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God and Creation, Part 3: Creation and Trinity

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June 8, 2011 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose
God and Creation, Part 3: Creation and Trinity

Today's entry was written by David Opderbeck. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

That God is Triune is among the most basic of Christian confessions. Christians confess that there is one God – God is “one in essence” – distinguished in three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Certainly the idea that “God is one in essence distinguished in three persons” is far easier to state than to understand. As theologian Robert Jensen says, “’[t]he doctrine of the Trinity’ is less a homogeneous body of propositions than it is a task: that of the church’s continuing effort to recognize and adhere to the biblical God’s hypostatic being.”1

It is easy to paint incorrect pictures of what it means for God to be Triune: pictures of three persons of the Trinity having different hierarchical ranks (called “subordinationism”); or pictures of the three persons representing merely different manifestations of God (called “modalism”); or pictures of the three persons as individually separate gods (called “tritheism”). Against these incorrect pictures we need to understand that the persons of the Trinity are equal with and inseparable from each other – that they are “coequal,” “coessential,” “coinherent.”

These word pictures matter because they point us toward the sort of being God really is. Theologian Daniel Migliore says it this way:

To speak thus of God as triune is to set all of our prior understandings of what is divine in question. God is not a solitary monad but free, self-communicating love. God is not the supreme will-to-power over others but the supreme will-to-communion in which power and life are shared. To speak of God as the ultimate power whose being is in giving, receiving, and sharing love, who gives life to others and wills to live in communion, is to turn upside down our understandings of both divine and human power.2

This relational understanding of God has profound implications for how we understand God’s purposes for creation. This is because God acts as God is. In theological terms, we say that the “economic trinity” – how God is in Himself – is the “immanent trinity” – how God acts in relation to creation. God created not because anything compelled or required Him to do so, but out of the same love that characterizes the coequal, coessential, coinherent Triune persons of his being.

Theologian and writer David Bentley Hart summarizes this theme beautifully:

The God whom Genesis depicts as pronouncing a deliberative “Let us…” in creating humanity after his image and as looking on in approbation of his handiwork, which he sees to be good, is the eternal God who is the God he forever is, with or without creation, to whom creation adds absolutely nothing; God does not require creation to ‘fecundate’ his being, nor does he require the pathos of creation to determine his ‘personality’ as though he were some finite subjectivity writ large, whose transcendental Ego were in need of delimitation in an empirical ego; God and creation do not belong to an interdependent history of necessity, because the Trinity is already infinitely sufficient, infinitely ‘diverse,’ infinitely at peace; God is good and sovereign and wholly beautiful, and creation is gift, loveliness, pleasure, dignity, and freedom…”3

Hart continues: “precisely because creation is uncompelled, unnecessary, and finally other than that dynamic life of coinherent love whereby God is God, it can reveal how God is the God he is; precisely because creation is needless, an object of delight that shares God’s love without contributing anything that God does not already possess in infinite eminence, creation reflects the divine life, which is one of delight and fellowship and love.”

Gift. Delight. Loveliness. Fellowship. Love. These words characterize creation because they are what the God who created is in His Triune self.

Creation is gift. It is easy to lose track of this truth in the midst of the violence, anger and war that scars our experience of the world. Have you ever thought it would have been better if you had never been born? Have you ever wondered why God created at all when the result is so much suffering? It is impossible to “explain” suffering and evil, though the Trinitarian, relational understanding of creation points in helpful directions. One important theme is that, even with all its groaning, creation is given freely by God, out of His overflowing perichoretic love, as gift. That we are alive, that we breathe the air of this world and feel its soil under our feet, is good.

Creation is delight. How often do you drink in the simple joy of being? Stand by a window for a moment and feel the warm sun on your skin. This is an expression of God’s own life.

Creation is lovely. From the tiniest one-celled organisms to the inconceivably vast fields of galaxies, creation displays symmetry, light, color, movement, form, shape.

Creation is fellowship. The creatures of the earth and we human beings are bound together in a common share of life. And we as human beings, with all our variety of skin and body types, are fundamentally of the same stuff, sharing the same spark of divinity, made for each other and for God.

Creation is love. Every structure, every particle, everything seen and unseen, all that is, is because of God’s love, and is loved by God. To be loved by the God who is perfected in love within His own being is to be named a thing of unimaginable worth. There is nothing ordinary in the universe or in any universe God has made. Everything that is, is extraordinary and priceless.

Today may you receive with gratitude the gift of being;
May you delight in life;
May you bathe in beauty;
May you know you belong;
May you realize the true measure of your worth, and share in the joyful dance of God’s overflowing, creative love.


1. Robert Jensen, Systematic Theology Vol. 1: The Triune God (Oxford Univ. Press 1997)

2. Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (2d ed. Eerdmans 2004)

3. David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans 2003)

David Opderbeck is Professor of Law and Director of the Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology at Seton Hall University Law School. He is also working on a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham and is Pastoral Science Scholar with the Center for Pastoral Science.

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dopderbeck - #62430

June 10th 2011

The so-called “courtier’s reply” really only relates to the tone of an argument.  It’s perfectly legitimate to reply that one’s interlocutor hasn’t actually studied or understood what is supposedly being critiqued—as is quite often the case with the New Atheists when it comes to the Christian tradition and philosophy.  It’s no different than dismissing a creationist who is ignorant of the natural sciences.  Why should anyone who is spectacularly wrong about the intellectual tradition he is critiquing be taken seriously?

Alan—you’re simply wrong that all “religious” arguments are just appeals to emotion.  Call it a courtier’s reply if you’d like, but a statement like that betrays ignorance.

Alan Fox - #62434

June 10th 2011

I am happy to concede that there may be an intellectual argument for a particular religious belief, it’s just that, in my ignorance, I haven’t yet come across one.

My Daughter, who since studying to become a yoga teacher and spending some considerable time in the East, India, Sri Lanka, Bali has become quite taken with Tibetan Buddhism. She has berated me for my lack of interest and knowledge. Do I need to spend time studying Zen, the Tao, the writings of the Dalai Lama before dismissing Buddhism out of hand? 
Scott Jorgenson - #62556

June 13th 2011

As a pragmatic matter, no, you don’t need to have first studied it in some depth to disregard it.  We all do this to some extent with all manner of claims almost daily; there is only so much time and investigative energy available to all of us, and so we are justified in basing our personal reactions to such claims on such things as our first impressions, cohesion with our already-accepted framework, the presence or absence of respected authorities and adherents, etc.

But to more strongly dismiss a widely-established, entrenched claim as wholly irrational, without worth, and unfounded in any sense for anyone, such that anyone adhering to the claim must likewise be believing wholly irrationally - then yes, before making such a strong dismissal, I think its incumbent to have studied the subject matter to a depth in proportion to the sweeping nature of our dismissal and the degree of establishment of the subject matter in question. When a lot of smart people have gone before us on a question, exploring it from this and that angle across cultures and generations, its fine to dismiss it on a personal and pragmatic level, but to dismiss it universally and glibly without appropriate study, or at least some intellectual humility, is misguided.  I’m not saying this characterizes you - I wouldn’t know - but it does seem, to me, to characterize some of the New Atheists at least.

So for me, as a Christian who has never studied Buddhism, I am quite happy to acknowledge that my dismissal of it is only in the first sense.  I cast no intellectual aspersions on Buddhism with sweeping claims of denial made in the second sense.  Interestingly, many atheists can feel likewise about Christianity, and I don’t have a problem with that; it is only with the overreaching of some of the New Atheists that I find issue.

Steve Ruble - #62444

June 10th 2011

The Courtier’s Reply does not really relate to the tone of an argument at all. It relates to the fact many people hide behind the centuries of scholarly tradition, academic effort, and technical literature dedicated to describing the details of the emperor’s clothes, when they haven’t actually demonstrated that the emperor is wearing any clothes at all. 

div> It’s no different than dismissing a creationist who is ignorant of the natural sciences. 

Scott Jorgenson - #62557

June 13th 2011

i>If you ask the most accomplished theologians in the world basic questions about which god or gods exist, and what it or their properties and desires are, and you’ll get answers that are radically different and contradictory. Ask the most accomplished biologists what evolution or natural selection is and you’ll get a broadly coherent and consistent account. 

True, and true, but what difference does that make?  Whether made on behalf of religion to New Atheists, or on behalf of science to creationists, it is still the courtier’s reply in either case, and that’s OK.

What makes the difference, you seem to say, is that in the one case, the dismissal is made on behalf of claims that are rational and well-founded (as evidenced by the broad consensus of experts there), while not in the other case (as evidenced by a comparative lack of consensus there).  But whether the claims are in any way rational and sound is exactly what is at issue, and so it begs the question to say that one response constitutes the courtier’s reply and the other does not.

Put another way, if we survey economists, political scientists, philosophers, and art, music and literary critics, we likewise will never find a consensus in those fields quite like exists in science.  But I would say its unwise of us to therefore feel free to make a sweeping and global dismissal of those fields, without first feeling it incumbent on us to do a fair bit of study there.  If philosophers respond to our unstudied, universal dismissal of philosophy with the courtier’s reply, they would be justified in doing so, even though there is no consensus among them on even relatively basic philosophical issues such as whether free will or objective knowledge exist.

keddaw - #62560

June 13th 2011

Scott, I think you make a fundamental mistake here.  The atheists (new or otherwise) often dismiss religions out of hand not because they care about the intricate internal frameworks within religions but because the basic, simplistic assumption at the top is fundamentally unproven.

You can have the greatest biological and vetinarian theories you like about the digestive system of a unicorn but rationalists will still dismiss your ideas because, to them, unicorns don’t exist.

Economists, political scientists and (some) philosophers make theories which relate to real world events, the value of these theories can be judged based on how well they do.  Art critics are maybe closer to theologians, but they still require some real world agreement and at least art does exist to be evaluated.

The best you can really hope for from atheists is for them to ignore the initial, unsubstantiated premise and for them to then evaluate the other claims using logic and reason.  When they do this, or theologians for that matter, it moves religion along, makes it less scrutable(?) and disprovable, but it still has the massive elephant in the room which is that there is no objective evidence for any God’s existence.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #62582

June 13th 2011


Religion is based on the belief or assumption that life is worth living.  It is  imposible to prove this assumption scientifically, (even if some “scientists” say it is not worth livng) but most people seem to agree, or otherwise rationally they would have checked out..

Do you agree that life is worth living, and if so how do you go about determining best way to live, which is the purpose of religion? 

keddaw - #62584

June 13th 2011

Roger, I will forgive you the presumption that religions say life is worth living since this is a Christian centric site, but your argument is demonstrably false outside of (MAINSTREAM!) Christianity.

Very few scientists say that life is worth living, there is an argument that life is, long term, pointless, or that all life begins with suffering so life shouldn’t be initiated.  But, ultimately, their arguments are made from the fringes of the known so their credence is minimal and not accepted by most people so that is a false criticism.

I must point out that your idea that religion is all about the best way to live is problematic.  It may be true in certain religions, but not all.  Even within one religion it almost always describes that the best way to judge how a life is lived is if it follows the rules of that religion.  That seems like cheating.  Surely there is some non-religious metric we can use - to decide, for example, if being a virgin until your wedding day is beneficial to you, your spouse, and/or society at large.
keddaw - #62586

June 13th 2011

Oops, missed a not:

Very few scientists say that life is worth living
Very few scientists say that life is NOT worth living
Roger A. Sawtelle - #62540

June 12th 2011

“God is one in essence distinguished in three persons”

Dave, where did you find this definition?  

I agree that God is One, but to say that God has a essense?  If anything God is the Essense.  Some people seem to think that “essentially one” means God is “simple,” which is not true in my understanding of the Biblical revelation.  See above.
God is One.  Enough said.

“distinguished in three Persons” sounds like modalism.  God is Three Persons.  Enough said.  We really can’t explain God philosophically.  All we can say is that if humans are created in God’s image and we are complex/one beings, relational beings composed of body, mind, and spirit then God also must be a complex/one relational Being with the ability to act, to think, and to love.

God is Who God Is.  God is not compelled to do anything as you say by forces external to God, but God is compelled by Who God Is to Be God, which means to Love.


gingoro - #62561

June 13th 2011

David O
“You’re right to notice that DB Hart takes a pretty strong stance in favor of the traditional view that God is impassable.”  IMO many of the theologian’s attributes of God seem to have come from Greek philosophy and are improperly applied to the Judeau/Christian God.  Elton Trueblood makes a great point when he says that the great Christian words are not either/or but both/and.  For example love God and your neighbor.  As I see it some of God’s attributes eg character are impassable and other attributes are passable.  I see the bible teaching both characteristics.
Dave W

Jon Garvey - #62577

June 13th 2011

gingoro - that’s pretty much was classical theology says: the usual term is “communicable” and “non-communicable” attributes. It’s a mistake to buy too much into the Greek thought v Hebrew thought bit (if only because for a good few Old Testament centuries Judaea was a Greek colony).

Roger A. Sawtelle - #62580

June 13th 2011


While you are right that the Greeks did rule over Judea as the remainder of Alexander’s empire, there was great friction between the Jews and their rulers, as demonstrated by the Maccabean revolt which actually succeeded for a time.  The desire for the Messiah was largely motivated by the wish to over throw the pagan Greek culture of the Romans.  Jews considered the Greeks to be unclean pagans, while the Greeks considered the Jews as fanatical barbarians.  The conflict was and is real and important. 

In my opinion God is not absolute as the Greeks would have it.  God is relational as the Bible would have it.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #62641

June 15th 2011

keddaw wrote:

Roger, I will forgive you the presumption that religions say life is worth living since this is a Christian centric site, but your argument is demonstrably false outside of (MAINSTREAM!) Christianity.

Keddaw, I appreciate your point of view.  My statement was intended to be a generalization, which I do believe holds true outside of mainstream Christianity, although I am aware of some Christians who bemoan life as a vail of tears.  Few if any Christians that I have met subscribe to this view. 

I think that it also holds true for Judaism and Islam.  Other faiths might see life differently from the way we see it, but I don’t think they would say life is not worth living.  In any case maybe we can put this statement on safer ground by stating that in Western culture religion affirms the belief that life is worth living, or if you want to say the Judeo-Christian tradition affirms that life is worth living. 

Keddaw: I must point out that your idea that religion is all about the best way to live is problematic.  It may be true in certain religions, but not all.  Even within one religion it almost always describes that the best way to judge how a life is lived is if it follows the rules of that religion.  That seems like cheating.  Surely there is some non-religious metric we can use - to decide, for example, if being a virgin until your wedding day is beneficial to you, your spouse, and/or society at large.

Response:  The statement was intended to be a generalization, rather than be absolute.  See above.

Rules are good, but they too are generalizations that are not absolute.  There are exceptions to “Thou shall not kill,” which of course need to be debated and dtermined by the legal system.  The role of religion, as I know it, is how to apply the rules in every day life and how to meet the stresses and strains that life puts on us all.  Meaning does not come from rules and regulations, which are a part of religion, but from the purpose which faith gives to life, which we live out daily individually and corporately. 

In terms of extramarital sex, it would seem in light of the spread of HIV-AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases as well as the fact that single parent households are very often poverty stricken, this norm makes sense.  However I would say that it is not an absolute rule.

The question is the role of religion in society and life against those who say it has no positive role.  Obviously I think it has a positive role, although like any human institution, such as government, it can be distorted and abused as we well know. 


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