Does the Trinity Matter? Part 1

During the first four centuries of church history, ideas developed and controversies erupted over the nature of God. Perhaps the most important controversy in church history was the Trinitarian controversy of the fourth century that has given all subsequent generations a test of Christian orthodoxy: God exists eternally as three persons–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–who share the same divine essence.

When I first started learning about the various controversies that surrounded this doctrine, I asked myself from time to time if this kind of theological precision really mattered. Take, for example, the Christian heresy known as “Arianism,” the view that the Son is a created being whose essence is not the same as that of the Father. Does Arianism really affect the gospel? Should we really say that Arians are unorthodox because they have a different understanding of who God is? They still believe in Jesus Christ and in his atoning work, so what’s the big deal? Why make a big fuss over words like homoousios (the Greek word meaning “of the same essence,” that was used in the Nicene Creed to affirm that Jesus Christ is of the same essence as the Father)?

Over time I came to realize that one’s doctrine of God has everything to do with the gospel. As Athanasius argued, if only God can save us, and Jesus is not fully God, then Jesus cannot save us. Arianism stabs right at the heart of the gospel. (Plus, it is mixed with some elements of Gnosticism, the earliest Christian heresy, but I won’t get into that here). Doctrines have consequences.

But I must admit, until recently I had trouble understanding how the heresy of modalism could threaten the gospel at all. Modalism is the doctrine that God is not three persons in one essence but is rather one person who plays three different roles, or reveals himself in three different ways. The Father is the Son, who is the Spirit, who is the Father, etc. Instead of three divine persons, modalism teaches that there are three different modes of the one divine person, God. Modalism is the official teaching of the United Pentecostal Church (please note that this is one Pentecostal denomination among many; the majority of Pentecostals believe in the historic doctrine of the Trinity as taught by the church). In all major branches of the church, baptism is performed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, but modalists baptize in the name of Jesus only to indicate their belief in only one divine person.

But modalists believe that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. Isn’t that enough? How can the fact that trinitarians distinguish between the persons who share the same divine essence really make much of a difference to the gospel? Having read Robert Letham’s book The Holy Trinity, I now understand much better why this is such an important issue.

To answer this question about why the heresy of modalism matters, I need to introduce two theological phrases: the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity. The phrase “immanent Trinity” refers to God as he is in himself apart from his relationship to creation. The phrase “economic Trinity” refers to God as he relates to his creation. We know God only has he has revealed himself. We cannot, by our own efforts, probe the mysterious depths of the immanent Trinity. We are in no position to do that. God must come to us, open himself to us, and invite us to know him by his own sovereign initiative (the economic Trinity).

Karl Rahner’s famous axiom was this: “The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity.” I agree with the first clause but deny the second. To help you understand what I mean, let me use a concrete example. Imagine that you dip a cup into the Atlantic Ocean so that it fills up with water. Could you say, “The water in this cup is the Atlantic Ocean”? Yes, so long as you mean “is” in a certain way (do you hear Bill Clinton in the background here?!). Statements that use “is” in English usually work in one of two ways: (1) They indicate strict identity (i.e., “Samuel Clemens is Mark Twain”; only Samuel Clemens is Mark Twain, and vice versa), or (2) They move from the more particular to the more general (i.e., “Fido is a dog”; not every dog is Fido). It is in the second sense (particular to general) that the sentence “The water in this cup is the Atlantic Ocean” is true. The water in the cup truly is the water of the Atlantic Ocean, a real sample that, if tested, would show properties consistent with the ocean. But then could you say, “The Atlantic Ocean is the water in this cup”? No. Reversing the nouns does not work, because to do so is to argue for a strict identity between the Atlantic Ocean and the water in the cup, which is manifestly not true. The Atlantic Ocean is not even close to being exhausted by the water in the cup.

Now, apply this to Rahner’s axiom: the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity. The first clause is true: God as he relates to his creation (the economic Trinity) is a real manifestation of God as he is in himself (the immanent Trinity). In other words, God does not reveal himself to be something that he is not. His revelation is accomodated to our capacity, but it is not falsified or obscured so as to be an unfaithful representation of who he is, just as the water in the cup is a true, though not exhaustive, sample of the Atlantic Ocean. But the second clause is false. The immanent Trinity is not the economic Trinity. This is to argue for a strict identity between the two, so that God as he relates to us (the economic Trinity) is an exhaustive revelation of who God is in himself (the immanent Trinity). But to argue this is to say that God cannot be apart from his creation, which is to compromise the distinction between the Creator and the creature and to veer into a dangerous panentheism. If Rahner’s axiom is true, then God cannot exist apart from the world; the world is not the product of his free, sovereign decision to create but is instead a necessary part of his being. This is to compromise the aseity, self-existence, and lordship of God over all that he has made. God has truly and faithfully revealed himself to us, but that revelation is accomodated to our capacity and does not come close to exhausting all of who God is. We can never know God exhaustively, though we can truly know him in our limited capacity.

This little detour into Rahner was necessary to get to what I now want to argue concerning the heresy of modalism. Modalism is heretical precisely because it obscures the proper relationship between the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity. Modalists believe that God reveals himself to us as something other than what he is, namely, three persons. God does not actually exist as three persons, but he has revealed himself to us in this way. This means that God’s revelation of himself (the economic Trinity) is not a faithful representation of who God is (the immanent Trinity), and, therefore, we can have no true knowledge of God as he is in himself. We do not know God if modalism is true. We know a misrepresentation of God. If eternal life is to know God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent (John 17:3), then modalism, like Arianism, strikes at the very heart of the gospel.

In my next post I plan to show how a proper understanding of the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity should lead us to think through issues facing the church today, particularly those associated with contemporary feminism.


8 Responses to “Does the Trinity Matter? Part 1”

  1. Bobby Cohoon Says:

    Good thoughts; I look forward to the next part.

  2. Luke Says:

    Dear Aaron,
    I appreciate your reflection on the importance of the Trinity. I am afraid that in SBC life there is a need for more theological reflection (on the important issues). However with that said I do not think you give Rahner his due. Would Rahner posit that we can know God exhaustively…? I do not think this is a fair representation of his statement. Nor do I think you identify the “real” problem with Modalism. The problem with Modalism is the grave….alas i look forward to your next post. And I would like to suggest that instead of aiming your criticism at the feminists…why not reflect on some of the problems within SBC life that result from inadequate understanding and reflection on the Trinity?


  3. Aaron Says:

    Welcome, Bobby Cohoon! Glad to have you!


    I don’t think Rahner would say that we can know God exhaustively. Still, his axiom asserts that God in relation to creation is identical to God in himself. My hunch is that he would say that we cannot know the totality of God in relation to his creation, but this does not change my point that Rahner’s axiom denies the aseity of God. I am not the first one to make this criticism. See Badcock’s book “Light of Truth and Fire of Love.”

    If you will be more specific about what you mean by “the problems within SBC life that result from inadequate understanding and reflection on the Trinity,” then I may write about those as well. To my mind, the Baptist Faith & Message has always had a good explanation of the Trinity, and Southern Baptists have been rather conservative (unlike feminists) when it comes to confessing the doctrine of the Trinity and avoiding creative, unorthodox revisions of it. The main problem in the SBC in regard to the Trinity is also the main problem across the board in evangelicalism: on the whole, the average evangelical is not well grounded theologically. But that is one of the reasons I am writing these posts: I want to change the minds of people who don’t care about these issues because they think they don’t matter. They certainly do matter.

  4. Luke Says:

    Dear Aaron,
    I think it would not be too difficult to find examples theologically errant ideas floating within SBC life. The problem with creedal statements is that they tend to loose their power of expressing heartfelt belief and become empty of any true impact. They do tend to allow a proscription of the conversation, and become tools used to disparage opponents. but this i think no one would willingly or joyfully identify as the purpose of such statements. As to the area where theological problems can be found I think one area worth considering is the prevelent view of many evangelicals concerning the differences between women and men. When these differences are seen to be prelapsarian….me thinks they raise Christological problems i.e. with regards to the full humanity of Christ.


  5. Anonymous Says:

    Aaron, I really appreciate your blog very much. You are writing about things that I am struggling with, not in a sense that I don’t fully agree with you but rather how to define and express things so that I can convey them in a meaningful way to friends and family who don’t truly know Christ. Again, this is a huge help and please keep writing!

    -Friend of Sam

  6. trinadad Says:

    this is really domb i wanted somthing eles.

  7. Rhonda Thrush Says:

    Correct me if i am wrong but i thought you are of the reformed faith denouncing all Catholic doctrine. Your version of the trinity comes straight from the Catholic creed from what I’ve read.

  8. fenderpooh Says:


    I am a Baptist who identifies strongly with the Reformed tradition. Actually, the Reformed tradition does not denounce all Catholic doctrine. The Reformers strongly affirmed the ecumenical creeds, including the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon. But these creeds come from the first five centuries of the church, and the Reformers argued that since that time the Roman Catholic Church had developed some very bad theology along the way.

    So what the Reformers actually saw themselves doing was reasserting the truth of the catholic faith against the corruptions that had developed in the late medieval period in the Roman Catholic Church. There is a difference between “catholic” doctrine (with a little “c”) and “Catholic” doctrine (as in “Roman Catholic,” with a capital “C”). The word “catholic” simply denotes that which is universal. The orthodox faith of the church (the Trinity, the person of Christ, salvation through his death, etc.) is “catholic” in this sense, in that all traditions of Christendom accept it (except for recent developments in theology, particularly in that stream known as “Liberalism,” which is not simply not Christianity, in my opinion). But that which is “Roman Catholic” is peculiar to the church of Rome, which did not really begin developing its own unique identity until at least the time of Gregory I, if not later. “Roman Catholicism” as we know it today is defined primarily by the Council of Trent (16th century) and the two Vatican councils (19th and 20th centuries). But the Church of Rome has always embraced the ecumenical creeds of the first five centuries, and Protestants like myself have always agreed with them on that.

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