The Truth of the Holy Trinity, With Special Reference to the Inter-relationship of the Father and the Son.
by R. Elliott
Recently, owing to circumstances into which it is not necessary to enter, the writer has become aware that many believers, and these are not at all among those who might be considered uninstructed, have most imperfect and inadequate ideas of what is involved in the Trinity, or why the One God has been pleased thus to reveal Himself. To some, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are little more than Names to distinguish Persons in the Godhead. Others seem to speak as if there were three Gods—which is Tritheism, though, of course they would deny that they hold this as a doctrine. Others, again, (and these amongst those who profess to have the greatest light) are denying the eternity of Christ's Sonship, limiting it to Incarnation. It would seem therefore to be of the utmost importance to consider, in the light of Scripture, the revelation granted to us of the adorable Trinity, and to see that, while all share equally in the Godhead, yet the ineffable Names of Father, Son and Holy Spirit give us an insight into God's Own nature and an understanding as to why the one God has been pleased to reveal Himself in this three-fold way.
It is a subject of the utmost practical importance, and not one merely of a speculative nature. Nor is it, as one asserted, an attempt to explain the unexplainable, for the Bible contains most positive statements with regard to the three Persons of the Trinity, Their relationship one to the other, as well as Their activities. Nor are such statements confined to a few isolated passages. To speak merely of three Persons in the Godhead and to enquire no further, is to miss one of the greatest privileges God has bestowed upon us, as well as to forfeit the highest conceivable blessing. As someone has said, we should receive "with adoring reverence the glimpses of the inner life of God accorded to us in the Holy Scripture. Here and there, we are shown (as it were) an opened Heaven, and the Godhead is revealed in its essential Trinity."
Nor is it of less moment to guard against error in this respect. As one has said, "We must not conceive of the Trinity as if there were three independent units side by side on a level with each other, each almighty, each eternal, each finding in Himself the source of His own life." This is Tritheism. And is, as the same writer says, "unconsciously the creed of a great many persons who have no wish to dispute the teaching (of Scripture or) of the Church. . . . They think of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as three separate beings (separate, that is, in being independent and distinct entirely one from the other). We are to guard against this error, as much as against the error of Unitarianism. We should think of the Godhead as the "unity of Three Persons mutually depending on each other and completing each other. . . The life of all Three is one and the same life, and it has but one source, not three. The very titles by which they are known to us imply this. They are not proper Names . . . but titles of relationship, which involve each other, and would be meaningless alone. Fatherhood is impossible without Sonship, and Sonship without Fatherhood."
Their very existence is bound up with one another. In the light of this, how grievous to find Christians declaring that the Second Person in the Trinity was not Son until He became man. How utterly destructive of the truth!! The denial of eternal Sonship is as alien from all true thought of God as anything could be. This subject has been dealt with in a pamphlet already published. ("The Eternal Son." R. Elliott.) May we approach the consideration of this subject with feet unshod and in a spirit of worship. And we assure the reader, that we shall confine His attention strictly to Scripture, without attempting either to speculate or reason. We propose to consider the truth enfolded in the Trinity; why this revelation has been made, and what is involved in the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, both in regard to a true conception of God's Own nature and being, and also in regard to our own blessing.
Nor are we to refuse to contemplate such a revelation from a mistaken humility. Though we need at the same time to remember that "the attempt to translate Divine mysteries into human language," will lead to the discovery of how limited and inadequate such human language is. At best, we can but know in part and prophecy in part. Yet if holy men have been inspired to dwell upon such a subject, it cannot be right for us to ignore their utterances; rather, the reverent consideration of them must be for our highest blessing.
First, let us pay due attention to a most important fact in Scripture: viz. that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not referred to in the same way. In this connection, what is true of one is not necessarily true of all. Thus it is said, "the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son." The Father and the Holy Spirit have not become Incarnate; of the Son alone is this true. It is most important, therefore, to remember that when we are thinking and speaking of the Deity, as such, that is one thing; when we have in mind the holy Trinity, that is quite another thing. As an illustration of this, will the reader turn to John 5: 22. There we read: "For the Father judgeth no man but hath committed all judgment unto the Son." Here we see the Father is spoken of in a manner which would be totally untrue as regards God. For God does judge. "To God the Judge of all" we read in Heb. 12: 23. But "the Father judgeth no man," yet the Father is God. Therefore we see a distinction between the way the Father is spoken of and the way God is referred to is apparent at once. Thus the terms Father and God are in certain relations to be distinguished. What the passage means, of course, is that as Father, He does not judge. That holy Name is the Name of relationship and love, and is never to be associated with anything else. Thus we are face to face with a very important consideration; namely, that certain things may be said of God which cannot be said of the Father, and vice versa. The same exactly (as we hope to show presently) applies to the Son. Certain things may be said of Him as Son which cannot be said of Him as sharing in Deity, and vice versa. This is an essential feature to be grasped, if the nature of the Trinity is to be understood, and, we may add, if certain texts are to be understood. Not only does Scripture predicate certain things of the Father as distinct from what is said of God, as such, but with equal clearness, and even with more frequency, it makes statements regarding the Father which are never made of the Son, and do not apply to the Son. Though with regard to the Deity, it may be said, "None is afore or after another, none is greater or less than another," that is, there is perfect equality in everything; yet as between the Father and the Son, the equality is different. Otherwise the Names Father and Son lose their meaning. How could Father and Son be exactly the same? Yet some Christians make so little difference, that the Names of the First and Second Persons of the Trinity are little more than distinguishing titles. But in Scripture, God is pleased to reveal to us something deeper; and the chapter from which we have already quoted, throws a flood of light upon this subject, for our great profit and blessing. Thus not only do we read in v. 22, that the Father "hath committed all judgment unto the Son," but in v. 26, we find this statement: "For as the Father hath life in Himself, so hath He given to the Son to have life in Himself." Now, we never read anywhere of the Son acting towards the Father, as the Father is here said to act towards the Son. He does not commit any office to the Father, nor has He given the Father life. As to these actions as between the Father and the Son, time of course has no place. Nor are such statements confined to one particular passage. Another very striking instance occurs in Acts 1 where our Lord says to His disciples: "It is not for you to know the times or the seasons which the Father hath put in His Own power."
This Scripture is an additional testimony to the distinctive place which belongs to the Father. It does not say with reference to times and seasons, "which God hath put in His Own power;" or even, "which God hath put in the Father's power;" but, "which the Father hath put in His Own power." We never read of the Son putting anything in His Own power. He can do all that the Father does, but He does nothing but what the Father does, or gives Him to do. Such is the blessed place He occupies as the Son. Such is His joy. He will only do what He sees the Father do. All counsels and foreknowledge are in Scripture attributed to the Father; all times and seasons are in His power. This helps us to understand that otherwise mysterious statement in Mark 13: 32, "But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father." This does not mean that Christ has relinquished His Divine attributes; but as the Son, He had received no communication respecting the day and hour. As the Son, He is willing to know only what the Father tells Him. Well, may we exclaim, What a Son! What perfection and what subjection! And, may we not add? What a pattern to us. As Son, He ever takes the place of subordination and subjection.
Bearing all this in mind, will the reader now turn to 1 Cor. 8: 6, and he will see at once, how Scripture substantiates what has been said. The idea we have been pressing, is woven into the very texture of the Divine revelation, so that without hesitation or explanation, the apostle can affirm—"To us, there is but one God, the Father, of Whom are all things." Will the reader notice the "of" and the "by" in this verse. The first is used in reference to the Father—He is the source of all; the second is used in reference to the Lord Jesus Christ—He mediates all. (In "The Divine Mystery" by J. Reader, on p. 8, occurs the following note in this verse: "The Greek preposition ek (of) expresses the source of being, the origin of all things, while dia (by) with the genetive is the instrument, the minister of another's will. The source and origin of the universe is God the Father, Who created it by means of (dia) our Lord Jesus Christ.")
All this is abundantly corroborated and endorsed by that magnificent scene opened to us in 1 Cor. 15, where the Mediatorial Kingdom is delivered up to God, even the Father, while the Son Himself is "subject to Him Who put all things under Him that God may be all in all" (vs.24, 28). Here, again, we see the same distinction. The Father, the Son and God are spoken of, yet in entirely different relationships. If Scripture is continually drawing these distinctions, it can only be because they are of the greatest importance, and we cannot afford to disregard them.
The Son is subject to the Father, that God may be all in all. As regards Deity, all are equal—God all in all, we may suppose, embraces Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but the Son, as Son, takes the place of subjection to the Father. Could the distinction we are seeking to draw, be made more plain than 1 Cor. 15: 24, 28 makes it appear? The Father and the Son fill different places. The Father subdues all to Christ. The Son does not do this for Himself, nor is it the result merely of His Own will or power, but He takes a place of subjection to the Father.
So far, we have endeavoured to bring into prominence the truth as it relates to the Father. Let us now consider the matter more particularly as it relates to the Son. The place of subordination was ever the Son's place, not only in time, and as a man here, but in eternity. In this connection, not a few have very vague and defective ideas, limiting this place of subordination to time. Christ was a Lamb "foreordained before the foundation of the world;" and another Scripture speaks of Him as "a Lamb slain from the foundation of the world." Time does not enter into these matters in their relation to God. And therefore the obedience and subjection of the Son was just as much a reality in eternity as in time. In another place we find our Lord saying, "This Commandment have I received from my Father," but who could pretend to say when He received the Commandment? Being "foreordained" involved His obedience and submission just as did His Incarnation and death. It was His glory and joy ever to occupy a place of subjection and obedience to the Father's will, as much when He created the worlds, as when He performed those works the Father gave Him to do on earth, equally when He said, "Lo, I come to do Thy will O God," as when He was actually doing that will in dying on the Cross. Psalm 40 makes this perfectly plain. The words of verses 7 and 8 were written centuries before the Incarnation, and are the utterance of Christ Himself. The Spirit of Christ is expressing the joy of the eternal Son, in prospect of doing the will of the Father. "I delight to do Thy will O God," were spoken long before the Incarnation, and this delight was experienced by Christ before Incarnation. As is said, "In the volume of the Book, it is written of Me." As one has said speaking of the Trinity: "It is the glory of them all to be one . . . by a moral living for and in each other, in a mutual devotion such as serves as an example for men." Yes, here is the value of this revelation of the Trinity: it serves as an example for men. "It is a free and living union in which all (the Trinity) are bound together by an absolute outpouring of each to other in love."
Let us see now how Scripture presents to our notice this aspect of the matter. In John 5, the passage to which reference has already been made, this subordination is repeatedly indicated. In v. 19, we read, "The Son can do nothing of Himself," and again, in v. 30, "I can of Mine Own self do nothing." Once more, in v. 26, "For as the Father hath life in Himself; so hath He given to the Son to have life in Himself." And here notice, this is not said of Him merely as the Son of Man, but as the the Son. (Scripture maintains a clear distinction between "the Son" and "the Son of God" (cf. Luke 10: 22 and Eph.4: 13) and, of course, both are different again from "Son of Man.") The title Son of Man occurs in the next verse (John 5: 27) in a different connection altogether, showing that we must not take the one as the co-relative of the other. As another has said, referring to these very passages, "He plainly set forth the doctrine, that in His Person, though not in His nature, He was subordinate to the Father. Language clearly spoken of the eternal Son, not merely of the Man Christ Jesus."
Let us now refer to 1 Cor. 15 in relation to the Son, as we have already done in relation to the Father. Christ delivers up the Kingdom to God. But the words which follow need to be specially noted: "And when all things shall be subdued unto Him, then shall the Son also Himself be subject unto Him that put all things under Him, that God may be all in all (v. 28). Now Scripture is most exact in its use of Divine titles and appellations. In v. 21, our Lord is referred to as "Man." And this in order to emphasize a special truth. In vs. 22, 23, the title is "Christ," in a different connection. But in v.28, it is "the Son." Why is this? Is it without a purpose? Is it not to show us the place that the Son ever has had and ever will have: that is, one of subjection and subordination to the Father?
The last act in the human drama: the closing scene, before the curtain falls upon human destiny and upon time, is one of subjection. It is the most glorious and triumphant scene that could be conceived. Glorious in its moral triumph, and in the display of the highest moral achievement. The Son is subject to the Father. He seeks no place for Himself. It is as if to show to the universe that He is the highest and the greatest, equal with God, when He has accomplished all the Divine purposes, can find His joy as Son in giving the Father His rightful place, Himself taking the place of subjection. In the hour of deepest humiliation on earth, He had said, "Father glorify Thy Name;" so now in exaltation, His only thought is of His Father's glory---that He should be supreme.
And as if to show also to the assembled universe—to the Church, to angels, to men—that all happiness, all well-being and blessing, as well as all honor and glory lie, not in self-exaltation, as in the case of Adam—for that led only to disaster and disgrace—but in subjection, the Son Himself is subject to Him that put all things under Him. Yet this in no way conflicts with the other truth: that "God may be all in all."
Surely it is not without a purpose—and a purpose of the greatest practical utility—that when Scripture brings us to the very confines of eternity, to the very farthest point to which God is pleased to conduct us—"God all in all"—one supreme thought should be left upon our hearts and minds—a vision of subjection. Everything that the Son undertook to do is accomplished, and He retires into the place He had ever filled from all eternity—that bosom which, so to speak, in a very real sense, He never left.
What a revelation of infinite moral and spiritual value is granted to us in the Trinity. Truly, it serves as an example to men. And all this is not without its instruction now. This is why we have taken upon ourselves to write upon a subject which from one point of view, is so profound, and also one of extreme delicacy. It needs to be approached, as one has said, "with adoring reverence." But if Scripture is pleased to lift the veil, and show us here and there glimpses of the inner life of God, who are we to refuse to enter this holy of holies? "Here and there we are shown" as the same one affirms, (to quote the words again) "As it were an opened Heaven and the Godhead is revealed in its essential Trinity." If we have said little or nothing of God, the Holy Spirit, it is because what chiefly concerns us, at the moment, is God the Father and God the Son, and also because, our space is limited.
It is the Son's love to the Father, and the Father's love to the Son, which afford us such an object lesson. It is the Son's subjection and obedience, finding all His joy in doing His Father's will, and never more so than when it cost Him most, which is so full of instruction for us. For although we are not one in the Godhead, we are one in the Father and the Son, and our life is now bound up with Theirs in such a way, and in such intimacy that it is only as we enter into the inner life of God, that we can understand how richly we are blessed. The Father Who gives all to the Son, so that in Him all fulness dwells, and the Son rendering everything back to the Father—this is what we are called to contemplate. And what is it the Son wants us to behold in that coming day, of which in His prayer to the Father He speaks, but the glory the Father has given Him. Not anything of His Own, so to speak, but that which He has received from the Father. He wants us to know what He is to the Father, and the Father is to Him. For what He values most of all is the Father's love; and that we should know our own share in that love, is His supreme desire for us. And so He prays, "That they may behold My glory, which Thou hast given Me: for Thou lovedst Me before the foundation of the world."
And now, dear reader, we have tried to give you some insight, though it may be but feebly, into the inner life of God and into what is involved in the truth of the Trinity. It brings us to the very heart of everything, yea, to the very "depths of God," which the Spirit alone can reveal. As we understand the full meaning of "the only begotten Son which is in the bosom of the Father," we reach the fulness and are "filled into all the fulness of God," and if you share the feeling of the writer, you will fall on your knees and worship.