Questions and Answers
Q: Can you help me understand the Trinity?
God wants man to know Him! Yet, God is Spirit and no man has beheld His essence. Finite man has difficulty in identifying with and relating to that which he cannot see. Infinite God can be known to finite man only through God’s revelation of Himself. Thus, the reason God sent His Son to this world in the form of flesh. Jesus told His disciple, Phillip, “. . . he that hath seen Me hath seen the Father”, John 14:9b. Man is able to better relate to God through the Person of Jesus Christ.
Revelation of His person is one of the reasons God gave to man His inspired written Word. Throughout the Bible, God progressively reveals Himself to man. God’s many attributes enables man to begin to understand what God is like. However, no doctrine reveals who God is and how He desires to relate to man better than the Trinity of God. Both, Old and New Testament Scripture reveal this amazing truth and identity of God. It matters to God that man knows Him, longing that man understands Him rightly, according to what He has revealed in Scripture.
One of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith is the doctrine of the Trinity of God. As one studies the Biblical teaching of the Trinity, great insight is granted into the question that is at the heart of one’s seeking after God: What is God like in Himself? What is learned is that, in His very being, God exists in the persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet He is one God.
Dr. Bruce Ware offers ten reasons why Christians should focus on the wonder of the Trinity:
1) It is one of the most distinguishing doctrines of the Christian faith and therefore is deserving of our careful study, passionate embrace, and thoughtful application. 2) For the Christian faith to be what it is, this doctrine is both central and necessary. 3) True worship consciously acknowledges the relationship and roles of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 4) Our prayer life should rightly acknowledge the roles of the Father, Son, and Spirit as we pray to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Spirit. 5) The Christian’s sanctification is rightly understood and enriched. 6) The Triune relationship causes us to marvel at the unity of the Triune God. 7) The Triune relationship causes us to marvel at the diversity within the Triune God. 8) The Triune relationship causes us to wonder at the social relationship of the Triune God. 9) The Triune relationship causes us to marvel at the authority-submission structure that exists eternally in the three Persons in the Godhead, each of whom is equally and fully God. 10) The doctrine of the Trinity provides one of the most important and neglected patterns of how human life and human relationships are to be conducted.1
The Trinity is one of the numerous mysteries concerning God that pose difficulties for the finite mind to comprehend. The term “Trinity” is not specifically used in Scripture, but the idea is represented throughout the Bible. The Greek form of the word Trinity, “Trias”, seems to have been used first by Theophilus of Antioch (A.D. 181). In A.D. 220, its Latin form, “Trinitas”, was used by Tertullian. This term, Trinity, is used to describe the tri-unity, or three-in-oneness, of God. God is three persons, yet one God.
The Trinitarian belief is expressed within the Athanasian Creed as thus: “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons, nor separating the substance.” Though Christianity holds to a monotheistic view of one God, this God subsists
in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Dr. Wallace defines the Trinity as “there are
three eternal distinctions in the one divine essence, known respectively as Father, Son, and
Holy Spirit.”2 Another definition of the Trinity is “God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God.”3
The affirmation of the doctrine of the Trinity, the distinctions, and the unity of the Trinity
are revealed in numerous passages of Scripture. One cannot read the Bible and escape the truth that the Father is neither the Son, nor the Holy Spirit; the Son is neither the Father, nor the Spirit; or the Holy Spirit is neither the Father, nor the Son; yet, they are equally God. Each entity possesses all the divine attributes attributed to God and each are ascribed distinctive properties of personality. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each have their distinctive roles and yet remain in complete unity and harmony.
There have been numerous attempts to illustrate the reality of the Trinity. These
Illustrations have included a three-leaf clover, and the three parts of an egg. These are poor illustrations of the Trinity, because the leaves of the clover can be separated one from another; and the various parts of the egg can be separated. Another attempt has been to use a mathematical equation. Some have used 1+1+1=1. However, a more appropriate equation would be 1x1x1=1. This illustrates the Trinity’s distinction and unity. Another suggested illustration is that of a triangle. A triangle has three sides and yet it is one triangle. Dr. Harold Willmington suggests a better illustration of the Trinity would be the dimensional example of a book. “A book has height, width, and length. This may be my favorite example of the Trinity because these three factors cannot be separated, yet they are not the same.”4
The majority of the early Christians were converted out of Judaism, which is a monotheistic religion. These Messianic Jews believed that there is only one God. This God is Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Scriptures offers this declaration of monotheism, “Unto thee it was shewed, that thou mightest know that the LORD he is God; there is none else beside him”, Deuteronomy 4:35. In Deuteronomy 6:4-5 one reads, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” Isaiah, the prophet wrote, “I am the LORD, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me: That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the LORD, and there is none else”, Isaiah 45:5-6. How, then, did the early Christians come to understand and arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity?
The early Christians lived within the Graeco-Roman culture, which was dominantly polytheistic. Polytheism asserts there is a multitude of gods. In the midst of this polytheistic influence, it would have been very easy for the early Christians to embrace this doctrine to explain the Trinity. Amazingly, the early church never seriously considered wavering from its monotheistic foundation. “They continued to affirm, with the Old Testament and with their Jewish heritage, that there was one and only one God, even though the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.”5
The formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity of God did not come without “growing pains” within the infant church. One of the first misconceptions of the Trinity came through a man named Sabellius. His view, called “modalism”, proposed that while “the Father is fully God,
the Son is fully God, and the Holy Spirit is fully God, nevertheless God manifests himself in only one such “mode” at a time. . . God, then, is successively Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; he is not simultaneously Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”6 The early Christians did not fall prey to this heretical teaching.
Arius led the next heresy as he proposed that while Jesus is highly exalted and worthy of being honored, Jesus should be seen merely as the first and greatest creation of the one true God, but not as God himself. This idea was proposed in order to maintain the belief that there is one God and one God only. Arius argued that Jesus was a creation of God and not himself the eternal God. The teaching gained a large following and a church council was called at Nicea in A.D. 325 to address this issue. Athanasius, a very gifted and godly theologian, successfully defended the deity of Christ against Arius’ view. Athanasius argued the New Testament affirmed that Christ is of the very same nature as the Father. The Greek word “homoousios” was used by Athanasius to indicate that Christ possessed the identically same nature as the Father. The Nicene Creed was written and is still recited today. This creed insists that Christ was “one nature”, or the identically “same nature” with the Father.
After the issue of the Deity of Jesus was affirmed by the Nicene council, the issue of the Holy Spirit’s deity remained. The church examined the numerous passages of Scripture supporting the deity of the Spirit. Despite opposition to the Spirit’s deity following the Council of Nicea, the church affirmed the full and equal deity of the Holy Spirit. The Council of Constantinople expanded the Nicene Creed to affirm that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the
Father and is to be worshiped with the Father and the Son, as fully God. Father, Son, and Holy
Spirit each is fully God, and yet, there is one and only one God.
Augustine produced his “Treatise on the Trinity” in A.D. 400-419. This work became one of the churches most influential and helpful of all discussions on the doctrine of the Trinity. Augustine proposed that God is one in essence or nature, but God is three in person. An orthodox definition of the Trinity affirms that God’s whole and undivided essence belongs equally, eternally, simultaneously, and fully to each of the three distinct Persons of the Godhead.
Bruce Ware offers this observation: “The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not identical Persons, but they are harmonious in accomplishing the one undivided purpose, one undivided goal, one common work, since they each possess fully the one, undivided divine essence.”7 The central mark of the triune nature of God is unity and difference, identity and distinction.
The existence of the Trinity is established within the first verse of Scripture, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”, Genesis 1:1. The Hebrew name God chose to identify Himself with is “Elohim”. The basic meaning of “Elohim” is strong one, mighty leader,
supreme Deity. The form of the word is plural, indicating plentitude of power and majesty and allowing for the New Testament revelation of the triunity of the Godhead.”8 The existence of the Triune Godhead is reinforced in Genesis 1:26, when God uses the plural pronouns, us and our, in speaking of Himself. “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . . .” Other verses of Scripture which use similar pronouns are: “And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil . . .”, Genesis 3:22; “Go to, and let us go down, and their confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech”,
Genesis 11:7; and Isaiah 6:8, “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
Old Testament Scriptures distinguish the Son from the Father in Psalm 110:1, “The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.” Isaiah prophesied of the virgin birth of Christ in Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Immanuel is interpreted to mean “God with us”, Matthew 1:23.
The Holy Spirit is distinguished from the Father and the Son within Old Testament Scripture as found in Isaiah 63:10, “But they rebelled, and vexed his holy Spirit: therefore he was turned to be their enemy, and he fought against them.” Repetitively, throughout the Old Testament, the Spirit of God is said to have “come upon” many individuals. The third Person of the Trinity enabled and empowered these individuals to accomplish the tasks for which they were called. Men like Moses, Joshua, David, Daniel, various judges of Israel, and others, experienced the divine working of the Holy Spirit upon their lives and ministries.
The New Testament offers a clearer revelation of the Trinity of God. Each Person of the Trinity is recognized as God. The Father is recognized as God by Jesus in John 6:27, “Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for the meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.” In 1 Peter 1:2, Peter addresses the Father as God, “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father . . . .” Jesus Christ prays to the Father in John 17:1, “These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee.” It is readily recognized that the Father is God and numerous other Scriptures attest to this truth.
Numerous passages of Scripture clearly attribute Deity to the Son, Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ prayer in John 17:3, Christ makes this truth clear along with His distinctiveness within the Godhead. “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” Thomas, Jesus’ disciple, offered his testimony to the truth of Jesus’ Deity when he proclaimed to the resurrected Christ: “My Lord and my God”, John 20:28. The Apostle Paul equates the truth of Deity to Jesus Christ in Titus 2:13; “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.” New Testament Scripture ascribe the work of creation and the sustaining of all things to the second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God; Jesus Christ. “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made”, John 1:3. “And he is before all things, and by him all things consist”, Colossians 1:17.
New Testament Scripture also recognizes the Holy Spirit as God. When Peter confronted Ananias concerning his deceitful sin, Acts 5:3-4, Peter announced that Ananias had lied to the Holy Spirit. Peter followed this with a profound statement that Ananias had not lied to men, but to God. Paul acknowledged that every believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, which is God. He wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:16, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?”
Several passages within the Bible identify the Triune Godhead. Probably the most familiar is found in Matthew 3:16-17 where the baptism of Jesus is recorded. “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: and lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” In this passage, Jesus is being baptized, the Holy Spirit is descending upon Jesus, and the Father is speaking from heaven. Jesus comforts His disciples by informing them that His Father would be sending to them the Holy Spirit. “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you”, John 14:26. Peter recognizes the distinctive Persons of the Trinity in his greeting in 1 Peter 1:3. “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied.” Paul concludes his second epistle to the Corinthians with a benediction which depicts the Triune Godhead. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen”, 2 Corinthians 13:14.
There is a definite distinction between the Persons, but Scripture also attests to the unity, the oneness, and harmonious relationship between the Godhead. Scripture sets forth the three Persons as one God, not three Gods. Jesus and the Father are one. Jesus testified, “I and my Father are one”, John 10:30. Immediately following Jesus’ announcement, some Jewish people picked up stones intending to stone Jesus. They had perceived by His statement that He was claiming equality with God, John 10:31-33.
The Father and the Spirit are seen as one. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:16, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” Without a doubt, two persons are in view within this passage, namely the Father and the Spirit. Yet, Paul was speaking of one God.
Scripture supports the relation between the Son and the Spirit as one. Paul writes in Romans 8:9, “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in
you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” Christ and the Holy Spirit are each separate persons and yet, mysteriously, it is one God who is being spoken of.
“How can we speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom is God, and not avoid speaking of three gods? The latter is what the Jewish community seemed to understand about faith of the Messianic Jews in Yeshua’s day, and still does to this day. . . . Messianic Jews were very careful to assert that while each of the persons are God as part of His very being, only one God is proclaimed.”9
Grudem wrote, “The three different persons of the Trinity are one not only in purpose and in agreement on what they think, but they are one in essence, one in their essential nature. In other words, God is only one being. There are not three Gods. There is only one God.”10
1 Bruce Ware, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2005) 15-22.
2 Roy Wallace, Studies in Systematic Theology, Second Edition, (Shreveport, Louisiana: LinWel) 45.
3 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994) 226.
4 Harold Willmington, The Doctrine of the Trinity, (Lynchburg, Virginia: Liberty University 1977) 43.
5 Bruce Ware, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2005) 25.
6 Bruce Ware, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2005) 36.
7 Bruce Ware, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2005) 42.
8 Charles C. Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible, (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers; 1986, 1994) 4. Study notes on Genesis 1:1.
9 Louis Goldberg, God, Torah, Messiah The Messianic Jewish Theology of Dr. Louis Goldberg, (San Francisco, California: Purple Pomegranate Productions, 2009) 142.
10 Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994) 238.