In one way or another, we all have a theology. And certainly every church and denomination has a theology. It’s the framework that undergirds and informs their doctrines and practices.
“Trinitarian theology” is a particular approach to theology that sees the Trinity, as revealed in Jesus Christ, not merely as one point of doctrine, but rather as the central and foundational doctrine that forms the basis for how we read the Bible and how we understand all points of theology.
Trinitarian theology deals with not only the “how” and the “why” of doctrines and practices, but most importantly, it begins with the “who.” Trinitarian theology asks, “Who is the God made known in Jesus Christ, and who are we in relation to him?”
The Bible confronts us with a God who has chosen to make himself known and to actually be with us and for us in person, in Jesus Christ. That means we cannot look outside of Jesus to understand who God is. In Jesus we meet God as God really is, as the God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—who is for us.
When we meet Jesus, we find that he introduces us to his heavenly Father. In his words and actions we hear and see that the Father loves us unconditionally. He sent Jesus not out of anger and a need to punish someone, but out of his immeasurable love and his unbending commitment to human redemption. When we meet Jesus in the Bible we find that he also introduces us to his Spirit, the Holy Spirit of God, who is also at work to bring to our attention the reconciling ministry of God.
“Trinitarian theology,” then, does not simply refer to a belief in the doctrine of the Trinity. It refers to believing in this Triune God and recognizing that this doctrine, which points to who the God of the Bible really is, lies at the heart of all other doctrines and forms the basis for how we understand everything we read in Scripture.
Trinitarian theology is first and foremost Christ-centered. It tells us that Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, has become one with our flesh in order to be our saving substitute and to represent us as his brothers and sisters in the very presence of the Father. It tells us that, in Christ, we belong to the Father and that we are the beloved of the Father.
This means that the Christian life and faith are primarily about four kinds of personal relationships. 1) the internal relationships of holy love shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit from all eternity 2) the relationship of the eternal Son with humanity in Jesus Christ incarnate. 3) the relationship of humanity with the Father graciously given to us through the Son and by the Spirit, and 4) the relationship of humans with one another as children of the Father redeemed by Jesus Christ.
Trinitarian theology is Trinitarian in that it begins with the understanding that the one God exists eternally in the union and communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Trinitarian theology is Christ-centered in that it focuses on the centrality and preeminence of Jesus Christ as he is revealed in the Scriptures: the Son of God in the flesh, one with the Father and the Spirit; and one with all humanity.
As noted by Thomas F. Torrance (a principal Trinitarian theologian of the 20th century), Jesus is both the ground (foundation/origin) and the grammar (organizing principle/logic) of the Godhead and of the entire created order—all humanity included. So everything ought to be understood in relationship to him.
Jesus indicates that he is even the key to understanding Scripture. He said to a group of Jewish religious leaders in John 5:39-40: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” We seek to read and interpret the Bible through the lens of who Jesus is. So, he is the basis and logic of our theology—for he alone is the final and the full self-revelation of God.
Trinitarian theology formed the basis of Christian teaching. This is reflected in the early Christian Creeds. Early prominent Trinitarian teachers and theologians included Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Gregory of Nazianzus.
Irenaeus (died A.D. 202) was a disciple of Polycarp (who had studied with the apostle John). Irenaeus sought to show that the gospel of salvation taught by the apostles and handed down from them is centered on Jesus. He saw that the Bible presents the Incarnation as a new point of beginning for humanity (see Ephesians 1:9-10, 20-23). Through the Incarnation, the entire human race was “born again” in Jesus. In Jesus, humanity has a new beginning and a new identity.
The biblical foundation of Irenaeus’ thinking included Paul’s statements in Romans 5, where Jesus is presented to us as the “second” (or “final”) Adam of the human race. “In Jesus,” wrote Irenaeus, “God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man [Adam], that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man…” (Against Heresies, III.18.7).
Irenaeus understood that Jesus took all humanity into himself and renewed the human race through his vicarious (representative and substitutionary) life, death, resurrection and ascension.
Irenaeus taught that this renewing, or re-creating, of the human race in Jesus through the Incarnation is not merely a work done “by” Jesus. Rather, our salvation involves much more than just the forgiveness of our sins. It means our entire re-creation “in” and “through” Jesus.
Athanasius (died A.D. 373) defended the gospel against false teachers (including Arius) who denied the Son’s eternal divinity. This defense led to the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity affirmed at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325. In his treatise On the Incarnation, section 20, Athanasius wrote the following:
Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in the place of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die…. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection…
What then was God to do? What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done, save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ?… The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished. Death there had to be, and death for all, so that the due of all might be paid. Wherefore the Word…being Himself incapable of death, assumed a mortal body, that He might offer it as his own in the place of all, and suffering for the sake of all through His union with it, “might bring to nought him that had the power over death, that is, the devil, and might deliver them who all their lifetime were enslaved by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). By his death salvation has come to all men, and all creation has been redeemed.
Both Athanasius and Irenaeus emphasized the vicarious nature of the humanity Jesus assumed in his Incarnation. Only through the birth, life, sacrificial death and resurrection of the Incarnate Son of God could God save humanity.. This is the essence of the gospel understood by the early church and revealed in the Scriptures.
Gregory of Nazianzus (died A.D. 389) wrote of Jesus’ assumption of our broken humanity through his Incarnation:
If anyone has put his trust in Him [Jesus] as a Man without a human mind, such a person is bereft of mind … for that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole… (Epistle 101).
Contemporary Trinitarian theologians
In the 20th century, Trinitarian theology was advanced in the West largely through the work of Karl Barth and his students, including three brothers: Thomas F. Torrance, James B. Torrance and David Torrance, and their students.
In the 21st century, there are hundreds of Trinitarian theologians scattered among many denominations, including Ray Anderson, Elmer Colyer, Michael Jinkins, C. Baxter Kruger, Alan Torrance, Trevor Hart and the late Colin Gunton.
Who are you, Lord?
Trinitarian theology faithfully answers the all-important question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” This biblically-anchored theology adds fullness of understanding to the gospel—and gives us a Christ-centered vocabulary to share the gospel with others in our contemporary world.
“Who are you, Lord?” is the principal theological question. This was Paul’s anguished question on the Damascus Road, where he was struck down by the resurrected Jesus (Acts 9:5). Paul spent the rest of his life answering this question and then sharing the answer with all who would listen. The answer, revealed to us in Scripture, is the heart of the gospel and the focus of Trinitarian theology:
Jesus is fully God—the Second Person of the Trinity, the divine Son of God, in eternal union with the Father and the Spirit. Scripture tells us that through the Son of God the entire universe was created, including all humans (Colossians 1:16), and he is the one who sustains the universe, including all humans (verse 17). So, when we say, “Jesus Christ” we are also saying “God” and “Creator.”
Jesus is fully human—the Son of God (the Word) became human (“flesh,” John 1:14), while continuing to remain fully divine. This is called the “Incarnation.” Scripture testifies that the Incarnation never ended, but continues—Jesus is now and forever fully God and fully human. He was resurrected and ascended bodily. He will return bodily, the same as he departed. When we say “Jesus Christ” we are also saying “humanity.”
As the One who is uniquely God (Creator and Sustainer of all) and also fully human, Jesus, in himself, is the unique union of God and humanity. In and through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus all humans are included in the life and love of God. As the apostle Paul emphasized, the man Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5) is the representative and substitute for all people—past, present, and future. He is the vicarious human who has come to live and die and be raised in our place and on our behalf to reconcile us to God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In Romans 5, Paul addresses believers, but what he says applies to all humanity—believers and non-believers alike. According to Paul, through Jesus, all are…
- justified through faith, and therefore at peace with God (v. 1)
- reconciled to God through the death of Jesus (v. 10)
- saved through Jesus’ life (v. 10)
This justification, reconciliation and salvation occurred:
- when we were “still powerless” (v. 6)
- when we were “still sinners” (v. 8)
- when we were still “God’s enemies” (v. 10)
This occurred quite apart from our participation, let alone our good works. Jesus did these things for us and to us, and he did it within himself. As Irenaeus said, echoing Ephesians 1:10, it occurred in Jesus, via his Incarnation, through a great “recapitulation.”
The benefit of what Jesus did so long ago, extends to the present and on into the future, for Paul says, “how much more…shall we be saved through his life” (v. 10)—showing that salvation is not a one-time transaction, but an enduring relationship that God has with all humanity—a relationship forged within the person of Jesus Christ—the one who, in himself, has brought God and humanity together in peace.
Jesus, the second Adam
Continuing in Romans 5, Paul compares the first Adam to Jesus, calling the latter the “second” or “final” Adam. Note Paul’s main points:
- “Just as sin entered the world through one man [Adam]…[and] all sinned…” (v. 12)
- “How much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ [the second Adam], overflow to the many?” (v. 15)
- And, “just as the result of one trespass [that of the first Adam] was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness [that of Jesus, the second or final Adam] was justification that brings life for all men” (v. 18).
“All” really means “all”
Paul is speaking of what Jesus did for all humanity. The scope of his vicarious human life extends to all who have ever lived. But not all Christians see “all” in this way:
Calvinism, for example, says salvation is not truly for all because the atonement is limited to the elect who are predestined to be saved; Jesus did not die for the non-elect. However, the Bible declares that Jesus died for all—and that his death applies to all now. Relevant passages include:
- John 12:32: “But I [Jesus], when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”
- 2 Corinthians 5:14: “Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.”
- Colossians 1:19-20: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
- 1 Timothy 2:3-6: “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men.”
- 1 Timothy 4:9-10: “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance…that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.”
- Hebrews 2:9: “But we see Jesus, who…suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
- 1 John 2:2: “[Jesus is] the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
- See also John 1:29; 3:17; Romans 8:32; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19; Titus 2:11; and 1 John 4:14.
While there is even more evidence, this scriptural evidence is sufficient to conclude that Jesus died for all humanity.
Salvation is re-creation, not mere transaction
Arminianism, in contrast to Calvinism, agrees that “all” refers to the entirety of humanity; however, salvation is only potentially theirs, not actually since salvation is not actually given until a person has faith.
But the Bible tells us that salvation does not come about through a mere transaction in which God gives us salvation in exchange for our repentance and faith.
Rather than a transaction, Scripture presents salvation as a free and unearned gift, a gift that involves re-creation. In Jesus, who is fully God and fully human, the perfect representative and substitute for humanity, all humans are a new creation. Although it is experienced only through faith, all humans are justified, reconciled and saved precisely because they are all included in Jesus—included in his Incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension.
Jesus did all this for us and to us by doing it with us and in us—as one of us. Jesus is the One for the many, the many in the One. Therefore, we understand from Scripture that…
- When Jesus died, all humanity died with him.
- When Jesus rose, all humanity rose to new life with him.
- When Jesus ascended, all humanity ascended and became seated with him at the Father’s side.
Let’s review the relevant passages:
- 2 Corinthians 5:14-16: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
As we saw earlier in Romans 5:18, the result of Jesus’ righteousness is “justification that brings life for all men.” We are told to accept Christ’s sacrifice, but this does not cause the sacrifice to be effective; it was already effective.
- Colossians 1:15-17: “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Because Jesus is both Creator and Sustainer of the entire cosmos (all humanity included), when he died, all creation (all humans included) “went down” with him—”therefore all died” (2 Corinthians 5:14). And when he rose, we all rose; and when he ascended, we all ascended. Jesus includes everyone (“all”) in his Incarnation, life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension.
- Romans 6:10: “The death he [Jesus] died, he died to sin once for all.” Jesus’ death is already effective for everyone; he died to sin once for all.
- Ephesians 2:4-5: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”
- 1 Peter 1:18-20: “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you…but with the precious blood of Christ…. He [Jesus] was chosen [to save humanity] before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.”
The gospel is about a relationship, a relationship with God healed and made real by God’s own action in Christ on our behalf. It is not about a set of demands, nor is it about a simple intellectual acceptance of a set of religious or Bible facts. Jesus Christ not only stood in for us at the judgment seat of God; he drew us into himself and made us, with him and in him, by the Spirit, God’s own beloved children.
The one in whom all the cosmos (including all humanity) lives and moves and has its being (Acts 17:28) became fully human while remaining fully divine (John 1:14).
Many theologies present a truncated view of the Incarnation—seeing it as a short-term accommodation by Jesus to pay the penalty for human sin. But Scripture presents the Incarnation as ongoing.
The miracle of the Incarnation is not something that happened “once upon a time,” now past. It is a change in how the entire cosmos is “wired”—it is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). The Incarnation changed everything, forever—reaching back to all human history, and reaching forward to encompass all time as it unfolds.
Paul speaks of this in Romans 7:4, where he says that even while we are alive, we are already dead to the law by the body of Christ. Jesus’ death in human flesh for us, though a historic event, is a present reality that applies to all humanity (past, present and future). It is this cosmic fact that underlies all history. This understanding is reinforced in Colossians 3:3: “You died,” Paul says to the historically alive Colossians, “and your life is hid with Christ in God.” Even before we literally die, therefore, we are already dead in Jesus’ death and alive in Jesus’ resurrection.
This is perhaps most clearly stated in Ephesians 2:5-6, where Paul asserts that since we are dead already in the mystery of Jesus’ substitutionary death, all of us have also (right now), been “made alive together with him” and we are “raised up together with him” and “seated together with him in the heavenly realms.” In other words, God in Christ not only intersects history at one moment of time, but also is the eternal contemporary of every moment in time, present there with all humanity included in him.
The eternal communion of love that Father, Son and Spirit share as the Trinity involves a mystery of inter-relationship and interpenetration of the divine Persons, a mutual indwelling without loss of personal identity. As Jesus said, “…the Father is in me, and I in the Father” (John 10:38). Early Greek-speaking Christian theologians described this relationship with the word perichoresis, which is derived from root words meaning around and contain.
Theologian Michael Jinkins comments on how this perichoretic life involves God’s relationship with humanity:
The idea communicated by the word perichoresis is crucial but difficult to handle. We can best deal with it by focusing our attention on the incarnation. When the Word became flesh, God poured out his very life into creation while also and simultaneously taking into his own triune being our humanity in the supreme act of self-abnegation for the sake of others. In this free act of self-surrender, God allows us to look into the very heart of his eternal being, into the Father’s eternal outpouring into the Son, God’s giving away of his own self without reservation. This act of self-giving is itself not merely some “it” but is God the Holy Spirit, flowing eternally from the Father to the Son and through the Son to humanity. As the Son in joyful surrender returns this love to the Father, the Spirit eternally returns to the Father, the Origin of all being (Invitation to Theology, p. 91).
Everyone is in Christ
In and through Jesus Christ, God reaches out to include humans in his life and love. In and through Jesus, all humanity is now included in the eternal fellowship of the Trinity, although that fellowship can be experienced only through faith.
Jesus said to his followers the night before he died on the cross: “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:20).
He does not say that one day they will be included—he says they are included and one day they will realize it. Salvation is about being “in” Jesus, not merely something being done “by” Jesus, which we later accept and thus make it “real” or “actual” for us. Salvation is about a relationship, and that is why Paul so frequently in his letters (over 130 times) speaks of something being “in Christ” or similar phrases.
Salvation is ours only in union with Jesus, by which we share in Jesus’ perfect human life and his relationship to the Father and the Spirit. United to Jesus, we are already included in God’s triune life and love. But we cannot experience the joy of that life apart from faith.
As we have seen in Scripture, through union with Jesus, all humanity is…
- reconciled to the Father.
- liked, loved and wanted by the Father.
- accepted “in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6, KJV).
- forgiven (no record of sin and no condemnation).
The gospel declares not the possibility or the potential of these things being true for us, but a reality that we are urged to accept.
The faith of Christ
In the King James Version, Galatians 2:20 reads: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”
This and other translations speak appropriately of our sharing in the faith of Christ (rather than “faith in Christ”). It is Christ’s faith that saves us. David Torrance writes (emphasis added):
We are saved by Christ’s faith and obedience to the Father, not ours. My brother Tom [Torrance] often quoted Gal. 2:20…. Such is the wording of the KJV, which I believe is a correct translation…. Other translators, like those of the New International Version, apparently because they found it so difficult to believe we can live by Christ’s faith rather than our faith, have altered the text to make it read, “I live by faith in the Son of God”! – something altogether different! That translation takes away from the vicarious nature of Christ’s life of faith. It is by his faith [not ours] that we are saved and live! Our faith is a thankful response to his faith. When we look back along our lives and ponder how disobedient we at times have been and continue to be, it is marvelously comforting to know that Christ gives us his life of obedience to the Father and that it is Christ’s obedience which counts. We are saved by his obedience, not ours. (An Introduction to Torrance Theology, pp. 7-8)
Thomas Torrance writes:
Jesus steps into the actual situation where we are summoned to have faith in God, to believe and trust in him, and he acts in our place and in our stead from within the depths of our unfaithfulness and provides us freely with a faithfulness in which we may share…. That is to say, if we think of belief, trust or faith as forms of human activity before God, then we must think of Jesus Christ as believing, trusting, or having faith in God the Father on our behalf and in our place….
Through his incarnational and atoning union with us our faith is implicated in his faith, and through that implication, far from being depersonalized or dehumanized, it is made to issue freely and spontaneously out of our own human life before God. Regarded merely in itself, however as Calvin used to say, faith is an empty vessel, for in faith it is upon the faithfulness of Christ that we rest and even the way in which we rest on his is sustained and undergirded by his unfailing faithfulness (The Mediation of Christ, pp. 82-83)
But what about human freedom?
If it is the life, faith and obedience of Jesus Christ that saves us and includes us in that salvation, what is our role? What happens in this viewpoint to the idea of human freedom? Consider the following points:
- All humanity, by God’s sovereign decision and action, is included in Christ; this inclusion was predestined and has been accomplished in Jesus, apart from any action, belief, works, etc. of our own.
- Each person is now urged, through the prompting of the Spirit, to believe God’s word and personally accept his love.
- God forces this personal decision/acceptance upon no one. Love must be freely given and freely received; it cannot be coerced, or it is not love.
- Thus human decision, the exercise of human freedom, is of great importance, but only in this context of accepting God’s gift that has already been freely given.
When we talk about human decision, we are talking about personal response. And we must take care not to confuse what is objectively true in Jesus for all humanity with an individual’s personal and subjective reception of or encounter with this objective truth.
- We do not “decide for Christ” in the sense that our personal decision creates or causes our salvation.
- Rather, through personal decision, we accept what is ours already in Christ, placing our trust in the one who has already trusted for us in our place and as our representative.
- The Holy Spirit leads us to trust not in our faith, but in Jesus.
- This objective union, which we have with Christ through his incarnational assumption of our humanity into himself, is personally and subjectively lived out in faith through the indwelling Holy Spirit.
- When we personally believe the gospel, which is to accept what is already ours by grace, we begin to enjoy God’s love for us and live out the new creation that God, prior to our ever believing, made us to be in Christ.
There is the general, or objective, truth about all humanity in Jesus, and also the personal, or subjective, experience of this truth.
Objectively all people, past, present and future, are justified already; all are sanctified; all are reconciled in Jesus in and through what he has done as their representative and substitute. In Jesus, objectively, the old self has already passed away; in him, objectively, we are already the new humanity, represented as such by him before and with God.
However, although all people are already objectively redeemed by Jesus Christ, not all have yet personally and subjectively awakened to and accepted what God has done for them. They do not yet know who they truly are in union with Jesus.
What is objectively true for everyone must be subjectively and personally received and experienced through repentance and faith. Repentance and faith do not create or cause a person’s salvation, but salvation cannot be experienced and enjoyed without them. Repentance and faith are themselves gifts of God.
In the Scriptures, we find some verses that speak to the general/objective, while others speak to the personal/subjective. Both are real and true—but the personal is true only because the general is a pre-existing reality.
These two categories are found throughout Scripture—both sometimes occurring in one passage, as happens in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21. Paul starts in verses 18-19 with the objective/universal: “All this is from God, who reconciled [past tense] us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”
Good news for all people
Here is a general truth that applies objectively to all—all are already reconciled to God through what Jesus has done in union with all humanity.
Any theology that is faithful to Scripture and to Jesus himself must account for this truth. Unfortunately, many theologies tend to ignore this aspect and focus primarily or only on the personal/subjective. That does the gospel a disservice, because it is the general/objective aspect of who Jesus is and what he has done that is the foundation upon which the personal/subjective rests.
Back to 2 Corinthians 5, having established the general in verses 18-21, Paul goes on in verses 20-21 to address the subjective/ personal: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us.”
How can all be “reconciled” already and yet the invitation go out to “be reconciled”—suggesting a reconciliation yet to occur? The answer is that both are true—these are two aspects of one truth. All are already reconciled in Christ—this is the universal and objective truth—but not all yet embrace and therefore experience their reconciliation with God.
To be reconciled, and yet not know and experience it, is to continue to live as though one is not reconciled. Having one’s eyes opened by the Spirit to this reconciliation, choosing to embrace it, and then experiencing it does not cause the reconciliation to occur, but it does make it personally realized. Thus, the evangelistic invitation from Christ’s ambassadors (verse 20) is to “be reconciled.” But this appeal is not to do something that would bring about reconciliation; rather it is an appeal to receive the reconciliation that exists already with God in Christ.
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