5. The Trinity
I was not looking forward to the next 45 days. As happens to military families everywhere, I was going away on Uncle Sam’s business for about six weeks, and with a young wife and three small children at home, that was no fun. There was one thing about this trip, however, that made it bearable--I was going to have a Christian roommate. I was looking forward to the opportunity to fellowship and study with another believer, and I was definitely not going to miss having to put up with the drunken carousing of former roomies.
After performing our duties and getting settled in the first day, my roommate, Bill, and I began our first nightly devotional study. About five minutes into the study, an amazing thing became apparent to me--Bill had been taught a false doctrine of the Trinity in his church. I was appalled--he went to a large, powerful, Baptist church that was renowned for Biblical preaching, missionary work, and evangelism. I knew that he attended Bible studies through the week as well as the normal Sunday morning and Sunday night preaching services and Sunday school. He had been converted in this church three years earlier--how could he not know the orthodox teaching on the Trinity?
Over the next few days, I showed him what the Bible taught about the nature of the Triune God, and he came to see the truth. I also found out how he had come to the odd view he’d had previously. In three years of intense fellowship and study in a large, conservative, dynamic Baptist church, he had never once heard the Trinity mentioned. His understanding had come from erroneous answers his Sunday School teacher had given him when Bill brought the topic up in private conversation. In our 45 days together, we shared many things, and I found out that the “renowned” church really only stressed John 3:16, tithing, behaving, and the second coming of Christ--important doctrines to be sure, but far from the whole truth.
Throughout the history of the church, the enemies of God have attacked the Biblical teaching concerning His Nature, particularly the Deity of the Son of God. The doctrine we touch upon in this chapter is one of the most attacked (and best and most consistently defended) of all the major teachings of the Faith: God is Triune, eternally existing as Father, Son, and Spirit (three persons or personalities that are personally distinct)--yet there is only one God. This has been called the doctrine of the TRINITY since the days of the early church, but the early church wars and the philosophical debates surrounding that doctrine, have obscured the fact that the doctrine of the Trinity is solidly supported by Holy Scripture, and is directly drawn from the Scriptures.
The simple statement we have made, stripped of the technically philosophical terms, expresses what the Bible everywhere teaches about the subject. I Frankly don’t understand it for one second. However, I recognize fully that the Bible teaches these truths, so I believe them and teach them whether I understand them or not. Therefore, the key presupposition we must have as we approach the doctrine of the Trinity is this: BELIEVE WHAT THE BIBLE TEACHES, AND DON’T TRY TO UNDERSTAND IT. Think of it--this doctrine speaks of the very essential nature of God, how can we expect to understand it?
Indeed, nearly every cult that has departed from the evangelical Christian faith has either begun from someone trying to explain the Trinity or a perversion of that doctrine has been close to the center of the movement. Beginning with the Gnostics, who were around when the apostles were on earth, all the way through to the cults that have sprung up from the Jesus people of the 60’s and the tele-evangelists of today, denial of, or perversion of the doctrine of the Trinity has been the common factor in nearly all of them.
- Today, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Way deny the Godhood of Jesus and the personality and deity of the Holy Spirit.
- The Mormons and the Armstrong cults (the Worldwide Church of God and its offshoots) believe in a refined form of polytheism (belief in more than one God).
- Many Pentecostal groups believe in a perversion of the Trinity which has God “pretending” to be different persons at different times, called “oneness,” or “Jesus only.” (Historically this is called modalism, identical to the ancient 1500-year-old cult of Sabellianism).
- The view of the entire orthodox church, including evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics, has always been that denial of the doctrine of the Trinity constitutes departure from “the faith once delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)
In discussing this important doctrine, I will try to avoid a dependence on technical theological language, but will instead concentrate on the simple statements of the Bible. Because of the vast importance of this doctrine, and the need to cover all the bases, I’ll give you a lot of verses to look up on your own.
The doctrine of the Trinity has these elements: (1) The is only One True God (monotheism); (2) There is a plurality of persons within God, and this plurality is not imaginary, pretended, or temporary; (3) The Father is God (4) The Son is God (5) The Holy Spirit is God. Being somewhat of an amateur mathematician, I have learned to express this as a mathematical formula that has no real meaning in human math: 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 (3). That is, the sum of the three is still only one, yet there is a “threeness” that the Bible expresses clearly without ever attempting to explain.
There is Only One True God
Many of the enemies of Christianity, including Muslims, Jews, and cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have charged that the Trinity constitutes paganism, polytheism, the worship of more than one “god.” However, the foundation of the doctrine of God’s tri-unity is that there is only One God. It is emphatically taught in both the Old and New Testaments. The statement of faith of Israel was (and is) “hear oh, Israel, the LORD our God is one LORD.” (Deut 6:4). When asked, Jesus said more than once that this was the most important of all the commandments (Mark 12:28-34).
The absoluteness of this monism of God is stated again and again in the Old Testament: “. . . there is no god with me” (Deut 32:39); “. . . I am the LORD, and there is none else” (Isa 45:18) “. . . before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me” (Isa 43:10). Similarly, the New Testament expresses the oneness of God: “There is one God and one mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5); “. . . and this is eternal life, that they might know thee, the only True God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent . . .” (John 17:3).
In the Old Testament, God proclaimed Himself under many names, each expressing different attributes of Him, but the characteristic name He used with His covenant people was YHWH (or JHVH, depending on how you express the Hebrew letters in English), a word with no vowels. This has been transliterated into English as either Jehovah or Yahweh. The reliable English Bible translations universally translate it in English as either LORD or GOD, using all capital letters to indicate that it is the NAME. Jehovah defined His Name to Moses in Exodus 3:14: “ . . . I AM THAT I AM: and He said: Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me to you.” “I AM THAT I AM” . . . Jehovah owes His existence to no one or nothing--He is the self-existent One, The Only True God.
Within the One True God Exists a Plurality of Persons
In light of the strong declarations the Bible makes on monotheism, this is a perplexing assertion. However, the Bible is just as plain on this point. There is most definitely only One God, however, there is also a plurality, a “threeness” about God that the Bible expresses, which we cannot define in human terms in light of His one-ness. First, there are plural terms and names applied to God. The most prevalent in the Bible is the Hebrew Elohim. The Cults have invented all sorts of spurious reasons why the Bible might use such a plural term to describe the One God, but a few words from that old saint John Gill should put them to rest:
“Now Moses might have made use of other names of God, in his account of the creation; as his name Jehovah, by which he made himself known to him, and to the people of Israel; or Eloah, the singular of Elohim, which is used by him (Deut. 32:15-16) and in the book of Job so frequently; so that it was not want of singular names of God, nor the barrenness of the Hebrew language which obliged him to use a plural word; it was no doubt of choice, and with design . . .” (Body of Divinity, vol. 1, pp. 187-88).
Other plural terms used for God in the Old Testament include panim (equivalent to the Greek prosopa, for “faces,” “persons,” or “presence,”) which is found in Exodus 33:14-15, Psalm 27:8-9, and Deuteronomy 4:37; the literal Hebrew for Maker in Job 35:10, Psalm 149:2, and Isaiah 54:5, is the plural, Makers; for creator in Ecclesiastes 12:1, the literal Hebrew is Creators. God also is described with plural pronouns, as in “. . . Let us make man in our image.” (Gen 1:25), see also Genesis 11:6-8 and Isaiah 6:8. Finally, in Isaiah 48:16-17 is a statement that, read in the light of the New Testament, is as plain a statement of the Trinity as anywhere in the Bible, as the Lord GOD (Adonai Jehovah) the Spirit, and the Redeemer are mentioned in the same context as separate persons.
Of course, there are many Scriptures in the New Testament which speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the same context, and with an obvious view to distinction between them. In John chapters 14-16, there are repeated references to this distinction. The most striking is the Baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3:16-17, where we hear the Father’s voice, see the Spirit descend in the form of a dove, and see also the Son standing there in the water.
The Father is God
This should go without saying, but for those modalists who reject the permanence of the first person of the Trinity, we say (a) Jesus is repeatedly called the Son of God, therefore God is a Father, and the Father is God. (b) There is no Scripture that even hints that the Father ever ceases to be a separate person. (c) There are many Scriptures which establish that there is a distinction between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The problem here, as pointed out decisively by Gregory A. Boyd in his book, Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity, is that when people approach Scripture with a preconceived idea (such as the false doctrine that there is no distinction between Father and Son), they find things in the Bible which are not there!
Another difficulty (prominent among Arian-type cults--those who deny that Jesus is God) is that many people misunderstand the relationship of the Father to Jesus Christ. The reason for the confusion among some is that they concentrate on statements made by and about Jesus during His period of humiliation on earth. The eternal relationship between Father and Son is one between equals (John 17:1-5, see how He talks to the Father, and Heb 1:1-14, where the Father orders the angels to worship Him. Such statements as “. . . my Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28) must be understood in the light of Jesus’ purpose in His earthly ministry. In Hebrews, after beginning by expounding on the exalted and absolute divinity of the Son (1:1-14) the apostle states, “but we see Jesus, who was made a little lower (or, for a little while lower) than the angels for the suffering of death . . .” (see also Phil. 2:5-11). Jesus came to earth to accomplish eternal redemption. His essential Godhood was veiled, hidden, in flesh. But, as our next point states:
Jesus Christ is God
He is not just the Son of God, but He is God the Son. This is the foundation doctrine of Christianity--Jesus Himself said “. . . If you believe not that I AM he, you shall die in your sins.” (John 8:24) (Note: the word “he” is not in the original.) This is not just a speculative, philosophical teaching--unless God redeems us Himself, we cannot be redeemed (see Psa 49:7, 15)! First, we know He is God because He is called God. (John 1:1) Indeed, in John 20: 28, where Thomas calls Jesus “My Lord and my God , . . .” the literal Greek rendering is “. . .the Lord of me, and the God of me.” Hebrews 1:4-14 is a most remarkable Scripture passage, as Old Testament prophets are quoted to show (1) God calls Christ His Son, (b) He tells angels to worship Christ, an honor belonging to Jehovah alone (Isa 42:8), (c) He calls the Son, God. He declares that the kingdom of Christ is eternal.
The next reason we know that the Son is eternal God Himself, is that He is worshipped. Isaiah 42:8, Exodus 20:3, and many other Old Testament passages forbid the worship of anyone but Jehovah God Himself--yet we see in many passage that Christ is worshipped (examples--Phil. 2:9-10, Acts 7:59-60, Rev. 5:6-14, which is worship in heaven itself.
Another reason we know He is God is that the works of God are ascribed to Him. Creation (John 1:3, Heb 1:2) Preservation of the universe (Col. 1:17, Heb 1:2-3), the sending of the Spirit of God (John 16:7) the forgiveness of sins (Acts 5:30-31) and the giving of eternal life (John 17:2-3) are just a few examples of the divine works He did.
He demonstrated His power over nature, over disease, demon powers, even over death, and on two occasions, he let the veil of His humanity up a bit. On the mount of Transfiguration, He allowed the disciples with Him to see His Glorious being as it really was, and when the soldiers came to get Him in the Garden, He knocked them to the ground by saying . . . “I AM.” (The word he, which follows “I AM” in most translations is not in the original) (John 18:4-6). Truly He did the works of God.
Yet another reason we know that The Son is God is He possesses divine attributes. The Bible says He has Self existence (John 5:26), Eternity (John 1:2), Omniscience (John 1:48), Omnipresence (Matt 18:20--note that He was on earth, and in the flesh, and used the present tense, showing that He had this attribute even in His earthly ministry), Immutability (Heb 13:8), Sovereignty (Matt 11:27), and Omnipotence (Matt 28:18-20). There is a strong statement of the absolute Deity of Messiah in Jeremiah 23:5-6:
“. . . Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the Earth. In His days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby He shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.”
Here we have Jehovah God clearly speaking, and just as plainly speaking of Messiah, and the Name He gives Messiah is Jehovah-Tsidkenu-- the sovereign Jehovah calls the Messiah Jehovah!
The Holy Spirit is God
(Many of the notes for this part of the lesson come from the excellent book The Holy Spirit by A.W. Pink.)
Included in this statement is the assumption that the Holy Spirit is a Person, not a force, influence, etc. Many cults and sects deny His personality. He is turned into some kind of “divine electricity,” a sort of impersonal force for God and good in the world. This, of course, goes along with their denial of the Trinity. However, when we look at the Bible, we find that He has personal qualities ascribed to Him by Scripture--such as understanding and knowledge (1 Cor 2:10-11), will (1 Cor 12:11), love (Rom 15:30), and grief (Eph 4:30). Furthermore, He can be lied to (Acts 5:3); He can be tempted, put to the test (Acts 5:9). We also see personal actions ascribed to Him by Scripture: He speaks (1 Tim 4:1; Rev 2:7); He teaches (Luke 12:12; John 14:26); He commands (Acts 13:2); and, He intercedes (Rom 8:26).
The Bible applies personal characterizations to Him--He is called Comforter (John 14:16), Witness (Heb 10:15, Rom 8:16), Justifier and Sanctifier (1 Cor 6:11).
Finally, in many places in Scripture, personal pronouns are used of Him (John 14:26; John 16:7). Not only is the Holy Spirit a person, but the Holy Spirit is God, just as the Father is God, and the Son is God, in some way One True God, but also in a way unfathomable to our human minds, a separate person within the Trinity.
In the Bible, the Holy Spirit is called God (Acts 5:3-5; 1 Cor 3:16--Compare with 2 Cor 6:16). The Holy Spirit is also called Jehovah--It was Jehovah who spoke by the prophets (Luke 1:68-70) yet Peter says it was the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:20, also compare 2 Sam 23:2-3 with Acts 1:16). It was Jehovah that Israel rebelled against in the wilderness (Psa 78:4, 17-18), but Isaiah says it was the Holy Spirit (Isa 63:10). In Deuteronomy 32:12, Jehovah led Israel, but in Isaiah 63:14, It says the Holy Spirit led them. Jehovah commissioned Isaiah the prophet (Isa 6:6-8), but Paul says (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) that it was the Holy Spirit who commissioned the prophet (Acts 28:25-26).
Throughout the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit demonstrates the attributes of God in His actions, major and minor holiness (Rom 1:4; cf. Ex 15:11), Eternality (Heb 9:14), Omnipresence (Psa 139:7), Omniscience (1Cor 2:10-11) Omnipotence ( Luke 1:35; Mic. 3:8; Isa 40:28), and Sovereignty (Matt 4:1--He led Jesus!) (John 3:8; 1 Cor 12:11; Acts 13:2-4; 20:28). Finally, the Holy Spirit does the works of God.: He performed the works of Creation (Job 26:13; 33:4; Gen 1:2), Providence (Isa 40:13-15; Acts 16:6-7), Inspiration ( 2 Pet 1:20-21), Anointing the Savior (Isa 61:1; John 3:34), and Raising the Savior ( Rom 8:11).
The doctrine of the Trinity reveals to us a God that is vastly different from the “gods” of the pagans, but also very different from the traditional God of modern day Judaism, Islam, and of the Arian and Sabellian cults that flourish today. (The historic term for antitrinitarian monotheism is “Monarchian.” Whatever else the similarities between them and Christianity, at least two things are is missing from Monarchian religions--relationship and redemption.
1. Relationship--The austere, alone, “god” that these groups worship is really incapable of relationship. He has no peer to relate to, and there is no way he can relate to mankind except as judge, benefactor, or object of worship. The Triune God, on the other hand, has experienced fellowship within Himself eternally--relationship comes naturally to Him. Through the God-man, Christ Jesus, mankind actually enters in to fellowship and relationship with the Almighty God. The Father is our Father; Christ is our adopted Brother, and the Spirit is our Comforter. We are loved, we walk in fellowship with God, who is the expert in true fellowship.
2. Redemption--The Monarchian religions have no way to accomplish bona fide (real) redemption. Their god forgives or offers mercy arbitrarily, he bypasses judgment simply because he wants to, or because he has agreed to, based on a certain set of conditions. Sin is really not dealt with in this way--there is no payment for it, their god just disregards it. There is no justice in this type of system. In Biblical Christianity, however, every sin is paid for (see Chapter 6 ), because an infinite Being, the God-man, died as a substitute for sinners. All those who become His by faith partake in His price of redemption. Those who do not become His pay their own penalty--eternally. The mystery of the Cross (see Chapter 5) is that God (The Father) poured out His wrath on God (The Son), yet there is only one God. It is a paradox to our minds, but it is the only way redemption could be carried out with justice. Every wrong that has ever been done by anyone against God or people is avenged, justice is settled, and the accounts of the universe are balanced. No Trinity--no redemption.
Christian, we worship a Triune God. We cannot understand it; we marvel at it; there is no explanation for it--but it is the Truth. Anything less is not Christianity.
See Appendix 6 for study questions and projects for Chapter 4.