Doctrine of the Trinity (part 1)

June 27, 2011     Time: 00:35:25


In this class we have just completed a long excursus on the subject of Natural Theology. We are doing a survey of Christian doctrine, and the initial segment of the course dealt with Doctrine of Revelation and Doctrine of Scripture. Then we moved to Doctrine of God, and we examined God’s attributes and his nature. Then we took a side road to look at Natural Theology – that is to say, arguments for and against the existence of God. We have now completed those. Now we are returning back to our track on Doctrine of God, and we want to move specifically to a discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity. That is the subject for this lesson.

If I were to ask for a show of hands (which I will not), I wonder how many persons here, today, if I asked you, “Is God a person?,” would say, “Yes” and how many would say “No?” Is God a person? Well, I don’t want to embarrass anybody, so we won’t have a show of hands. But technically it is not correct to say that God is a person. Rather, in Christian theology, God is three persons. This is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity –God is tri-personal. So the correct answer to the question would be to say, “God is personal, but he is not a person.” It sounds paradoxical, but that is what the Trinity implies. God is personal, but he is not a person. He is tri-personal. God is three persons.

It is this doctrine – the doctrine of the Trinity – that distinguishes Christianity from other great monotheistic faiths like Judaism and Islam. Judaism and Islam are forms of Unitarianism with respect to their doctrine of God. They believe that God is a person – there is one person who is God. By contrast, Christianity is trinitarian, not unitarian. This same doctrine also serves to distinguish Christianity from all of the various cults that claim to be Christian. I am thinking here of cults like Mormonism (or the Church of Latter Day Saints) or Christian Science or Jehovah’s Witnesses. When you look at the various cults, the doctrine of the Trinity is almost like a yardstick that will measure whether or not a group is a legitimate Christian denomination and whether or not it has veered into some sort of a cultic heresy. Virtually every one of these cults will deny the doctrine of the Trinity. So the doctrine of the Trinity is extremely important in distinguishing Christianity from other monotheisms and also from Christian cults.

Unfortunately, many Christians find themselves very ill-equipped to explain or defend the doctrine of the Trinity. If the average Christian gets into a discussion with a Jehovah’s Witness who comes to his door, I fear that the average Christian will be wiped out by the Jehovah’s Witness. The Jehovah’s Witness will be so well trained that the poor Christian will be completely annihilated if he tries to defend the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, when you call upon Christians to explain what the doctrine of the Trinity is, a great many of them will actually turn out to be heretics! They will actually espouse a view which has been condemned by the Christian church at one or another council as being aberrant and not correct Christian doctrine. So there is a real need here, I think, for us to carefully understand and explore this doctrine.

This doctrine of the Trinity is unfortunately often obscured by Christians in mystery.1 Very often they will simply say that the doctrine of the Trinity is incomprehensible and no one can understand it; it is a mystery and thereby they excuse themselves from having to explain it or think about it. But I think that this is an unfortunate tendency because the doctrine of the Trinity is really not in any way logically incoherent or mysterious. The doctrine of the Trinity is not the doctrine that three Gods are somehow one God. That would be clearly self-contradictory – to say there are three Gods, and these are one God. Neither is it the claim that there are three persons who are somehow one person. That, again, would be self-contradictory – to assert that there are three persons who are all one person. But the doctrine of the Trinity does not assert that there are three Gods that are one God or three persons that are one person, but it asserts that there is one God who is tri-personal. It is one God who is three persons, or, to put it another way, there is one God who has three centers of self-consciousness: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

I think it is unfortunate that very often Christians will appeal to inadequate analogies to try to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. There is really no reason to expect that there would be any analogy to the doctrine of the Trinity. There is no reason to think that there has to be some created thing that would so reflect the nature of God that it would be a good analogy. Most of the analogies that are suggested are inadequate. For example, here is one popular analogy for the Trinity: One man can be a father, a son, and a husband. That is like the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit being one God. I am one man, but I am a father, I am a son, and I am a husband. So I am three-in-one. Well, that is not an adequate analogy for the Trinity because that one man simply has these three different roles, but there is only one person involved there. That is not the doctrine of the Trinity – that there is one person who functions in these three different roles. That is a heresy; that is not what the doctrine asserts. Sometimes it is said that water (H2O) can take the form of either liquid, steam, or ice. It can be either a liquid, a gas, or a solid. That is the way the Trinity is – the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are all the same in essence, like H2O, which can be in these three different forms – liquid, steam, or gas. Again, the problem is that the liquid, the steam, and the gas are simply different states of the same substance successively. You can have water being in these different states, but that is not the doctrine of the Trinity. This again is a form of what is called “modalism.” So I personally think that it is better just to eschew any of these analogies. I don’t think we need to have analogies to the Trinity. The doctrine is clear and logically coherent in what it states; namely, that there are three persons who constitute one God.

The way I like to think of it is in terms of self-consciousness. My being supports one center of self-consciousness which I call “I” – that is how I refer to myself. I am one being who is one person. I have this one center of self-consciousness. God is a being with three centers of self-consciousness – three “I”s. There is the Father, there is the Son, and there is the Holy Spirit. So just as I am one being with one center of self-consciousness, God is one being, but with three centers of self-consciousness. I think that is the easiest way to think about what the Trinity is. We will say more about this. This is just by way of introduction. But I want us to get a handle on what the doctrine of the Trinity affirms rather than what it does not.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not something that is explicitly taught in the Bible. The doctrine of the Trinity is a systematic summary of the biblical material concerning the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.2 Theologians take the raw data of Scripture and reflect on it and systematize it. The doctrine of the Trinity is the result of that reflective systematization of the raw material of Scripture. Therefore, it really doesn’t matter whether or not the word “Trinity” is found in the Bible. The name just isn’t germane. The question is whether the doctrine is one that is biblically faithful. Is this a faithful systematic summary of the biblical doctrine (whatever you call it)? If you didn’t call it “Trinity”, maybe you could have called it “Uni-Triad” or something. You could have had some other name. The name isn’t important, and therefore it is of little relevance whether or not the word “Trinity” is found in the Scripture. What is important is, does the doctrine faithfully represent and systematize the teaching of Scripture concerning the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?


Question: I remember reading from Wolfhart Pannenberg, your mentor, that the doctrine of the Trinity is not made explicit in the Scriptures, not even in Matthews’s baptismal formula; yet it says baptizing in the name (singular) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.3 That is not explicit?

Answer: Well, the doctrine of the Trinity that gets formulated in the great creeds, as we will see, uses certain Greek philosophical concepts like hypostasis, which is a kind of individual bearer of properties. It uses the word “nature” to describe God. The idea of three persons in one nature, I think, is what he is saying you don’t find Scriptural statements for. But I think that he would agree that that creedal formulation is a faithful expression of what is taught in Scripture. And the Matthean passage where Jesus says “baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” would be a good example of that kind of Scriptural data that needs to be summarized.

Followup: I thought so because you wouldn’t baptize in the name of God, a prophet, and a force. You wouldn’t call them one name [singular].

Answer: Yeah, “in the name of . . .” and then those three. Yeah, that’s right. You wouldn’t do it in the name of a force, a prophet, and God the Father, yes.

Question: I know we are trying to stay away from analogies, but there is an analogy I heard a long time ago, and I would like your opinion on whether or not it is a good enough one to use or if I should throw that out as well. It is the one with the sun itself. The plasma is like God the Father, and the Son is like the sun’s rays coming down to Earth, and then the chemicals that have an effect on the plants and trees is kind of like the Holy Spirit. They are kind of like the three different facets all in one. I have heard that a lot, and a lot of people have used that as an analogy. Do you think that is fair?

Answer: Well, the church fathers would often use the analogy of the sun and its rays as an analogy of the relationship between the Father and the Son. But the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to fit in there very well. These chemicals aren’t part of the sun, or they are not in any way, it seems to me, connected to the sun directly. So even if you think that works in explaining the relationship between the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to be naturally pulled into that analogy very well, I don’t think.

Followup: And were you the one who made the Avatar correlation? I heard that, but I couldn’t remember if that was you.

Answer: Yeah, but that was the Incarnation, not the Trinity. I do think that the Avatar movie gives a very good illustration of one person with two natures, which is a sort of mirror image of the Trinity, which says there are three persons with one nature. In the Incarnation, you have one person with two natures.

Question: While we are on the subject of analogies, years ago I heard you use the analogy of Cerberus to explain three persons with one being that I found really helpful.

Answer: I will mention that later on, when we get to giving a model for the Trinity. So hang onto that, and I will come back to that. I am glad you found it helpful; I always feel a little uncomfortable comparing the Trinity to a dog. But anyway we will come back to that later.4

Question: So, as far as the stated doctrine, it is implied that you have the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit all being referred to as God. So that is by implication rather than a stated doctrine, but if all three are referred to as God, that means they are all God in some fashion.

Answer: Yeah, exactly. That is what we will look at here in this next section. We are going to look at the Scriptural data that affirms with respect to each person that he is divine and that he is a distinct person. So the doctrine of the Trinity, as I say, is simply a systematic way of formulating what the biblical data say.

Question: The most difficult thing that we’ve run into – we do a lot of work with English-as-a-second-language people – is the translations that refer, always, that Jesus is the Son of God. That always throws everybody for a loop. Why does it say he is the Son of God, if he is God? Is that just translation problems?

Answer: No, that is in the Greek. Jesus is the Son of God. That is the way he is presented in the Gospels. We will talk more about this when we get to the section on Doctrine of Christ. So I don’t want to go on a detour on that now. But the “Son of God” language, in its Hebrew context, I think, was probably a way of asserting Jesus’ Messianic status – that he was the promised Messiah. Theologically, the church has taken Jesus’ being God’s Son to mean that the Son is begotten from the Father, that even in his divine nature, Christ is begotten of the Father from eternity. That gets enshrined in the Nicene Creed that we will talk about when we do look at what the Creed has to say about the Trinity. So we will touch on that; but more than that I don’t want to say at this point.

Question: Is it the Westminster Confession that says “one in essence and three in person?” Is there any difference between essence and nature?

Answer: No, I think essence and nature would be synonymous.

Followup: Because when you said there is no creative thing that can be analogical, we first have to explain what God is – which is not us, and it is not person; it is spirit.

Answer: Well, God is personal, and I think we should think of God as a mental substance. He is like a soul. The biblical view of man – and we will talk about this when we look at the Doctrine of Man –, is that you are not just a chemical composition on a skeleton. You have a soul – you are a soul. You are a soul with a body, and when your body dies, your soul continues. So the soul is a kind of spiritual or mental substance or thing. That, I think, is what God is. Jesus said, “God is spirit.” So he is an immaterial, non-physical, spiritual (or mental) substance.

Followup: That is the one way that we are able, in our ESL (English as a Second Language) to explain to someone what God is. All nations and all people understand this kind of spirit thing.

Answer: Right! And I think that is a very appropriate analogy. We understand ourselves as persons – as selves – and not just as physical material entities. That, I think, is a refection of the fact that we are made in the image of God.

Scriptural Data

Let’s begin to look at some of the Scriptural data on this subject.

There is One God

First and foremost, the Scripture teaches that there is one God. The biblical view is monotheism – there is only one God. Let’s look first at some Old Testament passages on the oneness of God.

First, from Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD and you shall serve the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” The hallmark of Jewish religious belief was monotheism.5 Yahweh, or God, is the only God there is. That is the first and foremost commandment.

Turn to 1 Kings 8:60 – this is Solomon’s benediction at the dedication of the temple. He prays “that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God; there is no other.” So there is no God apart from the God of Israel.

Isaiah 45:5a, 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, again, this is strong affirmation of monotheism. You might look at Isaiah 44 as well, which is Isaiah’s polemic against pagan polytheism, where he mocks idolaters and polytheists and asserts in very strong terms that there is only one God and that that God is the Lord.

This emphasis on Jewish monotheism carries right on through the New Testament. Look at the Gospel of Mark 12:29. Jesus is asked by one of the scribes what is the greatest commandment and “Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”’” So Jesus affirms characteristic Jewish monotheism. This is the greatest and first of the commandments – to honor God as the one God.

In Romans 3:29-30a, Paul says, “Or is God the God of Jews only?” That is to say, is he some sort of national deity that belongs just to the Hebrew nation? He continues, “Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one.” So there is one God who is the God of all humanity, even those that don’t acknowledge or worship him.

In 1 Corinthians 8:4, Paul says, “As to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that an idol has no real existence, and that there is no God but one.” So, again, Paul affirms that there is only one real God.

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

Finally, James 2:19, James says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder!” So the belief that God is one is a belief that is shared not only by Christians and Jews but also apparently by demons.

So both the Old Testament and New Testament are very explicit in teaching that there is only one God. The doctrine of the Trinity is not a form of tri-theism – saying that there are three Gods. That would be completely contrary to Scriptural teaching. Scriptural teaching is very clear that there is only one God.

What we will see next time is that although the Scripture teaches that there is only one God, it teaches that there are three distinct persons in the Godhead. That will be the Scriptural data that we will begin to explore next time.


1 4:57

2 10:04

3 cf. Matthew 28:19

4 15:04

5 20:04