A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)
Incorruptible Trinity: Sketch of a Doctrine
The Master's Seminary Journal 33/1 (Spring 2022) 115–125
Abstract: The doctrine of divine incorruptibility deserves more focused attention than it has generally received, especially in the modern period. This article draws the doctrine from its Scriptural sources (especially making use of the phthora word-group) and sketches its basic shape for systematic theology. First, it establishes the doctrine as a statement about God’s nature (that it is not subject to decay), and then traces its implications through Christology and soteriology. Finally, with the overall doctrine sketched out, the article suggests what is especially trinitarian in the doctrine of God’s incorruptibility.
Incorruptibility is a divine perfection—that is, an attribute of the triune God. Only twice in the New Testament is God directly called incorruptible, both times in the writings of Paul (1 Tim 1:17 and Rom 1:23). But the broader set of words and concepts associated with incorruption1 in general are spread much more widely throughout Scripture, so that when Paul at last affirms that God is incorruptible, something very important comes to the surface. Incorruptibility is, in fact, a massive doctrinal complex presupposed in the rest of Scripture and energetically developed in early Christian theology. The focus of this short essay is to draw attention to the doctrine of divine incorruptibility and to display some of its theological and spiritual ramifications, with a special goal of exhibiting its connections to the doctrine of the Trinity.
That God is incorruptible means that he is not subject to decomposition. He cannot disintegrate or be dismembered. God does not rot. “Incorruptible” is a double-negative construction, confessing a positive thing by denying its negation. It belongs among that whole class of divine attributes whose power and usefulness derive from their ability to teach us what concepts we must reject if we are to affirm the truth about God’s being. In rehearsing such attributes, we deny that God is limited by any power, surrounded by any presence, derived from any other; he is not changeable, visible, mortal, compound, or composed of parts. There is something almost arbitrary or reactive about which negative doctrines we stipulate of God, since we would never bother to make the movement of negation unless the possibility of affirmation was proposed to us. God is not blue, for example, but unless and until someone proposes a doctrine of divine blueness, there is no need to insist on this particular denial. The history of theology has made a select group of these negations strategically important. All of these doctrines sound somewhat more positive to us when we state them in English words that partly conceal their built-in negations. We characterize God as having divine infinity, aseity, immutability, invisibility, immortality, and simplicity. But each of these words are in fact double negations which gesture toward the transcendent reality of God, a reality about which we can also, based on revelation, make a few positive statements as well.
What is that positive truth guarded by the doctrine of incorruptibility? It is the simple and vital reality that God is one, and alive: he has strong unity and perfect life. It is the one, living God who Christian theology confesses as incorruptible….
(The entire Spring 2022 issue of the journal can be downloaded from the TMSJ site.)