What Is the Trinity?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Monday, January 11, 2010 at 6:48pm
QUERY: I have a relative who is a Jehovah’s Witness. He accepts that Jesus is the son of God but denies that he (Jesus) is God. How would you explain the triune God?
ANSWER: For details, see chapter 3 of my book, “What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer” (pp. 117-174). Here I will summarize a section of my book, “The Faith Once for All” (pp. 70-73):
God is ONE, but he is also THREE. He is one and three at the same time. This is the doctrine of the Trinity. 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. A “person” is 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, 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. 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.
Upon what is the doctrine of the Trinity based? It is derived only from the special revelation of the Bible, and generally not from the OT but from the NT. The OT has some hints of the Trinity, 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.
In addition to the teaching about the deity of Jesus and of the Spirit are several passages linking 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.” See also 1 Cor. 12:4-6 and 1 Peter 1:2. 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.
Is God’s threeness something that manifests itself as he relates to the world, or is it a real aspect of God in himself? Actually it is both, as Christians have long affirmed. It is mainly seen, though, in 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).
But 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 called the ontological Trinity. This intra divine threeness is the basis for satisfying and loving relationships among the three persons from and for all eternity.
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.