Defending Dogma : An Apologetic Response to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Trinity
What is God like? Is He monadic in nature or is He triune? This has been the source of great contention for many great thinkers throughout history. Many view the concept of Trinity as a creation of heretics in the early church. They accuse Trinitarian Christians of being tri-theistic, but is this an accurate accusation? Often, opponents point out that the word “trinity” is nowhere to be found in the canon of Holy Scripture. However, Trinitarian theologian Karl Barth counters this argument by stating that the doctrine of the Trinity is “appropriate” dogma of the church universal. By examining Karl Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity, we can witness that although not directly revealed in Scripture, it is a correct dogmatic understanding of the nature of God, thus refuting other monarchist views. It is the intent of this work to investigate the grounds of Barth’s reasoning by looking to the Scriptures exegetically and by surveying teachings of the Church Fathers
Who is Karl Barth?
First, Karl Barth was born May 10, 1886 in Basel, Switzerland. He was a theologian that had been schooled in the German inspired liberal theology of the Nineteenth Century, but later in his life he became critical of this branch of theology. He is accredited of launching the Neo-orthodox movement. This movement had seen the shortcomings of liberal theology in the wake of the World at War and offered another perspective. He sent shockwaves through the theological world when he published The Epistle to the Romans in 1933. In a biographical sketch it is written of Barth,
An indefatigable worker and prolific writer, Barth produced more than five hundred books, articles, sermons, and papers during the course of his long and illustrious career. His magnum opus, Die kirchliche Dogmatik (Church Dogmatics , 1936-1969, 1975), the first volume of which appeared in 1932, grew to thirteen large books totaling more than nine thousand pages in German (Bilhartz).
Karl Barth passed away in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland on December 10, 1968.
His Trinitarian Views
First, the doctrine of the Trinity, for Barth, is interwoven with the doctrine of revelation. He argued that God had revealed Himself as triune in nature within the gospel of Christ. It was in the Incarnation we received the revelation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Barth writes,
The act of revelation as such carries with it the fact that God has not withheld Himself from men as true being, but that He has given no less that Himself to men as the overcoming of their need, and light in their darkness – Himself as the Father in His Own Son by the Holy Spirit” (Barth, 38).
It is clear to see from the statement above, Barth had no qualms for attributing divinity to each member of the Godhead. Barth’s entire theology hinged on the Trinitarian view of God. He argues “that God reveals Himself as Lord” (Barth, 308).
Secondly, Barth noted that the doctrine of the Trinity is not directly revealed in Scripture, but rather is a dogmatic teaching of the church. He writes,
The doctrine on the Trinity is an analysis of this statement [see quote above], i.e., of what it denotes. The doctrine of the Trinity is a work of the Church, a record of its understanding of the statement or of its object, a record of its knowledge of God or of its battle against error and on behalf of the objectivity of its proclamation, a record of its theology and to that degree of its faith, and only to that extent, only indirectly, a record of revelation (Barth, 308).
In a nutshell, Barth argues that the Incarnate Christ is the moment of clear revelation of triune nature of the Godhead and the Bible, produced by the church, is a record of this fact. All through Scripture, God has been hinting to His nature, but it becomes apparent in Jesus the Christ. The revelation of Christ and the revelation of Holy Scripture identify the doctrine of the Trinity.
What does Scripture Reveal?
If Barth’s placement of the doctrine of the Trinity in the arena of church dogmatics is correct, we should be able to reproduce or prove his assertions by looking to the Scriptures. Don K. McKim defines dogmatics as, “the formal study of the Christian faith which presents its beliefs and doctrines in an organized and systematic way. (McKim, 81). It is the intent to appeal dogmatically and exegetically to the Scriptures in this section to affirm the hints of the Trinity given to us by God in the Bible.
Trinity in the Old Testament
First, God attests to the validity of the doctrine of the Trinity at the very beginning of His
revelation. The Trinity is alluded to be present in the act of creation. The Bible states, “In the beginning God [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth” (KJV, Gen. 1:1). The word used in this passage that we translate in English as “God” is the Hebrew word Elohim. This is the plural form of the Hebrew word and it could be translated as “gods” and indeed has been elsewhere in Scripture. Yet, it should be noted the singular verb “created” (Heb. Bara) indicates plurality of a single object. Bryan Murphy states, “The normal way to tell the difference in most OT contexts is that Elohim is used in conjunction with singular verbs and predicators when it refers to the God of Israel” (Murphy, 168). On the other hand, when Elohim is used in identifying the gods of the Canaanites a plural verb is used in conjunction with it. Although, this could be seen as God revealing himself as one in essence, but with multiple distinctions, scholars on both side of the argument say this simply could be majestic speech on behalf of God. We need to look further on into the creation account to prove Barth’s assertion correct.
We encounter the use of the plural noun Elohim in Genesis 1:26. The Bible records, “And God [Elohim] said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” (KJV, Gen. 1:26). Who is God speaking to? In his article about the Trinity in the creation story, Murphy writes, “In Gen. 1:26 there is a significant deviation from the syntactical pattern followed throughout the creation narrative. A statement of deliberation is made-seemingly within the Godhead itself” (Murphy, 172). This apparent communication between the divine hypostases allude to the affirmation of Barth’s concept of the Trinity which is indirectly revealed through Scripture.
Secondly, how are we to handle the Shema found in the Book of Deuteronomy? Does it not declare the God of Israel is one? The Shema states, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one [echad]!” (NASB, Deut. 4:6). The key to viewing the shema in a Trinitarian sense is the Hebrew word echad, which is translated in English as “one”. In his article on the Trinity, Kevin Giles writes, “The word translated into English “one” in the Shema is the Hebrew word echad. It can be used to speak of the unity of husband and wife. In the New Testament, the belief that God is one continues to be affirmed” (Giles, 14). In other words, the term echad does denote oneness, but with the capability of have multiple distinctions within the “one”. After hearing the shema recited on face value, some would accuse Christians of being tri-theistic, but upon a closer look one can see such claims are erroneously false. Also, on a side note, it is nteresting the names attributed to God appear three times in the shema. Could this have been an indication of God’s triune nature that Barth spoke about?
Furthermore, could there have been a vision of the distinct persons within the Godhead? In fact many scholars believe this is exactly the case in the vision recorded in the Book of
Daniel. The Bible states,
I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. 14 And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed (KJV, Dan. 7:13-14).
It is clear that “one like the Son of man” approaches the “Ancient of Days”, but what could this mean? Could it be that the “Ancient of Days” is the unbegotten Father and the one approaching is God the Son? It is clear that the “one like the Son of man” is given attributes reserved for God. For instance, He is coming of the clouds of heaven. Also, He is given dominion, glory, and a kingdom! Some would argue that this, if anything, proves a bi-unity. Yet, could it be the “shy” member of the Trinity is staying away from the spotlight? Or it could be stated the Holy Spirit’s presence is affirmed in the fact a person is able to read of such inspired vision. Finally, it is easy to see from these few passages the doctrine of the Trinity is alluded to all through the Old Testament.
Trinity in the New Testament
It may seem trivial to document evidences of the Trinity in the New Testament, but this is the portion of Scripture where the triune nature of the Godhead is presented with clarity. Barth knew the New Testament surrounded around the death, burial, and resurrection of the Incarnate Christ. It is within this Incarnation the Trinity is revealed to the Church. The Church in turn, analyzed the information presented by the Incarnation and then it formulated the doctrine of the Trinity.
First, the Threeness of God is illustrated at the baptism of Christ in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. The Bible records,
And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased (KJV, Matt. 3:16-17).
Although, some may object to this passage being used for a defense of Trinitarian dogma on the basis that it does not affirm the divinity of Christ (I will refute the claim Monarchianism later), it is paramount to viewing the distinctions within the Trinity. God the Son is being submerged into the waters baptism, then we see the Spirit of God descending in the form of a dove, and finally God the Father speaks with affirmation of the Son. Again, this passage may be weak apologetically, but it does define the distinctions of Father, Son, and Spirit. Also, this is the basis of the baptismal formulas found in Matthew 28.
Secondly, to support the divinity of the Son, which is needed for the doctrine to stand, we come to Jesus’ high priestly prayer. The Apostle John writes,
5 And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was… 21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, [art] in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. 22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: 23 I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. 24 Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world (KJV, John 17:5, 21-24).
This passage clearly refutes the notion of Jesus of Nazareth being adopted by God at his baptism. It is also clear that, although distinct from the Father, the Son is of the same substance or homoousios with the Father. Jesus of Nazareth is the eternally begotten Son of God the unbegotten Father!
On the other hand, how do you properly handle the statement of Christ in John 14:28? The Bible states, “Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come [again] unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I” (KJV, 14:28). The statement must be viewed through the kenosis of the Son according to Philippian 2. Christ divested himself to human form, but kept his divinity in order to bring salvation to mankind.
In summary, although not directly revealed in Scripture, it is quite evident that the Trinity is a proper understanding of the nature of God. Thus, Barth was correct in his assumption that the doctrine of the Trinity is a dogmatic teaching of the church. Yet, this work would not be complete without looking at the early teachings of the Church.
The Trinity and the Church’s Teachings
What did the early church teach concerning the Trinity? In fact, the era of the Apologists came about due to the Church facing outside pressures. The Roman Empire had viewed Christianity as a sect within Judaism, but the Jews accused Christians of being olytheistic. To name a few, men like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, and Athanasius rose to the challenge of defending the orthodox view of the Christian faith. It is important to mention that the doctrine of the Trinity is solidified as heresies were put to rest. This essay will only look to a few Church Fathers to confirm Barth’s view of the doctrine of the Trinity.
First, Justin Martyr was one of the first apologists to come on the scene to defend the divinity of the Son. He argued that the Father and the Son were different in number, but the same in will. Terry Cross in his work on the doctrine of the Trinity explains Justin’s reasoning when he writes, “… the Logos is like a fire that is set by another fire; or a torch lit by another torch. The first torch and second torch are numerically distinct, yet both are fire. The first fire is not diminished by the second one that is lighted” (Cross, 4). Logically speaking, Justin Martyr seen Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ or the Logos of God. The two were one and the same. This was laying of the foundation for Church’s the doctrine of the Trinity.
Secondly, Irenaeus of Lyons was a staunch supporter of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Irenaeus coined the expression the “two hands” of God, as he spoke of the work of the Spirit in creation and the Son in redemption. M.C. Steenberg writes,
His confession of Christ raised to the Father by the Spirit, who thus is the ‘cosmic Christ’ inasmuch as he raises with him-self the cosmos of his formation, is the bedrock of his whole theological vision, and this tri-personal reality stands as the foundation on which rest Irenaeus’ views regarding every aspect of Christian theology (Steenberg, 62).
Thus, we can see that concept of Trinity was at work in this early Church Father’s theology. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit was paramount to Irenaeus of Lyons understanding of the nature of God.
Furthermore, some would argue the church invented the term Trinity and they would be absolutely correct! Tertullian was the first to coin the phrase Trinitas or Trinity. Trinity is nowhere in the Scripture, but the concept is there. The deity was Christ was taught and believed on in the early church. Church Fathers, like Tertullian, merely acknowledged the triune nature that was revealed in Christ and the Scripture.
Even furthermore, some would argue that the Trinity was a later addition to Christian doctrine, but that simply is not case. As mentioned above, the term Trinity was coined by Tertullian in the Third Century, but according to Athanasius’ defense against Arius the triune nature of God was the teaching of the Apostles! In his argument against the Arian heresy, he appealed to the Rule of Faith which was the doctrines handed down from the Apostles themselves. This Rule of Faith actually even predates the canonized New Testament. So, to state that the Trinity is a later invention or addition is absurd.
The Councils of the Church and the Creeds they produced clearly teach the doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine can be seen in one of the most recited and beloved creeds. The Nicene Creed declares the Trinity! It states boldly,
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the
Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and
glorified; who spoke by the prophets. And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen (Nicene Creed).
This creedal response was forged in the furnace of fiery conflict to explain the nature of God. It answers with a resounding, Yes, God is Trinity!
In summarizing this section, the Trinity is and has always been the orthodox view of the God of the Bible. He is one in essence, but three in persons. This affirms Barth’s concept of the doctrine of the Trinity being a dogmatic teaching of the Church.
On the other hand, there are some that may object to the Trinitarian doctrine of God as put forth in this work. They see God as a monarch or one ruling sovereign over the cosmos. According to Grenz et al, Monarchianism was “a movement in the second and third centuries that attempted to safeguard monotheism and the unity of the Godhead. By denying the personal reality of the Son and the Spirit as separate from the Father, however, this defensive attempt resulted in an anti-Trinitarian heresy” (Grenz et al, 80). Although, there is many variations of this heresy, it can easily be divided into two camp; Dynamic Monarchianism and Modalistic Monarchianism.
First, Dynamic Monarchianism views Jesus as merely a Spirit empowered prophet. Christ is a man, thus, prohibiting him from being of the same substance of the Father. This heresy is still ongoing in factions like the Jehovah’s Witness, Christadelphians, and Unitarians. This heresy was debunked by Athanasius by appealing to the soteriological work of Christ. How could a mere man reunite God and man? Could we save ourselves? The only hope mankind has in the redeeming work of the God-man, Jesus Christ.
Secondly, Modalistic Monarchianism views the Father, Son, and Spirit as modes of
appearance of the one God. In other words, there is one God without any distinctions with
Himself. He is a monad. Oneness Pentecostals are adherents to this doctrinal error. To challenge this claim, one needs to look at the baptism of Christ found in Scripture. There were three distinct personalities. Also, one could appeal to “God being love”. How can God be love if there is not an object of love? The object cannot be creation, because this would make God dependent on creation. No, God must have distinctions within the Godhead to which He can give and receive love.
In conclusion, the doctrine of the Trinity is not directly spoke of in Scripture, but the concept is ever present. When one looks at the clues contain in Scripture it is easy to confirm Barth’s theology of the nature of God correct. Also, it is supported by an overwhelmingly majority of early Church Fathers as a legitimate view of God’s nature. By investigation of Scripture and history, Barth’s claim that the doctrine of Trinity is a dogmatic teaching of the orthodox Church is affirmed.
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