David W. Hegg
The Doctrine of the Trinity:
“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” ― A.W. Tozer
More than any other doctrine of Christianity, the belief in the Trinity, or Tri-unity of God is baffling. To unbelievers it is illogical and therefore, foolish. It is not explicitly taught in Scripture and yet it has been a foundational teaching of Christ-followers from the time of Jesus and the disciples.
"A Christian, and especially an evangelical Christian, is somebody who is already immersed in the reality of the Trinity, long before beginning to reflect on the idea of Trinity." (Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God, pg. 26)
A "Trinitarian" theology is one of the first theological experiences a Christ-follower has even if he/she does not realize it simply because the truth of the Gospel is we are saved by God the Father, in and through God the Son, by the power of God the Spirit.
The doctrine of the Trinity was very early determined by church leaders to be in need of specific credal definition. In fact, it appears to be the first doctrine the early church had to come to grips with as it began spreading the message that the man Jesus was God, while at the same time adhering to the OT message of God as one, and immaterial.
1. Trinity Defined
The definition of the Trinity is quite simple: God is one, and God is three.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fully and equally divine, but there are not three gods, but one.
A good definition is given in the first of the 39 Articles that originally formed the doctrinal foundation of the Anglican Church:
"There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness: the maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost." (http://anglicansonline.org/basics/thirty-nine_articles.html)
Technically, the "Trinity" is not a “biblical” doctrine since "trinity" is not found in the Bible. Rather, it is a necessary and proper theological inference drawn out of biblical materials. Without the doctrine of the Trinity, the biblical material cannot make sense.
"The Trinity is no mere abstract speculation, but is a theological attempt to provide coherence to the scriptural narrative about God. The Trinity is 'so clearly implied by all that Scripture says and by the logic of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ that it is a necessary implication of and protective concept of the Christian gospel itself.'" (Michael Bird, also quoting Roger Olsen in Evangelical Theology, pg. 100).
“What we call ‘the doctrine of the Trinity’ is, I suggest, a formal set of conceptualities developed like this: a set of conceptualities that finally allowed (or at least we believed to allow) every text to be read adequately. As such, it is not a ‘biblical doctrine’ in the sense of being the result of exegesis; rather, it is a set of things that need to be believed if we are to be able to do exegesis adequately as we hold to the truth of every text of Scripture. The doctrine of the Trinity is a conceptual framework that allows us to read every biblical text (concerning God’s life) with due seriousness, but without discovering contradictions between them.” (Stephen R. Holmes, in The Doctrine of the Trinity, ed. Jason Sexton, pg. 35)
2. Biblical Support:
It is left to other sections of Systematic Theology to more fully define and defend the divinity of God the Father (Theology Proper), God the Son (Christology), and God the Spirit (Pneumatology).
Here our task is to show Trinitarian theology to be the consistent teaching of Scripture and most especially, the writers of the New Testament.
Trinitarian theology teaches both God's oneness and his threeness (tri = 3, une = 1; thus "unity" refers to the "oneness of God).
• While God is one, he is not merely oneness. While this is evident in the OT, it is most clearly seen in the NT. We will look at OT evidences first, and then turn to the NT.
Old Testament Evidences
"The Old Testament may be likened to a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted; the introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what is in it but was only dimly or even not at all perceived before. The mystery of the Trinity is not revealed in the Old Testament; but the mystery of the Trinity underlies the Old Testament revelation, and here and there almost comes into view. Thus, the Old Testament revelation is not corrected by the fuller revelation which follows it, but only perfected, extended, and enlarged." (B. B. Warfield, The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity, in Biblical Doctrines; Baker; Grand Rapids, 1981, pg. 141-142)
The OT emphasizes God's "oneness" while in the New Testament we come to understand more fully the distinctions within the very being of God.
When we speak of God's "oneness" we are talking about the fact that God is a unity (Note: the number one is, in various languages une, uno, one, etc). That is, when God is discussed in Scripture as being the only God, it is clear that there is only one being with the unique nature that God possesses.
To say that God is "one" means both that there is only one God (unity) and that he is not made up of parts (simplicity). God's numerical oneness means there is only one of him while his attribute of simplicity means he is not made up of different parts. Both of these come into play when we discuss the various heresies that have arisen in historical attempts to address the tension that arises when we consider both the oneness and threeness of God.
A) God's Oneness (Unity):
Deut. 4.32 “For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. 33 Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? 34 Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? 35 To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him.
Deut. 4.39 know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.
Deut. 6.4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
These texts show:
God is one numerically (there is no other)
God is one generically (God alone does these mighty deeds)
God is one being (quantitatively) because there is only one God (qualitatively).
• God's oneness is related to his attributes of lordship. There can only be one absolute sovereign in existence. Only one being can have ultimate control of all things, and that is our God.
Deut. 32:39: “ ‘See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.
Is. 44.6 Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.
7 Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me, since I appointed an ancient people. Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen.
8 Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.”
• Since there is only one God, he is the God of all nations.
Is. 45.22 “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.
Question: Why does the Bible speak of other "gods?"
Exodus 15:11: “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
(see also: Ex. 18:11; 20:3, 23; 23:13; Deut. 29:26; Judges 11:24)
Answer: The doctrine of God's "oneness" declares that there is only one God in reality. The term "gods" in these texts does not describe a being with the same nature as God. It describes either imaginary or real spiritual forces (demonic) which are, in reality, subservient to the one true and living God. While they may be given the title "god" they are not God as defined by the nature of the one true and living God.
B. God's Simplicity:
It is important to speak of God's "oneness" also as "simplicity." To say God is "simple" means there is no composition in his being. There are no components in his nature. No physical parts, no forms or matter, actual or potential. God is not made up in any sense, of parts. Thus, he cannot be taken apart. He cannot be divided into parts. All that he is is essential to his essence. We must never conceive of God as “divideable”, as made up of separatable parts.
God's attributes are not parts of him, but rather are inclusive of him. He essence includes all of them. For example, God's justice can never be separated from his holiness, love, gentleness, goodness, etc. No attribute can be added to him; neither can one be removed for none can exist apart from the others. This is because they are not "parts" of God. Each attribute of God has divine attributes of its own for each is qualified by all the others.
Note: This is an essential concept to grasp. All that God is exists in a single unity, without partitions. Thus, when we turn to the concept of “threeness” in God we are not talking about 3 essences, or 3 natures. While the 3 persons of the Godhead are distinct, they are never separate parts of God.
B. God's Threeness:
It is well-known that the Hebrew language makes use of plural nouns when describing God.
Exodus 33:11:Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent.
• One Hebrew term for God (Elohim) usually takes a singular verb, but in these texts it takes the plural:
Gen. 20.13 And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”
Gen. 35.7 and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed himself to him when he fled from his brother.
This indicates an early and understood recognition of the concept of plurality within the unity of God. And while it is not wise to rest a Trinitarian doctrine on grammatical plurals, it is interesting that the OT writers, being committed monotheists, had no problem using plural verbs when describing God and his actions.
• There is an essential connection between the unity in plurality of God, and his intention to make mankind in his image:
Gen. 1.26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” . . . 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
2) Divine Persons:
It is clear in the OT that the Spirit is both divine and distinct from God. It is the Spirit that is at work when God creates:
Gen. 1.2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
Psa. 33.6 By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
Job 26.13 By his wind the heavens were made fair; his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.
The prophets are empowered to proclaim God's message by means of the Spirit:
2Sam. 23.2 “The Spirit of the LORD speaks by me; his word is on my tongue.
Ezek. 2.2 And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.
• In many instances "the angel of The Lord" is found to be divine, yet distinct from God.
Gen. 16.6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her. The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” 9 The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” 11 And the angel of the LORD said to her, “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has listened to your affliction. 12 He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.” 13 So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.”
Gen. 32.30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”
Gen. 48.15 And he blessed Joseph and said, “The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, 16 the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”
• It is also clear that the Messiah is both divine and distinct from God. Isaiah 9 declares that the "son" to be born, who will deliver mankind, is "almighty God."
Is. 9.6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
The OT also makes use of triads, giving a sense that the writers understood the threeness of God in some sense:
Num. 6:24-26 (Compare 2 Cor. 13:14):
Num. 6.24 The LORD bless you and keep you;
25 the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
26 the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
2Cor. 13.14 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
Ps. 33:6: By the word (Son) of The Lord (Father) the heavens were made, and by the breath (Spirit) of his mouth all their host.
Isaiah 48:16: (Messiah is speaking; he is "sent" by The Lord God, and so has the Spirit!)
“Draw near to me, hear this: from the beginning I have not spoken in secret, from the time it came to be I have been there.” And now the Lord GOD has sent me, and his Spirit.”
New Testament Evidences
While the evidence in the OT is shadowy, it is not so in the NT. The NT writers are clear. There are 3 divine persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the NT, the Son is described using OT labels such as word, wisdom, name, and Messiah, thereby showing how the NT writers viewed him.
But, even before looking at the writings of the NT authors, it is important to understand the powerful evidence found in their own perspective on the Godhead. It is astounding that these men, being committed monotheists, saw no tension between their teaching that Jesus was God, and the teaching of the oneness of God in the OT.
"To their own apprehension they worshipped and proclaimed just the God of Israel; and they laid no less stress than the OT itself upon His unity (John 17:3; 1 Cor. 8:4; 1 Tim. 2:5 see below). They do not, then, place two new gods by the side of Jehovah as alike with him to be served and worshipped; they conceive Jehovah as at once Father, Son, and Spirit. In presenting this one Jehovah as Father, Son, and Spirit, they do not even betray any lurking feeling that they are making innovations. Without apparent misgiving they take over OT passages and apply them to Father, Son, and Spirit indifferently." (Warfield, pg 142).
John 17.3 And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
1Cor. 8.4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.”
1Tim. 2.5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,
This evidences an internal consistency between OT and NT when it comes to Trinitarian belief. There was no controversy! For the NT writers, this doctrine was a settled conviction.
"If they betray no sense of novelty in so speaking [of God as a Trinity], this is undoubtedly in part because it was no longer a novelty so to speak of Him. It is clear, in other words, that, as we read the New Testament, we are not witnessing the birth of a new conception of God. What we meet within its pages is a firmly established conception of God underlying and giving tone to the entire fabric. It is not in a text here and there that the New Testament bears its testimony to the doctrine of the Trinity. The whole book is Trinitarian to the core; all its teaching is built on the assumption of the Trinity; and its allusions to the Trinity are frequent, cursory, easy, and confident. It is with a view to the cursoriness of the allusions to it in the New Testament that it has been remarked that "the doctrine of the Trinity is not so much heard as overheard int he statements of Scripture. The doctrine of the Trinity does not appear in the NT in the making, but as already made." (Warfield, pg. 143)
While there is no systematic explanation of the Trinity in the NT, it can only be because it was not at question among the first generation of Christ-followers. They had no doubt as to both the "oneness" and "threeness" of God having witnessed God in the flesh.
• Jesus' Birth: Conceived by the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1:18), he becomes "God with us" (Mt. 1:23), the Son of God (Luke 1:35).
Mt. 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. . . . 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
Luke 1.35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy— the Son of God.
• Jesus' Baptism: The Spirit descends as a dove while the voice of the Father is heard.
Matt. 3.16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
• Peter: The Father offers the Spirit to all who will entrust their lives to the Son and follow him.
Acts 2.38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
• Paul: He regularly depicts the Godhead as unity in plurality:
1Cor. 12.4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.
Eph. 4.4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Excursus: The Deity of Jesus and The Holy Spirit:
Jesus: Hebrews 1:1-8
Heb. 1.1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. 5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” 6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” 7 Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire.” 8 But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.
10 Specific places Jesus' Deity is Affirmed:
John 1.1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John 1.18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
John 20.28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
Acts 20.28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
Rom. 9.5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
2Th. 1.12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Titus 2.13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,
2Pet. 1.1 Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:
1Tim. 3.15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.
Heb. 1.6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”
Heb. 1.7 Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire.”
Heb. 1.8 But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.
1John 5.20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
Holy Spirit: Acts 5:3,4
Acts 5.3, 4: But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.”
Question: What about the "sonship" of Jesus? Doesn't "son" imply both generation by the Father, and subordination to the Father as an attribute of his nature?
Answer: While the title "Son of God" is also applied to angels (Job 1:6; 2:1), priests (Mal. 1:6), Israel (Deut. 14:1), Adam (Luke 3:38), and Christ-followers (Mt. 5:9), it is applied to Jesus in a unique way. He is "the" Son of God (Luke 1:31,32; John 1:34; 1 John 5:20). He is God's "own" Son (Romans 8:3, 32) and God is his "own" Father.
The term "only begotten" (Gk: monogenes) (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9) is best understood as relating to Jesus' "uniqueness" and not his origin.
Most scholars today recognize the term as coming from genos (kind) rather than gennao (beget) and thus, should be translated "only" or "unique" rather than "only-begotten."
It is also clear that the connection between Jesus and the Father is an intimate relationship rather than an ontological connection. Monogenes denotes this intimacy as a unique relationship between God the Father and God the Son.
The Father-Son Motif
In order to facilitate the incarnational mission the 2nd person of the Trinity voluntarily submitted himself to the 1st person. The "Father-Son" motif is used by God to allow us to understand in part just what this submission looked like. The motif is an accomodation to us, not an ontological explanation of the intra-trinitarian relationship of the Godhead.
Summary: The doctrine of the Trinity has solid biblical foundation. It was nuanced in the OT, but even then the writers had no difficulty using plural verbs, or describing divine persons that were distinct from God. The NT is quite clear, beginning with the testimony of confirmed monotheists who wrote passionately about the deity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
3. Historical Acceptance
Clement (late 1st century): "Have we not one God and one Christ and one Spirit of grace poured out upon us?"
Ignatius (2nd cent.): "There is one physician who is both flesh and spirit; both born and unborn; God in man; true life in death, both from Mary and from God; first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord."
Irenaeus (early 2nd cent.): "The Spirit prepares human beings for the Son of God; the Son leads the to the Father; the Father gives them immortality ... thus God was revealed: for in all these ways God the Father is displayed. The Spirit works, the Son fulfills his ministry, the Father approves."
From Tertullian, Augustine, and Athanasius to Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, to the evangelical leaders of today (Warfield, Grudem, Bird, Frame, Mohler, et al infinitum adnauseam), the doctrine of the Trinity has been recognized as biblically evidenced, theologically essential, and practically necessary for the church and individual Christ-follower.
Here are some links to important creedal expressions of Trinitarian belief:
Westminster Confession: http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/
1689 Baptist Confession: http://www.vor.org/truth/1689/1689bc02.html
Augsburg Confession (Lutheran): http://bookofconcord.org/augsburgconfession.php#article1
Converge Worldwide: http://www.convergeworldwide.org/about/values/affirmation-faith
4. Heretical Alternatives:
However, it has not always been that Christ-followers have agreed on the Trinity. Early on Origen and others attempted to come up with ways to explain this seemingly illogical doctrine. All the various heresies can be categorized under 3 broad headings:
As the NT era dawned, some attempted to harmonize the deity of Christ with the "oneness" of the OT.
Sabellius was a 3rd century priest and theologian. He taught that God was a single person. There is no second or third person in the Godhead. The single God takes on different modes or functional personages. When he creates he should be called Father. In the Incarnation he is the Son, and when active in sanctification he is the Spirit. The three names signify, not different persons but different actions of the one person. The followers of Sabellius recognized Jesus as "God of very God" but only because they considered him as one "mode of existence" of the one God.
Sabellianism was condemned in A. D. 263 but his theology continues to this day. It is usually understood today as "modalism" and is apparent is various illustrations of the Trinity such as:
• the Egg
• the three forms of water
• the three "modes" of a man (brother, husband, father)
The problem with Sabellianism is clear. This view cannot explain the fact that each of the the 3 persons of the Godhead are distinct from one another, are equally divine, and at often appear at the same time.
Sabellianism also takes on the problems of another associated heresy, Patripassianism. This view teaches that it was the Father who died on the cross. While Sabellius would have argued that the dying Redeemer was better called the Son, it is nevertheless true that both heresies have the one God dying on the cross.
Tertullian, the great Trinitarian apologist, commented that these people "put the Paraclete to flight and crucified the Father." (quoted by Gordon H. Clark, The Trinity, pg. 9)
A second, and much more prevalent heresy, dealt with the trinitarian problem very simply. They taught that Jesus was not divine. The architect of this heresy was Arius (A. D. 256–336) who was a priest in Alexandria. Whereas Sabellianism taught the deity of Jesus as a function of the one true God, Arius and his followers taught there is only one God, and Jesus was his highest creation.
The battle for the Trinity really began at the Council of Nicea (AD 325). Athanasius was the champion of biblical orthodoxy and successfully argued in favor of the wording in the creed that we know today:
"We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible (later changed by the Council of Constantinople in AD 381 to "Maker of heaven and earth). And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the essence (ousia) of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance (homoousion) with the Father ..."
As a result, Arius' views were condemned. However, to help heal a schism in the church, Emperor Constantine had Arius readmitted into the church. He ordered Athanasius to restore him, but he refused. This set off years of ill will, with Athanasius being charged witch graft and insubordination. After Nicea, Athanasius' life was one of constant struggle simply because of his stalwart defense of biblical truth at the expense of surface church unity. All around him church leaders wanted peace at any cost. But Athanasius was determined that the Bible should be the standard. He stood firm against all opposition, and as a result he is remembered with the Latin epitaph Athanasius contra mundum: Athanasius against the world.
Today's Arians are the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, both of whom deny the full, equal deity of Jesus Christ.
But we also can easily fall into the trap of thinking Jesus' or the Spirit's deity is of a lesser substance, a lesser vitality than that of the Father. It comes out in our prayers, and the lyrics of our songs. We too carelessly allow ourselves to think God the Father is the most powerful, God the Son the most loving, and God the Spirit the most available. In this way we can unknowingly divide the Godhead, and even functionally deny the full, equal, and eternal deity of the undividable Godhead.
c) Dynamic Monarchianism (Adoptionism):
This view attempted to deal with the "oneness-threeness" problem differently. They taught that God, "adopted" Jesus at some point, granting him a level of deity, and then worked through him to accomplish redemption.
This heresy teaches Jesus was not in any sense divine at his birth but was at some point elevated to some level of divinity. Most adherents of this view believe it was at his baptism that the Spirit of God came on him granting him deity. Thus, the power of God began working through him. God's rule (monarchianism) was the dynamic, or power that animated Jesus, allowing him to do divine work.
This view, while not popular, is none the less very present today. We see it in the mystical belief that all mankind possesses a spark of the divine spirit which can be fostered and grow enabling us to do great things.
Sadly, the church also sings a song entitled "Lord We Are Able" that contains the line "Our spirits are thine; remold them, make us, like thee divine."
5. Three Crucial Questions
(These questions are raised and answered well in Making Sense of the Trinity, Millard J. Erickson).
A. Is it biblical?
Given that we believe the Bible to be the infallible, inerrant Word of God we turn to it to see if the doctrine of the Trinity may rightly be deduced from its teachings.
Note: Any doctrine we hold dogmatically must do justice to all applicable passages.
The doctrine of the Trinity demands two things:
1) God must be One: The consistent and unified testimony of the Bible must be that there is only one God.
2) God must be Three: That is, the consistent and unified testimony of the Bible must be that the one God consists eternally of 3 distinct persons.
The previous material leaves us feeling very confident that Trinitarian belief is consistent with God’s self-revelation in the Bible. Yes, the doctrine of the Trinity is biblical, despite the absence of the word itself, because it is the only way to make sense of the biblical witness.
B. Is it rational/reasonable? (Does it make sense?)
It is clear that on the surface the doctrine of the Trinity seems contradictory, and therefore, illogical. How can 1 = 3 and 3-1?
The best way to understand the truth of the Triune God is to utilize the concept known as perichoresis. Perichoresis is defined as interpermeation or coinherence.
“Perichoresis is our way of describing how the life of each divine person flows through each of the others, so that each divine person infuses the others and each has direct access to the consciousness of the others. It implies that the three persons of the Trinity exist only in a mutual reciprocal relatedness to each other. Colin Gunton put it like this: ‘God is not God apart from the way in which the Father, Son, and Spirit in eternity give to and receive from each other what they essentially are.’” (Bird, pg. 118, 119)
God is Love (Adapted from Ericksen, Making Sense of the Trinity)
What is it that so binds the 3 persons of the Godhead together that they are one nature, one essence, one God? It is love, but not as we think of it.
1 John 4:8, 16: 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. . . . 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
The Godhead is a society of persons who are, however, one being. Love is the binding power of their relationship. To say “God is love” is not to describe an attribute but rather the basic characterization of God himself. Love is such an essential dimension of God’s nature that it binds three persons so closely that they are eternally and actually one.
There is a sense in which the fact that God is love requires that he be more than one person. Love must have both a subject and object. Within the Trinity, the multiple persons have been eternally, and actively loving in that their love has been mutually exercised, expressed, and experienced.
While in human relationships love is never perfected, this is not true of God. All of his attributes are infinite, and it is here that we come to understand the powerful nature of God as love.
Through perichoresis each of the members of the Trinity know all the others know, feel all the others feel, experience all the others experience, and this has been the case eternally, infinitely, and really.
Some suggest that the Incarnation cannot be explained against the backdrop of the simplicity/unity of God. Yet, it is perichoresis that helps us explain it within the scope of Trinitarian belief. Remember, God is omnipresent. That is, he is everywhere, in his entirety, simultaneously and this has been case eternally. Thus, when Jesus was “in the flesh” it may have been only that our world was allowed to experience God the Son as incarnate while in reality the Godhead was always present. So it was no lie for Jesus to say “If you have seen me you have seen the Father” (John 14:9).
C. Does it matter?
Perhaps the greatest contemporary question being asked by rank and file Christ-followers is this “Does this whole discussion even matter? Just how significant and important is an understanding of God as Trinity? If we are convinced it is true, what does it matter? And if we reject it, or simply don’t care to exercise our minds enough to get some grasp of it, does it matter?”
Immanuel Kant: “From the doctrine of the Trinity, taken literally, nothing whatsoever can be gained for practical purposes, even if one believes that one comprehended it – and less still if one is conscious that it surpasses all our concepts … it is impossible to extract from this difference (whether we worship ten gods or one) any different rules for practical living.” (Quoted by Erickson, Making Sense of the Trinity, pg.70)
I expect that this could be the view of many Christ-followers today in that their practical lives would not be changed if Trinitarian doctrine fell out of the church. Yet, it cannot be said that a Christ-follower is truly evangelical if they do not believe the Trinitarian theme that winds its way completely through the Bible, as we have demonstrated.
While someone can be truly regenerated by the Spirit of God through faith while desperately unaware of many of the cardinal doctrines of Scripture, it cannot be said that one in whom the Spirit dwells as resident truth teacher and illuminator of Scripture would be left in such ignorance. To “believe” presupposes propositional truth, and as the Christ-follower grows in faith, these propositions come more and more to be recognized, understood, and believed. Such is the process of sanctification. Thus, Trinitarian belief is, and has always been understood as, an essetial doctrine of the Christian faith.
More practically, an understanding and appreciation of Trinitarian doctrine lies at the very foundation of practical Christian living:
1. It is critical for our prayer and worship: Given that prayer and worship are directed at God himself, it seems obvious that our perspective on God is important.
“The only reason prayer is possible is because God is triune. We cannot pray to the Father except through the mediator, Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 7:25; 12:24), which is why we petition the Father in Jesus’ name (John 14:13,14; 16:23-26). And it is the Spirit who guides us in prayer, and he is even the sphere in which our prayer begins (Rom. 8:26, 27; Jude 20).” (Bird, Evangelical Theology, pg. 122)
In our worship it is critical that we have a Trinitarian focus. If we want to worship God in truth, we must worship him as Trinity.
2. It is essential for our ministry and mission: When God came in the flesh we received a model for ministry. The Father sent the Son, and so he sends us; The Son submits to the Father, and so we are to minister as those under orders, submitted to the Father and the Son as head of the church; The Son ministered in the power of the Spirit, and so must we; The Spirit testifies, not of himself, but of Christ, and so our ministries must focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ for the world.
3. It is the real model for community: In John 17:11, 20, 21 Jesus prays that his followers may be one:
John 17:11, 20, 21: And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one … 20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
It is through this that the world will “believe that you have sent me” he says. Today this has been greatly misunderstood to mean that the primary way we can show Jesus to the world is to put aside doctrinal differences and just “love” one another. Yet, if we understand the Trinity well, we see Jesus has much more in mind. The unity of the Godhead is not merely surface, but dynamic and essential. It is not the diminishing of truth but the fullest expression of it. Jesus defines what it means to be in “community” by likening it to the relationship of the Father and Son in Trinitarian unity.
While our sin prevents us from experiencing the unity God has, it is possible for the church to see unity as the expression of biblical love for God and one another. Love for God demands true belief while love for one another demands the living out of godly affection and character.
"If we had to summarize what are the critical and salient features of Trinitarian belief, they could be summarized as follows:
1. The unity of one God in three persons.
2. The eternity of the three persons.
3. The shared and equal deity of the three persons.
4. The shared and equal essence of the three persons.
5. The Trinity includes distinction in roles and relationships within the Godhead.
6. The Trinity will always be an ineffable mystery.”
(Bird, Evangelical Theology, pg. 121)
Evangelical Theology, Michael Bird; Zondervan, 2013
Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem; Zondervan, 1994
Systematic Theology, John Frame; Puritan and Reformed; 2013
Making Sense of the Trinity, Millard J. Erickson; Baker, 2000
The Doctrine of the Trinity, Jason Sexton, ed; Zondervan, 2014
The Trinity, Gordon H. Clark; Trinity Foundation, 1995
The Lord of Glory, B. B. Warfield, Baker, 1972
Delighting in the Trinity, Michael Reeves, IVP, 2012
Warfield, B. B. “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity, in Biblical Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981).