by Doug Smith
One of the most often-attacked Bible doctrines is the teaching of the Trinity – one God in Three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Is this idea nonsense or a nonnegotiable of the Christian faith, an absolute truth to be believed? Some call this doctrine a contradiction. Others allege that since “Trinity” is not a word found in Scripture, that Scripture must not teach such a concept. However, an examination of the doctrine reveals that:
1. The Trinity it is not a contradiction, although we are not capable of fully understanding the doctrine.
2. The Trinity is a concept clearly set forth in Scripture, particularly the New Testament.
OBJECTIONS TO THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY
The reality of verbal and written communication rests on the assumption that words have meaning. If we assume that words have meaning, we may express ourselves in propositions – statements that may be true or false. The law of non-contradiction (“no lie is of the truth,” 1 John 2:21) expresses the fact that no statement can be both true and false at the same time and in the same sense. For example, the statement “I had eggs for breakfast this morning” might be true today and false tomorrow, because the time referred to would have changed. For the morning of January 23, 2006, I either had eggs for breakfast or I did not. To assert both that I did and did not have eggs on the same morning would be contradictory.
The charge that the Trinity is a contradictory doctrine is based on a misunderstanding. The doctrine of the Trinity is that God is three Persons in one Essence, or Being. Those who charge that Trinitarian teaching is a contradiction may argue that God cannot be three and one – He is either one, or He is three. To make such an assertion is to ignore the fact that a statement cannot be true and false at the same time and in the same sense. The Trinity is not a contradiction, because it is not the idea that God is three in the same sense that He is One.
Some may respond that we cannot distinguish between a person and a being. They might say that everyone who is a being is also a person. Therefore, if God is one being, He must be one in person. But this is to make a mistaken assumption about the nature of God based upon the limitations of human personality (“thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself,” Psalm 50:21). Humans are limited and are creatures. God the Creator is unlimited – He is an infinite Being. Although I cannot comprehend it, God is not limited in the way that I am to one person. Scripture speaks of God in different persons but makes clear that He is one Being.
MISUNDERSTANDING THE TRINITY
The doctrine of the Trinity has been misunderstood by some. Those who hold to modalism depict God as one who manifests Himself in 3 personalities at different times (like an actor known for different roles in various films). Advocates of monarchism argue for a hierarchy in the Trinity, making 2 of the persons “less” than the King of the Trinity, the Father. Tritheism is the idea of three gods instead of one God in three Persons. However, the Scripture says that God has manifested Himself simultaneously in three Persons and that those three Persons are co-equal as one God.
Unfortunately, those who believe the Trinity often promote a misunderstanding when they try to illustrate the doctrine. In talking with my pastor about these analogies, he made the point that while illustrations can be useful to demonstrate that the concept of 3-in-1 is not completely unfamiliar to us, there is no illustration capable of doing justice to the truth of the Trinity. Illustrations tend toward modalistic or tritheistic thinking. For example, some use the three states of water – gas, liquid, and solid – to demonstrate God’s Trinitarian nature. Vapor, liquid water, and ice are all one thing – water. A major problem in using this illustration is that one particular mass of water cannot be in all three states at once, but has to change. And if one were to argue that one mass of water could be part vapor, part liquid, and part solid, that would not be a helpful illustration either, since God the Father is completely God, God the Son is completely God, and God the Holy Spirit is completely God. Therefore, we must beware attempting to use physical phenomena to illustrate the Trinity since such attempts may produce incorrect thoughts about God.
THE BIBLICAL CONCEPT OF THE TRINITY
Although the word “Trinity” is used nowhere in the Bible, the doctrine of the Trinity – that God is one Being in three Persons – is a distinctly Biblical teaching.
God’s unity: the LORD our God is one LORD
The clear statement of the Old Testament Scriptures is that “the LORD our God is one LORD.” God says, “I am the LORD, and there is none else, there is no God beside me” (Isaiah 45:5).
The New Testament is clear about God’s unity as well. The apostle Paul writes that “there is none other God but one” (1 Corinthians 8:4).
Plurality in the Godhead
The plurality of God is implicit in the Old Testament and explicit in the New Testament.
God’s plurality is implied in Genesis 1:1 by the word for God, elohim, a plural noun used throughout the Old Testament to refer to God. Furthermore, the use of plural pronouns suggests plurality in God. God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26).
We read of “the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” in Matthew 28:19. The apostle Paul closed one of his epistles this way: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
Unity in Plurality
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Genesis 1:27). In these verses, the word for God is the Hebrew elohim, a plural noun, but the verb translated as “created” is singular in the Hebrew.
“The LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Genesis 3:22).
In Deuteronomy 6:4, we read that “the LORD our God is one LORD.” Again, elohim, a plural noun, is rendered “God.” However, the word for LORD (Hebrew YHWH – Yahweh, or Jehovah) is singular. So, in this statement of God’s unity, plurality is evident as well.
In the words, “the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” the word “name” is singular, but the Persons are three (Matthew 28:19).
These passages join God’s unity with His plurality.
God in Three Persons
The Persons of the Godhead are called God: “God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:3); “unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever” (Hebrews 1:8); “lie to the Holy Ghost…thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God” (Acts 5:3-4).
The persons of the Godhead exist simultaneously: “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17).
The blessings of salvation come through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, according to Ephesians 1:3-14. The Father chose us, predestinated us unto adoption by Christ and made us accepted in Him, to the praise of the glory of His grace. In the Son, we have redemption, forgiveness, revelation, and an inheritance that we should be to the praise of His glory. The Holy Spirit seals us and is the earnest of our inheritance, to the praise of His glory. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
God the Father
God the Father is the one “of whom are all things” (1 Corinthians 8:6). He “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). The title of “Father” is a New Testament emphasis that highlights the Father’s eternal relationship to the Son and His personal relationship to those who are His children by adoption in Christ. In Psalm 103:13, He is compared to a Father: “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him,” but the New Testament has us to address Him with the title of Father. The Father loves the Son (John 15:9).
God the Son
The Son loves the Father (John 14:31). The Son is the perfect image of the Father (Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:3). He is the Word through Whom all things were created (John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:16). He reveals the Father to us and is one with the Father (John 10:30). The Son is the Word who became flesh in Jesus Christ (John 1:14). Jesus’ claim that God was His Father was rightly understood by the Jews as claiming equality with God (John 5:18, cf. Philippians 2:6). He is David’s Lord, yet David’s Son (Matthew 22:42-45, Revelation 22:16). His resurrection declared His deity (Romans 1:4). His mission was to glorify God the Father and bring men to Him (John 17:4, 1 Peter 3:18). He shared glory with the Father (John 17:5). He forgave sins, exercising divine authority (Mark 2:5-11). He received worship (Matthew 28:17, Luke 24:52). He has been given the highest title of Lord (Philippians 2:9-11).
God the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son (John 14:16, 26, 15:26, 16:7) to convict men of sin (John 16:8-11), reveal truth (John 14:26, 15:26), and indwell believers (John etc.). The Holy Spirit is called another Comforter of the same type as the Son (John 14:16). Blasphemy against Him will not be forgiven (Matthew 12:31-32). People are born again through His work (John 3:5-8). His mission is to glorify Christ (John 16:14). He works Christian character in the lives of believers (Galatians 5:22-23).
From these observations, we must conclude that the Trinity is not a contradiction, nor a man-made idea, but a Biblical doctrine – an essential teaching without which the claims of Christ are not valid or relevant. Since it is taught in the Scriptures, we are to proclaim, defend, and love the doctrine of the Trinity as we declare the full counsel of the Triune God (Acts 20:20, 27). The Trinity is not nonsense, but is absolute, nonnegotiable truth.