"It goes without saying that, when we speak of the Trinity of God, we refer to a trinity in unity, and to a unity that is trinal" (L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, B, p.84).
The building blocks in understanding God's nature and personality were introduced in "The Character of God" (Parts I and II). Further apprehension of God's fullness (Eph. 3:19; Col. 1:9; 2:9) requires proper understanding and contemplation of God's triunity - the longstanding and biblical Christian teaching of the Trinity.
Term not found in the bible?
The charge has often been made by non-Christians that the teaching of the "Trinity" is man-made by mixing theism with philosophy - after all, the term "Trinity" is not even in the bible. However, the truthfulness of the doctrine is not dependent upon the word's presence in the Holy Bible. As a summary doctrine, it was developed based on principles revealed in the Bible. And, each of the Trinity's principles are found in and supported by the scriptures, as the following article will demonstrate.
Doctrine not formulated by politics
It is also true that the first key statement of faith regarding the Trinity was that which was formulated in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan councils (and expressed in the Nicene Creed). For sure, a key catalyst in organizing these ecumenical councils was the rise in power of Emperor Constantine. Having a pro-Christian overseeing the entire Roman Empire relieved many of the incredible stresses and persecutions previously hindering the free worship of the Church. However, it would be incorrect to assume that the elements of the doctrine of the Trinity are therefore the direct product of political or pagan ideas and influences. Whether or not Constantine was a genuine Christian or not, man will not know (nor should he judge the heart of another) until it is revealed in heaven by God. Yet, what history does teach is that Constantine was no theological giant and played an insignificant role in specifying the doctrinal outcome of the meetings, other than demanding that the Church resolve the issue to preserve the unity and peace of the Roman Empire - the Pax Romana. It is simply ahistorical to state that the doctrine of the Trinity is the product of Constantine, simply because the church was finally free to openly teach without persecution and in this case was requested by Constantine to corporately resolve the controversy at the time.
Beyond complete comprehension
Although this article summarizes the Christian teaching on the Trinity, a large element of mystery will always surround the doctrine itself. This is not because of any flaws in the teaching, for it is true and faithful to the Word of God. But, as a perplexing topic, this short essay will serve as only an outline of a few truths about an infinite and triune God.
A Statement of the Teaching
The basic points to the Doctrine of the Trinity are:
The teaching is NOT that God is one being, yet three beings; neither is it that God is one person, yet three persons. Both statements would be contradictory and therefore false. The terms "being," and "person" are different and refer to different aspects of God.
The being of God is the very essence of what God is. It is a nature that man was never, is not now, nor will ever be of, as man is a created and finite being (in fact, man's nature is even now fallen - something the immutable and triune God could never have experienced). The personality1 of God, on the other hand, affirms that God is relational and that he relates individually with others. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all are real persons by which God is expressed. Each relates one to the other and has been revealed unto man. Each, united by a single divine essence, is fully and coequally God, although they assume different roles within God's redemptive plan for man.
The rationality of three in oneness
While there is no single analogy that adequately describes the Trinity in its entirety, there is one that demonstrates the rationality of three in oneness. For example most people have heard of the compound H2O. And, while H2O is unique and like no other compound in the world, it can be distinguished in three different states: solid (ice), liquid (water), and gas (steam). In fact, each state can be simultaneously present at equilibrium under proper conditions of pressure and temperature (at the triple point). Just as no one would have a problem with the statement that H2O is one compound manifested in three different states, neither should one have a problem (cognitively that is) with the statement that God is one in being (essence, or nature) manifested as three Persons. The doctrine is self-consistent. The key question is whether or not the doctrine is biblical.
Scriptural Proof of the Teaching
No Trinity in the Old Testament?
The Old Testament does not explicitly or fully reveal the doctrine of the Trinity. As with many scriptural truths, as time passed and more was progressively revealed, God added knowledge and fullness to that which was already but only partially known2. Partial support, however, for the doctrine can be found in the Old Testament, even the very first chapter of the bible, as God refers to himself in the plural (Gen. 1:26; see also 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8). A distinction of persons within the Godhead can be observed in Ps. 110:1, where the Father is speaking to the Son, Jesus. So too, the Son (speaking) is distinguished from the Father (the Lord God) in Hosea 1:7. Also, the Holy Spirit is distinguished from God the Father by being "His" and having emotions (Isa. 63:10). All three persons are distinguished but remain God in Isa. 48:16, where the Son is speaking and refers to both the Father (who sends) and the Holy Spirit.
The fullness revealed
With the advent of the coming of the Son of God, knowledge of the triune God was even more fully revealed. In fact, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all mentioned together in several of what may be referred to as Trinitarian New Testament passages. At the baptism of Jesus, for example, all three persons are simultaneously present (Matt 3:16-17). At the close of Jesus' earthly ministry and in what is now called the "Great Commission," Jesus instructs his disciples to disciple, going, teaching, and baptizing in the Name (singular) of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (three distinct persons) as recorded in Matt. 28:19. Each person of the Godhead in the Great Commission is given equal mention and status under the one Name of God; yet, each is distinguishable from the other. Other passages in the New Testament make similar unified references to the three persons of the Godhead (1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:4-7; 1 Pet. 1:2; Jude 20-21).
That God is one
The scriptures teach that God is one. The Jewish Shema makes clear that God is one: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!" (Deut. 6:4-5). For, compared to the pantheon of gods that many of the worlds religions falsely teach of, The Holy God of all creation is one and like no other (Deut. 32:39; Ex. 15:11; 2 Sam. 7:22; Ps. 86:10; Isa. 44:6-8; 45:21-22; 45:5-6). In fact, while many like to think the early church blended pure monotheism with the polytheism of early Rome to arrive at the Trinity, the Apostle Paul fully affirmed the oneness of God throughout his letters (Rom. 3:30; 1 Tim. 2:5). Likewise, James acknowledged that even the demons recognize this basic point, that there is one God (James 2:19). The New Testament authorities knew of a God that was one, although expressed in three persons.
Over the course of history, many have reduced the oneness of God to a oneness of only purpose (John 17:20-23), name (Matt 28:19), or status (e.g., the Mormons, where the status is one of perfection). Such teachings, though, lead to at least tritheistic and often polytheistic heresies. While the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit includes these aspects of unity, God's oneness is based upon a fundamental unity of essence and nature3. As will be discussed below, each of the persons of the Godhead is fully God, sharing all the attributes of Deity (attributes which were introduced in Xristian.org's "The Character of God," Parts I and II). And that one God is alone uncreated, eternal, self-existent, and sovereign over all things. To be sure, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are more than one in purpose, name, or status; each, is organically of the same divine nature. God is one being and none else but the Lord our God is of that unique essence (Isa. 46:9), as the scriptures above make clear. The biblical doctrine of the Trinity, therefore, rejects all forms of polytheism.
That God is expressed in three persons
As has already been stated, the Father is not the Son, nor the Father the Holy Spirit, nor the Son the Holy Spirit. Each person of the Godhead is distinct from the other. Teachings to the contrary are merely forms of the early heresy of modalism, which the church biblically condemned by the fourth century. Many passages already cited substantiate the teaching that God is expressed in three persons who are not the same (Matt. 28:19; John 14:26).
As one who was with the Father from before all time (John 1:1; 17:24), who advocates the innocence of his people before the Father (1 John 2:1; Heb. 7:25), the Son is distinct from the Father. The Holy Spirit is distinguished from the Father in that he intercedes for God's people as well (John 14:16, 17, 26; 16:7; Rom. 8:27). And, the Holy Spirit is also not the Son, as Jesus speaks of the coming of the Spirit after His own departure in John 13-16.
While the distinction of each person of the Trinity is normally acceptable to those that study it, often the real personality of the Holy Spirit is ignored. Many can refer to the Father and the Son as "he" and understand their real personality. But, the Spirit is often thought of as an "it" or an impersonal "force." However, the scriptures are also clear on the matter that the Holy Spirit is a real and living person. The scriptures regularly refer to the spirit (a neuter noun in the Greek) with the masculine pronoun, "he." The Spirit is the "comforter," which an impersonal force could not be (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; Acts 9:31). The Spirit hopes (Rom 15:13), loves (Rom 15:30), bears witness (Act 5:32), teaches (John 14:26), grieves (Isa. 63:10; Eph. 4:30), and intercedes (John 14:16, 17, 26; 16:7; Rom. 8:27). Clearly, the Spirit is more than an impersonal force4.
That each person is fully God
That God the Father is fully God, none would contest scripturally. Jesus affirms this premise and regularly prays to His Father during his earthly ministry. In Xristian.org's article "The Deity of Christ," the Son is shown to be fully God as in him the fullness of the Godhead dwells (Col. 2:9). The Holy Spirit is also fully God. The Holy Spirit is present during creation ("hovering over the face of the waters" - Gen. 1:1) and Lord over the believer's body (1 Cor. 3:16). The Holy Spirit is also given the divine attributes of omnipresence (Ps. 139:7-8) and omniscience (1 Cor. 2:10-11). The Holy Spirit is involved in the divine work of rebirth (John 3:5-7), which is a divine prerogative (1 John 3:9). As the one who reveals truth and inspires scripture (Lk 2:26; Jn 16:13-14; Acts 1:16; Eph 3:5; Heb 10:15; 1 Pet 1:11; 2 Pe 1:20-21), the Holy Spirit must again be God, as God is the author of His Word.
Despite the clear scriptural basis for each of the three points of the teaching of the Trinity, many (some even with good intentions) violate at least one. This results in error, as denying any single point leads to heresy. Denying that God is one leads to polytheism; that God is expressed in three persons, modalism; that each is fully God, subordinationism (of which, Arianism is most significant).
Distinction Within the Trinity
The doctrine of the Trinity allows for differences between the three persons. While all three are united and equal in their ontology (their essence and being), they are diverse in their economy (the way they relate to the world and each other). For example, in the redemptive plan of God, the Father plans, originates, and sends, the Son is sent, obeys, and carries out, and the Holy Spirit applies redemption to God's people. Similar ordering of activities among the members of the Godhead can be noted in the Genesis creation, where the Father spoke things into existence, the Son carried out the work, and the Holy Spirit (as mentioned above) sustained all things.
This ordering of the Godhead and the relationships with one another has been present from before all time, since God is eternal and immutable. The Father has always been a Father, the Son a Son, and the Spirit the Spirit. This is implied in the divine decrees, where the Father purposes things in the Son (e.g. Eph. 1:3-4), and in the sending of the Son (already a Son) into the world (John 3:16-17; Gal. 4:4).
Importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity
Most importantly, right worship of a Holy and Awesome God, requires proper understanding of who God is. A right regard for God necessarily includes recognition of His triune nature. Worship of any other kind of God is false worship, even idolatry.
Because of the Trinitarian nature of God, human relationships can also be properly motivated and modeled. Particularly, the husband-wife relationship is founded in such a foundation as the Trinity. For, although the wife is to relate submissively to the husband (an economy), the wife is forever and inherently equivalent in being (ontologically) to the husband. The bible is emphatic that male and female were both created equally in the image of God (Gen. 1:27; Gal. 3:28), yet they have different roles and they relate to one another differently (Eph. 5:21-33). There is no room for politically motivated inferiority or domination ideals with the Triune God. For, the Father is equivalent to the Son, is equivalent to the Spirit, although each relates differently with one another (including subordinate relationships, such as the Son's obedience to the Father, per 1 Cor. 11:3).
Similar to the husband-wife relationship, those interactions within the church body are also founded in the Triune Godhead. Just as each member of the Godhead carries out roles in the plan of creation and redemption, the church body pursues a unified purpose through the diverse manifestations of gifts and ministries among the body (1 Cor. 12:12-26). There is a proper and unified ordering of those in the church (and their gifts), which targets the same goal.
Building also on the inherent relational character of God that existed from before all time, it is necessary to conclude that God was not in need of creation to experience relationships. Within the Godhead itself, there has always been companionship and love (John 17:24 - see also the discussion of God's "aseity" or "love" in Xristian.org's online articles on the character of God). While some might claim that this means man is unnecessary and therefore without value, it in fact gives all the more value to man. For, even though God was complete and full before creation, He still purposed that man should be. What greater worth can man have, than that he was voluntarily purposed by God, even though God did not need man or the rest of creation?
Finally, ancient philosophy has long pursued the answer to the great question of how to find unity within all the diversity of the world. Modern universities were founded for that very purpose ("uni" from unity, and "versity" from diversity), often with theology departments as the head of all sub disciplines. The very solution to the question already lies, however, within the Triune God, where there is unity of the diversity and diversity in the unity. Ultimately, all things will bow to the feet of Lord Jesus (Phil 2:10-11), which is the chief end for all the world, whether the bowing come by force or faith.
While the doctrine of the Trinity has been one of the most opposed doctrines of Christendom, it is also one, which is held and professed by every major orthodox tradition (as detailed in Xristian.org's Do Christians Agree On The Doctrine of the Trinity?). Deviation from it is an adoption of a false faith and a rejection of God. Moreover, many who have rejected it have never even properly understood its basic tenets. Those that have denied the Trinity throughout history have all taken their positions to the extreme folly of heresy. The Christian church biblically affirms the wonderful and marvelous Triune god of all creation and relishes the direct relationships possible - even inevitable - with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the one God over all.
1In common use today, the term "person" often means a human being and when used of men is hard to discern from being. However, used here the word better refers to the individuality and personality of an essence or entity. The term, as used by the early church, came from the Latin, persona, which referred to a "mask" worn by actors. While God's triune nature does not consist of someone who puts on different masks at different times (that would be modalistic), the triune nature of God does consist scripturally of the manifestation of character in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
2A redemptive historical view of biblical revelation holds that revelation is consistent with itself as it is revealed, but that it becomes better and more fully known as God "adds to the story," so to speak. To be sure, this side of the cross believers have a far better understanding of the atonement than did those just receiving the mosaic law thousands of years earlier. So it is also with the doctrine of the Trinity.
3In fact, John 10:30 implies a unity between Father and Son of more than purpose, as it is nested in a context that is concerned with Jesus' identity and being. Consider that John begins his gospel affirming the divine nature of Christ (1:1), affirms that His Father was the God of the Jews, and that he was equivalent to God too (8:54, 58). The ire of the Jews only three verses later (10:33) is based upon Jesus "being" a mere man vs. his claims as God. The New Testament witness is clear that Jesus was fully God and one with the Father in being.
4It is also interesting to note that the Holy Spirit can be shown to be more than just impersonal power, as many scriptures would not make sense if the Holy Spirit were only power (Luke 4:14; Acts 10:38; Rom. 15:13; 1 Cor. 2:4). That the power OF the Holy Spirit is regularly referred to indicates that one must not take the Star Wars view of "The Force" in substitute for the Holy Spirit (or any other person of the Godhead for that matter).
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