This weekend, I talked about Jesus getting baptized and because of time restraints did not have time to go into detail about the doctrine of the Trinity, Trinitarianism. After I talked on Saturday night, I had a conversation with some folks about the Trinity and the question came up, is the trinity important? I answered yes and here is my lengthly answer why.
The Bible teaches very clearly that God is one God who is triune. The biblical teaching on the Trinity gives us four declarations that we must agree with concerning the trinity:
- There is one and only one true and living God.
- This one God eternally exists in three persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
- These three persons are completely equal in attributes, each with the same divine nature.
- While each person is fully and completely God, the persons are not identical.
Lets start with the first point. There is only one true and living God. Here is a quote from my ESV Study Notes on the subject:
There is nothing more fundamental to biblical theology than monotheism (the biblical belief that there is one and only one God): “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). This verse, known as the Shema in Hebrew (from the opening verb of the verse, meaning “hear” or “listen”), is one of the most familiar and foundational verses in the OT. God rejects polytheism (belief in many gods) and demands exclusive devotion: “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (Isa. 45:5; cf. Deut. 4:35, 39; 1 Kings 8:60; Isa. 40:18; 46:9). The NT affirms the deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as we shall see, but does not waver from OT monotheism (John 17:3; 1 Cor. 8:4–6; 1 Tim. 2:5; James 2:19). Jesus quotes the Shema in a debate with the Jewish leaders (Mark 12:29), and Paul continues to teach that there is one God while recognizing Jesus as the divine-human Mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). -ESV Study Notes
Since it is evidently clear that God is one God, Monotheism is the only view of God that lines up with Scripture. So if our view of One God is not correct, the trinity will not make sense out of the gate.
Secondly, God eternally exists in three persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. For God to be God, he must be eternal or else he is mortal and would have a beginning and end. God must exist in a realm beyond our own and beyond our own comprehension. gotquestions.org gives us this statement on eternity with God:
The word eternal means “everlasting, having no beginning and no end.” Psalm 90:2 tells us about God’s eternality: “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” Since humans measure everything in time, it is very hard for us to conceive of something that had no beginning, but has always been, and will continue forever. However, the Bible does not try to prove God’s existence or His eternality, but simply begins with the statement “In the beginning God…” (Genesis 1:1), indicating that at the beginning of recorded time, God was already in existence. From duration stretching backward without limit to duration stretching forward without limit, from eternal ages to eternal ages, God was and is forever. -gotquestions.org
This chart illustrates how God glorifies the Son, and likewise the Spirit. They exist together, in unity but are distinct from one another. So if God is eternal, all three persons of the Trinity are eternal.
Thirdly, these three persons are completely equal in attributes, each with the same divine nature. Since God is one God, yet distinctly different in 3 persons, they each have the same nature. That is they are together.
Perhaps the clearest picture of this distinction and unity is Jesus’ baptism, where the Son is anointed for his public ministry by the Spirit, descending as a dove, with the Father declaring from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:13–17). All three persons of the Trinity are present, and each one is doing something different. -ESV Study Notes
Lastly, While each person is fully and completely God, the persons are not identical. This is where most people get confused. Up to this point, the trinity makes sense. Here is where we see they are the same, but not the same and this creates confusion for some. Because of this, there errant views of the trinity have been taught along with some horrible illustrations to try and prove them:
One of the most fundamental ways to misunderstand the Trinity is tritheism, which overemphasizes the distinction between the persons of the Trinity and ends up with three gods. This view neglects the oneness of the natures of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At the other end of the spectrum is the heresy of modalism(also known as Sabellianism, named after its earliest proponent, Sabellius, 3rd century), which loses the distinctions between the persons and claims that God is only one person. In this view, the appearance of the three persons is merely three modes of existence of the one God. For instance, God reveals himself as Father when he is creating and giving the law, as Son in redemption, and as Spirit in the church age. A contemporary version of modalism is found in the teaching of Oneness Pentecostalism. Both tritheism and modalism fail to maintain the biblical balance between the one reality of God and his eternal existence in three persons. A third error is to deny the full deity of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and to say that they were at some time created. This is the heresy ofArianism (after a teacher named Arius, c. a.d. 256–336), and it is held today by Jehovah’s Witnesses. -ESV Study Notes
The Nicene (Constantinople) Creed echoes the correct view of the Trinity.
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. AMEN.
We believe the Bible teaches that God is the only God, that the Father is God, Jesus is God, and the Holy Spirit is God and that they are not each other.
While there is mystery in the trinity, as believers we can have confidence in the doctrine of the trinity because the Bible states it over and over again. While we in our depraved state will never fully understand the depth of it this side of heaven, we can rest in the truth that God is three in one. And because the Bible states it over and over again, it is important. For denial of this truth, is the denial of the Godhead (blasphemy).
Is the doctrine of the Trinity a Contradiction? No. A contradiction is believing in one God who is 3 Gods (that is false). What’s not a contradiction is believing in one God who is 3 persons (Bible). Is it a paradox, yes. Mysterious, yes. Contradiction, no.
Some false views of the Trinity that are prevalent today would be these:
Subordinationalism (false view): The belief that all three members of the Trinity are God, but that one or more are greater than the others. For example, many people think that God the Father is the greatest and most powerful among the members of the Trinity. Christ comes in second and the Holy Spirit third. This is widely illustrated with the concept of The Trinity is like 3-in-1 shampoo: three activities, one substance. It is modalistic if you are saying the shampoo performs three functions, yet is one substance. But you can also break down the various elements that perform each function and see them separately. That is tritheism since all of the elements are not the same. They may work together to perform a specific goal, but they are not really the same substance.
Tritheism (false view): The belief that all three members of the Trinity are God, but they are separate Gods, sharing in a similar nature. Many illustrate this with the Trinity is like an egg. While the egg is one, each of the substances that makes up the parts (shell, white stuff, and yoke), are most definitely distinct. The yoke is completely separate in nature from the shell.
Modalism (false view): The belief that all three members of the Trinity are representatives of God, who shows himself in three ways. Most illustrate this with the Trinity is like water. This is a modalistic illustration of water as Ice, steam, and liquid. All are examples of the same nature which at one time or another has a particular mode of existence. Sometimes it is liquid, sometimes it is ice, and sometimes it is steam. God is not sometimes Son, sometimes Father, and sometimes Spirit. He is eternally each, always at the same time.
In the end, I do not believe that there are any true to life illustrations that can or should be used to teach or describe the Trinity. The Trinity is not a contradiction (i.e. one God who eternally exists as three separate Gods), but it is most definitely a paradox (a truth that exists in tension). It is always best to remember that the Father is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and the Son is God, but they are not each other.
My friends over at Credo house put this together, it is the most eloquently and best written post on the subject I have seen yet:
The doctrine of the Trinity is a foundational cardinal truth in Christianity. All three major Christian traditions – Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox – throughout the history of the Church, have been united on this doctrine. A denial of it constitutes a serious departure from the Christian faith and a rejection of the biblical witness to God as he has introduced himself to us. Sadly, many go astray from the faith due to their refusal to accept these truths. It is my purpose to give a brief overview of the doctrine.
Basic Definition: Christians worship one God who eternally exists in three persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, all of whom are fully God, all of whom are equal.
Now let’s break each of these down.
Christians are monotheists. This doesn’t merely mean we worship only one God, but that we believe there exists only one God. This is a basic teaching throughout the Bible (Deut. 6:4;Isa. 44:6; Isa. 45:5; Mark 12:29; 1 Tim. 2:5; 1 Cor. 8:4).
While this finds support in the Bible, the very definition of God demands that there only be one. In other words, “God” is not just a being to whom you pray or ascribe great worth and value, but the transcendent creator of all things (Heb. 11:3). Romans 1:18-20 informs us that natural theology and rational thinking necessarily demand there be a singular source for all things. Polytheism (which is the belief in many gods) must redefine the term “god” to mean simply “really powerful beings,” since there cannot be many ultimate creators of all things. There can be only one Uncaused Cause, only one Unmoved Mover, and only one Uncreated Creator. God is the only non-contingent (not dependent) being in the universe. Therefore, his essence is necessarily one.
Eternally exists as three persons:
Christians do not believe in contradictions or logical fallacies. Rational thinking and harmony of truth are found in the essence of God’s being; therefore, God cannot exist as a contradiction. Christians do not believe in three Gods for the reasons listed above. However, we do believe Scripture has revealed that God, while one in essence, is three in person. We often talk about this as “one what, three whos.” While this is a great mystery in the Christian faith, there are many mysteries that we are compelled to believe due to necessity and what has been revealed in Scripture. For example, we believe that God created all things out of nothing (Heb. 11:3; doctrine of creation ex nihilo). We believe that God is the sovereign first cause of all things, yet man is morally responsible for his actions. We believe that while Christ was complete in his humanity, he also remained complete in his deity (often called the “hypostatic union”). We believe that the Bible is the product of humans and the product of God. None of these, including the doctrine of the Trinity, are contradictions, but they are great mysteries.
While the Bible does not use the word “Trinity,” we believe that it is an accurate description of what the Bible teaches concerning God. After all, the Bible does not use the word “Bible,” but we can legitimately use the word to describe a collection of books we believe to be inspired. The Bible does not use the word “aseity,” yet we believe that it accurately represents a Biblical attribute of God. God is “of himself,” in no way dependent upon humans for his livelihood (Ps. 50:7-12).
While there are many passages in the Bible which necessitate a Trinitarian understanding of God, there are a few that stand out more than others:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God.” (NET)
Here we encounter two subjects, “the Word” (Jesus; John 1:14), and “God.” We see in this one verse the unity and plurality in what we call the “Godhead.” The Word “was fully God,” yet we also see that they were “with” each other. The Greek word for “with,” pros, implies not merely proximity, but is used to describe the context of relationship in which they exist. Jesus and God (in this case God is “the Father”) are both sharing in the same essence of deity, yet are distinct in relationship (person).
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
This is often referred to as the “Great Commission.” Here Christ tells his disciples that they are to make disciples by baptizing them (as a sign of identification) in the name (a singular term describing God’s unity) of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Notice that all three members of the Trinity are united, yet distinct in this baptismal creed.
“Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be content.” Jesus replied, “Have I been with you for so long, and you have not known me, Philip? The person who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
This again speaks of the unity the members of the Trinity share with each other. To know Jesus is to know the Father. To know the Holy Spirit is to know Jesus and the Father. And to know the Father is to know Jesus and the Holy Spirit. They are all one. Yet in the very same section of Scripture, Jesus demonstrates that He and the Father are distinct persons by praying to the Father (John 17:1-26). They have been united and distinct for all eternity.
All of whom are fully God:
Don’t see the sharing of the divine essence as some sort of sharing in a type of nature. For example, my daughter Kylee and I share in a similar nature in two ways: 1) we are both humans and 2) we are both blood related as part of the “Patton” family. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit do not merely have similar natures. It is not that they are from the same species called “God” or “Divine.” It is not like a pie that has been cut into three pieces, or a three-leaf clover that can be divided into three parts. It is that they all have theexact same nature. Kylee and I are of the human species, but we do not share in the exact sameessence. God’s essence is one and indivisible. All the members of the Trinity are all fully God since they share in the exact same nature..
All of whom are equal:
Christ’s essence is not lesser than the Father’s, nor the Spirit’s lesser than Christ’s. They are co-equal, co-powerful, and co-eternal since the essence of who they are is the same. While their persons may have distinction in function and thus evidence a willing hierarchy in time (John 14:28) and in eternity (1 Cor. 15:23-28), this does not mean that one is greater than the other in essence. Just as a king may have authority over his subject, this does not mean the king’s nature is greater than the subject’s. And just as a wife is to submit to her husband (Eph. 5:22), or as a pastor has authority over the congregation (Heb. 13:7), this does not mean in either case that the husband or pastor has more essential greatness or value than the wife or congregation. It simply means that in function, there is a hierarchy. Some Christians believe that the hierarchy in the Trinity was a temporal arrangement for the purpose of redemption and some believe that the subordination of the Son to the Father and the Spirit to the Father (and Son) is eternal. This is a valid debate in Christianity. However, all Christians have always believed that all three members of the Trinity are essentially equal.
Concerning the use of the word “Trinity”
Concerning the use of the name “Trinity” and other technical terms we often employ such as essence, ontos, ousia, substantia, persona, or hypostasis, the great theologian of the sixteenth century John Calvin writes:
“Where names have not been invented rashly, we must beware lest we become chargeable with arrogance and rashness in rejecting them. I wish, indeed, that such names were buried, provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit, are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that each has his particular subsistence. I am not so minutely precise as to fight furiously for mere words. For I observe, that the writers of the ancient Church, while they uniformly spoke with great reverence on these matters, neither agreed with each other, nor were always consistent with themselves” (Institutes, 1.13.5).
No Christian understands the doctrine of the Trinity fully. In fact, if people are not confused to some degree by this doctrine, if someone says, “Ohhhh, now I understand,” it probably means they have slipped into heresy in their thinking. If we think about it too long, try to solve it, or nuance it according to our desire to comprehend things, we will find ourselves refusing the hand of God who has given the mysterious Trinity to us as a description of Himself. While it is impossible that finite beings can fully comprehend an infinite God, we can understand himtruly. The doctrine of the Trinity does not give us the full understanding of God, but it does give us a true understanding of God.
As you can see, the trinity is important. Hope this helps you in your study. Blessings!
Let the redeemed speak louder,