Thoughts on the Trinity

We start with the idea that God is the Great Three in One. Because God is always One, The Triune God is never divided against God’s Self. There is no difference of opinion within the one Triune God. This is often forgotten by TV evangelists who teach that God the Son had to placate an angry and vengeful God the Father with his death on the cross, lest God delight in sending all of us to hell. This kind of thinking fails to see that it was the love of the Father that sent the Son into the world to make atonement for our sins. As we read in John 3:16

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 

Or, as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 5:8

But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. 

God’s Oneness affirms there is no difference of opinion in God. Therefore the whole work of Creation, Redemption and Sanctification (perfecting and sustaining the creation and the creature) is seen as a single operation common to all three divine persons. All things, whether the creation of the universe, or the salvation of humankind, is “from the Father,” “through the Son,” and “in the Holy Spirit.” 

Nevertheless, the fact that God has revealed God’s Self with three faces allows us to make a distinction between the work of the Father, the work of the Son, and the work of the Holy Spirit. Consider the fact that Jesus “died for us in accordance with the scriptures.” (1st Corinthians 15:3) God the Father decreed that sin had to be punished, then sent the Son into the world to save it.

Since Jesus in not God the Father, the decision about whether to die was not up to him. He submitted to the decision of the Father. In fact in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before he was made a prisoner, put on trial, and crucified, he prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” Matt. 26:39 

Likewise, since God the Father is not Jesus, God the Father did not die when Jesus died on the cross. Jesus, God the Son died, God the Father did not. God the Holy Spirit did not. Rather, in the person of the Son, God the Father “takes death up into God’s Self.” Because Jesus died on the cross; God the Father and God the Holy Spirit know what Death is like. Because God the Father and God the Holy Spirit did not die when God the Son died, it was possible for God the Father to Raise Jesus from death. 

And what roll did the Holy Spirit play in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? In 1st Pet. 3:18 we read that Jesus was “…put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit.” And in Romans 1:16 we read that Jesus was, “designated Son of God in power through a spirit of holiness (Holy Spirit) by his resurrection from the dead.” 

It is now the work of the Holy Spirit to convince us about what the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means to us. The Holy Spirit bears witness to Jesus Christ, even as the apostles, and all believers, bear witness to Jesus Christ. 

There are many things that are made plain by The Shield of the Trinity. Here are a few: 

Since Jesus in not God the Father, in the days of his flesh, Jesus was not omnipresent. In John chapter 16 Jesus told his disciples that it was to their advantage that he go away so that he could send another counselor, the Holy Spirit. The man Jesus could be with a limited number of people. Through the power of the Holy Spirit he can be with us all. He can be with you. 

Since Jesus is not God the Father, in the days of his flesh, Jesus was not omniscient. In Luke 2:40 we read that the boy Jesus grew in wisdom, and in stature, and in favor with God and man. If he had known all things, he could not have grown in wisdom. In Matthew 24, the end is near as Jesus comments on the advent of the Son of Man. He says, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” 

Since Jesus is not God the Father, in the days of his flesh, he was dependent upon God to work miracles. One wonders at how much power Jesus had access to in the days of his flesh. Perhaps God would have granted him anything– -yet he would not accept the twelve legions of angels that could have saved him from the cross. (Matthew 26:23) At any rate, according to the New Testament Jesus relied upon his faith in God to perform mighty works and signs and miracles. According to Mark 6:4-5, Jesus could do no “mighty work” in his own home town, except that he laid hands on a few sick and healed them. The reason given is that “a prophet is not without honor except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” 

Explaining the Trinity 

Some people have gone to great lengths to help us understand the Trinity. They use examples like: 

“The doctrine of the Trinity is like an egg: three parts—shell, yoke, white, yet one egg.” 

“The doctrine of the Trinity is like a three leaf clover: three leaves, one clover.” 

“The doctrine of the Trinity is like water: three forms (ice, steam, liquid) one substance.” 

I’m not a fan of any of the analogies. I prefer to remember only that, in the Bible,  the one God reveals God’s self with three persona (Latin) or faces (English), and the good news of the gospel that we know and love would be impossible unless God really is the Great Three in One. I doubt I will ever fully understand the doctrine of the Trinity.  However, I treasure doctrine it, and I guard it in my heart. 

Years ago I sat around a table at Princeton Theological Seminary discussing the problem of the Trinity over lunch. Most of the people around the table were pastors, and they there at Princeton working on advanced degrees. One of them finally said, “I wish we were like the Jews. I wish we worshiped just the one God, just the Father. That would make things so much simpler. I knew immediately that he did not accept the idea of the Trinity, nor did he grasp its importance. Several of the other students began to capitulate saying, “Yes, why do we need Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to be divine?” When the conversation came to me, I said, “I disagree completely. Given the suffering in the world, the only God I can trust, and worship is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. If God is not like Jesus Christ, I don’t want anything to do with him.” As I looked at the faces of most of the people around the table, I could see that they regretted their easy surrender, but one was unflinching. The man who started it all. I said to him, “What denomination are you?” He said, “Unitarian.” When he admitted that there was an audible groan from everyone else at the table.  I was reminded of how E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist missionary and evangelists, used to tell the story of a Unitarian pastor who came to him and said, “Dr. Jones, want you come help us put God back in the Unitarian Church?” Jones replied, “Isn’t that funny, you who have concentrated on God have lost him, and I who have concentrated on Jesus Christ have found him.” 

The Trinity and the Bible 

As we have noted, the word Trinity is not in the Bible. My old professor Christian Becker, who was Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary wrote that the idea of the Trinity is present in the New Testament in its “incipient rudimentary form,” by which he meant that the idea of the Trinity is there, in the New Testament, but we must draw it out, and give it additional shape and form. 

That drawing out goes something like this. 

The Jews worshiped one God. One of the most important verses in the Hebrew Bible is Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O, Israel, the LORD thy God is one…” 

The early were Christians were mostly Jewish-Christians monotheists who worshiped the one God of Moses. Yet, they also participated in the worship of Jesus the Messiah. He has been rejected by the people, and killed by the Romans, but God had vindicated him, raising him from death on the 3rd day after his crucifixion. 

Since God had vindicated Jesus, they were convinced that God wanted us to worship Jesus, too, and if that was so, then Jesus must, in someway beyond our ability to understand, be in union with the One God. The truth that Jesus was more than man, but the preexistent Son of God, and that God delights in the worship of Jesus is found in the ancient hymn set down in Philippians 2

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 

This led to the doctrine of the Two Natures of Jesus Christ, the fact that he was Fully Human and Fully Divine. 

And then there is the Holy Spirit, the third person, persona or face of the Trinity. We have talked often about the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the work of creation and prophecy. The Holy Spirit is mentioned in the New Testament, especially in his roll as the one through whom we participated in the gospel and its blessings. In John’s gospel it is the Holy Spirit who convinces us of sin, and righteousness, and judgment. In Romans 8, it is the Holy Spirit who bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God. In the book of Ephesians, it is the Holy Spirit who guarantees our inheritance until we take possession of it. In Philippians, it is through the Holy Spirit that God will raise us from death, to new life. 

In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is called, “the Spirit of God,” “the Spirit of Christ,” “the Spirit of Jesus,” “the Spirit of Truth,” “the Spirit of the Lord,” “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead…”, “the Spirit of the Lord,” “the Spirit of God’s Son…”, “the Spirit of grace…” Given all the names that the New Testament applies to the Holy Sprit, it is no surprise that the Western Version of the Nicene Creed declares that “the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. “ 

Given the association of the Holy Spirit with the Father and with the Son, it is good and right that the Holy Spirit also receive our worship. He is “co-equal with the Father and the Son.” Indeed, Jesus himself said, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24

To sum up: Scripture does not contain a formulated doctrine of the Trinity. Rather, according to the Christian theology, it Scripture bears witness t” the activity of the one God who can only be understood in Trinitarian terms. Though Trinitarianism is compatible with Monotheism, it is in sharp contrast with non- Trinitarian positions such as Unitarianism. Historically, there are at least three major heresies regarding the Trinity. 

  1. Modalism is the belief that God is one God who shows himself in three different ways, sometimes as the Father, sometimes the Son, and sometimes the Holy Spirit. It describes God in purely functional terms. When God is creating the world, God is called Father. When God is saving the world by his death on the cross, God is called Jesus, or God the Son. When God is convicting the world of sin, or witnessing to us that we are God’s children, God is called Holy Spirit. The error is that that the One God eternally exists in three persons, not just in temporary modes of functionality. 
  2. Tritheism is the belief that we have three Gods, all who share a similar nature, but not the exact same nature. In Tritheism, the nature of God is either distinguished or divided, which destroys the unity of God. We don’t believe in three similar God, but in one God who has revealed God self with three faces. 
  3. Subordinationalism says that there is one God in three persons, but the essence of each person exists in a hierarchy. For example, many believe that God the Father is the greatest and the most powerful, then God the Son, followed by God the Holy Spirit. Trinitarianism confesses an essential equality among all the members of the Godhead. None are greater in essence than the other. 

So, to recap, in speaking of the Trinity:

The problem is not to divide the Essence of the one God or confuse the three persons in which God has revealed God’s self.

Respectfully submitted,

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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