The Trinity – Part 1

Introduction: At the heart and core of Christianity is the belief that God is Triune. It is central to the very nature of Christianity. Without it the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone in the cross of Jesus Christ crumbles. Every departure from the doctrine of the Trinitarian nature of God leads to error in practically every Biblical doctrine. Thus the confession of the Trinity is indeed the sum of Christianity. However, as Ralph Smith laments, “Contrary to what one might expect, among evangelical Christians the doctrine of the Trinity seems not to be considered an important part of the Christian worldview—if, that is, we are to judge their faith by the place the doctrine of the Trinity holds in published studies of the Christian worldview.

A brief survey of some of the major evangelical writers suggests that the Trinity is secondary at best.”[i] R. S. Clark writes along similar lines and says, “Given the centrality to our faith of our teaching about the Trinity, it is profoundly ironic that for most believers this doctrine is practically disposable. In my experience, most North American evangelical Christians when asked to state the doctrine of the Trinity (if they can do it at all) will almost always give a heretical answer.”[ii] This sad situation was brought home to me recently when I examined Henry Blackaby and Claude King’s best-selling book, Experiencing God (Broadman, & Holman, 1994). They list over 600 names, titles and descriptions of God, but there is no mention of God’s Trinitarian nature, in fact the book is completely silent on the subject (this made all the more amazing because chapter 2 deals with “Knowing God’s Nature”)![iii]

Gerald Bray correctly notes, “The big difference between Christian faith and any kind of philosophical theology is that Christians claim to know God, the ultimate reality, personally. The belief that God is a personal being is one which is shared with other monotheistic religions, especially Judaism and Islam, but Christianity is fundamentally different from them in that it claims that the one God in whom we all believe is known to us not as one, but as three distinct persons. To a Jew or to a Muslim, this appears to be a denial of monotheism, and it must be admitted that many Christians also find it difficult to hold the Trinity of persons together in the unity of a single divine being. Yet without the Trinity there would be no Christianity. Our belief in the saving work of Christ the Son of God, and in the indwelling presence of God the Holy Spirit demands that we worship God in that way.”[iv]

I. Definition

Trinity is the abbreviation of tri-unity. By this word we mean that in the unity of the Godhead there are three co-eternal and co-equal Persons, the same in substance (i.e. essence or nature), but distinct in subsistence (i.e. personality).

A. The Term. The word Trinity is not found in Scripture. Our English word comes from the Latin trinitas. The doctrine is given in Scripture, not in a formulated definition, but in definite and distinctive allusions.

B. The Source. The doctrine is purely a revealed doctrine; it embodies a truth which has never been discovered and cannot be discovered by natural reason. A Trinitarian concept of God is completely absent from the religions of the World.

C. Various Triads of Polytheistic Religions

1. Egyptian triad of Osiris, Isis and Horus is an analogy of the human family with its Father, Mother, and Son.

2. Hindu triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva symbolizes the three stages of Being, Becoming and Dissolution (pantheistic evolution). “The Christian doctrine of the Trinity embodies much more than the notion of “threeness”, and beyond their “threeness”, these triads have nothing in common with the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity.”[v]

D. Doctrine Without Analogies. It is incapable of proof from reason. In His Trinitarian mode of being, God is unique; and as there is nothing in the universe like Him in this respect, so there is nothing which can help us to comprehend Him, apart from Scripture. All attempts to try and illustrate the doctrine of the trinity from nature or from man fall short of the truth. Calvin cautioned about this, “I really do not know whether it is expedient to borrow comparisons from human affairs to express the force of this distinction. Men of old were indeed accustomed sometimes to do so, but at the same time they confessed that the analogies they advanced were quite inadequate. Thus it is that I shrink from all rashness here: lest if anything should be inopportunely expressed, it may give occasion either of calumny to the malicious, or of delusion to the ignorant.”[vi]

II.  The Biblical Record

The doctrine of the Trinity is not directly formulated as an affirmative proposition in any single text, but it is indirectly formulated in some texts and taught part by part in many others. To collect, collate, and combine these is to construct theology biblically.

NOTE: If the Bible declares that Bethlehem is south of Jericho, and that Shechem is north of Jericho, then we are to conclude, even if there is no text that specifically says so, that Shechem is north of Bethlehem. This same kind of reasoning applies throughout the Scripture.

A. Old Testament. We cannot speak broadly of the revelation of the doctrine of the Trinity in the O.T. In light of the N.T., however, the O.T. does shed considerable light on the doctrine. cf. Ps. 33:6; Isa. 61:1, 63:9-12; Hag. 2:5,6 in which God and His Word and His Spirit are brought together, and co-causes of effects are adduced. Thus, in the O.T. development of the doctrine of God, there is the suggestion that the Deity is not a simple monad, and that a preparation is made for the revelation of the Trinity in the N.T. (cf. further Gen. 1:26—“ Let us make man in our image.” –comp w/Gen. 1:27—“and God created man in His image.” (not angels, cf. Gen. 3:22 and 11:73). The O.T. may be likened to a room richly furnished but dimly lighted; the introduction of more light brings into it nothing which was not in it before, but it brings out into clearer view much of what was already there but was only dimly seen or even unseen before.

It has been argued that because the words in Deut. 6:4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD” that the Trinity is excluded. But in this very verse the word for “one” is echad which means not one in isolation (which is captured by the Hebrew word yachied which means “one and one only” cf. Gen. 22:2, 16) but one in unity. In fact, the word is never used in the Hebrew Bible of a stark singular entity. It is the word used in speaking of one bunch of grapes, for example, or in saying that the people of Israel responded as one people. After God has brought his wife to him, Adam says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be call Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” The text adds, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:23-24). Again the word is echad. It is not suggested that the man and woman were to become one person, but rather that in a divine way they do become one. In a similar but not identical way, God is one God but also existent in three “persons.”[vii]

B. New Testament. We should realize with what we have noted about the O.T. revelation that when we come to the N.T., we cannot help perceiving with great clarity that the N.T. writers felt no incongruity whatsoever between their doctrine of the trinity and the O.T. conception of God; they did not think that they were making innovations. The God of the O.T. was their God, and their God was a Trinity; their sense of the identity of the two concepts was so complete that no question as to the validity of such thinking was raised in their minds. The doctrine of the Trinity does not appear in the N. T. in the making, but as already made—the revelation of the Trinity was made, not in word but in deed—it was made in the incarnation of God the Son, and the outpouring of God the Holy Spirit.

Question: Why was the doctrine of the Trinity not revealed as such in the O.T.?

1. It Was the Task of the O.T. revelation to fix firmly in the minds and hearts of the people of God the great fundamental truth of the unity of the Godhead—monotheism was not universal, rather polytheism was.

2. The time was not ripe (Gal. 4:4) until God’s redemptive purposes in Jesus Christ, until the fullness of time had come for God to send forth His Son unto redemption and His Spirit unto sanctification—The revelation in word awaits the revelation in fact (time, space, history).

3. The whole of the N.T. is evidence for the Trinity, for the N.T. is saturated with evidence of the Deity of Christ and the Divine personality of the Holy Spirit.

III. Specific Texts: The Gospels

A. Passages in which the three persons are brought together.

1. Lk. 1:35, cf. Mt. 1:18—Here the Holy Spirit is the active agent in the production of an effect which is also ascribed to the power of the Most High, and the child thus brought into the world is given the great designation of “Son of God.” In regards to the Mt. account note that twice in the text the Deity of the child is intimated (v. 21 and v. 23).

2. Mt. 3:16, 17; Mk. 1:10, 11; Lk. 3:21, 22; Jn. 1:32-34. The Spirit descends in visible form, the Father’s voice is heard and addressed to the Son.

3. The Teaching Ministry of Jesus.

a. His unique claims to Sonship—Mt. 11:27; 24:36; Mk. 13:32; Lk. 10:22.

b. Jesus is called the Son of God—Mt. 4:6; 8:29; 14:33; 27:40, 43, 54; Mk. 3:11; 15:39; Lk. 4:41; 22:70; Jn. 1:34,39; 9:35; 11:27.

c. Jesus knows the Father and the Father knows Him with perfect mutual knowledge. cf. Mt. 11:27; Lk. 10:22.

d. Jesus’ teaching about the Holy Spirit—comp. Mt. 12:28 with Lk. 11:20; Mk. 13:11; Lk. 12:8-12.

Note: It is in the discourses recorded in John, however, that Jesus most copiously refers to the unity of Himself, as the Son with the Father, and to the mission of the Spirit from Himself as the dispenser of the Divine activities. cf. Jn. 10:30;  17:11, 21, 22, 25; 14:9; 15:21. His oneness with the Father is explicitly stated along with His eternity in Jn. 8:58; 17:5,18; 6:62. In accordance with the underlying significance of the idea of Sonship in Semitic speech, the natural implication is that whatever the Father is, the Son is also, and the Jews clearly understood this. cf. Jn. 10:33 and 5:16-18. Jesus being equal, or, rather, identical, with God was His teaching.

Question: How is this so with Jesus being in the world? Jesus said he came forth, EXLTHON, not merely from the presence of God (The Greek preposition APO—Jn. 16:30; 13:3), but from out of God Himself (The Greek preposition EK—Jn. 8:42; 16:28). Jesus continually represents Himself as, on the one hand,  sent by God, and as, on the other hand, having come forth from the Father. cf. Jn. 8:42; 10:36; 17:3. Jesus, likewise stressed the interrelationship of the Spirit to the Father and the Son (Jn. 14:16-26). It would be impossible to speak more distinctly of three who were yet one, and yet, the oneness of these three is so kept in sight that the coming of this “another advocate” is spoken of without embarrassment as the coming of the Son Himself (v. 18,19)—cf. also v. 20,21—and indeed as the coming of the Father and the Son (v. 23). Comp. also Jn. 16:5ff.

e. The Significance of Matt. 28:19—Note the way in which this text is worded—it does not say “in the names (plural) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, nor does it say “in the name of the Father, and in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Spirit” (as if we had to deal with three separate Beings), nor does it say “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (might be taken as merely three designations of a single person)—it rather asserts the unity of the three by combining them all within the bounds of the single Name, and throws up into emphasis the distinctiveness of each by introducing them in turn with the repeated article: “ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

These three, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all unite in some profound sense in the common participation of the one Name, but each with a distinct personality. The significance of the term “name”—The Jews did not think of the name, as we are accustomed to doing, as a mere external symbol, but rather as the adequate expression of the innermost being of its bearer. In His name the Being of God finds expression; and the name of God—“this glorious and fearful name, Jehovah thy God”(Deut. 28:56)—as a most sacred thing, being indeed virtually equivalent to God Himself; cf. Isa. 30:27; 59:19. As the sufficient representative of the majesty of Jehovah, it was a terrible thing to “blaspheme the Name” (Lev. 24:11; cf. also Jer. 14:19; Isa. 63:19; Dan. 9:18,19). When Jesus spoke these words in Mt. 28:19 He was using language that carried high meaning among the Jews. What we have in this text is not the birth of the doctrine of the Trinity—the doctrine is presupposed—we are witnessing the authoritative announcement of the Trinity as the God of Christianity by its Founder. We conclude, then, that there are (1) three distinct persons—not abstract things—if the first two are personal, so is the third, (2) three co-equal persons, and (3) three who are essentially one, as the singular “name” indicates.

Conclusion: The late Gordon Clark was one of the great theological minds of the 20th Century. During my seminary days my family had the privilege of having Dr. Clark in our home. He relayed to me on this occasion the following, “Anyone who has ever attended even a mildly orthodox evangelical church must have heard something about the Trinity. If the congregation did not sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, God in three Persons, Blessed Trinity,” the pastor probably closed the service with the apostolic Trinitarian benediction. But even a regular worshipper has probably heard very few, if any, sermons on the Trinity. Over a period of thirty years the present writer has attended services in many places between Philadelphia and San Diego: Indianapolis; St. Louis; Vinita, Kansas; Minco, Oklahoma; Grand Junction; Alamogordo; Las Cruces; Tucson; and Seattle. In the churches, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and independent, I never heard a sermon on the Trinity.”[viii] J.I. Packer warns, “All non-Trinitarian formulations of the Christian message are by biblical standards inadequate and indeed fundamentally false, and will naturally tend to pull Christian lives out of shape.”[ix] Oxford theologian Alister McGrath likewise underscores the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity in this way, “The doctrine of the Trinity is to the Christian experience of God what grammar is to poetry—it establishes a structure, a framework, which allows us to make sense of something which far surpasses it. It is the skeleton supporting the flesh of Christian experience. The Christian experience of God was already there, long before the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated, but the doctrine casts light on that experience and helps us understand who it is that we are experiencing. It interprets our experience of God as experience of God. It eliminates inadequate and unsatisfactory ideas of God which stand in his way—just as we might dredge a channel to allow the current to flow more freely, so the doctrine of the Trinity dredges the channels of our minds, removing obstacles (such as sub-Christian ideas of God) which stand in the path of God as he moves to encounter us.”[x]

References

[i] R.A. Smith, Paradox and Truth: Rethinking Van Til on the Trinity by Comparing VanTil, Plantinga, and Kuyper (Covenant Worldview Institute, 2000), p. 3.

[ii] R.S. Clark, “The Splendor of the Three-in-One God: The Necessity and Mystery of the Trinity,” Modern Reformation (Sept./Oct. 1999), p. 33.

[iii] Blackaby and King also collaborated on producing the Experiencing God Study Bible and are committed evangelicals; on the other end of the theological spectrum we have the notorious Bishop John Shelby Spong whose ordination vows in the Episcopal Church (which required him to affirm the historic orthodox doctrine of the Trinity) carry little weight with him. In one of his most recent books he categorically says, “I am not interested in preserving the doctrine of the incarnation…I am not interested in preserving the doctrine of the Trinity. I do not believe that the ultimate truth of God has been captured in the Trinitarian formula.” Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture (Harper, 1991), p. 232.

[iv] Gerald Bray, The Doctrine of God: Contours of Christian Theology (IVP, 1993), p. 111. The renowned Dutch Theologian, Herman Bavinck made a similar remark many years ago. “Therefore the article of the holy trinity is the heart and core of our confession, the differentiating earmark of our religion, and the praise and comfort of all true believers of Christ. It was this confession which was at stake in the warfare of the spirits throughout the centuries. The confession of the holy trinity is the precious pearl which was entrusted for safekeeping and defense to the Christian church.” Our Reasonable Faith (rpt. Baker, 1977), p. 145.

[v] B.B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies (rpt. P & R, 1968), p. 23. The substance of this sermon has been distilled from Warfield’s masterful presentation of this doctrine.

[vi] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Bk. 1, Ch. XIII, sec. 18.

[vii] cf. the discussion in J.M. Boice, Foundation of the Christian Faith: The Sovereign God (IVP, 1978), p. 139.

[viii] Dr. Clark recorded this in his book, The Trinity (The Trinity Foundation, 1985), p. 1.

[ix] J.I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Belief (Tyndale, 1993), p. 42.

[x] A. McGrath, Understanding the Trinity (Zondervan, 1988), p. 115.

Additional Resources

History of Christian Thought

by Jonathan Hill

Why read about the history of Christian thought?

Because, if you are Christian yourself, it helps you to understand the faith–addressing everything from where Christians got their ideas of the Trinity and how Christ can be both human and divine to what they think about issues like feminism, globalization and social justice.

And because, even if you are not, all Western society has been shaped by the influence of thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas and Luther. You can’t understand the world as it is without knowing something about Christian thought.

Jonathan Hill has the uncanny ability to sketch portraits of his subjects–whether early church apologists, medieval doctors of the church, Reformation giants, nineteenth-century philosophical behemoths or contemporary feminist scholars–that are simultaneously lively, brief and revealing. Similarly, he ably penetrates to the nub of their thought, combining apt description with pithy quotations from their work.

Significant events, councils, movements and terms are introduced and explained, which put the cast of characters in context and illumine their place within the development of Christian thought. Not content to merely describe, Hill offers pertinent assessments that highlight the strengths and weaknesses of his subjects’ contributions to Christian thinking and spurs you to reflect on significant issues for yourself.

A society with no grasp of its history is like a person without a memory. So Hill, in this lively and accessible introduction, offers you a wealth of insight on the history of Christian thought and the colorful personalities of those who gave it shape and form.

Paperback; 352 pages

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