Trinity - 1 : What is it?

Recently I was asked to write a paper on the Trinity for my local church. Due to its length, the paper will be posted in three parts here. 

eflecting on the Christians of his day, a theologian once remarked, that “despite their orthodox confession of the Trinity, Christians are, in their practical life, almost mere “monotheists”. We must be willing to admit  that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.”[1] We could easily scan our day and say the same about much of the church today. The doctrine of the Trinity is considered as a complex, incomprehensible and inexplicable bit of our faith, that should just be affirmed, never understood or far less be passionately loved and embraced. Much of laity and even sadly, the clergy, leaves the Trinity to theological meatheads who love to meddle with such abstract, practically irrelevant and useless aspects of our faith.

This however is not the stance of the New Testament. Trinity, as we shall see, affects virtually every aspect of New Testament Christianity.  In fact as Karl Bath has argued, “ the doctrine of the Trinity is what basically distinguishes the Christian doctrine of God as Christian, and therefore what already distinguishes the Christian concept of revelation as Christian, in contrast to all other possible doctrines of God or concepts of revelation.”[2] Thus the New Testament receives its distinguishably Christian character from its affirmation and embracing of the truth of Trinity. Hence to say we are New Testament Christians and that the Trinity has virtually no significance to our faith is nothing but execrable.

Along with this odious state of affairs within Orthodox Christianity, matters are worsened by the increasing number of anti-trinitarian cults around the world. Their work at attacking Trinity through articles, books and sermons have had many a Christian confused, if not deny the Trinity. Lack of any proper teaching on the Trinity also makes such Christians loose any confidence they had regarding this doctrine. On a popular level, its hard to say if there is any effort made by Christians to teach this vital doctrine. Very few churches would have heard a sermon on the Trinity on a given Sunday. All of this makes up the underlying concern of the present author to endeavour to write this paper.

The aim of this paper, as far as its characteristics goes, are three-fold. Firstly, it aims to be easy to read in style. Discourses on Trinity can be very scholarly, plumbing the depths of metaphysics especially that of ontology. Though much of such discussions are very valid in terms of understanding and appreciating the Trinity, such discourses are not directly useful to the layman. Hence the present paper, banking heavily on various scholarly works, seeks to distil the meat of such works in a manner that is easy to read for a lay person.

Secondly, the paper attempts to be somewhat comprehensive in its scope. Rather than just give a brief, readable explanation of the doctrine of Trinity, the paper attempts to cover three major areas of study. First of all, it unfolds the historic understanding of the concept of Trinity. This is to make the reader have a good grasp of what we mean by the Trinity. There are so many aberrant views, even caricatures of the Trinity that gets ridiculed in many cults. To avoid these and also to enlighten the Christian with a clear overview of the doctrine of Trinity, it is first defined and expounded briefly. Secondly, the paper deals with the pertinent question of whether this doctrine is biblical or not. Here we go somewhat deeper in to the biblical data to see whether the definition we saw in the first section can be faithfully developed from the texts of Scripture. Finally, the paper attempts to show how New Testament Christianity, to be faithful to the New Testament, ought to be Trinitarian through and through. This is done by showing how every facet of New Testament Christianity is affected by the practical implications of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Thirdly, the paper attempts to be concise in its length. In other words, efforts have been made to keep the paper a paper and not a book. As a primer ought to be, concepts and truths are tersely introduced to the reader, sufficient for further and detailed study, if one wishes to.

What is the Trinity?

In this section, we will try to understand the concept called Trinity. We will first see its definition and do a brief exposition of the constituent propositions which make the definition. Secondly, we will see how the concept of Trinity is distinct from some of the models suggested by Anti-Trinitarians. Thus this section aims to give the reader a fair grasp on the definition and distinctive of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Its Definition : What the Trinity is

The Trinity can be succinctly yet sufficiently defined as follows :

Within the one Being or essence that is God, there exist eternally three coequal and coeternal Persons - namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit - who share that essence fully and completely.

The definition begins by a confident affirmation of Monotheism – that there is only One God, then goes on to declare the three Persons who exist within this one God, naming them and their attributes in relation to one another.

Thus we can see the following three major propositions that constitute this definition :

1.      Affirmation of Monotheism : “Within the one Being or essence that is God

The doctrine of the Trinity is firmly built on the foundation of Monotheism. In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity never attempts to deny the Bible’s witness of there being only one God. All it does is give us more knowledge of this One God. Monotheism is sometimes assumed to teach Unitarianism. This is certainly a wrong premise to understand both Monotheism and the Trinity. Monotheism teaches there is one Being called God. Unitarianism, however, insists that this One God is a single Person God. This assumption does not necessarily follow from the teaching of Monotheism.

Perhaps it is good for us, at the outset itself, to understand these terminologies like Being and Person. Across Church History, there have been so many debates and discussions surrounding the precise meaning of these words Christians have used to describe both the unity and the three-ness of God. In our present discussion, it would be suffice to give a brief definition of these terms as has been understood by Orthodox Christians down the centuries.

One Christian apologist has summed up it as follows : “Being is what makes something what it is. Person is what makes someone who he or she is. As Hank Hanegraaff puts it, when speaking of the Trinity, we speak of one what (the Being of God) and three whos (the three divine Persons). Most cultic rejections of the Trinity focus on blurring this distinction”[3]

Thus when the doctrine of Trinity affirms Monotheism, it is saying there is only one being of God. What makes God, God is not shared with anyone outside Himself. The chasm between Creator God and all His creatures remain intact in the doctrine of the Trinity. In other words, from the very foundation, Trinity aims to never make any creature part of the being of God, as some who reject Trinity accuse us.

At this point some might object the use of unbiblical terms to describe who God is.  Anti-Trinitarians often accuse Orthodox Christians of having gone outside the Bible in using metaphysical terminology for explaining the doctrine of the Trinity. However as Robert Letham has pointed out, the Ancient church used extra-biblical terms as “deeper questions cannot be answered in purely Biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of Biblical language itself.”[4]

Can we now know what the being or essence of God is? In other words, what is it that makes God, God? The Bible’s answer is pretty straight forward and simple. Take the fourth chapter of I John. The consistent argument of the apostle is that God is love (1 John 4:8,16). In other words, God is in His essence love. This as we shall see later is what gives the Three Persons unity in the Trinity. Trinity, after all is Tri-unity, the Three united in love. Here it is also worth noting that if God can be essentially defined as love, then He, substantially has to be more than an Unitarian god. For how can a single person god be loving in his essence. A single person god can be called loving, only after creation. Thus the attribute of love for such a god cannot be one which eternally defines his essence. Love for an Unitarian god can never be an eternal or essential attribute.[5] Thus the one true God to be love, He has to be a plurality of Persons.

2.      Distinct Persons within the being of God : “there exist eternally three.. Persons namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit

Built on this foundation of Monotheism, the doctrine of the Trinity goes onto declare this Being of God is eternally three distinct Persons. This, as shown above, does not violate the Scriptural teaching of there being only one true God. Understanding these categories of Being and Person is crucial in seeing how the Trinity is not some irrational and illogical teaching of ancient men. For we are not saying that God is at the same time one and three. Rather we are saying God is one in a sense and three in a different sense.  God is one in Being, and three in Person. Thus the argument that the Trinity violates the law of non-contradiction is erroneous. In logic, the law of non-contradiction asserts that something cannot be ‘a’ and ‘non-a’ at the same time and in the same sense. However Trinity does not say God is one in Being and also three in Being. If it did, it certainly was a logical error. However as we have noted our doctrine asserts that God is one in Being  but not one in Person.

Moreover it is also possible to understand how oneness in being need not mean oneness in person. Consider a room full of men. It is true that as far their state of existence goes, they are all human beings. However just because in the ontological sense they share the same being, it does not follow that they do not have separate individual personalities. Thus God in a similar[6] way is one in Being and three in Person.

These three Persons we are told, are distinct, as indicated by their distinct Names found in the Scripture. A survey of the New Testament would reveal that these three Names – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – are not used as synonyms for the same person of God. Nor are they used as indicating separate manifestations or modes of the same person  of God. The Scriptures bear witness to how the three Names indicate three distinct Persons of God, with each having an eternally living and active relationship with the other, which is impossible in a modalistic understanding of these Names.

It is worth noting that the Names of the Persons of the Trinity are relational ones. Relational names makes sense only in respect to the one to whom we are in a relationship. If you are a husband, you are so only because you are a husband of  someone. Thus it is noteworthy that God has revealed His Persons in relational terms. This as we have pointed earlier, is because personhood becomes real only in realized relationships[7].  Thus God essentially is love and the Names of His Persons reveal how they relate to one another in this love.  The Father is the Father of the Son, the Son is the Son of the Father and the Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. The Father gives and the Son receives, their love by the Spirit. This divine society of love is what we Christians call our God.

3.      Equality of the Three Persons within the being of God : “coequal and coeternal Persons... who share that essence fully and completely.

Regarding the Three Persons, the doctrine of Trinity tells us how each of them are co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial.

They are co-equal, for neither of the Three Persons is ontologically inferior to the others. Though the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son[8], none of this language asserts any ontological inferiority of the Son or the Spirit, and only sheds light on how they relate to one another.  Thus they are co-equal in deity.

They are co-eternal, for ever since God has been, there has been the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Though the Son is begotten of the Father, He is eternally begotten and thus ever since the Father, there was the Son. Though the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, He has been proceeding eternally from them. Thus again this language does not assert any kind of progressive evolution of the Trinity from a single person God. From all eternity God has been triune. Father has always loved His Son in the joy of the Spirit from all eternity past. The Son and the Spirit are as eternal as the Father is. The Father has been eternally the Father, the Son has eternally been the Son and the Spirit has eternally been the Spirit. Thus all three Persons are co-eternal as they share in the eternality of the being of God.

They are consubstantial, for each of the Persons shares the essence of God fully and completely. In other words, each of the Person is fully God in their being. It is not that each of them contribute one third of the being of God. Each of them are in their substance or essence, fully God. Though the Son is begotten of the Father, He is begotten and not created, thus of the same substance as of the Father. As the Nicene Creed puts it, the Son is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father.”[9] Thus the Son is fully God as the Father is and so is the Spirit.

Thus to sum up our consideration of the definition of the doctrine of the Trinity, we have seen three foundational truths which constitute the doctrine namely –

1.      There is only one God.
2.      There exists within the one being of God, three distinct divine Persons
3.      The Persons are co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial

Its Distinctive : What The Trinity is Not

The distinguishing traits of the doctrine of Trinity will be reflected again in this section to see how their denial would result in an aberrant understanding of God. In the above mentioned three foundational truths that sum up our understanding of the Trinity, if either one of them is denied, it would result in a heresy. Lets try to take one of them at a time and see how in their absence we would come up with an Anti-trinitarian concept. This also helps us to see how these Anti-trinitarian heresies are so, because of their denial of one of these cardinal truths which make the doctrine of the Trinity.

1.      It is not Tritheism

Denial of the first cardinal truth of Monotheism makes the understanding of Trinity into Tritheism. Trinity, however, is not teaching us that there are three gods. Rather as we have seen earlier, the foundation of Trinity is biblical monotheism. Trinity affirms the existence of only one God. However as pointed out, this is in the realm of being.

When Monotheism is denied and the Three Persons of the Trinity are given separate beings, then we have three separate gods. This is Tritheism and not Trinity. The language of Scripture forbids all forms of pantheism. Moreover the New Testament does not speak of the Father, the Son and the Spirit as three separate gods who come together to accomplish their purposes. Rather the language of unity in New Testament speaks of them as one in being. For the Father has no personhood in and of Himself apart from the Son and the Spirit. So is the Son and the Spirit. As we have noted above, the Names of the Persons of Trinity being relational proves that they receive their distinct personhood in their relationship with the other. Thus they cannot be three separate gods, who just seem to love each other. Rather they are three Persons of the one being of God, who receive their distinct personhood in loving relationship with the other. Thus there would not be a Son without the Father and the Spirit, and likewise there would not be a Spirit without the Father and the Son. They being so interdependent and united in love forbids any language of Tritheism.[10]

The Athanasian Creed hence says, “We worship one God in the Trinity, and the Trinity in unity; we distinguish among the persons, but we do not divide the substance”[11] Dividing the substance or being of God among the three is to make three different gods and this is rank heresy.

Thus the truth of Monotheism is fundamental to understanding Trinity. It is not as some detractors would say, thrown in to make some 4th century concept of Trinity biblical. Without Monotheism, the doctrine of the Trinity would perish to pure heresy. For biblical Trinity, Monotheism is an inevitable foundation.

2.      It is not Modalism

If however the truth of Monotheism is affirmed, but the distinct personhoods of the Father, the Son and the Spirit is denied, then we end up with a form of Unitarianism called Modalism[12]. Modalism is an unorthodox belief that God is one in person who has revealed Himself in history through three distinct modes or manifestations or aspects called the Father, the Son and the Spirit. It is common for contemporary Modalists, especially those of Oneness Pentecostals[13] to say God was manifested as the Father in creation, the Son in redemption, and the Holy Ghost in emanation. Modalists thus deny the work of a triune God across the plain of history. At a point in time, God is working through one particular mode alone. Aberrant views like seeing the Old Testament as the dispensation of the Father alone, the New Testament as that of the Son alone and the present church age as that of the Spirit alone are all arising from a modalistic understanding of God.

As pointed out earlier about the concept of God in Islam (see footnote 5 ), the god of Modalism also being a Unitarian god, cannot be the God of the Scriptures who is love. As C.S. Lewis says, “All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love’. But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.”[14]

Also the language of Scripture if understood through Modalism makes little sense. Take for example what the New Testament says of the Father in relation to the Son. The Father sent the Son (1Jn. 4:14), the Father did not spare His Son (Rom. 8:32), the Father was with the Son (Jn. 8:29), the Father spoke to the Son from heaven (Jn. 12:28), the Father heard the Son in prayer (Jn. 11:41-42), the Father forsook the Son on the cross (Matt. 27:46), the Father raised the Son from the dead (Gal. 1:1c), the Father glorifies the Son(Jn. 8:54) etc. If the Son is the same person as the Father but a different mode, then how can these interpersonal statements of the New Testament be sensible. Take the Son now. The Scriptures say, the Son was eternally loved by the Father (Jn. 3:35), the Son came in obedience to the Father (Jn. 6:38), the Son prays to the Father (Jn. 17), the Son worships the Father (Luke. 10:21), the Son glorifies the Father (Jn. 17:4), the Son is forsaken by the Father on the cross (Matt. 27:46), the Son ascends to the right hand of the Father (Heb. 10:12), the Son is forever interceding before the Father for His people (Rom. 8:34), the Son will return and at the consummation put everything at the feet of the Father(1 Cor. 15:24).  The modalistic understanding of God fails utterly in giving any sensible understanding of these statements of Scripture.

Moreover, “The Oneness view of the Trinity is particularly defective in its teaching on the Person of Jesus Christ. The denial of the personal and distinct pre-existence of the Son has been shown to be without foundation, from the prologue of John alone. It has been demonstrated that the assertion that the Son is to be identified as the humanity of Christ and the Father, who is called Jesus, as the Divinity of Christ is unscriptural. The Scriptures never distinguish between Jesus and the Son but rather refer to Jesus' identity as 'the Son of God', or 'the Son of the Father'; and not once is Jesus identified as the Father. Oneness Christology, therefore actually confuses Christ's Person, and detracts from His full Deity as the Son of God. In Trinitarian thought the Father and the Son speak to one another, love one another, and defer to one another as distinct Persons; something that only Persons, and not natures can do.”[15]

Thus the denial of the second cardinal truth of the doctrine of the Trinity leads one to turn the Father, the Son and the Spirit as mere functions of a single person God. The personal and relational language of the New Testament is then not shown any justice. Only the Trinitarian model can satisfactorily explain the Scriptures when they speak of the Persons of God. It is so, because the doctrine of Trinity is truly scriptural.

3.      It is Not Arianism

Finally, lets consider the outcome of denying the third cardinal rule of the equality of the Persons, in their essence and eternality. If it is denied, we end up denying the full deity of the Son and the Spirit. Historically this is called the heresy of Arianism[16], and is held today by Jehovah’s Witnesses[17].

So what is Arianism? “Such is the genuine doctrine of Arius. Using Greek terms, it denies that the Son is of one essence, nature, or substance with God; He is not consubstantial (homoousios in Greek) with the Father, and therefore not like Him, or equal in dignity, or co-eternal, or within the real sphere of Deity.”[18]

In this model then, Jesus is not God and the Spirit is an impersonal force.  This certainly cannot be justified from New Testament Scripture, if read and interpreted properly. If Jesus was a mere creature or as Jehovah’s Witnesses claims, Christ is Michael the created Archangel[19], then all those passages in the New Testament which speak of Jesus receiving worship (Matt. 2:2, 11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 28:9, 17; cf. Matt. 4:9-10) should at the same time be passages speaking of how Jesus sinned. For no created being deserves to receive worship. Worship belongs to God alone. The fact that Jesus received worship speaks of His deity.

Moreover, this model suffers all the problems we have noted of a single person god. This god of the Arians cannot be essentially love, for he had no one to love before creation. Thus on that note itself, this god is proved to be not the God of the Scriptures.

In addition to these horrendous flaws, the personhood of the Spirit of God is totally ignored and rejected by this heresy. The passages of scripture which points His personal nature are never given any proper justice by the adherents of this view.

Finally to say that our salvation was achieved by a creature called Jesus is to believe in a salvation not accomplished by God. This certainly is not the message of the Bible. From Genesis to Revelation, the consistent theme of the Bible is that “Salvation is of the Lord”.

Thus the denial of the third cardinal truth of the doctrine of the Trinity leads one to a created Jesus who sins by stealing worship from God, a single person god who cannot claim to be love, an impersonal force called Spirit and a salvation which rests on the work of a creature and not the Creator God. This religion is anything but unbiblical.

The fact that neither of the three cardinal truths which constitute the biblical understanding of Trinity can be denied is well illustrated in the following diagram.[20] On the three planes of the triangle is a cardinal truth of the doctrine and the corner opposite to it describes the heresy which if that particular truth is denied results in.

[1] Karl Rahner, Trinity, p10-11, Herder and Herder, 1970
[2] Karl Bath, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 301
[3] James White, Loving The Trinity, Christian Research Journal, Volume 21 / Number 4
[4] Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, P & R Publishing, 2004.
[5] The 99 eternal names of Allah as claimed by Muslims lists love (الودود, Al-Wadūd, 11:90, 85:14) among them. However as we have pointed out here, a single person god cannot claim love as an eternal attribute. For who was he loving from all eternity before creation came? Most Muslim apologists have no answer to this question. One plausible answer is that such a god was loving himself. For god to be god, it can be argued, he should love the chief good, which is he himself.  However defining God with such a love is worlds apart from what the Scriptures define Him to be. For in this plausible definition, love is neither relational nor personal. As relationship is only possible when one has someone that is not oneself to relate to. Moreover one is personal only within such a realized relationship. No one becomes a father without a son, no one becomes a husband without a wife and no one becomes a lover without a beloved. Thus the Unitarian god who was eternally loving himself cannot claim to be relational or personal. This is why Muslims rightly believe that you cannot have a personal relationship with Allah, all you can do is surrender to him. Thus the love which defines such a god is not the relational and personal love by which most people, even the Unitarian religions, want to define God.
[6] The illustration as all illustrations are, seeks to highlight only a particular aspect of truth and is never to be expected to be comprehensive in its explanation of truth. The present illustration is only aimed at proving how oneness in being does not necessarily mean oneness in person. When applied to God, there are certainly aspects of this illustration that does not hold good. For unlike men, in God, the separate persons who share His one being are perfectly united in will and purpose. In other words, unlike humans in the illustration, the separate persons who make the divine being, are as the early church confessed, subsistences within the Godhead. This aspect is not reflected in the illustration. The word subsistence denotes the manner of existence that distinguishes one thing from another. The Triune God is, as B.B Warfield summarized, “three persons same in substance but distinct in subsistence.“ (See B.B Warfield Biblical Doctrines, p.133).
[7] See “Trinity” in ESV Study Bible’s article on Biblical Doctrine
[8] The Western and Eastern churches have had centuries long debate on whether the procession of the Spirit is from the Father and the Son or from the Father alone, respectively. For our present discussion this bears little importance.
[9]Nicene Creed,  First Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.)  cf. Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, First Council of Constantinople (381 A.D.)
[10] For the best treatment on how the doctrine of Trinity is not Tritheism, see On "Not Three Gods" by Gregory of Nyssa, one among the three Cappadocian Fathers, who were instrumental in the proper understanding of the Trinity in the 4th century and in the development of the final version of the Nicene Creed of 381 A.D..
[11] The Athanasian Creed is a statement of Christian doctrine traditionally ascribed to Athanasius (298 - 373A.D.), Archbishop of Alexandria. However most of today's historians agree that in all probability it was originally written in Latin, not in Greek, and thus Athanasius cannot have been the original author.
[12] Classic Modalism is also called Sabellianism, after its earliest proponent, Sabellius, a theologian and priest from the third century. Modalism differs from proper Unitarian religious groups in that they do affirm the deity of the Son and the Spirit, which proper Unitarian groups do not.
[13]According to G.A. Boyd's statistics of nearly two decades ago, Oneness believers constitute the third largest anti-Trinitarian movement in the United States and the world, numbering within the region of over one million in the United States and nearly five million worldwide. Although there are hundreds of different Oneness denominations, the largest is the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI) having roughly half a million members in America and about the same number worldwide. See G.A. Boyd, Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), p.10
[14] C.S Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan, 1958, p.151
[15] An Examination and Refutation of the Denial of the Doctrine of the Trinity by Oneness Pentecostalism, Spotlight Ministries.
[16] Arianism is named after Arius (AD 256 - 336) an early Christian theologian of Libyan descent, born in Antioch. Arianism was deemed heretical at the Council of Nicaea, leading to the formation of the Nicene Creed.
[17] See “Trinity” in ESV Study Bible’s article on Biblical Doctrine.
[18] William Barry, "Arianism", The Catholic Encyclopaedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907
[19] Anthony A. Hoekema, The Four Major Cults. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans (1963), p. 270.
[20] The diagram is based on the one found in  A Brief Definition of the Trinity by James White,


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