The doctrine of the Trinity is one of, if not the, most important doctrine of our Christian faith. Though the word “Trinity” doesn’t appear in the Bible, the idea is clearly embedded within. The doctrine of the Trinity can be fundamentally explained like this:
There is one God. God is three distinct Persons. Each Person is fully and equally God.
The triune God eternally exists and expresses himself as three distinct persons with one essence. One God in three persons–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Since God is three distinct persons, this means that the Father is not the Son or Spirit, the Son is not the Father or Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father or Son. We see this clearly at the baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3:16-17 when all three members of the Trinity were located in the same place at the same time, but participated in different ways reflecting their distinct roles. Jesus was baptized. The Holy Spirit descended like a dove. The voice of God the Father was heard declaring that Jesus was His Son.
It’s important to remember that the deity of each Person is not diminished by their distinctness. God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit are fully and equally God. They are equal in divinity, glory, majesty, power, and rank. There are not three gods, but one God. Plurality within unity.
So, how can we clearly communicate this complex idea in a simple way? And how do we avoid misunderstanding the Trinity? And why does the Trinity even matter? This will be the first of three articles, The Trinity Series, attempting to better understand the importance of the Trinity and answer these questions.
ONE MATHEMATICAL EQUATION
Through the years there have been a number of ways to try and illustrate or explain the Trinity. I’ve found it helpful to think of the doctrine of the Trinity as a mathematical equation: 1+1+1=1. God the Father + Jesus the Son + Holy Spirit = Triune God. But to help guard against certain misunderstandings of the Trinity, it might be better to think of the biblical view of the Trinity like this:
There is one God + God is three distinct Persons + Each Person is fully and equally God = Biblical View of the Trinity
If you add or subtract from this equation (biblical view of the Trinity), then you get a different and therefore incorrect result (heresy).
THREE PERSONS DON’T MAKE ONE GOD
If you acknowledge that God is three distinct persons (part 2), but they are not one God (part 1), then the result is the heresy of polytheism. As an equation it would look like this:
God is three distinct Persons + Each Person is fully and equally God – There is one God = Heresy of Polytheism
This position would be no different than Greek and Roman mythology, or modern Hindus. Polytheism clearly goes against the biblical understanding that God is one (Deut. 6:4; Isa. 45:5; 1 Tim. 2:5; Jam. 2:19, etc).
THREE MODES OF GOD
If you acknowledge that God is one (part 1), but that God is three distinct persons (part 2), then the result is the heresy of Modalism. As an equation it would look like this:
There is one God – God is three distinct Persons +/- Each Person is fully and equally God = Heresy of Modalism
This position would argue that there is one God who reveals himself in different forms or modes at different times. In other words, the God of the Old Testament took a different form of Jesus in the New Testament and now takes a different form of the Holy Spirit in the age of the Church. But they are simply different names of one God who acts in different modes to different people, rather than three distinct persons. Much like an actor playing multiple parts within a one man play. Modalism clearly denies the teachings of Scripture. The baptism of Jesus (Matt. 3) proves this equation incorrect, all three members of the Trinity appear in the same place at the same time.
THREE UNEQUAL PERSONS
If you acknowledge that God is one (part 1), but deny that each person is fully God (part 3), then the result is the heresy of Arianism. As an equation it would look like this:
There is one God + God is three distinct Persons – Each Person is fully and equally God = Heresy of Arianism
This position, attributed to Arius of Alexandria (4th century) would argue that Jesus may be the first creation and share a special place in God’s economy and greater status than the rest of creation. But Jesus is still a creation. He may be like God, but is not the same as or equal to God. Today, we see this predominantly with Jewish and Muslim perceptions of Jesus. Jesus is a prophet of God and enjoyed a special relationship with God. But Jesus can’t be God. This position denies the teachings of Colossians 2:9, “For in [Jesus] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”
A subset of this position would be Subordinationism, which states that Jesus was fully divine but not equal to God. In other words, God the Father is like Zeus sitting on top of the pantheon of Gods, while Jesus and the Holy Spirit are lower gods like Ares and Athena. Another subset would be Adoptionism, which states that Jesus was not divine, but rather adopted by God and given super powers. In other words, Jesus is like the DC superhero Shazaam! But the Bible explains that all members of the Trinity coequal and coeternal.
In the end, the triune nature of God is a mystery. Though we may not understand it fully, we must affirm it faithfully and firmly nonetheless. To better understand the mystery of the Trinity, remember that 1+1+1=1.
By: Jeremy Winters