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You Need One to Count to the Trinity

Western culture today parades its rebellion against nature and our Creator, against the goodness of bearing God’s image as men and women. Christians must defend the Bible’s teaching on God’s design for both sexes and how each complements the other. Many, however, do so by arguing that our roles and relationships as men and women are patterned after the Trinity itself,[1] specifically in the Father’s authority over the Son in an “Eternal Functional Subordination” (EFS).[2] While I agree with many EFS proponents on the biblical order for the home and the church, there is a tragic irony to their method. By implicitly dividing our simple God, they undermine the foundation of the very scriptural ethics that they endeavor to preserve.

The Simple Unity of God

Scripture emphatically cuts against humanity’s penchant for polytheism.[3] The basic confession of God’s people was the Shema, “The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut 6:4). If our Lord is an exclusive, singular unity, He must therefore be a simple unity.[4] If the One who created all things is composed of any things (or parts) prior to Him, then it could not be said that He created all things (Gen 1:1; Rom 11:36). In the 17th century, Edward Leigh explained:

God is absolutely Simple, he is but one thing, and doth not consist of any parts… If he did consist of parts, there must be something before him, to put those parts together; and then he were not Eternal.[5]

God is absolutely Simple, he is but one thing, and doth not consist of any parts -Edward Leigh. Click To Tweet Divine simplicity is why Scripture not only describes qualities God has but uses substantives to say what He is, as in “You are good” (Ps 119:68) and “God is love” (1 John 4:8).[6] When God told Moses “I AM who I AM” (Exod 3:14-15), He revealed His peerless nature by His name, “Yahweh” (usually represented by “LORD” in English), something of a pun on “I AM.”[7] God’s essential name means He is “Being itself,”[8] “an Absolute Being, nothing but Himself,” so that “whatsoever you can say of God, is God.”[9] As the One who is (cf. Rev 4:8), God is exalted above any possibility of cause, change, chronology, or categorization.[10] Creatures are divided into individual beings who can be grouped with others who share their nature, as members of a common species. How can this be true of the Creator of all natures? How could He come to exist in a category that is prior to Him with peers who are like Him? “It is thus divine simplicity that undergirds monotheism and ensures that it does not just so happen that God is one, but it must be that God cannot but be one being because of what it means to be God.”[11] There is no one like our simple God (Isa 44:8).

When He spoke to us by His Son, the Lord revealed that He is a simple being who exists as Father, Son, and Spirit. So, Paul could ascribe Israel’s Shema to the Father and the Son, who are “one” and who created “all things” (1 Cor 8:4-6; cf. Col 1:16; Jn 1:3). As the early church reflected on such texts, they understood that “[t]he generation of the Son and the breathing of the Spirit thus occur within the bounds of the divine simplicity.”[12] In other words, “The persons are not different things from that thing which is the divine essence.”[13] God simply is the Father begetting the Son and, with the Son, breathing forth the Spirit.[14] Divine simplicity, far from being inconsistent with the Trinity, is in fact its “lynchpin.”[15] How else could we be kept from thinking of the Father, Son, and Spirit as individual beings of a divine species like creatures?[16] Or even as a council of deities that we have just named “God”?[17] God is Triune, not in spite of His simplicity, but because of it. Swain put this plainly:

there was and is no need for the doctrine of the Trinity if God is not simple, for there were and are plenty of sophisticated and unsophisticated ways of conceiving how three persons may comprise one complex divine being or community.[18]

So, if we think about the Trinity in mathematical terms, we do not need to say “three” (as if the persons are individual beings of a divine species). We can always say the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. However, if we do not say that God is “one,” then we would be saying little more than polytheists say about their deities.[19] In order to count to the true and Triune God, the essential number is one

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[1] This move follows in the steps of the broader theological project of social trinitarianism. On this, see Stephen Holmes, “Three Versus One? Some Problems of Social Trinitarianism,” Journal of Reformed Theology 3 (2009), pp. 77-89; Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity (Baker, 2021), pp. 67-93.

[2] EFS has also been labeled Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission (ERAS) and the Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS), D. Glenn Butner, Trinitarian Dogmatics (Baker, 2022), p. 114. Its main proponents include Bruce Ware, Grudem, and Owen Strachan. For an overview and citations of their publications, see Barrett, Simply Trinity, pp. 213-59 and D. Glenn Butner, The Son Who Learned Obedience (Pickwick, 2018), pp. 13-48.

[3] As Holmes provocatively put it: “The totality of the biblical witness concerning God, it seems to me, consists of a sustained and pointed witness to the oneness of God in the face of repeated temptations to polytheisms, supplemented by a brief coda or appendix suggesting that this One God is in fact triune. I realize, of course, that describing the New Testament as ‘a brief coda or appendix’ to the scriptures is rather polemical, but perhaps it makes the point. The claim that social trinitarianism is biblical is by no means obvious; rather, it depends on a very particular hermeneutic that privileges the New Testament, and particularly the Gospels, in ways that at least demand explanation and defence.” Holmes, “Three Versus One?,” pp. 86-87.

[4] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Baker, 2008), 2:173-76

[5] Edward Leigh, A Treatise of Divinity (1646), 1:166-67.

[6] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:173.

[7] Wesley Hill, The Lord’s Prayer (Lexham, 2019), p. 23).

[8] Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations on the Lord’s Prayer (1839; reprint, Reformation Heritage, 2010), pp. 188.

[9] Jeremiah Burroughs, An Exposition of the Prophecy of Hosea (1643), p. 522

[10] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:176; Scott Swain, The Trinity: An Introduction (Crossway, 2020), pp. 55-56.

[11] James Dolezal, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Theism(Reformed Heritage Books, 2017), p. 116.

[12] Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy (Oxford, 2006), p. 281.

[13] Butner, The Son Who Learned Obedience, pp. 132.

[14] Stephen Holmes, “Classical Trinitarianism and Eternal Functional Subordination: Some Historical and Dogmatic Reflections,” in Bird and Harrower, eds., Trinity Without Hierarchy(Kregel, 2019), p. 270.

[15] Butner, Trinitarian Dogmatics, p. 114.

[16] Dolezal, All That Is in God, p. 106; Swain, The Trinity, p. 60.

[17] So Dolezal argues: “The Bible’s various claims to God’s exclusivity, if understood in isolation from the implications of divine simplicity, do not appear sufficient in themselves to prove monotheism beyond the shadow of a doubt. This is because without the requirements of simplicity, it is possible, even if improbable, that the passages recording God’s declarations of His singular exclusivity are merely the statements of a corporate entity comprised of really distinct beings. There is biblical precedent for corporate entities comprised of really distinct beings making claims to exclusivity and even deploying first-person singular pronouns to do so. Babylon, for instance, idolatrously misappropriates the divine name, saying, ‘I am, and there is no one else besides me’ (Isa. 47:8, 10; cf. Zeph. 2:15). All That Is in God, p. 115, n. 21.

[18] Scott Swain, “Divine Trinity” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, Allen and Swain, eds. (Baker, 2016), pp. 102-3.

[19] Philip Cary, The Nicene Creed: An Introduction (Lexham, 2023), pp. 214-15.

Steve Meister

Steve Meister serves as pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Sacramento, CA, where he focuses on preaching, theological instruction, as well as the church’s ministry internship and leadership training. He also serves on the board of the Bible Translation Fellowship.

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