THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Monday, January 16, 2012 at 11:11am
QUESTION: Can you explain the doctrine of the Trinity?
ANSWER: God is ONE, but he is also THREE. He is one and three at the same time. This is the doctrine of the Trinity. (See my book, God the Redeemer, ch. 3.) There is no biblical term that actually means “trinity”; e.g., this is not the connotation of the KJV word “Godhead” nor of the Greek terms which it represents. We do find the concept of the Trinity in Scripture, however.
Exactly what is this concept? The classical Christian doctrine is usually summed up thus, that God is three persons who share one essence or substance. Christians have been explaining the Trinity in terms of three persons ever since Tertullian in the early third century. Though some disagree, it is best to understand “person” as a thinking, willing center of consciousness. That God is three persons means that within the one divine nature are three individual centers of consciousness. Each of the persons is fully conscious of himself as distinct from the other two and as existing in eternal interpersonal relationship with the other two. We call these three persons the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Though they are three, these persons are nevertheless one God. Whatever the concept of the Trinity means, it does not mean that the essence of God is somehow divided into three distinct units. Also, no other God exists besides the one true God; this is monotheism. Whatever the concept of the Trinity means, it does not mean that there are three separate Gods; this would be tritheism.
Within the context of the Trinity, that God is one means that the three centers of consciousness share one and the same divine essence or being or substance. Note: this is not just saying that they share the same kind of essence (which they do), but that they also share the same specific essence. To say that Father, Son, and Spirit are one in essence means that the totality of divine substance, the whole of “whatever it is to be God,” belongs to each of them. The main implication of this is that each is equally divine. In whatever sense the Father is divine, so also are the Son and the Holy Spirit. All the attributes of divinity belong equally to each of the three. It cannot be otherwise, since they share the same essence.
The doctrine of the Trinity is not derived from the OT, but from the NT. The OT has some hints of the Trinity, such as the plural “Let Us make man” in Gen 1:26 (see 3:22; 11:7), the angel of Yahweh phenomena, the incident regarding Abraham and Sodom in Gen 18:1‑19:21, and the plural form of the OT word for “God” (Elohim). But only in the NT does the doctrine of the Trinity become an inescapable conclusion.
The one specific fact that makes it impossible for us to avoid the doctrine of the Trinity is the NT teaching about the deity of Christ. If Scripture did not portray Jesus as both distinct from the Father and yet as himself God in the flesh, the question of the Trinity may never have arisen. The same is true to a lesser extent of the Bible’s portrayal of the Holy Spirit as a divine person.
Several NT passages link the three persons together in a formula‑like way that emphasizes their essential equality. The baptismal formula in Matt 28:19 is the most well known and most influential of these: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Another is the benediction in 2 Cor 13:14, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” Another is the reference to the three‑fold source of spiritual gifts in 1 Cor 12:4‑6, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God.” See also 1 Pet 1:2, which says that the saints are chosen “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood.” All of these passages show that Christians are redemptively related not just to an abstract deity but to the three persons who are the one true and living God.
Other trinitarian texts are Rom 15:30; 1 Cor 6:11; 2 Cor 1:20‑21; Gal 4:6; Eph 2:18; 3:14‑17; 5:18‑20; 1 Thess 5:18‑19; 2 Thess 2:13; Titus 2:13; 1 John 4:13‑14; Jude 20‑21; Rev 1:4‑5.
Christians commonly distinguish between the ontological Trinity and the economic Trinity. The latter involves the various relationships and works of the different persons of the Trinity toward the world. For example, God the Father foreknows and chooses (Rom 8:29; 1 Pet 1:1‑2). The Father also sends the Son and the Spirit; he is never the one sent (John 5:37; 14:26; 20:21). On the other hand, only God the Son became incarnate, lived among us as a human being, died on the cross, was raised from the dead, and is seated at the right hand of the Father as our only High Priest and mediator. In turn, God the Spirit is responsible for regenerating and sanctifying work (1 Pet 1:1‑2), beginning on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38). He also is the agent of inspiration (2 Pet 1:21), including speaking in tongues (Acts 2:4).
In addition to the distinct redemptive works through which the three divine persons relate themselves to the world, the threeness of God also exists in the divine essence in and of itself totally apart from such relationships. This is the ontological Trinity. This intra‑divine threeness is the basis for satisfying and loving relationships among the three persons from and for all eternity.
Do we know any details about the relationships that exist within the ontological Trinity? How much of what we are told about the three persons’ relationships to the world can be projected back into God‑in‑himself? Traditional trinitarian theology concludes that the Father‑Son relationship is part of the eternal divine essence, and thus speaks of the eternal Sonship of Christ. That Jesus is the “only begotten Son” (John 3:16) has led to the notion that the Father eternally begets the Son (though no one really knows what this would mean). That the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (John 15:26)‑‑and perhaps also from the Son‑‑has also been regarded as a mysterious eternal relationship. This has led to the further conclusion that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father, and the Spirit is eternally subordinate to the Father (and perhaps to the Son).
In my judgment all of these ways of speaking should be applied to the economic Trinity only. I.e., the Logos (the second person of the Trinity) is not eternally begotten and not eternally the Son, but is begotten and becomes the Son in the incarnation. The Spirit “proceeds” from the Father and Son when he is sent on Pentecost (Acts 2:33). The relationships of subordination apply only to the roles of the three persons in their work of redemption. The Logos, though eternally equal with the Father in essence and authority, voluntarily and uniquely takes on a subordinate role in his office of Redeemer. This is how we explain passages such as John 4:34; 14:28; and 1 Cor 11:3.
We must be on guard against heretical denials of the doctrine of the Trinity. Some deny the oneness of God and affirm polytheism. This is common among pagan religions, and is true of Mormonism and the original Armstrongism. Others deny the threeness of God, saying there is only one truly divine person. An example is fourth‑century Arianism, which taught that Jesus is not truly God but is a created being. Jehovah’s Witnesses are modern‑day Arians. Another denial of God’s threeness is any form of unitarianism, which says there is only one divine person. One kind of unitarianism is called modalism, which says that in his inner nature there are no distinctions within God. Only in his external relations with his creatures does God assume different modes or roles in order to make himself known and accomplish his purposes among men. These modes are successive, not simultaneous. E.g., In OT times the one divine person revealed himself as Father; then he became incarnate as the Son; now he relates to his creatures as the Spirit. A modern example of modalism is the “Oneness movement” among certain Pentecostal bodies, also known as the “Jesus only” Pentecostals.
The doctrine of the Trinity is filled with mystery. That God is one and three at the same time is beyond our ability to understand completely. We should never think it is absurd or contradictory, however. That would be true only if we think that God is one and three in the same sense. But this is not the case. He is ONE in one sense, i.e., one essence; and he is THREE in another sense, i.e., three persons.
(The contents of this note are taken from my book, The Faith Once for All, 70-73.)