A Classic of Spiritual Theology

Scott Swain - The Trinity: An Introduction

Scott Swain has not merely written an excellent primer on the doctrine of the Trinity; he has produced a classic text of spiritual theology. This book is saturated in Scripture, which it does not cite in a superficial manner but in a way that penetrates to the deep meaning of the canonical presentation of the central mystery of Christian faith – the Holy Trinity. It is written simply and clearly with short sentences and crystal-clear precision that is born of wide reading and careful thought. Only someone who thinks clearly can write this clearly. It is the perfect first book to hand to a student who is just getting started in learning Christian doctrine or to a pastor who is puzzled by recent controversies over eternal generation or eternal functional subordination. 

In the Acknowledgements, Swain tells us that the book was written in the wake of a controversy that erupted in the summer of 2016 and he dedicates the book to four friends: Aimee Byrd, Liam Goligher, Todd Pruitt and Carl Trueman, all of whom were at the centre of that controversy. They defended catholic orthodoxy in the context of serious errors in the doctrine of the Trinity that have crept into recent theology and strike at the very heart of conservative, confessional Protestant and Evangelical identity. The issue is the debate over the so-called eternal relations of authority and submission within the Trinity. Many classics of spiritual theology in church history have been occasioned by particular controversies like this one. By demonstrating the profundity and depth of the orthodox tradition, this book exposes the shallow biblicism driving the defective trinitarian theology that teaches the subordination of the Son to the Father as a failure to read Scripture deeply and correctly. The path forward is to be more biblical than the biblicists.

As Swain notes, this book does not provide an extensive history of the development of this doctrine (although it certainly is informed by his extensive knowledge of the tradition). It also does not engage in polemics or “sophisticated dogmatic elaborations.” (20) So, what is it? It is a lively and lovely exercise in catechesis. The order in which it presents the doctrine of the Trinity conveys the message of the work. The first two chapters deal with patterns of biblical speech about God. Chapter 3 addresses the issue of Divine simplicity, which ensures that we begin where Scripture begins, namely, with the oneness and unity of God.  Chapters 4-6 are devoted to the Father, Son and Spirit. Chapters 7-8 deal with the shape and end of God’s external works in creation and redemption. 

In chapters 1 and 2 Swain starts with Scripture. In the first chapter he examines three patterns of biblical speech about God by contemplating the Divine name into which we are baptized: “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). The first pattern is that it is one name: “the Bible’s Trinitarian discourse consistently affirms the existence of the one God.’ (28) It is impossible to overstate how important it is that our discussion of the Trinity begin here. God is One. The second pattern is that “the Bible’s Trinitarian discourse consistently identifies the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit with the one God.” (31) This is not to say that the Bible says they are equal or of the same genre; rather, it is to say that “they are the one God.” (31) This is critical to get right too. The third pattern is that “the Bible’s Trinitarian discourse consistently distinguishes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit by their mutual relations, which are ‘relations of origin.’” (32) This is also crucial; the Bible speaks about the Father begetting the Son and the Father and Son begetting the Spirit and distinguishes the Three by their relations to each other not by their relations to us. It speaks of God’s work in creation and redemption, not as the work of one or another of the Three, but as the work of the Triune God. (33) Various titles such as “Word” and “image” illumine these relations of origin and point back to them. Swain concludes this chapter by distinguishing between common predications, that is, predications that identify the three persons with the one God, and proper predications, that it, predications that distinguish the three persons from each other. These patterns of divine naming shape our doctrine of the Trinity. 

In chapter 2 Swain identifies three types of biblical texts that talk about the Trinity. First, he looks at inner-Trinitarian texts such as Matthew 3:16-17 where the Father speaks from heaven, Matthew 11:25-27 where Jesus addresses the Father, and Hebrews 1:5, which interprets Psalm 2:7. Prosopological exegesis allows us to note instances in Scripture where members of the Trinity speak to each other. This is important because these texts show God naming himself. We simply follow the pattern laid down by God himself. Nothing could be more opposite to “mere speculation,” than humbly letting God name himself. Second, he looks at cosmic framework texts, which “set the entire cosmos, as well as the entirety of God’s work within the cosmos, in relation to the Trinity.” (44) Here he considers John 1 and Colossians 1 and shows how they identify the Son as the telos of creation. Third, he looks at redemptive mission texts such as Mark 12:1-12 and Galatians 4:4-7. Here we see Scripture speaking about the missions of the Son and Spirit in history. It is important to notice that contrary to the impression given by some theologians, the Bible contains plenty of examples of the inner-Trinitarian and cosmic framework texts and not only redemptive mission texts. The point is that Scripture does not limit itself to talking about God’s action in the economy; it also speaks of God in himself. So should we if we want to be biblical. 

In chapter 3 Swain moves to the doctrine of divine simplicity, which he sees as an implication of the Shema (Deus. 6:4; 1 Cor. 8:6). I very much appreciate the way he deduces the doctrine of simplicity from Scripture: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). God is light and nothing but light because God is identical with his perfection. (55) Scripture itself gives us the pattern for speaking of God as identical with his attributes. He is not comprised of parts or of genus and species or of substance and accidents. Unlike much modern analytic philosophy, Swain keeps to the Scriptural and traditional way of speaking of God as Light, Wisdom, Love, and so forth. He is not a being like us which has properties that he might not have had but happens to have. “What God is and that God is are identical.” (57) Swain rightly sees that simplicity follows from aseity and transcendence. He also stresses that “simplicity describes how the one God has attributes.” (57) It is fundamental to the grammar of God’s proper name, YHWH. God is not three persons in the sense of three parts, each of which contributes a third to a whole. Rather, each of the Father, Son and Spirit is God completely. Scripture teaches us that “each person is identical with the one God in all his fullness.” (60) The only “personal properties” the Three have are the relations of origin and these relations are eternal. Therefore, they do not constitute divisions in God or effect change in God. God simply is Father eternally begetting the Son and, with the Son eternally spirating the Spirit. That is what God always was, is and evermore shall be. To know this is to stand in awe before the One who is utterly transcendent of us and to be moved to worship. 

In chapter 4 Swain discusses God the Father. He notes that God is not only internally fruitful and productive, but externally fruitful and productive as well. He stresses the indivisible operations of the Father, Son and Spirit in all their external works of creation, redemption and consummation. The Father is spoken of in Scripture by exclusive (proper) predication, but also inclusively of Son and Spirit (common predication). (68) This means that the Fatherhood of God with regard to the Son is unique. Creaturely fatherhood is patterned on God’s fatherhood, but it is always similar analogically and never equivocally or univocally. Analogical language for God is of critical importance is resisting the temptation to read creaturely limitations onto God.

In chapter 5 Swain discusses God the Son. He expounds the phrases from the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of AD 381 “begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.” To confess that the Son is begotten not made is to distinguish between the relation of Father and Son, on the one hand, and God and the world, on the other. God makes creatures but the Father eternally begets the Son. In the former case God creates but in the latter his being is shared between the persons. The Son is therefore just as much God as the Father is, but the creation does not share in the divine being. Swain points out that Scripture uses both social analogies (eg. Father and Son) and psychological analogies (eg. God and his Word or Wisdom). Both types of analogies must be understood as conveying truth but not taken in a univocal manner. Contemporary social trinitarianism often falls into error because it turns the social analogy into univocal speech about God. There are not three gods but only one God. 

In this chapter Swain deals with three Trinitarian errors: modalism, subordinationism and eternal functional subordinationism (also known as eternal relations of authority and submission or ERAS). Modalism denies the real distinctions of persons, while subordinationism treats the Son as inferior in being to the Father. This inferiority in being may consist in the Son’s having been created or it may be eternal. 

The third error, ERAS, is said to be less serious than the first two insofar as its proponents intend to be orthodox and claim to believe that the Son is not inferior in being to the Father. That certainly makes it different from Arianism, but as Swain rightly notes, that does not mean it is not a serious theological error. Swain identifies precisely where ERAS goes off the rails; (1) it attributes different personal properties to the Three beyond the relations of origins, (2) it undermines the unity of the Godhead by positing relations of authority between them and (3) it says that each of the Three has a separate will from the others. The basic methodological problem is correctly diagnosed as a kind of biblicism that refuses to be bound by tradition at points where the tradition has reflected deeply on the meaning of the biblical text. It is, in other words, shallow and ahistorical. ERAS is, at best, poised on the knife edge of sliding into the heresy of subordinationism. 

In chapter 6 Swain discusses God the Holy Spirit. He notes that the Spirit receives much less attention in Scripture than the Father and the Son and that the Church did not develop its teaching on the Spirit until the relation between Father and Son was clarified. The explanation for both phenomena is the unique role of the Holy Spirit, whose office is to glorify the Son (John 16:14). But this hardly means that the Spirit is unimportant. Rather, the Spirit manifests the glory of his person in his work of consummating the work of redemption. Swain makes an important observation when he writes of the distinction of the Spirit from the Father and Son: “That personal distinction does not lie in what the Spirit has. . . The Spirit’s personal distinction from the other two persons lies in the way he has what he has.” (95) Swain goes on to affirm the Scriptural basis of the double procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son and explains the schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Western Church over the addition of the words “and the Son” to the Nicene Creed (the filioque clause). Swain says that the way this change to the creed was done was unfortunate, but the doctrine itself is biblical. It is important because it clarifies the distinction between the second and third persons of the Trinity. The third person’s relation of origin is that he proceeds from both the first and second person while the second person only proceeds from the Father and generates the Spirit. (101) Since relations of origin are what distinguish the Three from each other, this is crucially important. 

In chapters 7 and 8 Swain turns to the external works of God the Holy Trinity. In chapters 4-6 he has concentrated on the internal operations of God, that is, actions that remain within God and account for the being of God. Now he turns to a rich discussion of the missions of the Son and Spirit and the three-fold work of God. He writes: “As God’s being is simple and indivisible, so his works are undivided and inseparable.” (109) He stresses that “All of God’s external works are indivisible works of the one God.” (109) It is common today to see God’s work divided up among the three persons as if there were three gods, each doing a different task just like pagan mythology assigns different jobs to the various gods. The Christian doctrine of God does not do this and Swain shows how the concept of “appropriations” is employed to avoid it. 

Even though Scripture associates certain divine works with certain persons of the Trinity, it also teaches that the Three are all involved in all the works. Scripture identifies certain works with one or another person not because only that person is involved in that work, but rather because “certain works more specifically manifest certain persons of the Trinity.” (111) The Father is naturally associated with origination as the one who generates the Son and breathes the Spirit. But Scripture also teaches that creation comes into being by the Father speaking his Word and creating by his Spirit. 

The missions refer to the sending of the Son and Spirit in the work of redemption and consummation. Missions are modes of divine presence, which originate in God and terminate on creatures. There is a fit between the missions and the processions, but the former are not merely the extensions of the latter into time. The internal work of God by which he is Triune is not a temporal act, but an eternal one. The external work of the Triune God in history is temporal and does not constitute God but only reveals God. The mission of the Son cannot be used in support of ERAS because the Son shares the being of the Father and so they have the same authority and sovereign right to rule all creatures. Christ is Lord just as the Father is Lord. In addition, the error of equating the missions with the processions as extensions of the processions fails to distinguish between divine acting and the mode of divine acting: “Scripture distinguishes between what the divine persons have in common as one God and how the divine persons have what they have.” (118) What they have, Swain says, “they have in common as one God.” (118) 

In the final chapter Swain discusses the final end goal of all the external works of the Holy Trinity and shows that the final end can be nothing other than God himself and his glory. Rather than try to summarize this beautifully written piece of spiritual theology, I urge the reader to read for him or herself. I urge you to read it prayerfully. It is truly remarkable insight into the meaning of history and the goal of all creation.

I cannot praise this book highly enough. One wishes it were longer in the sense that we never want a great story to end. In consolation, I offer the image of heaven used by C. S. Lewis in The Last Battle. It is a wonderful story in which each chapter is better than the one before it and the chapters never end. As an anticipatory work by a human being this book does end, but the story it is telling is the one to which Lewis refers.