On the Trinity

Perhaps nothing is as difficult to understand or explain as the concept of the trinity. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves. Those who do not acknowledge the Triune God of the Bible as their true creator especially use the difficulty and “illogic” of the truth as one of their chief protests against Him. But is all this confusion and frustration warranted? Absolutely not, and here are a few reasons why.

Difficult

Have you ever considered the concept of zero? What about nothing? Can your mind fathom zero? The absence of everything. No laws of logic, universal laws of nature, or matter. Zero is something completely made up and conceptual. It does not actually exist and cannot exist. One basic reason why it cannot exist is found within the laws of thermodynamics which include the natural law that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. There can never be zero. Ever. Yet, we have no problem using it in common vernacular. It represents the lack of something within a fixed environment. But just because the car dealership sells you 0% financing doesn’t mean that percentages or interest do not exist at all, but only in a specific way and sense. The word itself represents something we need to communicate but cannot actually fathom in our own experience. This is a good way to think about the word Trinity. No, you won’t find that word anywhere in the Bible; but we use it to express revealed truths from the Bible that we simply cannot fathom in our experience or adequately describe in words.

We also often see divine concepts within other religions that are foreign to our created experience but that we as Christians nonetheless affirm as well. For instance, there is nothing created that is omniscient, yet we describe God as being omniscient. If we were to ask for an example of what omniscience is like from creation there is nothing we could appeal to. The only way we could know what omniscience is would be to define it as a concept. Since God has revealed in the Bible that he knows all things, you could say that omniscience is a concise way of describing a revealed truth. This is the same with Trinity. What is revealed about God is that He is one God who exists as three Persons.

But allow us to take this point one step further. We acknowledge that trying to answer the question of “how?” God exists as tri-unity is difficult. But the same can be said of God’s omniscience. How is God omniscient? If your answer is, “because he’s God” then you would be right. And that answer holds true with God’s trinitarian nature as well. How can God be one God eternally existing as three distinct persons, neither dividing the essence nor confusing the persons? Because he’s God. And if this is not a satisfactory answer for trinity but it is for omniscience then there is inconsistency in the way revealed truths about God are being handled. Furthermore, simply because something is difficult to understand or explain does not make that thing untrue. Difficulty should never be an excuse for denying our creator, but that is exactly what this line of argumentation is doing.

Unique

What concepts such as God’s omniscience teach us about God is that he is unique. And when we say unique we do not mean how each of us has a unique DNA code, or how someone may dress with unique fashion. What we mean by unique is that God is independent of his creation such that there is nothing like him and there will never be anything like him. While he does have traits that he shares with his creation such as love and justice, he also has traits that he in no way shares with his creation. Those traits that he does not share with his creation are called his incommunicable attributes.

Some of these incommunicable attributes include his eternal nature and his unchangeableness, to name a couple. We have a fixed beginning, God does not. We change, God does not. We exist as one nature (human) and one person (yourself), God does not. God’s tri-unity, or trinity, is part of his uniqueness. It is something he does not share with his creation. Therefore it should not be considered impossible for God to exist in trinity, but rather it should be considered incommunicable. This is the correct way to think about our creator.

Does the Bible teach that there is one God?

There are many things we can know about God apart from a special revelation of him. Romans 1:19 states, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” But there are certain things we can only know about God if he chooses to reveal them to us via special revelation. The means by which God has provided his special revelation is through what we find in the Bible.

Within the Bible we learn that God is one, meaning there is only one God. Perhaps the most central revelation of this truth comes from Deuteronomy 6:4 which says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This passage is quoted by Jesus as being the single greatest commandment. Other passages include: Isaiah 42:8, “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” Zechariah 14:9, “And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day the Lord will be one and his name one.” And finally, 1 Corinthians 8:4, “Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.””

These passages are sufficient, but not exhaustive, to show that the Bible clearly teaches there is only one God. Christians believe this and in no way deny it.

How should we understand passages like Genesis 1:26?

One of the first instances we see of the multiple personage of God is in Genesis 1:26 which says, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.” The “us” and “our” here should not be read as the plural of majesty. The plural of majesty is not used anywhere (not one single time) within the Hebrew writings of the Old Testament; this is an actual plural that God is referring back upon himself. He is not speaking to the angels or any other heavenly beings. The language is clear, God is referring to himself using plural pronouns. In fact, it is so plain and obvious that even the earliest church leaders such as Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Theophilus of Antioch, and Tertullian used this very passage as a defense of the divinity of Jesus and what would eventually be defined as “Trinity”.

Other passages from the Old Testament include Genesis 1:1-2 where we see the Holy Spirit involved in creation. Job 33:4 tells us that the Holy Spirit creates, Psalm 139:7 tells us that he is omnipresent, and Isaiah 63:10 tells us that he is grieved by our sin (which is a divine phrase).

Psalm 45:6-7 says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” The passage is addressed to God and yet tells of God’s God. How can God have a God when there is one God? Pretty easily when you’re talking about the one true, triune, God of Scripture. This is why the New Testament writers cited this passage as being about Jesus. Other instances of where God refers to God can be found in Malachi 3:1 and Hosea 1:7 to name only a couple.

Did Jesus ever claim to be God?

Yes! But, you didn’t come this far for such a short answer. Mark 2:5-11 demonstrates that Jesus had the power to forgive sins. In fact, Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The religious leaders of his day rightly confessed that only God could forgive sins. Jesus then proved to them all that he had authority to forgive sins by healing the man whose sins he had forgiven. By doing so, Jesus showed himself to be God.

In fact, Jesus was so explicit in his claims that he was God that the cited reason why the Jewish leaders said he should be killed was because Jesus called himself God to their faces. Mark 14:61-64 recounts the dialogue in which Jesus was accused of blasphemy for declaring himself God. The way in which he did it was to declare himself to be the divine Son of Man from Daniel 7. The religious leaders of that day correctly understood exactly what Jesus was saying and charged him with equating himself to God.

Did Jesus indicate that the Holy Spirit is God?

In his final instructions to his disciples, Jesus gave them the trinitarian baptismal formula whereby he instructed that his disciples were to be baptized “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).” Here we see the co-equality of the three persons of God. Jesus had earlier shown the divine nature of the Holy Spirit by declaring that “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven (Matthew 12:31).” The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible defines blasphemy as, “Profane or contemptuous speech or writing about (or action toward) God.” It is true that the object of blasphemy is divine in its essence and Jesus says that the Holy Spirit can be blasphemed. Therefore, logic dictates that the Spirit is divine in his essence. There is no other way to understand the words of Jesus here.

Did the Apostles believe Jesus was God?

The apostle John began his gospel speaking of Jesus as the Word of God. He said, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1:1).” Since Jesus is the Word then Jesus is God. The apostle Paul also declares Jesus to be God when he wrote, “To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen (Romans 9:5).” Finally, the apostle Thomas declared Jesus to be, “My Lord and my God (John 20:26-28)!” These are only a few examples of the many ways the apostles declared Jesus to be God.

Did the Apostles indicate that the Holy Spirit is God?

Paul wrote, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom… For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17–18).”

Peter wrote, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories (1 Peter 1:10–11).” This is an amazing passage showing the unity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit who spoke through the prophets of Israel to declare the coming of Jesus.

What did the generations of Christians after the apostles teach?

The simple answer is that they taught what the Bible says, which is what was taught to them from the prophets.

“But they declared that the sum of their guilt or error had amounted only to this, that on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn antiphonally to Christ, as to a god… – Pliny (the Younger) AD 62-113” This is coming from a non-Christian witness. Pliny the Younger was a Roman governor who was persecuting Christians in his area. He wrote these words to the emperor testifying that the Christians were worshiping Christ as a god. This language “as a god” is not a detriment to the Christian testimony but is rather an expression from a pagan who sought to say that Christians worshiped Jesus as divine. This is an amazing testimony!

“Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Most High Father, and Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the Church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that willeth all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God. – Ignatius of Antioch, “The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans” AD 30 – 107” Here was see Ignatius, an early church leader, declaring directly that Jesus is God.

“that the name of the true and only God might be glorified – Clement of Rome (AD 30 – 100)” This passage from Clement’s letter further demonstrates the Christian message of one God. This is critical to have correct in our thinking so that the essence of God (1) is not confused with the persons of God (3).

“For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. – Justin Martyr (AD 110 – 165)” Here we have Justin Martyr bearing witness to the trinitarian baptismal formula. The name of God is here declared to be threefold: Father, Saviour, and Holy Spirit.

“From all which we learn that the person of the Holy Spirit was of such authority and dignity, that saving baptism was not complete except by the authority of the most excellent Trinity of them all, i.e., by the naming of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. – Origen (AD 185 – 254)” This passage is very important as it demonstrates the refinement of Christian expression of the biblical truth of the triune nature of God. Notice here that “trinity” appears 100 years prior to the Council of Nicea.

So, what happened at the Council of Nicea in 325?

For the sake of the length of this article we will address the events of Nicea at a very high level. The controversy began when a bishop from Alexandria, Egypt by the name of Arius began teaching something new and peculiar about Jesus. The popular phrase that encapsulated his argument was, “there was when He was not.” His argument was that Jesus was created by the Father and was not eternally God. His greatest proof text from the Bible were the instances where Jesus is said to be “begotten” of the Father. Although Arius viewed Jesus as the highest of the Father’s creations he nevertheless did not view him, or the Holy Spirit, as equal with God.

Arius’s views grew popular and threatened to split the church, which had just come out from under the systemic persecution of emperors prior to Constantine. Therefore an ecumenical (or church) council was called and attended by hundreds of bishops from across the Roman empire. It was there that the council of the Bishops condemned the teachings of Arius and clarified that the teaching of historical Christianity was that Jesus is eternally God. As part of the Nicene Creed testifies: “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father.”

Nicea did not create the trinity, it clarified its meaning against incorrect teaching. The council was not called to define God, but to defend him.

Where did the word “trinity” come from?

The earliest documented use is from Theophilus of Antioch between AD 150 – 188. However, his use is natural, not definitional, meaning he is making reference to something his reader would already have familiarity with. This indicates that, at least, the term was common vernacular among the Antiochene Christians at the time of this writing.

Hippolytus (AD 170 – 236) and Irenaeus (AD 120 – 202) helped to explain the “economic Trinity” or, how the three persons operate.

Most of the Trinitarian language we use today came from Tertullian (AD 145 – 220) as he stated in his work, Against Praxeas;

“While the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God.”

Here we have testimony to the Nicene spirit a full century before the council came to be called. The trinity is the historical, biblical, and true teaching of Christians and always has been.

In conclusion

We affirm the words of Athanasius who said, ““We worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence. For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and the Holy Spirit still another. But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.” Amen.

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