An Introduction to the Trinity

“In no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.” (Augustine)

 “The study is arduous, for we are dealing with matters too great for us, which we must bow in worship, recognising, our utter inadequacy.” (Calvin) 

 

The Trinity is the most complex subject anyone can study and consider, and it is also the most trepidatious because we are talking about God.

 

Does it matter how we speak of God? *

 Does it matter how we conceive of God? Does it matter whether we think of God as Trinity or not? Can we agree to disagree?

For argument sake, let us take a snapshot of Mentone’s Associate Pastor, Mike Veith.

Mike is a particular person, with a certain appearance (although the length of hair varies considerably) and select characteristics. Mike has particular abilities, likes, and dislikes. For example, Mike is married to Camille and they have two daughters. Prior to the pastoral ministry, Mike studied to be an Engineer. He mistakingly supports the Melbourne Football Club and he also enjoys playing soccer. 

How do you think Mike would feel if we began talking about him and to him in ways that ignored what is real about him. For instance, instead of calling him Mike, we refer to him as Sigmund because we think Sigmund is a better name for him. And instead of acknowledging Mike, sorry Sigmund, to be the really nice bloke that he is, we talk about him as though he was a sadistic rugby-loving thug with the intelligence of a two-year-old infant. On his birthday we give him a container of Duplo and a plastic boat for the bathtub, alongside a DVD showing the highlights of the 1987 Rugby World Cup. Worse still, what if you decided to build a statue of Mike out of used cereal boxes and talk to it instead of the real Mike? Apart from the weirdness, if you persisted with such shenanigans for a period of years Mike, who is extraordinarily patient, would eventually respond in ways that remain to be witnessed!

 The point is, Mike Veith has a name and a personality with particular traits and strengths. I can’t call him anything I like, and I can’t attribute false characteristics to him. To misrepresent someone is one of the worst things we can do to a person. It is terrible. It is hurtful. It breaks relationships. It is slander. If we misrepresent a person’s character in a court of law you will find yourself in a great deal of trouble. Misrepresent your boss at work and you’ll be looking for a new job. Treat your wife with such insane behaviour and we’ll hold you down while your wife takes out the cricket bat!  

We are hurt when someone misrepresents us or twists the truth about us. We want to be represented fairly and with dignity. How much more, therefore, must we be careful how we think of God and speak of God. 

The doctrine of the Trinity is almost certainly the most important doctrine there is. We are speaking of matters too great to fully comprehend; to understand fully God would be to have a mind equal to God. Nonetheless, God has spoken in ways to help us know him truly, and so we turn to his word, the Bible.

tertullian.jpg

 

Does the Bible teach that God is Trinity?

 

In a search on biblegateway.com we will not find the word Trinity in any Bible translation. Trinity is not a Bible word. The word was first coined in the 2nd century AD by Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers. Trinity means tri-unity (three in one), indicating that God is three persons in one: one God in three persons. Trinity may not be a Bible word but it is a Biblical concept. Some Christians are very wary about using words that are not found in the Bible, but we all do it – inerrancy and complementarian are two common examples. Extra-Biblical terminology can be helpful so long as the language is carefully defined and understood, and doesn’t move us beyond the logic of Scripture.

 What is the Scriptural support for God being Trinity? The weight of Biblical evidence for the Trinity is significantly greater than what I am about to outline, but what I have included should be sufficient to prove that Christians rightly believe in One God who is three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Trinity in the Old Testament

Let’s begin with the Old Testament. The doctrine of the Trinity is not fully revealed and explained until the New Testament, but we need to appreciate that the God of the New Testament is the God of the Old Testament. We are not Marcionites. Marcion was a second-century heretic who preached that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament, different not only in character but also being. The New Testament writers rejected such an idea and so did Jesus who referred to himself as the I AM, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. One implication of this is that when we read God’s name in the Old Testament, LORD (note the upper case lettering) we should refrain from thinking that it is only referring only to God the Father, as though the Son and Spirit are not included.  

The Old Testament insistently and consistently teaches that God is one:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”(Deuteronomy 6:4)

In Mark 12:29 Jesus himself quotes this verse in Mark 12:29, thus affirming that there is only one God. 

“There is no one like you, LORD, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears.” (1 Chronicles 17:20)

Not only is God one, there is only one God. The Scriptures don’t portray the God of Israel as one of many different gods existing in the ancient world. There were many gods, but they were all fake; human creations serving human desires.

 “This is what the LORD says— 

   Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: 

I am the first and I am the last; 

   apart from me there is no God. 

7 Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it. 

   Let him declare and lay out before me 

what has happened since I established my ancient people, 

   and what is yet to come— 

   yes, let them foretell what will come. 

8 Do not tremble, do not be afraid. 

   Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago? 

You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me? 

   No, there is no other Rock; I know not one.” (Isaiah 44:6-8)

 God being one is declared page after page in the Old Testament, but there are also hints that God is Trinitarian, by which we mean He is not a monad, but three in one.

In Isaiah 6:8 the prophet meets with God in the temple and God asks,” ‘whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ “ When asking the question, ‘who will go for us?’ God is speaking to himself. Who is the “us”, a royal we? Or is it referring to God being three persons?

 Genesis ch.1 is incredibly helpful for aiding our understanding of the Trinity. It speaks about both the singularity of God and the plurality of God:

   “ 26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

 27 So God created mankind in his own image, 

   in the image of God he created them; 

   male and female he created them.”

 God’s being one is clear. ‘God said’ (verse 26). and ‘God created’ (verse 27). It is not gods (plural), it is God (singular). And yet this one God says, ‘let us make mankind in our image’. The most likely explanation of the ‘us’ is the Trinity.  Men and women are made in the image of God, his own image, and yet God says, let us. What we discover here is that there is plurality in unity. Earlier parts of Genesis ch1 add weight to this view that the Trinity is being portrayed – when God makes the universe he does so through his Word and in the presence of the Spirit. When we come to the New Testament we discover that God the Son is called ‘the word’ and the Spirit is God the Holy Spirit. 

  

Trinity in the New Testament 

 As with the Old Testament, the New Testament affirms that there is one God:

 ‘since there is only one God’ (Romans 3:30)

‘there is one God’ (1 Timothy 2:5) 

What does come to the fore in the New Testament is a much greater clarity given to the tri of the tri-unity, due to the Sovereign purposes of God to reveal and establish the new covenant.

The Gospel of Matthew begins and ends his account of Jesus’ earthly ministry with a theology of the Trinity.

“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”’ (Matthew 3:16-17)

At Jesus’ baptism Matthew makes the point that each member of the Godhead was present and participating: God the Father is speaking from heaven, Jesus is on earth and is identified by God as his ‘Son whom I love’, the Spirit of God is also present appearing a dove and affirming the Divinity of Christ. Each is described as being God, that is being God in their essence. There is no suggestion here, or anywhere else, of any member of the Trinity being less Divine or inferior to any of the others. The voice from heaven is God and is distinct from the Son, and the Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. All three are described as God, and yet they are distinct persons.

 At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus commissions his disciples saying, ‘“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”’ (Matthew 28:18-20)

 

One God in three persons

Notice that we are told, ‘in the name’. Matthew did not write ‘in the names, plural, but ‘name’ singular – in other words, there is one God, and yet this one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This point is most important: Jesus understands that there is one God, and yet God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By insisting that One God is Father, Son and Spirit, Jesus has not suggested that these three are emanations of the one, as though sometimes God is Father, sometimes God is son, and sometimes God is Spirit (like an individual who dresses up in the three different ways – sometimes he has his work clothes on, sometimes he has his footy gear on, and other times we stays in his PJs). The belief that God shows himself in three different ways is called modalism, and it is a heresy. In trying to protect the oneness of God we fuse the persons of the Godhead together such that they lose their distinctiveness. 

 You may have heard some people try to explain the Trinity with the analogy of water: water is one substance, but it can appear as a solid (ice), as a liquid, and as a gas (steam) – don’t use it. It’s modalism. I know what it’s trying to do but it doesn’t work because the God of the Bible is not one God in three forms but he is simultaneously one God and three distinct persons, each person being fully and equally God. The three-leaf clover analogy is equally misleading, failing to do justice to the three persons of the Trinity, making God sound like a tri-polar God than the Triune God.

 The Father is God – eternally, fully, and distinct from the Son and Spirit. While not common, the OT does occasionally refer to God as Father. Come the New Testament, God the Father is revealed and worshiped on almost every page. For example, Jesus spoke frequently of God the Father, and most of Paul’s letters begin with the twin blessing of grace and peace from God the Father.

The Son is God – eternally and fully. One of the more common titles attributed to Jesus is Lord. This name, Lord, is used of Jesus in a way similar to the way that Lord is used in the OT and in the OT Lord is God’s most holy name. The NT attributes God’s name to Jesus.

In addition, Jesus understood himself to be God. Jesus took for himself the holy self-appointed name of God, I AM. And we know that the religious establishment in Jesus’ day got so miffed by Jesus’ insistence that they killed him. 

 Following Jesus’ resurrection, Thomas exclaimed of Jesus, ‘my Lord and my God.’ (John 20:28)

The Holy Spirit is God – eternally and fully. He is sometimes referred to as the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of Christ, as well as some other variations. If our knowledge was limited to these references we might be forgiven for thinking that the Bible is not referring to a person distinct from the Father and the Son but simply the spiritual aspect of the Father and the Son, just like when the Bible speaks about the human spirit. But Scripture insists that the Holy Spirit is not only fully God, he is distinct from the Father and the Son.

“then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”’ (Acts 5)

 “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

 The Holy Spirit is a person: he can be grieved, he convicts, he speaks, he intercedes, he explains to the Father what we are thinking. The Holy Spirit is God. 

From eternity and always God is, and God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three persons who are each fully God, equal in substance, equal in status, but distinct. They have the same being but they are different persons. They are one in purpose, but they have different roles. It is this perfect community, where each person does their role in perfect love. The Son obeys the Father, the Father glorifies the Son. The Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son to do their work.

 Christians are right to defend belief in one true God, but we must take care that in guarding God’s oneness we avoid negating the three persons of the Godhead. It is both, together, always. It is as though the Bible’s teaching on this topic follows a narrow path with a dangerous precipice on either side – modalism and tritheism. 

Let’s synthesize this material into four basic propositions about God, the wording which I have borrowed from the ESV Study Bible:

1. There is one and only one true and living God.

2. This one God eternally exists in three persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

3. These three persons are completely equal in attributes, each with the same divine nature.

4. While each person is fully and completely God, the persons are not identical.

 

Is this hard to fully grasp? Yes, and that’s ok because we are speaking about God. We cannot expect to understand everything about God because God is greater than ourselves. There is mystery here. I am tempted to provide an analogy to help explain some of the things we’ve been talking about but the reality is, God is without analogy: he is unique, he is other, and the only way we can know him is for him to make himself known and for God on his own terms, to reveal what he chooses. As we grow as Christians, so long as we stick with Scripture, our understanding of the Trinity will grow and we will be able to put more pieces of the puzzle together, but we’ll only finish the puzzle in heaven. Again, that’s ok. 

What does believing in a Triune God mean for us today?

 

I want to finish with sharing some of the implications that come with the doctrine of the Trinity 

i. Knowing this God. The only true God is the Trinitarian God. To not believe this God, is to reject God and to believe a false God. That’s how important this is. 

 Trinity is a Christian doctrine: We are not like Muslims who believe in a monad (one God without three persons). We are not Hindu’s who believe in thousands of gods. We are not Mormons who separate the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit into separate beings. We are not Jehovah’s Witnesses who believe Jesus is an inferior god to the Father and who believe the Holy Spirit is not a person. We are not Unitarians who reject that God is Trinity and we are not Oneness Pentecostals (cf TD Jakes) who are modalists, believing that the One God manifests himself in three different ways (thus rejecting that God is 3 persons). We are not religious feminist deconstructionists who call God Mother. How dare we address God in ways that he has not permitted in Holy Scripture. It matters how we address God, because he is God. The God we know and serve and love is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is not mother, or angel, or cow, or star or the tree trunk in my backyard. The Trinity is the Christian God and there is no other God. 

ii. This doctrine affects worship. By worship I mean the whole of life. True worship of God involves acknowledging God as he is. In our lives of response to the Gospel we need to acknowledge that God is Father, Son, and Spirit, and rightly acknowledge their being and work amongst us. At Mentone Baptist we do not want to reduce God-talk to God or even to Jesus. We talk about all three members of the Godhead. We teach on all three, and we desire to give to each the weighting that Scripture gives them.

iii. Atonement is made possible. For our sins to be atoned God required someone without sin to bear our sins in our place. The problem is, we are all sinners. No one is without sin, except God. God is also the offended party and the judge. Only the Trinitarian God could become both the subject of salvation and the object, to be both judge and the saviour, to receive the punishment and give it. Only God the Trinity could save us.

 “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14).

 iv. All Christian theology is shaped by the Trinity. For example, we saw that earlier that the Father, Son and Spirit were involved in creation. The Apostle Paul tells us that the world was made by Christ and for Christ. The doctrine of revelation is also Trinitarian – the Father speaks words which are about his Son who is the word become flesh, and this Scripture is breathed out by his Spirit. Also, the Spirit points us to the Son through whom we know the Father.

The doctrine of salvation. Salvation is the Father’s, he predestined us before the beginning to be adopted as his Son through Jesus, God’s Son, whom the Father sent into the world to atone for our sins, and the Spirit brings to us the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection by uniting us to him and regenerating us.

All Christian theology is shaped by the Trinity. That’s why we have 3 point sermons!

 

v. We discover the meaning of life.

The Trinity evidences that life is not about us, it is about others. That is how the Trinity works. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, the Son obeys the Father and the Spirit does the work of the Father and the Son. 

God is love. It is only a Trinitarian God who can love. If God is irreducibly mono, a monad, like he is in Islam, he cannot be inherently loving. To love there must be someone to love. I’m not a husband unless I’m married, I’m not a father unless I have a child, I’m not a friend unless I have a friend. And if God’s love is dependent on us, then he is less than self-fulfilled. God is love is only true because in eternity he is Trinity, 3 persons living in perfect loving communion.  

And we are made in God’s image, to love as he loves, what that reveals is that point of life is to love God and to love others. Life is about God and others. So we organise life around, not filling myself up, but giving to glorify God and to serve others.

vi. The existence of unity and diversity. In a class at Moore College Graeme Goldsworthy once told us, students, that the greatest quandary for philosophers is this, how can there be both unity and diversity? How can we account the oneness and plurality?

 The best explanation we have is the Trinitarian God.

Our universe consists of almost infinite diversity – different elements, different planets, temperatures, climates, continents and islands, diverse flora and fauna, different peoples, languages, cultures, families, vocations, food, hobbies, ideologies. We live in an awe-inspiring diverse cosmos. And yet there is incredible unity; it is a uni-verse. There are basic molecular building blocks that make all life possible. Human beings may live in different places and have diverse cultures and languages, and yet we share a great commonality, we are all human.

 It is the great philosophical question, diversity and unity – can there be both? How can diversity derive from oneness, and vice versa. We ought to consider the Triune God. The Bible shouts at us that the heavens and the earth declare the glory of God. Just as a painting bears the marks of its painter, so does the universe. We look at the universe and see tremendous diversity and unity. How can these two seemingly polar categories co-exist?  The Christian doctrine of God as Trinity is the most substantive philosophical answer there is.

  

‘May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ (2 Corinthians 13:14)

 

 

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*I owe much to Robert Letham’s volume, The Holy Trinity 

This article was first put together for my congregation at Mentone Baptist Church back in 2015