10 Things You should Know about the Trinity
As someone once said of the doctrine of the Trinity: "Try to explain it, and you'll lose your mind. But try to deny it, and you'll lose your soul!" With this in mind, let’s examine 10 things we should all know about the Trinity.
(1) We must never forget that our knowledge of God is a gift, not a given. What I mean by this is that we all too often presume that what we know of God is either something we gained by self-exertion, dedication, and study, or it is something we deserve, perhaps something that is our by right or entitlement. We should never treat the knowledge of God as a given. It is something he gives, and he does not give it universally. This is nowhere better seen in our Lord’s words in Matthew 11.
At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matthew 11:25-27)
When the Father finally makes sense to us, when we come to know him truly, to the degree that we grasp something of his nature and will and ways, it is because the Son has graciously stooped to reveal him to us. Our knowledge of God does not come naturally. Neither is it ultimately the product of meticulous research or study. It certainly isn’t because we deserve it. It’s a gift from his Son. He and he alone is the mediator of the knowledge of God to mankind. If one is to know the Son the Father must reveal him. If one is to know the Father the Son must reveal him. It takes God to know God!
(2) The concept of the one God as a trinity of co-equal, yet distinct, persons is the most intellectually taxing and baffling doctrine in Scripture. It is a mystery that is beyond reason yet not contrary to it. Probably the most famous definition of the doctrine of the Trinity is that of St. Augustine (4th-5th century a.d.):
"There are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and each is God, and at the same time all are one God; and each of them is a full substance, and at the same time all are one substance. The Father is neither the Son nor the Holy Spirit; the Son is neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. But the Father is the Father uniquely; the Son is the Son uniquely; and the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit uniquely. All three have the same eternity, the same immutability, the same majesty, and the same power" (On Christian Doctrine, transl. By D. W. Robertson, Jr. [Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958, p. 10]).
(3) Throughout the course of church history, people have asserted that this concept of God is incoherent and logically contradictory. The doctrine of the Trinity, they argue, is irrational, hardly worthy of intelligent belief. As a result, certain heretical concepts of the Godhead have emerged, the two most notable of which are variants of what was known as Monarchianism (also known as Sabellianism after one of their leaders, Sabellius [early 3rd century]). In accordance with their name (monarchy = single principle, Gk.), the monarchians stressed divine unity to the exclusion of any personal distinctions in the Godhead. Some monarchians embraced Dynamic Monarchianism, or more popularly as Adoptionism.
Dynamic Monarchianism conceives of Jesus prior to his baptism as wholly human (the natural born son of Joseph and Mary). As a reward for his exceptional moral virtue, Jesus was adopted as God's Son and empowered by the Spirit through which he subsequently performed his miracles. Jesus was "divine" not because of any equality in essence with the Father but by virtue of a received power (dunamis). His “divinity”, therefore, is functional or ethical, not ontological.
(4) The other option for some monarchians is known as Modalism. Modalistic Monarchianism believed in both the unity of the Godhead and the deity of Christ. The only viable way to maintain both, so they argued, was to identify the Son (and the Spirit) with the Father. There is only one God who, depending on the circumstances, need, and work in which he is engaged, will variously manifest himself either as Father or Son or Spirit. These names do not stand for eternally distinct persons in the Godhead but were simply different functional expressions for the same God. Jesus is one of several modes or phases or roles whereby the one God reveals himself. Thus “Father, Son and Spirit are distinctions that pertain to God in relation to us. The modalists could affirm the economic trinity (a threefoldness in God in relation to the world) but not the ontological or essential trinity (a threefoldness in the inner being of God)” (Bloesch, God the Almighty, 172).
(5) Although the concept of the Trinity is not explicit in the OT, there are texts in the OT that may allude to the idea of plurality in the Godhead. The standard word for God is elohim (plural). Often a plural verb is used with elohim. See Gen. 20:13; 35:7; 2 Sam. 7:23. There are also texts where plural pronouns are used of God. See Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8. A few OT texts appear to speak of Yahweh having a “son”. See Prov. 30 and Psalm 2. Also relevant are texts that refer to the Messiah. See Isa. 9:6-7; Jer. 32:5-6; Micah 5:2. There are numerous texts which speak about the “Spirit” of God. See Gen. 1:1-2; 6:3; Exod. 31:2-3; Num. 24:2; 27:18; Ps. 51; 139:7. These are but a few of the countless texts mentioning the Spirit. There are a few passages where either the name of God or the concept of deity is applied to more than one person. See Isa. 48:16; 61:1; 63:7-14; Haggai 2:4-7.
(6) A proper understanding of the Trinity begins by acknowledging three unassailable biblical truths. The first is Monotheism. That there is but one God is an assertion at the very heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Deut. 6:4). The apostle Paul is unequivocal in his monotheism: "We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one" (1 Cor. 8:4b; see also 8:5-6). Again, he insists that "there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5). See also Exod. 3:13-15; 15:11; 20:2-3; Isaiah 43:10; 44:6; 45:5-6; 45:14,18,21-22; 46:9; Zech. 14:9; John 17:3; James 2:19; Rom. 3:30. In summary, there is but one and one God only.
The second is the Deity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is only one God. But the Father is God. So also is the Son; likewise, the Holy Spirit. How can three be God and yet God be one? There is no escaping the fact that the biblical authors assert both truths. Clearly the Godhead is not an undifferentiated solitary oneness, but a oneness that subsists in multiplicity.
Third, alongside the biblical testimony that God is one and that three are God is the multitude of texts which in some fashion unite the three who are God, hence our term triunity. We see this in Matthew 28:19 where Jesus does not say "baptizing them in the names" (plural), as if there were three Gods, but "in the name" (singular). Neither does he say "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," as if there were one being passing himself off under a threefold name. Rather, the definite article is repeated before each: the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Thus, while Jesus distinguishes the three, with equal care he unites them under one name. See also 2 Cor. 13:14 and Eph. 4:4-6.
On several occasions the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are mentioned together in united activity or purpose relating to the life and ministry of Jesus: at his conception (Lk. 1:35), baptism (Mt. 3:16-17; John 1:33-34), miracles (Mt. 12:28), and ascension (Lk. 24:49). On several occasions the Three are portrayed as united in the work of revelation and redemption: Acts 2:38-39; Rom. 14:17-18; 15:16,30; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; Gal. 4:6; Eph. 2:18-22; 3:14-19; Col. 1:6-8; 2 Thess. 2:13-14; Titus 3:4-6; Heb. 10:29; 1 Peter 1:2; 1 John 4:2,13-14; Jude 20-21; Rev. 1:4-5.
Therefore, God is one and three are God – Triunity! None of these three lines of evidence can be dismissed nor any one elevated above another. We must embrace them all. But how can they be reconciled?
(7) There are only three possible ways to respond to this evidence. The first alternative is to stress the unity of the one God to the exclusion of the full and co-equal deity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the doctrine of Monarchianism described above, which exists today in two somewhat differing forms: (a) Unitarianism - a liberal perspective that denies the deity of Jesus and the Spirit (the Unity School espouses this view); and (b) Oneness Pentecostalism (the United Pentecostal Church) - a conservative perspective that argues for the deity of Jesus. Indeed, Jesus "only" is God. Or again, there is only one person in the Godhead and his name is Jesus. The "Father" and "Spirit" are only different names appropriate for different manifestations of the one God, Jesus.
The second alternative is to stress the distinctiveness of the Father, Son, and Spirit to such a degree that the result is Tritheism, a form of Polytheism. The only link among the three is that they share a common purpose or will. Stress is placed on the personhood of each, the essence of which is autonomy and independent self-consciousness. Few embrace this view.
The third and, I believe, only legitimate alternative is to accept without alteration both the oneness of God and the full deity of Father, Son, and Spirit. This is done by saying that God is one in essence and three in person.
(8) Historic trinitarianism does not assert that God is one and three in the same sense. Rather, that in respect to which God is one is essence (or substance), and that in respect to which God is three is person. In affirming triunity in God we are saying that God is one in a sense different from the sense in which he is three. We may thus speak about Father, Son, and Spirit both in terms of what is common to all (essence) and what is proper or peculiar to each (person). The Father is the same God as the Son and Spirit but not the same person. The Son is the same God as the Father and Spirit but not the same person. The Spirit is the same God as the Father and Son but not the same person. Or again, relative to deity, Father, Son, and Spirit are the same. Relative to person, they are distinct.
(9) Be it noted that divine “threeness” is not merely a matter of our perception or experience of God. Threeness belongs to the eternal essence of God no less than divine oneness.
Thus whereas all three persons are God, none of the three has its own essence (ousia) separate from or independent of the other two. Rather, each person shares equally the numerically one divine substance or essence (ousia). Numerically speaking there is only one divine essence and each of the three divine persons co-inhere in that one nature. There is, therefore, no ontological subordination within the Godhead. The Father, Son, and Spirit are coequally God in terms of the divine essence. Each person is as fully God as the other.
(10) Thus, the Trinitarian relationships as conceived in the western church may be summarized as follows:
- The Father begets the Son and is He from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds. But, the Father is neither begotten nor does He proceed.
- The Son is begotten and is He from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds. But, He neither begets nor proceeds.
- The Holy Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son. But, He neither begets nor is He one from whom any proceed.
Another way of expressing the same thought:
- The Father is not God from God. The Father is God from whom God exists.
- The Son is God from God. The Son is God from whom God exists.
- The Spirit is God from God. The Spirit is not God from whom God exists.
What we are saying, then, is that there is a sense in which God is one (essence) and a sense in which God is three (person). The one God exists eternally in three distinct but not independent persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is neither logically contradictory nor inconsistent with Scripture.