“God In Three Persons, Blessed Trinity”

[NOTE: One of the things that has been lost in contemporary evangelicalism is how the theological richness of much of hymnody has historically contributed to catechesis. They weren’t just pretty tunes and fuzzy sentiments–they were tools for instruction in the church. I’ll always remember the line of one of my favorite hymns during my childhood, which says, “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity…”

Even as a child, I would ponder those profound words. Like hymnody and catechesis, the beautiful doctrine of the Trinity is underappreciated in our time. As such, I thought I’d share a paper that I wrote for seminary on the doctrine of the Trinity, provided below.

As I’ve written about before, “theology” essentially means “words about God.” As followers of Christ in the millennial generation, I hope that we can continue to speak about God ways that glorifies Him.]

Introduction

Various charges have been leveled at the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, such as the accusation that it is a logical contradiction and oxymoronic. A popular one that has surfaced, however, is that the word “Trinity” is nowhere to be found in the Bible, and that the doctrine itself owes more to the intrusion of Greek philosophical thought in the early church rather than Scripture. Some have claimed that Trinitarian formulations are the product of scholastics more concerned with creating theological propositions, but that it was not the concern of the biblical authors themselves. This brief paper will explore the various ways that demonstrate that though the word is not used in the Bible, Scripture is nonetheless littered with Trinitarian references.

 

What’s in a Name?

Though it is true that the word “Trinity” cannot be found in Scripture, the concept is definitely present in the text of Scripture. It is also true that while the biblical authors were not concerned with systematic categories per se, their writing reflected a view that can only be described as “Trinitarian”. At the center of this controversy is the question of whether Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit can claim “divinity” on the basis of scriptural testimony. One of the clearest passages that allude to this rich doctrine is Matthew 28:19, when Jesus commands the apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”. It should be pointed out that each agent shares the same name, as opposed to “names” (plural), thus hinting at a shared divinity.

In Judaism, the name of God (YHWH, or “Yahweh”), was considered sacred and holy—so much so that the Jews purportedly ceased to verbalize it in their tradition[1][2]. Thus for Jesus to claim to share the name of God would have been seen as nonsensical and outlandish, unless He claimed the title of divinity Himself. Yet this is what we repeatedly see in Scripture. Perhaps nowhere is this more blatant than in John 8:58, when Jesus (while arguing with other Jews, potentially Pharisees) claims, “Before Abraham was, I am!”, a reference to God’s name revealed to Moses at the burning bush (“Yahweh” is a reflection of the phrase “I AM”). It is no wonder why the Jews were ready to stone Him. They would have viewed such a statement as openly blasphemous—a sin punishable by death. Though the episode taken by itself is not conclusive (some claim), it is by no means an isolated incident, and it makes a robust case for Jesus’ divinity when considered alongside the rest of the textual evidence. The “I am” phrases themselves are repeated seven times in the Gospel of John, suggesting significance; and John has often been noted for its purportedly high ‘Christology’[3].

These sentiments are not limited to the gospels but are also reflected in the epistles of the Pauline corpus. Paul writes in Romans 10, “If you declare with our mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…” (verse 9). And then he continues by quoting the Old Testament prophet Joel when he writes, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (verse 13). The important thing to note is that although the Greek word kyrios[4] is translated as “lord”, the original Hebrew text written by Joel is, “And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD (YHWH, or ‘Yahweh’) will be saved” (Joel 2:32). This seems to strongly indicate once again that Jesus shares the same name, title, and privileges of the Jewish God YHWH, and is identified with Him by His earliest disciples. Furthermore, to “call upon the name of the LORD (‘Yahweh’) is a recurring phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures and is used to refer to the unique, covenantal relationship that God has with His covenant (chosen) people when they address Him[5]. In the New Testament, this theme is continued but with Jesus as the central focus.

Paul continues this theme in his letter to the Philippians, when he describes Jesus as “being in very nature [or ‘in the form of’] God” Himself (2:6). After poetically describing the Son’s incarnation, he goes on to describe Jesus as having been exalted so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (10-11). Again, this describes Jesus as having a privileged status that is above other human beings. He shares in the quality and worship of God.

Going back to the Gospels, when Jesus was asked by the Sanhedrin whether or not He is the Messiah in Mark 14:62, He responded in the affirmative before saying, “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” This was apparently enough to throw the high priest into a fit, because he had supposedly detected blasphemy. The late Muslim-turned-Christian apologist Nabeel Qureshi noted that Jesus was referencing the enigmatic figure of Daniel 7—“one like a son of man” who shares in the authority, sovereignty, dominion, and worship of God or “the Ancient of Days”[6]. Daniel writes, “…all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him”, echoing the sentiments of Paul in Philippians. Based on this use of language, the Sanhedrin must have recognized, as in John 5:18, that He was in effect “making Himself equal to God.”

Finally, Jesus’ divinity cannot be adequately defended without mention of the prologue of John (what is labeled as “chapter 1” in most of our translations), where Jesus is described as the logos (or “the Word”)—a philosophically loaded title (for lack of a better term) that was a concept familiar to the Greeks as the creative force behind the design of entire universe. Verse 1 explicitly states that “the Word was God”, and Jews would have similarly been familiar with the idea of God’s “Word” being the exercise of His sovereign actions in creating, sustaining, and governing the created order (this is especially true as the opening words of John echo that of Genesis: “In the beginning…”)[7].

The impartial reader can hopefully see that a strong case can be made for the divinity of Jesus Christ. But what about the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is often regarded as the “forgotten” person of the Trinity[8]. G.L. Bray, writing in The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, states, “The evidence for the divinity of the Holy Spirit is less obvious, but it is there nevertheless.”[9] For example, he notes that much like Jesus, the Spirit is referred to as “Lord” in 2 Corinthians 3:16 in such a manner that reflects the name of Yahweh.

In fact, “the Spirit of the Lord” was a common phrase used in the Old Testament writings to refer to the Lord Himself or an extension of His sovereign activity in creation. Turner, also writing for The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, argues, “The phrase ‘The Spirit of the Lord’ is thus a synecdoche for God himself in action (cf. ‘hand’, ‘finger’, and ‘arm’ of the Lord).”[10] Much like how the “Word of God” is often used when referring to Jesus, the “Spirit of God” is used to describe a facet of God that is attributed a sense of agency.

 

Trinity in Unity, and Unity in Trinity

Thus far we have demonstrated how Jesus and the Holy Spirit are attributed divinity in the Scriptures. It has yet to be demonstrated how all three “persons” relate to one another. The ancient Jewish religion had a robust understanding of the oneness of God, as can be seen in the shema prayer of Deuteronomy 6:4 (“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is One”). For the early Christians, their understanding of God must have required some nuance in order to understand each Person within the rubric of ancient Jewish monotheism. How are we to understand that there is one God if there appear to be three distinct agents and persons?

Qureshi, who used to engage in Muslim polemics against Christian apologists, demonstrates how the doctrine of the Trinity does not violate the law of non-contradiction in his book No God But One[11]. In it, he distinguishes between “being” and “persons”. The trinitarian claim would be a logical contradiction if it posited that God is “one person and three persons” at the same time, or “one being and three beings” simultaneously. However, that is not the case. Rather, the trinitarian claim is that the one God is “one Being and three Persons”. This means that we must radically change our understanding of personhood when speaking about God based on the biblical data, which seems to point to the concept of distinctions within God.

The principal text supporting this claim can be found in the baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3:13-17. The Father says of Jesus, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased” as the Spirit falls on Him. There are three distinct agents acting, and yet we have already demonstrated how each Person was a manifestation of the one God. This distinction between Persons can be observed throughout the New Testament; for example, when Jesus prays to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26) or during His cry of dereliction (Matthew 27).

The early church fathers, recognizing this distinction between Persons within God, were at pains to develop language that could adequately describe this reality, all the while remaining within the confines of orthodoxy[12]. “Theology”, after all, means “words about God”; and so it would behoove us to speak about God rightly, as did the early church[13].

As noted in the introduction, some have levelled the accusation that the church fathers make cavalier use of Greek philosophical ideas and categories that are absent from Scripture. This was undoubtedly done simply because people were making irresponsible use of these categories. Trinitarian formulations arose in response to explicit heresies that were coming to the fore within the early church. This gave birth to the creeds of the early church.

Recognizing the divinity of the one God shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the early church decided to use the Greek term homoousion in their descriptions of the three Persons[14]. Homoousion means “substance” or “essence”, and was meant to signify that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are of the same “substance” or “essence”. In other words, all three share in their “God-ness”, because (as demonstrated) all three are God. Though the same phraseology is not found in the Bible,  the concept is undoubtedly there.

Finally, it should also be noted that some of the language of Trinitarian formulation is taken explicitly from the Bible. For example, the Son is described by the patristics as “eternally begotten”. This language is taken out of the Gospel of John (1:14, 1:18, 3:16, 3:18), which describes Jesus as God’s “only begotten Son” in some translations. However, the same book also describes the eternality of Jesus as the eternal Word (logos), and so the phrase “eternally begotten” was used. C.S. Lewis in his seminal work Mere Christianity explains that this is not with respect to time, as if there the Son could be said to have had a ‘beginning’ (or, as the heretic Arius put it, “there was a time when he was not”), but that He is truly eternally begotten[15]. This is why the Nicene Creed emphasizes that the Son was “begotten, not made” [emphasis added] to ensure the Creator-creature distinction. The Son was never “made” or created and thus cannot be classified as a creature.

Similarly, the language used by the fathers to describe the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the other two Persons is taken directly from the Bible. The Holy Spirit is said to be “proceeding” from the Father, which is language taken from John 15:26—“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me” [emphasis added]. There are literally centuries of debate between Eastern and Western Christianity as to whether or not the Holy Spirit proceeds also “from the Son” (in Greek, filioque). Such a topic is beyond the scope of this short paper.

 

Conclusion

This paper has demonstrated at length that though the word “Trinity” is an extra-biblical word, the concept is not. All the raw material is present within the witness of Scripture to formulate Trinitarian doctrine. The early church had the wisdom to do so using the linguistic categories pertinent to their time period and cultural context.

First, we explored how each Person of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) claims the title of “God”. Then, we demonstrated how though each is worshiped as God, they are also distinct in their Personhood. Finally, we demonstrated how he early church formulated Trinitarian doctrine by drawing from the insights of Scripture.

One final note should be made: that contrary to popular opinion and far from the notion of ivory tower theologians, theology and doctrine is meant for the edification of believers. The ancient Christian creeds were meant precisely for the teaching and catechesis of those desiring to be in union with the covenant people of God—the greater Christian community, or global church. Likewise, the doctrine of the Trinity is meant precisely for that reason—to join the witness of the church in “speaking rightly” about our God. As one early Baptist confession puts it, “…we worship and adore a Trinity in Unity; and Unity in Trinity, three Persons, and but one God; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our Communion with God, and comfortable Dependence on him.”[16] Amen.

Image result for trinity

[1] Gerald L. Bray “God.” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (2000): 513.

[2] John Mark Comer, “God Has a Name” Zondervan 2017

[3] Nabeel Qureshi,  “No God But One.” Zondervan (2016): 214.

[4] I. Howard Marshall “Jesus Christ.” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (2000): 601.

[5] Gary Millar, “Calling on the Name of the Lord: A biblical theology of prayer” InterVarsity Press, 2016

[6] Qureshi,  “No God But One.” 218-220

[7] B.M. Fanning, “Word”, The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 848-853

[8] Francis Chan. Forgotten God: Reversing our tragic neglect of the Holy Spirit. David C Cook, 2009.

[9] Bray, “God”, 515

[10] Turner, “Holy Spirit”, 558

[11] Ibid. 64-69

[12] Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative. (Crossway, 2012)

[13] Keith L. Johnson, “Theology as Discipleship”. InterVarsity Press, 2015.

[14] Trueman, Imperative, 92-97

[15] Clive Staples Lewis. Mere christianity. Zondervan, 2001 (republished).

[16] Thomas Monck, An Orthodox Creed, 1679 (reprinted by Pen & Spirit Publishing, 2018)

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