By Tyler Been
Every Sunday, by their recitation of the Nicene Creed, Anglicans confess belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In many ways, the creed is an apophatic statement. It provides the boundaries of what can and cannot be said about the Holy Trinity. Because of this, it is understandable that many Christians confess the creed without a rigorous understanding of what they are confessing. After all, Augustine says about the Trinity, “From now on I will be attempting to say things that cannot altogether be said as they are thought by a man… [W]hen we think about God the Trinity we are aware that our thoughts are quite inadequate to their object, and incapable of grasping him as he is” (On the Trinity, Book 5).
This stark confession of Augustine should reassure us that it is not only normal that we encounter difficulty when trying to speak of God, but that it is an absolute necessity. As Augustine says elsewhere, “if you have fully grasped what you want to say, it isn’t God” (Sermon 52). Nevertheless, after confessing the inadequacy of human thought about God, Augustine goes on to do a significant amount of thinking about God in a rigorous and careful manner. And so should we.
When we confess that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are not only saying something about God in relation to creation. We are also saying something about God’s immanent life, which is distinct from creation in the sense that it is not constituted by creation. In other words, we are not only saying how God functions in the world he has created, but who God is in himself. Before God created the world, he is, and we believe that the name Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gets at that reality because it describes the eternal relations within God’s life. The Father is the unbegotten source of deity, who begets the Son, and from whom the Spirit proceeds. The Son is eternally begotten of the Father, through whom all things were made. The Holy Spirit is the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. These inner acts of God constitute who God is.
Recent suggestions to revise the triune formula reveal serious errors in thinking about God’s immanent life. For example, a possible formula like Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier does not adequately recognize the eternal relations in the Trinity. Creating, redeeming, and sanctifying are outward acts of God in which all three triune persons are at work. The traditional way of saying this is that the outward acts of God are inseparable. God’s acts are from the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit. As outward acts of God, these names cannot sufficiently describe the eternal relations within God because their referent is dependent upon creation. The titles in the triune formula cannot reference outward acts of God because God is not constituted by his work in creation. It is the exact opposite: The outward acts of God (creating, redeeming, sustaining) are grounded in the inner acts of God (the generation of the Son by the Father, and the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son).
By reflecting on the Father’s eternal generation of the Son, this point can be illustrated.
When reflecting upon eternal generation, one feels the weight of Augustine’s confession regarding the inadequacy of human thought concerning God. In the words of Ambrose, “the knowledge of the mystery of eternal generation is more than I can attain to — the mind fails, the voice is dumb.” However, it is necessary to try and understand eternal generation because “begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father,” grounds and gives rise to “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” You cannot have the latter without the former. The temporal mission of the Son of God, to be born of a woman under the law, to redeem those who are under the law (Gal. 4:4-5), is made possible by his eternal generation from the Father.
The prologue of the Gospel of John makes this clear. To understand the Word incarnate who is the “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), one must understand that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The Gospel writer goes on to tell us that “in him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). What is this life that is the light of men? In answering this question, we begin to discuss eternal generation.
John 5:21 says, “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.” So this life in Jesus is the life he extends to the dead. Where does this life come from? “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:26). This life is given to Jesus by the Father, who has “life in himself.” Does this imply that Jesus is less than the Father? By no means! The Son of God has “life in himself” as well. This life comes from the Father, but just as the Father has “life in himself” the life given to the Son is “life in himself,” implying no subordination: “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God”! But it is precisely here that we see how the Son’s work in the economy of salvation is grounded in his eternal generation from the Father. As the one who has “life in himself” from the Father, the Son of God is a Son by nature, and as a Son by nature, he can make us sons and daughters by grace.
To return to John’s prologue: “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). The life that Jesus Christ freely gives to sinners is the life he has “in himself” from the Father. It is the immanent, full, and perfect life of God, the life that God has from and in himself through the eternal processions of the Son and Spirit. This is the fullness from which we have received grace upon grace.
The name Father, Son, and Holy Spirit says who God is in himself. In contrast to this, the suggested revised name Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier cannot do this because all the titles refer to outward acts of God and do not recognize the eternal relations in the Trinity. This is problematic because the outward acts of God are grounded in the inner acts of God. The life that the Son of God imparts to sinners through his temporal mission is grounded in his eternal generation from the Father. Given this, any suggestions to revise the triune name must reflect the eternal relations within God’s life; otherwise, they will be wholly inadequate.
While this allows the possibility that there may be revised formulae that do reflect the eternal processions within God — for instance, Speaker, Word, and Holy Spirit — I must note that I want the language of the prayer book to use the traditional formula, not merely reflect the eternal relations within God. And I say this for three reasons.
First, the words of the prayer book are not our own. We belong to a worldwide Communion, and beyond this, to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Therefore, we owe it to that Communion and to the wider Church catholic to consider how changing the triune formula would affect our relationship with them.
Second, the words of the prayer book give us language for corporate worship. There may be a sense in which different triune formulas are appropriate for private devotion or the work of systematic theology, but not appropriate when the body of Christ gathers together for worship.
Finally, the Israelites had different names for God, but God’s covenant name, the Lord, bore special significance. In coming to know God as their Lord and Savior who brought them out of slavery in Egypt and entered into covenant with them, they came to know the Lord. As salvation history unfolds, and with the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, we come to know God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Is there a sense in which this is God’s covenant name? If so, what other name would Christians use when gathering together for activities like baptism and Eucharist?
I hope these suggestions stir up more thought on the issue. Changing the triune formula in the prayer book is not an inconsequential matter. After all, every Sunday we begin by saying, “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Tyler Been is a student at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and is an aspirant in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.