One of the most often misunderstood beliefs that Christians hold is the idea of the Trinity. Christians themselves often find themselves at a loss as to how to adequately express their understanding (and many times simply express an incorrect view). This summary should help.
There are really only two ideas that must be understood to grasp the true essence of this teaching:
- There is only one God. (Dt. 6:4; Isa. 44:6; 1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:6; 1 Tim. 2:5).
- There are three distinct persons (Ps. 45:6, 110:1; Isa 63:7-10; Zech 1:12; Mt. 3:16-17, 28:19; Lk. 23:46; 2 Cor. 13:14) who are each fully God:
- The Father (Jn. 6:27; Rom. 1:7; Gal. 1:1)
- The Son (Mk. 2:5; 14:61-65; Jn. 1:1-5; 8:58; 10:11; Col 1:15-17; Heb. 1:1-15; Rev. 1:17)
- The Holy Spirit (Gen 1:2 (cf. Isa. 44:6; Isa 63:7-9; Ps. 139:7; Acts 5:3-4; 2 Cor. 13:14; Heb 9:14)
So God is plurality within unity. The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit are each persons, and are each God, but they are not each other. Neither are there three gods (polytheism), nor is there only one person who is three different expressions of God (modalism). God is one in nature (there is only one “what”), but three in person (there are three “who’s”). There is one “it,” and three “I’s.” There is one object, and three subjects. There is distinction in God without division. Because we only find one person per essence in humanity, this is difficult to grasp, but there is no contradiction in stating that one essence is shared by three persons.
This is the view of God that the Church holds, as declared in the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father [and the Son] who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And we believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
The Incarnation of The Son (Jesus Christ)
One person of the Trinity, Jesus, took on an additional nature at the incarnation – that of humanity. Thus, Jesus is one person with more than one nature. Again, this is not a contradiction – it is simply that in humanity we normally only see one nature per person. Further, God did not “become a man.” It is rather that God in the person of Jesus Christ added the nature of humanity to the nature of deity. The two natures are not combined, nor are they separated into two beings. Rather, they are joined in the person of Jesus Christ.
This is the view of God the Son that the Church holds, as declared in the Definition of Chalcedon:
Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.
There seem to be all sorts of paradoxes involved with Christ being a man and God at the same time. But it must be remembered that Jesus Christ, in addition to being God, is also man – not some sort of combination. The human nature was added to the divine. Thus, what is true of human nature is true of Jesus Christ (finitude, mortality, growth, etc.), and what is true of God is true of Jesus Christ (infinitude, immortality, unchangability, etc.), yet we are only speaking of the one divine person. Once this is understood, the paradoxes are not a problem.
Two Heresies to be Avoided
There are two heresies major involved with the three-in-one teaching of the Trinity:
One such heresy is Modalism, the teaching that God is one essence and one person – and that this one person only manifests in different ways. Depending on what “mode” God happens to be in at a given time we assign Him different names (Father, Son, Holy Spirit).
This is not the teaching of Scripture because:
- The Father sent the Son.
- The Father loves the Son.
- Christ prayed “Not my will but yours . . . ” to the Father.
- At the baptism of Christ all three persons were separately manifested.
And none of which would have been possible if they were only one person. These are clearly relations between distinct persons, not multiple personality disorder!
The other extreme we want to avoid is Tritheism, the idea that there are three persons and three essences in the nature of God – for that would equate to three gods.
This is polytheism and is completely unbiblical. The Bible clearly teaches that nothing outside of God is God. He is distinct from creation. The Bible may refer to God’s emissaries (both angel and human) as “gods” with regard to their acting on His behalf, but they are not to be confused with the true God or worshiped as such (Psalm 82:6-7; Isaiah 43-45; Revelation 19:10).
Because we cannot imagine that which does not exist in nature, the true Trinity is a very difficult concept to grasp – yet we must for the Bible teaches it. Analogies are helpful ways to express that which is difficult to grasp, some are better than others and no analogy is perfect in all its parts. Unfortunately the wrong ideas presented above are sustained even in Christian circles by way of false analogies that are sometimes used in attempts to understand the truth. Here are a few (try to see which heresy is unfortunately being supported by each):
Child/Parent/Sibling: You can be a child to your parents, a parent to your children, and a sibling to your sibling; but you are only one person.
This analogy is false because God does not reveal Himself in modes of action. He is three in person – not just one who performs different roles.
Water: Water is a single substance that exists in three forms (gas, liquid, solid) and each one is distinct from the other.
This essentially falls into the same modal problem noted above. God does not have parts, for the only way to distinguish a part is to have a lack in one or another part, and God lacks nothing.
The Egg: An egg is one, and yet has three parts.
This one is way off, for no single part of an egg is the egg – the parts must be added together to form the one. God cannot be separated into parts. Each member of the Trinity is fully God.
A Triangle: A Triangle is three in sides, yet it is one in shape.
Each side of the triangle is necessary for its existence, each meets the other at the angles, and no sides are distinguishable. But of course no single line is the whole triangle so this is where the analogy breaks down (as all analogies do).
Multiplication of 1: 1 x 1 x 1 = 1.
Here we see three singularities equally one. This is a good example of the essence of God (but not the persons of God which would be represented by 1 + 1 + 1).
Love: Love involves the love of the lover, the love of the loved, and the love they share.
This one is good because three “loves” must be present to have love.
Light: A stream of light is one beam yet with three distinguishable and necessary components.
A very good analogy that I deal with in detail here.
Any explanation of the nature of God must account for all that the Bible teaches – not explaining only one aspect (like unity) at the expense of others (like plurality). The Trinity successfully unites all that Scripture has to say about God without contradiction, and is the settled doctrine of the Church. While the Trinity itself is impossible to fully grasp with our finite minds, orthodox Christians must affirm the doctrine of the Trinity, for it is biblically and philosophically sound.