The Doctrine of the Trinity
by Gregory B. Dill
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Understanding the Trinity
There has been no other doctrine that has caused more divisiveness and confusion than that of the doctrine of the Trinity. For hundreds of years, theologians and scholars have invariably attempted to explain and understand this doctrine. While some have been successful with this endeavor others haven't, with sometimes resulting in near heresy. Trying to fully comprehend the Trinity is like a person living in a three dimensional world trying to understand and comprehend the elements of an eight dimensional world. In other words, finite, mortal, and inferior man is attempting to understand an infinite, immortal, supreme God. It can't be done. C.S. Lewis remarks on the complexities of this understanding in his book, Mere Christianity. “The human level is a simple and rather empty level. On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two separate beings - just as, in two dimensions (say on a flat sheet of paper) one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures. On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God's dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube. But we can get a sort of faint notion of it.” (1)
I in no way intend on rectifying this age old dilema. I do however desire to clarify and explain this doctrine in simple laymen terms so perhaps the average Christian or even the skeptic may more readily understand this often misunderstood issue. I feel a basic understanding of this doctrine is essential to the believer. It is important because there can be no real blessing either upon ourselves or our work if we neglect an understanding of any one of the persons of the Godhead.
Just what is the Trinity? The Trinity is one God subsisting in three persons consisting of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all of which is God. John Calvin preferred using the word subsisting as it most accurately conveys this truth of the Trinity. Webster’s defines subsistence as, “real being, existence.” In other words, the Trinity is one God existing in three persons.
The word trinity itself is not found anywhere in the Bible. Trinity comes from the Latin word trinitas, which means “threeness.” Because the word cannot be found in the Bible, the doctrine itself is often times rejected or dismissed altogether. The Unitarians and the Christadelphians are examples of such who have done so. The word “rapture” cannot be found anywhere throughout the Scriptures as well. But because of this, the doctrine of the rapture or the “blessed hope” is not dismissed either. Although the word trinity is not found in the Bible, the idea and concept is prevalent throughout the entire Scriptures, both in the Old and New Testaments.
The common notion that this doctrine is the foundational
basis of a belief in three gods, or tritheism; or polytheism, the belief
in many gods, and therefore calls for the dismissal of monotheism, the
belief in one god, is a complete misunderstanding of the trinitarian idea.
Many of the major religions of the world have labeled Christianity a polytheistic
religion because of its belief in a triune Godhead. Both the Islamic and
Jewish religions are an example of such. What these and many other religions
simply do not understand is that in all actuality it is one God we as
Christians believe in, making it instead a monotheistic religion similar
to those of the aforementioned religions themselves.
History of the Doctrine of the TrinityHistorically, the doctrine of the Trinity has been much cause for debate. Entire councils have convened on behalf of determining the basis of the trinitarian doctrine. Both the Nicean and Chalcedon Councils discussed the issue of the Trinity as one of its primary agendas. See the Athanasian Creed in study entitled, Important Documents of the Protestant Church. The one person most famous for opposing the doctrine of the Trinity is Arius of Alexandria (died A.D. 336). At the very foundation of his dismissal of the doctrine was his disbelief in the divinity of both Christ and the Holy Spirit. Without Christ's divinity He is therefore unequal to God and therefore there is no existence of a Trinity. Instead, Arius taught that both Christ and the Holy Spirit were simply willed into existence for the purpose of redemption, they were not eternal, as God is. This heretical teaching is better known as Arianism. The Unitarians of today have embraced this theology. Aside from Arius, Sabellius (circa A.D. 320) was yet another individual who opposed the idea of a triune Godhead. He did not believe the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit coexisted together. Rather God would temporarily manifest himself in the person of Christ or the Holy Spirit for whatever reason necessary. This form of teaching became better known as modalism or Sabellianism. Both the early and late Catholic Church adopted the doctrine of the Trinity in most part. Most of the early church fathers were believers of the trinitarian doctrine. All of the notable fathers of the Reformation were proponents of the doctrine of the Trinity. Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and many others. The drafters of the Westminster Shorter Cathechism refer to the equality of each of the persons of the Trinity as “the same in substance, equal in power and glory.” (Q. 6). Today, pretty much all of the mainline Protestant denominations have adopted the doctrine of the Trinity into their theology. However, many cults of today reject or deny the Trinity as a whole. The Mormons are an example of such.
The Deity of the Persons of the TrinityIn order for the doctrine of the Trinity to exist, we must first establish and conclude the deity and divinity of each of the three persons that comprise the Trinity. Without establishing these facts, the doctrine of the Trinity simply does not exist and therefore is null and void. If just one person of the Trinity is not God then there is simply no Trinity. The Trinity can only contain that which is deity. That which is God. I implore you to take the time and refer to the given scripture references below, they will be very beneficial in understanding the deity of these three persons of the Trinity.
The Deity of God the FatherThe first person of the Trinity is God the Father. This is the same God of both the Old and New Testaments. This is the God with whom the Jews are most familiar with. Yahweh, Adonai, Jehovah are all names ascribed to the Lord God. It is the same God who Noah knew. He is the God that spoke with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the great “I Am” of Exodus. He is the God with whom Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and the whole peoples of Israel all knew. He is the God that Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz knew. He is the God that Samson, Gideon, and Deborah listened to. He is the God of Samuel. He is the God of David. He is the God of Solomon who built the temple to. He is the God who spoke through the prophets of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Nehemiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Elijah, and Elisha, just to name a few. He is the God who spoke through the minor prophets of Nahum, Micah, Jonah, Obadiah, and Amos. Without resolve, we can easily establish the fact that God the Father is God just from the Old Testament references alone. In the New Testament, God reveals himself at Jesus’ baptism at the River Jordan (Matt. 3:17). Additionally, God reveals himself at the Mount of Transfiguration of Jesus (Luke 9:35). In Romans 1:7, Paul clearly establishes the fact that the Father is God. “Grace and peace to you from God our Father...” The New Testament is replete with references to the deity and divinity of God the Father. We can easily conclude that the Father is in fact deity and is therefore God.
The Deity of ChristThe second person of the Trinity is the Son, Jesus Christ. Christ reveals himself in the Old Testament numerous times. These pre incarnate appearances are called theophanies or christologies. See earlier study entitled, Christ in the Old Testament, for a detailed analysis of this topic. He reveals himself in the fiery furnace in the book of Daniel (Daniel 3:19-25). He reveals himself in the person of Melchizedek as a type of Christ in the book of Genesis (Genesis 14:18-20). The book of Hebrews confirms this (Hebrews 7:3-6). Jacob might have wrestled with him (Genesis 32:22-30). He revealed himself to the parents of Samson (Judges 13:3-11). The New Testament is much easier in establishing the deity of Christ. The resurrection story alone is evidence of His deity. Just the fact that He died and rose again is all we really need to know to confirm this truth. But, if that's not enough, take into account his numerous miracles, i.e. calming of the storm (Matt. 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, Luke 8:22-25), healing of man with leprosy (Matt. 8:1-4, Mark 1:40-45, Luke 5:12-16), healing a paralyzed man (Matt. 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26), feeding of five thousand (Matt. 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-15), raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:38-44), just to name few. God himself declares Him as the Son of God (Matt. 3:16-17, Luke 9:35) Jesus claims He is deity many times throughout the gospels (John 10:30, John 14:9, Matt. 11:27, John 13:13, John 14:20-21). The claims of Jesus’ deity by others (John 20:28, Matt. 14:33, 16:16, 27:54; Mark 1:24, Mark 3:11, Mark 5:7) The list goes on. In Colossians 1:16 it states that He created all things including heaven and earth. Only a God could accomplish such a task! The first chapter of John is most famous in describing the full deity of Christ (John 1:1-18). Philippians 2:5-5 states, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” Additionally, Hebrews 1:8 states, “But about the Son he (God) says, Your throne, O God, will last forever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom.” If you as the reader are still not convinced of His deity, then I don't know what will. From these given examples it is quite evident, thus safe to conclude, Jesus Christ is clearly God.
The Deity of the Holy SpiritThe third and last person of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit. Like the other two persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit lives on throughout both Testaments. David refers to the Holy Spirit in Psalm 51. “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.” (Psalm 51:11) The prophet Isaiah makes reference to the Holy Spirit. “Yet they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit. So he turned and became their enemy and he himself fought against them. ...Where is he who set his Holy Spirit among them?” (Isaiah 63:10-11). The term “Spirit of God” or the “Spirit of the Lord” is used many numerous times throughout the Old Testament (Exodus 31:3, 35:31; Numbers 24:2, Judges 3:10, 6:34, 11:29; 1 Samuel 10:6, 11:6; 2 Kings 2:16, 2 Chron. 20:14, 24:20; Psalm 106:33, Isaiah 11:2, 63:14; Ezekiel 11:5, Micah 2:7, 3:8). In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit was instrumental in the birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:20) And again at his baptism, the Holy Spirit descends upon Christ (Matt. 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22). Jesus teaches about the ministry and mission of the Holy Spirit more than any other person of the Bible. “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever - the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” (John 14:15-17) If this Spirit were not deity, then how could it not be seen? Only something that is deity can live within someone's soul as this verse implies. Additionally Jesus states, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26). For something to teach all that Christ has taught and then some, must therefore require it to be deity, for Christ himself is God. Aside from Christ's descriptive words of the nature and deity of the Holy Spirit there are also other descriptions of the Spirit which have been assigned divine attributes. The Spirit is eternal (Hebrews 9:14). The Spirit is omnipresent (Psalm 139:7). The Spirit is omniscient (2 Cor. 2:10-11). Lastly, the Spirit is omnipotent (Luke 1:35). Just from these God-like attributes alone we can conclude the deity of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it too, similar to the other two persons of the Trinity, is God.
We have now established the deity of the three persons
of the Trinity. With these facts in mind we can now begin to formulate
the idea of the existence of three beings that comprise the Trinity. As
mentioned earlier, the Trinity can only contain that which is deity. That
which is God. However, we have yet to see any scriptural references where
the three are used together simultaneously. Space will not allow for the
many scriptural references to the Trinity. Instead, I will provide only
the essential references. Let's examine.
Old Testament References to the TrinityThe first Old Testament verse that comes to mind and probably the most frequently quoted verse used by trinitarians is that which is found in Genesis 1:26. “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness...” Notice the plurality of this verse. Together, the three persons of the Trinity created the world and all that is in it, including man. Then later on, at the Tower of Babel, the Bible says, “Come, let us go down and confuse their languages so they will not understand each other.” (Genesis 11:7). Here, the three members of the Godhead together confused the languages of the people at Babel. Additionally, when the prophet Isaiah was commissioned by God, he heard this, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8a) Again, observe the plurality in this verse. "Who will be the mouthpiece for us?" Back in Genesis, Abraham encounters three unique visitors who are referred to as Lord (Genesis 18). Whenever their is dialogue between Abraham and these three visitors, Abraham addresses them as Lord and it is the Lord who in turn speaks back to Abraham. This can simply be construed as a type of Trinity. This can also be a theophany.
New Testament References to the TrinityIt is much easier to see the Trinity working together more clearly in the New Testament. For example, before Christ was born physically, an angel of the Lord appeared to Mary and mentions all three persons of the Trinity. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35). And again at Jesus’ baptism all three persons of the Trinity were present. “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 lighting on him. And a voice from heaven [God] said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:16-17). This account is also given in Mark 1:9-11 and Luke 3:21-22. Shortly before Jesus ascension to the heavenlies he gives the Great Commission. “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.” (Matthew 28:19) This account is also described in Mark 16:15-18. In the gospel of John, Jesus explicitly teaches about the Holy Spirit. In his description of the Spirit, Jesus uses all three persons of the trinity. “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I [Jesus] have said to you.” (John 14:26) Additionally, “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me [Jesus].” (John 15:26)
Aside from the gospel accounts of the Trinity, there are many more references to the three persons unified together throughout the New Testament. In the famous Apostolic Benediction, Paul uses all three persons of the Trinity. “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) In the introduction to one of Peter's books he addresses his letter to God's elect in the name of each of the three persons of the Trinity. “To God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood...” (1 Peter 1:1-2) Jude also refers to each of three persons together. “But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God's love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.” (Jude 20-21)
I believe the scriptural evidence overwhelmingly
points to the existence of a triune Godhead. There are many more scriptural
references alluding to the Trinity than there are not. To oppose the doctrine
of the Trinity is to oppose the very deity of at least one of the persons
of the Trinity. To deny the deity and being of the Holy Spirit is blasphemy
and is also the one and only unforgivable sin (Matt. 12:31-32, Mark 3:28-29).
To deny the deity of Christ also denies God the Father (John 14:9, 10:30,
Opposing Scriptural ReferencesIt would be utter blasphemy to associate God with other gods or beings. It would simply be idolatry. Grounds for execution under the Mosaic Law. However, the writers of the Scriptures clearly knew of the existence of all three persons of the Trinity, otherwise they would not have used pluralistic references to God. Even the Hebrews themselves used the term Elohim when referring to God Almighty. The word Elohim is a plural form of the name of God. The opponents of the trinitarian doctrine will use the many scriptural references alluding to one God. An example of such can be found in the book of Deuteronomy. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one”. (Deuteronomy 6:4) The Hebrew translation of the word “one” used in this verse is echad which means not one in isolation but rather one in unity. This implies the Lord God is unified with yet another. This Hebrew word echad is the same word used to describe the oneness of a man and woman when given into marriage. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24) Again, in this verse it is clear that there are two distinct individual beings who have become one (echad). This is the same concept of the three persons of the Trinity unified as one God. Each person of the Trinity is uniquely individual from the others. Yet they are one. They cannot and will not contradict each other, instead they compliment one another and work together as one unified being.
IllustrationsTo help illustrate this mysterious and complex idea of the Trinity I have provided an analogy using the element known as H2O, water. H2O exists in three ways. As a liquid - water. As a solid - ice. And as a gas - steam. Yet these three separate states are all a derivative of the one same element - H2O. The liquid can be likened to God the Father, the ice compared to the Son, and the steam to the Holy Spirit. But even this analogy is in error. All three of these states of H2O cannot exist together at the same time from the same source. In other words, a single pot of water cannot be water, ice, and steam all at the same time.
In his book entitled, Foundations of the Christian Faith, James Montgomery Boice provides a more accurate illustration of the Trinity. “Perhaps a better illustration of the Trinity is the illustration of light, heat and air. If you hold your hand out and look at it, each of these three things is present. There is light, because it is only by light that you can see your hand. In fact, even if the darkness of night should descend, there would still be light. There would be infrared light. Although you couldn't see it, it could be picked up by special equipment. There is also heat between your head and your hand. You may prove it by holding out a thermometer. It will vary as you go from a cold room to a warm room or from the outside to indoors. Finally, there is air. You can blow on your hand and feel it. You can wave your hand and thus fan your face.”
“The point is that each of these three - light, heat
and air - is distinct. Each obeys its own laws and may be studied separately.
And yet, at the same time it is (at least in a normal earthly setting)
impossible to have any one without the others. They are three and yet
they are one. Together they make up the environment in which we have our
ConclusionAs believers, we can easily see the existence of each of the three persons of the Trinity working in each and every one of our individual lives. For example when praying. The Holy Spirit prompts us to pray to God, in the name of his Son Jesus Christ who has become the mediator between us and God (1 Tim. 2:5). Additionally, it is the Holy Spirit that lives in us and produces fruit and gifts to further God's kingdom through Christ.
Again, the evidence overwhelmingly points to the existence of a triune Godhead. In addition to the work of the Trinity in all our daily lives, it is the Scriptures, God's Word, that clarifies this truth. In closing, I hope and pray that through this study, the doctrine of the Trinity has become more clearer to you the reader. I hope that this study can also be a reference point to aid you as a believer in your support of the doctrine of the Trinity. God bless.
(1) - C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Collier Books,
MacMillan Publishing Co., New York, 1952)142