One aspect of the nature of God is that he is triune. The Trinity is a uniquely Christian doctrine, teaching that there is only one God, but in three persons. The Trinity is not explicitly taught in the Bible but is implicitly proclaimed throughout the New Testament. This post will take a look at the scriptural evidence to support the concept of the Trinity, how we came to our current understanding of the Trinity, and some common analogies used to describe the Trinity.
The Shema, in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, begins with “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” When Jesus was asked for the greatest commandment, Mark 12:28-30, he replied by quoting the beginning of the Shema. This affirms that, at least for Israel, and Jesus, there is only one God; they are monotheistic. James 2:19, 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, and 1 Timothy 2:5-6 also affirm that there is only one God.
Jesus talks about his Father often, and the other New Testament writers used this term for God as well. In Matthew 6:26, the Father feeds the birds of the air. Then, in Matthew 6:30, God clothes the grass of the field. In these passages, Jesus used God and Father interchangeably. The Father, distinct from the Son, is God.
In John 10:30, Jesus said that he and the Father are one. They are distinct, and yet in some fashion one. Philippians 2:5-9, in speaking of Jesus, Paul says, “who being in very nature God….“, affirming that Jesus is God. John 1:1-3;14, Colossians 1:15-20, and Hebrews 1:1-4 all speak of Jesus as being God.
In John 14:16, Jesus told his disciples that the Father would send to them another advocate, the Spirit of truth. The ‘another’ in this passage indicates one who is like Jesus; this Spirit of truth is also God. In 1 Corinthians 3:16, Paul tells us that we are God’s temple, while in 1 Corinthians 6:19, we are the temple of the Holy Spirit; God and the Holy Spirit are synonymous here.
Three in oneness
In the baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19-20, we are told to baptize believers in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Note the singular ‘name’ here rather than names. We are to baptize in the name of the one God in three persons.
In 2 Corinthians 13:14, Paul says, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” All three parts of the Trinity are included here without any indication of rank and in a different order than in the Matthew quotation. If they are all equal, then the order does not matter.
The orthodox position of the Trinity is that God is one being, of one substance, with three distinct persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The three persons are distinct, and yet of one substance. They are all three eternal and uncreated. Ontologically they are equal, even though functionally, for the purpose of our redemption, the Son and The Holy Spirit are submissive to the Father.
This understanding of the Trinity was slow in developing and resulted mostly to separate the orthodox position from heresies that were abounding in the early centuries of the church. The Council of Nicaea, in 325, produced the Nicene Creed, which was modified in 381 at the First Council of Constantinople. This creed has been accepted as the orthodox position on the Trinity by Catholics, Protestants, and by the Orthodox church.
Modalism teaches that there is only one God who appears to us as either Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. While they are all the one God, God is only one of them at any one time. For instance: the Father is active in creation; the Son in redemption; and the Spirit in our sanctification.
Tritheism teaches that the three persons of the Trinity are actually distinct gods, although sharing the same substance. Mormons practice a form of tritheism, believing the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are distinct individuals.
Arianism teaches that Christ is the first and greatest of God’s creations, that he has a beginning and is not eternal. The Nicene Creed was developed primarily in response to Arianism. Jehovah’s Witnesses today proclaim a version of Arianism.
As humans, we struggle with trying to understand the concept of the Trinity. In an attempt to understand the Trinity, a number of analogies have been proposed. But all of these analogies fall short, and many of them are actually supportive of one of the heresies listed above.
The analogy of the egg postulates that the Trinity is like an egg, which has three parts; the shell, the yoke, and the white. This is actually a form of tritheism since the three parts of the egg are of different substances, unlike the triune God, whose persons are of one substance.
The analogy of water is another attempt to describe the Trinity. Water can be a solid, a liquid, or a gas; one substance in three different forms. Yet this is actually a form of modalism; the water can only be in one of these states at a time.
I am a father, a husband, and a son; three distinct roles yet one person. The problem with this is that I function in a single role at a time; to no one am I more than one of these roles. That makes this a form of modalism.
Ultimately I know of no good analogies that adequately describe the Trinity. It is not really understandable to us finite creatures and is simply a matter of faith. The Bible, while not explicitly teaching the doctrine, does affirm this doctrine, and so we accept it by faith. God is one in three persons.
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