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What does it mean when we (Christians) say, God is a Trinity? Do we have three gods? Are they separate? In Christian theology, every Christian will admit that the doctrine of The Holy Trinity is one of the most controversial doctrines that attract a heated debate either within Christendom or from other religions.
Even for many Bible preachers and teachers, this topic is admittedly complex and difficult to explain. Someone has said that if you're aiming to mentally grasp the Holy Trinity, you need to have a mind that is divine.
This is because the doctrine of the Holy Trinity deals with the nature of God: Eternal, Infinite, and Transcendent. Even though the Trinity is a mystery, we can satisfy our understanding about its reality to an extent through biblical and logical explanations.
The word “trinity” is not written in the Bible, and this might be one of the reasons why other religions and skeptics think that Christians have borrowed a so-called polytheistic conception about God from Greek and Roman cultures.
These critics lack the proper understanding of the theological term “Holy Trinity” for or two reasons:
1. The absence of the term does not validate that the invention or use of the term is erroneous since the term is intended to present the explanation for the biblical data about God.
2. When Christian theologians decide to use the term “Trinity” they are also presenting a theological and logical explanation about the nature of God.
The word “trinity” is derived from the Latin word “Trinitas” which is actually a compound word; “trini” means three, and “unitas” means unity.
In other words, Trinity is “three in unity.” According to Church history, it was the Latin theologian of the 3rd century, by the name “Tertullian” who invented the term. By using this term, he was not saying that there are three separate Gods, but only ONE God, existing in three distinct persons, namely, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
There is no contradiction when you say that God is one and has three persons. It's just a matter of putting things into perspective. When we say that God is one, we are referring to His essence and nature and even to the fact that He alone is the only ONE true God compared with the idols or gods and goddesses of other world religions.
When we say that God has three distinct persons, we are referring to His person, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Take note, these three are not the same in person, but same only in essence. We don't separate them in essence, but we distinguish them in persons.
In other words, the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, and the Holy Spirit is neither the Son nor the Father. They are distinct in persons but united in one essence, which is divinity.
Since their distinction is in person and not, in essence, they are all equal in power, authority, and nature – because they are all united in one essence of Godhead.
Their distinction in person is for the purpose of the logical order, not of inferiority or less divinity. Hence, it is wrong to think and state that since the Son is the “Son” and not the “Father” He is, therefore, inferior to the Father.
The position of the three persons must not be interpreted using human earthly conditions. All are equal in divinity, but in person, there is a distinctive order and relationship.
What does the Bible say about The Holy Trinity?
Let’s consider what the Scripture itself testifies about this doctrine of the trinity. For the purpose of brevity and simplicity, let us observe just three verses.
1. Matthew 28:19
“Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (KJV)
In this verse, Jesus himself stated that the spiritual dignity of baptism is in the “name” of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. We can observe two things here: (1) the singular word “name” and (2) the conjunction “and”.
Notice, Christ didn't say, “names” (plural), but “name,” (singular). In the Bible, a person's name usually points to the dignity of his character, not only about his personal designation. And so, when Jesus used the singular word “name” in relation to the three persons in the Godhead, He was also showing that even though these three persons are distinct in personality, yet they are one in the nature of the Godhead.
Also, by emphatically using the conjunction “and” in relation with the phrase “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost”, it signifies the distinction of the three; but again, not in essence as God, but in person. Thus, based upon this verse, the trinity of God is about the distinction of His persons and their unity in the divine essence.
2. 2 Corinthians 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.”
In this Pauline benediction, the unity of the three persons in the Godhead is particularly shown in their ever-present grace to all Christians. They are not only united in essence but even in their presence to Christians through their graces.
Even though their graces to us are closely related and flow from one essence of divinity, Paul made a clear emphasis on the focus of their graces.
Concerning Jesus Christ, he used the term “grace” for it was the Son who died on the Cross, not the Father nor the Holy Spirit.
Concerning the Father, he assigned “love” for it was He whom Jesus referred to when He said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son...”.
And concerning the Spirit, Paul assigned the grace of “fellowship” for it is the Holy Spirit who is said to be indwelling the believer.
But again, even though the emphasis of their graces differs, they are not separate or exclusive. They originate from the same essence, yet emphatically and orderly bestowed upon us through the three distinct persons.
3. Deuteronomy 6:4
“Hear O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.”
Similar to this verse, you can also use 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 and Isaiah 44:6 for comparison. The verse clearly states that God is one. However, the right question must be asked: In what context or in what sense is God one?
The two verses that I’ve mentioned above are also clear biblical statements that He is three. Is there a biblical contradiction? Of course not!
The logical answer to this question is obviously categorical. Let me explain it this way: To properly understand the Trinitarian view of God, every critic and honest observer of the Scripture must know that the evangelical Trinitarian proponents do not deny the sheer fact that God is “one” based upon Deuteronomy 6:4.
However, concerning this verse, the question is: When Moses said God is “one,” what did he mean by it? In what sense is God one? Is it a numerical one?
Well, a close observation of the immediate context will inform us that the oneness of God here is a declarative contrast against the false gods of the Babylonians, Egyptians, and of the Canaanites of that time.
The use of the term “one” does not disprove the (trinity) three persons of the Godhead because the context does not point to that issue. The main issue here is the calling of Israel's devotion to the true God who has revealed Himself to them in various wondrous ways.
Compared to the gods of Egypt, Yahweh is the true living God whom they must love, worship, and serve, not those false and dead-statue gods of the pagans.
In other words, the use of “one” here points to the issue of who is the real living God; is He the God of Israel, or the gods of pagan religions?
But just in case, the context will not satisfy the non-Trinitarian inquirers, we can still use the word “one” here as a strong argument for the Trinity.
How? Well, if we study the etymological meaning of this word, we will understand that the Hebrew word that Moses used to describe God as “one Lord” is not “yachid” or a mathematical or numerical one, like the number “1”.
Rather, he used the word, “Echad” which means a “compound unity” that is used to express a harmonious relationship, direction, purpose, and order. For instance, "echad" is the Hebrew word used to describe the oneness of Adam and Eve in marriage.
Genesis 2:24 says, “…a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Now, is the oneness of Adam and Eve here a literal oneness as if they are physically combined to become one body?
Of course not! Rather, the oneness implied here is a marital oneness expressed in a loving harmonious relationship of the two as husband and wife. Therefore, from this particular example, we can conclude that the oneness of God declared in Deuteronomy 6:4 is not a mathematical oneness in the context of nature and person, but in the context of contrast to what is false – that is, against the false gods of the pagans.
Can we explain The Holy Trinity?
There are a few things that we must keep in mind when contemplating and trying to understand God. Everything we may think or talk about God can only be what He reveals about Himself in His Holy Word, the Bible.
He says about Himself: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways My ways... For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa.55:8-9).
“God is (a) Spirit” (Joh.4:24). He lives without the limitations of our three-dimensional universe and is infinitely more complex than we are. There are many things that we do not understand about God but can only believe what He reveals to us.
We do not understand how He could have created the universe from nothing, but He did. We live in a three-dimensional world and have no personal experience of His spiritual existence.
However, we have His Word on certain things that we can partly understand on the grounds of our own existence. Let us then see what God revealed about Himself for us to understand.
Trinity, The Plural
Firstly, the words “trinity” or “triune God” do not occur in the Bible. It is only our way of summarizing what the Bible tells us about God. “Tri” means “three”, and “unity” means “one”. When we combine these two we have “tri+unity”, pronounced as Trinity.
To summarize our understanding: The one and only God reveals Himself in the persons (persona) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The first Scripture that gives us an inkling of God’s plurality of persons, is when God said: “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness” (Gen.1:26). And He made/created man - body, soul, and spirit. God chose to address Himself as "us". Why? The rest of Scripture tells us something about it.
God, The Father
When God created the universe, He generated it, and that is the function we ascribe to our earthly fathers. They are the ones that generate their offspring. So in our very limited understanding, we may imagine that God, in His capacity as Father, created or generated heaven and earth “in the beginning”.
God, The Son
But wait, there is more. Throughout Genesis 1 we read “And God said, Let there be…” Every time He spoke a Word of creation, and it was!! Was this creation Word merely words that God spoke?
In John.1:1-3 we read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (Himself). He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and without Him, not even one thing came into being that has come into being.”
So now we know that the Bible speaks of God’s creation words as “the Word”, as “He” and “Him”, as a Person.
Throughout the following verses (John.1:4-18) He is described as a Person and is ultimately identified as Jesus the Christ, our Lord – truly God, Who took on human flesh and dwelled among us. Jesus Christ is verily God is also confirmed in verses like Rom.9:5 and 1Joh.5:20.
Altogether fourteen verses throughout the New Testament speak of both God the Father and Jesus Christ as two separate Persons. (See e.g. Gal.1:1; Eph.5:20; Php.2:11; Col.3:17.) Yet the Bible tells us that they both are the one and only God.
Some streams of reasoning within Christianity argue that Jesus Christ cannot be God because He prayed to the Father. Immediately they make two mistakes:
Firstly they forget that the Bible states it as a fact that He is indeed God as set out above. And He said to the Father “…We are One…” (Joh.17:11,22).
Secondly, because they cannot comprehend the immensity and character of God with their human and limited understanding, they would rather believe in their earthly, three-dimensional understanding and logic.
God, Himself declared that His ways and thoughts are infinitely higher than ours. Even our best human efforts to compare God to our earthly existence, fall far short of the ultimate truth.
God, The Holy Spirit
What does the Bible say about the “third Person”, i.e. the Holy Spirit?
Some people believe the Holy Spirit to be merely an “influence”, “force” or “energy” of God. But let us remember that one cannot lie to, or cause sorrow to an influence, force or energy. One can do that only to a person.
At the moment of creation, “…the Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters.” (Gen.1:2). At the moment of creation, we have the Father, the Word (Joh.1:1) and the Spirit. Now let us learn more about the Holy Spirit from the Bible.
When St. Peter confronted Ananias about his lying, he said: “…why has Satan filled your heart for you to lie to the Holy Spirit?... You have not lied to men, but to God.” (Act.5:3-4). This is a clear statement that the Holy Spirit is indeed a Person, and He is God. John.4:24 confirms that “God is [a] Spirit”.
In 1Cor.1-11 we read about the gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit. This periscope culminates in the statement: “But the one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing separately to each one as He desires.” These are things only God can do and has done.
The Holy Spirit, being a Person of the triune Godhead, has emotions. He was grieved when God’s people rebelled against Him, turned an enemy unto them, and fought against them (Isa.63:10; Dt.28:15-68; Jer.21:5; 30:14; Lam.2:4-5 etc., etc.). St. Paul warned the Ephesians not to rebel against the Holy Spirit and thereby grieving Him (Eph.4:30).
God is Spirit, indeed! He is the Spirit of adoption, through Whom we can call God our Father, and He bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Rom.8:15-16).
He comforts (Act.9:31); helps us in our infirmities and, when we do not know how to pray, He intercedes for us according to the will of God (Rom.8:26-27).
Jesus spoke about Him as the Comforter who would teach His disciples and remind them of all that He, Jesus, had told them (Joh.14:26).
Much, much more could be said about the Holy Spirit and that He, along with the Father and the Son, is verily God. Indeed, when God reveals Himself as the Holy Spirit, He is the dynamic, active, ever-present person of God who does all the above-mentioned things and impels us to action.
Again: When Jesus gave the command to baptize new disciples, He expressly said to baptize them in the “NAME” (NOT NameS) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Our God is THE Triune God, indeed!! Amen to that!!
Have we now explained the Holy Trinity? No!! We have only mumbled along after what God has deemed necessary for us to know about Him. God’s being, His essence, His thoughts and His ways are infinitely higher than what we can ever imagine.
We now know only in part but, one day, when the perfection has come, we shall fully know even as we are now fully known (1Cor.13:1-12). Amen to that!
There is indeed only one triune God, who reveals Himself in the Persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Mind On Jesus