Today we would like to take notice of recent discussions on the doctrine of the Trinity and offer the following short article by the Rev. Dr. William Childs Robinson, a conservative stalwart who mentored many of the founding fathers of the PCA. This article originally appeared in THE PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL on August 6, 1975. “Dr. Robbie, as he was affectionately known, was professor emeritus of Church history, Columbia Theological Seminary, and living in retirement in Claremont, California at the time that this was written.
The Trinity: God in Action
by William Childs Robinson
The Church’s interpretation of the Trinity, wrote Bethune-Baker of Cambridge in Early History of Christian Doctrine, “is that of one God existing permanently and eternally in three spheres of consciousness and activity, three modes, three forms, three persons: in the inner relations of the divine life as well as in the outer relations of the God-head to the world and to men.”
In his current book, The Triune God, E. J. Fortman concludes that God is not dead. “God is, was and always will be the Triune God who has revealed Himself by His inhabitational presence.”
These words emphasize that we must look to God Himself and His acts to keep our beloved Church in the Trinitarian faith; we must not permit the Church to be devoured by a unitarianism such as that which captured so many English Presbyterian and New England Congregational churches. Trinitarian experiences led Horace Bushnell to answer Unitarianism thus: “But my heart needs the Father, my heart needs the Son, and my heart needs the Holy Spirit, and the one as much as the other.”
God is the living God, and as such He may be expected to reveal Him-self primarily in action, not formula. This He has done in the incarnation of God the Son and in the outpouring of God the Holy Spirit.
The Old Testament is the preparation for this revelation, the New Testament the product of the revelation—spoken and lived by the Son and brought to believers by the Holy Spirit.
The climax of this record is found in many places: the farewell discourses in the book of John; the high priestly prayer of the Lord Jesus; the Gethsemane prayer; the Gospel of the forty days before the ascension, with the Christian name of God given by the resurrected Lord in His Great Commission; the account of Pentecost and the acts of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts and in the epistles.
Mindful that much of God’s self–-revelation has come through divine- human encounters—Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Paul—we agree with Frederick Gogarten that “faith is the concrete meeting with the triune God.” We also agree with Rahner that “the immanent Trinity as such confronts us in the experience of faith, a constitutive component of which is the word of Scripture itself.”
Through revelation man perceives revelation. “In His light we see light.” By being in God the Holy Spirit, we behold the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
God’s self-revelation as the Trinity is no impersonal system of hypostases in an essence. As Hodgson wrote, “It is the living, loving communion of Father, Son and Spirit into which we have been adopted in Christ.” That is, we have been adopted to share in the “family life of God.”
God the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirits that God the Father has accepted us as His children and bids us call upon Him as “Abba,” our dear Father, because of the merits of God the Son. The Trinity represents the concept of God involved in the Christian life, and the Christian shares by adoption in the sonship of Christ. Thus the Christian looks out upon the world from within the divine social life of the Trinity.
God is the living God, and as such He may be expected to reveal Himself primarily in action, not formula. This He has done in the incarnation of God the Son and in the outpouring of God the Holy Spirit.
We are brought into this life by the threefold actions of God in the riches of His grace. God is before all and above all that He has created, and He has given to and for us His only begotten Son, the unspeakable gift of His love, for love came to earth in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
This Son, of His own will, came not to be ministered unto but to minister and to give His life a ransom for many. His kind lips rang with the gracious invitation, “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden,” with the reassuring promise that “him who comes to me I will in nowise cast out.”
We accept the Father’s gift and the Son’s invitation. We come to Christ and we cast ourselves upon Him; we entrust ourselves to Him. Yet we do this only as we are drawn by the Father, persuaded and enabled by the effectual calling of the Spirit. It is in the tripersonal experience of the presence of the Father, and of the presence of the Son, and of the presence of the Holy Spirit that God reveals the glory of His grace in saving us sinners.
The Anglican scholar, Bishop K. E. Kirk of Oxford, has said this: “The doctrine of the divine personality of the Spirit emphasizes what has been called the prevenience of God in the aspirations of the human heart, just as that of the divinity of the Son emphasizes that same prevenience in the work of human redemption, and that of the divinity of the Father—which is the doctrine of the existence of God— His prevenience over all the forces and powers in the creation and sustenance of the universe.”
Professor Claude Welch put the truth this way in his book, In This Name: “God is present to us in a threefold self-differentiation. He makes Himself known as the one who stands above and apart, the one to whom Jesus points as His Father and therefore our Father. At the same time, He is the one who confronts man in Jesus Christ as the objective content of revelation, i.e. the Son. And He is the one who seizes and possesses man so that he is able to receive and participate in revelation, new life, salvation, viz, the Holy Spirit.”
It may be that the religious experiences of some denominations or congregations focus more upon one person of the Trinity than another. Certainly it is true that a person will find peculiar satisfaction in the contemplation of one person on one occasion and another in a different situation. But in the course of a normal life span, each Christian avails himself of the complete revelation of the holy Trinity.
As our propitious heavenly Father, the creator, who has life in Himself and gives life to all His creatures, has graciously revealed Himself in the gift and mediation of His only begotten Son. He bids us call upon Him as the Jewish toddler cried out to his parent, “Abba,” dear father. In hours of stress, uncertainty, anxiety and loneliness, we draw close to the everlasting arms and nestle nearer to the heart of Him who makes all things work together for good to those who love Him, those whom He has called into His family.
The guilty soul finds the answer to the most poignant question life ever poses in Him, who is the eternal reason, the light of the under-standing, and the source of all knowledge. “The work of Christ in relation to sin,” wrote J. Denney, “is the culminating point in revelation; not the insoluble problem, but the solution of all problems.” We do have an advocate with the Father; He is Jesus Christ, the righteous, the propitiation for our sins.
When the meanness, the wickedness, the littleness—the sin that does so easily beset us—threaten to engulf the soul in the lusts of the flesh, the pride of life, and the machinations of Satan, we then cling to the Holy Spirit, the author of all goodness, wisdom, love, mercy and purity that bless this sin-cursed world. In the words of Jonathan Edwards, “Holiness is entirely the work of God’s Spirit.”
The living God dispenses the riches of His grace in this threefold way not just in our daily living; He also has “dying grace” for His people, for the triune God is sufficient for Himself and for His people. In their last hours God is present with those who are His, so that each is enabled to say with confidence, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For thou art with me.” Our gracious God refreshes our memory with the promises of the many mansions in our Father’s house, echoing back the final words of the Saviour Himself: “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”
Our heavenly Father in three persons stays with His people in life and in death—