Trinity and Covenant
The Christian Worldview
The Covenantal Standard
Covenant and the Trinity
"And the Catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father: another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal."
It is this Trinitarian confession which distinguishes Christian religion from all pagan religions and philosophy and every cultic distortion of the Bible. There is no doctrine of the Christian faith more important, none so profound. However, this most sublime and incomprehensible doctrine finds its roots not in philosophical speculation nor in mystical vision, but in Biblical revelation as it is assimilated into the everyday experience of the humblest Christian. We begin the Christian life when, like Thomas, we see the nail prints in His hands and the wound in His side and we fall down before Him, exclaiming "My Lord and My God." Having believed in Jesus, we pray, as He taught us to pray -- and as Himself prayed in the Garden (IQ(J "Abba, Father." And when we realize that we have been transformed, that God has created us anew, we learn from His Word that His Spirit has been poured out upon us and indwells us as Savior.
Thus, we conclude that even though we must confess that no doctrine of the Christian faith transcends our experience and understanding like the doctrine of the Trinity, at the same time it is also true that there is no doctrine that is so essential to our Christian worldview and everyday Christian life. Even the immature or uneducated Christian who cannot express the Trinitarian theology, who has never heard the creeds and knows nothing of the traditional formulas, even such a Christian walks in the Trinitarian light, for if he follows the Scripture, he cannot help but lift up his prayer to the Father in the power of the Spirit and in the name of the Son.
In spite of its centrality to our faith, however, the doctrine of the Trinity tends to be neglected in our pulpits and in expositions of the Christian worldview. As Carl F. H. Henry rightly complained, "The doctrine of the Trinity is seldom preached in evangelical churches; even its practical values are neglected . . . ." It is not that the essential points are unknown, though in some churches that may be a problem also, it is more that pastors and their congregations have not really considered the implications of the doctrine. Once the doctrine is proved from Scripture, little more is taught about it. This is a tragedy, since the doctrine of the Trinity is the crux of the Christian worldview.
Any adequate statement of the Christian worldview must take into account at least three clear implications of the doctrine of the Trinity. First, the Trinity is essential to a worldview in which personality has ultimate significance. Second, the Trinity as the Christian solution to the problem of the one and the many requires a revelational worldview. Third, the Divine Society of Father, Son, and Spirit shares a covenantal fellowship of love that is the transcendent pattern for man.
Trinity and Personality
The Triune God of the Bible is the only God who is truly and wholly personal. Consider, for example, how different the Triune God is from the Jewish and Muslim conception of an absolute monad. The most exalted non-Christian idea of deity involves a being who is eternally alone -- with no other to love, no other with whom to communicate, and no other with whom to fellowship. In the case of such a solitary god, love, fellowship, and communication cannot be essential to his being. But without these qualities it is difficult to imagine that the deity so conceived is actually personal at all. A god for whom a relationship with another is eternally irrelevant is an abstraction, an idea or a thing more than a person.
If, to make his god more personal, a believer in such a deity suggested that his god loved the world after he created it, the result would be a god who changes in time. Or, if one asserted that the monad loved the world from eternity, the personality of this deity, or at least his attribute of love, would depend for its existence on the world he created. It is also important to note that the idea of a god loving a world that will someday come into existence is far from the Biblical concept of a personal fellowship of love among equals. In any event, a god who changes, or a god who is dependent on the world that he creates is less than a god. Neither orthodox Jews nor orthodox Muslims imagine their god as changing or dependent on the world. They must resolve, therefore, to believe in a god who exists in an eternal vacuum, even though they will find irresistible the temptation to ascribe personality to the monad.
If Muslims and Jews applied their notion of god consistently to their worldview, man's personality, too, would be found to lack ultimate meaning. That man speaks, laughs, and loves can only be accidental truths at best. There would be nothing in the deity to correspond to such things. And what could it mean for man to be created in the image of such a god? If man is to be like such a god, would that mean that the ideal life in this world is one that lacks these personal qualities? Should man look forward to an eternity of silent self-contemplation?
Nor can polytheism, which may seem to be personal, really provide a source of personal meaning. For in addition to the fact that the gods tend to vary from place to place and time to time, the personal deities of polytheism are not ultimate. They are themselves determined by a higher principle, whether fate or something similar, which again makes the impersonal ultimate. When the gods themselves are struggling to be personal, they cannot be the source of personal meaning for man.
Only in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is there a personal absolute. In the Father, Son, and Spirit, Christians worship three equally ultimate Persons who are united in one Being. Since neither God's Oneness nor His Threeness is prior to the other, both His unity and His personal diversity are ultimate. Men -- created in God's image as persons -- have meaning, both individually and as a race, because they are the image of the Absolute. Indeed, the whole creation can only be understood rightly in terms of the Tripersonal God who created all things to reveal His glory. Ultimate explanation is not to be found in principles, nor in ideas, nor in a final theory, but in the Father, Son, and Spirit -- the Personal God. All things in the world are what they are by His will -- they were created by Him and for Him and in Him alone they subsist (Col. 1:16-17). The history of the world is nothing other than the outworking of His plan "who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will" (Eph. 1:11b).
This means that Christians must ask about the meaning and purpose of events. They cannot escape the question "why," nor answer it with "that's just the way things are." In the Trinitarian worldview, the most insignificant events have a meaning that is tied to the most profound, Absolute, Personal reality -- "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father" (Mat. 10:29). Even things about ourselves too minor for us to notice are not ignored by the Father -- "But the very hairs of your head are all numbered" (Mat. 10:30). Whereas the modern impersonal worldview of scientific rationalism leads to an "unbearable lightness of being," the Christian worldview teaches us to see the love and care of our heavenly Father in all things, the perfect though inscrutable plan of our Creator controlling all.
Faith in a personal God also means that man himself becomes truly personal. In Carl F. H. Henry's words, "More than any other factor in the history of Western thought it is this doctrine of the Trinity that has riveted attention on the fact and nature and importance of human personality."
One and Many
Writing in the third century A.D., Diogenes Laertius, the ancient historian of philosophy, identified Musaeus as the first man to set forth what might be called a philosophy. Musaeus believed "that all things proceed from unity and are resolved into unity." From his time forward, the problem of unity and diversity, in various forms, became the center of Greek speculation.
Given the underlying presupposition of Greek philosophy -- the autonomy of human thought -- the problem of the one and the many cannot be solved. If the one is ultimate, then all the diversity in the world has no final meaning. As Musaeus said, all things come out of and return to the one. The many are temporary. They only have meaning and existence in the one and through the one. On the other hand, if the many are ultimate, there is no possibility of unity in the world. Each member of the many is its own ultimate principle and cannot be related to another in terms of language or principles that include both members, for any method of relating two of the many would imply a unity above them.
Thinking about language provides a good illustration of the problem. Consider each individual word in the dictionary a member of the many. If the one is ultimate, the individual words of the dictionary would loose their distinct meaning. They could only point to the one. In effect, they would be simply different ways of pronouncing the same thing. The whole dictionary would be absorbed into one single word whose meaning would be rationally incomprehensible because it would include everything, including all the opposites of the world. Good is the one. Evil is the one. Right and left, up and down, backwards and forwards, all are the one. Hatred and love could have no ultimate distinction. For that matter, hatred and bananas could not be ultimately distinguished. When every aspect of reality blends into a universal blob, meaning disappears.
On the other hand, the ultimacy of the many would mean that each word in the dictionary must be known by itself, without explanation in terms of the other words. If each word were ultimate, explanation in terms of higher categories or principles would be excluded, because nothing could exist above the individual words to bring them into relation. And since every member of the many would share that ultimacy, we would end up with a dictionary that could at best be nothing more than a list of words. The fragmentation of the world into unrelatable and undefinable units also results in the disintegration of meaning into nothing.
It may help to take another illustration of the problem of the one and the many, this time from politics. The ultimacy of the one would mean the ultimacy of the State (IQ(J Statism. Each individual would be nothing more than a piece of the mechanism. If the State is conceived as being ultimate, then the individuals in the society should determine their jobs, their marriage, the daily life in terms of the needs or demands of the State. In the end, only the State counts.
On the other hand, the ultimacy of the many would mean anarchy. Each man would be his own law, his own ultimate authority. Family, state, church and other groups would have no real meaning and could not even exist in any Biblical sense of the words. Any group would be an accidental, temporary conglomeration. It would only appear to be a whole, but would in reality be a mere collection of individual, unrelated parts.
I should also point out that historically there is a tendency toward the believing in the ultimacy of the one. Pantheistic religions teach the ultimacy of the one. The religions that believe in a monad believe in the ultimacy of the one. Even polytheism, as we observed before, tends to find some one that exists above the gods, which functions as a more ultimate principle than the gods. Thus, the tendency toward the ultimacy of the one appears to be the direction most men have chosen.
However, pragmatically speaking, it is necessary to find some means of relating the one and the many for society to even function. Throughout history, men have stumbled along trying to work things out. But the inability to come to terms with the problem of the one and the many has been the source of practical problems for various societies in history; the problem remains today an unsolved and unsolvable problem of non-Christian autonomous thought. Men conduct their lives as if they knew that there is some harmony of the one and the many and they naturally seek a harmony of the one and the many, but in their philosophies they do not find either a solution to the problem, or an ultimate explanation for the morals, scientific principles, or the rationality they believe in.
The Bible never deals with the problem of the one and the many as an abstract philosophical problem. Nor are we ever given "principles" to enable us to discover the harmony of the one and the many in our daily lives. What we are given is the doctrine of the Trinity, which teaches us the apprehensible, but incomprehensible solution to the problem in the equal ultimacy of the one and the many in God. We are also given God's commandments which, if we follow, will lead us to harmony in the family, church, and the state. The actual harmony of everyday life is not something that we can attain through speculation. The solution to the problem is revealed in God's word.
Thus, just as the ultimate solution to the problem of the one and the many is not attainable by speculation, the solutions to the problems posed by the unity and diversity of the world in which we live can only be found in Biblical revelation. In other words, because the Christian worldview is Trinitarian, its theory of knowledge and life is based upon revelation. The God who is One and Many commands and teaches us so that we may reflect the harmony of the one and many in our lives and thereby glorify Him.
Trinity and Covenant
The idea of a covenant between the persons of the Trinity goes back to the earliest Reformed theologians. Of Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587), for example, Lyle D. Bierma writes:
Another Reformed writer of the seventeenth century, Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669), famous for his covenantal system, taught, according to Baker and McCoy, that "the covenant existed prior to history within the Godhead; love, community, and faithfulness are, therefore, what Christians believe to be at the core of the divine reality."
However, statements about a covenantal relationship between the persons of the Trinity are not included in the Reformed confessions and not all Reformed theologians agree that there is such a covenant. O. Palmer Robertson, for example, though agreeing that Reformed writers since the time of the Reformation have spoken of a covenant between the Father and the Son, regards the idea as artificial and reminds us that Scripture says nothing explicitly of such a covenant.
Those who argue against the idea of a covenantal relationship between the persons of the Trinity because they do not find it explicitly referred to in Scripture need to be reminded that the doctrine of the Trinity itself is not explicitly referred to in Scripture. That being the case, we would expect any evidence for a covenantal relationship between the persons of the Trinity to be indirect. Even so, the evidence is sufficiently clear.
Charles Hodge expounded the Scriptural foundations for the doctrine in these words:
James Jordan takes Hodge's insight one step further. Jordan writes:
To sum up what we have seen so far, Reformed theologians from the earliest times have understood God's plan of salvation as including a pre-creation covenant between the Father and the Son. Though this covenant is not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, all of the elements of a covenant appear in passages of Scripture that deal with the pretemporal relations of the Father and the Son. James Jordan extends this insight to the doctrine of the Trinity more generally considered.
An eternal covenant among the persons of the Trinity means that the relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit to one another is a personal, structured bond of love. The meaning of this covenantal bond may be simply described in the following outline:
The covenantal fellowship of the persons of the Trinity can be seen especially in John's Gospel. In the very first verse of the Gospel, John hints at the theme of covenantal fellowship when he writes that "the Word was with God." A. T. Robertson expounded the Greek here in these words:
That the expression "God with us" in various forms is one of the most commonly used covenantal expressions in the Bible was well known to John. He is not using it accidentally. Thus, John begins his Gospel with three assertions about Christ the Word: 1) that He has existed from all eternity, 2) that He was "with God," an assertion that employs both a preposition that implies intimacy and an expression that is commonly used for covenantal presence and blessing, and 3) that the Word was God. Part of what John intends to say may be paraphrased as, "Jesus lived eternally in covenantal fellowship with God because He is God."
Throughout the Gospel John emphasizes this covenantal unity of the Father and the Son. Moses could not see God, but Jesus has seen Him and expounded Him to us, because He is "in the bosom of the Father" (Jn. 1:18; 6:46; 8:38). The love implied in that expression is explicit elsewhere: "The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand" (3:35). Jesus spoke to the Jews of His relationship to the Father employing the covenantal language of the Old Testament in a new and bold manner: "And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him" (8:29). So perfect is the covenantal unity of the Son and the Father that Jesus could say the following:
Jesus asserted His oneness with the Father to the Jews also: "I and the Father are one" (Jn. 10:30). As Calvin pointed out, in the context Jesus is not speaking of metaphysical oneness -- though it is also true that Jesus and the Father are one in being. Rather, Jesus is emphasizing their oneness of purpose in saving the world (cf. 10:17-18, 25-29).
In His great high priestly prayer, Jesus prayed for the disciples to be one as He and the Father are one:
Clearly, Jesus is not here praying that the disciples may become one in being. He is referring to what D. A. Carson calls a "perfect unity of love, of purpose, of holiness, of truth." In other words, Jesus is speaking of covenantal unity here, just as He is in John 15 when He speaks of the disciples being "in Him" and He being "in" them and in His earlier words: "In that day you shall know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you" (Jn. 14:20).
What John's Gospel shows us is that the same language that is used in the Old Testament for the relationship between God and His covenant people is used also for Jesus relationship with the Father, both before the world was created (Jn. 1:1) and in the incarnation. The same language that is used to describe our relationship to God as a covenantal relationship is also used to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son.
Although no Christian can doubt that the doctrine of the Trinity is the very heart and soul of Christian religion, most discussions of the Christian worldview leave it out. No doubt the doctrine of the Trinity is downplayed in worldview discussions because it is felt that we must first persuade people of theism and only later of Trinitarianism. It might even be argued that this is the way the Bible itself progresses. But we no longer live in the ancient world. We are presenting the Gospel of Christ not primarily in contrast to polytheism -- in fact, in many places in the world now, polytheism is not an issue -- but in contrast to Islam, Judaism, and various other forms of "unitarian" faith. We are also presenting it in contrast to pantheism and atheism. In our context, the doctrine of the Trinity is most important.
The Christian worldview, in contrast to all non-Christian worldviews is truly personal because we believe in the Tri-personal God. In so far as the Triune God rules the world personally by His covenant, a personal Trinitarian statement of the Christian worldview must be covenantal.
Again, the Christian worldview, in contrast to all non-Christian worldviews and philosophies, has a philosophical and practical solution to the problem of the one and the many. God the Triune Lord of all in whom the One and the Many are equally ultimate created the world to reflect His glory. The created one and many constitute a harmonious system, designed to show His abundant goodness. Even though man has sinned and brought ruin into the world, through God's redeeming grace, we may realize the harmony of the one and many in our lives by obedience to His covenant word. The practical solution to the problem of the one and many in our everyday lives is ethical. It is found in obedience to His covenant.
Finally, we have seen that the persons of the Trinity relate to one another covenantally. This is the ultimate reason that God created the world in covenant with Himself and rules it by His covenant. An accurate statement of the Christian worldview must, therefore, be both Trinitarian and covenantal.
What I have argued in this chapter is that the Biblical worldview is a personal worldview in which the one and the many find ultimate harmony, that the Biblical worldview is Trinitarian and covenantal. The full significance of this cannot be seen until we consider the doctrine of the covenant in creation and revelation.
1. From "The Athanasian Creed," articles 3-6, in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, reprint, 1977), p. 66.
2. In James W. Sire's very helpful book, The Universe Next Door, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity is only given one paragraph in his exposition of the Christian faith and is not even included in the index. In Norman L. Geisler's and William D. Watkins' Worlds Apart: A Handbook on World Views, the Trinity is only mentioned, it occupies no important place in the exposition of the theistic worldview. The same must be said of Ronald H. Nash's Worldviews in Conflict. See: Norman L. Geisler and William D. Watkins, Worlds Apart: A Handbook on World Views (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989, second edition); The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue (Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity Press, 1976); Ronald H. Nash, Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in a World of Ideas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).
3. God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 5, God Who Stands and Stays, Part 1 (Waco, Texas: Word Publishers, 1982), p. 212.
4. Speaking of the concept of love in Islamic mysticism, Josef van Ess writes: "Though love as a religious category may take a very prominent place in mysticism, still this is not, on the whole, a love between equal partners, but a love in which one of the partners, namely God, gradually takes the place of the other. For the human being this means not integration, but disintegration, fulfillment, but rather in the sense of depersonalization." Hans Kung, Josef van Ess, Heinrich von Stietencron, and Heinz Bechert, Christianity and World Religions: Paths to Dialogue (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, English translation 1986 and 1993), p. 73-74.
5. Because Jews and Muslims borrow from the Bible, their actual ideas on many subjects are better than could be expected from their doctrine of God. The same may be said about Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons.
6. See the discussion in John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, Penn.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987), pp. 15-18.
7. Some complain that the answer "It is God's will" amounts to the same thing. But they fail to observe the immeasurable gap between the personal will of my heavenly Father, and an impersonal "way" that "things are."
8. I am borrowing the title of the book, not referring to its message.
9. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 5, p. 150.
10. Colin Brown, Christianity and Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas and Movements (Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity Press, 1990), vol. 1, p. 19.
11. Crain Brinton, Ideas and Men: The Story of Western Thought (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1950), p. 39.
12. This is particularly true in China and the orient, where, for example, the teaching of Taoism is summed up by Wing-Tsit Chan as: "Whereas in other schools Tao means a system or moral truth, in this school [Taoism] it is the One, which is natural, eternal, spontaneous, nameless, and indescribable. It is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course." A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 136.
13. Although he is not dealing specifically with the one and the many, Stanley Jaki demonstrates the futility of non-Christian thought through an in-depth survey of ancient paganism. Jaki shows that the Biblical doctrine of creation opened the way to a rational view of the universe and the birth of modern science. Another book about the ancient world, Christianity and Classical Culture, shows that the fall of Rome was related to her inability to come to workable solutions to the problem of the one and the many. See: Stanley Jaki, Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1986, revised and enlarged edition); and Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1944).
14. Lyle D. Bierma, German Calvinism in the Confessional Age: The Covenant Theology of Caspar Olevianus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), p. 112.
15. Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker, Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition (Louisville, Kenn.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), p. 73.
16. O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980). pp. 53-54.
17. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973 reprint), vol. 2, pp. 360-61.
18. James B. Jordan, The Law of the Covenant (Tyler, Tex.: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), p. 4.
19. On the covenantal nature of John's Gospel, see: John W. Pryor, John: The Evangelist of the Covenant People: The Narrative and Themes of the Fourth Gospel (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992).
20. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1960).
21. See: Gn. 26:3, 24, 28; 28:15, 20; 31:3; 39:2, 3, 21, 23; 48:21; Ex. 3:12; 10:10; 18:19; 20:20; Nms. 14:9; 16:3; 23:21; Dt. 32:12; Jsh. 1:5, 9, 17; 3:7; 6:27; 22:31; Jdg. 1:19, 22; 6:12, 13, 16; Rth. 2:4; 1 Sm. 3:19; 10:7; 14:7; 16:18; 17:37; 18:12, 14, 28; 20:13; 2 Sm. 7:3; 14:17; 1 Kg. 1:37; 8:57; 11:38; 2 Kg. 3:12; 10:15; 18:7; 1 Chr. 9:20; 17:2; 22:11; 16; 28:20; 2 Chr. 1:1; 13:12; 15:2, 9; 17:3; 19:11; 20:17; 36:23; Ezr. 1:3; Ps. 118:6, 7; Is. 8:10; 41:10; 43:2, 5; 45:14; Jer. 1:8, 19; 15:20; 20:11; 30:11; 42:11; 46:28; Zph. 3:17; Hg. 1:13; 2:4; Zc. 8:23; 10:5; and in the New Testament, cf. also: Mt. 1:23; Lk. 1:28; Ac. 7:9; 10:38; 18:10; 2 Th. 3:16; 2 Tm. 4:22; Rv. 21:3.
22. When he speaks a few verses later of the incarnation of Christ, John again uses unusual language, "the Word was made flesh and tabernacled among us." This also is a distinctly covenantal expression, pointing back to the God's special covenantal presence with Israel.
23. D. A. Carson, The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), p. 190.