with using the term, “Trinity.” The term was clearly affirmed it in the Dallas statement of beliefs in 1980.

But there has long been a fringe that has chosen to cling to the Arianism of “the Pioneers” (folks like Uriah Smith, James White, Joseph Bates, J. H. Waggoner).

Simultaneously, others have wanted to retain the equality of three persons, but have chosen to use the word “Godhead” instead of Trinity. They’ve used troubling terms, though, speaking of “three beings” who are “one in purpose”; some have spoken of these three persons as kind of like a committee which had to discuss and debate who would play the role of Son and become incarnate. These ideas seem to me to slide into Tritheism.

Many Adventist theologians appear to be afraid of claiming the Nicene and Chalcedonian symbols for some reason — yet we claim to be part of the Reformation and these were issues that were not debated by the Reformers. The Trinitarian and Christological formulations were seen as fundamental to Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and later generations of Methodists and Baptists.

Perhaps it is the confession of “Εἰς μίαν, Ἁγίαν, Καθολικὴν καὶ Ἀποστολικὴν Ἐκκλησίαν” that scares these Adventists–especially the word, “Catholic.” In the creeds, it simply means “universal,” and was translated in some Lutheran hymnals by the term “Christian.”

Some Adventist scholars claim to be Trinitarian but reject the Nicene formulation, “eternally begotten of the Father” (ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων). They imagine it leads to subordinationism, even Arianism (ironically, the very thing Nicea opposed!). This denial of the Biblical truth that the Father gave “his only-begotten Son,” who was “in the bosom of the Father” before Creation, rips apart the relationship that defines and distinguishes the Father and the Son, and leaves them as separate entities, and that to me means Tritheism.

It’s like they want to avoid sounding like the Catholic or historic Protestant churches in anything, and so end up of necessity repeating old errors that the early church worked through centuries ago.

I got none of this orthodoxophobia when I was an undergraduate at Atlantic Union College or in grad school at Loma Linda. We read Williston Walker’s church history. We read Justo Gonzalez and Jaroslav Pelikan. And we were taught that Nicea and Chalcedon were foundational for Christian faith. That we were Protestants, standing upon the shoulders of the Reformers. I took this for granted then — I still take it for granted. And I am worried when folks want to come up with creative phraseology and new terminology so as “not to be misunderstood.” Frequently, they just repeat some old error.

I’m content confessing the Nicene Creed:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

And the symbol of Chalcedon:

We all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down to us.

And the Athanasian Creed:

we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three Eternals, but one Eternal. As there are not three Uncreated nor three Incomprehensibles, but one Uncreated and one Incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Ghost almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties, but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords, but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be God and Lord, So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say, There be three Gods, or three Lords.

The Father is made of none: neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before or after other; none is greater or less than another; But the whole three Persons are coeternal together, and coequal: so that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped.

This isn’t as complicated as it sounds. It is rooted in the Biblical affirmation of one God, the mandate of baptism in the triune name, and the relationships spelled out in the Biblical narrative between Father, Son, and Spirit.

And it is basic. It’s the starting point.