What is the Trinity?

Alice was an elderly friend of mine who is now with the Lord. For years she struggled with the Trinity and the more we talked about the Trinity, the more concerned I was about her faith, because she kept arguing that God could not be three-in-one. And yet, she continued to affirm that she is indeed a Christian.

Alice thought it was just some Christian mumbo-jumbo and it didn’t really matter if you understood it or not. Eventually, I gave her the warning, “Alice, if you deny the Trinity, you cannot be a Christian. You either believe in the Trinity and you’re a Christian, or you deny the Trinity and set yourself outside the lines of Christianity.”

A few months later, she came to me after church smiling, and said, “I finally get it. 1+1+1=1.” I was overjoyed. So was she, and she thanked me for being so direct about the seriousness of our discussion.

The Trinity really is that important. All Christian theology is an explanation of the Trinity. You cannot understand Christianity without a basic understanding of the Trinity. The following is intended to present what you need for a basic and foundational understanding of the Trinity. If you study and learn this, it will serve you well.

mountain-over-lake

There’s nothing more difficult to understand in all of Christian theology than the Trinity. And yet, there’s nothing more foundational. The word “Trinity” was developed to point to the “tri-unity” of God’s three-in-one nature. God has always existed as three Persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) who are perfectly Distinct, United, and Equal. If you are able to draw the following image on a napkin to explain the Trinity to someone, it will suit you well.

trinity-diagram

  • United – In the midst of their distinctions, they are perfectly united. Any teaching on the Trinity which separates one from the other has added division within the Trinity, and thereby created three gods, not a Tri-Unity. There is ONE God, not three. As made clear in the included image, each Person “IS” God.
  • Distinct – The Persons of the Godhead are distinct from one another. The Son is neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit. Their names reflect their particular roles, not their level of importance. Notice the “is not” in the diagram helps to distinguish them from one another.
  • Equal – The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all equally God, equally eternal, and equal in holiness. Again, in the image above, notice how each of the Persons is equally God. The Father is not larger, as if he is “more” God than the Holy Spirit.

Bad Trinity Analogies
Many of us who grew up in church have probably heard many analogies of the Trinity: the forms of H2O, an egg, a musical chord (where multiple notes come together to form one sound). Each of these can be helpful in some way, but they are only helpful so long as you explain the analogy and then point out where it breaks down.

  • The Egg Analogy – This claims to be a good representation of the Trinity because Eggs have three distinct parts: the shell, the yolk, and the whites. However, it breaks down on the level of equality: No one keeps or eats the shell of an egg. The shell is quickly discarded once the egg is either cracked (if you’re going to eat the egg) or once the hatchling is hatched (the chicken is now born and no longer needs the eggshell). No member of the Trinity is disposable, they are equal in glory and importance.
  • The H2O Analogy – In this analogy, H2O can exist as water, ice, or steam and all three forms are equally H20. And yet, it cannot exist in these three forms at the same time. This analogy of the Trinity reflects the old heresy “Modalism” which taught that God existed as Father in the Old Testament, then took on the form of Jesus in the gospel, and then changed into the Holy Spirit after the ascension. The Trinity teaches that God is simultaneously Distinct, United, and Equal.
  • The Chord/Team Analogy – When a guitar is strummed such that a certain combination of strings forms a chord, should it be considered one note, or multiple notes played simultaneously? The same argument can be made for a team who has many members, but together they form one team. We must remember, however, that the Persons of the Godhead of perfectly united and equal. The notes of the chord still function individually, but there is still a note that is more important than the others. Similarly, each team has a star who is more important and “better” than others on the team. But the Trinity is perfectly united and equal.

No explanation of the Trinity would be complete without including the following video (which is great for sharing with others because it’s both extremely informative and funny):

 

Where is the Trinity Taught in Scripture?
While the word “Trinity” is not mentioned in the Bible, the Trinity is taught throughout Scripture.

Trinity Involved in Creation:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. …Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Genesis 1:1-2, 26 ESV)

“He is the image of the invisible God [note: this passage is talking about Jesus], the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15–17 ESV)

For more on the Trinity in the Old Testament, see an article HERE.

Jesus Taught on the Trinity:
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.” (John 14:9–11 ESV)

Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” (John 17:11 ESV)

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20 ESV)

Trinity Involved in Salvation:
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Galatians 4:4–7 ESV)

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, … In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, …  In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:3–14 ESV)

 

What are the Distinct Roles in Salvation?
Look at the above verses regarding the Trinity in salvation (Galatians 4:4-7 and Ephesians 1:3-14). We see the following pattern:

  • The Father Sends. The Father is the author and initiator of salvation.
  • The Son Accomplishes. The Son is the goer and the doer, who accomplishes what is necessary for salvation to be possible.
  • The Holy Spirit Applies. The Holy Spirit applies the work of the Son to the people of God, uniting them to the Son in order that they would receive the righteousness of God.

 

If you are able to explain what is outlined above, you’ll be well on your way to having a sound and clear doctrine of the trinity.

As always, please leave a comment below for clarity, or ask a question for a future blog post. 

2 thoughts on “What is the Trinity?

  1. Pingback: 3 Things Every Christian Must Know Living Theologically

  2. Pingback: Can I be Sure I’m Going to Heaven? Living Theologically

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