Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Essential Doctrine of the Trinity

by Bruce Mills

I was recently asked to teach on the doctrine of the Trinity to a men’s discipleship group.  As I prepared for the lesson, I realized that there is, perhaps, no doctrine which causes as much general confusion among Christians as the doctrine of the Trinity.  Most Christians will very quickly tell you that they believe in the Trinity, but they haven’t the foggiest idea as to what it teaches or how to explain it.  In fact, when they try to explain what they believe this doctrine teaches, they often end up unwittingly falling into one of the many heresies that have arisen throughout the history of the church, such as modalism or Arianism.

Now, I will admit that the doctrine of the Trinity is an infinite mystery which is incomprehensible to the human mind, but the essential elements of the doctrine can be known based on their revelation in Scripture.  Every mature Christian ought to be able to explain the Trinity to a new Christian or an unbeliever.  Scripture calls us to be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).  If we can’t even give a limited, but accurate, explanation of the Trinity, then we are not obedient to the imperative to defend and explain the faith.

So what are the essential elements of the doctrine of the Trinity?  The Bible reveals several:

  1. There is one, and only one, true and living God.
  2. This one God eternally exists in three persons--God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
  3. Each of these three persons is of the same divine essence, and is not inferior or superior to the others in divine essence or attributes.
  4. While each person is fully and completely God, the persons are not identical.

The following diagram gives a pictorial representation of the above four propositions.


Let’s biblically analyze each proposition.

There is one, and only one, true and living God.  The classic Biblical passage to establish this claim can be found in Deuteronomy 6:4--“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!”  With that statement, the ancient Israelites established themselves as monotheistic.  This would set them apart from all of their neighbors who were polytheistic.

The monotheism of Israel is a strict monotheism; i.e., there is only one God and He is Yahweh (“I am the LORD, and there is no other; Besides Me there is no God” [Isa. 45:5]).  It is clear that Yahweh is claiming to be the one and only true and living God.

This one God eternally exists in three persons-God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This monotheistic God exists in three persons.  The key to understanding this is balance between unity and distinction within the divine being.  There is a unity in essence and a distinction in person (or function).

The best example found in Scripture of the plurality of persons within the Godhead is at the baptism of Jesus.  As Jesus is being baptized, we see the Spirit descending on him in the form of a dove and the voice of the Father speaking from heaven declaring his approval of the Son.  Other NT examples of plurality are the many uses of the Trinitarian formula in the epistles (e.g., 2 Cor. 13:14).  Finally, we have the famous baptismal formula used in the Great Commission in Matt. 28:20--“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Each of these three persons is of the same divine essence, and is not inferior or superior to the others in divine essence or attributes.  By this we mean that within the Godhead, there is a unity of substance or essence, so that each person is equal in every way to one another.  When theologians speak of God, they often refer to God’s attributes; those qualities of God that can be ascribed to him and define him.  Some examples of God’s attributes would be omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, holiness, justice, goodness, wisdom, knowledge, etc.  When we say that the three persons of the Trinity denote a unity in essence, we mean that they each fully possess attributes that can be predicated of God.

Since each member of the Godhead is wholly and completely equal in essence and attributes, this means that no member is intrinsically subordinate to any of the others.  All three persons of the Godhead are completely and eternally equal in every way.  The Son is divine in the same way and to the same extent as the Father, and this is true of the Holy Spirit as well. 

While each person is fully and completely God, the persons are not identical. This speaks to the distinctions within the Godhead.  The distinctions in the Godhead relate to function, not essence.  The function of one member of the Trinity may, for a time, be subordinate to one or both of the other members, but that does not mean He is in any way inferior in essence.  Each of the three persons of the Trinity has had, for a period of time, a particular function unique to Himself.  This is to be understood as a temporary role for the purpose of accomplishing a given end, not a change in His status or essence.  The Son did not become less than the Father during His earthly incarnation, but He did subordinate Himself functionally to the Father’s will.  Similarly, the Holy Spirit is now subordinated to the ministry of the Son as well as the will of the Father, but this does not imply that He is less than they are.

We see this hierarchy of function demonstrated in various ways.  In creation we see that God the Father speaks forth the creation, God the Son is the agent of creation (John 1:1-3) and that God the Holy Spirit superintends the creation (Genesis 1:2).  In salvation, it is God the Father who elects us unto salvation, it is God the Son who provides the atonement for salvation, and it is God the Holy Spirit who sanctifies those who have been elected and atoned for.

There are some common errors that arise in regard to the doctrine of the Trinity.  In general, all errors concerning the doctrine of the Trinity originate from an over-emphasis of one of the four points discussed above to the expense of the others.  Each of these four truths must be held with equal conviction in order to avoid error.

The first error to avoid is tritheism.  This error comes from an over-emphasis on the function of each of the three persons within the Godhead at the expense of their absolute equality.  In essence, tritheism asserts that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct gods.  This clearly contradicts the first proposition; namely, that there is one, and only one, true and living God. 

The second error to avoid is called modalism.  This is the opposite extreme of tritheism.  Modalism is an over-emphasis of the unity of God at the expense of the distinction of persons within the Godhead.  Modalism will teach that there is one and only one God who manifests himself at various times as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

The third and final error is Arianism (named after the 3rd century monk, Arius).  This error denies the third proposition by making the Son and Holy Spirit lesser created deities.  This is the heresy which is held by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In conclusion, the doctrine of the Trinity is not an easy doctrine to understand.  As I mentioned earlier, it cannot be completely comprehended by our finite human mind.  However, that doesn’t excuse us from our responsibility to gain as much of an understanding of this doctrine as is humanly possible.  The doctrine of the Trinity is an essential doctrine.  It is a revelation of God’s divine and mysterious nature, and we are commanded to worship the God who is and who reveals himself in Scripture.  In other words, to deny the Trinity is to fall outside the sphere of Christian orthodoxy and a failure to worship the true and living God.

1 comment:

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