The Trinity. Three in one, and one in three. We’ve all heard of it, and we’ve all sung the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” in which we find the words, “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.” But have any of us taken the time to really think about the nature of the Trinity and its seemingly paradoxical nature? Or do we just dismiss it as another one of those doctrines which we are probably not meant to understand? Throughout this discussion of the Trinity, I hope to be able to Biblically explain this fascinating topic without making it sound like Christianity is a polytheistic religion. I will be using Gordon Clark’s book, “The Trinity,” as a major reference, and I highly recommend that book to anyone who is eager to further their understanding on this issue.
To start off, let it be made perfectly clear that we as Christians serve one God. Throughout the entire Old Testament we find references to God being a single spiritual entity. Probably the best representative verse of this fact is Deuteronomy 6:4 which says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” (For other references see 2 Kings 19:19, Ezra 4:3, Nehemiah 9:6, Psalm 72:18, Psalm 83:18, and Isaiah 37:20.) The strictly monotheistic nature of the Bible is really beyond debate. When we talk of the three Persons of the Trinity, we are not speaking of a plurality of gods, but rather a plurality of spiritual natures within a single essence.
A suggestion of the plurality of God’s nature is given to us early on in Genesis 1:26 when God first decides to create man: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…’” (See also Gen. 3:22 which coincides with the verse just given: “…Behold, the man has become like one of Us…”) Because there are several different interpretations of these verses, they are not offered as conclusive evidence for the Trinity specifically. However, it is still interesting to note that many theologians agree it’s perfectly possible for these verses to be referring to the three Persons of the Godhead when interpreted in the context of Trinitarianism. Also, look at the singular/plural peculiarities of Genesis 18:1-16 in the story of the three men coming to see Abraham (due to the length of the passage in question, it will not be quoted in full here, and so the reader is encouraged to look it up for himself). Again, it’s impossible to form a dogmatic conclusion as to whether or not the three men are symbolic of the Trinity, or if they are simply the Lord and two accompanying angels. Whichever the case may be, the strangeness of the wording in the following text makes for some interesting considerations: “…behold, three men were standing before him…he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the ground and said, ‘My Lord…’” Although there were three men there, Abraham refers only to one when he says “My Lord.” It’s not conclusive, but it’s certainly suggestive.
The comparison of Isaiah 8:14 with 1 Peter 2:5-8 also sparks some Scriptural indications of Trinitarian doctrine: “He (the Lord) will be as a sanctuary, but a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel, as a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 8:14) “You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up the spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient… ‘A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.’” (1 Peter 2:5-8) So in the first verse, the Lord is the one who is referred to as a “rock of offense” and in the second verse, Jesus Christ is the one who is a “rock of offense.” It is apparent, then, that the Christ of the NT and the Lord of the OT are one and the same being and yet, based on the evidence of passages like Mark 14:36 in which Jesus refers to his “Father,” it is also apparent that while He and the Father are one, they are at the same time separate in some way as well.
Before discussing the Trinitarian point of view any further, I would like to briefly take a look at some of the doctrines which have been founded in an attempt to explain the oneness and yet separateness of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Perhaps by demonstrating the falsity of these dogmas I will be able to utilize the Transcendental Argument to give my final conclusion some extra weight.
Dynamic Monarchianism—This view suggests that Christ’s deification was progressive and that he began life a normal, mortal man. Eventually, the Holy Spirit entered him in a singular and special way and at this point he became homoousis (of the same essence or substance) with God but only in the way that man is homoousis with his own state of rationality. He experienced the power of the Holy Spirit to such a strong degree that eventually, as was said, he became a deity. This view is obviously in major disaccord with Scripture—particularly the earlier sections of the Gospels which deal with Christ the Son of God as a baby and young boy—and won’t be exhaustively refuted in this paper. For some quick references which disprove Dynamic Monarchianism, see Matt. 1:20 where Joseph is told in a dream by an angel that the Baby in Mary’s womb was conceived of the Holy Spirit. If Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit, he could not possibly have been born as a completely normal, mutable man. See also Matt. 16:16, Mark 1:1, Luke 4:41 (Even the demons recognize that Christ is the Son of God!), John 6:69, John 11:27, and Acts 8:37 for further statements concerning Christ as the Son of God.
Modalism—Modalism suggests that God is an absolutely exclusive, single being, not having three parts in His personality. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply three different names for the same, specific Being. As one unknown writer put it, “There is a three-fold mode of revelation of God, but not a tripersonality within His being.” The Son, as he appeared on earth, is not an eternal being, but God the Father as a human version of Himself who is only to completely disappear as a redemptive figure when He ascends into heaven after His time on earth is finished. Neither is the Holy Spirit a separate personality or nature, but that part of God that works sanctification among men. This view is probably better known in the modern world as Sabellianism or Patripassianism. Modalism is the easiest of these doctrines to confuse with Trinitarianism, so refutations for this viewpoint will be expounded upon shortly.
Tritheism—This position claims that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are completely different gods that are in some unknown way unified. But it is made clear that the three members are as different as three mortal men are from each other. It’s really just a fancy way of saying polytheism
. And since, as Christians, we know that polytheism is an unbiblical concept, an in-depth rebuttal of Tritheism is unnecessary.
Arianism—Arianists hold that, since God is immutable, His divine substance or essence can not be transferred or shared by any other being—be it immortal or mortal. Arians claim that Christ was God’s first actual creation, and that Christ, as a divine being but not a deity (don’t ask me how they can make a distinction between the two), created everything else including the Holy Spirit. The Arians’ favorite catch-phrase about Christ is, “There was a time when he was not.” This is the last of the false doctrines which will be addressed, and due to the great controversy it sparked in early Christian history, additional time will be spent on its history and various refutations.
To return briefly to the subject of Modalism/Sabellianism, first read this much more comprehensive, defining quote by Gordon Clark, “Sabellianism is the view that God is a single Person; there is not a second Person called the Son, nor a third called the Spirit. Rather, when God is active in creating the universe and controlling it, He should be called the Father; when He is active in redemption, He should be called the Son; and when active in sanctification He is called the Spirit.” So the Sabellians can come across sounding doctrinally intact when they agree that Christ is God. The major difference you have to notice here is that when they say “Son,” they are referring to a title for a specific type of activity, and when Christians say “Son,” we are referring to an actual spiritual being, separate from the Father in nature. One refutation for Sabellianism can be found in Romans 6:3, where Paul speaks of baptism only in Jesus Christ. Sabellianism requires baptism into all three functioning personalities of God, otherwise baptism would be incomplete. Another Biblical point which is contrary to what the Sabellians would claim is found in the apostolic benediction commonly used in the NT, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” In this statement only two of Sabellianism’s three functions are given, even though all three titles are listed. They are also in the wrong order for Sabellianism. More evidence is that the Father and the Son send
the Holy Spirit. Also, the Son prays to the Father as a separate Being (for instance, in the Garden of Gethsemane). Thus it becomes increasingly clear that God is not a single entity with multiple functions and respective titles, but rather that there are three separate Persons in one essence.
A short discussion and refutation of Arianism will close this study of the false doctrines that attempt to explain the three members of the Godhead. Arguing against Arianism, and integral to the raging debate of the same in the early fourth century, is a Church Father by the name of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius was the key figure in opposing the Arian movement and staunchly defended the Trinity his entire life until his death in AD 373. In roughly AD 319 a man named Arius began teaching that there was a time before God the Father supposedly created the Son when Christ the Son did not exist. About three years before Athanasius succeeded Alexander as Bishop of Alexandria, he attended the first Council of Nicaea in AD 325 as the latter’s secretary when the Nicene Creed, which for the moment anathematized Arius and his followers, was produced. To the Arians, the Word was a creature, created by God and thus a work not sharing the same essence or substance (homoousis) as God. And yet in John 1:1 we find the famous passage stating that the Word (or Logos) was
God. Since the Arians claim that Christ (the Word) was a creation at the beginning of time, it follows that He must possess a status, or rank, if you will, lower than that of God the Father. And yet the Bible always speaks of the two as equals; in Genesis it is clear that Christ did not create the world as an agent of God, but that the two as one created it together. 1 Corinthians 8:6 says this: “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we live for Him; And one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.” So if Christ was the first Creature rather than God’s begotten Son, we would be children of Christ, rather than children of God. And as children of a created Christ, we would only be separated from God the Father (by being morally attached to Christ as the Father’s creation instead of attached to Christ as the Father’s essence) rather than being united with Him. So it follows that Christ’s sonship to God cannot be a moral one, such as the sonship of all Christians to God, but rather Christ’s sonship must be a natural one, as Isaac was the son of Abraham. Thus, if Christ’s sonship is a natural sonship, then He could not have been created by God since it has already been shown that Christ as a creation could not be God’s natural Son.
A short treatise called “De Decretis” or a “Defense of the Nicene Definition,” written by Athanasius refuting the Arian claims, is something I highly recommend to motivated and interested readers. It provides a logical and exhaustive rebuttal to Arianism and really isn’t as much of a daunting read as it might sound. In chapter three, Athanasius forms the argument that since creations are external to the creator, and since Christ is not external to God, it follows logically that Christ cannot be a creation. Furthermore, as Athanasius points out in chapter four of “De Decretis,” if Christ, as the Word or Logos spoken of in John 1:1 (also see 1 John 5:7), was created by God as the Arians would have it, wouldn’t they have to accede that before Christ was created, God the Father had neither Word nor Logos (logic or reason)? Christ is called the power and the wisdom of God in 1 Corinthians 1:24 and again in 1:30. If there was indeed a “time when he was not,” it would have to follow that there was a time when God, as Christ’s Creator, had neither wisdom nor power.
So then, since none of these ideas are logically or Scripturally accurate, what is the correct view? Or is there one? Can it be that we are, after all, not meant to understand the doctrine of the Trinity and to try would hence be a waste of time? I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers or to be perfectly correct in the answers at which I have arrived. The conclusions I have reached by reading and studying are only that which are the most logical and Scripturally compatible.
We know that God, Christ and the Holy Spirit are all infallible, immutable, and eternal. They did not have to learn anything; they simply know everything. They neither change their minds, nor have fluctuating opinions or ideas. And yet each of the Persons of the Trinity do not necessarily share the exact same thoughts as the others at the exact same time. Examples of this can be found in passages such as Matthew 27:46 which describe the last words of Jesus before His death (temporary though it was) on the cross, and also in Matthew 26 where Christ prays to the Father in the garden of Gethsemane. Persons who are able to think different thoughts than each other at the same moment in time, cannot be a single entity.
One major objection to this conclusion is a slightly revised version of the Third Man Argument first used by Plato as an inconclusive, self-refutation to his Theory of Forms (a completely different topic for another day). The argument is briefly as follows: Say you have three mortal, normal men. They are all similar to each other in that they are men and have bodies, minds, etc. In the Christian understanding, these men are an image of a more powerful, perfected version of themselves, and we believe that this more powerful person is God. The Third Man Argument claims that the similarity between the three men necessitates this higher Being (God). If we then say that there are three similar higher Beings (the members of the Trinity) which are representative of the lesser, imperfect men just spoken of, it would have to follow, according to the Third Man Argument, that there must be an even higher being which was the image of the trio of beings. And then there would have to be another fifth higher being that was more powerful than the last one by which to make the last one similar to the one or ones before it. Basically, then, when applied to the Trinity, this argument claims that the similarity between the three Beings presupposes another, higher being and that this being presupposes yet another, higher being and the process would continue ad infinitum.
The biggest problem with this objection is that since the three Beings of the Godhead are already eternal, all-powerful, immutable, and infallible, it’s impossible to conceive of a being higher than them. Also remember that each of the three Persons are not exactly similar to the others and each possesses a different personality with traits not common to the other two. The incarnation of Christ, for example, was something that happened exclusively to Christ and not all three. Thus it cannot possibly follow for one being which was higher than the three to be representative of the three as a whole.
So at the moment, without any major objections or theories now staring us in the face, where are we? Well, let’s look at a quick summary of Trinitarianism, the view which most logically explains the apparent paradox of the three Beings in one:
Trinitarian doctrine affirms that three persons exist or subsist within a single God. These persons are God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It is hence possible to maintain a monotheistic stance by stating the singular essence of a sole God, and yet it also puts both Christ and the Holy Spirit as separate Persons into the same oneness in essence with the Father. This is referred to as a “triunity” of beings and conveys the nature of a three-in-one Godhead. Again, this does not infer three separate gods, but rather speaks of each subsistence as a personality being on the same grounds of equality, eternity, and substance as the other two. It makes for an indivisible and perfect union in which each member has qualities privy to itself and at the same time shares in the work of the others.
There is a form of subordination, functionally speaking, between all members of the Trinity in that the Father functions as the head, the Son is beneath the Father, and the Holy Spirit is beneath the Son. This is more of a classification scheme in the process of redemption as opposed to an actual form of subordination. That is, the Father draws or chooses people, those people are saved through, and enjoy communion with, the Father through Jesus Christ the Son, and finally, sanctification is accomplished by the sending of the Holy Spirit to enter those people. In terms of ontology, however, the three persons of the Trinity are of equal status.
Simply stated, then, the three members are in a logical, causal order with each proceeding from the other from Father to Son, and Son to Holy Spirit. The Father is the head and source of all being (1 Cor. 8:6, Eph. 4:6, Eph. 2:18) and is revealed through the Son (1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 3:17) who in turn is experienced by the Holy Spirit working in a person in the process of sanctification (Luke 1:67, Luke 4:1).
Evidence for Trinitarian doctrine can be found in the baptismal formula (found in Matthew 28:19) “In the name (notice the singular) of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit.” Notice again how “name” is singular and yet three names are given. Also in 2 Cor. 13:14 we find the Trinitarian benediction, “The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.” We also find evidence for the Trinity at Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:9-11: “It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” Here we can see that each member is fulfilling their respective duties. God the Father speaking to Christ as a Son, the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus, and Jesus Christ the Son Incarnate carrying out His time on earth to save people from eternal damnation.
For a final reference, 1 John 5:6-8 says this: “This is He who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: The Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.” Notice especially verse 7: “…and these three are one.” This verse is the most conclusive of them all.
To conclude this short study on the Trinity, I would like to say that I believe it is impossible for us to fully comprehend this doctrine. Numerically speaking, it is not possible for 3 to equal 1 or vice versa, and perhaps that is why men over the centuries have tried to form comprehendible and numerically understandable doctrines about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Whether comprehendible or not, however, the truth of three in one in scripture cannot be denied and should most definitely not be explained away.
I believe Gordon Clark most fittingly closed his book with the words to the hymn mentioned in the beginning and so I shall do the same:
“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”(Btw, in case anybody was wondering, this was a paper I just recently finished writing... :) Hopefully you found it of interest and I'm looking forward to feedback! And always remember........ ORANGE RULES!!!)