In my last column, I referenced the basic fabric out of which a doctrine of the Trinity can be woven. That fabric can be reduced to the following seven statements. The first three confess the name of the Triune God:
1. The Father is God.
2. The Son is God.
3. The Holy Spirit is God.
The next three statements affirm that a distinction must be made between the three persons of the Trinity. That is, there is not merely one God who changes roles like a chameleon.
4. The Father is not the Son.
5. The Son is not the Spirit.
6. The Spirit is not the Father.
The final statement sums up the distinctive logic/arithmetic of the Trinity:
7. There is one God.1
The challenge, of course, is how to put the pieces together. For the early Christians, the final statement, “there is one God,” was a “no brainer.”
The difficulty was what to do with the fact that the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God, statements 1-3. Ultimately, Christ’s life, death and resurrection demanded the recognition that the God of the Old Testament was more complex than anyone had imagined.
The fact that the early church referred to Jesus as Lord (kurios) indicated that Jesus existed as ruler and authority over all creatures and over all creation. By calling Jesus “Lord,” the early Christians were attributing the sovereignty, honor and glory due God alone to Jesus.
The Holy Spirit was obviously divine but rather than envisioning an impersonal entity, the Spirit was considered a person that engaged in personal activities.
Therefore, the one God revealed himself and relates to His creation as Father, Son and Spirit, three persons of undivided substance. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of understanding the Trinity involves the meaning of “person.”
When we think “person” in our contemporary world, we think of an individual with a sense of distinct, private consciousness. If personhood indicates individuality, then how could three individuals form a unity?
In reality, our personhood is always defined in relationship to others. So it is with the three persons of God. The Father, Son and Spirit exist in mutual, reciprocal relationships with each other, three coequal and coeternal divine persons. Thus, “the oneness of God is not a oneness of three isolated persons, but the oneness of three persons who permeate and pervade each other’s being.”2
This brief article is only a beginning. Neither time nor space exists to fully “define” the three-in-one God. But the mystery reminds us that God and His ways are far above our understanding.
The mystery also reminds me that no theologian is worthy of Him. Ultimately, we are all left looking to God with wonder and awe: “God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity.”
1Phillip Carey, “The Logic of Trinitarian Debate,” in Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship Bulletin, Sept/Oct 1995: pg. 2. Carey extracted these seven propositions from Augustine’s summary of the doctrine of the Trinity in his On Christian Doctrine 1:5.
2Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 119.