The Eternal Godhead: A Biblical Examination of the Doctrine of the Trinity

        The Trinity is a doctrine at the core of Orthodox Christianity; it sets it apart from every other religion in the world. The Trinity is the belief in a triune Godhead; “One ousia [substance] in three hypostases [persons]”.[1] God is an infinitely complex being who is three persons while at the same time remaining the one and only God. The Trinity is one of the most misunderstood doctrines in Christianity; it remains one of the most common points of heresy, and is the line in the sand that frequently divides the Orthodoxy from the cults. Many a religion claims that the Trinity is illogical, and instead default to a form of tritheism (Mormonism, Jehovah Witness, etc.).  The question that needs to be answered is this: Is the doctrine of the Trinity biblical, if so, what does it mean to our lives? Does the belief in a modalistic God—one God manifesting Himself in three different ways at different times[2]—or a tritheistic God really make that much of a difference? In Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology he lays out three biblical principles that form the Orthodox view of the trinity: God is three persons, each person is fully God, and God is one.[3] We will use these three principles as a guide as we examine the Biblical teaching on the Doctrine of the Trinity.

 

        God is three persons; this statement is seemingly contradictory for a religion that proclaims itself strongly monotheistic. Some would even go to suggest that this brings up some form of polytheism. Is the statement “God is Three Persons” Biblical? Does the Bible, a book that is strongly monotheistic from cover to cover, really teach that God is three unique persons?  Throughout the Old and New testaments we find verses that seemingly point towards a triune God. From the very beginning of the Old Testament some scholars suggest that we can see hints of God’s triune nature. In Genesis 1:26 we read “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” (emphasis added) (ESV). In the process of God’s creation God speaks and uses the plural verb “let us” and the plural pronouns “our”; who is He talking to? Some scholars have suggested that He is using the plural of majesty, a figure of speech used by some royalty. For example, a king might say, “We are pleased to grant your request.” However, there is no evidence to support this idea, as we do not see plurality used this way in the Old Testament scriptures. Another suggestion that has been made is that God is speaking to the angels, but since we have no Biblical indication that men were created in the image of angels and angels do not appear to have participated in creation; this suggestion does not appear to hold any water. It seems that this could very well be an early indication of the plurality of God, though no specific number is put to this plurality.[4] In Genesis 3:22, Genesis 11:7, and in Isaiah 6:8 we also see plurality in the use of pronouns and verbs for God. Another Old Testament example of three separate persons is found in Isaiah 48:16. In this verse we read not just of plurality but also possibly of all three members of the Trinity. Isaiah 48:16 reads; “”Draw near to me, hear this: from the beginning I have not spoken in secret, from the time it came to be I have been there.” And now the Lord GOD has sent me, and His Spirit” (ESV). In this verse we see the Father and Spirit being mentioned separately and if the speaker is Jesus Christ, as some scholars suggest a New Testament perspective shows, then we have mention of the entire Trinity found in this verse.[5] This would make sense because previous verses in the same chapter attribute things that only God could claim to the speaker, who then mentions being sent by the Lord God. This means that He himself is not person referred to as the Lord God. In the New Testament, from which the concept of the Trinity was originally drawn, a passage that seems to show the separateness of the Trinity is John 14:26: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (ESV). Here we see the Holy Spirit being sent by the Father in the name of the Son, all three are distinguished from each other.[6] While accepting the separate personalities of the Father and the Son some people reject the idea that the Spirit is a person; instead some suggest that He is an impersonal force. There are several lines of reasoning to show that He is in fact a person, one of those is the use of male pronouns for Him in the Bible;

Since the Greek word pneuma (“spirit”) is neuter, and since pronouns are to agree with their antecedents in person, number, and gender, we would expect the neuter pronoun to be used to represent the Holy Spirit. Yet in John 16:13-14 Jesus’ description of the Holy Spirit’s ministry uses a masculine pronoun where we could expect a neuter pronoun. The only possible antecedent in the immediate context is “Spirit of Truth” (v. 13). Either John in reporting Jesus’ discourse made a grammatical error at this point (this is unlikely since we do not find any similar error elsewhere in the Gospel), or he deliberately chose to use the masculine to convey to us the fact that Jesus is referring to a person, not a thing.[7]

Another line of evidence is the fact that the Holy Spirit is attributed with feelings, relationships and roles of a person. The Holy Spirit is grieved by our sins (Eph. 4:30), He teaches (John 14:26), He intercedes and prays (Rom. 8:26-27), and He speaks (Acts 8:29; 13:2). Though these are only a few incidences that show His personality, they are enough to prove that the Holy Spirit a person, being the third member of the Trinity.[8] These are just a fraction of the Scriptural evidence for the existence of God as three persons; but what does Scripture say about each of these persons in regard to them each being fully God?

 

       “First, God the Father is clearly God. This is evident from the first verse of the Bible, where God created the heaven and the earth. It is evident through the Old and New Testaments, where God the Father is clearly viewed as sovereign Lord over all and where Jesus prays to his Father in heaven”.[9] The full deity of the other two members of the Trinity has been doubted throughout history. One heresy, known as Arianism, claimed neither Jesus Christ nor the Spirit were fully God. Those that doubt the personality of the Holy Spirit consequently doubt His deity.[10] Contrary to these teachings the Bible is replete with evidence supporting the deity of both Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The evidence for Jesus deity comes both from what His disciples wrote about Him and, contrary to what many believe, from His own words. In Hebrews 1:8 the author writes; “But about the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom” (ESV). Here Jesus is called God, in Titus 2:13 Paul writes; “while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (ESV). These are only two of many verses were Jesus’ disciples attribute to Him Deity, when does He call Himself God? In the New Testament we have no record of Him saying the words “I am God,” but what we do have is many statements that imply equality with God or that imply Godhood. In John 8:58 Jesus declares “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I Am” (ESV). This is a declaration of pre-existence, something no mortal man could claim. As well as declaring His pre-existence it is also believed by some that the statement “I Am” was an intentional parallel to Exodus 3:13-15 where in response to Abraham asking for His name God tells him “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14 ESV). In Matthew 9:1-6 Jesus heals a paralytic, but He doesn’t just tell him that he is healed; Jesus tells him that he is forgiven of his sins. Only God is capable of forgiving sins and in both these cases the Pharisees and teachers of the law recognized that these were claims of equality with God, in the former case they attempted to stone Him (John 8:59, Matthew 9:3). With only these four verses we can already see Jesus’ deity; the rest of the New Testament only makes it clear. What about the Holy Spirit, can His deity be shown? There are a few passages in the New Testament that mention the Holy Spirit, the Father, and the Son in one breathe, seemingly rendering them equal. In Matthew 28:19 the Apostles are told “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” (ESV). Here the Spirit is seen as equal to both the Father and the Son. In Acts 5:3-4 a man named Ananias comes to give to the church money from land he had just sold, but he lied by saying that he was giving it all when he was really keeping some. Peter first tells him that he has lied to the Holy Spirit (v. 3) and then in verse 4 he says that Ananias had lied to God.[11] This verse suggests that lying to the Holy Spirit is the same as lying to God. This gives reason to think that the Holy Spirit is God. If the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, and God the Father are all persons who are fully God, does that suggest that they are three separate God’s?

 

If only looking at the first two principles this would seem apparent, but throughout the scriptures it is made clear that this is not so; there is only one God, and He does not tolerate the worship of any others. God’s oneness is the mystery of the Trinity, God is three persons, each fully God, yet He is at the same time one. If scripture was not clear on God’s oneness we would be left with the conclusion that what we call God is actually three different Gods. Though some heresies go to this point, scripture is not silent, nor is it unclear on the oneness of God. In Deuteronomy 6:4 we find a powerful statement of God’s oneness; it is what the Jews call the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (ESV). This statement puts it quite clearly, and this oneness is on display throughout the entirety of Scripture. In Isaiah 45:5-6 we read “I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other” (ESV). In Isaiah 44:6-8 we find even more evidence for God’s oneness:

Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me since I appointed an ancient people Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen 8Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.” (ESV)

The resounding testimony of the Old Testament is God’s oneness, does the New Testament agree? The New Testament carries the same message throughout. In Matthew 28 we read that the disciples are to baptize in the name of the Father, Spirit, and Son; they are not to baptize in a plurality of names, but in a single name of the Father, Spirit, and Son (Eaton). This indicates the oneness of God that exists even in His threeness. Romans 3:30, 1 Corinthians 8:4, Galatians 3:20, and Jude 25 are a few more of the many verses that bear this witness: God is one.

 

            The testimony of the entirety of Scripture declares this: God is one, God is three persons, and each person is fully God. These are the fundamental truths that led to the Orthodox view of the Trinity: One substance in three persons.[12]  It is sometimes suggested that one God in three persons is a breach of logic, but this would only be true if God was both one God and not one God at the same time in the same sense.[13] How does this doctrine affect our lives, how does the Tri-unity of God make a difference? For one, the Tri-unity of God explains how a loving and relational God can be completely independent of creation.[14] Any other view of God presents a god who has nothing before creation to love and be in relation with, so these attributes would have been no-existent until creation. This means that God would be dependent on creation for some of His attributes. In the Trinity this problem does not arise; God has been in an eternal loving relationship with Himself, each person in the Trinity has a relationship with each other. The Atonement also rests on the fact that Jesus was fully God atoning for sin made against God: “If Jesus is merely a created being, and not fully God, then it is hard to see how he, a creature, could bear the full wrath of God against all our sins. Could any creature, no matter how great, really save us? Second, justification by faith alone is threatened if we deny the full deity of the Son”.[15] The Doctrine of the Trinity is an amazing mystery, something we will never be able to fully grasp. However, thought we may never understand how God is both one and three we can understand that the Trinity is truth and to this truth we can respond by giving God all the glory and worshiping Him with every breath we have.

 

Eaton, Fred. “Lecture.” Systematic Theology. Pacific Life Bible College, Surrey. 1 December 2011.

Erickson, Millard J, and L. Arnold Hustad. Introducing Christian doctrine. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic theology : an introduction to biblical doctrine. Leicester; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press ; Zondervan, 1994.

Nash, Ronald H. Worldviews in conflict : choosing Christianity in a world of ideas. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub., 1992.



[1] Millard J Erickson and L. Arnold Hustad, Introducing Christian doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001), 112.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic theology : an introduction to biblical doctrine (Leicester; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press ; Zondervan, 1994), 239.

[3] Ibid., 231.

[4] Ibid., 227.

[5] Ibid., 229.

[6] Ibid., 232.

[7] Erickson and Hustad, Introducing Christian doctrine, 273.

[8] Grudem, Systematic theology, 232–233.

[9] Ibid., 233.

[10] Ibid., 243.

[11] Erickson and Hustad, Introducing Christian doctrine, 272.

[12] Ibid., 112.

[13] Ronald H Nash, Worldviews in conflict : choosing Christianity in a world of ideas (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub., 1992), 80.

[14] Grudem, Systematic theology, 247.

[15] Ibid.

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