The Doctrine of the Trinity (part 1)

December 30, 2007     Time: 00:38:48

We want to take up a new topic in the doctrine of God which is the doctrine of the Trinity. Just to review by means of where we have been in this class, we first began talking about the Doctrine of Revelation. That is to say, how we know about God through his revelation of himself in nature, in conscious – that is, his general revelation – and then his special revelation in his word, both the living word Jesus Christ and his written word. That was the Doctrine of Revelation. Then we dealt with the Doctrine of God and we began our discussion there by talking about the attributes of God – what is God like? We looked at both God’s personal attributes and his infinite attributes. Then we talked about natural theology; that is to say, arguments for and against the existence of God. We attempted to show why it makes very good sense to believe that the God described in the Bible with all of these superlative attributes indeed exists. And then we saw that the arguments against God’s existence are not all that important or all that powerful or compelling.

Now we come to a third area in the doctrine of God which is the doctrine of the Trinity. So we are still working our way through the doctrine of God. The reason we are spending so much time on this doctrine is because God is obviously the whole centerpiece of Christian theology. If God exists, everything changes. If there is no God, then all we are left with is despair and hopelessness and meaninglessness. So the doctrine of God, and in particular the doctrine of the Trinity, stands at the very heart of the Christian faith. So that is where we turn our attention during these next few weeks.

If I were to ask how many people today would say that God is a person, what would you say? Would you raise your hand if you were asked “is God a person?” and say yes? Technically, it is incorrect to say that God is a person. According to Christian belief, God is three persons. This is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. According to the doctrine of the Trinity, God is personal but God is not a person. That is to say, he is tri-personal – he is three persons. This doctrine serves to distinguish Christianity from Judaism and Islam on the one hand, but also from various pseudo-Christian cults. Doctrines of God in religions like Islam are unitarian; that is to say, they believe that God is a single person. This is in contrast to Christian theology which is trinitarian, which believes that God is tri-personal. Similarly, the Christian cults are, without exception, distinguished by their denial of the doctrine of the Trinity. In some way, shape or form, they will deny the classic doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine stands as a sort of plumb line of orthodoxy with respect to the doctrine of God.

Unfortunately, the average Christian, when he gets into conversations with a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon, usually gets annihilated when it comes to defending his belief in the doctrine of the Trinity. He finds himself usually incapable of defending his belief in the Trinity against the critique offered by a cultist like a Jehovah’s Witness; which is really a pretty sad state of affairs considering how important this doctrine is.

Moreover, the Christian, when called upon to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, will probably turn out to be a heretic; that is to say, he will probably enunciate a doctrine which has been condemned by the Christian church as a heresy. Very often in this connection, one will hear inadequate analogies given for the doctrine of the Trinity. For example, one popular analogy for the doctrine of the Trinity is taken from myself as an individual person – I am also a husband, I am a father and I am a son. So, even though I am one individual, I am nevertheless three – I am one individual Bill Craig, but I am also a husband, a father and a son.[1] This illustrates three-in-one. Well, unfortunately, that does not illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather, that illustrates the heresy called “modalism” which says that there is one person who God is, but that God plays three different roles just as I am one person but I have three roles of being – a father, a husband and a son. We will talk about modalism later and why that was condemned by the church, but I think you can see the inadequacy of this popular illustration of the Trinity.

The same problem afflicts the analogy that water is liquid, steam or ice. There is one substance, water (H2O), but it can take the form of liquid, steam or ice (as a solid). Unfortunately, this analogy also tends toward modalism because water cannot be simultaneously steam, liquid and solid. It can only be one after the other in succession. There were actually early Christian heretics who believed that God was like that – that first he was the Father, then he was the Son, then he was the Holy Spirit. All the same person, but again playing three successive roles in salvation history. That was condemned as a heresy.

So, these analogies, far from illuminating the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, actually distorted it and lead into heretical thinking. I think it is better to simply avoid trying to construct these sorts of analogies and to simply say that just as my being as an individual supports one center of self-consciousness which I call “I” myself, God’s being supports three centers of self-consciousness. Just as I am one being with one center of self-consciousness, which I call “I” or “me,” God is a being with three centers of self-consciousness – three “I”s or selves if you will. Thus, God’s being supports three persons whereas I am simply one person.

Unfortunately, the doctrine of the Trinity is often obscured by Christians in mystery. We are very often told that the doctrine of the Trinity is incomprehensible, that it is above logic, that it is something we only grasp by faith and it is inherently mysterious. I think that that is actually selling the doctrine of the Trinity short. The doctrine of the Trinity is not the logical contradiction that three Gods are somehow mysteriously one God. That would in fact be a contradiction. Nor is the doctrine that three persons are somehow one person. That would also be a contradiction. Rather, the doctrine of the Trinity states that there are three persons in one God or, alternatively, that the one God who exists has three centers of self-consciousness – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There is really nothing even at face value contradictory about that. It doesn’t say three persons are one person, or that three Gods are one God. Rather, it says that the one God is three persons and there is nothing even apparently logically contradictory about that doctrine.

The doctrine of the Trinity is a systematic summary of the scriptural data concerning the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t really matter that the word “Trinity” is not found in the scriptures as such. Any word could be coined to label this doctrine just so long as it is faithful to the scriptural data. And I think that the classical doctrine of the Trinity does express what the scriptures teach.

As our first point on the outline shows, we want to look at the scriptural data concerning the doctrine of the Trinity.

The first point to notice is that the scriptures teach that there is one God. There is only one God.

For example, Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD.”[2] So God is one God and that is the way he has revealed himself to Israel.

Turn to 1 Kings 8:60 – here Solomon prays “that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God; there is no other.” So in Solomon’s prayer he says there is only one God and that is the Lord God of Israel.

Isaiah 45:5, 18:

I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God . . . For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): “I am the LORD, and there is no other.”

So, Israel’s God reveals himself to his people as the only God that exists, the true Lord of Heaven and Earth, the single true God.

This doctrine is, of course, affirmed in the New Testament as well. For example, look at Mark 12:29. Here Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is and, quoting Deuteronomy 6:4, “Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”’” So Jesus reaffirms the classic teaching of monotheism found in the Jewish law.

In Romans 3:29-30a, Paul makes a similar affirmation. Paul asks “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one.” So Paul says that God – Yahweh, Jehovah – is not simply the Jewish God. He is not just the God of Israel. This is the only God there is. He is the God of Jew and Gentile alike because there is only one God.

In 1 Corinthians 8:4, Paul, in addressing the question of meat offered to idols, says, “we know that an idol has no real existence, and that there is no God but one.” So idols he says are really not gods at all. They have no reality because there is only one God.

1 Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

Finally, James 2:19, he says “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder!” So even the demons, says James, are good monotheists in that sense. They believe that God is one as well.

The doctrine that is taught throughout the Old and New Testaments is that there is only one true God, the God of Israel. In other words, Christianity, like Judaism, is committed to monotheism – that there is one God. But now we come to the second point. That is, the scripture also teaches that there are distinct persons in the Godhead.

First, let’s look at the person that is called the Father. What we want to do is to first show that the Father is a distinct person from the Spirit and the Son, and then show that the Father is God.[3]

The Father is clearly a distinct person. Look at Matthew 11:27, Jesus says,

All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

Here Jesus distinguishes clearly between the Son and the Father and says that the Father thoroughly knows the Son and the Son knows the Father and reveals the Father then to mankind. Jesus thinks of himself as distinct from the Father. He is not the Father, he reveals the Father to men.

Also Matthew 26:39. This is Jesus praying in the garden at Gethsemane: “And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.’” Here Jesus is praying to the Father and asks that he might not have to go through the crucifixion. But he says, still, your will rather than my will be done. Jesus distinguishes between the Father’s will and his own will, showing that these are distinct persons. Jesus is not praying to himself and praying that his own will would be done. He is praying to the Father and asking that the Father’s will be done, even though Jesus’ will is to avoid the crucifixion. This shows clearly the distinction between the Father and the Son.

John 14:16-17 shows the difference between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Jesus says,

And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.

Here all three of the persons are mentioned. Jesus prays to the Father who sends the Holy Spirit to indwell the disciples. Clearly the Father is a distinct person from the Son and from the Holy Spirit who he will send.

The second point is that the Father is God. This is already revealed in the Old Testament where God is portrayed as the Father.

For example, Psalms 89:26, “He shall cry to me, ‘Thou art my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’” God here reveals himself as a Father.

Also in Isaiah 63:16. Here Judah is praying to God and prays, “For thou art our Father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us; thou, O LORD, art our Father, our Redeemer from of old is thy name.” Israel thought of God as its Father, its heavenly Father.

Jesus taught the same thing. In Matthew 6:9, in teaching the disciples to pray, Jesus says, “Pray then like this, ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.’” Indeed, Jesus always spoke of God as his heavenly Father and he taught his disciples to address God in the same way, as “Our Father.”

So God, the Father, is clearly the God of Israel who is the Father of all of Israel. He is the Father of his children, and in particular the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, God is so closely identified with the figure of the Father that the word “God” in the New Testament, which is “ὁ θεὸς” or “ho theos,” usually refers to the Father.[4] When the New Testament speaks of “God” it is talking about God the Father.

For example, you typically have greetings in Paul’s letters that will go something like this, “Grace to you, and peace from God, the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ.” So God is usually identified with the Father. This is Paul’s customary greeting. Look at Galatians 4:4-6:

But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

Clearly in this passage, when the scripture speaks of God sending his Son and God to whom we cry “Abba, Father!”, it is talking about God, the Father.

The word “God” in the New Testament typically, implicitly, refers to the Father. What about Jesus Christ? I think we see the same pattern with respect to Jesus Christ.

First of all, Jesus Christ is also a distinct person. Look at Mark 1:9-11:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”

In this passage, again we see all three persons represented. There is Jesus who is baptized in the Jordan, then there is the Holy Spirit who descends upon him and anoints him, and then there is the voice from heaven saying “thou art my beloved Son,” the voice of the Father. So we see Jesus’ distinction here from the Father and the Holy Spirit in his baptism.

We also see this in John 17:1-5. This is Jesus’ high priestly prayer interceding on behalf of the church,

When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee, since thou hast given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him. And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent. I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work which thou gavest me to do; and now, Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made.”

Here Jesus again is not talking to himself. He is praying to the Father who has sent him and whose work he has accomplished and to whom Jesus is about to return. In the remainder of that chapter, you see this same interaction, what we call an “I-thou” relationship of two distinct persons interacting in prayer.

John 7:39 also expresses Jesus’ distinction from the person of the Spirit. Jesus says in verse 38 that out of the heart of the believer will come rivers of living water, then in verse 39 John comments, “Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” Jesus is clearly distinct from the Spirit here because the Spirit had not yet been given among men.[5]

Finally, John 16:7 also makes this distinction clear. Here Jesus says, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” He is speaking there about the person of the Holy Spirit. So here Jesus is clearly distinct from the Holy Spirit because he says if I do not go away the Comforter will not come, but if I go, then I will send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to you to be with you forever.

So Jesus Christ is also a distinct person from the Father and from the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, and crucially, Jesus Christ is nevertheless God. Here the New Testament writers faced a very thorny problem. Since the word “God” (ho theos) refers to the Father, how could it be said that Jesus Christ is God without implicitly saying that Jesus Christ is the Father which the New Testament writers did not want to say? They wanted to affirm that Jesus is God, but they knew that Jesus was not the Father, he was distinct from the Father. So how could they say that Jesus is God without saying that Jesus is the Father? This was the difficult issue that the New Testament writers faced. What you find as you read the New Testament is that they exhibited an incredible ingenuity in finding every other possible way to affirm the deity of Christ without coming out and simply saying blanketly “Jesus is ho theos,” “Jesus is God.” This point has been made very effectively by Michael Green in his book The Truth of God Incarnate. If you are interested in following that up, take a look at that book. He shows the multiplicity of ways in which the New Testament authors attempt to find every way they can to affirm the deity of Christ without coming right out and saying “Jesus is ho theos” because that would imply that Jesus is the Father. That is why you don’t find very many statements in the scriptures that say in a sort of straight forward way, “Jesus Christ is God.” Because that would be to confuse the Father and the Son. Therefore, rather than say that, the New testament writers tried to find every other way they could to express the deity of Christ without saying that Jesus was ho theos.

For example, they used the title “kurios” and applied this to Jesus Christ. Kurios is the Greek word for the Old Testament name of God. We translate it as “LORD” but in the Old Testament this is the name of Yahweh, God’s name, sometimes mistransliterated as “Jehovah,” Yahweh, the Great I AM. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint, Yahweh is rendered by the Greek word kurios which is our English word “Lord.” What the New Testament writers did was they picked up this word for Jesus Christ. So rather than calling Jesus ho theos (“God”), they chose the Old Testament word for Yahweh – Lord – and called Jesus Christ “Lord.” Then they applied to Jesus Christ Old Testament proof texts about Yahweh and said that these were actually referring to Jesus Christ.

A wonderful illustration of this is found in Romans 10:9,13. In verse 9, Paul says, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord” – that is the confession of the early church, Jesus is Lord, kurios – “and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Now, in verse 13, comes the Old Testament proof test. Quoting from Joel 2:32, “for everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”[6] The New Testament writer says if you confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, you will be saved because, quoting the Old Testament about Yahweh, everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. This illustrates how the New Testament church took these Old Testament passages referring to Yahweh, the Lord, and applied them to Jesus Christ.

This was the most important confession of the early Christian church – that Jesus Christ is Lord. Look, for example, at 1 Corinthians 12:3 where Paul is giving direction about the use of spiritual gifts in the church. He says here, “I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” There is that central confession again of the New Testament church, that Jesus is Lord.

Also look over at 1 Corinthians 16:22b and notice the prayer that concludes this epistle, “Our Lord, come!” This is the Greek word “maranatha.” That is not really a Greek word. That is simply a transliteration of the Aramaic maranatha which means “Our Lord, come.” What we are doing in this verse is eavesdropping upon the early church at prayer. This is the early church in Aramaic – the original language spoken by Jesus and the disciples – and how did they pray? They pray, “Our Lord, Come!” They address Jesus as Lord and pray for his return.

The worship of Jesus as Lord, as deity, is not something that originated decades later and centuries later in the early Catholic church. Rather, this goes right back to the original fellowship in Jerusalem. Praying in Aramaic to the Lord Jesus Christ. “Our Lord, Come!”

Sometimes, this sort of distinction between theos and kurios can get the New Testament writers into rather tangled terminology. Look, for example, at 1 Corinthians 8:6. This is a wonderful passage. This is the passage where Paul is dealing with meat offered to idols again, where we already saw he affirms there is only one God. Then in verse 8:6 notice what he says, “for us, there is one God (ho theos), the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord (kurios), Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” Here Paul says there is, for us Christian believers, one God the Father and he is described as the source of all creation from whom were all things and the goal of creation – for whom we exist. Then there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, and he is described almost in identical language as the agency of creation, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. So creation is from God the Father, through Jesus Christ, to God the Father as its goal. So there is a kind of difference in sameness here. Deity described here as one God and yet a difference in unity here as he differentiates between ho theos and kurios and the different roles that they play in the creation of the world.[7]



[1] 5:06

[2] 10:00

[3] 15:02

[4] 20:18

[5] 25:04

[6] 30:16

[7] Total Running Time: 35:24 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)