A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)


The Word’s First Words

Rudolf Stier wrote nine volumes (4500 pages) of detailed commentary on every word spoken by Jesus and recorded in the Bible. You might imagine how seriously such an author would take the very first words spoken by Jesus, hearing in them the deep implications of what it means for God to speak in the flesh. Those very first words are recorded in Luke 2:49 “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The first recorded words of Jesus are addressed to Mary, and he is asking her a pair of questions. In these words, Jesus “begins to find out His own mystery, and it is not merely a first word to His parents and to us, but also a first word of the Eternal Spirit in the human spirit of the person of the…

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Signifying Equality with Movement

I came across something helpful in Aquinas (ST Iª q. 42 a. 1 ad 3). Check it out: Should we call the persons of the Trinity equal? Well of course we should. But one of the objections he considers (obj 3) is that a relation of equality is reciprocal. But to say the Father is equal to the Son sounds weird and backwards; it might be as wrong as saying the Father is the image of the Son (which he’s not). So Aquinas makes a distinction: “Equality & likeness in God may be designated in two ways–namely, by nouns and by verbs.” Huh. (It’s nomina et verba in Latin.) If you use nouns, like essence or greatness I guess, then equality is mutual and reversible, “because the divine essence is not more the Father’s than the Son’s.” It makes sense to say the Father…

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Kids’ Lesson

Every so often I get to teach the kids at church (K-5) the intro lesson before they head off to their main classes. Okay, “every so often” means when the Trinity rolls around in our sequence of Core Concepts. Here’s the 5 minute lesson I taught this time: Core Concept 4 is my favorite! “God eternally exists as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” What I love about this is that even though I know what it means, it reminds me that God is more than I can understand, and greater than I can grasp. “God eternally exists as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” means that there is only one God, but existing as three persons. This part is easy, because we read in the Bible about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Since…

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Authority Under, Not Within, God

[This blog post is an archive of a thread I posted on Twitter, Nov 2021. I’ve left it in Twitter format (ten tweets, 475 words) because the temptation to expand and improve it is a temptation to write something rather long.] Father, Son, & Spirit are the almighty God, having the identical divine power & authority over creation. If you take a formal relational structure of power & authority & import it into the life of God, using it to distinguish between Father & Son, you are going to have problems. The error is especially tempting if you start w/a theology of what sonship is in general in the Bible, and then claim it must apply to the unique Son. Sons are younger than dad, have moms, start out smol, obey, etc. None of these characterize the unique Son. What does characterize that Son,…

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Appropriation of Blessedness

I have sometimes wondered about the doctrine of God’s blessedness: to which of the persons of the Trinity should this divine attribute be appropriated? Appropriation is “a process…by which certain absolute divine attributes and operations, which are essentially common to the entire Trinity, are ascribed to one of the Divine Persons in particular, with the purpose of revealing the Hypostatic character of that Person..”1 The main positive rule of its use can be stated as requiring that “between the Hypostatic character of the Divine Person to whom an attribute is appropriated, and that attribute itself, there must exist some special intrinsic relationship.”2 Among the negative rules governing it are warnings that nothing appropriated can ever be treated as exclusively belonging to a single person of the Trinity, or even of belonging to that person to a greater degree than to others. Appropriation is not…

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First John on its Own Terms

For those of us whose theological home base is Paul, pondering First John is wonderful but strange. There’s no contradiction between John & Paul, but the voice is astonishingly different. One major difference: I John is not structured by the “once lost, now saved” schema. Where Paul frequently reminds his readers what they once were, what they left behind, how they have been transformed, what they have now turned to, John doesn’t bring it up. In fact, John doesn’t provide any terms or structures that even invite reflection on these things. That old-vs-new structure is replaced, for the most part, by the dynamic of light vs darkness (which in turn is developed and applied via other categories, like love vs. hate). There’s some salvation history (the darkness is passing), but no ordo salutis or conversion. This Johannine way of thinking takes some getting used…

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Cover Story: Birds at the Fountain

My book Fountain of Salvation: Trinity & Soteriology (Eerdmans, 2021) has a cover that is both beautiful and meaningful. It features a fifth-century mosaic of two birds drinking from a small fountain. The jewel-like mosaic tiles are in rich blues, whites, and greens, with a few orange accents. Part of the power inherent in the medium of mosaics is that each of the colored-glass tesserae, or tiles, catches light slightly differently from those around it. So the colors sparkle and change in response to the slightest movement on the part of the viewer, and no photo can ever quite do them justice. But the photo used on this book is excellent, and is also excellently incorporated into the cover design. The designer (Meg Schmidt) noticed what not every viewer spots: that the fountain rests visually on the lower curve of a descending blue semicircle….

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Two Ways with Divine Emotion

It seems perfectly reasonable to ask about God’s emotions: does he have them, does he feel them, how are they like and unlike our emotions, and so on. In the spiritual life of thoughtful Christians, questions like these come quickly to mind and often feel urgent. But whoever asks such questions immediately finds themselves ensnared in a few difficulties that are linguistic or terminological. This is frustrating, because it makes it harder to get to the actual theological and spiritual question you started out trying to ask. I don’t think there’s any way around the terminology tangle; once the question presents itself in terms of emotion, you’re required to go straight through the middle of it. Does God have emotion? God, as we see in Scripture, loves, hates, rejoices, is angry, is sorry, and expresses a number of related states. Should we batch all…

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One Will in the Trinity (Sketch of an Argument)

One of the stumbling blocks moderns face when they engage with classical trinitarian theology is that the main stream of the tradition resolutely affirms that there is one will in God; that is, one divine will that belongs to the divine nature. It follows from this that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do not have three wills, but one. The reason this is difficult for modern readers is that moderns instinctively associate will with person. If that association (will goes with person) were to be axiomatic, then it would indeed follow that there are three wills in God. Fair enough; at this point we might ask what the grounds are for counting wills with persons, and then of course we’d have to offer at least a rough draft of a definition of will before going any further. Good work worth doing; clarity clarity ah…

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Not Just Cooperation: The Action of the Three

When three people work together on a project, each of them does their own part of it. As Gregory of Nyssa describes it, “even if several are engaged in the same form of action, [they] work separately each by himself at the task he has undertaken, having no participation in his individual action with others who are engaged in the same occupation.” There are distances and differences between them: they take turns (distance in time), or work on different parts of the project (distance in space), or come to the project from different angles (again, space). “Each of them is separated from the others within his own environment, according to the special character of his operation.” The reason Nyssa spent time itemizing the nature of cooperation is so he could explain that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit don’t work together in that way:…

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“One Fire: Light, Brightness, and Heat” (Bullinger on the Trinity)

Swiss Reformer Henry Bullinger (1504–1575) concludes his sermon “Of the Holy Ghost” (Decades, IV:7) with a wonderfully clear and compelling recapitulation of “Unity in trinity and Trinity in unity” (interestingly capitalized thus in the ET). His opening gambit is a statement of the way Scripture speaks distinctly of the characteristic workings of the Father, Son, and Spirit: “In the scripture, the beginning of doing, and the flowing fountain and well-spring of all things, is attributed to the Father. Wisdom, counsel, and the very dispensation in doing things, is ascribed to the Son. And the force and effectual power of working, is assigned to the Holy Ghost.” (p. 326) Using this imagery and vocabulary, Bullinger conveys sharp, distinct impressions of the three persons in their work. The Father as beginning and well-spring; the Son as wisdom and dispensation (oikonomia/dispensatio; we might say arrangement or pattern);…

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Notes, quotes, thoughts, trial balloons, reviews, Twitter threads that turned out okay, position papers, miscellanies. Lightly edited theology writing from Fred Sanders.

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