What is the Trinity?
Bible-believing Christians have always believed in the Trinity. Not only evangelical Protestants, but even Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox are Trinitarians. On the other hand, the doctrine of the Trinity has been rejected by most cults, many liberals and ultra-Pentecostal groups such as the United Pentecostal Church.
Nothing is more important than a correct doctrine of God, and nothing is more essential to God than that He is the Trinity. Any idea of God which does not include the Trinity is a false god. It is precisely because of the importance and mysteriousness of the doctrine of the Trinity that many have misunderstood or rejected it.
Probably the best concise definition of the Trinity is that found in the Westminster Confession: “In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son” (11:3).
The Athanasian Creed is one of the most important creeds of all church history, and is probably the best detailed statement on the Trinity. It is especially useful in how it differentiates the three members of the Trinity. The following excerpts summarize it: “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the Glory Equal, the Majesty Co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son: and such is the Holy Ghost … So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet there are not three Gods, but one God … The Father is made of none: neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before or after other; none is greater or less than another; but the whole three Persons are co-eternal together, and co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved must think thus of the Trinity” (Articles 3-7, 15-16, 20-26).
The Three-in-One God
The word “Trinity” means “three-in-one”. There is a sense in which God is three; there is an equal but different sense in which He is one. Herein lies the grandeur of the Trinity. One scholar called it “the mystery of mysteries”, and a grand paradox it is, indeed. To properly begin to grasp this high doctrine (and even the greatest theologians can only begin to grasp it ) , it is absolutely important to keep the threeness and the oneness in balance.
Many heresies have arisen by an over-emphasis on either the threeness or oneness of the Trinity. If one places too much stress on the threeness, he backs into tritheism and polytheism. Conversely, those who over-emphasize the oneness end up in unitarianism. So, we must keep the two in balance. This is the principle of “the One and the Many”, or unity in diversity.
Again let us underscore the fact that this doctrine cannot be fully comprehended. It can be known definitely, but not exhaustively. Only God Himself fully comprehends it. For this reason, many have discarded the truth of the Trinity. For example, some have said that it is nonsense and self-contradictory. “Does not I plus I plus I equal 3?” Trinitarians have sometimes replied that they are adding when they should be multiplying. The formula should not be “1 + 1 + 1 = 3”, but rather “1 x 1 x 1 = 1”. Some even suggest that it be 32 b ut that is only speculation.
A host of analogies have been suggested to illustrate the 3-in-1 nature of the Trinity. Among the more well-known are the following: a three-leaf clover, time (past, present, future), water (liquid, mist, ice), physics (matter, space, motion), fire (light, heat, fuel), personality (mind, emotions, will; or id, ego, super-ego), space (the 3 dimensions), verbal forms (I, you, he), logic (major premiss, minor premiss, conclusion), dialectics (thesis, antithesis, synthesis), degrees (simple, comparative, superlative), a three-cord rope (cf. Eccl. 4:12), and many others. The triangle is the usual symbol of the Trinity, and has been used with many variations. Again, these are all at best speculations.
However, none of the preceding analogies are perfect. Each has a basic flaw. The point to remember is that though Nature may have threeness and oneness, there is nothing in Nature that keeps both together in the exact same way as the Trinity. Why is this so? Because the doctrine of the Trinity is revealed only in Scripture, not in Nature. It is discovered only by revelation, not science; received by faith, not by reason.
What Saith the Scriptures?
Though the word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible (Tertullian was probably the first to coin the word), the doctrine is everywhere. Yet we do not find a detailed explanation in any one text. Matt. 28:19 is almost certainly the most explicit verse on the Trinity in the entire Bible: “…baptizing them in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Notice that “Name” is singular, but it belongs to each of the three. We see from this verse that there is one divine nature, but three Persons in God. They share the same nature, but remain different from each other in some way.
Some still appeal to the words in the KJV of I John 5:7, “There are three that bear record in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” Obviously these words expressly teach the Trinity. However, they are not part of the original inspired text. Of the hundreds of Greek manuscripts that contain I John, only 2 or 3 contain these words, and there is reason to believe that they were inserted by scribes for wrong reasons. Moreover, those manuscripts were very late. Hence, these words are rightly omitted from most English translations and should not be appealed to regarding the Trinity.
That doesn’t mean that the Bible never mentions all three members of the blessed Trinity together. As a matter of fact, there are dozens of places where all three are mentioned together in succeeding verses, even in a single verse. Among them are the following: Isa. 48:16, 61:1, 63:9-14; Hag. 2:5-6; Zech. 12:10; Luke 1:35, 24:49; John 3:34-36, 14:16, 26, 15:26, 16:7-15; Acts 2:33, 38-39; Rom. 1:1-4, 5:1-5, 14:17-18, 15:16, 30; 1 Cor. 2:10-16, 6:11, 15-19, 12:3-6; 2 Cor. 1:21-22,:3:3, 13:14; Gal. 3:11-14, 4:6; Eph. 1:17, 2:18-22, 3:2-5, 14-16, 4:4-6, 30-32, 5:18-20; Phil. 3:3; Col. 1:6-8; 1 Thess. 1:2-5, 5:18-19; 2 Thess. 2:13-14; 2 Tim. 1:13-14; Tit. 3:4-6; Heb. 6:4-6, 10:29; 1 Peter 1:2, 4:14; 1 John 4:2; Jude 20-21; Rev. 1:4-5, 2:27-29, 3:5-6, 12-13, 21-22, 14:12-13, 22:17-18. Of these, 2 Cor. 13:14 and I Pet. 1:2 are the most explicit.
Each of the four Gospels relates the Baptism of Jesus, and in each we see all three members of the Trinity (Matt. 3:16-17; Mark 1:10-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-33). Reject the doctrine of the Trinity, and this event makes no sense whatsoever.
Furthermore, there are places where any two of the three are mentioned together. For example, we frequently find the Father and the Son mentioned together in Scripture, especially in John’s Gospel (and particularly in chapters 5 and 17) and the opening and closing benedictions of the Epistles. Likewise, wherever the Holy Spirit is mentioned, the Son is almost always mentioned just a verse or two away, and also the Father.
Though this doctrine is more to be found in the New Testament, the Old Testament hints at it in a number of ways. First, the Hebrew word for God is ELOHIM. It is plural, but is often used with a singular Hebrew verb. On the other hand, sometimes it is used with a plural verb (such as in Gen. 20:13, 35:7). Then there are the passages where God speaks of Himself as “we” or “us” (Gen. 1:26, 3:22, 11:7; Isa. 6:8). Next, we find all three members of the Trinity in the Old Testament, either individually or with another of the Trinity, or even all three together (Isa. 48:16; Zech. 12:10). Lastly, some feel the threefold benedictions refer to the Trinity (Num.6:24-26; Isa. 6:3. Cf. Rev. 4:8).
The Father, The Son and The Spirit are Each God
The Bible is quite clear from beginning to end that there is only one God (Ex. 6:5, 20:3; Deut. 4:39; 1 Kings 8:23, 60; 1 Chron. 17:20; Neh. 9:6; Psa. 86:8, 10; Isa. 37:16, 20, 43:10, 44:6, 8, 45:5-6, 14, 18-5 21-22, 46:5, 9; Hos. 13:4; Mark 12:32; John 17:3; Rom. 3:30; 1 Cor. 8:4-6; Gal. 3:20; Eph. 4:6; 1 Tim. 1:17, 2:5; James 2:19; Jude 25). One of the most important things which God has ever said to Man has been what the Jews call the “Shema”, which is found in Deut. 6:4 and Mark 12:29, “Hear, 0 Israel. The Lord our God is one Lord.” In Hebrew, it is “Jehovah our Elohim is one Jehovah.” This one God is the Creator and is the God of the Bible, not the false gods of other religions. Thus, this foundational truth disproves polytheism, henotheism, pantheism, atheism and other heresies. The unity of God is absolutely essential to the Biblical theology of God.
This same Bible also says that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are each God. First, there is virtually no debate that the Father is explicitly called God and that God is a Father (I Cor. 1:3, 8:6; 2 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 1:2-3, 3:14, 4:6; Mal. 2:10; Heb. 12:19; James 1:17; often in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and in the Gospel of John (especially chapters 5 and 17), usually in the openings and closings of the Epistles, and many more places in Scripture. But the Bible also says that Jesus Christ is God (Isa. 9:6; Heb. 1:8-12, especially vs.8; John 1:1, 20:28; I John 5:20; 2 Pet. 1:1; Tit. 2:13; Rom. 9:5; 1 Tim. 3:16; Matt. 1:22). He is called Lord of Lords, King of Kings and God of gods (I Tim. 6:15; Rev. 17:14, 19:16; cf. Deut. 10:17; Psa. 136:2-3; Dan. 2:47, 10:36). He Himself claimed to be God by using God’s name “I AM” of Himself (John 8:24, 58 and the many “I AM” statements; cf. Ex. 3:14). He is the Creator (John 1:2-3, 10; Col. 1:16; I Cor. 8:6; Heb. 1:2, 10; Rev. 3:14) and receives worship as God (e.g., Matt. 2:2, 8, 11, 8:2, 9:18, 14:33, 15:25, 20:20, 28:9, 17; Mark 5:6; John 5:23, 9:38, 20:28; Heb. 1:6, etc.). There are many, many other proofs of the deity of Jesus Christ. Among others, see Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 1:19, 2:9; John 10:30, 38, 14:9-10; Heb. 1:3; Acts 10:36; Mark 2:5-10.
The Holy Spirit is also God (Isa. 48:16, 63:10; Psa. 51:11; 2 Cor. 3:17-18; Acts 5:3-4; 1 Cor. 3:16, 6:11, 19, 12:4; Gen. 1:2, etc.). He is eternal (Heb. 9:14) and there is only one Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:4). The Spirit is personal, not an impersonal force as some suggest. For instance, He knows (I Cor. 2:10-13), feels (Isa. 63:10; Eph. 4:30; Rom. 14:17), and speaks (Acts 8:29, 10:19, 11:12, 13:2, 20:23, 21:11, 28:25; Heb. 3:7, 10:15; Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13, 22, 14:13). Personal pronouns are used of the Spirit, such as He, Him and His (John 14:26, 15:26, 16:7-8, 13-15, etc.). Moreover, the Spirit is masculine, not feminine. He is never called “she”. Contrary to liberal Feminism, the Spirit is not a Divine Mother. Their Trinity is Father, Mother and Son. This triad is found in pagan Egypt and Babylon, but not in Scripture. God condemns worshipping the Mother Goddess, the Queen of Heaven (Jer. 7:18, 44:17-19, 25; Acts 19).
So, it can be said of all three that each is God and with God (John 1:1).
The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit Are Not Identical
Each of the three are identical in nature, for all three are God and there is only one divine nature. Hence, all three have divine holiness, eternity, infinity, immutability, love, truth, omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, etc.
But they are different in a deep and mysterious manner. We say that they are distinct persons. Scripture speaks of them separately, such as when any two or all three are mentioned together, such as at Christ’s Baptism. Jesus spoke of the Spirit as “another counsellor” (John 14:16). He Himself is a counsellor (I John 2:1). Therefore, Jesus is not the Holy Spirit.
Jesus prayed to the father, not to Himself (John 17). When the Father spoke from Heaven to Jesus, this was indeed the Father and not Jesus using ventriloquism (Matt. 3:17, 17:5; John 12:28). Jesus, therefore, is not the Father. Also, the Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit (John 14:26, 15:26). Therefore, the Spirit is not the Father nor the Son.
The Differences Between the Father, The Son and The Spirit
There are two ways in which we see the differences between the Father, the Son and the Spirit. The first is how they act in time. As we shall see later, they work together in all they do, but this does not mean that they do them in the same way. For example, it was the Son, not the Father nor the Spirit, who became a Man at Christmas. It was the Son alone who died on the Cross and rose from the dead. It was the Father, not the Son nor the Spirit, who spoke from Heaven at Christ’s Baptism and Transfiguration. And it was the Spirit, not the Father nor the Son, who was sent on the Day of Pentecost.
But there is another way, a much deeper way, to differentiate the persons of the Trinity. There are inherent differences between them in their very beings. This goes back to eternity, not merely actions in time. The way in which they are different but remain God in time is what is called the “Economic Trinity”. How they differ but remain God in eternity is what is called the “Ontological Trinity”.
Glimmers of this are seen in the eternal Covenant of Redemption between the three. The Father promised special glory to the Son if the Son would become a man, die for the elect and bring them to the Father. The Son agreed to the terms. And the Spirit was the witness of the proceedings. This eternal Covenant thus laid the foundation for what would happen in time. But there is something even deeper still. Their distinctive differences determined that it would be the Father, not the Son nor the Spirit that would initiate the Covenant. The Son’s distinctive determined that He would be the natural one to agree to become man. And so with the Spirit. Their differences are not merely according to their roles but according to their eternal persons.
What, then, are the eternal distinctives of the Father, the Son and the Spirit? The differences revolve around two infinitely deep mysteries: the Eternal Generation of the Son (John 1:14, 18, 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9) and the Eternal Procession of the Spirit (John 14:16, 26, 15:26).
First, the Father eternally begets the Son. The Father is not begotten by either the Son nor the Spirit. With the Son, the Father sends the Spirit. But the Father is not sent by either the Son nor the Spirit. (Remember that this refers to eternity, not time.)
Second, the Son is eternally begotten by the Father. He is begotten, not created. He is not begotten by the Spirit, nor does the Son beget either the Spirit or the Father. He is eternally begotten, not merely incarnated in time. He is Son of God in one sense in time because of the Virgin Birth (Luke 1:35), but He is God the Son by Eternal Generation. This is an eternal begetting; it never had a beginning. And He certainly is not Son merely because of His Baptism, Transfiguration or Resurrection, for like the Incarnation and Virgin Birth, these occurred in time. Furthermore, this Eternal Generation is not progressive as such. He has always been Son and always will be, Perhaps the clearest way to see this grand truth is by re-reading the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16. If God (the Father) gave His only-begotten Son by sending Him into the world on a mission (vs. 18), then it logically follows that He is Son before coming into the world, and consequently is not Son merely by virtue of the Incarnation.
Third, the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from both the Father and the Son. He is sent, not begotten. Nor does He beget or send either of the other two. He proceeds; He is not created. Again, this is not a reference to His being sent on the Day of Pentecost. He was the logical one of the three to be sent on Pentecost because He alone eternally proceeds from the other two. The key for this doctrine is John 15:26. Jesus spoke in the future tense regarding Pentecost: “I will send”. But then He spoke in the present tense regarding Procession: “who proceeds from the Father”. Most Trinitarians teach that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son by comparing John 15:26 with 14:16 and 26. Eastern Orthodoxy, such as Greek Orthodoxy, rejects this and says that the Spirit proceeds only from the Father. This was one of the main reasons why it split off of Romanism.
There is a mysterious difference between Eternal Generation and Eternal Procession. First, the Son is begotten by the Father, not by the Spirit or even with the Spirit. Second, the Spirit proceeds from both of the other two. But even theologians can go no deeper.
Ten Heresies Against the Trinity
Tritheism says there are three gods. This is taught by several polytheistic religions who place their triad at the top of their pantheon, such as Hinduism (Brahman, Vishnu and Shiva) and Egyptianism (Osiris, Isis and Horus). But: Scripture says there is only one God.
Unitarianismsays there is only one God in one Person, namely the Father alone. It explicitly denies the Trinity and deity of Christ, and makes the Spirit an impersonal force. It is related to Arianism, which said that Jesus was the first and highest created being, who had a similar but not the same nature as the Father. Unitarianism is held to by Jehovah’s Witnesses and other cults, the Unitarian Church, and many Liberals. But: The Bible teaches the full deity of the Son and the personality and deity of the Spirit.
Subordinationismsays that even in His deity, the Son is subordinate to the Father. Some even say that He is eternally subordinate to the Spirit, though others say the Spirit is subordinate to the Son. But: This heresy arises from a misunderstanding of Eternal Generation and Procession. All three are equally God. The Son is subordinate to the Father only in His humanity. There cannot be a lesser member of the Trinity any more than there can be a lesser infinity or eternity.
Sabellianism says that the only difference between the three is that of roles: the same divine person wore the Father hat in the Old Testament, the Son hat for 33 years, and has worn the Spirit hat since Pentecost. This heresy is also known as Modalism, Oneness, Jesus Only, and Monarchianism. It is called Patripassionism when it teaches that the Father died on the Cross. This heresy is held by various extreme Pentecostals, such as the United Pentecostal Church and some of the Apostolic Pentecostals. It denies Eternal Generation and Procession, and says there is only one person in God. Yet it does not deny either the deity or personality of Jesus or the Spirit. But: We have already shown the differences between the three. Also, this heresy would utterly confuse Christ’s Baptism, His prayers, the Transfiguration, the atonement, Pentecost, and many other events involving all three (see below).
Christomonism is in some ways similar to Sabellianism, for it tends to place the Son at the apex of the Godhead, thereby virtually ignoring or subordinating the Father and the Spirit. Karl Barth bordered on a form of this. But: All three are equal in all respects.
Eunomianism says that the Father created the Son, and the Son in turn created the Spirit. This is related to Macedonianism (also known as Pneumatichoism), which denies the deity and personality of the Spirit, but does not necessarily deny the deity of the Son. But: Jesus and the Spirit are both eternal and uncreated God.
Mormonism says that the Father is Elohim and the Son is Jehovah, but neither are eternal. Both were once humans before becoming divine, thus setting the example whereby other men can become gods. But: This is a polytheism that borders on Hinduism. Jesus was eternally God and in time became the God-Man. The Father has never been a man, nor has the Spirit. Also, “Jehovah” and “Elohim” are virtually synonymous in Scripture (Deut. 6:4, etc.).
Temporal Generationism rejects the doctrine of Eternal Generation and says that though Jesus is God, He is not “Son” except by virtue of the Incarnation and Virgin Birth. This view is perhaps the least dangerous of the errors regarding the Trinity, and has been held by various Evangelicals and Calvinists, such as Thomas Ridgeley. J. Oliver Buswell held to an odd view: he believed in Eternal Sonship but not Eternal Generation, even though orthodox theologians equate the two. But: Jesus was eternally begotten by the Father before He was begotten by means of the Father through Spirit in time in the Incarnation.
Dualism says there are two gods (Bitheism) or two equal but opposite forces in God (Zoroastrianism, Buddhist Yin-Yang, ‘Star Wars’ dual-sided Force, etc.). Armstrongism teaches that the Father and Son are gods, but the Spirit is not. But: God is three-in- one, not two-in-one. Nor can we even think that Satan is God’s equal opposite.
Quadtheism or Quadinity says that there are four gods or four persons in God. Romanism borders on this by giving Mary attributes and roles that belong only to God. Some cults virtually deify their leaders, thereby inserting him or her into the Godhead (e.g., Jim Jones, Sun Myung Moon, etc.). But: God is three-in-one (Matt. 28:19), not four-in-one.
How the Trinity Works Together in Time
Each member of the Trinity has been vitally involved in all of the major events of history. First, the Father had a part in Creation (I Cor. 8:6), but so did the Son (John 1:3, 10; I Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2) and the Spirit (Gen. 1:2; Job 26:13, 33:4; Psa. 104:30).
The Father sent prophets who by the Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21) spoke about the Son (Acts 10:43).
The Father sent the Son into the world (John 3:16; Gal. 4:4), and the Incarnation was effected by means of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). Jesus had no human father nor heavenly mother, but a heavenly Father and a human mother. Then, at Christ’s Baptism, the Father approved the ministry of the Son and sent the Spirit to work with Him in His ministry. In the Atonement , the Father represented God in demanding payment from man, and Christ the God-Man paid the debt through death by means of the Spirit (Isa. 63:6; Heb. 9:14). Without the doctrine of the Trinity, the Atonement makes no sense whatsoever. Then in the Resurrection, the Father (Rom. 6:4) and the Spirit (Rom. 8:11) raised Jesus, who also raised Himself (John 10:17-18).
In Salvation, the Father draws men to the Son (John 6:44). The Spirit gives the new birth (John 3), and the Son brings men to the Father (John 14:6). Thus we are united to all three (John 14:23, 17:23; Rom. 8, etc). The Spirit baptizes us into Christ; we are in Christ. Christ baptizes us into the Spirit; we are in the Spirit (I Cor. 12:13).
Lastly, prayer is to be made to the Father (Matt. 6:6) through the Son in the Spirit (Jude 20). We can pray to the Son (John 14:13-14; Acts 7:59-60) and the Spirit (Ezek. 37:1, 9). Specifically, we pray in the Name of the Son and by being filled with the Spirit. And this should include worship of all three, for all three are indeed God.
Conclusion: The Three-in-One God
The Trinity can be summed up in the following formula: (1) There is only one God. (2) The Father, the Son and the Spirit are each God. (3) The Father, the Son and the Spirit are not identical in all respects.
Bickersteth, Edward. The Trinity. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications.
Bowman, Robert M. Why You Should Believe in the Trinity. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
Beisner, E. Calvin. God in Three Persons. Wheaton: Tyndale House.
McGrath, Alister. Understanding the Trinity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Gruenler, Royce Gordon. The Trinity in the Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
Clark, Gordon H. The Trinity. Jefferson: The Trinity Foundation.
Augustine. The Trinity. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.
Owen, John. The Works of John Owen, vol. 2, pp. 366-454. Carlisle: Banner of Truth.
O’Carroll, Michael. Trinitas: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Holy Trinity. Wilmington: Michael Glazier.
Most systematic theologies have sections on the Trinity. See especially: Charles Hodge, vol. 1, pp. 442-532, esp. pp. 442-482; Berkhof, pp. 82-99; Heppe, pp. 105-132; Gill, pp. 125-171; Strong, pp. 304-352; Thomas Oden, vol. 1, pp. 181-224.