The Trinity is one of the most distinct descriptions of the God of the Bible. As Christians, we believe that there is one God. Yet this God is in three (tri) distinct persons, and the persons are in harmonious unity, hence the word Trinity. Essentially, the Trinity is one God who exists in three persons. So, the God of the Bible is one God who is in the Persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14).
We see the idea of God being in one essence and subsisting in three persons. The different roles of the persons in the Trinity are best seen in how God saves man from sin. For instance, we know the Father sent the Son, the Son was the one who took on flesh, and God punished sin (our sin) on him on behalf of all who believe in Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is the one who effects new life in us (Romans 8:2-4). We also see Jesus commanding us to teach and baptize people in the name of the three persons of the Trinity (Matthew 28:18-21).
Historical Development of the Doctrine of the Trinity
Like many other Christian doctrines, the doctrine of the Trinity developed and became clearer over time as people studied the Scriptures. As much as the word ‘Trinity’ is not in the Bible, that doesn’t mean that the doctrine of the Trinity itself is not Scriptural. Tertullian is hailed by trinitarian theologians for coining the word ‘Trinity’ (Trinitas in Latin). The early Christians had diverse theological views. It was, hence, necessary to develop doctrines that all would subscribe to. As the Catholic (Universal) church took shape, it also required clearer doctrinal stands.
For instance, people had diverse views on the divinity of Jesus. Some asserted that he was not God or divine as the Father. For instance, Origen didn’t believe that the Son was equal to the Father. He said that the God and Father, who holds the universe together, are superior to every being. This was because God imparts to each one from his own existence that which each one is; the Son, being less than the Father, is superior to rational creatures alone (for he is second to the Father); the Holy Spirit is still less, and dwells within the saints alone. In this way, the power of the Father is greater than that of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and that of the Son is more than that of the Holy Spirit (Origen, First, 33–4 [I.3]).
Tertullian’s position, essentially the point of the Trinity, is that the Father is one entity, the Son is the second, and the Spirit is the third; they are one unit. The Father shares his essence with the Son and the Holy Spirit. Though Tertullian didn’t believe that the Father is equal to the Son and the Holy Spirit, his argument that they are of the same essence formed the foundation of understanding God in his triune-ness.
The Arian Controversy (325-381) became one of the most defining debates of the Christian faith; it was sparked by Alexandrian Presbyter Arius (256-336). Arius believed and taught that the Son was created by the Father at some point and, as such, he is subordinate to the Father. This view is called subordinationism. The then-bishop of Alexandria, bishop Alexander, examined his views and determined that they were unscriptural. Due to this, Arius and his followers were excommunicated.
The two parties grew in following, and it threatened to split the church. Emperor Constantine (280-337) called for a council in Constantinople (359), where the church agreed with the earlier council of Nicea (325) to settle the trinitarian dispute. All who held Arius’s views were rendered heretical and excommunicated from the church. The Nicene creed focussed on the Son and the Father. It didn’t mention much about the Holy Spirit. Later, Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, an anti-subordinationist, included the Holy Spirit in explaining the Trinity. Athanasius argued that the Father and the Son are of the same essence (homooisios).
The Athanasian creed held that the Bible teaches that the Son and the Holy Spirit are of one essence; hence, the three share one power and substance. In part, the Athanasian creed reads, “That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the substance, for there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.”
The earliest creed is the Apostles’ Creed. Christians studied what the Apostles taught and came up with the Apostles’ Creed, which includes the Trinity. It says in part, ‘I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit…’ Henceforth, as explained in the Athanasian creed, the doctrine of the Trinity is the right biblical description of God.
The Trinity in the Old Testament
The Old Testament often shows Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit. Though they don’t refer to Christ explicitly as Jesus, we know he is well represented in the Old Testament, sometimes through theophanies. Examples of theophanies are where the Scriptures talk about the Angel of the Lord (Genesis 16:10;31:11;22;11-18). Elsewhere, this Angel of the Lord is called God (Genesis 16:10; Judges 13:22), and more specifically, in Daniel 7, Jesus is referred to as the Son of man (Daniel 7:13-14). These examples confirm that Jesus was indeed in the Old Testament and was equal to God as he testifies, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58). He is also called the Mighty God, Everlasting Father (Isaiah 9:6) and a wonderful counselor.
God has, in some cases, revealed himself in plurality. For instance, in Genesis 1:1-2, the word translated to God is Elohim, which has a sense of plurality in Hebrew. So, in the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth. We see Jesus is the one who created all things (John 1:1-3). In the same verse, the Spirit of God is seen to move over the face of the waters. Elsewhere, we see the Holy Spirit creating (Job 33:4). In the creation of man, God uses the words ‘Let us’ (Genesis 1:26). In creation, there is evidence of the presence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We also see this in Isaiah’s calling. God asked, “Who shall we send that he will go for us,” and Isaiah replied, “Send me” (Isaiah 6:8). But what is not in doubt in the Old Testament is that even when God is sometimes referred to in plurality, he is one God (Deuteronomy 6:4).
The Trinity in the New Testament
The New Testament is the Old Testament explained. The New Testament gives us a better understanding of the Trinity. John 1:1-3 introduces ‘the Word’ as God. Nothing was created without the ‘the Word’. We learn in John 1:14 that the Word is Jesus, the Son. The Word God is substituted with Son in John 1:14, showing us that Jesus is equal to God when he’s called the ‘the Word’. This helps us to understand Genesis 1:1 when it says Elohim. We also see the triune God in the baptism of Jesus, the Voice from Heaven (the Father) said, “This is my Son with whom I am pleased,” and the Spirit of God (Holy Spirit) descending like a dove coming to rest on him (Matthew 3:13-17). During the birth of Jesus, we see the Trinity at work. God sent Jesus, whom Mary conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). The name Emmanuel, one of the names of Jesus, means God with us (Matthew 1:23), for in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives (Colossians 2:9). In Hebrews 1:8, we see God referring to Jesus as God. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one.
In the New Testament, we see the Father being referred to as God (1 John 1:3), Jesus as God (Titus 2:13), and the Holy Spirit as God (Acts 5:3-4). These references do not mean that there are three gods. No, the New Testament is emphatic that the God of the Christians is one God (1 Corinthians 8:6; 2 Corinthians 3:17). Jesus said, “My father and I are one,” and because of this statement, they wanted to kill Jesus because he’d declared himself God (John 10:30-33). We see the oneness of the Trinity in the way Jesus commands us to baptize people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the baptism of the Spirit, which leads to salvation (Matthew 28:19-20). Paul is helping us to pray for one another to have the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit to be with us all (2 Corinthians 13:14).
We also see the Trinity in the salvation story. The Father is the one who chooses; the Holy Spirit makes us saints, and we are to obey Jesus Christ because he died for our sins (1 Peter 1:1-2). It is God who makes us stand firm in Christ; he anointed us, and he put his seal of ownership on us, and the Holy Spirit is the one who guarantees us a place in heaven (2 Corinthians 1:21-22). The Triune God also helps us to do our part, for the Holy Spirit gives us gifts by which we serve our Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). Philippians 2:12-13 sums it up as God is the one who is at work in us both to will and to do his good pleasure.
Practical Application of the Doctrine of the Trinity
- Love – Understanding the oneness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit helps us to come to terms with the fountain of divine love. The three persons of the Godhead Love each other with eternal love. It is this love that God is pouring into our hearts, to love him forever and ever (Romans 5:5).
- Relationship – The Trinity underscores the importance of relationships. In the same way, Christ and the Father are one, did Christ also pray that we believers be one with each other (John 17:21). Christianity cannot be done in lonesomeness. We must be part of a community, for we were saved by one God, believe in one Lord, and are baptized in the same Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13).
- Faith – Understanding the doctrine of the Trinity encourages our faith. The Son is the one who mediates between the Father and us (1 Timothy 2:5). How much confidence should you have knowing that the Son, who is inseparable from the Father and of the same essence as He, would bring you close to God? What about the Holy Spirit who intercedes (Romans 8:26-27) on our behalf to God? Isn’t this encouraging to our faith? The intercessory work of the Holy Spirit and the Mediatory work of the Son is sure since they are one with God, and God cannot deny himself (2 Timothy 2:13).
The doctrine of the Trinity is the most unique description of the God of the Christians. It is a foundational teaching of Christianity. Though it is an essential teaching of the Christian faith, it does not mean that if you do not understand it, you are not a believer, or you cannot be one. We know that the only way to be a believer is to have faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins.
We should also know that God is beyond our understanding. No matter how much time we spend knowing in all eternity, we will never completely know who he is. He is an indescribable yet understandable God. By his power, God has given us all the knowledge about him that we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). All this is not to say that we should stop searching and learning about God. He is like an unlimited sea. The more you dive in, the deeper it gets. So, keep growing in the knowledge of God. The Trinity is one doctrine that will humble you and encourage you to worship God all the more gladly.