Examining "The State of Theology": The Holy Trinity
Updated: Jul 3, 2020
Often, we can find deep insights into Christian theology and doctrine if we are willing to learn the history of the Christian church and theology. This piece of art, called The Trinity, is attributed to the Russian painter, Andrei Rublev, from the 15th century. This is a piece of what is called "iconography" in the Eastern Orthodox church. While I am a Protestant Christian, not Eastern Orthodox, this centuries-old painting is a beautiful representation of the Trinity in art. Let me be clear: God is not a physical Being, so the three Persons of the Trinity are not physical. In our modern western culture, it can be difficult for us to see that art is symbolic, and this piece is brimming with symbolism. The co-equality and mutual love of the Persons, as they sit at a table with the fourth side facing the viewer, inviting him or her into this oneness in diversity, is enough to have us meditating and contemplating the glory of God for eternity. If you want to know more about the piece, check out this helpful Wikipedia article.
The Trinity is possibly the part of Christian theology that is hardest to wrap our heads around. The Bible presents God as indisputably, undividedly one, as is clear from the Shema Yisrael, the central Jewish prayer first given in Deuteronomy 6:4 (NASB):
"Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!"
The message at the heart of this prayer is clear: God is one, and there are no other gods beside Him. In other words, though surrounded by cultures which believed in all kinds of gods, the Jewish people were monotheists. This scandalous idea is communicated in the first and second of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:3-6 (can also be found in Deuteronomy 5:7-10) (NASB):
"'You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.'"
The first and second commandments are clearly interrelated. Since there is only one God, to worship anything or anyone else is an insult to the one and only God worthy of worship, our Creator and the One who blesses us. To respond to His love by giving our deepest affections to another is unfaithful. Imagine the pain of betrayal when a someone who is married cheats on his or her spouse, giving his or her affection-and even his or her body-to another. This sin can only be sinful if there is one such Being.
Yet, in a massive twist of revelation, God has revealed Himself decisively as three in one. How do we know this? And how can this be? This is the topic of this post.
In this post, I'll address the statement in the survey concerning the Trinity: "There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit."
There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
The results from this statement were similar to the results from the statement about God's perfection. In fact, 71% of the respondents agreed with the statement, the same as with the first statement. Only 17% disagreed, with 12% answering, "Not Sure." Among evangelicals, the results were also similar, with 94% agreeing and 4% disagreeing. So, as before, the broad majority of professing Christians and almost all evangelicals believe that God is triune.
Where in the Bible is this doctrine communicated? How did Christians get the idea that one God exists and that God is triune? Though most Christians will point to some particular texts in the Old Testament to argue that the doctrine is taught before Jesus is born, by far the decisive texts for the Trinity are in the New Testament. Nonetheless, it is understandable that Christians might think that the doctrine is difficult to find explicitly in the Bible. Remember that, when we discussed God's moral perfection, I mentioned that there is no verse in the Bible that outright says, "God is morally perfect." The Bible was not written by modern American theologians. Similarly, you won't find a verse that says, "God is triune," or, "The Trinity exists." In fact, the word "Trinity" is nowhere in Scripture. As a less mature Christian, this led me to believe for some time that the Trinity didn't exist, since I could find it nowhere in Scripture! I was mistaken precisely because I was expecting the Bible to communicate its doctrine and theology in the way I expected it to.
So how is this doctrine communicated? Easily one of the most important examples can be found in John 1. This profound passage of Scripture elucidates the theological truths related to Jesus in the prologue of John's gospel. The Word, which is the Greek word logos, is revealed to be incarnate in Jesus Christ (John 1:14). The Word, who is the Son of God and Jesus, is identified with God in John 1:1. This verse, which brings together both the godliness and the physicality of Jesus, is worth deep reflection (NASB):
"No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him."
God's invisibility means that He is hard to know and must reveal Himself to us. Jesus, as "the only begotten God," reveals or "explains" God the Father. Here, in John 1, it is affirmed that both the Father and the Son are God.
Other examples abound. Throughout the gospels, it is shown that Jesus refers to God as His Father and, by extension, to Himself as God's unique (i.e., only begotten) Son. The Son worships the Father, yet He accepts worship, as when Thomas worships Jesus after His resurrection (John 20:27-29).
What about the Holy Spirit? Jesus teaches the disciples about the role of the Holy Spirit in detail in John 14, calling Him Helper, or "Paraclete." Jesus promised the disciples that the Father would send the Holy Spirit to abide in them after Jesus' ascension. Here is the text (John 14:16-17; NASB):
"'I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.'"
Notice that the Son will petition the Father for the Holy Spirit to abide with His disciples. Even in this text, we see the interaction of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit with each other. Another example can be found in verse 26 of the same chapter (NASB):
"'But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.'"
The reality of this relationship of the three Persons as divine and yet not identical is represented well in Matthew 3:16-17, after the baptism of Jesus (NASB):
"After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, 'This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.'"
Yet another example is presented in the Great Commission. Jesus, in commanding the disciples to baptize those who trust in Him, addresses the Trinity as equal. He says in Matthew 28:19 (NASB):
"'Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit...'"
Here, we see what is a deep mystery of the Trinity. God is one, but the Persons are not identical. They are separate in the sense of personhood but not in purpose. In fact, the purpose of the Persons is always undivided by nature, as is represented in the separate movements and reactions of the Persons to the baptism of Jesus, all for the one purpose of initiating the public ministry of our Lord. The Persons take on different roles for a united purpose.
Plenty more examples could be discussed, but this will suffice. The Scriptures clearly reveal to us two seemingly paradoxical truths:
God is one.
There is a plurality of Persons in the oneness of God.
The plurality expressed in (2) is the tri-unity of God. As Christians, we are obligated to believe what Scripture teaches, since it is the self-revelation of God and His purposes and plans in history. This, however, doesn't imply that we can't attempt to make sense of what Scripture teaches. As before, we can use philosophy and systematic theology to make sense of Scripture. The expression of what Scripture reveals about the diverse oneness of God as the Trinity is an example of this. Though we don't find the word "Trinity" in Scripture, the word is a concise expression of biblical truth, as a combination of "tri-" and "unity." Another way to put this is that Christians are trinitarian monotheists. Muslims, on the other hand, are unitarian monotheists; that is, they believe in one God and one Person.
Having language to express these positions is key because those of other worldviews, such as Muslims and heretical groups such as Oneness Pentecostals, will argue that the Trinity represents a break from monotheism. In other words, these people will claim that Christians are, in fact, tri-theists, that they believe in three gods. At face value, however, this is not true. Christians in no sense believe in three gods. We believe in one God with three Persons, or three centers of consciousness. We are monotheists, and to claim otherwise is to simply misrepresent the Christian worldview.
That being said, there is another objection to the Trinity undergirding this one. It would be misleading and incorrect to call Christians tri-theists, but it is possible that the doctrine of the Trinity is incoherent. If this is the case, then the objector may say that the doctrine entails tri-theism inescapably. This is a more serious objection.
Because of objections such as these, it is important in apologetics that we bring philosophy and systematic theology to bear on what Scripture clearly teaches. We are not doubting the truth or veracity of the Trinity; we are simply trying to express it in terms that make sense and are biblically faithful. A systematic analysis of the doctrine will help us to see the boundaries of the doctrine and which positions we need to avoid. After doing that work, we can then suggest a way of thinking about the Trinity that is coherent. As long as one of these models is coherent and possibly true, then the objections against the coherence of the doctrine fail.
What is the significance of this for the lay person? It may seem as if this exercise, while intellectually interesting, is not very meaningful or important for the typical Christian. I'd argue that this exercise is important for two reasons. First, if you are a Christian, then the doctrine of the Trinity might be a bit of a sticking point for you. The doctrine can seem daunting and hard to understand. That's entirely understandable, and in order to address that, we need to go to Scripture first and then see what Christian philosophers and theologians have said about the doctrine. This exercise could certainly help you to be able to grasp the doctrine of the Trinity in a way that you never have before. Once you understand it better, then you can be more prepared to explain it to someone who isn't a Christian. Second, understanding and being able to explain this doctrine to an unbeliever will really get you far in a conversation with the person who isn't a Christian. I can guarantee you that most non-Christians have never met someone who is able to explain the doctrine, since most Christians aren't able to explain the doctrine. Being able to shed some light, from Scripture, philosophy, and theology, will definitely set you apart in their minds as able to coherently explain and defend your faith. That credibility gets us far as Christians in a culture that thinks that we're a bit brainless.
Before we begin, what are the boundaries? What are the positions to avoid? Often, Christians will try to explain the doctrine of the Trinity by using pithy analogies that are easy to remember and present to someone. They don't understand that the analogies are often not only incorrect but unorthodox. In other words, if these Christians actually believed the analogy as presented, they'd be heretics! What are some of these analogies?
First, there is the analogy of the three-leaf clover, where the leaves of the clover represent the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the clover as a whole God. This analogy, however, is heretical, since it imagines the Persons as parts of the whole clover, God. This view, that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are parts of God, is a heresy called partialism. Second, there is the analogy of the the three states of water. Water can be either liquid, solid, or gas. In the same way, God can be either Father, Son or Holy Spirit. This analogy is clearly not good, since it presents the Persons as various "states" of God, as if God can put on a "Father" mask or a "Son" mask at particular times. This is a heresy called modalism.
The bad analogies that Christians often use can be instructive for us. What's the problem with partialism and modalism? How do they conflict fundamentally with a biblical view of the triune God? Partialism, because it conceives of the Persons of the Trinity as parts of God, effectively thinks of the Persons as sub-divine, rather than truly divine in themselves. If the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are God, then to think of them as merely "parts" of God is to effectively reduce their divinity. In other words, as Christians, we are committed to the truth of these claims:
The Father is God.
The Son is God.
The Holy Spirit is God.
If you wonder to yourself, "Do I think about the Persons individually as divine?," then let me ask you this question: do you worship the Persons? If you practice as a Christian in a way consistent with Scripture, then the answer should be yes. Jesus, as the Son, worships the Father and accepts worship from Thomas (John 20:28). Partialism, however, subtly denies these claims, instead putting forward this claim:
The Father + the Son + the Holy Spirit = God.
Partialism posits something much more like a math problem. In the process, however, it renders the Persons as individually unworthy of worship, which is unconscionable in the Christian worldview.
Modalism presents an altogether different problem. According to partialism, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct but not truly divine. According to modalism, the Persons are truly divine but not distinct. Modalism posits three different claims, which are unbiblical and heretical:
The Father is the Son.
The Son is the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is the Father.
Most modalist views, such as that of Oneness Pentecostals, conceive of the Father as ultimate, and the Father sort of switches between the Son role and the Holy Spirit. The problem here is twofold. First, the Bible clearly portrays the Persons as distinct Persons who independently interact with one another. Second, since the Bible portrays the Persons as independently interacting simultaneously, the doctrine is actually incoherent. God ends up looking like a person with multiple personality disorder, but wherein the multiple personalities can interact at the same time. This just can't make sense of what the Bible really says about the Trinity.
This, however, gives us a good place to start in thinking about the Trinity. As the truths of Scripture above shows, we must affirm monotheism without reducing the Trinity to one Person (modalism). At the same time, we must affirm that the Persons are distinct without affirming tri-theism. Partialism is an attempt at this, but it ends up reducing the divinity of the Persons. So we must also affirm the true divinity or co-equality of the Persons without affirming tri-theism. This is not easy to do. So-called models of the Trinity, as they are called in philosophical theology, represent modern attempts to explain what the Bible clearly teaches.
There is a history to these attempts, however. In the fourth century A.D., the early church, now spread across the entire Roman empire, was reeling from what has come to be called the christological controversy. The main two players in this battle over Christian orthodoxy were St. Athanasius and Arius. Arius had become infamous in defending his view that Jesus was a created being. Athanasius disagreed, vigorously defending the biblical view that Jesus is truly divine. At issue here is not just the nature of our Savior, but also the Trinity. If Jesus is a created being, He cannot be God, and, thus, the doctrine of the Trinity is false. Out of this controversy came the Council of Nicea and the Nicene Creed. I won't cover the entire Creed, but this particular section is very important (emphasis is mine):
"And [we believe] 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."
The words, "of the same essence as the Father," are perhaps the most important and most controversial words of the Creed. Other English translations read "substance" instead "essence." This is a translation of the Greek word homoousias, which means "one substance." This idea, that the Father and the Son share of the same substance with each other, implied to many of the priests and bishops of the fourth century that the Father and the Son were the same. The use of the word here is metaphorical; God is not a physical substance like water. The writers of the Creed intended to show that the Father and the Son were one in divinity, sharing in the divine nature. This made them no less distinct as Persons, but one as God. Over the centuries, the Holy Spirit was seen to share in the same substance as well.
This makes sense as long as we understand the word "is" in an expression such as "The Father is God." As Bill Clinton famously said, "It all depends on what your definition of 'is' is." In this case, the statement is true. There are two possible ways in which the word "is" can be understood: the "is" of identity and the "is" of predication. The "is" of identity is most often clearly expressed in mathematics, as with equations such as:
2 + 2 = 4
Since, when 2 and 2 are added, 4 is the result, the equation above is essentially the same as saying "4 = 4." The "is" of predication, on the other hand, describes an object. This is clearly seen in 1 John 1:4, which says that "God is love." Clearly, God is not here identified with the concept of love. The verse merely describes love as an attribute or property of God, in the same way that one might say, "God is just."
Why is this important? When we say that "The Father is God," this is not to be understood as identifying the Father with God. This would exclude the Son and Holy Spirit. Rather, it is to be understood in the second sense, as attributing the property of divinity to the Father. In other words, the statement expresses the truth that the Father is truly divine; He possesses all of the attributes necessary for divinity. This is true of all of the Persons. As long as we are willing to agree that, in a mystery, the Persons share in this divine nature, then it seems like we can maintain our commitment monotheism consistently. In this sense, the word homoousios is vital.
Might there be a better analogy for this, one that isn't heretical like the the ones that are commonly used? In the chapter on the Trinity in their book, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland discuss the analogy of the three-headed dog Cerberus (593). Presumably, Cerberus's three heads have three separate brains and, as such, three distinct consciousnesses of the firsthand experience of being a dog. One could name the three heads: Rover, Bowser, and Spike. The three heads are distinct in the sense that referring to one is not the same as referring to the other. One might refer to Rover as the rightmost head. Similarly, Bowser might be irritable at a given moment, while Rover is calm. Nonetheless, Cerberus describes the one dog. One may object, however, that the three heads aren't three dogs. This is true, in the same way that the Persons are not three gods. Nonetheless, Rover, Bowser, and Spike are clearly canine, as opposed to, say, feline. In virtue of their sharing the one canine body of Cerberus, these three consciousnesses are canine consciousnesses. We can refer to Cerberus as the one dog who is tri-personal.
In the same way, we can meaningfully refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as divine and to the one God who is triune. I think that this provides us with a much better analogy for the Trinity. Of course, no analogy is perfect, but thinking through the analogy of Cerberus might help to better grasp the doctrine in a new and fresh way.
Ultimately, we won't be able to fully comprehend the Trinity. Scripture clearly teaches the doctrine along with monotheism. Hopefully, what we've done here in this exploration will help you to see that the doctrine can be explained precisely, using philosophy and systematic theology, and is defensible in its coherence. No explicit contradiction exists in the idea that God is "three in one." As with God's moral perfection, the attempt to grasp and understand what Scripture reveals to us should expand our own minds and fill us with awe. What an awesome God we serve. His very nature is simply beyond human comprehension, but we worship Him with our minds when we try to prayerfully think about Him in a way that honors what He has taught us.
I hope that you enjoyed this admittedly complex post. If you thought that it was difficult to read, then know that it was certainly difficult to write. The doctrine of the Trinity has a way of both expanding my mind and leaving it a bit scrambled. Nonetheless, I hope that this post has edified and taught you, while not leaving you too scrambled. Next week, we'll begin to cover the area of theology called christology. That is, what is the nature of Jesus Christ? This is the survey statement: "Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God." It is going to be interesting.
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If you would like the full Nicene Creed to read, see Christian Reformed Church. "Nicene Creed." Christian Reformed Church. Christian Reformed Church in North America. 25 April 2020. https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/creeds/nicene-creed.
Craig, William Lane, and J.P. Moreland. "Christian Doctrines I: The Trinity." In Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Illinois: IVP Academic, 2003.
If you want to check out the content of the survey in detail, see The State of Theology. "Key Findings." The State of Theology. Ligonier Ministries, 2018. https://thestateoftheology.com/. and The State of Theology. "Data Explorer." The State of Theology. Ligonier Ministries, 2018.https://thestateoftheology.com/data-explorer?AGE=30&MF=14®ION=30&EDUCATION=62&INCOME=254&MARITAL=126ÐNICITY=62&RELTRAD=62&ATTENDANCE=254.
If you want a much more detailed exploration of the doctrine of the Trinity from the perspective of modern philosophical theology, see Tuggy, Dale. "The Trinity." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Metaphysics Research Lab, 18 March 2016. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/trinity/.