The magnificence of God demands that the study of Him requires more than our finite minds can offer. This is certainly true when it comes to studying God as Father, Son and Spirit; God as Trinity. In the first centuries the doctrine was not defined but it was still, simply held. From the beginning the disciples recognized God in Three Persons, One Essence.
John Owen, the Puritan wrote, “the sum of this revelation in this matter is, that God is one ; — that this one God is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost ; — that the Father is the Father of the Son ; and the Son, the Son of the Father ; and the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of the Father and the Son ; and that, in respect of this their mutual relation, they are distinct from each other.” 1
The apostles heard Jesus order them to baptize in the (singular) name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They heard Jesus proclaim that the Spirit would be another of the same kind. They recognized and rightly worshiped Jesus as fully God. And they heard Jesus proclaim that He and the Father were one, and demonstrate it by His works. Hearing and seeing and experiencing God in the flesh before them as they did, they were led inexorably to the unity of God in trinity.
The Trinity is one of the most boggling concepts in the scripture, and all of our struggles to comprehend it fall short.
One of the most complete statements on the trinity is the Athanasian creed. Written perhaps around 500 AD (up to two hundred years after Athanasius (died Ca 373AD))
2 It focuses on explaining the trinity as a doctrine central to the Christian faith, even adding that it is necessary for salvation to believe in the Trinity.
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord; And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.
Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man. God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world. Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood. Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ. One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God. One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead; He ascended into heaven, He sits on the right hand of the Father, God, Almighty; From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies; and shall give account of their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.
This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.3
What the trinity is:
Above all things, we must begin with our starting point in Deuteronomy 6:4-7, The Lord is one. The trinity is still Monotheism, anyone who denies that truth has fallen away from what the Bible teaches about God.
The doctrine of the Trinity is difficult to define but not difficult to at least describe. The evidence for it is embedded throughout the Scriptures.
To the right is a graphic called “The Shield of the Trinity” it has been used for centuries to help remind us of the basic truth that the Father is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and the Son is God. But they are not each other.
What the trinity is not.
Modalism essentially teaches that God is one, but that he “shows up” as one of three different people, Father, Son or Spirit; depending on the circumstance. I’d call this Trinitarian Schizophrenia – or God with a Multiple Personality Disorder. Basically Modalism accepts the Unity of God at the expense of the revelation of each (Father, Son and Spirit) individually as God.
If modalism embraces the unity of God and rejects the Trinity, Tritheism attempts to embrace the trinity while rejecting the heart and core of the declaration that “God is one.” God’s unity is lost.
Subordinationism teaches that in the essence of who they are, the Son is less than the Father and the Spirit is inferior to the Father and the Son. Essentially it is Tri-Theism with three non-equal gods.
The Father, Son and Spirit are not unequal – there is only one God. In truth, Neither the Spirit nor the Son is less completely God than the Father.
There is, however, a “chain of command” in the Trinity. (1 Corinthians 11:3) Teaches this when it says, “God [the Father] is the head of Christ [the Son].” (compare 1 Corinthians 3:23).
John 14:16, 26; John 15:26 goes on to describe the Father and the Son sending the Spirit. So while there may be a subordination in how the Trinity acts, there is no greater-or lesser in essence of God who is, after all one. The Father’ has a Supreme Role in the Godhead; but He is no more God than Jesus the Son or the Spirit of God.
Explaining the Trinity
So how can we explain the Trinity? Truly we cannot. As soon as we begin to try we inevitably lapse into one of these Heresies.
People use all kinds of examples to try to describe God as Unity in Trinity. Always they end up practicing one of these pet heresies.
Here are just a few:
The trinity is like an Egg (one egg, with yolk, shell and white stuff). That’s Tritheism or subordinationalism because it separates what is one into three unequal slices.
The trinity is like water (ice, steam, or liquid). That’s modalism because it can’t be all three at the same time. God is not sometimes Father, Son or Spirit. He is always each person of the trinity.
The trinity is like a man who is at the same time, a father to his children, son to his parents and husband to his wife. Modalism.
How about one more for good measure, The trinity is like a three leaf clover, three leaves. (Tri-theism) each leaf is not the same nature as the other leaves.
As I was developing this message I encountered a man named C. Michael Patton who developed a heresy chart for understanding the trinity.
If equality is denied, on the opposite side it points to subordinationalism.
If diversity is denied, the result is modalism.
If unity is denied, the result is tritheism (or polytheism —many gods). ” 4
Far from being simple, the Trinity is a paradox – Truth in Tension. But the Trinity is not a contradiction.
So why do we need to know or rather attempt to understand the Trinity?
First because this is how God has revealed himself to us, and Knowing God is part and parcel of eternity (John 17:3)
It helps us to understand what is meant when we read that the Father has sent the Son, and that the Spirit indwells us.
It alleviates concern over “whom we should pray to.” Should we pray to the Father, the Son or the Spirit? The answer is yes, we may pray to God. Jesus taught us to pray to the Father. In John 14:14 Jesus urges us to pray to Him, and He will do it. The Holy Spirit is an agent of prayer, interpreting our own prayers and sending them on to the Father (John 14:26,Rom 8:26; Ephesians 6:18). Since Father, Son and Spirit are one God we may pray to God as Father, Son and Spirit.
Let me close with one final quotation… “… if [someone says], “I get it!” or “Now I understand!” … they are more than likely celebrating the fact that they are a heretic! When you understand the biblical principles and let the tensions remain without rebuttal, then you are orthodox. When you solve the tension, you have most certainly entered into one of the errors that we seek to avoid. Confused? Good! That is just where you need to be.” 5
1John Owen. The Doctrine of the Trinity (377). Joseph Kreifels.
2Brannon, Rick. Editor. Historic Creeds and Confessions. 1997 (electronic ed.) (Article I). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
3Brannon, Rick. Editor. Historic Creeds and Confessions. 1997 (electronic ed.) (Article I). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
4“Parchment and Pen » “The Trinity is Like 3-in-1 Shampoo”. . . And Other Stupid Statements http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2009/08/the-trinity-is-like-3-in-1-shampoo-and-other-stupid-statements/
5Parchment and Pen » “The Trinity is Like 3-in-1 Shampoo”. . . And Other Stupid Statements, http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2009/08/the-trinity-is-like-3-in-1-shampoo-and-other-stupid-statements/