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22 thoughts on “The Trinity and divine attributes

  1. Dave K

    I could expand... but would the first diagram be acceptable as long as you stacked the second diagram on top of it? i.e. Trinity -> attributes -> persons. Maybe a circle would be good?!

    Because the Father has the attribute of omnipotence, as does the Son and the Spirit. However, that omnipotence is not something that stands behind the Trinity, but originates in the Trinity.

    Is that a true thing to say?

    Perhaps then we can see what so many theologians of the past (who have basically had a theology like the first diagram) were correct, but had truncated things.

    Do you see some big problem in stacking the diagrams that I'm not seeing?

  2. Dan Hames

    Dave, I think there would be a problem assigning the three persons identical attributes. For that reason, I wouldn't stack the pictures up that way.

    But I do love your pictures, Glen. You could write a big thick book of theology with pretty pictures like that ;-)

  3. Glen

    Hey Dave,

    The Son and Spirit have a distinctly different omnipotence to the Father. The Son can do nothing by Himself and rules with the delegated power of the Father given in the Spirit. This is true for all the attributes - they are exercised in distinctly different ways according their role.

    It's both impossible and entirely undesirable to isolate the Son (for instance) and ask questions of His power/wisdom/presence etc. Those things *only* make sense in concert with Father and Spirit.

    To try to map attributes identically onto persons is fraught with danger. It was the very heart of Arius's problem. He thought 'unoriginate' was an attribute of deity that must be equally true of Father, Son and Spirit if all three were to be fully God. Of course the Son and Spirit fail this test.

    So then here's the trouble with going 'trinity => attributes => Persons'. If we began with 'trinity' and decided that the Persons *together* have the 'attribute' of being unoriginate (i.e. they do not receive their life and being from any other source but only from each other), we've got huge problems when we try to make this 'aseity' (another word for 'unoriginate') true of each individual Person.

    And ditto for all the attributes actually. The economy in which we meet the Persons is an economy of their mutually constituting roles and relations. Given this a) you simply can't view the Persons as identical - they are irreversibly asymmetrical; and b) you just can't isolate the Persons from one another since they not only exercise their attributes but also have their life *only* in concert with the other Two. And the way in which they live that life is not as clones but complements (thanks to Richard for that phrase)

  4. Dave K

    Hi Dan and Glen,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I see the problems now with stacking the diagrams.

    A few more questions which either of you could feel like answering:

    > Granted that their omnipotence (for e.g.) is exercised in different ways, is not identical, and is entirely dependent on the other persons of the Trinity, is in not still true to say (in that context) that 'the Son is omnipotent', 'the Father is omnipotent' and 'the Spirit is omnipotent'? So unless we are playing with language that is a attribute they share isn't it?

    > I too find these diagrams really helpful. How would you diagram the facts that:
    The Trinity is God;
    The Father is God;
    The Son is God; and
    The Holy Spirit is God?

    > What do you make of Don Carson on John 5:26 who says: "like God, [Jesus] has life-in-himself. God is self-existent; he is always 'the living God'. Mere human beings are derived creatures; our life comes from God, and he can remove it as easily as he gave it. But to the Son, and to the Son alone, God has imparted life-in-himself"? 'Life' is an attribute I would say, and both the Father and the Son have it 'in themself' but equally not independently. How would you explain that verse?

    Don't feel obliged to answer. I very nearly asked a question which I thought I had asked of you ages ago. I looked it up and it was in the post of Dan's where we first started discussing the Trinity.... I fear I haven't learnt anything!

  5. Bobby Grow


    I would say, on Carson, that if we think about this Incarnationally, he is just, wrong.

    If our humanity became Christ's humanity, then our humanity is as secure in God's life; as indeed Christ is.

    On the omnipotent point. I think the point is, though, that they don't share that apart from their inter-relationship with eachother . . . so that omnipotence is actually shaped by the Father's "sending" missio, the Son's "submitting", and the Spirit's "saving." So that His "power" is shaped by the distinctions that obtain between the person's interpenetrating union of love for the "other."

    So I don't think that this is some sort of "omniattribute" that shapes God's life (from outside or behind); but that it *is* who He is, in His action toward the other (which is love). So His power is shaped by His love, which is His "life."

    Sorry, I know you were asking Glen and Dan. :-)

  6. Dave K

    Hi Bobby,

    I'm happy you responded. Thanks. I only asked Glen and Dan because they responded to my first comment. But now you've answered some questions of mine, I'll ask you some more :)

    > I like what you are saying about the incarnational perspective. So granted that in Christ our life is as secure as Jesus' life then how would you understand life-in-himself? Presumably you would not say that we, in Christ, have life-in-ourselves. Would you? Basically I'm taking your point and asking again 'How would you explain that verse?'

    > Granted the Son's power is shaped his relationship with the Father and the Spirit (and all the other things I granted in my last comment), isn't it true that there is something we call 'omnipotence' that the Father possesses, the son possesses and the Spirit possesses?

    Imperfect analogy alert: I possess the attribute of being a son of Richard K. It is an attribute that my brother also has. The attribute is wholly dependant on others. It is shaped by others. However, it is different to my brother's 'sonship of Richard' in shape and in the way it is exercised. I can therefore say that:
    David is a son of Richard
    Michael is a son of Richard
    'Sonship of Richard' is attribute that both of us have equally, but distinctly, and dependently.
    I think I could put 'sonship of Richard' in the boxes marked attributes in both Glen's diagrams, and then me and my brother in the circles.

    I'm still not fully seeing why diagram 1 is totally wrong, as opposed to incomplete. Incomplete can be 'wrong' in some ways, but not in others. e.g. 'I bought you this card for your birthday' v. 'I bought you this card for your birthday because my wife reminded me; otherwise I would have forgotten'.

  7. Bobby Grow

    Hi Dave,

    I would say, that Jesus' life is received from the Father by the Spirit; as is the life of Father received from the Son by the Spirit --- and I don't know what to do with the Spirit ;-) --- and the Spirit receives His life from His relating of the Son in the Father and vice versa. Communion in union.

    I would say they share power (I don't really like omnipotence lang.) in their mutual relating to one another in love.

    In other words, instead of starting with the metaphysics; why not start at the cross. What does God's omnipotence or power ;-) look like there? To me it looks like it flows and is shaped by His life of love in action (which is what it always has been within itself forever). God's power of recreation at the cross, looks no different than God's power of creation in Genesis. God's power isn't something that can be abstracted out of Him (as a quality), that they all "share" (to me this places something behind God's life that they all participate in, which is why Glen's diagrams are so good); instead it is through their interprenetrating actions toward the other that the one life of God is shaped (I think this is what we would want to call "power" the three shaping the one, and the one three).

    I've gotta go eat din din, my wife's calling me . . . I'll be back --- this is a start, what do you think?

  8. Dave K

    I have to go too and so may have to respond more later. Thanks for your points.

    Isn't some abstraction necessary though? Even the use of language to describe things is an abstraction isn't it? Just by using the word power we are abstracting from acts and being. It is right to be scared of over-abstracting and loosing the reality. But, as I seem to remember Colin Gunton saying, systematics involves abstracting to concentrate. It is a necessary, even if admittedly dangerous exercise.

    I'm not sure that dealing with metaphysical questions means you are starting there necessarily. Are you implying that or am i reading that in. Faith seeking understanding?

    I bascially agree with your comments about life, but I'm not sure it really deals with the 'life in himself' comment. It seems one-sided. It deals with the 'granted' bit in John 5:26 but not the 'in himself' bit. It seems incomplete to me.

    As an aside, I think you guys would have a heart attack if you were listening to the lectures by Oliver Crisp I'm listening to at the moment :)

  9. Glen

    Hey guys,

    First thought - I'd be very surprised if Jesus meant by 'life in Himself' what classical theists mean by 'aseity'! Especially given the meaning of 'life' in John (not to mention in these surrounding verses) and especially given that He says 'the Father has granted the Son to have life in Himself.' To even ask the question 'Who gave you aseity?' is to reveal the absurdity of a 'granted' unoriginacy! If ever there was an incommunicable attribute it was aseity!! :) Therefore I don't think Jesus is anywhere near the ball park of the classical theists here!

    Second - given the salvific and relational meaning of life in John, I don't think I would be too alarmed to hear language of Christians having life in themselves (in a secondarily derivative way). After all, the Living Waters will flow from within us. I won't go to the stake on this, but I think far far far too much can be made of 'life in Himself' and is very regularly abstracted from Johannine language.

    Third - I am totally unconvinced by attempts to secure the 'aseity of the Son'. I think this would be a prime example of how you *cannot* deduce an attribute of God (even if it is from an examination of the triune life) and then map it identically onto each individual Person.

    Fourth - isolating the Persons and asking whether they have attributes in themelves just undercuts the whole trinitarian dynamic in which each Person lives and acts. You may as well not have a trinitarian diagram first if you are then going to assume that the life and action of the Persons are not entirely dependent on the mutual interpenetration of the Others.

    Fifth - if you ever were able to 'isolate' Persons and examine them they'd disappear in a puff of blasphemy. If you wanted to ask whether the Son is powerful I really believe you can only answer 'He is powerful with the Power of the Father (i.e. the Spirit). (As an aside this is what makes it absurd to ask the question 'Does Jesus do miracles from His divine nature or from the power of the Spirit?' His divine nature *is* His filling without measure in the Spirit (and eternal Sonship)!

    Sixth - Whatever the difference is between 'begetting' and 'proceeding' - that kind of language is precisely what theologians are getting at when they affirm that the Son and Spirit are *from* the Father in different ways. Dave K and Richard K are both begotten, the Son and the Spirit are 'begotten' and 'proceeding'. They aren't even 'dependent on their Father' in the same way as each Other. This should cause yet more caution about identically mapping attributes onto individual Persons.

    Seventh - there is a shape to the trinity - an irreversible asymmetry, an economic hierarchy that, nonetheless, goes back into the depths of eternity. As I've said above with the difference between 'begetting' and 'proceeding', we can't even say that something as simple as 'dependence on the other Two' is an attribute that can be mapped identically onto all Three.

    From this it seems to me like the first diagram above is just a dead loss.

    Dave - where are these Crisp lectures from? Sometimes blogging is helped if ire is raised...

  10. Richard Walker

    On further reflection, I have posted another image on my blog here to depict the divine life. Would appreciate you guys scrutinising it for imperfection:

    My only reservation with the diagrams that you have posted Glen is that (as far as I understand my reading of the Bible to date) I have never seen the Spirit act as a stand alone entity, which is where the three balls arranged in a triangle falls down for me.

  11. Glen

    Thanks Richard, yes a perfect triangle doesn't really represent the economic/asymmetrical action of the Persons which is at the heart of why the whole attributes => trinity thing doesn't work. I like yours better.

  12. Dave K


    Ok, I think we might have to agree to disagree for now at least.

    I do think there may be a bit of misunderstanding going on. Certainly I don't want to say that the attributes of the three persons are 'identically' mapped onto each, or that there is symmetry in the Trinity, or that all their attributes are separable from their relations with other persons. So I'm a bit confused why that sort of thing keeps coming up in the comments... but maybe I'm missing something.

    Probably the only thing I would disagree with in your last comment is that we cannot talk about "‘granted’ unoriginacy". Perhaps I am too willing to embrace the paradox/nonsense!?

    I suppose my central concern is that we can say:
    The Trinity is God;
    The Father is God;
    The Son is God; and
    The Holy Spirit is God?

    The Trinity is omnipotent;
    The Father is omnipotent;
    The Son is omnipotent; and
    The Holy Spirit is omnipotent?

    ... etc. while granting, and indeed emphasising, that the omnipotence in each case is always different, asymetrical, dependant etc. I feel like in your descriptions you are left with:

    The Trinity is God/omnipotent/etc. FULL STOP.


    I like Richard's diagram, and your new diagram too. I think it is really helpful. But I think it doesn't really talk about attributes (in the classical sense). Maybe you want to throw that kind of language out altogether as unhelpful.

    In fact I think there is a whole big debate about theological language to be had here. But there we are.

    The Crisp lectures cost money I'm afraid. They were at Regent College ( They weren't quite what I was looking for when I bought them. But they are certainly stretching. It has been my first real exposure to modern philosophical theology. I've only really ever experienced the like in my little reading of Augustine and Anselm. He has written a book with the same title and same sort of content.

    I can't say I've really liked the lectures though (although I've learnt a fair bit - including jargon like 'substance dualism'). Your highly tuned ears would probably be able to have a proper argument with him about the method and presuppositions of his enterprise. For myself I kept on having a passage of Richard Bauckham coming to my mind:

    "This [Jewish] kind of practical monotheism, requiring a whole pattern of daily life and cultic worship formed by exclusive allegiance to the one God, presupposes a god who is in some way significantly identifiable. the God who requires what the God of Israel requires cannot be merely the philosophical abstraction to which the intellectual currents of contemporary Greek thought aspired. Jews, in some sense, knew who their God was. The God of Israel had a unique identity. The concept which will be the central focus of the whole argument of this chapter is that of the identity of God.


    The term identity is mine, not that of the ancient literature, but I use it as a label for what I do find in the literature, which is not, of course, necessarily a notion precisely the same as modern ideas of personal identity, but is nevertheless clearly a concern with who God is. The value of the concept of divine identity appears partly if we contrast it with a concept of divine essence or nature. Identity concerns who God is; nature concerns what God is or what divinity is. Greek philosophy, already in the period we are discussing and in a way that was to influence the Christian theological tradition significantly in the period after the New Testament, typically defined divine nature by means of a series of metaphysical attributes: ingenerateness, incorruptibility, immutability and so on. My point is not that the biblical and Jewish tradition had no use at all for statements about the divine nature. Some Jewish writers in the later Second Temple period consciously adopted some of the Greek metaphysical language. But in these writers the dominant conceptual framework of their understanding of God is not a definition of divine nature - what divinity is - but a notion of divine identity, characterized primarily in ways other than metaphysical attributes. That God is eternal, for example - a claim essential to all Jewish thinking about God - is not so much a statement about what divine nature is, more an element in the unique divine identity, along with claims that God alone created all things and rules all things, that God is gracious and merciful and just, that God brought Israel out of Egypt and made Israel his own people and gave Israel his law at Sinai and so on."

    (pp. 6-7, "God Crucified" in Jesus and the God of Israel).

    Sorry for the extended quote. It is a little bit off topic but I thought it was about time I typed it out for my own benefit and now seemed as good a time as any. I'll stick it on my own blog to be properly filed away for future reference! I do think it says some very helpful things, and needs to be said to understand the high Christology from the beginning of the church.

  13. Bobby Grow

    Dave K,

    Here's a quote that you might find helpful in re. to the "life in Himself" point. This is Arthur McGill, who actually develops John's "theology of Glory" (I think you would really benefit from this book, all would):

    The image of the grain of wheat represents an astonishing proposal [he previously has been discussing Jn 12, and the "death of the seed"]. It construes death as the process of generating and communicating identity in life. In this teaching Jesus interprets his death in terms of the agricultural process of sowing. When a grain of wheat is put into the ground and cracks open, when it releases from itself its own life and reality and dies, only then does it yield a harvest. Here emerges the principle that within the arena of Jesus the act of conferring and nourishing life for others requires the loss and expenditure of one’s own life. The Gospel of John especially celebrates Jesus’ death as the process whereby the new kind of received life and received identity is extended to the human race. Like the grain of wheat which bears fruit by dying, Jesus’ dying is the gift to us of the identity he receives from his Father. Jesus says that his death is how we receive his life. . . .

    . . . The Father, as revealed by Jesus in his dying, is the origin and principle of this glory [McGill has been developing a 'theology of God's glory in John' as a glory that is founded in death {giving self} vs. man's glory that self-exalts], this vitality of bearing fruit and engendering life, this vitality which we meet in Jesus. The glory of God the Father is identical in kind to the glory of Jesus’ sacrificial death. God is to be worshiped, not because God is absolute, but because God engenders and communicates life. . . .

    . . . The Christian worships not the absoluteness of God but the fecundity of God, the fact that the Father engenders the Son who carries the fullness of divinity. God is not God as superior, as superior to us in holding onto the divine reality. We do not worship God as a self-contained divinity. We worship God for the glory of the Father, a glory which consists in bearing fruit. That is the meaning of the cross. We worship God as Father, that is, as one who engenders the Son. We worship God further as one, who not only engenders the Son, but engenders in all of us the same life. Where do we see the glory of God? In the Son. Here the Father is glorified, and fruitful power is the Father’s and not the Son’s own. Worship then is a response to glory. Where is glory? In Jesus’ act of dying. In the act he shares his glory and bestows life, but we worship here the glory of the Father.

    In Jesus Christ we see that none of us is simply the life we now receive because we will receive again anew each day. Therefore, in laying down his life, Jesus does not abolish his identity. He does not commit suicide in the sense of acting so as to be nothing. His identity does not depend on and does not consist in the life which he holds onto and the life which he offers. He is by virtue of God, by virtue of God’s constant activity to him and with him. Without detriment to his true self, he can give away everything of himself. He can give away everything at his disposal. He can lay down his life and receive it again. Contrary to all the injunctions against suicide, Jesus claims the right to give away everything. [bracketing mine] (Arthur C. McGill, “Death and Life: an American Theology,” 72-75)

    I hope you find that helpful, I think Glen spoke to the other issues quite well; but I see you're still working through this . . . hey, we all are :-). I've read Crisp on Edwards's trinitarianism, I would be interested in hearing the lectures you're listening too . . .

  14. Bobby Grow

    One more point, Dave K,

    You really really really need to read The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons by T. F. Torrance; this will deal with all of your concerns, and then some :-).

  15. Glen

    Hey Dave,

    Yes sorry for misunderstanding your intentions. I think I was probably reading words like 'identically' into your position.

    I too want to say that the trinity is God, the Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God etc, etc. I just want to do it in a second diagram kind of way. And if you're avoiding the 'identical' trap of the first diagram then that's cool.


  16. Richard Walker

    To change tack slightly on the attributes thing... What do you make of 2 Peter 1:4 when it says that we become partakers of the divine nature? If the divine nature is the omni-etc attributes, then we don't become partakers in any significant sense. However, if the divine nature is holy love, (1 John 4:16) then we can say bring it on.

    My nervousness in the omni language is that it carries with it philosophical baggage that I don't see in the Bible. I'd share Luther's line and say "this far and no further" on things like attributes. So for example, rather than talking about omnipotence and stones being too heavy to lift etc, I'd rather say that God is almighty and accomplishes all he wishes (Isa 46:10).

    The danger is that we treat God like we treat our celebrities, we elevate them because of certain of their aspects, (not wrong in itself, but we should be wary of over-abstracting them), and cease to appreciate them as persons.

    Is that fair or am I being naive in this?

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  19. billie

    i dont get it?...well i do get it, but what i mean is what are three attributes of the trinity?... is it that, The father, the son and the Holy spirit are all attributes of the trinity? Or is that nt an attribute?..imm confused..please help?, thankyou.

  20. Glen

    Hi Billie,

    Welcome to the blog. Sorry, a picture with no interpretation isn't much help. Here's my basic take on the trinity:

    And what I'm saying with these pictures is that we shouldn't start by listing God's attributes (he's omniscient, omnipotent, etc, etc) and then trying to map those onto the Persons. Instead we should look at how the Persons inter-relate (in the gospel) and that will tell us what the triune God is like. To put it another way, I'm saying: Don't begin with the attributes and then fit that into your doctrine of the trinity. Begin by looking at the trinity and then look at God's character (attributes) in the *relationship* of the Father, Son and Spirit.

    Does that make more sense?

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