Friday, October 5, 2012

The Trinity simplified (somewhat)

I’ve always been one to impulsively take up impossible non life-endangering challenges just for the fun of trying; so, it should come as no surprise to my past Rook partners that I should attempt to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, and why the Christian church holds to it so strongly, in laymen’s terms, in under two single space pages. Here goes nothing.
The Doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly attested to in the Bible; this has led many Christians to suspect that it was an imposition of Greek philosophy over the Biblical revelation. I don’t believe this to be true; instead, it seems just the opposite to me, and here’s why.
First, the tradition of Judaism is strongly monotheistic. Deuteronomy 6:4, arguably one of the most important sentences in all the Torah for Jews says this “Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This is subsequently quoted by Jesus in Mark 12:29 “The first is this ‘Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one.’” Paul backs this up in 1 Timothy 2:5 saying “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men.” The Biblical record is clear that there is only one God; and that that God is one.
The New Testament, however, reveals another piece of the theological puzzle. John 1:1 and 14 say “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” This chapter is a clear statement of Jesus’ divinity. So, if there is only one God, that God is one, and Jesus is God, then who is Jesus praying to in the gospels? Was he just acting? Are there multiple Gods?
In the first few centuries after Christ, the church was forced to deal with this question. There were several alternatives suggested. One was that there is in fact one God but that one God goes by three different names (a theory called Modalism); another was that there are three distinct gods; still another that Jesus is not God, only like God; and there were others like these. The problem with all of these theories is that they end up denying the revealed word of Scripture. To hold that there are three different gods denies Deuteronomy 6:4; to hold that Jesus was anything less than God denies John 1:1.[1] Modalism makes a better argument; but it still falls short. First, Modalism makes the incarnation into a hoax. If Jesus was just another name for God, if He was God, and all of God, then what happened on the cross? We couldn’t possibly have killed God; and that makes Calvary and our salvation a sham. This doesn’t even take into consideration Scriptural passages that reveal Jesus speaking to the Father, and the Father interacting with the Son. Thus, even Modalism denies Scripture. These, along with every other attempts to logically resolve the twin theological themes of Scriptures – The Lord is one and Jesus is Lord – can only end in denying one or both of these and other Scriptures. This is because they are giving priority to logic over revelation.
If God is so much bigger than we are; if He is truly infinite and we are finite, then it only makes sense that God shouldn’t make sense to us. We should not be able to reduce the idea of God down to something that we can comprehend; if we can, then our idea of God probably isn’t accurate. One of the necessary attributes of God is that He is transcendent; if He is transcendent then we cannot possibly approach or understand Him on our own. He must reveal Himself to us; and His revelation must be given priority over our logic. If God is bigger than we are, then we shouldn’t understand Him. Therefore, if He reveals Himself to be something that we don’t understand, then we shouldn’t force His revelation to mold around our logic. The doctrine of the Trinity is logic’s submission to revelation.
God has revealed himself to be one. He has also revealed that Jesus is God, that the Father is God, and that the Spirit is God. His revelation indicates that these three modes of God’s existence are three distinct persons who interact with each other, not just different names for the same person. This simple collection of Scriptural revelation, taken together, is the doctrine of the Trinity in its most raw form. The doctrine is not so much a working out of logic, as it is an open ended acceptance of paradox.
This is the doctrine of the Trinity: God is one being, and three persons. An interesting note on this phrase; the original Greek wording is mia ousia, treis hypostasis. Word for word, this means “one being, three substances.” What is interesting is that, in Greek, ousia and hypostasis were synonyms. That would be like saying, in English, that God is one person, three individuals; or that He is one material, three stuffs; this reveals just how paradoxical of a statement this sentence really is. He is not simply one or three at one time or another; He is one and three at the same time. A more in depth explanation is pictured at right.
There is one God. The Father, the Spirit, and Jesus Christ are all God; but the Son is not the Father or the Spirit; the Father is not the Spirit or the Son; and the Spirit is not the Father or the Son.
If this makes sense to you, then you’re not thinking about it right. This does not make logical sense.  But this is what God has revealed Himself to be, and if we are to be faithful to God and to His Scripture, then we must take Him at His word.
So, in conclusion, the importance of this Doctrine is in our need to remain faithful to God’s revealed word. The nature of the doctrine is as a submission of human logic to the divine revelation of an infinite God. The explanation of the Trinity is that He is one person, and three individuals.

[1] I realize that some of my readers may have the training and background to know that there is some disagreement about the use of John 1:1 to argue for Christ’s divinity. For my argument concerning this debate please see the page in the sidebar “John 1:1.”

Regardless, however, of whether you take John 1:1 to read “and the Word was God” or “and the Word was a god” you must still reconcile the idea of Christ’s divinity (for either way, God or god, John is saying that Christ was divine) with Deut. 6:4 and the monotheistic tradition of Judaism into which this statement was made.


  1. Hey Jonathan,

    This is a really good explanation of the origin of concept of Trinity. A few years ago I went through a mental shift that has completely transformed the way I approach theology and my identity as a Christian. Instead of seeing the doctrine of the Trinity as some side belief in the Christian faith, some impossible math problem that was kind of a nuisance but yet necesary to being a Christian, I began to see the doctrine of the Trinity as the fundamental belief of the Christian faith from which everything else we believe flows. The doctrine of the Trinity not only seeks to explain the seeming Biblical contradictions that God is one and that the Father, Son and Spirit are all God, it also points to the most fundamental facet of God's nature-that God is in Himself relationship, and this is what really points to his character as being, above all else, love. And that this is what holiness is about. God's distintiveness as holy is really a distintiveness in Him being love. Furthermore, God doesn't just exist as a relationship, but he wills to be this, he has chosent to exist in relationship.

    This idenity of God as relationship is the ultimate explantion as to why he has interacteed with us the way he has. He has moved out to us through Christ to be in relationship with us because this is his nature. It also helps to understand the most beautiful truth of the Gospel-that we are brought into the God's relationship by virtue of Christ becoming human and uniting God and humanity in Himself.


    1. Wow, could not have said this better myself. The thesis that I'll be defending here shortly is based around just this idea. I believe that God did choose to exist as a community, and in this act made Himself the archetype for community. The Trinity, therefore, becomes amodel for how christians should relate to each other. I follow two statements in John "As the Father has loved me so have I loved you;" and "Love one another as I have loved you." This leads to a Trinitarian church, not in structure or polity, but in relationships.