Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.Matthew 28:19
The doctrine of the Trinity dates back to the earliest days of Christianity, yet it remains something that most Christians struggle to comprehend. They know it involves the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that conceptually they are somehow “3 in 1,” but most are hard-pressed to explain how it works in practice. In fact, the vast majority of Christians tend to rely upon illustrations and analogies that actually reflect heretical ideas which have been condemned for centuries!
This is not terribly surprising, since our finite minds cannot grasp infinity in general, let alone an infinite being. Theologians refer to this dilemma as God’s incomprehensibility, which alludes to the fact that human beings are fundamentally incapable of knowing anything about God exhaustively. Indeed, even on our best day we are barely able to scratch the surface:
As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:9
Who can fathom the Spirit of the LORD, or instruct the LORD as his counselor?
Any attempt to capture the essence of God is therefore destined to fall short, and even the language that we use to describe Him will be inadequate at best. That does not mean, however, that we can know nothing about God. To the contrary, God has revealed many things about Himself through His Word, and as we bring them all together we start to get a glimpse of Him in all of His glory.
Thus when it comes to understanding any aspect of God, including the meaning of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” it is important to remember that any exposition of God’s nature is inherently limited. Like any doctrine that deals with the attributes of God, there will necessarily be dimensions of His “threeness” that we can never expect to fathom…and it is entirely unreasonable to assume otherwise. Our goal, then, should be to articulate a framework that deepens our understanding of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” without overstepping into blatant speculation or error.
I guess you could say that we want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…so help us God.
The Tri-Unity of God
First and foremost, it is important to recognize that the phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is not the Trinity. This statement might initially strike you as dubious or even contradictory, but the word “Trinity” never even appears in Scripture. In fact, it is more than 100 years after the close of the New Testament before the word “Trinity” becomes part of Christian parlance! So although Jesus clearly speaks about God in terms of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” not only does Scripture never refer to this (or anything else) as the Trinity, but neither does it precisely explain what Jesus means.
Accordingly, whatever the meaning of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” may be, we need to remember that this phrase is calling attention to a particular truth about God in the same way that the Scriptures also declare that He is “Holy” or “Almighty.” The problem is that whereas we have some innate comprehension of “Holy” and “Almighty,” which thereby helps us understand these specific characteristics of God, when it comes to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” the answer is not so obvious. Thus enters the Trinity, the doctrine which purports to illuminate and explain what Jesus actually meant by “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
As such, in the Trinity we find an exposition of the “tri-unity” of God. It’s one of His many attributes that sits alongside of and complements His omniscience, His sovereignty, and His holiness – just to name a few – giving us additional insights into His nature, His character, and His uniqueness. Far from being “just another attribute,” though, the Trinity is arguably the doctrine that has come to set Christianity apart from all other religions, Judaism and Islam in particular. Indeed, no other doctrine has been so vigorously debated or defended throughout church history, because ultimately the Trinity wrestles with the question: “Who is Jesus?”
Answering this question is a monumental undertaking because you cannot answer it without first addressing its predecessor: “Who is God?” The two questions are inextricably linked, and on account of God’s incomprehensibility we will never be able to fully answer either one. Hence the best we can hope for is a satisfactory answer that stays true to Scripture without delving into nebulous areas where Scripture has remained silent.
In light of this caveat, you could say that tackling this question is the theological equivalent of climbing Mount Everest: it is possible to get to the summit, but even the slightest misstep along the way could lead to disaster. So in the same manner that Sherpas guide climbers safely to the top of Everest, the Trinity attempts to guide us in our understanding of God by establishing boundaries. These boundaries are based upon the nature of the relationships within the “Godhead” – between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and help us to evaluate whether a given proposition about God is “safe” or “dangerous.” It is a relational doctrine built upon three primary declarations:
- There is one and only one God
- God has eternally existed as three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
- All three persons are equal members within the singular “Godhead,” not three individual gods
Figure 1 – A basic view of the Trinity
From this basic foundation, the Trinity goes on to make the following assertions about the relationships between the members of this triune Godhead:
- When we say that God exists in three distinct persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, it means that each member of the “Godhead” has His own identity that does not overlap or mix with the other members. Specifically:
- The Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit
- The Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit
- The Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son
- Since all three persons are God, there is complete equality amongst the members of the Trinity. In practical terms this means that they are:
- Co-existent – One did not create the others
- Co-eternal – One did not precede the others
- Co-equal – Each Divine Person is the same in divinity, power, majesty, etc. as the others
In other words, not only is there no sense of hierarchy within the “Godhead,” but the attributes of One member are completely and fully shared by the others.
Figure 2 – The essence of the Trinity
This is the Trinity in a nutshell, and technically speaking Jesus isn’t part of the picture; that being said, you can’t talk about the Son without implicitly acknowledging His connection to Jesus. The Son is the “second person of the Godhead,” also referred to as the “pre-existent Christ” or the “pre-incarnate Christ,” such that when we speak about the person of Jesus as being “fully God and fully man,” it is Jesus’ singular relationship with the Son that makes up the “fully God” part of that description. In practical terms, Jesus is simultaneously one of “us” and one of “Them,” thus answering the question of why we believe Him to be fully man and fully God…and therefore worthy of worship.
Consequently, any discussion about Jesus necessarily brings the doctrine of the Trinity to the forefront, thereby ensuring that any statement about Jesus – and God the Son by association – stays “within bounds.” The Trinity is therefore fundamental to our understanding of Him as the Son of God and Son of Man; conversely, though, to the extent that the Trinity is off the mark, our perception of Jesus will be wrong as well.
And finally, when it comes to the Holy Spirit, the Trinity recognizes that this “third person of the Godhead” is the rest of humanity’s connection back to God. For whereas the Son’s unique union with Jesus is what makes redemption and our salvation possible, it is the role of the Spirit to convict every other person of their sin even as He works in the hearts of believers to sanctify them and transform them into the likeness of Christ. Adding this context to the previous diagram results in the following “big picture” view of the Trinity:
Figure 3 – The Trinity and its relationship to humanity
A Tenuous Foundation
When we consider the doctrine of the Trinity in comparison to God’s other attributes, its relative complexity is striking. To use an analogy from mathematics, most of God’s attributes read like axioms – statements of fact – whereas the Trinity resembles a proof with lots of corollaries. In other words, virtually all of God’s attributes express singular ideas that are taken directly from the pages of Scripture. For example:
|Attribute||Definition||Why do we believe it?|
|Omnipotence||God has the power to do whatever He pleases||There are literally hundreds of verses that proclaim God’s awesome power, some by example (Genesis 18:14) and others simply as a statement of fact. Indeed, the word omnipotence literally means “all power,” and Scripture refers to God as “Almighty” more than 300 times alone!|
|Sovereignty||Not only can God do whatever He wants, but since He has no equal nothing has the ability to thwart Him||Again, there are almost 300 individual references to God as “Sovereign,” and these verses do not include the dozens of others that illustrate what His sovereignty entails. (e.g. Isaiah 55:11)|
|Holiness||God is set apart from all other beings because He is perfectly pure in character and being||Over 500 individual references to a “Holy” God or the holiness of God. (Exodus 15:11, Isaiah 6:3)|
Whereas most of God’s many attributes follow this pattern, the doctrine of the Trinity is essentially a logical construct that builds upon its core premises. As such, the assertions about co-eternality, co-equality, etc. do not stand alone, but are deductions and inferences that elaborate on and necessarily follow from the Trinity’s three foundational statements.
Granted, the concept of God’s “threeness” is so foreign to our thinking that we might expect it to require more than a sentence to capture its essence; nevertheless, the deductive nature of the Trinity introduces two potential problems that we don’t have to deal with when compared to God’s other attributes:
- The validity of the doctrine is no longer a function of Scripture alone, but it now relies on logic and reasoning to arrive at its conclusions. To the extent that errors in reasoning are made, then the conclusions would likewise be erroneous. Consider this example:
- When it rains, things get wet.
- The sidewalk is wet.
- Conclusion: It just rained
This is an example of flawed reasoning, because it doesn’t allow for the possibility that there are other ways the sidewalk could have gotten wet. In this case, the neighbor’s sprinkler is the culprit
- Like any form of deductive reasoning, conclusions can be false even if they are logically correct. In other words, if any of the underlying propositions are themselves false, the conclusion falls apart:
- John is a man
- Men love sports
- Conclusion: John loves sports
In this case, the conclusion is logically correct in spite of the fact that John actually hates sports. The issue is the flaw in the second premise: it implies that all men love sports when clearly this is not always the case.
Consequently, when it comes to the Trinity we have to guard against both faulty logic as well as invalid premises. The good news is that after 2,000 years of scrutiny and reflection, I think it is safe to say that any glaring errors in reasoning have probably been identified and addressed. Furthermore, when it comes to the first premise that there is only one God, to dispute its validity is to reject Scripture. This truth is most notably proclaimed in the book of Deuteronomy, and it echoes throughout the Psalms, the prophets, and the pages of the New Testament.
Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one. Deuteronomy 6:4
Where things start to get murky is when you introduce the concept that within God there are three distinct “persons.” Just to be clear, the New Testament is replete with references to God as Father, Son, and Spirit; however, a direct statement that these represent three “persons” within a “Godhead” simply doesn’t exist. This comes as a surprise to many Christians, who tacitly assume that something so central to our faith must be clearly stated in the Bible. In reality, though, nowhere does Scripture explicitly say that each of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct “persons”…it simply associates all of them with God.
Some may cite 1 John 5:6-8 as evidence to the contrary, which states:
6 This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that bear witness, because the Spirit is truth. 7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. 1 John 5:6-8 (KJV)
Verse 7 is the one place in all of Scripture that comes closest to declaring the “tri-person” nature of God, but even then the notion of multiple persons is merely implied and still has to be read into the text. Even more disconcerting, though, is that many versions of the Bible render the passage like this:
6 This is the one who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.
1 John 5:6-8 (NIV)
Look at the differences between verses 7 and 8: the second half of verse 7 is completely missing in the NIV, as is the distinction between whether the three are in Heaven or on earth. If the former passage from the King James Version is correct, then at least we have a verse that approximates a key tenet of the Trinity. If, however, the second passage is correct, then the number of times that Scripture even alludes to the “tri-person” nature of God drops from one to zero.
Let that sink in for a moment. Whereas other core tenets of Christianity are clearly stated and can be found cover-to-cover in the pages of Scripture, the number of verses that even suggest an essential aspect of the Trinitarian formula is at most one…and potentially zero.
Now I’m sure that many who are reading this will be quick to object that even without this verse there are multiple places in Scripture that hint at the reality of God’s triune nature, but hints can be misconstrued…especially if you are already biased to look for them. The critical point is that when you attempt to correlate specific verses of Scripture to the notion of God being three “persons” in a singular “Godhead,” the silence is deafening. Especially when you consider that almost every other attribute of God is articulated hundreds of times!
Again, I’m not really interested in passages that “hint” at the Trinity, I want to see – and expect to see – verses that plainly and unambiguously demonstrate where the core premises of the doctrine have come from. That is clearly the case for other doctrines like the atonement, the resurrection, and the incarnation, but when it comes to the “three in one” there is only one verse. Not that a single verse wouldn’t suffice, but now even that one verse is suspect.
This dilemma raises some critical questions: why are there two translations? Furthermore, which one is correct? Given the unique role of verse 7 as it relates to declaring the core tenet of the doctrine, the answer to these questions could literally make or break the case for the Trinity. And as it turns out, we don’t have to look far to find the answers.
A Questionable Source
If you are not familiar with the term “Christian apologetics,” it refers to the discipline of addressing and refuting the claims of Christianity’s detractors and skeptics. One particular branch of apologetics is concerned with establishing the integrity of the Bible, specifically with respect to demonstrating that the content of the Bible has not been altered over time. And given that the Bible has been passed down to us over a period of roughly 4,000 years, it certainly seems like a valid concern!
Think about some of the problems that arise if you cannot show that the Bible has remained the same since it was first written down:
- Which parts of the Bible – if any – are authentic?
- Which teaching is actually from Jesus, which parts have been “tacked on”?
- Which doctrines can we believe?
- Are we missing key parts of the text?
- Have “uncomfortable” parts of the Bible been removed by later revisionists?
Without some way to demonstrate that we can trust the content of the Bible there would be little reason to consider it authoritative or inspired. Every verse could be questioned, making it impossible to rely upon it as God’s Word.
Fortunately (or more accurately, Providentially), very ancient texts have been discovered which substantiate the integrity of both the Old and New Testaments. When it comes to the New Testament in particular, not only do we have thousands of manuscript copies that date back to the 1st and 2nd centuries, but the passages of the New Testament were so extensively quoted by early church leaders that we could virtually reconstruct it in its entirety from their writings alone! And what does all of this evidence reveal?
When you analyze the 5,000+ manuscript copies for accuracy, they are 99.5% identical. The differences are typically due to punctuation, misspellings, etc., but even the smallest differences are easy to spot since we have so many copies that agree. In short, there is little doubt that today’s New Testament contains the same words that the Church has had for almost two millennia, demonstrating that the Bible has been faithfully preserved and transmitted from one generation to the next.
That being said, there are a few passages in some of the later manuscripts that do not appear in the earlier ones. For instance, the story in John 7:53-8:11 of the woman caught in adultery does not appear in the very earliest manuscripts. Most modern translations call attention to this fact, but include the story anyway because it adds no “new information” regarding the essence of the Gospel and it certainly doesn’t present any contradictions. In similar fashion, additional details in Mark 16:9-20 about what happened after Jesus’ resurrection were most likely added to the original manuscripts, but they also echo and reinforce information already stated in the other Gospel accounts.
Then you have 1 John 5:7. Like the other passages in the New Testament that have been added to the original manuscripts, the versions that actually include the phrase in question – “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” – typically call attention to the fact that it is not found in the earliest copies of 1 John. In fact, the first time where we see this phrase appear is in the Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible that was undertaken towards the end of the 4th century.
So here’s the key question: does the additional phrase include anything of consequence? If Scripture contained other unequivocal statements that spelled out the notion of “three persons” within the “Godhead” then there would be no harm in including it. But as we have seen, this verse stands alone in declaring that the “three” are somehow “one.” It is the lone voice within the New Testament…and it is clearly not John’s.
This is problematic because when church councils decided whether or not to officially recognize a book as part of the New Testament, one of the key criteria was that it had been written by a contemporary of Jesus. This limited the list of potential authors to those living at the time of Christ, and as such would clearly disqualify whoever chose to add this phrase to 1 John. Indeed, shouldn’t this alteration to 1 John be excluded by definition, even as a footnote?
In the final analysis, the basic premise of God’s “tri-personness” may still be valid, it just isn’t explicitly stated in the Bible. This distinction sets the Trinity in stark opposition to other essential Christian doctrines that are drawn directly from Scripture, for not only is the entirety of the Trinity a logical argument, but one of its essential premises is also the product of interpretation!
Consequently, we are forced to admit that since the premise of God being “3 in 1” is based upon our interpretation rather than a restatement of Scripture, its validity is therefore contingent upon our ability to properly interpret God’s Word. This dependency is something that should be neither dismissed nor ignored, because even though His Word cannot err, the same cannot be said of us.
Consider the implications of this caveat by contrasting God’s “threeness” to His Holiness. While we are incapable of plumbing the depths of either attribute, the hundreds of verses that testify to the reality of God’s Holiness leave no doubt that it is true. By comparison, the concept of God’s “triune nature” is not only difficult to understand, but is also potentially erroneous. It reflects what we believe Scripture reveals about God rather than what Scripture says all on its own, a disparity that raises some serious concerns regarding the authoritative, dogmatic way in which the Trinity has historically been applied:
- In light of the fact that this doctrine has no direct Scriptural foundation, how can it legitimately be used as the litmus test of orthodoxy?
- Why does it deserve to be accorded any more weight than views of eschatology…which are also interpretive frameworks based upon Scripture?
To paraphrase Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees, how can something deemed to be so central to the Christian faith be based upon “what has been said” and not upon “what is written” in Scripture? He rightly castigated them for elevating their traditions and their rules above Scripture, because although their motives were originally well-intentioned, they actually ended up nullifying the very Scriptures they were supposedly trying to uphold:
He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, is to be put to death’; but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.”
Rather than humbly acknowledging their error, though, the Pharisees became stubborn and indignant. They dug in their heels, clung to their traditions, and chose to remain in darkness. And in the process, they missed the Son of God.
We would be wise to learn from their mistake.