Can you recommend reading material about 'Trinity' theology? -- Joel Hughes, Triangle, North Carolina
Many works - thousands of pages! - have been written about the Trinity. Because this is such a frequently asked question, and such an important one, we are devoting today's spot entirely to your question. For the 3:134999 DPI book Our God is an Awesome God, (www.dpibooks.com), I was asked to pen chapter 23, on the Trinity. I would encourage douglasjacoby.com readers to get hold of this helpful book, and use the Trinity piece to help non-Christian friends, and any disciple with questions about the Trinity. Following is the chapter: THE TRINITY © DPI., by Dr. Douglas A. Jacoby, 1999.
No Simple Doctrine!
This paper attempts to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. Maybe it's my high church past, or my instinctive distrust of the abstractions of medieval theology, but something about the doctrine of the trinity just feels contrived - it's just too neat, too simple. (Or maybe it's too deep for my shallow mind!) Yet I know I must not shirk my authorial duty; moreover, it's good to push oneself. I like what C. S. Lewis said:
If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we would make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.1
We are indeed concerned with the facts, with sifting truth and error. The truth is, the trinity is not the sort of doctrine inventors of religions would concoct - which is one reason it may have the ring of truth to it. And though I rarely use the term "trinity," in my opinion, as I shall attempt to show, the doctrine does give as good an explanation of God's nature as anything man has come up with.
What is the Trinity?
The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) defines trinity:
Being three; group of three. From Latin trinitas, "triad.'' Surely they are not distinct persons as are the Three Musketeers, the Three Stooges, the Three Tenors, or the Three Little Pigs. On the other hand, we aren't simply dealing with one person in three roles, like a person who functions as mother, wife, and professional. The first error to be avoided is tritheism - three separate gods; the second is modalism - where God "morphs" from one form to another according to the need of the hour.
Part of coming to terms with the doctrine is grasping what theologians mean when they discuss the "persons" of the trinity. In modern English "three persons" implies a triad of gods. But the theological term "person" is from the Latin persona, which means mask, part, character, as in the characters of a play. This of course does not mean that God is somehow "pretending," like an actor.2 In brief, the holy trinity is the three-in-one.
Often the Father, Son and Spirit are mentioned together in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 13:14; Rom 8:11; Matthew 28:19; John 14:17-23).3 They are three in personality but one in nature or essence. Again, Father, Son and Spirit are each God (in essence), but none can be identified with the other.
Again, we must guard ourselves against false understandings of trinity, or we will drift into the errors of "unitarianism" (which roundly rejects the trinity) or tritheism. (The Qur'an mistakes belief in the Trinity for tritheism when it condemns "Those who say Allah is three."4 )
In short, all three persons are divine. Obviously our heavenly father is God.5 In addition, many verses state that Christ is divine (2 Peter 1:1; Titus 2:13; John 1:1, 14), not to mention the indirect proofs of his deity, such as his forgiveness of man's sins (Mark 2), and claiming as his own the name of God (John 8:58). But how can Christ have two natures simultaneously? An illustration may help.
Lemonade is 100% wet, and yet it is also 100% citrus. It isn't somehow half wet and half citrus - it's wholly both at the same time. In the same way, Jesus is human and God.6
Finally, it is also clear from the Scriptures that the Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, or the "Spirit of God," is divine. Let's check out the OED definition of the Spirit: "The active essence or essential power of the Deity, conceived as a creative, animating, or inspiring influence." Now this may be an accurate definition, but how does it help us be closer to God? It makes a difference in our lives only when we sense and appreciate that God, through his7 Spirit , is living within us (John 14). The Spirit in nature is God8; all members of the Trinity are equally divine.
Trinity in Church History
The earlier "ecumenical councils" strove to define and describe the relationships between the members of the Trinity (Nicea in 325, Constantinople in 381, and Chalcedon in 451, to mention a few). Yes, many believers in the early Christian era spent generations hammering out the doctrine of the trinity, investigating the intricacies of the Spirit. Even in the Middle Ages, interest in the Trinity was strong. Aquinas produced the most thorough treatise on "The Blessed Trinity."9
In the Restoration movement, especially in the 19th century, there was a reaction against trinitarian language. The famous hymn 'Holy, holy, holy' mentions "God in three persons, blessèd Trinity!"10 And yet in the overreaction to "traditional" doctrines, these words were changed to "God over all and blessed eternally." Was this really necessary? Is it not true that Father, Son, and Spirit are all divine?
Analogies Good and Bad
While it is true that Father, Son, and Spirit are all God, we cannot correctly say that the Father is the Son, or that Spirit and Son are interchangeable. Analogies therefore need to be carefully selected, lest we inadvertently support false doctrine through our attempts to refute it.
The analogy I have most often used to explain the trinity is the analogy of the amorphous forms of H20. Ice = water, liquid water = water, and steam = water (in essence), but ice is not steam, etc. Though I like the water analogy, its shortcoming is that it implies the false doctrine of modalism - that God appears in one form now, another at another time.11 I have heard worse analogies: time (past, present and future), even an egg (shell, white and yolk)!
A better analogy involving water is a river, which consists of a source, stream, and current (Father, Son, Spirit). Or how about the sun? This consists of the star (sun) itself, sunbeams, and the sunshine as it falls on the earth.
Opponents of trinity ask, how can 1 + 1 + 1 = 1? But the mathematics is all wrong. Really it's a case of 13 : 1 x 1 x 1 = 1. Moving from simple math to geometry, the illustration of a triangle may better encapsulate the truth about the relations among the persons of the Trinity. However, the triangle might not be equilateral. I say this because:
1. The Son is subordinate to the Father -- in the past, during the Incarnation, at the present, and in the future.
2. The son and the Spirit flow from the Father.
3. The Spirit is portrayed as personal (often a "he" instead of an "it"), yet not as a person with whom we relate or communicate. The Spirit is the spirit of the Father and the Son.
4. The odd word "godhead" (e.g. in Col 2:9 NIV) should be removed. It is an archaic word, and means "godhood" -- better, deity or divinity.
5. In the N.T., God nearly always refers to the Father -- seldom to the Son or Spirit. (The ratios aren't even close!)
As someone put it more academically, "A better illustration based in human nature would be, as suggested earlier, the relation between our mind, its ideas, and the expression of these ideas in words. There is obviously a unity among all three of these without there being an identity. In this sense, they illustrate the Trinity."13
No single analogy captures the divine mystery, though the various pictures will be more convincing to different people.
Trinity and our Walk with God
The Doctrine of the Trinity has been firmly established. Let me now suggest some ways in which understanding Trinity illuminates our walk with the Lord:
1. Trinity brings us great assurance. The Father is God above us, the Son is God beside us, and the Spirit is God within us.
2. Trinity helps us to see that God is love. How could God have been (eternally) love if he had no one to love? But as Augustine commented, love always existed among the members of the Trinity. This theme has often been elevated and discussed in our time by C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. The three-in-one God is a divine family, in which perfect love has always been exchanged.
3. Respect for Trinity deepens our humility, as we see God's transcendence. As Isaiah says (Isaiah 55:8-9), his ways are not our ways, and there is an unfathomable distance between his ways and wisdom and our own. (See also Romans 11:33-36.)
If the whole thing seems complicated, don't fret! If theologians struggled for centuries to put the divine mystery into words, and if you cannot manage it in half an hour, I wouldn't be too concerned! To wrap it all up, all this does not mean:
* That there are three gods (tritheism).
* That we are normally to pray to Jesus or pray to the Spirit. In John 16:23-26, Jesus explains that we are to pray to the Father in his name, although occasionally in the New Testament prayer is also addressed to the Lord Jesus (e.g. Acts 7:59).
* That God 'morphs' from one person to another (modalism). The persons of the trinity always remain distinct.
* That this little chapter is the last word on the subject! God cannot be put in a box.
It does, however, mean:
* That trinity is biblical. Whether or not the word itself appears in the New Testament, it is valid. (Even the word "Bible" does not occur in the Bible, yet it is a completely functional and useful term.)
* That God's nature is a mystery - and so we will always have to strive to our utmost to embrace and accept the nature of God in our lives. That we need to go deeper into the Word of God if we are going to go higher in our walk with him.
Holy, Holy, Holy!
Despite my initial apprehension, my study has led me to accept thetime-honored doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Returning to the corrections made to the old hymn, I do not mean to dispute the words "God over all and blessed eternally," for he is. Yet it is wholly unnecessary to distance ourselves from the original wording of the song. Its final verse spoke the truth perfectly well:
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name,
in earth, and sky, and sea:
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty!
God in three persons, blessèd Trinity!
Questions for thought:
* In my prayers, do I jump indiscriminately from Father to Son to Spirit, or do I have a sensitive appreciation of the various persons of the Trinity: praying in Jesus' name through the power of the Spirit to my Father in heaven?
* Can I think of any other analogies that illustrate the Trinity?
* How often do unbelievers ask me about the Trinity or the divinity of Christ? Am I striving to become more competent to offer helpful answers to sincere questions?
1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1943) 145.
2. Theatergoers, think about the term Dramatis personae.
3. Several religions have "trinities." Hinduism has Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. The Druids had Taranis, Esus, and Teutates. The ancient Egyptians also had their trinity. Yet, unlike the biblical Trinity, these "trinities" are triads of gods, not one triune god.
4. Islamic accusations denied that God, Jesus, and Mary were gods. This clearly reflects the exalted, and erroneous, position of Mary in the seventh century A.D.
5. For further reading on the nature and divinity of God, see Edwin A. Abbot, Flatland (Oxford: Blackwell, 1875); J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1975); and Francis A. Schaeffer, He Is There and He Is Not Silent (City: Tyndale House, 1972) and The God Who Is There (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1968).
6. For further reading on the nature and divinity of the Son of God, see William Barclay¸ The Mind of Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1961); Charles Edward Jefferson, Jesus the Same: The Compelling Christ, Yesterday, Today and Forever (Woburn, Mass.: DPI, 1997; original edition 1908); Tom & Sheila Jones, Jesus with the People (Woburn, Mass.: DPI, 1996); and Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).
7. We will not join the feminist dialogue about the gender of God, whom the Bible consistently describes as a "He." Interestingly, I have never heard a feminist lobby for a pronoun change for Satan -- the devil is always "He"! For more on this, hear my podcast "The Gender of God."
8. For further reading on the nature and divinity of the Spirit, see Frederick Dale Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1970); Douglas Jacoby, The Spirit: The Work of the Holy Spirit in the Lives of Disciples (Newton, Mass.: IPI, 2005); and John R. W. Stott, Baptism and Fullness (London: InterVarsity Press, 1975).
9. See Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Summa Theologica, translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Copyright ©1947 Benzinger Brothers Inc., Hypertext Version Copyright © 1995, 1996 New Advent Inc.
10. Bishop R. Heber, 1783-1826.
11. Worse, that the Father is "harder" than the Son, the Spirit more ethereal than both, and so forth!
12. In my understanding of trinity, the trinitarian triangle is not be totally equilateral! The Father is the head, and thus the triangle is isosceles.
13. Norman L. Geisler and Abdul Saleeb in Answering Islam: The Crescent in the Light of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 269.
This article is copyrighted and is for private use and study only. © 2003. Reprints or public distribution is prohibited without the express consent of Douglas Jacoby.