Issue No 65
“These three words will stand you in good stead as you continue theological study and enter into pastoral ministry. They will guard you against theological heterodoxy.” The entire class (myself included) were sat on the edge of our seats waiting for our lecturer, Dr Letham, to give us this great key to theological orthodoxy. He looked at us purposefully and slowly spoke the three words: “Distinct but inseparable.”
It’s fair to say we were distinctly underwhelmed. We had expected something more profound, more radical; but as the years have passed I have become convinced that he was absolutely right. The three words were not original to him of course; they were first formulated in the heat of the fourth century debates about Trinitarian relations, but they have application far beyond that context. They provide the crucial framework for understanding how the distinct yet inseparable Godhead interacts with his diverse yet unified creation. Indeed, they provide illumination for such difficult doctrines as the nature of the incarnation, the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, the ordo salutis, Word and Spirit, and the doctrine of the sacraments. Over the next few issues, I want to explore some of these doctrines and examine how these three simple words can help us to maintain theological orthodoxy while unpacking some wonderful gospel truths that are often perceived to be impenetrable or unimportant.
It is sensible to begin at the historical theological starting point which is, of course, the Doctrine of God and, in particular, his Trinitarian relations. Against the challenge of Arius and his followers the Early Church Fathers re-asserted the deity of Christ. This meant, however, that they needed to explain how God has eternally existed as one being in three persons. There were two opposite errors that the Fathers needed to avoid.
On the one hand was the error of subordinationism: the view that the Son and the Spirit were somehow derivative and separate from the Father. In time this error tended towards a loose tri-theism making it necessary, even as early as the fourth century, for Gregory of Nyssa to write a treatise titled “On not three gods”. Against such error, the Fathers re-affirmed that the God of the Bible is not three Gods. The Trinity is not like a divine club or association where Father, Son and Holy Spirit get together for a common purpose. No, such a view has more in common with the shenanigans on Mount Olympus in Greek mythology than with the God of the Bible. Rather, Father, Son and Holy Spirit have eternally existed in inseparable union. A failure to articulate this clearly among merchants on the Arabian trade routes probably explains why the Qur’an equates Trinitarianism with tri-theism. That, of course, is a gross error which has no Scriptural warrant and must be avoided at all costs. The persons of the Trinity are inseparable – they are one – eternally so.
But the Fathers also had to avoid slipping into opposite error. In their determination not to separate the Trinity they had to be alert to the danger of confusing or mixing the persons. This was the error of modalism: the belief that God is one person who has appeared in three different modes at three different times: Father (in the Old Testament), Son (in the New Testament) and Spirit (post-Pentecost). Modalism is appealing because it appears to simplify the Trinity but in fact it horribly disfigures God, reducing him to an impersonal, confused and changeable being who cannot be trusted or related to in a personal way. Sadly, one of the most popular Trinitarian illustrations, that of H2O, where the Father is like ice, the Son like water and the Spirit like steam, falls foul of modalism. Indeed, all human analogies inevitably tend towards either modalism or tri-theism and should therefore be avoided (see the helpful warning of Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ, Oration 31.31).
It is here that the formula of “distinct but inseparable” really helps us. The emphasis upon distinction guards against modalism and the emphasis upon inseparability guards against tri-theism. Today, it is popular to speak about balancing different emphases. We hear calls for balance in the “worship wars” where we’re told to balance Word and Spirit. But that, of course, is nonsense. It is an illegitimate importation of a Hegelian dialectic which proposes a synthesis between a thesis and antithesis. While that might work in the context of the philosophy of history (as Hegel proposed), it certainly does not work in theology where two absolute truths must be held together. We worship God in Spirit and truth, not in something in between the two. God is one and three, not a via media, which would presumably make him two! The formula of “distinct but inseparable” enables us to hold these truths together. It calls us to recognise that, in all God’s works, the three persons of the Trinity act distinctly yet inseparably. As Augustine put it in his commentary on the works of creation and grace from Matt 3:13, there is “a distinction of persons, and an inseparableness of operation” (NPNF1, 6:262). Such inseparable operation spills over into our worship of God which must itself be Trinitarian in character. No one has described this better than Gregory of Nazianzus who wrote: “No sooner do I conceive of the one than I am illumined by the splendour of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one” (On God and Christ, Oration 40.41).
Affirming that the persons of the Trinity are distinct but inseparable is important, not only for the sake of theological orthodoxy (which itself would be sufficient reason), but for our understanding of who God is, how we relate to him, and how we understand the world he has created. Without Tri-unity, we could not speak of God as being loving in his very being. Rather we would have to say that a monadic God only had the potential for love, a potential which he realised when he created a world to love – which of course would make God dependent upon his creation. In a similar vein, the distinct yet inseparable nature of God helps us to understand, appreciate and preserve the diversity in unity that we observe in the world around us. Indeed, as Colin Gunton and Robert Letham have persuasively argued, this will become an increasingly important apologetic against the homogenising trend of Islam and the fragmenting tendency of postmodernism. Furthermore, as we shall see in future editorials, the distinct yet inseparable nature of the Godhead flows out into other important doctrines, beginning with the incarnation.
Turning to the current issue of the journal, I am delighted to be able to present four articles: Robert Strivens, Principal at London Theological Seminary, examines the attitudes to spirituality evidenced in the writings of Philip Doddridge and John Gill. Drawing on his doctoral research, Strivens demonstrates that both men shared a common desire to emphasise the link between doctrine and spirituality. While they differed on the specificity of the guidance they offered for Christian spirituality they both insisted upon the importance of heart religion which engaged the affections as well as the mind. They also shared a common concern to stress the importance of public worship as a means by which spirituality may be strengthened. Andrew Towner, an Anglican Minister who serves on the leadership team of Music Ministry, considers how Jesus’ call to footwashing and the two great commandments apply to the sphere of gathered worship. He suggests that Jesus’s teaching provides a much-needed corrective in church situations where members allow matters of personal preference to divide the church.
Mark Pickett, Lecturer in Missiology at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology, provides a thought-provoking analysis of how the changing face of the world has impacted traditional mission structures. He argues that, despite recent attempts to challenge the biblical basis for mission agencies, they remain an important component in a multi-faceted approach to global mission. David McKay (one of the Associate Editors of Foundations) contributes the final article, analysing Augustine’s treatment of Revelation 20. He contends that it provides a strong argument for an amillenial reading of the text and suggests that it should be carefully considered by twenty-first century readers. Also included in the issue are a number of book reviews, including review articles of James Smith’s second instalment in his Cultural Liturgies project and Tom Holland’s commentary on Romans.
I very much hope you enjoy reading the journal and, as always, welcome correspondence on any of the topics addressed. The next issue promises to be particularly thought-provoking as we publish articles examining the growth and development of gospel partnerships within Anglo-American evangelicalism.
Principal, London Theological Seminary.
Associate Vicar, Christ Church Beckenham
Lecturer in Missiology, Wales Evangelical School of Theology.
Professor of Systematic Theology, Ethics and Apologetics, Reformed Theological College, Belfast.
Lecturer in Cultural and Religious Studies, Anglo-American University and Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic
Principal, London Theological Seminary
Foundations is an international journal of evangelical theology published by Affinity.
Its aim is to cover contemporary theological issues by articles and reviews, taking in exegesis, biblical theology, church history and apologetics, and to indicate their relevance to pastoral ministry. Its particular focus is the theology of evangelical churches which are committed to biblical truth and evangelical ecumenism. It has been published by Affinity (formerly The British Evangelical Council) from its inception as a print journal. It became a digital journal in May 2011.
It is published twice each year online.
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Iain D Campbell
Free Church of Scotland, Point, and Westminster Seminary
Cornhill Training Course (Scotland)
Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland
Oak Hill College, London
Anglo-American University, Prague & Wales Evangelical School of Theology
The John Owen Centre, London Theological Seminary
Tyndale House, Cambridge
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