As Lutheran Christians, we are Trinitarian Monotheists. Yes, it’s a mouthful to say, but it’s important to understand that it’s a mouthful of orthodoxy. Orthodoxy has to do with sound or right doctrine/teaching, and the Bible repeatedly exhorts us to guard our doctrine closely. It’s precisely the sort of words that should fill our mouths.
Take but a few examples from the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus). Paul warns Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:3, “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing.” In 2 Timothy 4:3-4 he warns, “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”
In Titus 1:9 he tells Titus that the congregation’s overseer (pastor), “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” And in 1 Timothy 4:16 Paul reminds Timothy what’s at stake: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Orthodoxy matters, for as Paul makes clear, if we lose it, we lose salvation!
Trinitarian Monotheism is the Christian Church’s orthodoxy on God – and if we lose it, we lose the true God!
Trinitarian Monotheism is the Christian Church’s orthodoxy (correct teaching) on God – and if we lose it, we lose the true God! We confess our Trinitarian Monotheism in the Church’s historic creeds: the Nicene, Apostles’, and Athanasian. Formulated over the first few centuries of the Church’s existence, these creeds represent centuries of thought and study as they establish a pattern of sound words that rightly express the Bible’s teaching on God and give us a mouthful of orthodoxy to confess every week.
Some churches today are opposed to creeds, claiming, “No creed but the Bible!” (which, ironically, is itself a creed). But the preservation of sound doctrine (which the creeds were designed to do) is one of the reasons Jesus gave His Church the keys to the kingdom of heaven. The Church was given the authority to discern which teachings accorded with God’s revealed will and which didn’t. So the Church penned the creeds to keep us from veering into false doctrine and away from the Triune God. In short, we need to know and understand these words!
On May 31, the Church celebrated Trinity Sunday. That celebration included confessing the Athanasian Creed. This creed explicitly details what it means to be a Trinitarian Monotheist. If you confessed it you chewed on its mouthful of orthodoxy. You can find it printed on page 319-320 in our hymnal (Lutheran Service Book). The hymnal’s introductory remarks explain,
The Athanasian Creed declares that its teachings concerning the Holy Trinity and our Lord’s incarnation are ‘the catholic faith.’ In other words, this is what the true Church of all times and all places has confessed. More than fifteen centuries later, the Church continues to confess this truth, confident that the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has given Himself for our salvation.
The creed introduces its mouthful of orthodoxy by explaining that “we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.” This is Trinitarian Monotheism – One God; three Persons. The creed makes this clear: “the Father is one person, the Son is another, and the Holy Spirit is another. But the Godhead of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.”
It’s critical at this juncture that we understand the terms. Each Person of the Triune God shares the essence of God while remaining distinct Persons. The creed goes on to explain. Each Person is “uncreated… infinite… eternal.” “And yet there are not three Eternals… there are not three Uncreated or three Infinites…” Notice the capitalization. Each person is eternal, uncreated, and infinite, but there is only One Uncreated, Infinite, and Eternal, so three Persons, one God.
All this remains relevant today because many of the ancient heresies that the creed condemns have been subtly repackaged in modern religions which deceptively use orthodox words with heretical definitions. In other words, they use the same words, but a different dictionary. For example, an ancient heresy called “modalism” has been repackaged in some modern Mormon-related religions. This heresy rightly speaks of God as one. It also speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but instead of using an orthodox dictionary to define them as Persons, it defines them as “modes” or “expressions” of God.
So, it speaks of God existing in the mode of the Father, the mode of the Son, and the mode of the Holy Spirit. Think of a wrist watch. You can change its mode from “time” to “stopwatch” to “alarm,” but you can only display one of these modes at a time. So, modalism describes God as the Father mode in the Old Testament, the Son mode in the New, and the Spirit mode after Jesus’ ascension. But repeatedly throughout Scripture we see all three Persons simultaneously present (e.g. Jesus’ baptism). God does not exist in one mode at a time; He is eternally three Persons.
God does not exist in one mode at a time; He is eternally three Persons.
We must understand that for orthodox Christianity the word “person” means “a rational entity which subsists in itself.” The founding document of our Lutheran Confessions, the Augsburg Confession, acknowledges this orthodox definition:
Our Churches, with common consent, do teach that the decree of the Council of Nicaea concerning the Unity of the Divine Essence and concerning the Three Persons, is true and to be believed without any doubting; that is to say, there is one Divine Essence which is called and which is God: eternal, without body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the Maker and Preserver of all things, visible and invisible; and yet there are three Persons, of the same essence and power, who also are coeternal, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And the term "person" they use as the Fathers have used it, to signify, not a part or quality in another, but that which subsists of itself.
Notice how it defines what it means by “God” and “Persons.” This is the orthodox dictionary. When it comes to the three Persons it’s important to notice that they are not defined as parts or qualities (or modes) of God; they are Persons, that is, rational entities which subsist in themselves. So this means that we don’t speak of God as having three parts or even three personalities. Parts and personalities don’t subsist in themselves. Persons might have parts and personalities; personalities and parts don’t have persons.
So, this means that we shouldn’t use many of the familiar analogies to depict the Trinity. The three parts of the apple and the egg, the three leaves of the clover, and the three modes of water aren’t good analogies for God. They all divide God into parts or modes, failing to appreciate the three self-subsisting Persons and leaving us vulnerable to false teaching. A couple years ago I penned a simple song for our VBS program to make this point. Here are a couple verses of it:
Man has tried to picture this mystery of God.
He’s concocted many models, but they’ve all been flawed.
Our God isn’t liquid; He isn’t ice or steam.
Apple, egg, and clover, He doesn’t fit those schemes
The Trinity isn’t made up of three different parts;
He’s an undivided Union Who can’t be torn apart.
The Athanasian Creed says the same thing with these words:
Just as we are compelled by the Christian truth to acknowledge each distinct person as God and Lord, so also are we prohibited by the catholic religion to say that there are three Gods or Lords.
From there the creed transitions into the unique way the Bible speaks of the Persons relating to one another. The distinctions it highlights might seem inconsequential to the uninformed hearer, but these distinctions establish the pattern of sound words that we need to preserve orthodoxy and to protect us from veering into a false confession of God.
The creed describes the Father as “not made nor created nor begotten by anyone.” It describes the Son as “neither made nor created, but begotten of the Father alone.” We might define “begotten” as “eternally comes from…” And the creed describes the Holy Spirit as “of the Father and of the Son, neither made nor created nor begotten, but proceeding.” We might define “preceding” as “sent from…”
Not only are these descriptions Biblically faithful, but as we said, they also establish a pattern of sound words to defend us from heresy. The ancient heresy “Arianism,” which taught that Jesus is not eternal, has been repackaged today in the Jehovah Witness religion. They teach that there was a time when Jesus did not exist. In rejecting the Church’s creeds (our orthodox dictionary, if you will), they have strayed into false teaching and, by so doing, are worshiping a false god. They may still use the words “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” but they are using a different dictionary to define them, a dictionary outside the Christian faith.
The most loving thing we can do for someone who has been deceived by a false teaching is to share the truth with them!
This is hard for many in the church to understand because they have believed the lie that it is unloving to call an idea or teaching false. On the contrary, the most loving thing we can do for someone who has been deceived by a false teaching is to share the truth with them! We need to remember that Jesus Himself warned of false teachings and false christs (Matthew 16:5-12; 24:23-28). St. Paul warned of “fierce wolves” who would teach “twisted things” to draw people away from the true God (Acts 20:28-32). And remember Paul’s warning to Timothy that we mentioned earlier about people not enduring “sound teaching.”
The Trinitarian Monotheism recorded in Scripture and summarized in the creeds is the sound teaching we need to preserve orthodoxy, and thereby preserve the message of the true God and His salvation for the world. Praise God for the orthodox mouthful preserved in the creeds. – Pastor Conner
 This is a reference to early church pastors and theologians.