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Berkhof on the Trinity

I came across some interesting things that Berkhof has to say about the Trinity…

…it is…of…greatest importance to maintain the personality of God, for without it there can be no religion… no prayer, no personal communion, no trustful reliance and no confident hope.

Personality does not develop nor exist in isolation, but only in association with other persons. Hence it is not possible to conceive of personality in God apart from an association of equal persons in Him.

Berkhof also brings up a point that one can look at the Trinity as 3 modes, but not modes of manifestation as the modalist heresy contends. Rather, modes of actual existence.

It is also interesting to consider God eternally existing before He began creation. As a personal being, He would have been very lonely if it were not for the persons within the Godhead. Then one could argue that God had to create in order to cease from being lonely.


About theologian

I'm a child of the King, my Father who is in Heaven, by the precious blood of His eternal Son, Jesus Christ. I am married with children and currently reside in Pennsylvania. I am a Pastor with the Association of Charismatic Reformed Churches (ACRC) working as an Urban Missionary in Chester, PA. Throughout my time in ministry God has also blessed me with opportunities for formal education by which I earned my terminal degree (Doctor of Theology) from New Geneva Theological Seminary in 2013.


14 thoughts on “Berkhof on the Trinity

  1. I think you are right on with the last point. The doctrine of the Trinity helps us understand the self-sufficiency of God in eternity.

    Although we should be careful about suggesting he moved in creating the universe and mankind, etc., out of any lack, can we not also say he did so to bring greater glory to himself?

    Posted by Gomarus | November 8, 2006, 4:30 pm
  2. Exactly. Without the Trinitarian understanding of the persons of the Godhead, one could argue that He was moved to create the world simply out of His loneliness. With the Trinitarian understanding, He was not compelled from His own lack because He was not lonely.

    Yes, He did so for His own glory. But i guess we must be careful there too. We should not suggest that God was somehow deficient in glory prior to creation.

    Posted by theologian | November 8, 2006, 4:40 pm
  3. Perhaps it’s better to say that He created everything to manifest His own glory more clearly.

    Posted by theologian | November 8, 2006, 4:40 pm
  4. Ahhh. I like that way of putting it. 🙂 We can say he did so for the “purposes” of his own glory without suggesting a deficiency.

    It reminds me of Christ taking on humanity. Christ was not lacking anything prior to the incarnation, yet in it there was a change/gain (or whatever) of some sort.

    Pondering his nature just blows my mind. This is where we see the need for a balance between Apophatic cautions and Kataphatic assertions as Lane touched on.

    Posted by Gomarus | November 8, 2006, 5:12 pm
  5. Larry, could you flesh out a bit more what you think Berkhof means by “modes of existence?” Letham argues in his book that the primary tendency of the West is towards modalism. How does changing “modes of manifestation” to “modes of existence” avoid modalism? I’m not necessarily challenging Berkhof here. I think it would depend on what he means.

    Posted by greenbaggins | November 8, 2006, 7:13 pm
  6. At the risk of putting words into Berhof’s mouth, i will try to flesh out the “mode” idea…

    When modalists speak of modes of manifestation they are speaking of one person who manifests himself in three different substances. The modalist believes the Trinity is more like water, which can be either liquid or gas or solid.

    When Berkhof speaks of modes of existence i think he is saying that the Trinity does not reveal its one person in 3 different modes, but it actually subsists in 3 modes.

    When first reading about it my hairs stood up a little just because the word “modal” is so connected with “modalism” that it was a natural gag reaction. But the more i thought on it the more it made sense.

    I don’t think Berkhof much cared for using “person” in reference to God as he thought it was lacking in its representation. He says, “Experience teaches that where you have a person, you also have a distinct individual essence.”

    Really Berkhof equates saying there are 3 “modes of existence” with “modes of subsistence” and with “persons” in the sense that Calvin wrote, “By person, then, I mean a subsistence in the Divine essence. – a subsistence which, while related to the other two, is distinguished from them by incommunicable properties.”

    Posted by theologian | November 8, 2006, 7:31 pm
  7. The problem is with the word “mode.” It normally means “manner, form, or function” all of which fit the heretical modalistic thought. It does not equate to subsist or exist. I therfore see it as an unadvisable term for the orthodox position.

    Posted by Gomarus | November 8, 2006, 8:00 pm
  8. Yes, but at the same time “person” normally means distinct individual essence.

    Interestingly, when i looked up the definition for “person” i found this…

    Theology. any of the three hypostases or modes of being in the Trinity, namely the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

    It seems that all words fall short of the fullness of what the Trinity really is. Even “hypostasis” as this as part of its definition…

    An intermediary being or quasi-personification of attributes associated with the Divine; midway between a personality and an abstract being; that which is of one substance with God.

    And i would definitely not use that to define the Trinity.

    Posted by theologian | November 8, 2006, 8:13 pm
  9. And yet, “person” is the normal description of the way in which God is three. The problem here is that we cannot apply human categories of personhood to God’s persons. The two do not equate. That is why I have a problem with Berkhof’s manner of presenting it. The standard formulation is that God is one in essence (an essence that is personal), but three in person. There are three “I’s” in the Godhead, each of which takes up the same divine space. We have to remember that we as Western Christians are not really all that prone to tritheism. Our problem is much more that we tend toward modalism. For that reason, I echo Jim’s comment about the word. If you haven’t read Letham’s book, I highly recommend it. It is magnificent.

    Posted by greenbaggins | November 8, 2006, 8:42 pm
  10. I guess the bottom line is in how you define the terms. If you define “person” as an individual essence, then that would not be appropriate for the Trinity since the Trinity is not 3 individual essences. But if you define it as the ability of declaring “I” and the ability to be referred to as “you,” then you have something.

    The problem with not applying human categories of personhood is that the main definition of person is human being.

    I think no matter which word we use to describe the Trinity it must have a specific theological definition otherwise it falls short of what we are really trying to convey.

    Personally, i like the term “hypostases” instead of “persons” as it relates a conceptual entity considered as a real existent, and doesn’t have the problem of overcoming our experiences of what we term “persons” in non-theological life. But the most important thing is to understand what someone means behind the words they use.

    Posted by theologian | November 8, 2006, 9:03 pm
  11. Right, and this is a point that Letham brings up when he quotes some of the early fathers as saying that it isn’t so much the terms used that count, but the meaning behind the words that counts.

    Posted by greenbaggins | November 8, 2006, 9:16 pm
  12. I have enjoyed this little interaction. You guys are great.

    Posted by Gomarus | November 9, 2006, 12:28 pm
  13. The doctrine of the asiety of God teaches that God is perfectly satisfied within himself. He doesn’t have a need nor was he ever compelled by deficiency to create. It was merely from his sovereign good pleasure.

    Posted by David McCrory | November 9, 2006, 2:50 pm
  14. For an excellent blog on the perichoresis aspect of the Trinity see Green Baggins’ blog…

    Posted by theologian | November 9, 2006, 9:17 pm

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