A Treatise on the Trinity

The word “Trinity” is nowhere to be found in the Bible, but the concept is referenced numerous times in both Old and New Testaments, with numerous references to God as the Father, God as the Son (aka, the Word) and God as the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity has been very controversial from the start. It took almost 400 years of intense discussion before the Church finally settled on its definition. (See the History of the Doctrine of the Trinity below.) Even then, many Christian groups from that timeframe and a number of them from our time have rejected it out of hand.

Some biblical scholars dispute the idea that support for the Trinity can be found in the Bible, and argue that the doctrine is the result of theological interpretations rather than sound exegesis of scripture. The concept was expressed in early writings from the beginning of the 2nd century forward, and other scholars hold that the way the New Testament repeatedly speaks of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is such as to require one to accept a Trinitarian understanding.

From the Old Testament, the early church retained the conviction that God is one. The New Testament does not use the word, Trinity, nor explicitly teaches the Nicene Trinitarian doctrine, but it contains several passages that use twofold and threefold patterns to speak of God.
Passages which refer to the Godhead with a threefold pattern include Mt 28:19, 1Cor 6:11 and 12:4ff., Gal 3:11–14, Heb 10:29, and 1Pt 1:2. These passages provided the material with which Christians would develop doctrines of the Trinity.

Reflection by early Christians on passages such as the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”( Mt 28:19) and Paul’s blessing: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor 13:14) while at the same time the Jewish Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Dt 6:4) led the early Christians to question how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “one”.

Later, the diverse references to God, Jesus, and the Spirit found in the New Testament were systematized into a Trinity—one God subsisting in three persons and one substance—to combat heretical tendencies of how the three are related and to defend the church against charges of worshiping two or three gods. There is one disputed text which states: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” (1 John 5:7). However, some scholars believe that the phrase was added later.

Binitarian passages (suggesting two persons in one God) include Rom 8:11, 2Cor 4:14, Gal 1:1, Eph 1:20, 1Tim 1:2, 1Pt 1:21, and 2 Jn 1:13.

Those who believe in the doctrine of the Trinity are unable to define it but merely to describe it in metaphorical terms. These believers either accept it as an historical church doctrine found in the various apostolic creeds or they just accept it as a mystery based on their utmost dedication to and respect for the authority of the scriptures. No one is capable of fully examining all philosophical or scientific truth, so after a reasonable level of study (depending on the subject) we are all left for most areas of knowledge to trust the research of those who major in the subject.

The word “Trinity” comes from the Latin trinitas. It holds that God is three “consubstantial” (with one substance) persons (hypostases in Greek), the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He is one God in three divine persons. According to the Fourth Lateran Council of the Church in its finalized definition, the three persons are distinct, yet are one “substance, essence or nature” (homoousios). In this context, a “nature” is what one is, whereas a “person” is who one is (Ignatius). By nature, I am a human (homo sapiens). By person, I am called “Wayne.” The council went on to declare that “in their relationship, the three divine persons are stated to be one in all else, co-equal, co-eternal, consubstantial and each is God, whole and entire.

Perichoresis is the Greek term used to describe the triune relationship between each person of the Godhead. It can be defined as co-indwelling, co-inhering, and mutual interpenetration. The traditional symbol is shown below.

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Definition, Description and Metaphor

It should surprise no one that there are many mysteries, scientific and philosophical, that are not fully understood until long after they are discovered. We often see the effect of them before we can fully define them. We recognize their presence well before we can understand them. Some of this relates to our own level of maturity and some of it relates to the plan of God concerning when He will release revelation. A simple example is that we know that the wind is blowing by seeing its effect on the sails of the boat long before we can scientifically measure or define it. We recognize that there is something wrong in our bodies well before we can identify the malady itself. All revelation is preceded by the strong suspicion of its existence.

The ever-present, non-exceptional downward movement of the falling apple led to the discovery of gravity as an absolute principle only to have that understanding modified once we understood the concept of the vacuum. As a child, I did not expect to fully understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity until I was much older and more learned. Einstein did not expect to fully understand it in his lifetime. Things are often revealed long before they are understood. People fully believe in revealed truth; e.g., life after death, and even base their life on it long before they can fully understand or explain it. Similarly, the Trinity is revealed truth for multitudes of people who may never “understand” it.

Numerous attempts have been made down through history by brilliant men and women to define the Trinity. These have inevitably been big-brain discussions involving the minute parsing of Greek words and terms that are lost on most of us, but that is true for many scientific and philosophical concepts. And they are certainly beyond our ability to explain to our children. Most of us rely on metaphors to understand and/or explain much of life. In either case, real understanding depends on revelation, the “aha” experience that comes to whomever it will and whenever it arrives. One uses the brain or the mind to seek to understand truth but real understanding transcends the workings of what Hercule Poirot called “the little gray cells.”

Metaphor is constant and ever-present in all of our biblical understanding. Heaven is described as up and Hell is described as down (Phi 2), but they are neither. Philosophically, they are both another state or condition of existence. Jesus refers to Himself as the door of the flock, but no one expects Him to have hinges or a doorknob. Much that Jesus taught us He told in parables using metaphors and similes; e.g., the kingdom of Heaven is like…

In the fifth-grade grammar classes we were all taught that, as helpful as metaphors can be, all metaphors “limp,” meaning they partially explain something but then break down when subjected to fuller application. One commonly used metaphor for the Trinity suggests that God relates to us in three modes (modalism or Sabellianism) as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit, depending on what the circumstances call for. I am, for instance, a father to my children, a son to my father and an uncle to my nephews and nieces, and yet I am only one being. While this metaphor may help a child or a simple believer deal with the cognitive dissonance evoked by Trinitarian thought, it is heretical to theologians because it denies that there are three distinct persons in the Trinity. For instance, when Jesus was baptized we see all three divine persons present in the text as distinct from one another; i.e., the Father who spoke, the Spirit who landed in the form of dove, and the Son who was being baptized and affirmed.

Matt 3:13-17 Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. 14 But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” 15 But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted Him. 16 And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him, 17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” NASB

A similar often-used limping metaphor likens the Trinity to water which can appear in a solid form at one point (ice), a liquid form (water) and a gas during its evaporation stage. It suffers from the same problems. It may be helpful to satisfy the simple mind of a child or of someone who does not want much of an explanation, but it fails to capture the three distinct persons all showing up at the same time as separate and distinct from one another.

The Trinity is a single being (God) who is made up of three distinctive persons that can all appear in one place as three distinct persons and yet is only a single being. That is considerably more baffling to the sincere seeker. It is a concept I can easily describe but cannot fully understand. However, I do not expect God to be small enough or simple enough to fit within my puny mind. Similarly, I can describe my 50-year love affair with my wife, but I cannot reduce it to hormones and cognitive activity. There is much more to it than that. I know it is there. I experience it all the time. I am sure it exists. I can explain components of it, but it transcends my ability to fully understand it.

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One of the best descriptions of the Trinity that I have ever seen is given by Paul Young in his book, The Shack. The central point of the Shack is to redefine or re-explain the nature of God from a biblical point of view as opposed to the toxic view offered by some doctrines that have emerged in modern times (since the 1500’s) to the detriment of much of the western church. One of the main discussions concerns the Trinitarian community of God. Simply put, the Trinity is a collective of three persons making up a single Being that share the same mind and the same experiences at all times. Once again, this is a description, not a full understanding of the Trinity. The following are some excerpts from my blog on The Theology of the Shack that help us to comprehend the Trinity better.

“The Shack” on the Trinity

The western church over the last 70+ years has dumbed down the Gospel to the point of becoming so anemic that it lacks both power and witness. This has occurred in many theological areas, but perhaps, none so strongly as its present-day treatment (or lack thereof) of the Holy Spirit.

At the heart of all of this is that we have stopped teaching our people about the Triune Community of God, how it works and how we are invited to join in it in our daily lives (What Baxter Kruger calls the Great Dance). Because it seems tough to describe, we have chosen to not discuss it at all. The theology of The Shack is based in the Trinitarian nature of God, its separate and combined ministries to us, and our invitation to join it. The cast of characters in the story are as follows: Papa is the name for the Father. Jesus is, as always, the name for the Son. Sarayu is the name for the Holy Spirit. Mack is the main character in the story in search for answers from God.

The following are some of the ways it is described in The Shack. This trinitarian community (Papa, Jesus and Sarayu) is seen as three distinct persons who nonetheless share one mind and function in total harmony with each other as seen in the following text:

“Then,” Mack struggled to ask, “which one of you is God?” “I am,” said all three in unison. Mack looked from one to the next. Even though he could not begin to grasp what he was seeing and hearing, he somehow believed them” (p87). Papa: “You cannot share with one without sharing with all” (p106). Mack: It was how they related to each other. He had never seen three people share with such simplicity and beauty. Each seemed to be more aware of the others than (they were) of themselves” (p120-121).

Mack: “There is that whole Trinity thing, which is where I kind of get lost.” Papa laughs and says, “To begin with, that you cannot (fully) grasp the wonder of My nature is rather a good thing. Who wants to worship a God who can be fully comprehended?” Mack: “But what difference does it make that there are three of you and you are all one God?” Papa: “Mackenzie, it makes all the difference in the world. We are not three gods, and we are not talking about one God with three attitudes, like a man who is a husband, father and worker. I am one God and I am three persons and each of the three is fully and entirely the one” (p101).

Mack: “Isn’t one of you more the boss than the other two? Don’t you have a chain of command?” (p121-122). Sarayu: “Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in circle of relationship, not a chain of command or ‘great chain of being’ as your ancestors termed it. What you are seeing here is a relationship without an overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us.”

The full discussion of this is worth the price of the book and goes a long way to understanding the Trinity. The members of the Trinity cannot have conflict or even differing opinions, because they all share the same mind. And they always choose the best and right choice because they have the mind of the all-knowing God. They are three independent persons in one being. They are a divine collective.

In the Shack, Papa also had nail scars in His wrists (pp 95, 102, 107, 164). What happened to Jesus on the cross happened to the Father and the Holy Spirit, too. They are one being. He points out that Jesus’ story did not end in forsakenness on Friday, but in victory on Sunday (p96).

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The historic creeds make it clear that the Trinity is the orthodox view of God, claiming three distinct persons and then insisting that they are one being.

Apostles Creed
I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day, He rose again. He ascended to Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Nicene Creed
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

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“What does it mean that Jesus is God’s only begotten son?”

The phrase “only begotten Son” occurs in John 3:16 (in most translations) which reads, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The phrase “only begotten” translates the Greek word monogenes. This word is variously translated into English as “only,” “one and only,” and “only begotten.”

It’s this last phrase (“only begotten”) that causes problems. False teachers have latched onto this phrase to try to prove their false teaching that Jesus Christ isn’t God; i.e., that Jesus isn’t equal in essence to God as the Second Person of the Trinity. They see the word “begotten” and say that Jesus is a created being because only someone who had a beginning in time can be “begotten.” What this fails to note is that “begotten” is an English translation of a Greek word. As such, we have to look at the original meaning of the Greek word, not transfer English meanings into the text.

So what does monogenes mean? According to the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BAGD, 3rd Edition), monogenes has two primary definitions. The first definition is “pertaining to being the only one of its kind within a specific relationship.” This is its meaning in Hebrews 11:17 when the writer refers to Isaac as Abraham’s “only begotten son” (KJV). Abraham had more than one son, but Isaac was the only son he had by Sarah and the only son of the covenant. Therefore, it is the uniqueness of Isaac among the other sons that allows for the use of monogenes in that context.

The second definition is “pertaining to being the only one of its kind or class, unique in kind.” This is the meaning that is implied in John 3:16 (see also John 1:14, 18; 3:18; 1 John 4:9). John was primarily concerned with demonstrating that Jesus is the Son of God (John 20:31), and he uses monogenes to highlight Jesus as uniquely God’s Son, sharing the same divine nature as God, as opposed to believers who are God’s sons and daughters by adoption (Ephesians 1:5). Jesus is God’s “one and only” Son.

The bottom line is that terms such as “Father” and “Son,” descriptive of God and Jesus, are human terms that help us understand the relationship between the different Persons of the Trinity. If you can understand the relationship between a human father and a human son, then you can understand, in part, the relationship between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity. The analogy breaks down if you try to take it too far and teach, as some Christian cults (such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses), that Jesus was literally “begotten” as in “produced” or “created” by God the Father.
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The History of the Doctrine of the Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity was discussed at great length by the early church fathers starting with the immediate disciples of John. The list of those in support of the Trinity as we know it includes such men as:
• Ignatius (35-107),
• Polycarp (69-155),
• Papias (60-130),
• Clement of Rome (d. 96),
• Irenaeus (115-202),
• Justin Martyr (130-165),
• Clement of Alexandria (150-215),
• Tertullian (160-225),
• Origen (185-254),
• Cyprian (258),
• Eusebius, the first church historian (263-340),
• Athanasius (297-373),
• Basil of Cappadocia (329-379),
• Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa,
• John Chrysostom (345-407),
• Ambrose (339),
• Jerome (347-420),
• Augustine (354-430),
and others.

A list can be made for those who disagreed with the doctrine of the Trinity in one way or another. There were Trinitarians (three persons in one being), binitarians (two persons in one being; i.e., the Father and the Son) and Unitarians or Oneness groups (only one person in the divine being, usually the Father). Some argued that Jesus was not divine and others argued that the Holy Spirit was not divine or even a person. Some argued that neither the Son nor the Spirit were divine. The more famous dissenters include:
• Marcion (85-160),
o rejected the Old Testament and the OT God as a cruel demiurge accepted only 16 books of the NT (Luke and Paul’s epistles).
o Docetism (144), Jesus only appeared to be human, not physically born, did not physically die, was not physically resurrected.
• Montanus (156), non-Trinitarian Pentecostalism (the Holy Spirit is God?)
• Paul of Samosata (269), adoptionism, Jesus was adopted by God but was never divine
• Appolinaris (310-390), Jesus had a physical body but not a human mind or soul
• Arius (256-336), Jesus was not divine,
• Nestorius (386-450), Jesus had two co-existing persons, divine and human

The doctrine was addressed, developed or modified by a number of Church Councils to include:
• Carthage (253-256),
• Nicea, condemning Arianism) (325),
• Constantinople, final defeat of Arianism (381),
• Hippo, recognizes the Canon (393)
• Carthage (397),
• Carthage (418),
• Ephesus (431),
• the Latrocinium Council (449),
• Chalcedon (451),
• Orange (529)
• Constantinople II (553)
• Constantinople III (680)
• The Fourth Lateran Council (1215)