A Wesleyan Witness to God as Trinity

A Wesleyan Witness to God as Trinity

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What follows is an account of the biblical doctrine of our trinitarian God, highlighting his oneness while bearing witness to the three divine persons. It is an excerpt from The Faith Once Delivered: A Wesleyan Witness to Christian Orthodoxy (Seedbed, 2024).

26. The mystery of God “cannot be apprehended by human reason,” as Gregory of Nazianzus said (Oration 28.11). We can only know God as God reveals his nature and purposes, which we can know by faith. The Church’s doctrine of the Trinity was formulated by taking seriously the self-revelation of God. The doctrine was described at the ecumenical Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople held in 325 and 381, and the Trinity is plainly reflected in the lasting statement of those councils, the universal creed of the Church, the Nicene Creed. This is not to say that the councils created this doctrine, but rather that the councils affirmed what had been taught from the beginning by Christ and his apostles.

27. To call God Trinity is to confess that God is both truly one and truly three. This distinguishes Christianity from all other faiths. Unlike Judaism and Islam, the triune God does not exist in solitude but in the community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Unlike polytheistic religions in which each deity has a separate will and power, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist together in perfect unity.

28. To confess that the eternal God is Trinity is to confess that God is eternally triune. Therefore, God is not a single being who, like an actor assuming different roles or identities in different plays, took on the different personalities at different points in history. God did not play the part of the Father when he created the world, the role of the Son in the incarnation, and finally the part of the Holy Spirit to inspire and empower the apostles. Nor are “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” simply different metaphors used by the authors of Scripture to describe God. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the proper names of the persons. They are three distinct persons existing in an eternal communion before and independent of creation.

29. The God of Scripture is the God revealed as Trinity. Historically, for example, the Church has interpreted Abraham’s three heavenly guests at Mamre to be the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Gen. 18). At Jesus’s baptism the three persons are depicted as distinct when the voice of the Father declares “This is my Son, the Beloved,” and the Son is anointed by the Holy Spirit, who descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove (Matt. 3:17). In Jesus’s farewell sermon (John 14–17), he tells the apostles that he will pray to the Father to send another Comforter, the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth to give understanding to the apostles (John 14:16). Examples such as these reveal that whenever God speaks or acts in Scripture, he does so as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

30. At the same time that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons, they are united in a single Godhead. The Son and Spirit, because they are from the Father who is the source of divinity, share in the Father’s divine nature. As the Nicene Creed says, the Son is “God from God, Light from Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one Being [or nature] with the Father.” Jesus claims this relationship with the Father when he tells the apostles, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30). The Son and Spirit are one with the Father in the sense of possessing all the attributes of the Father’s divinity. Because of this, they reveal the invisible Father.

31. These claims are implicit in Scripture’s description of Christ as the only begotten Son (John 1:18). Since the Son is begotten of the Father, he possesses the same nature as the Father even as any offspring possesses the same nature as its parents and not some other nature. Because the Son is the Word or Reason (Logos) of the Father (John 1:1) and the wisdom and power of the Father (1 Cor. 1:24), he is essential to the being of the Father.

32. Likewise, the Holy Spirit, who is the Father’s holiness, is only able by being of the same nature as the Father to sanctify us by making us partakers of the Father’s holiness. Although the Son and Spirit go out from the Father, they remain one with him because they are eternally united to him. As Jesus said, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:11). Because the Son and Spirit are eternally united to the Father’s being, they are themselves eternal and not creatures. Because the Son and Spirit share in the Father’s eternal divinity, they are worshipped and glorified together with him. The unity of operations by the Father, Son, and Spirit reveals the single rule (monarchia) of the Father whose transcendent and providential will is actualized in creation.

33. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equally divine. Paul declares this when he says of the Son “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself” (Phil. 2:6–7). Since the Son possesses the nature of God, he is equal to the Father in divinity. When Jesus said, “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28), he did not mean that he was inferior to the Father in nature—a lesser god—but that the Father, as the source of the Son’s divinity, was superior in authority, sending the Son to do the Father’s will (as Gregory of Nazianzus argued, Oration 30.7). Alternatively, following Augustine of Hippo in On the Trinity, the Father may be thought to be “greater” than the incarnate Son who emptied himself of his shared glory by taking the form of a servant to fulfill the Father’s redemptive purposes.

34. The doctrine of the Trinity reveals the character of God as love (1 John 4:8) and underscores the loving community (perichoresis) of the three persons, such that they are one being (ousia). Actions flow from this loving community, and we perceive these actions in Scripture and the world, but the being of God is not to be equated with these actions. Acknowledging our creation in God’s Image, Christians strive to be “transcripts of the Trinity” (Charles Wesley, “Sinners, Turn: Why Will You Die”), working to live in loving community, from which flows loving actions.

35. There is an expansiveness to God’s love for humanity that, through the incarnation and the gift of the Spirit, invites humankind into the life of the Trinity and makes us partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). A particular emphasis in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition is the communal nature of this invitation. Human participation is not a private but a corporate experience through the communion of the Church. The historic classes, bands, and societies of Methodism are examples of how this communion is maintained and, thus, how the community of the Church is a fellowship that mirrors the loving unity of the Trinity.

God the Father

36. In the Nicene Creed the Church confesses: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty . . .” The person of the Father is the principle, the beginning, the source, the fountainhead of the oneness and divinity of the Son and Spirit. For the early church theologian Gregory of Nazianzus, the Fatherhood of God highlights the abundance and generosity of God’s nature. The Father’s being eternally overflows to the Son and Spirit.

37. Therefore the Father is never without the Son and the Holy Spirit, for the Son is begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, eternally. As Gregory of Nazianzus wryly remarks, the Son and the Holy Spirit are “from” the Father, but they are not “after” the Father! Augustine of Hippo expresses this same point when he says, commenting on John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word . . .,” that the Father is the “beginning” from whom the Word and Spirit come (On the Trinity 4.32). The primacy of the Father is the source of divine unity. In their work “for us and for our salvation” the Son and Spirit fulfill the Father’s will.

38. The term “Father” is inherently relational. One cannot understand or speak of the Father without reference to the Son. God is eternally Father, and the Son is eternally begotten, just as the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son. Wesley notes that Christ shares a unity of essence with the Father, being altogether “supreme, eternal, independent,” and that Christ is “distinct from God the Father,” “the Word whom the Father begot or spoke from eternity” (Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, John 1:1). Something similar can be said of the Holy Spirit, who is distinct and yet, like the Father and the Son, is Lord.

39. “We believe in one God . . . creator of all that is.” The work of God as Creator is never the work of God (the Father) alone, but always also the work of the Son and Spirit. Through and with the Spirit and the Son, the Father created humanity in the divine Image, so that from the beginning we might be God’s children. But having voluntarily fallen away, we are dependent on Christ to give us the Spirit of adoption in baptism so that, being united with the Son, we may be his siblings and claim his Father as our Father and become joint heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:15–17).

40. Recovering the identity of God the Father is bound up with acknowledging the unity of the persons and work of God. Just as the first person of the Trinity is not solely Creator, so the second person of the Trinity is not solely Redeemer, nor is the third person solely Sustainer. Because of the unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit, each is Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Therefore “Creator” is not an accurate substitute for “Father,” and “Redeemer” and “Sustainer” cannot serve in place of “Son” and “Spirit.”

The Son, Jesus Christ

41. From everlasting to everlasting, the Son is the Father’s Word. True and eternal God, the Son, the only-begotten of the Father, is of the same substance with the Father. For our salvation, the Son came down from heaven, being made flesh of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. The Son, obedient to the Father’s will, emptied himself, taking the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7). Jesus Christ has two perfect natures, divine and human, each nature’s characteristics preserved and joined together without confusion, change, division, or separation.

42. The Son, the Word who is the perfect, living Image of the Father, fashioned humanity after his Image (Gen. 1:26). Yet when the divine Image in us was marred and distorted by sin, the very same Word who made us in the beginning remade us by fashioning a new humanity in Mary’s womb. Jesus is the second Adam who, by his perfect obedience to the Father, restored Adam’s descendants to right relationship with God by his death and life (Rom. 5:6–13). As the second Adam in whom the Image of God is perfectly displayed, Christ reveals to us what God intended for humanity from the beginning.

43. By his resurrection, Jesus, as “firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18), reveals the perfected and glorified human nature proper to the resurrected humanity of the new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). In the resurrected Jesus, therefore, we behold what we may hope to become at our resurrection. As Charles Wesley writes: “Made like him, like him we rise, ours the cross, the grave, the skies” (“Christ the Lord Is Risen Today”). Thus, only in Jesus do we come to a right knowledge both of God and of ourselves, of the end for which we were made, of what we are meant to be.

44. John Wesley often emphasized the three offices of Christ: Prophet, Priest, and King. In sending the Son, the Father fulfills the covenant with Israel. He is the Anointed Prophet who speaks God’s Word perfectly. He is the Anointed Priest who offers the ultimate sacrifice. He is the Anointed King whose kingdom will know no end.

45. The Wesleyan/Methodist tradition affirms the breadth of biblical imagery that is used to describe the reconciling work of Christ. Christ died for our sins “in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). His work addresses our condition—the guilt and estrangement as well as the corruption and the shame of sin. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus overcomes the disobedience and unfaithfulness of humanity.

46. Grounded in his incarnation, the saving work of Christ includes his teaching and example (1 Peter 2:21), it involves his sacrificial death on our behalf (1 Peter 2:24), and it culminates in his glorious defeat of sin, death, and the devil (1 Cor. 15:54–57; Heb. 2:14). He came in the “likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3) and became a sin offering (2 Cor. 5:21). His sacrifice was to “remove sin” (Heb. 9:26) so that sinners might be cleansed from sin (Heb. 9:14; 10:10) and thereby become “the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21) and be “freed” from their sins (Rom. 6:22).

47. Denying himself and taking up his cross as a full and perfect sacrifice, the Son was crucified, died, and buried. He rose again bodily on the third day, ascended into heaven, and sits at the Father’s right hand, interceding for us until he comes again to earth to judge the living and the dead. His kingdom will never end. “God also highly exalted” the Son “and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9–11).

48. The Son is the Mediator of a new covenant who redeems us from our transgressions. He is the sacrifice that takes away our sins (Heb. 9:15; 1 John 2:1–2), reconciling us to God. The Son establishes peace, justice, joy, and love. He renews God’s Image and radically transforms the “old existence” into a “new creation” characterized by moral, personal, and social holiness, and by a new community in which there “is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

49. The Church participates in the incarnate Son’s human nature by the Holy Spirit in order “to be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son” (Rom. 8:29). This conformity entails learning obedience to God as the Son is obedient (Rom. 5:19) and practicing love toward others by having the same mind that was in Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:1–11), but it is nothing less than “present[ing] [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship . . . but be[ing] transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” (Rom. 12:1–2). In the words of the Covenant Renewal Service (see The United Methodist Hymnal 607), each of us prays:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

The Holy Spirit

50. As the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit binds together the Father and the Son with himself. The Spirit, as much as the Father and the Son, deserves our worship and adoration. The Spirit, together with the Father and the Son, works at every stage of our salvation. Without the Holy Spirit, there is no Trinity. Because of the Holy Spirit, we are drawn into God’s work of salvation and empowered to share in God’s own life as God’s children, in whom the Image of God is being fully restored.

51. In Scripture the Holy Spirit is a gift, breathed by the Father through the Son, but this gift is no passive object. In the Old Testament, the Spirit sweeps over the waters of creation (Gen. 1:1–2). The Spirit falls on prophets, enabling them to proclaim God’s Word (Isa. 61:1); the Spirit fills the people of God, sustaining them with the “joy of your salvation” (Ps. 51:12).

52. In the New Testament, the Spirit “blows where it chooses” (John 3:8), drawing women and men to Christ, filling Christ’s disciples with the power of the gospel, and bestowing gifts to build up Christ’s Church (see 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4; and Hebrews 2:3–4). The work of the Spirit can be distinguished from the work of Jesus Christ—the Spirit is “another Advocate” (John 14:16)—but the Spirit’s work cannot be set against the work of Christ. The Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of truth . . . whom the Father will send in my name, [who] will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:17, 26). Both the distinctive work of the Spirit and the Son, as well as their fundamental unity, can be maintained because they share in the unity of the triune God.

53. John Wesley, in his sermon “The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God,” preached that for those in whom the Image of God has been restored:
The Spirit or breath of God is immediately inspired, breathed into the new-born soul; and the same breath which comes from, returns to, God. As it is continually received by faith, so it is continually rendered back by love, by prayer, and praise, and thanksgiving; love and praise, and prayer being the breath of every soul which is truly born of God.

54. This is life in the Spirit, and we see this life most fully in the life of Jesus Christ. At his baptism, the Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove. In his ministry, Jesus preached, prayed, and performed mighty deeds, all signs of the Spirit’s power. His resurrection was by the Spirit (Rom. 8:11), and after he was raised, Jesus breathed the Spirit on his disciples for the forgiveness of sins (John 20:22–23). Those who would live according to the Image of God must entrust themselves to the Holy Spirit, as Jesus did.

55. In giving the Spirit, the Father and the Son offer the benefits of full salvation, applying the blood of Christ to those who turn to him in faith. It is the Spirit’s work to reveal the fullness of God and of his saving work. In the words of Charles Wesley:

Spirit of faith, come down,
reveal the things of God,
and make to us the Godhead known,
and witness with the blood.
’Tis thine the blood to apply
and give us eyes to see,
who did for every sinner die
hath surely died for me.
No one can truly say
that Jesus is the Lord,
unless thou take the veil away
and breathe the living Word.
Then, only then, we feel
our interest in his blood,
and cry with joy unspeakable,
“Thou art my Lord, my God!”
(“Spirit of Faith, Come Down”)

This is an excerpt from The Faith Once Delivered: A Wesleyan Witness to Christian Orthodoxy (Seedbed, 2024). Included are 213 articles of faith centered around:

  1. Section I
    God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  2. Section II
    Creation—Image Given and Marred
  3. Section III
    Revelation—The Image Revealed
  4. Section IV
    Salvation—The Image Restored
  5. Section V
    The Church—Life in the Image
  6. Section VI
    The Fullness of Time—The Glorified Image

An appendix in the back offers discussion/reflection questions for each section. Get it from our store here.


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