Trinity Index

Theological Questions to the issue of the Trinity


Why do Seventh-day Adventists speak about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as "co-eternal"? That is not a biblical expression, and what does it mean?
"Eternal" may mean for a limited time. Why does it not mean that when we speak about Jesus as "eternal"?
What is meant by "eternal generation"? Do Seventh-day Adventists believe in it?
Is there a hierarchy within the Trinity? Do the sequence of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit indicate a ranking?


"Co-Eternal"

Question
Why do Seventh-day Adventists speak about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as "co-eternal"? That is not a biblical expression, and what does it mean?

Answer
In its official statement of beliefs, the Seventh-day Adventist Church expresses its belief in the Trinity this way in paragraph 2, "There is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a unity of three co-eternal Persons."

Most of the expressions in the statement in general are biblical. But the word "co-eternal" is not. The reason it is used, however, is very simple. It makes it clear that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all eternal, and that they are not one and the same person. They are distinct personalities.

Down through history, several people have now and then proposed that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were one and the same, and that what we see as the Son is only but a mode of being, the Father another, and the Spirit yet another. At times the theory is linked to the idea that there are successive ages in history, the age of the Father before the cross, the age of the Son from Calvary and onwards, and now we have come to the age of the Spirit.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church distances itself from such heresies which are often labelled modalism. It upholds the belief that the three are distinct persons, all God, and consequently, all eternal. The word "co-eternal" is a short way to express that belief.


"Eternal" with a Beginning?

Question
The Bible may use the terms about time and eternity in a limited sense, such as "eternally burning". Does it speak about the Jesus this way?

Answer
The question is right in pointing out that the Hebrew and Greek terms for time or eternity used in the Bible (‘olam in the Old Testament, and aion in the New Testament) may have the sense of definite periods. Further that something may burn eternally in the sense of burning completely down that is until the full consequences are reached. One example of this way of thinking is found in Jeremiah 17:27 where the fire burning Jerusalem will never be quenched. The result of the act is irreversible.

However, when a person is called "eternal" in the Bible, it implies eternity in a different sense. The Holy Spirit is called eternal in Hebrews 9:14, Jesus in the prophecy by Isaiah in 9:6. These texts do not speak about irreversible acts, but about divine persons. And a divine person in the Bible is a person without a beginning.

This is confirmed by the identification of Jesus with Yahweh (see also a supplementary article on that topic). The name of Yahweh means "the One who Is", the "self-existent One" (cf. Exodus 3:14). If Jesus as Yahweh has beginning, it means that God has a beginning. Such notion is pagan and clearly contrary to the biblical record. Pagan gods were believed to have a beginning. They came into being. Yahweh, the God of the Bible did not.


"Eternal Generation"

Question
What is meant by "eternal generation"? Do Seventh-day Adventists believe in it?

Answer
The expression "eternal generation" was, as far as we know, used first by Origen, the great scholar and church father (c. 185-254). What he actually meant is still very much debated by scholars. The Greek phrase literally means "born before all ages", and it became a standard phrase in the Trinitarian discussions since Origen though not all understood it exactly the same way.

It also entered the Nicene Creed and thus has become part of the official statement of belief of all major Christian churches in history.

So, what is meant? It is worth noting that it has been translated two ways. The English translation has most often been "eternally born" (or "eternally begotten"), while a number of other languages traditionally translated it more literally into "born before all ages".

Understood this way, it sounds like a paradox. The participle "born" (like its Greek equivalent) seems to point to a specific action, but the idea of timelessness excludes that. And this was for the fathers who voted the Nicene Creed, the very point. Jesus did not have a beginning. Both adherents and enemies of the Nicene Creed by the expression understood Jesus to be without a beginning.

Many modern scholars today believe that the Cappadocian fathers and Athanasius who argued in favour of the Trinity during the fourth century, saw the expression as an indication of the internal relationship within the Trinity between the Father and the Son. But if someone today would ask for the precise meaning, it would probably be difficult to give an answer.

What is the Seventh-day Adventist position? How do Adventists understand the expression?

First, there is no official answer to that question for the simple reason that the SDA Church, though Trinitarian, has decided not to have any creed. For many good reasons Adventists traditionally have avoided being bound by the expressions of these creeds. The truth is that almost every phrase in the Nicene Creed has a long prehistory, and that to understand the document demands serious historical research.

While the Adventist Church is Trinitarian and agrees with the basic intention of the Nicene Creed, its theologians also hesitate to accept and use some of its phrases. In this case, Adventist philosophers have, for instance, been sceptical towards the notion of divine timelessness which reflects Greek philosophy rather biblical revelation.

Adventist have also tried as much as possible to avoid philosophically loaded expressions and like Luther wish to keep to biblical wording as far they can be used to present the belief in Jesus as fully divine and the Holy Spirit as a distinct, divine person. Our starting point has been and is the way God has revealed himself for us through Jesus as portrayed in the Bible.

Finally, Adventists have found the expression "eternally begotten/born" or "born before all ages" of little help in presenting the gospel. The wording, not least the phrase "born before all ages" played a role in the discussion among the Adventist pioneers from the latter part of the 19th century where they attempted to understand the relationship between Jesus and the Father and pondered upon such traditional phrases. Since then close Bible studies have persuaded Adventist scholars that the term "Son" means "representative" and does not indicate that Jesus had any beginning.


Ranking within the Godhead?

Question
Is there a hierarchy within the Trinity? Do the sequence of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit indicate a ranking?

Answer
It has become common to call the Father the first, Jesus the second, and the Holy Spirit the third person of the Godhead. The reasons are several. First of all, it is probably due to the baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19 which is the most well known Trinitarian formula from the Bible. Next, there are historical reasons. Jesus only became known as God through his incarnation, and the realization that the Holy Spirit was a distinct, divine person naturally came later.

However, the New Testament itself does not consistently present any order of the three. In the apostolic blessing in 2 Corinthians 13:14, Jesus is mentioned first; in Ephesians 4:4-6 the Holy Spirit has priority. It seems to depend on the perspective of the author. In my personal experience, Jesus may be first, and my understanding of the Holy Spirit may come last. On the other hand, Christians confess that the Spirit has been working on our minds from the moment we were born.

God is one. Being God implies omnipotence, omniscience, and eternity. The Father is all powerful and all knowing, the Son is all powerful and all knowing, the Spirit is all powerful and all knowing. You cannot be that more or less. Therefore, it is not possible to have any ranking within the Godhead. They are one in being.

The Christian church has, therefore, consistently rejected, for instance, the idea of eternal subordination of the Son. In the incarnation Jesus submitted himself for the sake of our salvation, but whatever the Father is as God, Jesus is. His subordination is not by nature. The church fathers realized that if that were the case, he would become a second God, and the Old Testament basis for what it means to be God would evaporate.

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