The doctrine of the triune Godhead is probably one of the most misunderstood doctrines within Scripture, and one of the reasons is that the word trinity is not found within the sacred text.
Trinity means “three,” and some claim that the idea of the Trinity cannot be fully understood. While it is true that humanity only has an elementary understanding of God, in reality, the essence of God cannot be fully understood by mortal people. Where God is infinite, man is finite. While God is immortal and almighty, man is mortal and limited. Therefore, the fullness of Godhead will not be wholly understood, at least not until the resurrection.
How We Got The Doctrine Of The Trinity
The doctrine of the Trinity originated with Tertullian sometime in the second century but did not find a place formally in the theology of the church until the fourth century. Between AD 313 and AD 451, theological controversies resulted in councils attempting to resolve major theological issues by the formation of creeds.1 One of those issues was the idea of unity between God the Father and God the Son. During the First Council of Constantinople in AD 381, the present Nicene Creed, Apostles’ Creed, and the Athanasian Creed were all adopted as orthodox doctrine within the church.2 Presented within the Athanasian Creed are three affirmations: there is but one God; the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are each God; and the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are each distinct persons.
However, some took umbrage with the idea that God was but one God in three distinct persons. During this time frame, Arius, who had his backing from Eusebius, insisted that Christ had not existed from all eternity but had a beginning by God’s creative act and that Christ was of a different (heteros) essence or substance from the Father. However, Athanasius became the main one who presented and expounded on the idea that Christ had existed from all eternity with the Father and was of the same essence (homoousios)3. In the third century, scholar Origen regarded the Trinity as a hierarchy of persons, that the Son and the Spirit were lesser beings than the Father.4
One God: Three Distinctions
Since the beginning, God has used plural names, plural verbs, and pronouns to describe the Godhead. However, He has also revealed the Godhead as consisting of separate persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. One God in three very distinct persons results in a divine unity, each of whom is the Godhead, and yet supremely conscious of the other two.5 Its emphasis on divine three-in-oneness distinguishes the Christian doctrine of God. The Trinity doctrine speaks of the eternal coexistence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the inner personal life of the Godhead. Evangelical theology affirms that the living, speaking, and acting God is a personal, divine Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the eternal unity of God Himself and His work. The one God is self-disclosed as the invisible Father, from whom all revelation proceeds; the Son, who mediates and objectively incarnates that revelation in a historical manifestation; and the Holy Spirit, who is divinely outpoured and subjectively applies that revelation to men. One could say that the Father is the author of salvation, the Son is the actor of salvation, and the Holy Spirit is the applier of salvation.6
Myer Pearlman composed several analogies or illustrations that can be viewed as one but separate; nature also provides several. Water is one, yet it is known in three forms—water, ice, and steam. Saint Patrick, while evangelizing the Irish, described the Trinity with the three-leafed shamrock. Moreover triangles, which have three sides and three angles. Remove one, and it is no longer a triangle. Even though there might be three angles, there is but one triangle.7 Finally, there is the idea of modalism, which views each person of the Trinity as merely a mode of God’s activity, just as a man can be a son, a father, and a businessman. However, in reality, this is a denial of the Trinity doctrine, for these are not three distinctions in essence, but three qualities or relationships in one and the same person.8
Tritheism Or Co-Eternal?
Another controversial theory regarding the doctrine of the Trinity is the question of how one person can be viewed in three distinct ways. Is the Trinity three Gods? This concept is known as tritheism, which dismisses the unity of the essence of God and presents the theory of three distinct Gods. However, this objection thrives on a misconception of divine personality in attempting to explain God after the definition of man. While there are similarities, humanity was created in the Image of God, it is similarities only. Man is not God, has never been God, and will never be God.
All persons of the Trinity are coeternal and coequal, and John 1:1-14 explains that from the very beginning—the Word was present, was with God, was God, and God became flesh in order to redeem the lost sons of Adam’s fallen race. The Word was Christ and is ever-existing, both eternally and constitutionally, with the Father. The Son was conceived by the Holy Spirit and had a divine nature and a human nature but was one person. He was the Son of God and the Son of Man. However, there was no duality regarding His personality; God and Christ existed in perfect harmony. Christ was equal with God but took upon Himself the form of a servant and was made in the likeness of humanity. Even though Christ was divine, He laid aside the expression of His deity, meaning that He was one hundred percent God and one hundred percent man, and is referred to as the Son of Man roughly seventy times throughout Scripture.
The Holy Spirit
Regarding the person of the Holy Spirit, He is the third member of the triune Godhead, coequal and coeternal with the Father and the Son. He is not some ethereal being but a person. He has personal characteristics, such as intelligence (I Cor. 2:10-12), emotions and feelings (I Cor. 12:8), and a will (I Cor. 12:11). Like both the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and holy. He is the executor of the Godhead, working in every capacity. This means that everything done on this planet has been done by and through the office work, person, and agency of the Holy Spirit. He is the life-giver, which was on full display at the time of creation and when He overshadowed Mary at Christ’s conception. He was involved in every aspect of the earthly ministry of Christ, for every miracle Christ performed was not done as God but as a man filled with the Holy Spirit. Hebrews 9:14 expresses the idea that the Holy Spirit was so involved in the life and death of Christ that the Holy Spirit told Christ when to die. No man took the life of Christ; He laid it down as the ultimate sacrifice for humanity, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, raised Christ back to life (Rom. 8:11).
Even though there is a tremendous Old Testament emphasis on the unity of God, it hints at the plurality of the Godhead, i.e., the Trinity. Genesis 1:26, 3:22, 11:17, and Isaiah 6:8 use plural pronouns when God refers to Himself.9 However, the doctrine of the Trinity is more pronounced in the New Testament. During Christ’s baptism, the heavens opened and the Father spoke, the Son prayed, and the Spirit descended upon the Son in the form of a dove (Luke 3:21-22). In a limited sense, when the believer accepts Christ, that person is placed in Christ, and the Father is well pleased. In John 14:16, Jesus states that He is going to pray to the Father that He would send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, that He might abide in the lives of every believer forever. Also, the disciples were taught to baptize people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19).
Any doctrine found in Scripture is relevant for today, and it would behoove us to try and understand everything that God has given us through His Word. At the same time, if we push aside this great doctrine of the Trinity, then we are doing a tremendous disservice to those who have argued, debated, and studied to give us what we know as the great doctrines of the Bible. Every believer must know what he believes and why he believes it, and to do that, one must make the study of the Bible a lifelong study. God desires to reveal Himself, and one of those ways He reveals who He is, is through the Word of God. God is a God who speaks, communicates, and expresses His love for humanity through His Son, Jesus Christ, and He has sent the Holy Spirit to lead, guide, direct, convict, and comfort His people. The subject of the Trinity is rich in biblical history and has endured much debate and argument throughout the centuries.
1Cairns, Earle E. Christianity through the Centuries. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 125.
4Bird, Michael F. Evangelical Theology. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 116.
5Pearlman, Myer. Knowing the Doctrines of the Bible. (Springfield: Gospel Publishing, 1981), 68.
8Thiessen, Henry Clarence. Lectures in Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 90.
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