“Within this unity there are three persons of one essential nature, power and eternity — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
It seems like I’ve had issues with the doctrine of the trinity my whole life. From a young age my dad shared his concerns about this formulation that seemed to be illogical. I listened and absorbed his hesitation. In junior high I asked my Sunday school teachers to help me understand the “hypostatic union” (in junior high I actually knew what those words meant and used them…they refer to how Jesus’ human and divine natures worked together, how he could be fully human and fully God at the same time). My Sunday School teachers were not, not surprisingly, ill-prepared to answer. So my questions remained and grew. Throughout high school I heard a lot of analogies that left me more confused and frustrated. I asked a lot of questions in my theology classes at Bible College. One semester we had a visiting theology professor…I had the honor of lunching with him one on one, I assume my professor hoped this guy could explain the Trinity to me in a way that would make sense so that I could rest and he would need not worry about the eternal destiny of my potentially heretical soul. He could not.
The doctrine of the Trinity just never made sense to me. But it seems like nearly every other orthodox Christian throughout history believed it, so I kept trying to figure out what I was missing. What made it possible for other people to so easily accept Trinity as basic fact? What did they know that I didn’t? Or did they just not care?
When I looked at the Bible, here’s what I saw: there were clearly three distinct persons…the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (it seems to me that the distinction between them becomes more clear in the New Testament). Each of them has uniquely divine characteristics, does uniquely divine stuff, and is worshiped as God. Despite this, the Bible is abundantly clear that there is only one God. I knew from experience that God was real and trusted the Bible so, even though I didn’t understand the doctrine, through lots of wrestling and uneasiness, I eventually came to accept it but I still don’t really like it.
I think the turning point for me was accepting something as true even when I couldn’t understand it. For a generally logical person this goes against my very nature. But I came to realize that truth was not determined by my ability to comprehend something but by what God revealed through* his word.
In this post I’m going to lay out the basic doctrine and share a couple of helpful videos. Next week I’ll talk a little about the “ontological equality” and “economic roles” within the trinity, explore some common heresies, and I’ll share a little bit about what the idea of “the eternal subordination of the son” means and why it matters to you (especially if you are a woman).
Where We Find the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible
The word “Trinity” isn’t used in the Bible, but the idea is definitely there. If the doctrine of the Trinity was a table, these would be the legs (it appears to be a five-legged table, don’t worry, it’s fine):
- In the Bible we see three distinct persons: The Father, Son and Holy Spirit
- They are all given divine titles
- They all have uniquely divine attributes
- They all do uniquely divine things
- Yet there is only one God
As Christians throughout the ages have viewed these truths they basically came to this conclusion: that makes no sense, let’s just admit that and create a new label because none of our current labels fit. Except, sometimes, they try to convince you that it does make sense and then you begin to feel like you’re crazy. It doesn’t have to make sense to be true. This isn’t anti-intellectual, it just means that God is bigger, more intricate, and more than our minds can comprehend. Certainly, it seems reasonable that we, as his creatures, couldn’t fully explain or understand the awesomeness of the God who created all things. So this thing that God has revealed about himself isn’t against reason, it’s just beyond reason.
Let’s look at the legs:
1. In the Bible We See Three Distinct Persons
As we move from the Old Testament into the New Testament the distinction between the three members of the Trinity becomes more apparent until it is explicitly stated. It is hinted at in the Old Testament, for example, when God speaks using “we” and “us” (Genesis 1:26, 3:22, 11:7; Isaiah 6:8). There are passages when at least two distinct people are spoken of and the titles “God” and “Lord” are used of both (Psalm 45:6-7, see also Hebrews 1:8, Psalm 110:1 see also Matthew 22:41-46).
The distinction is explicitly stated in places like Matthew 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and other places where three members of the Trinity are listed together (Matthew 3:16-17, 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, 1 Peter 1:2, Jude 20-21). Of course, the fact that there are three of them isn’t that profound. It gets complicated when we declare that each is fully and equally God.
2. They Are All Given Divine Titles
They are all called God. “God” is the Father’s default title. He’s who we think of most often when we hear or read the name, “God.” The Son is called God explicitly at least twice: John 1:1 ” In the beginning was the word and the word was God” and in John 20:28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” The Holy Spirit is commonly referred to as “The Spirit of God” and in Acts 5:3-4 lying to the Holy Spirit is equated to lying to God (side note: you should definitely not lie to God).
2. They All have Uniquely Divine Attributes
I’m only picking a few attributes here for sake of space but you could find a ton more by checking our a systematic theology book or searching the internet.
Omnipresence (God’s ability to be all places) is ascribed to the Father (Jeremiah 23:34), the Son (Matthew 18:20), and the Holy Spirit (Psalm 139:20).
Omniscience (God’s knowing of all the things) is ascribed to the Father (Jeremiah 17:10), the Son (Revelation 2:23), and the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:11).
Eternality (Always existing in all time) is ascribed to the Father (Psalm 90:2), the Son (John 1:2; Revelation 1:8, 17), and the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 9:14).
No one other than God can be everywhere, know everything, or exist in the beginning and forever.
3. They All do Uniquely Divine Things
There are some things that it seems only God can do. Here are two quick examples of divine things that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do together.
All three were involved in Creation. This is important because it means they were Creators, not created; which makes them distinct from everything and everyone else (Father: Genesis 1:1, Psalm 102:25; Son: Colossians 1:16; Holy Spirit: Genesis 1:2).
All three have distinct roles but work together for the salvation of humanity. The Father elects (Ephesians 1:4), the Son redeems (Ephesians 1:7), and the Holy Spirit seals (Ephesians 1:13).
4. Yet there is only one God
In a previous post I talked about the importance of the oneness of God. So here I’ll just share a list of verses (in both the Old and New Testaments) that declare there is only one God, even though three persons are clearly talked about.
- Deuteronomy 6:4-7
- Exodus 20:2-3
- James 2:19
- Isaiah 45:5-6
- 1 Timothy 2:5
- Romans 3:30
The Bible clearly declared and displayed three persons as divine while also clearly declaring there is one God. I have come to accept that the Bible does indeed declare these two, seemingly irreconcilable facts, and does not try to reconcile them or explain them away. And so, rather than trying to understand, I’ve chosen to accept and live in the tension that we’re supposed to be reasonable and that some things are beyond reason.
Analogies can be helpful for helping us understand things, but every analogy breaks down somewhere. The breakdown is most of the analogies were obvious to my junior high self. Be cautious when you use them…know your audience and be aware of the heresy that they may accidentally incorporate into their theology.
God is like an egg: The egg is made up of three distinct parts but there is only one egg. There was a yolk, the shell and the white part. The problem is that the yolk is part of the egg, but it in not the egg. This is partialism (dividing God into parts).
God is like water: Water can be steam, liquid, or ice just like God is the Father, Son, And Holy Spirit. The problem with this is that the same molecule of water cannot be all three things at the same time. This is modalism (the idea that God is presents himself with different faces at different times)
This fun video will walk you through these and other heresies:
WHY IT MATTERS
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably asking, “So what?” and I don’t blame you unless you’re inherently interested in the intricacies of theology this could be really boring and seem pointless. But it’s not. And here’s why: If you want to know God and be in relationship with him (this is what we were designed for) you have to get to know God on his own terms. You have to come to see him as who he says he is and live in that reality. If you believe he is something different than what he really is you can never really deeply know him. Diving into doctrine can help us know God and relate to him in ways that prayer, worship, and even his presence cannot (of course, if we only focus on doctrine than we miss out on the incredible knowledge that comes through prayer, worship, and the experience of his presence. These are ALL important paths to get to know God and to pursue his heart).
- The Trinity shows us that God is inherently relational. He relates to himself and we, being made in his image, are designed to relate to him and others.
- The general pattern of prayer in the Bible is to pray to the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:18).
- Jesus’s humanity and deity have some very specific implications:
- God humbled himself to come and be with us. He did not send an ambassador, a surrogate, he himself came and entered our world, took our sin, and walked with us.
- Jesus could only be a substitute for our sin if he was human and could only die for all of us if he was infinite (one righteous man could die for one sinner but one righteous God-man could die for an infinite amount of sinners).
* this was one of the most difficult words to choose in this post because it speaks to my understanding of God’s revelation in the Bible. Does the Bible contain God’s word? Is the Bible God’s word? Is the Bible a vessel through which God communicates? You probably didn’t think about it that much…but I’ll explain more about why it matters when I get to the sections of the Articles of Religion that discuss the Bible.
This is a common picture used to describe the trinity. It doesn’t really help me but it might help you (it’s also used in one of the videos below)
When people try to hard too make sense of of the doctrine of the Trinity they usually end up falling into heresy or end up using bad analogies that are basically heresy. (Heresy simply means bad doctrine or believing false things about God).
- If you accept that there is one God, and three persons…perhaps the other persons are inferior. For example, perhaps Jesus is not really God ( this is called the “Arian heresy” after its most famous proponent, Arius. Jesus is seen as the son of God, created by God, not eternal, not God but divine. Jehovah Witnesses fall into this camp). Another option is to see the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force (but he has a will, emotions, teaches, comforts, etc.)
- Occasionally Christians are accused of being tritheists (having three Gods). We know that we do not have three Gods, we only have one, but you can certainly understand why this would be confusing for those on the outside looking in.
- Modalism: This is the idea that God exists in different modes (or as different people) at different times. In the Old Testament he was the Father, in the New Testament he was Jesus, in the Church age he is the Holy Spirit. Of course, this is foolish becuase the members of the trinity are shown interacting with each other so, obviously, he’s more than one thing at one time.
- Partialism: That each member of the trinity is 1/3 of God or part of God.