The Triune God as Theological Error
The doctrine of the Trinity is perhaps the most difficult topic in theology. We cover up the difficulties with creedal formulations, but people who confess the same creed can have radically different understandings of the trinity. Thus we have Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and others who speak of the Triune God, using this term as a synonym for the doctrine of the Trinity. The Eastern Orthodox do not refer to the Triune God because, at a minimum, the term suggests a radically different understanding of the Trinity.
God is ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, existing forever and yet ever the same. For this reason making declarative statements about God is always dangerous, as these statements are couched in human language, using terms and concepts that are amenable to our finite minds. Thus any positive declarations about God (saying what God is) are always false because they serve to limit God into something that we can understand. If God is ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, and incomprehensible, then our ways of speaking of God are nothing more than approximations or mental models. And as the statistician George Box famously stated: “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”
The mental models we create to explain God and the terms we use to describe God have very specific meanings. The words we use are important. And yet, when speaking of God, we also know that our ways of speaking are imperfect representations of the reality of God, of God in His essence and nature. We cannot avoid speaking of God, even though our ways of speaking of God are imperfect. Some of our models are wrong, but some are more wrong than others; some of our ways of speaking and thinking about God are more imperfect and less useful than others.
With that in mind, let us discuss some of the different models for the Trinity. The most important matter is the distinction between the person and the essence. Since divinity is of one essence existing in three persons, what is the best way to describe this? And what is the relationship of the three persons to the essence? Paul L. Owen describes the question this way.
What is the major point of difference between the Eastern and Western Church? It has to do with the understanding of the relationship of the Father to the Monarchy of the Godhead. Both East and West are agreed that the Father has a certain priority of position within the Trinity. The Father alone is unbegotten and non-proceeding. But does the Monarchy, the font of Deity, reside in the Father’s person, or in his Being? Is the Son begotten of the Father’s person, or his Being? Does the Spirit proceed from the Father’s person, or his Being?
All who confess the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are agreed that the Father has some degree of priority within the Trinity. What is not agreed upon is the nature of that priority. Is this a priority of honor, as the first among equals? Or is there something more to this, such that we can legitimately speak of the Monarchy of the Godhead? And if we can legitimately speak of the Monarchy of the Godhead, is this personal or impersonal? Does it derive from the person of the Father, or from the essence of divinity? Paul L. Owen explains:
This argument has important theological ramifications. If the font of Deity is located in the Father’s person, then the divine nature of the Son and the Spirit will of necessity be a derived divinity. In fact, it is a general tendency of the Eastern Fathers (Gregory Nazianzen excluded) to speak of God the Father as the cause of the Deity of the Son and the Spirit. The issue at stake is whether or not each of the Persons of the Trinity can be spoken of properly as God in their own right (autotheos).
To speak of the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit as derived from the person of the Father does not imply that the Father came first, and only afterwards came the Son and the Holy Spirit. The eternal generation of the Son means that the Son existed from eternity with the Father; there never was a time when the Father was, and the Son was not. Likewise the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit means the same; there never was a time with the Father was, and the Holy Spirit was not. The generation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit are from eternity past and unto eternity future. Yet this does not answer the question of whether the generation and procession are from the person of the Father, or from the essence of the divinity. Father Zizioulas, in his book Being as Communion, provides a summation of the Eastern Orthodox position.
The unity of God, the one God, and the ontological principle or “cause” of the being and life of God does not consist in the one substance of God but in the hypostasis, that is, the person of the Father. The one God is not the one substance but the Father, who is the “cause” both of the generation of the Son and of the procession of the Spirit. Consequently, the ontological “principle” of God is traced back, once again, to the person. Thus when we say that God “is,” we do not bind the personal freedom of God — the being of God is not an ontological “necessity” or a simple “reality” for God — but we ascribe the being of God to His personal freedom.
In the unaltered Nicene Creed, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. In the altered (or western) version of the Creed, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (the dreaded filioque). The first implies the procession of the Holy Spirit from the person of the Father; the second implies the procession of the Holy Spirit from the divine essence of the Father and the Son. There are potential theological problems with either position. To the western Church, the monarchate of the Father implies the subordination of the Son and the Holy Spirit, which is implicitly Arian. To the eastern Church, the procession from the Father and the Son presents an opportunity for the heresy of modalism to arise. In addition, it upends the monarchate of the Father and subordinates the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son.
In classical Orthodoxy, God is one in essence, existing in three persons apart from the created world, and the three persons of the Godhead also act within the world. Paul L. Owen describes there being “a trinitarian structure to the non-contingent Being of God, so likewise there is a trinitarian structure to the historical “economy” of God. Or in other words, God is three not only in Himself, but is also three-fold “for us.” God’s non-contingent being is reflected in the self-revelation of God in the realm of contingency.” God’s being three-fold in Himself is part of the transcendence of God, something we are wholly unable to comprehend. By contrast, the “God with us” belongs to the immanence of God, the working of God within creation. God’s essence is transcendent; the enacting of God’s will, known as the divine economy, represent God’s immanence. The essence of divinity is contingent upon nothing, and the persons of the Trinity form the structure of the ontological Trinity. The created order is wholly contingent upon the existence and actions of God, and the actions of God have a trinitarian structure, leading us to a description of the economic Trinity.
It is easy for us to confuse the work of God in the world with the essence of God. The filioque, the idea that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, can be understood in terms of God’s essence (which is how it was originally understood), or as part of the actions, energies, or workings of God. In the first case, the Holy Spirit’s eternal generation is from the Father and the Son; in the second case, the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son. This is a rather common understanding today, and the Roman Catholic Church seems to describe it in both essential and economic terms in The Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, Canon I, is especially clear regarding the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from both the Father and the Son:
We firmly believe and openly confess that there is only one true God, eternal and immense, omnipotent, unchangeable, incomprehensible, and ineffable, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; three Persons indeed but one essense, substance, or nature absolutely simple; the Father (proceeding) from no one, but the Son from the Father only, and the Holy Ghost equally from both, always without beginning and end.
Part of the problem is that while Greek uses different words to represent ontological and personal generation, Latin uses the same word for both. In Greek the word ekporev denotes an ontological procession; the Greek word pemps denotes an economic procession; and both the Greek word pronai and the Latin word procedit can mean either. The passage from John 15:26 (who proceedeth from the Father) uses the word ekporev, meaning the procession of the Holy Spirit is ontological, and therefore the unaltered Creed does not refer to an economic procession. The Latin word procedit is ambiguous and, being the translation of the Greek word ekporev, is the source of much confusion. Roman Catholics still proclaim the monarchate of the Father, but due to the ambiguities of their Latin translation of the Nicene Creed and there later alterations, their theology is muddled in this area.
Let me say it again: the doctrine of the Trinity is perhaps the most difficult topic in theology. Within the bounds of classical orthodoxy, there are significant variants in the understanding of the Trinity. However, the term “Triune” as a description of the Godhead is relatively new (~ 1630 A.D.), postdating the Reformation by little more than one hundred years. Whereas the term “Trinity” means three, the term “Triune” means three in one. And there the problem begins. You see, the term “Triune” is a laden with theological meanings which are not readily apparent. To understand this, we need to learn another theological term: “autotheos”.
To be autotheos is to be self-existent, and the term Triune is a confession that the Father, the Son, and the Holy-Spirit are autotheos — that each person of the Trinity is self-existent, deriving its existence from no one; that each is equal to the other, with none subordinate to any other. This is a purely Protestant doctrine, one that derives from John Calvin, and most prominently belongs to those churches of the Reformed tradition. In his The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes: “For instance, what avails it to discuss, as Lombard does at length (lib. 1 dist. 9), Whether or not the Father always generates? This idea of continual generation becomes an absurd fiction from the moment it is seen, that from eternity there were three persons in one God.” In accepting the eternal existence of the Son, while dismissing the eternal generation of the Son, Calvin is claiming the Son to be autotheos. While claiming the Trinity to be one in essence, but made up of three self-existent persons, Calvin’s trinitarian doctrine comes very close to tri-theism.
In classical orthodoxy, only the Father is autotheos. The Son is only-begotten from eternity, and the Spirit proceeds from eternity. Calvin’s error is ascribing the directional nature of time to eternity, thereby ascribing the Father’s begetting of the Son and the Spirit’s procession to a singular point in time. But there is no directionality to eternity. Whatever has happened is also currently happening — when considered from the point of view of we poor, time-bound wretches. Thus the scriptures note that the Son was slain from the foundation of the world, meaning that from an eternal vantage point, the creation and the crucifixion — to say nothing of Our Lord’s second coming — have a certain simultaneity. Thus it is entirely meet, right, and salutary to refer to the eternal generation of the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Calvin, J. (2005). The Institutes of the Christian Religion. (H. Beveridge, Trans.) Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
Catholic Church. (1997). Catechism of the Catholic Church. Washington DC: USCCB Publishing.
Halsall, P. (1996, March). Medieval Sourcebook: Fourth Lateran Council: Lateran IV 1215. Retrieved November 1, 2014, from Fordham University: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/lateran4.asp
Owen, P. L. (1999). Reflections on the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity — Part 1. Retrieved November 1, 2014, from Institute for Religious Research: http://mit.irr.org/reflections-on-doctrine-of-holy-trinity-part-1
Owen, P. L. (1999). Reflections on the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity — Part 2. Retrieved November 1, 2014, from Institute for Religious Research: http://mit.irr.org/reflections-on-doctrine-of-holy-trinity-part-2
Walts, D. (2008, October 30). John Calvin: a tri-theistic heretic??? Retrieved November 2, 2014, from Articuli Fidei: http://articulifidei.blogspot.com/2008/10/john-calvin-tri-theistic-heretic.html
Zizioulas, J. D. (1985). Being As Communion. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
 (Owen, Reflections on the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity — Part 2, 1999)
 The easiest way for western Christians to think of this is in political terms. Is the Trinity a democracy or a monarchy?
 (Owen, Reflections on the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity — Part 2, 1999)
 (Zizioulas, 1985, pp. 40-41)
 Modalism is the idea that there is one God in essence who has three modes of acting within the created world. In other words, God is ontologically one, but economically three. (Ontology has to do with the nature of being; economy has to do with modes of action.)
 (Owen, Reflections on the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity — Part 1, 1999)
 (Catholic Church, 1997, pp. 65, 181)
 Vatican II, in the Lumen Gentium, also known as the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, discusses the sending of the Holy Spirit in time, for the Church. In other words, this is an economic procession of the Holy Spirit.
 (Halsall, 1996)
 In his Institutes, John Calvin writes: “For instance, what avails it to discuss, as Lombard does at length (lib. 1 dist. 9), Whether or not the Father always generates? This idea of continual generation becomes an absurd fiction from the moment it is seen, that from eternity there were three persons in one God.” (Calvin, 2005, p. 140) In accepting the eternal existence of the Son, while dismissing the eternal generation of the Son, Calvin is claiming the Son to be autotheos.
 (Walts, 2008)
 (Calvin, 2005, p. 140)