CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY - THE DOCTRINE OF GOD - by the Rt. Rev. ARTHUR C. HEADLAM C.H., D.D. Bishop of Gloucester ; Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford ; formerly Professor of Dogmatic Theology in King's College, London, and Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford. First Published: Oxford University Press, 1934. Katapi edition by Paul Ingram, 2013.


| HOME | << | The biblical basis :- How the New Testament writers thought of these things - Experience and revelation | The early Christian tradition :- Ignatius - Athenagoras - Theophilus of Antioch - Irenaeus | The Monarchian and Arian controversies :- Tertullian - Origen - Dionysius of Rome - The Council of Alexandria | Neoplatonism :- St. Augustine on Neoplatonism | The theology of the Cappadocians :- Hooker | St. Augustine | The theology of Dr. R. C. Moberly | The religious conceptions of Dr. F. H. Bradley | Conclusion | The Trinity the revelation of the Work and Love of God | >> |

THE Christian doctrine of God is completed and summed up in the doctrine of the Trinity. This is stated for us in the First Article of Faith in the Holy Trinity.

'There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.'

It is stated at greater length in the Athanasian Creed:

'Now the Catholick Faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity; neither confusing the Persons: nor dividing the substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son: another of the Holy Ghost; but the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one: the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. ... The Father is made of none: nor created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and the Son: not made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. There is, therefore, one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons: one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity there is no before or after: no greater or less. But all three Persons are co-eternal together: and co-equal. So that in all ways, as is aforesaid: both the Trinity is to be worshipped in Unity, and the Unity in Trinity.'

Here we have the formal statement of the Christian teaching. It is our business to show that it is a proper interpretation of the Biblical revelation, to narrate the history of the doctrine, and the steps by which it has been formularized, and then to examine its meaning, and to make it clear that it represents something which is real and is not – as many think – a mere collection of words.


It used to be customary to preface a discussion about the Trinity by reference to certain passages in the Old Testament. The Fathers had found many passages which seemed to them to support the doctrine. In almost all cases these are based on exegetical methods which we cannot follow. The only pre-Christian testimony of any value is well expressed in the following passage of Dr. Williams:

'In this Jewish substructure or foundation of religion, consisting in an ethical monotheism, I seem to discern through the sanction apparently given by Christ to the conceptions of the "Wisdom" and "Spirit" of God, an embryonic Trinitarianism.'
'The Theology of the Catholic Revival', by N. P. Williams, D.D., in Northern Catholicism, p. 159.

Undoubtedly in later Judaism the 'Word', the 'Wisdom', and the 'Spirit' of God seem to represent almost separate personalities. If we believe that the Trinitarian conception of God is something real, it is quite reasonable to hold that some intimations of it may be found in pre-Christian times, whether as representing religious experience, or an imperfect revelation. If our Trinitarian language is the most adequate expression of the ultimate nature of the spiritual principle of the universe, there would be a natural tendency for the higher conceptions of non-Christian religions to approximate to it.

In the New Testament also we do not find the doctrine explicitly. It represents rather the manner in which the Church has formulated the teaching which is contained there. The teaching of the Bible about God may be summed up in the following nine propositions:

1. That God is one.
2. That the Father is God.
3. That the Son is God.
4. That the Holy Ghost is God.
5. That the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each separate from one another.
6. That the Father is spoken of as personal.
7. That the Son is spoken of as personal.
8. That the Holy Ghost is spoken of as personal.
9. That the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are spoken of as one.

In Newman's Grammar of Assent there is a similar list of propositions in which he sums up the meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity. « An Essay in aid of a Grammar of Assent, by John Henry, Cardinal Newman, p. 135 (ed. 1881). His aim is to show in what way we can assent to a doctrine which in its fullness we cannot comprehend. Our minds he would argue can assent and do assent to each of these propositions. If we do so we are assenting to the doctrine of the Trinity, although we do not completely understand it. At any rate these propositions form an adequate basis for examining and summing up the Biblical teaching. It is not necessary for us to support them in any detail as they represent the result of all our discussions.

1. God is one. We can quote many passages from the Old and New Testament to that effect. It is more to the point and more adequate to say that the whole of the theology of the Old and New Testaments is based on the thought of the unity of God.
Special passages are Deut. iv. 35, vi. 4; Isa. xliv. 6; Mark xii. 32; 1 Cor. viii. 4.

2. The Father is God. This is the basis of all Christian theology.
John viii. 54; xvii. 3 ; 1 Cor. viii. 6; Eph. iv. 6.

3. The Son is God. We have discussed this question fully, and have shown that this is the only language which will adequately sum up what the Apostolic Church thought.
See particularly John i. 1; Phil. ii. 5, 6; Col. i. 16, 17; Heb. i. 1-4.

4. The Holy Spirit is God. This we found to be the conclusion that we arrived at on the basis of discussing the language of the New Testament.
See pp. 402, 406.

5. The separateness of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The language of the New Testament, while teaching of the close union between the Father and the Son, always represents a distinction of work and will: 'The works which the Father hath given me to accomplish, the very works that I do, bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me. And the Father which sent me, he hath borne witness of me.' « John v. 36, 37. This may be taken as a typical passage, and similar thoughts occur throughout the New Testament. « John vi. 38; Gal. iv. 4; John viii. 42; xii. 49; 1 John iv. 9. In all these passages and in the Gospel generally the close union of Father and Son is taught us, but however close may be the union there is always a separateness. In a similar way in such a passage as the following: 'And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Paraclete, that he may be with you for ever:' you have quite clearly the separateness of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. « John xiv. 16; cf. John xiv. 25, 26; Heb. ix. 17. I am not attempting at this moment to study the questions of criticism or theology which may underlie this language. I am taking the language of Scripture as our starting-point, and it implies clearly a distinction between the three Persons.

Our next three propositions speak of the personality of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. As regards the Father and the Son, there need be no doubt that the New Testament looks upon them as personal. The personality of the Spirit, we have discussed at length. What I would ask you to do now is to take the eighth chapter of the Romans and analyse carefully its language and consider whether it can be interpreted in any way but that of teaching the separateness in personality and work of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Our final proposition is the unity of Father, Son, and Spirit. Take first of all the words of our Lord in the high-priestly prayer: 'That they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me. And the glory which thou hast given me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as we are one.' « John xvii. 21, 22. In St. Paul: 'The things of God none knoweth, save the Spirit of God. But we received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us by God.' « 1 Cor. ii. 11, 12. We have spoken of the separateness of function ascribed to the different persons, side by side with that of the unity of function. 'For the Father loveth the Son, and sheweth him all things that himself doeth.' « John v. 20. So when God speaks in us, sometimes it is the Father that speaks, sometimes the Son, sometimes the Spirit. 'Christ that speaketh in me.' « 2 Cor. xiii. 3. 'It is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost.' « Mark xiii. 11. Throughout the New Testament it will be found that there is a consciousness alike of separateness and unity in the work of Father, Son, and Spirit.

To all this we have to add those separate Trinitarian passages which speak of the Father, Son, and Spirit together in a manner difficult to understand unless we interpret them in some such way as we do in the doctrine of the Trinity:

'There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of ministrations, and the same Lord. And there are diversities of workings, but the same God, who worketh all things in all.'
1 Cor. xii. 4-6.
'The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all.'
2 Cor. xiii. 14.

And most important of all the baptismal formula at the end of St. Matthew's Gospel:

'Baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.'
Matt. xxviii. 19.

We are not now concerned with the question whether these words come from Christ. It is sufficient for us that the mind of the Church at the solemn moment of baptism enshrined its belief in this formula, and that it was so authoritative that it was believed – whether rightly or wrongly – to come from our Lord himself.

I have put before you somewhat cursorily the scriptural argument for the doctrine of the Trinity. I have not thought it necessary to do so fully because all the different propositions have been discussed by us previously. We have been going over old ground. We have now another and more difficult question to face. We desire to know how the New Testament writers thought of these things. We examine the language of St. Paul and the language of St. John's Gospel, and we find that we cannot harmonize and systematize the different conceptions that are put before us, except in some such way as the traditional Church theology of the Trinity, but we are not, therefore, justified in thinking that the writers of the New Testament thought in that way. Rather, I think, the right way of looking at it is this: the books of the New Testament represent to us a religious experience and, as we believe, a revelation through that experience. Through that religious experience the writers knew the reality of these different propositions. They knew and felt the reality of the belief in one God. They felt that they had seen in Jesus Christ the glory as of the only begotten Son of God. They knew that they had received the teaching of the Spirit. They felt that the Spirit was working in them. They felt that they had received in their work the personal direction of the Spirit, and they felt that that was God working in them and God's guidance. All that was religious experience – an experience revealed in the books of the New Testament – but it was revelation also. It was the revelation of God through Jesus Christ and his Spirit. Therefore all these different propositions (doctrines if you like to put it so) are so far revelations of reality. They give us a knowledge of the reality of things behind this world of appearance. It is a revelation through the only-begotten Son of God of something of what God is. We recognize that we only see now as in a glass darkly. We recognize that we only have reflections of the truth. We only see shadows, but they are shadows of what is real, and therefore, so far, in each of these particular religious experiences and revelations, we have an insight into the unseen. And that, as we shall find, works itself out: that knowledge is taken up by the Christian Church, and because it represents teaching about reality we shall find that it harmonizes with deep philosophic thought about the nature of God and the universe. It is not necessary therefore for us to think that the writers of the New Testament thought of things as later theologians did, but later theologians have interpreted, and as we believe truly, that view of God and reality which is revealed to us through the experience of the New Testament.


I come next to the history of the doctrine of the Trinity and the development of orthodox theology, and I propose to divide the subject into three periods, which are somewhat different from those usually given. Divisions into periods are always arbitrary and only bring out some aspects of the history, and there is advantage in working out the development of human thought from various points of view. One book divides history in one way, another in another, and each enables us to understand some different aspect of the problem of history.

My three periods are:

1. First, the period of unsystematized tradition which, roughly speaking, corresponds with the second century and closes with the writings of Athenagoras, of Clement, and of Irenaeus.

2. Secondly, the period of doctrinal controversy and of the development of a final phraseology. That begins with Origen and Tertullian at the beginning of the third century, and ends with the Second General Council. It includes the two great controversies which especially affected the doctrine of the Trinity, the Monarchian and the Arian.

3. The third is the period of full theological construction which is represented by the work of the Cappadocian theologians in the East and by St. Augustine in the West.

We come, therefore, to the first period and begin as usual with the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, whom here as elsewhere we find inheriting and carrying on the traditions of the Apostolic Church. There are Trinitarian passages very much like those in St. Paul's Epistles or the baptismal formula. For example in Clement, 'Or have we not one God and one Christ and one Spirit of grace poured forth upon us, and one calling in Christ?'
1 Clem. xlvi. 6.
'Receive our Counsel and you will not repent it. For God liveth, and the Lord Jesus Christ liveth, and the Holy Spirit, the faith and hope of the elect.'
Ibid., lviii. 2.

Perhaps the most remarkable passage is in St. Ignatius. He describes Christians as 'stones of a temple, prepared beforehand for a building of God the Father, hoisted on high by the machine of Jesus Christ, which is his Cross, using the Holy Spirit as a rope; while your faith is your windlass, and love is the way that leadeth to God'.
Ignatius, ad Eph. ix.

I am not concerned to defend the felicity of the metaphor employed, or to comment on the literary style. The quotation is interesting as showing how the thought of the combination of Father, Son, and Spirit in the work of Christian salvation was impressed on the Church, and how the balance of Christian truth was really present in the minds of Christians from early times. We find development in philosophy, in theology, in the accurate expression of doctrine, but from the point of view of real religion I do not find the same development. There was then just the same conception of salvation gained through the work of Father, Son, and Spirit that any religious-minded person has at the present day.

We pass to the Apologists. Reference has been made to the language of Justin Martyr in discussing the doctrine of the Spirit, and undoubtedly his theology is not in accordance with later standards. He arranges the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in a series, giving the Son the second place and the Spirit of Prophecy the third place, but his language is not correct, and in one passage he seems to place the Spirit among the angels. This is probably an accidental incorrectness, and his ordinary conception was that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit represent the beings that Christians worship. As regards gradation, it was to him probably one of place and rank only, not of essence or nature. He was quoted by Arians as on their side, and he certainly used language which later theologians would consider incorrect, but it is doubtful if he thought as Arians did.

The most important passages occur in Athenagoras, who addressed his Apology to the Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Commodus. That is between A.D. 176 and 180. Like other Apologists he was mainly concerned in defending Christians from the accusation of Atheism and he appeals to the authority of Plato:

'If Plato is not an atheist, neither are we atheists, for we recognize and stedfastly believe in a God who made all things by His Word and holds them together by the Spirit that comes from Him.'
Athenagoras, Legatio, 6; Swete, op. cit., p. 42.

He says that:

'The Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son by the unity and power of the Spirit; whence the Son of God is the Father's Mind and Word.'
Ibid., 10.
'The Holy Spirit,' he says, 'is an effluence from God as light from fire.'
Ibid., 34.

'Who then can fail to be perplexed when he hears the name of atheists given to men who hold the Father to be God and the Son God, and the Holy Spirit, pointing out the power that lies in their unity, and the distinction in their order?'
Ibid., 10.

That means that they are one in power but distinct in order.

'The one ambition that urges us Christians on is the desire to know the true God and the Word that is from Him – what is the unity of the Son with the Father, what the fellowship of the Father with the Son, what is the Spirit; what is the unity of these mighty powers, and the distinction that exists between them, united as they are – the Spirit, the Son, the Father.'
Ibid., 13.

Athenagoras is earlier than any controversy on the doctrine of Trinity. He writes under the influence of the Christian tradition, and he shows what the Christian tradition meant to a man of intelligent and philosophic mind.

Theophilus of Antioch, who wrote his Apology during the reign of the Emperor Commodus (A.D. 180-92), is noted as the first writer who used the term Trias, i.e. Trinity. He tells us that God, the Word, and his Wisdom formed a Triad which is symbolized by the first three days of the creation-week. « Theophilus, Ad Autolycum, ii. However, he also speaks of a Tetraktys or quaternion, for he includes man, so that we have not yet reached a time when the term Trinity had become normal. Theophilus is only carried away by the fanciful interest in numbers which was a characteristic of early human thought. Numbers were supposed to have secret meanings in themselves. There was something mysterious about them, especially about the uneven numbers 3 and 7. Theosophists like the Gnostics found or invented Trinities, Hebdomads, and Ogdoads. Now the important point for us is that the belief in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit comes before any attempt was made to introduce numbers or formularies. It was not that the idea of the Trinity was derived from this fashion, but the belief already existed in the Persons of the Trinity, and numerical and other phraseology was used to explain the doctrine. It is quite true that the thought of that time liked to find Trinities. Trinities are quite common in heathen mythology. It is not, however, true that the Christian belief in a Trinity came from any of these sources. It was not derived in any way from heathen analogies. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity as a religious belief is earlier than any of these attempts to explain it. The utmost that can be said is that such a phrase as Trinity in Unity would be quite in accordance with the ideas of the time, people would be attracted by it and any belief thus formulated would harmonize with their habits of thought.

Our next writer is Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in Gaul, who flourished from about 180 to 200. The principal work of his which has come down to us is a defence of the traditional faith against the Gnostics. These were famous for much curious and fanciful teaching about aeons. They personified the divine attributes as aeons, and at the head of spiritual beings was the Pleroma with its thirty aeons. Irenaeus has to show that the traditional Christian belief in Father, Son, and Spirit was no adequate ground for believing in a great hierarchy of semi-personified spiritual beings.

He starts with the traditional rule of faith, the belief in one God, the Father Almighty, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and in the Holy Spirit. He argues that the Word and Wisdom of God were always with him, and he identifies the Wisdom of God with the Spirit. He calls the Son and the Spirit, the Word and the Wisdom, the two hands of God.

'The Father anointed, the Son was anointed, the Spirit was the Unction.'
Irenaeus, Haer. iii. 18. 3.
'Not without the Spirit can the Word of God be seen, and not without the Son can the Father be approached; the Father can be known only through the Son, and the Son only through the Holy Spirit.'
Ibid., Preaching, 7.

It may be noted that Irenaeus never uses the technical term 'the Trinity'. We are still in the period before technical phraseology had been devised. On the other hand Clement of Alexandria, the last writer of this period to whom I would refer, although he has much less full teaching than Irenaeus on the Trinity, uses the term Trias not infrequently.

This concludes our survey of the first period, a period of religious belief and development – without controversy, without any attempt at definition, with very little influence from Greek philosophy, merely to satisfy the demands of religion, the doctrine of the Trinity becomes fully developed in a way quite adequate from the point of view of religion, although not from that of exact definition or philosophical theory. The religious development was earlier than the controversial development.


We now come to the period of controversy – the Monarchian and Arian controversies. The Monarchian controversy arose from the necessity and desire of defending the divine unity. This was the traditional and fundamental Christian belief inherited from Judaism. It was attacked from two sides – that of the polytheism of the Greco-Roman world, which could not help thinking of a multitude of Gods, and that of Gnosticism. Gnosticism had lost the conception of divine unity either through the belief in a multitude of aeons, or, as in the case of Marcion, through the belief in two Gods – a God of the Old Testament and a God of the New, a God who was Creator, the Demiurge, and a first and higher God. On two sides it was necessary to defend the divine unity, and so the Church was brought up consciously against the problem how it could reconcile this unity of the Godhead with the honour that was paid to the Son and Spirit. So at the end of the second and beginning of the third century we have a series of theologians who attempted to solve this problem. Some of them were more or less successful, others failed and were looked upon as heretical.
On the Monarchian controversy, see chap, xiv, pp. 348-52, chap. xvi.

The movement was two-sided. There were the Adoptionists who looked on the Son as originally a man, endowed with the divine word in a greater degree than other men, who was finally exalted to the right hand of God for his surpassing excellence. That type of thought was represented in its most developed form by Paul of Samosata about the middle of the third century. Then on the other side there were the Medalists, the Patripassianists, and the Sabellians – the Patri-passianists who were accused of saying that the Father had suffered, the Medalists who looked upon the distinction in the Godhead not as separate persons, but as a manner or mode of existence or perhaps rather of revelation. They represented the Son and the Spirit as having no separateness of existence, and in Sabellianism this teaching attained its most complete form; but the writer who is best known is Praxeas, against whom Tertullian wrote the treatise in which he developed the doctrine of the Trinity. It is interesting to notice that throughout the third and fourth centuries the charge of Sabellianism is that most feared. The reason was, I think, that it was felt to be unsatisfactory to the religious instinct. It destroyed the personality of the Redeemer. It took away the ultimate grounds of belief in both Incarnation and Atonement, and therefore it failed to satisfy essential Christian needs. So strong was that fear that throughout this period there is a constant tendency to extreme subordinationism, that is the making of the Son subordinate to the Father, a tendency which culminated in Arianism. The problem of the Church was twofold: to find a philosophic basis which might justify the apparently paradoxical religious demand for a belief in one God and at the same time the belief in the divinity of more than one person, and secondly a phraseology which would enshrine the idea.

The first writer we have to consider is Tertullian, who defined the doctrine of the Trinity more fully than any theologian for the next two hundred years. He had the boldness not to shrink from stating his belief in its completeness and fullness. He makes full use of the terms Trinitas and unitas. He speaks of the Godhead as a unity which evolved a Trinity out of itself. The term that he uses for the Godhead is substantia, although he also speaks of virtus and potestas. For the Father, Son, and Spirit there were various words, but the most technical was persona. The three Persons sprang ex unitate patris. All three were equal in substance, but distinct in grade.

There has been some discussion as to where Tertullian found this phraseology. Harnack suggests that it came from the law courts. The word substantia means property. The word persona means a man who can plead and, therefore, an independent unit. Three legal persons might be united together in the unity of their property. I very much doubt whether there is much in this. I think that it is much more likely that Tertullian got the term substantia from current philosophical language without troubling about the philosophy. It has to be remembered of him that he never approached any question from the philosophical standpoint. He is the typical Western theologian, who is inspired by his religious instinct, and desires exact definition, but is never troubled by the subtle philosophical questions which disturbed the East. He does not wish to understand, he is content to define. So far as he introduces any image or description he draws it from politics. Monarchy need not be administered by one ruler. It does not cease to be a government of one, when the Son is co-administrator. The Son and Father are, therefore, consortes substantiae patris. Tertullian explains the Trinity by the analogy of the Roman Empire, where the supreme power was in the hands of Marcus Aurelius, but he associated with himself Lucius Verus and Commodus. The analogy is not very profound or satisfactory, but it is characteristic of Tertullian. However, the phraseology of Tertullian, his bold assertion of the equality of the three Persons, and his clear insight into the reality of the one nature, enabled him to lay the foundations of the whole Western development of the doctrine of the Trinity.

We come next to Origen, the great philosopher of Alexandria. His date is a little later than that of Tertullian; most of his works were published in the first forty years of the third century.

He was a philosopher and must explain his religion in philosophical language. So he is responsible for the word ousia, the word which more than any other helped the Church to define its doctrine. He starts from the philosophical conception which he derived from Plato, from the idea of the one and the many: the one the only real existence, the many, the varying forms of phenomena which have no existence apart from the one and can only be understood in the one. Plato tried to explain the existence of general terms by his doctrine of ideas. For example, there was an idea of humanity, of mankind or manhood, the reality of which all individual men partook. All subordinate ideas were summed up in the idea of the good, the ἰδέα τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ. Now he never personified, although he sometimes seemed to personify, his ideas, or his supreme idea. Origen of course identifies the supreme idea with God. It is for him a living personal being, unknowable in himself, known only in that which is derived from him. This supreme idea is not only personal, it is good, the supreme good αὐτὸ τὸ ἀγαθόν ; it is also love.

Now in what did this supreme idea consist? How did it exist? It was οὐσία, being, the being of God. So just as all men might partake of the essence of manhood, the Son and the Spirit could partake of the divine.

It was because the supreme existence was good, that he wished to reveal himself. He could reveal himself only through a being which partook of his essence. He chooses as the organ of his revelation the Logos. It exists to reveal him. So it is personal as the Father, and must be of one essence with the Father. He must be in his own essence God. He is the reason and wisdom of God, himself too really God. That was the doctrine of the one essence, the μία οὐσία of the Godhead. So in the Nicene Creed we have the well-known phrase 'of one substance with the Father'. He taught also the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, implying that the word 'Son' refers to the relationship to the Father, and not to their origin in time. On the other side he was led by his fear of Sabellianism to use ultra-subordinational language, and he sometimes speaks of the Son as a second God. His great service to the Church was that he explained the traditional Christian theology by the current philosophy.

About the middle of the third century there was an interesting and important controversy, to which we have already referred, between Dionysius of Rome and Dionysius of Alexandria. « See chap, xiv, pp. 355, 356. Dionysius of Alexandria, a well-known theologian, had written against Sabellianism, and had spoken of three hypostases in the Godhead. This statement was condemned by a Roman Synod, and the letter of the Bishop of Rome gives us the teaching of the Synod. The document is interesting as being the first important theological utterance from a Bishop of Rome that we possess, and it exhibits the typical Roman standpoint – an absence of philosophy and a desire for accurate definition.

'The divine Word must needs be united to the God of all, and the Holy Spirit must needs love to dwell and live in God' – the reason he gives is that God never can be without his Word and Wisdom. 'The divine Trinity must be summed up and gathered into one as its head. We must not then divide the divine unity into three Godheads, ... but must hold fast by our faith in God the Father Almighty and Christ Jesus his Son and in the Holy Spirit, and in this way we shall preserve both the divine Trinity and the holy preaching of the monarchy.'

The point to notice is that the dispute arose because certain words were used in different ways in the East and West. There were three words of importance,
1. ousia or being. That might be used of an individual, but was generally used of the essential nature, the general idea which lies behind the individual.

2. hypostasis. This might be used of the material basis of a thing, but came to be used generally of characteristics – either of the individual or of a group. It might, therefore, be used as equivalent to ousia, or to persona.

3. prosopon, a word which corresponded to persona in the West but was disliked in the East because of its associations with Sabellianism.

Now the proper way to translate these words into Latin was to translate ousia by essentia and hypostasis by substantia. But substantia was the word used in the West for the Godhead. When, therefore, Dionysius of Rome found his namesake in Alexandria speaking of three hypostases he naturally thought that he was using the word in the Western sense and interpreted it to mean three Godheads.

The tendency then was for the language of the West to be una substantia, tres personae, and the language of the East to be una ousia, tres hypostases, and the material was all prepared for a continuous controversy when difference of phraseology concealed identity of doctrine. Fortunately the difficulty was met a century later by Athanasius. In the Council at Alexandria in the year 362, at which the divinity of the Holy Ghost and the equality of the persons was clearly defined, the question of phraseology was definitely settled. It was recognized that two usages were current, and that questions of words ought not to be allowed to divide those who were really agreed. Both 'one hypostasis' and 'three hypostases' might be correctly used. The former was in accordance with the language of the Creed of Nicaea, in which the word is equivalent to ousia, the latter was equally accurate when the phrase was used to signify not three divine substances or three Gods, but three eternal modes of existence of the one divine substance. The tendency in the East was to Speak of μία οὐσία, τρεῖς ὑποστάσεις. This was now recognized as legitimate and ultimately prevailed. It was accepted by the Cappadocian theologians, and then by John of Damascus. It was held correct to say μία οὐσία, τρεῖς ὑποστάσεις or μία οὐσία ἐν τρισὶν ὑποστάσεσιν, one God permanently existing in three eternal modes. The ousia of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one and the same. Both Father and Son together with the Holy Spirit are the Godhead: the one existing in three forms or spheres or functions – the one God tripersonal.

With regard to this language and definitions, it must be remembered that the Church to a certain extent created its own phraseology. It is not of great importance to inquire too minutely as to what these words meant originally, they naturally and gradually acquire a new meaning for their new use. They are selected as the most appropriate words for the purpose of definition. It must be recognized also that there is a limit to the value of these definitions. In themselves they are not religious, in themselves they do not explain. They meant probably rather more when they were first introduced because they were current philosophical terms, but although they cannot help us much in understanding, they have a real value in preventing incorrect thought, and guarding all sides of Christian doctrine. You will remember that I defended the formula of Chalcedon against the attacks which it is now fashionable to make on it, because it guarded everything that was necessary for religion – the true manhood as well as the true Godhead. So with regard to the inherited and orthodox teaching on the Trinity, it does not explain what is in many ways inexplicable, but it guards for the value of religion all the different sides of Christian teaching.


At this point it is appropriate to consider the relation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to Neoplatonism.
My acquaintance with the philosophy of Plotinus is mainly due to The Philosophy of Plotinus, The Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews, 1917-18, by William Ralph Inge, Dean of St. Paul's.
Plotinus, the last great name in Greek philosophy, was born in 204 in Egypt. He studied philosophy in the Schools of Alexandria, and, dissatisfied with all other teachers, from his twenty-eighth to his thirty-ninth year was a pupil of a certain Ammonius Saccas. In the year 242 he accompanied the Roman army on an expedition into Mesopotamia with the object of learning something of the wisdom of the East. In 244 he settled at Rome, and he was teaching there until his death in 270. It was not until the year 254 that he began to write. The only other event recorded about him is that he was connected with a scheme for rebuilding an ancient city of Campania, and establishing there a city of philosophers. Like other schemes of that nature it came to an unsuccessful end.

The great importance about his philosophy is that it is intensely and completely religious in character. The end of Greek philosophy was to become religious. In its earlier manifestations it had been anti-religious. Its religious character may be shown by his description of the soul – a very famous passage.

'The Soul ought first to examine its own nature to know whether it has the faculty of contemplating spiritual things, and whether it has indeed an eye wherewith to see them, and if it ought to embark on the quest. If the spiritual world is foreign to it, what is the use of trying? But if there is a kinship between us and it, we both can and ought to find it. First then let every Soul consider that it is the universal Soul which created all things, breathing into them the breath of life – into all living things which are on earth, in the air, and in the sea, and the Divine stars in heaven, the sun, and the great heaven itself. The Soul sets them in their order and directs their motions, keeping itself apart from the things which it orders and moves and causes to live. The Soul must be more honourable than they, since they are born and perish as the Soul grants them life and leaves them; but the Soul lives for ever and never ceases to be itself.'
Inge, Plotinus, vol. i, 205-6.

Or again:

'Since then the Soul is so precious and Divine a thing, be persuaded that by it thou canst attain to God; with it raise thyself to him. Be sure that thou wilt not have to go far afield; there is not much between. Take as thy guide in the ascent that which is more Divine than this Divine – I mean that part of the Soul which is next neighbour to that which is above, after which and through which the Soul exists. For although the Soul is such a thing as our argument has shown, a thing in itself, it is an image of Spirit. ... Spirit then makes Soul more Divine, both by being its father and by its presence. There is nothing between them except that which distinguishes them – namely, that the Spirit is Form and imparts, the Soul receives from it. But even the Matter of Spirit is beautiful and of spiritual form and simple like Spirit.'
Ibid., 207-8.

To Plotinus the end and purpose of life was the contemplation of, the attainment of, the divine, and it is through direct intuition that the divine is attained, through a state of ecstacy.

The philosophy of Plotinus is what we should call now a philosophy of the Absolute, that is it starts from the idea of the Universal and its aim is to explain how the many are produced from the one. The particular interest for us is that at the head of all things he places a Trinity. This Trinity consists of God, the One, the Absolute, the first, τὸ ἀγαθόν, τὸ ἕν, τὸ πρῶτον; secondly, the Spirit νοῦς; thirdly, the Soul or ψυχή. The Absolute is also the good; the goal of the intellect is the one, the goal of the will is the good, the goal of the affections, of love, of admiration is the beautiful. God is unknowable, but we are not cut off from him. We can approach him either through the Soul and the Spirit, or directly by intuition. The Absolute is as the one, the first cause, as the good the final cause of things. In fact it represents the idea of God viewed philosophically. The second hypostasis in Plotinus' Trinity was the νοῦς which may be translated the understanding or the Spirit. It corresponds more or less to the Christian Logos. The third the Soul or ψυχἠ represents the Spiritual principle in the world. This corresponds with the spiritual soul in man. There is a considerable likeness to the Christian doctrine of the Spirit.

Certainly the resemblance to the Christian doctrine of the Spirit is more than superficial, but now we have to notice one fundamental difference. Plotinus never speaks of these abstractions of his as personal, and we have thus clearly presented to us the distinction between the religious and the philosophical way of looking at things. Religion demands a person as the object of worship: philosophy explains things by abstractions, and that is why philosophy can never have any hold on the mass of mankind. It must exercise its influence through the medium of religion.

Now what is the relation of this Neoplatonic doctrine to Christianity? In the first place we must set aside the idea that in any real sense the Christian doctrine of the Trinity could have been derived from Plotinus. We have noted how the full teaching of the Trinity in its religious aspect existed in the second century, and that it is the direct interpretation of the teaching of the New Testament and of the baptismal formula. The question then arises, whence came these resemblances? Are they due to the influence of Christianity on Neoplatonism or to independent speculation ? Now it is a very remarkable thing that Plotinus never mentions Christianity. He tells us a great deal about the Gnostics, whom he criticizes severely, but the teaching of the Catholic Church he does not refer to. Why that was we can only conjecture. It may well be that he knew Christianity chiefly as it was portrayed in the Church of Rome, where no doubt it seemed to be entirely without philosophical interest. The organized ecclesiastical community always presents an aspect unattractive to thought, so that although Christianity may really enshrine a higher philosophy, the philosopher cannot always discover it. It is one of the defects of organized Christianity that it is not always sufficiently sympathetic to philosophy.

But although Plotinus tried to ignore the existence of Christianity, we may be quite certain that he was influenced and that to a very considerable extent, by Christian theology. His principal teacher, Ammonius Saccas, had been brought up as a Christian, though he had relapsed into paganism. Origen had been one of his pupils, and Christian teaching must have had considerable influence in Alexandria directly or indirectly. Neoplatonism represents the ancient Greek philosophical tradition, as revived under Christian influence. It is a fact of the very greatest importance that in the later days of the Roman Empire all the organized philosophy was definitely and directly religious in character. It attempted to develop a religion apart from Christianity, really a paganism revised under the influence of Christianity, and was ultimately one of the motives that made people Christian.

Its religious influence was threefold. It created the revived and resuscitated paganism of Porphyry and Julian the Apostate which struggled against Christianity during the next century, a paganism revived and reorganized under Christian influence. Then, secondly, it undoubtedly inspired Arianism, for Arianism with its hierarchy of three Gods and its many inferior spiritual beings bore a very close resemblance to a revived paganism. Then, thirdly, it helped in the philosophical presentation of Christianity.

In particular, it helped St. Augustine. He was educated in Neoplatonism, and to it he owed the basis of his religious philosophy. He himself has told us both what he learned from it and what it did not give him. He tells us how he procured certain books of the Platonists translated out of Greek into Latin.

'And therein I read, not indeed in the self-same words ... that In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and that Word was God: the same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him was nothing made. In that which was made was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shined in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. And for that the soul of man, though it gives testimony of the light, yet itself is not that light, but the Word, God himself is that true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that he was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.'
St. Augustine, Confessions (Loeb ed.), i. 365, Book vii, chap. ix.

All this he had found. The platonic conception of God had much resemblance to the Christian. No doubt it had helped to formulate Christian theology, as it had, on its side, learnt from it. Then he goes on to tell us what he had not learnt.

'But that he came unto his own, and his own received him not, but as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, as many as believed in his name; all this did I not read there.'
Ibid., p. 367.

Then there is another contrast:

'There also did I read that God the Word was not born of flesh nor of blood, nor of the will of man, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God. But that the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us, did I not read there.'
St. Augustine, Confessions (Loeb ed.), i. 367.
'I found out in those books, though it was otherwise and divers ways said, that the Son being in the form of the Father, thought it no robbery to be equal with God, for that in nature he was the same with him.
'But that he made himself of no reputation, taking upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men, and was found in fashion as a man, and humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross: wherefore God hath highly exalted him (from the dead) and given him a name over every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father: those books have not.'
St. Augustine, Confessions (Loeb ed.), i. 367.
'Again, that thy only begotten Son, co-eternal with thee, was before all times, and beyond all times remains unchangeable, and that of his fulness all souls receive what makes them blessed; and that by participation of that wisdom which remains in them, they are renewed, that they may be made wise, is there.'
St. Augustine, Confessions (Loeb ed.), i. 367.
'But that he in due time died for the wicked; and that thou sparedst not thine only Son, but deliveredst him for us all, is not there.'
Ibid., p. 369.

I have quoted this in full because it is not only an admirable criticism of the Neoplatonic creed, but brings out clearly the fundamental difference that there is between the highest heathen thought and Christianity.

Let us sum up our main conclusions on the relation of Christianity to Neoplatonism.

1. There is considerable resemblance up to a certain point between Christianity and Neoplatonism. On the philosophical side the Platonic and Christian Trinity are alike. In the case of both we are told there are three hypostases. God is represented as the God of human aspiration. But the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not in any way indebted to the Platonic. The Christian doctrine is the older and was developed before the time of Neoplatonism. On the other hand, the Platonic teaching may have been influenced by Christianity.

2. Neoplatonism was of the highest importance, as it made philosophy definitely religious. When philosophy became religious the world became religious. It is a common impression, certainly in this country, that philosophy does not much matter. That is quite erroneous. It is really of profound importance. Our European troubles have been largely caused by philosophical influence. The philosophy of Nietzsche is responsible for much of the wrong-headedness of Germany. The widespread prevalence of materialism and utilitarianism has been a potent cause of our social troubles. A materialist philosophy causes human misery.

3. Neoplatonism influenced considerably the philosophical exposition of Christianity, especially through Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers. Augustine, Basil, and the two Gregories had all been university students and they had learnt the philosophy of the day.

4. St. Augustine in his Confessions brings out very fully the difference between Neoplatonism and Christianity, that is the difference between a philosophy and a religion. In Neoplatonism there was no Incarnation, no exposition of the love of God, no Atonement, no penitence, no forgiveness.


It is generally agreed that the three great Cappadocian theologians, Basil of Caesarea, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and his friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, formulated and completed the teaching of the Greek Church on the doctrine of the Trinity. Later theologians may have made the language more exact, but added nothing of real importance; and as we shall find, it is their teaching which was the source of the classic English exposition of Hooker. They were all three men of deeply religious lives: of loyalty to the Catholic faith that they had inherited, and of intellectual power. They had been trained in the best philosophical and rhetorical schools of the day, Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus at the University of Athens, where they had been fellow pupils of the future Emperor Julian. They brought their philosophical attainments to the service of their faith, but they were not philosophers who formulated a system of thought, but religious men who had been taught a religious system which satisfied their spiritual needs, and used their intellectual gifts to commend and interpret it. It must be emphasized that whatever novelty there might be in their arguments, there was none in their belief. They inherited the faith of Irenaeus, and Ter-tullian, and Origen, and Athanasius. They had the same traditions as the Western Church. It was the Arians, the Eunomians, and the Macedonians who were the innovators.

Their contributions to theology were first of all their teaching on the incomprehensibility and unknowableness of God. The rationalists might claim that they had explained everything. The orthodox theologian recognized that God was unknowable:

'It is difficult,' says Gregory of Nazianzus, 'to conceive God, but to define him in words is an impossibility, as one of the Greek teachers of Divinity taught, not unskilfully, as it appears to me. ... In my opinion it is impossible to express him, and yet more impossible to conceive him ... and this, not merely to the utterly careless and ignorant, but even to those who are highly exalted and love God, and in like manner to every created nature.'
Gregory Nazianzus, Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers, p. 289, Oratio xxviii, iv.

We cannot know what God is: we can only learn that he is. For how could this universe have come into being or been put together, unless God had called it into existence, and held it together? but what God is in nature and essence no man ever yet discovered or can discover.
Ibid., p. 390.

Then next they vindicated the consubstantiality of the Father and Son, inheriting and completing the Athanasian doctrine, against the various forms of Arianism of the day. They completed the rout of Arianism which had fulfilled its purpose and vanished, as all half-truths ultimately vanish before the realities of thought. So also they defended and completed the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Here again there might be theological advance, but there was no religious advance. The Church had always believed in the Holy Spirit. Its belief was based on the threefold baptismal formula, but attention had not turned to the third person of the Trinity, and the theology was not thought out. The whole mind of the Church had been absorbed in the controversies on our Lord's person, and it was only when Macedonius and his followers began to attack or explain the traditional teaching that it became necessary to defend or to formulate the Church's teaching.

But if the divinity and the equality of the three persons in the Trinity had been defended, how then could their relationship be expressed? It was just as easy then as now to ask how three could be one and one three. It was quite easy to lay stress on the irrationality and the apparent contradictions of orthodox theology, and although these did not very much trouble philosophers who found the same contradictions in any belief in God, or indeed in our knowledge of the world, yet a consistent statement of the Church's teaching was needed. The basis of this was found in the inherited Platonic philosophy. The unity of the Godhead lay in the divine οὐσία. All the persons alike shared in the one Godhead. The Godhead was one and indivisible, and in that lay the unity. All shared in the common nature; but as each individual person shares in the common humanity, and is separated from all others by certain individual characteristics, so each person in the Trinity has his one characteristic. It was the characteristic of the Father to be unbegotten, it was the characteristic of the Son to be begotten, it was the characteristic of the Holy Ghost to proceed. These characteristics represented not a relation in time, but only a relation as cause and effect, for time did not exist in relation to the Godhead.

This analogy might give a fairly satisfactory phraseology, but it was by no means perfect. It was quite easy for any clever person to say, well, if that is so, there must be three Gods. All men are (as you teach) united by sharing in a common manhood, that is, their οὐσία, in that they are united, but that does not prevent us from calling each man separately a man, and therefore we speak of three or four or many men. Why in the same way cannot we speak of three Gods?

It is this problem that Gregory of Nyssa deals with in his short treatise On not three Gods, and it is a problem before the other Cappadocians. Their answers are not wholly satisfactory, but, as I understand them, their argument is that unity is of the essence of Godhead, and therefore to speak of three Gods is a contradiction in terms, and that in particular this unity of the Godhead is shown by the unity of their work.

So Gregory of Nyssa on the Holy Trinity:

'If, on the other hand, we understand that the operation of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one, differing or varying in nothing, the oneness of their nature must needs be inferred from the identity of their operation. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit alike give sanctification, and life, and light, and comfort, and all similar graces.... So too all the other gifts are wrought in those who are worthy alike by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: every grace and power, guidance, life, comfort, the change to immortality, the passage to liberty, and every other boon that exists, which descends to us.'
Gregory of Nyssa, Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers, p. 328, On the Holy Trinity.

And again:

'Thus the identity of operation in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit shows plainly the undistinguishable character of their substance.'
Ibid., p. 329.

And again in On not three Gods:

'Every operation which extends from God to the Creation, and is named according to our variable conceptions of it, has its origin from the Father, and proceeds through the Son, and is perfected in the Holy Spirit.' ...

So also in the case of the word 'Godhead':

'Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, and that very power of superintendence and beholding which we call Godhead, the Father exercises through the Only-begotten, while the Son perfects every power by the Holy Spirit.'
Ibid., p. 334, On not three Gods.

I think of this exposition of the Trinity we may say that as far as phraseology goes it is adequate. The purpose of theological phraseology (as has been emphasized throughout this work) is to guard the doctrine for religion – it does not profess to be an explanation, it does desire to secure that no side of the Christian religion should be lost. The doctrine of the Trinity as expressed by the Cappadocian Fathers secured all that the Church had inherited – the unity of the Godhead, the reality of redemption, the sanctifying work of the Spirit, a doctrine of God which would respond to our religious needs. All this it secures. If, however, you ask whether it is an adequate explanation, the answer must be that it is not; I think we might add that it did not claim to be. For all these three Fathers emphasize to us again and again that we cannot know or understand God. We can know him in his work and in his revelation of himself, but not in his essence. Their teaching guards the full revelation.

With this judgement of the value of the teaching we may conclude this section with the statement of the doctrine of the Trinity in Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity – by far the most impressive statement in the English language.

' "The Lord our God is but one God." In which indivisible unity notwithstanding we adore the Father as being altogether of himself, we glorify that consubstantial Word which is the Son, we bless and magnify that co-essential Spirit eternally proceeding from both which is the Holy Ghost. Seeing, therefore, the Father is of none, the Son is of the Father, and the Spirit is of both, they are by these their several properties really distinguishable each from other. For the substance of God with this property to be of none doth make the Person of the Father: the very selfsame substance in number with this property to be of the Father maketh the Person of the Son; the same substance having added unto it the property of proceeding from the other two maketh the Person of the Holy Ghost. So that in every Person there is implied both the substance of God which is one, and also that property which causeth the same person really and truly to differ from the other two. Every person hath his own subsistence which no other besides hath, although there be others besides that are of the same substance. As no man but Peter can be the person which Peter is, yet Paul hath the selfsame nature which Peter hath.'
Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, Book v, chap, li, § i.



The importance of St. Augustine's work on the Trinity lies in the fact that not only was it the fullest and most influential treatise on the subject, but also that he aimed not merely at a correct definition and the defence of orthodoxy, but at giving a rational and philosophic explanation of the doctrine.

Let us begin with his definition:

'The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit intimate a divine unity of one and the same substance in an indivisible equality; and therefore they are not three Gods, but one God: although the Father hath begotten the Son, and so he who is the Father is not the Son; and the Son is begotten by the Father, and so he who is the Son is not the Father; and the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son, but only the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, himself also co-equal with the Father and the Son, and pertaining to the unity of the Trinity. Yet not that this Trinity was born of the Virgin Mary, and crucified under Pontius Pilate, and buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven, but only the Son. Nor, again, that this Trinity descended in the form of a dove upon Jesus when he was baptized; nor that, on the day of Pentecost, after the ascension of the Lord, when "there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind", the same Trinity "sat upon each of them with cloven tongues like as of fire", but only the Holy Spirit. Nor yet that this Trinity said from heaven, "Thou art my Son", whether when he was baptized by John, or when the three disciples were with him in the mount, or when the voice sounded, saying, "I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again"; but that it was a word of the Father only, spoken to the Son; although the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as they are indivisible, so work indivisibly.
'This is also my faith, since it is the Catholic faith.'
St. Augustine, On the Trinity, I. iv, English trs. (Edinburgh, 1873), p. 7.

This statement is interesting as it gives the fully developed doctrine of the Trinity, as we have it, for example, in the Athanasian Creed, which is, as we have shown, fundamentally Augustinianism.

St. Augustine discusses at some length the language which he can use. The Greek usage, he says, is μία οὐσία, τρεῖς ὑποσράσεις, one essence, three substances, but he is accustomed to consider that essence and substance mean the same thing. 'We do not dare to say one essence, three substances, but one essence or substance and three persons.' But then he apologizes for the words he must use. 'Yet when the question is asked, What three? human nature labours altogether under great poverty of speech. The answer however is given, three persons, not that it might be spoken, but that it might not be left unspoken.'

St. Augustine attempts to explain the Trinity by many analogies, but I think that the most important contribution that he gives is the explanation of the Trinity as necessary for the full conception of what we mean when we say 'God is Love'. 'God is love', and it is by loving God that we can know him and understand him. 'Let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love.' It is by our love of another that we get to know what God is, for if God be love, then by the act of love we have in ourselves God, and know what God is like, and learn about him, and if God be love then there must be the capacity of love in God, and that means an object of love.

'But what is love or charity, which divine scripture so greatly praises and proclaims, except the love of good? But love is of some one that loves, and with love something is loved. Behold then, there are three things: he that loves and that which is loved, and love.'

St. Augustine then could explain the Trinity as the Father and Son joined together in perfect love and harmony, and the Spirit which sheds abroad the love of God in our hearts is the love that joins them together.

This same argument is put in a form perhaps better adapted to the present day by Dr, Moberly in his work on Atonement and Personality. His account of the doctrine of the Trinity is by far the most satisfactory that I know in any modern work. If we are right in thinking that God is love, then there must be more than one person in the Godhead. For if we mean anything by saying that God is love, we cannot think that love came into existence only when the world was created. Love must be of the essence of the Godhead from the beginning. It must be part of the real nature of God. As then there cannot be love without an object of love, the Godhead cannot be a mere unity, there must be at least a duality of persons in the Godhead.

Here I think, in this argument which we owe to St. Augustine and has been restated for us by Dr. Moberly, we get as close to understanding the reality of the Godhead as is possible for us. I do not think we need follow St. Augustine into all the other analogies which he suggests, some of which seem rather fanciful. But when he speaks of God as love, so far from his argument being fanciful, it is, I think, the intellectual presupposition which gives meaning to the Christian doctrine of God.

There is one more point which we must try to elucidate. What do we mean when we speak of 'personality' or 'person'? Again Dr. Moberly gives us a definition which is, at any rate, suggestive. A person is that which loves and can be loved. Just so far as there is a possibility of loving, so far is there personality. When we think of God as person, we mean that there will be just that relation between God and Man which we speak of as love. Religion means the love of God, and therefore, God must be a person. When we think of God as love, there must be that separateness of persons in the Godhead which makes love possible. When we speak of the Godhead as being of three persons that is the meaning that the word conveys to us. That probably is the ultimate reason why St. Augustine preferred the concrete expression 'person' to the abstract term hypostasis. That is why at the present day, in spite of the criticism to which the term is exposed, we shall find the term 'person' the most adequate explanation of what God means. As has become apparent again and again in our investigations, religion demands 'person' and 'personality' in place of the abstract terms which express philosophical conceptions.


Amongst modern English theologians, a very high place must be given to the late Dr. Robert Moberly. His book on Atonement and Personality is the most serious and original book on theology which has appeared in recent years in the Church of England. His style is no doubt elaborate, perhaps over-elaborate, but there are great merits about that elaborateness, because it arises from an intense desire for extreme accuracy.

He starts in his exposition with the unity of God, as we found the Cappadocian theologians did:

'The first condition for understanding (in any sense of the word) the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, is to begin by giving the utmost possible emphasis to the truth, which is as essential to the theologian as to the philosopher – of the unity of God. God cannot be multipled. ... If the Son is God, He is absolutely, and identically God – singularis, unicus, et totus Deus. And the same is true also of the Holy Ghost. The Three Persons are neither Three Gods, nor Three parts of God. Rather they are God Threefoldly, God Tri-personally.'
'Of course', as he adds, 'no human phrases are positively adequate. ... The personal distinction in Godhead is a distinction within, and of, unity: not a distinction which qualifies unity, or usurps the place of it, or destroys it.'
Atonement and Personality, by R. C. Moberly, D.D., Regius Professor of Pastoral Theology in the University of Oxford, Canon of Christ Church, pp. 154, 155.

He then defends the use of the word person. It represents the truth better than the Greek word hypostasis, but it has its drawbacks. It is because in relation to human personality we are accustomed to conceive of personality primarily as distinctness. We think of persons as mutually exclusive. He suggests that there is in personality an idea of mutual inclusive-ness. It is quite true that when I think of any one of you as a person, I am thinking of him as separate from other persons, but it is also true that I only think of you as persons because there are other persons and because you have relations with them. Personality only exists because people are connected with one another as well as because they are separate from one another. At any rate, as regards the application of the term personality to God, in God no person is or can be without the other. The Father is inseparable from the Son, and the Son from the Father, and the Spirit from both.

We need not at present follow him when he applies this doctrine to the Atonement and condemns the idea that the Son dies for mankind to propitiate the Father, because the action of the Son is the action of the Father. 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.' The whole Godhead is in Christ.

Using rather a heavy phrase, he says:

'that Personality of Supreme, or Absolute, or Eternal Being, cannot be without self-contained mutuality of relations. Wisdom in unique solitariness of existence would have neither meaning nor content as wisdom. Will, existing absolutely alone, would not be will. Even yet more obviously, Love existing as a sole and single unit, could not possibly be Love.'

If there is love in the Godhead, the Divine Personality cannot be an unrelated unit. There must be in itself both subject and object. Unless there is that there cannot be in any real sense love in the Godhead.
Atonement and Personality, p. 164.

There are some valuable criticisms of the inadequacy of the many analogies which have been suggested, especially by St. Augustine, to explain the Trinity.

'Though they help the mind beyond its first confidently dogmatic incredulity, such analogies really carry the mind but a little way towards understanding the Trinity; and clearly break to pieces if pressed too far. ... Each in its way is a suggestion, and possibly for the moment a really illuminating one. But neither any one of them, nor (still less) all together, go far towards enabling uni-personal man to enter into the consciousness of Tri-personality.'
Ibid., pp. 171, 172.

I think that this criticism may apply also to an analogy on which Dr. Moberly lays some stress. In every man, he says, there is a threefoldness also. There is, first, the man as he is in himself, invisible, inaccessible, and yet the fountain, origin, and cause of everything about him which is in him. There is, secondly, the man as we know him, the man projected into conditions of visibleness, everything that makes up our outward impression of him. Then, thirdly, there is the response of the external world to him. There is the painting, or the cathedral, which expresses the very spirit of the artist or architect. There is the poem of the poet. There is the regenerated people which is the work of a man's self-sacrifice. All this represents some part of what we must know to understand the man. « Ibid., pp. 173, 174. It makes us feel that even human personality is very complex, and therefore we need not wonder at the complexity of divine personality, but I do not think it takes us further than that.

Let us conclude with Dr. Moberly's own statement:

'If then we should venture to paraphrase the great Name of God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost – describing the Threefoldness thus: viz. God, the Eternal, the Infinite, in His Infinity, as Himself; God, as self-expressed within the nature and faculties of man, body, soul, and spirit – the consummation, and interpretation, and revelation, of what true manhood means and is, in its very truth, that is in its true relation to God; God, as Spirit of Beauty and Holiness – the Beauty and Holiness which are himself – present in things created animate and inanimate, and constituting in them their Divine response to God; constituting above all in created personalities the full reality of their personal response: we should be expressing, not indeed the whole truth of the Being of God, which no words of ours can express, but at least a conception which is absolutely true as far as it goes; and moreover the sort of conception which is probably most intelligible to us – and intelligible exactly along the lines suggested by the Three Names selected, in human language, to constitute an intelligible revelation to human thought.'
Ibid., p. 186.

I do not pretend to make you understand these things. There is a story told of Dr. Westcott that at the end of one of his lectures one of his pupils went up and said: 'Thank you so much for that lecture: you have made me understand everything perfectly.' The only reply that Dr. Westcott made was: 'I hope not that.' If you think you have understood a thing completely, you may be quite certain that you have not. You have only evaded the difficulties.


We are approaching the end of our investigations, but there is one more source from which I think we may obtain assistance – the teaching about God of the late Dr. Bradley. Dr. Bradley was, I think, the most real philosopher of his day – perhaps the only real philosopher. There were, of course, a great many people who wrote about philosophy, but that is a different thing. We find his most mature thoughts on religion in his chapters on 'God and the Absolute' in his latest published work, Essays on Truth and Reality.

He begins by telling us that the Absolute is not God. God for him has no meaning outside of the religious consciousness, and that essentially is practical. We need not trouble ourselves about this, as we have not probably encumbered our thoughts with that extremely arid intellectual conception, the Absolute. « On God and the Absolute, see pp. 218-20. He then goes on to point out certain fundamental inconsistencies in religion, and this I think is of value to us.

'In any but an imperfect religion, God must be perfect. God must be at once the complete satisfaction of all finite aspiration, and yet on the other side must stand in relation with my will. Religion (at least in my view) is practical and on the other hand in the highest religion its object is supreme goodness and power. We have a perfect real will, and we have my will, and the practical relation of these wills is what we mean by religion. And yet, if perfection is actually realized, what becomes of my will which is over against the complete Good Will? While, on the other hand, if there is no such Will, what becomes of God? The inconsistency seems irremovable and at first sight may threaten us with ruin.'
Essays on Truth and Reality, by F. H. Bradley, pp. 428, 429.

An obvious way of escape would be to reject the perfection of God, but that would lower all religion, for a principal part of religion is the assured satisfaction of our will resting on the perfect good will; the joy and peace of assurance which comes from truth in the perfection and completeness of God. We cannot really believe in a limited God.

Undoubtedly there is inconsistency. But, Dr. Bradley asks, and this is important for us, Is there any need for religion to attempt to avoid self-contradiction? Is there any need for it to be theoretically consistent? As a matter of fact ultimate consistency is never really attainable. It is not attainable in science. We are everywhere dependent, in science, in practical life, in religion, on a useful mythology. Theoretical consistency is not necessary in religion any more than in the rest of life. 'The ideas which best express our highest religious needs and their satisfaction, must certainly be true.'
Ibid., p. 431.

He goes on to suggest that we have not ultimate truth, and is not prepared to say how ultimate truth could be attained. But, if we are prepared to accept the Christian revelation, we have the answer we need. Christianity tells us of a God infinite and supreme, and of a God self-limited in Incarnation. Christianity recognizes our will as free and God's will as supreme, but God in Creation and in Incarnation has limited his own will, and that is what Christianity teaches. We do not pretend to comprehend or understand such things, but Christianity gives us the full satisfaction of our religious needs.

Dr. Bradley cannot accept the personality of God as an ultimate truth of the universe. Ultimate truth would be included and superseded by something higher. 'A God that can say to himself "I" as against you and me, is not in my judgement defensible as the last truth for metaphysics.' Such a God he admits is necessary, or at any rate legitimate, for religion, and he raises the question how far we can represent mythologically each self, man and God, as one over against the other. Whether or no he means by 'mythologically' by means of the Christian religion, I do not know. At any rate, here we have the fundamental cleavage between the philosopher and religion. There are others who seem to think that the personality of God is hard to believe or accept. But religion has no use except for a God who is personal. Nor, as a matter of fact, in an ultimate analysis, have these impersonal abstractions any meaning. Reason has no meaning except in relation to a personal intelligence. Still more is this the case with regard to goodness, or truth, or beauty, which have no meaning except in relation to persons. 'Goodness, beauty, and truth are all there is which in the end is real. Their reality, appearing amid chance and change, is beyond these and is eternal.' So writes Dr. Bradley. But if this be so, I do not feel that the eternal can have any meaning unless it is personal, for these can only exist in relation to the personal. Whatever difficulties or inconsistencies there may be attached to it, the ultimate reality of the world must be for us personal, and Christianity tells decisively of a personal God, and a God such that these attributes are his.

And then there is a third form that this inconsistency takes, the relation of a God that transcends the world, to a God that is immanent in the world.

'A God who has made this strange and glorious Nature outside of which he remains, is an idea at best one-sided. Confined to this idea we lose large realms of what is beautiful and sublime, and even for religion our conception of goodness suffers. Unless the Maker and Sustainer becomes also the indwelling Life and Mind and the inspiring Love, how much of the Universe is impoverished! And it is only by an illusion which is really stupid that we can feel ourselves into, and feel ourselves one with, that which, if not lifeless, is at least external. But how this necessary "pantheism" is to be made consistent with an individual Creator I myself do not perceive. The resulting tendency to seek a refuge in polytheism I of course understand, but the belief that in this way we escape inconsistency remains to myself unintelligible.'
Essays on Truth and Reality, p. 436.

I do not know whether the allusion to polytheism contains a courteous reference to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but in any case Dr. Bradley admirably states what every Christian feels. We are not concerned with it as a contradiction. Our need is a God who is transcendent, and, therefore, has created the world, and a God who is immanent in the world and in each human soul. Now the Christian doctrine of the Trinity just brings these two doctrines together. On the one hand it tells us of God, the Father, the Creator, on the other of God, as the inspirer and sustainer of the world, and of each individual soul. The doctrine of the Trinity here again corresponds exactly to what Dr. Bradley feels are our religious needs. He complains of the inconsistency. Does that matter? It is only an inconsistency from our point of view. We cannot think of three being one and one being three. We cannot perhaps think of God as outside the world, and yet as the sustainer of the universe. We cannot naturally think of God as both unlimited and limited by our human wills. But is that any real ground for thinking that these antagonistic truths are not really true? If you say that God must be just what you and I understand, is not that limiting him by our human comprehension? Surely God, if there be a God, must be far more than any of us can understand. He must be above and beyond human comprehension. Dr. Bradley has confessed that inconsistency and contradiction must occur in relation to religion. He does not see how they can be reconciled. The fault is that he limits the conception and meaning of God. He tries to find his supreme unity in an arid intellectual conception, which does not really solve any problem. He fails to realize that it is just in the conception of a personal God that such inconsistencies can be reconciled if we really believe in God.

It is sufficient for our purpose to recognize the testimony that Dr. Bradley gives us that inconsistency is inherent alike in religion and in all other human activities. That is really another way of saying that man's comprehension is limited. It is interesting to remember that Gregory of Nazianzus pursues the same argument, and it is of some interest to compare the ancient theologian and the modern philosopher. Perhaps we may end with this quotation from Gregory:

'The Divine nature cannot be apprehended by human reason, and we cannot represent to ourselves all its greatness.'



We have reached the end of our investigations, and I would put the following down as our conclusions.

1. The doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly stated in the New Testament, but it sums up all that is there taught.

2. The process of controversy has evolved a statement of what is implied in the Trinity which guards effectively all sides of Christian truth. We recognize that dogmatic definition cannot explain divine truth, but that it guards it against imperfect and one-sided teaching.

3. Attempts have been made to explain the doctrine of the Trinity by human and natural analogies. These may sometimes have possessed a transitory value at different periods in Christian history, but they are ultimately without real value.

4. There are inherent in the Christian doctrine of God certain fundamental contradictions or inconsistencies. There is nothing in this fact inconsistent with the truth of Christian teaching. It is found that all human thought ultimately leads to contradictions. The solution of these contradictions lies in the belief in a God, whose ultimate nature must transcend human intelligence.

5. The ultimate justification of the Christian conception of God, the Trinity in Unity, is that it corresponds to our religious needs. The whole of Christian piety as of Christian theology must lead us to this belief.

It is true that when stated in an abstract form the doctrine of the Trinity does not seem to respond to man's religious needs. The Athanasian Creed hardly satisfies the religious aspirations of the ordinary Christian. But if we examine the doctrine (as we have done) more intimately we find that as a matter of fact it contains an answer to our needs.


The doctrine of the Trinity is a revelation of the work and love of God. If we attempt to analyse our religious beliefs we find that they imply a belief in God as the Creator and Father, expressed in the words 'Our Father'. God is transcendent, external to the world. He rules the world which he has created. But such a God, so remote from us, so distant, has never satisfied the needs of mankind. Man seeks a God of like nature with himself – one who can share his sufferings and sorrows, his ideals and aspirations. Christianity tells of a God incarnate in human nature, of Christ who is God, suffering, sympathizing, dying for us. Every religious man believes that God visits the hearts of men, and works in each individual man. He does not believe that God is separated and completely removed from him. Christianity tells us of a Spirit which teaches and inspires mankind.

Now all these aspects of God are summed up in the doctrine of the Trinity, and we cannot have them except through that doctrine.

The Trinity is also a revelation of the love of God. The highest point of Christian theology as exhibited in the revelation of Christ tells us that God is love. The Old Testament taught a righteous God. The New Testament tells us that God is love. It does not say that God created love. It does not say that God created man and then began to love him. It tells us that the essence of God is love. Love is the highest and most God-like characteristic of human life, and from it we learn most truly the real nature of God. But if God be love there must be a distinction of persons in the Godhead. For love implies a subject and an object. If God were the Absolute of modern philosophy, to ascribe to him love would be meaningless. Therefore in the Godhead from the beginning there must be a distinction of persons. As it is the Fourth Gospel that tells us that in the beginning was the Word, so the First Epistle of St. John sums up all the teaching of the New Testament with the words God is love. This language would have been meaningless if he had not taught us already of the relation of the Father and Son. Love is the shadow on earth of that divine love which has been the attribute of the Trinity from eternity. That love which binds the Father, Son, and Spirit in an indissoluble unity is exhibited to mankind in the death of the Son, and has stirred up the same feelings of love to God and love to man through what God in the person of the Son has done for man.

The dogma of the Trinity in Unity is not then something remote from human life but gives form and coherence to the most vital Christian teaching.
<< | top | >>