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The Trinity in Christian Theology

The Trinity

In the doctrine of the Trinity, we encounter one of the truly distinctive doctrines of Christianity. Among the religions of the world, the Christian faith is unique in making the claim that God is one and yet there are three who are God. Although it seems on the surface to be a self-contradictory doctrine and is not overtly or explicitly stated in Scripture, nevertheless, devout minds have been led to it as they sought to do justice to the witness of Scripture.

The doctrine of the Trinity is crucial for Christianity. It is concerned with who God is, what he is like, how he works, and how he is to be approached. Moreover, the question of the deity of Jesus Christ, which has historically been a point of great tension, is very much wrapped up with our understanding of the Trinity.

The position we take on the Trinity will also answer several questions of a practical nature. Whom are we to worship—Father only, Son, Holy Spirit, or the Triune God? To whom are we to pray? Is the work of each to be considered in isolation from the work of the others, or may we think of the atoning death of Jesus as somehow the work of the Father as well? Should the Son be thought of as the Father’s equal in essence, or should he be relegated to a somewhat lesser status?

Formulating a position on the Trinity is a genuine exercise in systematic theology, calling forth all the skills discussed in the opening chapters. Since the Trinity is not explicitly taught in Scripture, we will have to put together complementary themes, draw inferences from biblical teachings, and decide on a particular type of conceptual vehicle to express our understanding. In addition, because the formulation of the doctrine has had a long and complex history, we will have to evaluate past constructions against the background of their period and culture, and to enunciate the doctrine in a way that will be similarly appropriate for our age.

We will begin our study of the Trinity by examining the biblical basis of the doctrine, since this is fundamental to all else that we do here. Then we will examine various historical statements of the doctrine, noting particular emphases, strengths, and weaknesses. Finally, we will formulate our own statement for today, attempting to illustrate and clarify its tenets in such a way as to make it meaningful for our time.

The Biblical Teaching

There are three separate but interrelated types of evidence: evidence for the unity of God—that God is one; evidence that there are three persons who are God; and, finally, indications or at least intimations of the three-in-oneness.

The Oneness of God

The religion of the ancient Hebrews was a rigorously monotheistic faith, as indeed the Jewish religion is to this day. The unity of God was revealed to Israel at several different times and in various ways. The Ten Commandments, for example, begin with the statement, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me [or besides me]” (Exod. 20:2–3). The Hebrew translated here as “before me” or “besides me” is עַל־פָּנׇי (‘al-panai), which means literally “to my face.” God had demonstrated his unique reality by what he had done, and thus was entitled to Israel’s exclusive worship, devotion, and obedience. No others had so proven their claim to deity.

The prohibition of idolatry, the second commandment (v. 4), also rests on the uniqueness of Jehovah. He will not tolerate any worship of humanly constructed objects, for he alone is God. The rejection of polytheism runs throughout the Old Testament. God repeatedly demonstrates his superiority to other claimants to deity. It could, of course, be maintained that this does not conclusively prove that the Old Testament requires monotheism. It might simply be the case that it is the other gods (i.e., the gods of other nations) who are rejected by the Old Testament, but that there is more than one true God of the Israelites. In answer we need point out only that it is clearly assumed throughout the Old Testament that there is but one God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not many (e.g., Exod. 3:13–15).

A clearer indication of the oneness of God is the Shema of Deuteronomy 6, the great truths of which the people of Israel were commanded to absorb themselves and to inculcate into their children. They were to meditate on these teachings (“These commandments … are to be upon your hearts,” v. 6). They were to talk about them—at home and on the road, when lying down and when arising (v. 7). They were to use visual aids to call attention to them—wearing them on their hands and foreheads, and writing them on the doorframes of their houses and on their gates. One is an indicative, a declarative statement; the other an imperative or command. “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (v. 4). While there are various legitimate translations of the Hebrew here, all alike emphasize the unique, unmatched deity of Jehovah. The second great truth God wanted Israel to learn and teach is a command based on his uniqueness: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (v. 5). Because he is one, there was to be no division of Israel’s commitment. After the Shema (Deut. 6:4–5), the commands of Exodus 20 are virtually repeated. In positive terms God’s people are told: “Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name” (Deut. 6:13). In negative terms they are told: “Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you” (v. 14). God is clearly one God, precluding the possibility that any of the gods of the surrounding peoples could be real and thereby worthy of service and devotion (cf. Exod. 15:11; Zech. 14:9).

The teaching regarding God’s oneness is not restricted to the Old Testament. James 2:19 commends belief in one God, while noting its insufficiency for justification. Paul also underscores the uniqueness of God. The apostle writes as he discusses the eating of meat that had been offered to idols: “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one … the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Cor. 8:4, 6). Here Paul, like the Mosaic law, excludes idolatry on the grounds that there is only one God. Similarly, Paul writes to Timothy: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men” (1 Tim. 2:5–6). While on the surface these verses seem to distinguish Jesus from the only God, the Father, the primary thrust of the former reference is that God alone is truly God (idols are nothing); and the primary thrust of the latter is that there is but one God, and that there is only one mediator between God and humans.

The Deity of Three

All this evidence, if taken by itself, would no doubt lead us to a basically monotheistic belief. What, then, moved the church beyond this evidence? It was the additional biblical witness to the effect that three persons are God. The deity of the first, the Father, is scarcely in dispute. In addition to the references in Paul’s writings just cited (1 Cor. 8:4, 6; 1 Tim. 2:5–6), we may note the cases where Jesus refers to the Father as God. In Matthew 6:26, he indicates that “your heavenly Father feeds [the birds of the air].” In a parallel statement that follows shortly thereafter he indicates that “God clothes the grass of the field” (v. 30). And in verses 31–32 he states that we need not ask about what we shall eat or drink or wear because “your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” It is apparent that, for Jesus, “God” and “your heavenly Father” are interchangeable expressions. And in numerous other references to God, Jesus obviously has the Father in mind (e.g., Matt. 19:23–26; 27:46; Mark 12:17, 24–27).

Somewhat more problematic is the status of Jesus as deity, yet Scripture also identifies him as God. (Since the topic of Jesus’ divinity will be developed in the section on Christology [Chap. 33], we will not go into great detail here.) A key reference to the deity of Christ Jesus is found in Philippians 2. In verses 5–11 Paul has taken what was in all likelihood a hymn of the early church and used it as the basis of an appeal to his readers to practice humility. He speaks of Christ Jesus “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (v. 6). The word here often translated “form” is μορφή (morphē). This term in classical Greek as well as in biblical Greek means “the set of characteristics which constitutes a thing what it is.” It denotes the genuine nature of a thing. The word μορφή contrasts with σχῆμα (schēma), which is also generally translated “form,” but in the sense of shape or superficial appearance rather than substance.

For Paul, an orthodox Jew trained in the rabbinic teaching of strict Judaism, verse 6 is indeed an astonishing statement. Reflecting the faith of the early church, it suggests a deep commitment to the full deity of Christ. This commitment is indicated not only by the use of μορφή, but by the expression “equality [ ἴσα—isa] with God.” It is generally held that the thrust of verse 6 is that Jesus possessed equality with God, but did not attempt to hold on to it. Some have argued, however, that Jesus did not possess equality with God; the thrust of this verse is, then, that Jesus neither coveted nor aspired to equality with God. Thus, ἁρπαγμόν (harpagmon—“a thing to be grasped”) should not be interpreted as “a thing to cling to,” but “a thing to seize.” On the contrary, however, verse 7 indicates that he “emptied himself” (ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν—heauton ekenōsen). While Paul does not specify of what Jesus emptied himself, it is apparent that this was an active step of self-abnegation, not a passive declining to take action. Hence equality with God is something he antecedently possessed. And one who is equal with God must be God.1

Another significant passage is Hebrews 1. The author, whose identity is unknown to us, is writing to a group of Hebrew Christians. He (or she) makes several statements that strongly imply the full deity of the Son. In the opening verses, as the writer (who will hereafter be referred to with the masculine personal pronoun) argues that the Son is superior to the angels, he notes that God has spoken through the Son, appointed him heir of all things, and made the universe through him (v. 2). He then describes the Son as the “radiance [ἀπαύγασμα—apaugasma] of God’s glory” and the “exact representation of his being” (χαρακὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως—charaktēr tēs hupostaseōs). While it could perhaps be maintained that this affirms only that God revealed himself through the Son, rather than that the Son is God, the context suggests otherwise. In addition to identifying himself as the Father of the one whom he here calls Son (v. 5), God is quoted in verse 8 (from Ps. 45:6) as addressing the Son as “God” and in verse 10 as “Lord” (from Ps. 102:25). The writer concludes by noting that God said to the Son, “Sit at my right hand” (from Ps. 110:1). It is significant that the Scripture writer addresses Hebrew Christians, who certainly would be steeped in monotheism, in ways that undeniably affirm the deity of Jesus and his equality with the Father.

A final consideration is Jesus’ own self-consciousness. We should note that Jesus never directly asserted his deity. Yet several threads of evidence suggest that this is indeed how he understood himself. He claimed to possess what properly belongs only to God. He spoke of the angels of God (Luke 12:8–9; 15:10) as his angels (Matt. 13:41). He regarded the kingdom of God (Matt. 12:28; 19:14, 24; 21:31, 43) and the elect of God (Mark 13:20) as his own. Further, he claimed to forgive sins (Mark 2:8–10). The Jews recognized that only God can forgive sins, and they consequently accused Jesus of blasphemy (βλασφημία—blasphēmia). He also claimed the power to judge the world (Matt. 25:31) and to reign over it (Matt. 24:30; Mark 14:62).

Further, we may note how Jesus responded both to those who accused him of claiming deity and to those who sincerely attributed divinity to him. At his trial, the accusation brought against him was that he claimed to be the Son of God (John 19:7; Matt. 26:63–65). If Jesus did not regard himself as God, here was a splendid opportunity for him to correct a mistaken impression. Yet this he did not do. In fact, at his trial before Caiaphas he came as close as he ever did to affirming his own deity. For he responded to the charge, “Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God,” by stating, “Yes, it is as you say.… But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:63–65). Either he desired to be put to death on a false charge, or he did understand himself to be the Son of God. Moreover, when Thomas addressed Jesus as “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28), Jesus did not disavow the appellation.

There also are biblical references that identify the Holy Spirit as God. Here we may note that there are passages where references to the Holy Spirit occur interchangeably with references to God. One example of this is Acts 5:3–4. Ananias and Sapphira held back a portion of the proceeds from the sale of their property, misrepresenting what they laid at the apostles’ feet as the entirety. Here, lying to the Holy Spirit (v. 3) is equated with lying to God (v. 4). The Holy Spirit is also described as having the qualities and performing the works of God. The Holy Spirit convicts people of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8–11) and regenerates or gives new life (John 3:8). In 1 Corinthians 12:4–11, we read that it is the Spirit who conveys gifts to the church and who exercises sovereignty over who receives those gifts. In addition, he receives the honor and glory reserved for God.

In 1 Corinthians 3:16–17, Paul reminds believers that they are God’s temple and his Spirit dwells within them. In chapter 6, he says that their bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit within them (vv. 19–20). “God” and “Holy Spirit” seem to be interchangeable expressions. Also in several places the Holy Spirit is put on an equal footing with God. One is the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19; a second is the Pauline benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14; finally, in 1 Peter 1:2, Peter addresses his readers as “chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood.”


On the surface, these two lines of evidence—God’s oneness and threeness—seem contradictory. In the earliest years of its existence the church did not have much opportunity to study the relationship between these two sets of data. The process of organizing itself and propagating the faith and even the struggle for survival in a hostile world precluded much serious doctrinal reflection. As the church became more secure, however, it began attempting to fit together these two types of material. It concluded that God must be understood as three-in-one, or in other words, triune. At this point we must pose the question whether this doctrine is explicitly taught in the Bible, is suggested by the Scripture, or is merely an inference drawn from other teachings of the Bible.

One text that has traditionally been appealed to as documenting the Trinity is 1 John 5:7, that is, as it is found in earlier versions such as the King James: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” Here is, apparently, a clear and succinct statement of the three-in-oneness. Unfortunately, however, the textual basis is so weak that some recent translations (e.g., NIV) include this statement only in an italicized footnote, and others omit it altogether (e.g., RSV). If there is a biblical basis for the Trinity, it must be sought elsewhere.

The plural form of the noun for the God of Israel, אֱלֹהִים (‘elohim), is sometimes regarded as an intimation of a trinitarian view. This is a generic name used to refer to other gods as well. When used with reference to Israel’s God, it is generally, but not always, found in the plural. Some would argue that here is a hint of the plural nature of God. The plural form is commonly interpreted, however, as an indication of majesty or intensity rather than of multiplicity within God’s nature. Theodorus Vriezen thinks that the plural form is intended to elevate the referent to the status of a general representative of the class and accordingly rejects the idea that the doctrine of the Trinity is implied in Genesis 1:26.2 Walter Eichrodt believes that in using the plural of majesty the writer of Genesis intended to preserve his cosmogony from any trace of polytheistic thought and at the same time to represent the Creator God as the absolute ruler and the only being whose will carries any weight.3

The interpretation of ‘elohim as a plural of majesty is by no means unanimously held by recent Old Testament scholarship, however. In 1953, G. A. F. Knight argued against it in a monograph entitled A Biblical Approach to the Doctrine of the Trinity. He maintained that to make ‘elohim a plural of majesty is to read into ancient Hebrew a modern way of thinking, since the kings of Israel and Judah are all addressed in the singular in our biblical records.4 While rejecting the plural of majesty, Knight pointed out that there is, nonetheless, a peculiarity in Hebrew that will help us understand the term in question. The words for water and heaven (among others) are both plural. Grammarians have termed this phenomenon the quantitative plural. Water may be thought of in terms of individual raindrops or of a mass of water such as is found in the ocean. Knight asserted that this quantitative diversity in unity is a fitting way of understanding the plural ‘elohim. He also believed that this explains why the singular noun אֲדֹנׇי (‘adonai) is written as a plural.5

There are other plural forms as well. In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make man in our image.” Here the plural appears both in the verb “let us make” and in the possessive suffix “our.” In Genesis 11:7 there is also a plural verb form: “Let us go down and confuse their language.” When Isaiah was called, he heard the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (Isa. 6:8). The objection has been raised that these are plurals of majesty. What is significant, however, from the standpoint of logical analysis is the shift from singular to plural in the first and third of these examples. Genesis 1:26 actually says, “Then God said [singular], ‘Let us make [plural] man in our [plural] image.’ ” The Scripture writer does not use a plural (of majesty) verb with ‘elohim, but God is quoted as using a plural verb with reference to himself. Similarly, Isaiah 6:8 reads: “Whom shall I send [singular]? And who will go for us [plural]?”

The teaching regarding the image of God in man has also been viewed as an intimation of the Trinity. Genesis 1:27 reads:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

Some would argue that what we have here is a parallelism not merely in the first two, but in all three lines. Thus, “male and female he created them” is equivalent to “So God created man in his own image” and to “in the image of God he created him.” On this basis, the image of God in man (generic) is to be found in the fact that man has been created male and female (i.e., plural).6 This means that the image of God must consist in a unity in plurality, a characteristic of both the ectype and the archetype. According to Genesis 2:24, man and woman are to become one (אֶחָד—‘echad); a union of two separate entities is entailed. It is significant that the same word is used of God in the Shema: “The LORD our God, the LORD is one [אֶחָד]” (Deut. 6:4). It seems that something is being affirmed here about the nature of God—he is an organism, that is, a unity of distinct parts.

In several places in Scripture the three persons are linked together in unity and apparent equality. One of these is the baptismal formula as prescribed in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19–20): baptizing in (or into) the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Note that “name” is singular, although three persons are included. Note also that there is no suggestion of inferiority or subordination. This formula became part of a very early tradition in the church—it is found in the Didache (7.1–4) and in Justin’s Apology (1.61).

Yet another direct linking of the three names in unity and apparent equality is the Pauline benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14—“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

In both the Gospels and the Epistles there are linkages of the three persons which are not quite as direct and explicit. The angel tells Mary that her child will be called holy, the Son of God, because the Holy Spirit will come upon her (Luke 1:35). At the baptism of Jesus (Matt. 3:16–17), all three persons of the Trinity are present. The Son is baptized, the Spirit of God descends like a dove, and the Father speaks words of commendation of the Son. Jesus relates his doing of miracles to the power of the Spirit of God, and indicates that this is evidence that the kingdom of God has come (Matt. 12:28). The threefold pattern can also be seen in Jesus’ statement that he will send the promise of the Father upon the disciples (Luke 24:49). Peter’s message at Pentecost also links all three: “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.… Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:33, 38).

In 1 Corinthians 12:4–6 Paul speaks of the conferring of special endowments upon believers within the body of Christ: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.” In a soteriological context he says: “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba! Father’ ” (Gal. 4:6). Paul speaks of his own ministry in terms of “the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:16). And Paul relates the several steps in the process of salvation to the various persons of the Trinity: “Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit” (2 Cor. 1:21–22). Similarly, Paul addresses the Thessalonians as “brothers loved by the Lord,” and indicates that he always gives thanks for them because “from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13–14). We might also mention here the benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14 and Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14–19.

It is obvious that Paul saw a very close relationship among the three persons. And so did the writers of other epistles. Peter begins his first letter by addressing his readers as the exiles of the dispersion “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood” (1 Peter 1:1–2). Jude urges his readers: “build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (vv. 20–21).

A more subtle indication of Paul’s trinitarian view is the way in which he organizes some of his books. Thus the form as well as the content of his writings communicates his belief in the Trinity. Arthur Wainwright has developed this at some length.7 He outlines Romans in part as follows:

  • The judgment of God upon all (1:18–3:20)
  • Justification through faith in Christ (3:21–8:1)
  • Life in the Spirit (8:2–30)
  • Part of Galatians follows a similar pattern:
  • Justification through faith in Christ (3:1–29)
  • Adoption into sonship through the redemption wrought by Christ and the sending of the Spirit (4:1–7)
  • The bondage of the law and the freedom given by Christ (4:8–5:15)
  • Life in the Spirit (5:16–6:10)

The same is true of 1 Corinthians. It is apparent that the Trinity was a very significant part of Paul’s conception of the gospel and the Christian life.

It is in the Fourth Gospel that the strongest evidence of a coequal Trinity is to be found. The threefold formula appears again and again: 1:33–34; 14:16, 26; 16:13–15; 20:21–22 (cf. 1 John 4:2, 13–14). The interdynamics among the three persons comes through repeatedly, as George Hendry has observed.8 The Son is sent by the Father (14:24) and comes forth from him (16:28). The Spirit is given by the Father (14:16), is sent from the Father (14:26), and proceeds from the Father (15:26). Yet the Son is closely involved in the coming of the Spirit: he prays for his coming (14:16); the Father sends the Spirit in the Son’s name (14:26); the Son will send the Spirit from the Father (15:26); the Son must go away so that he can send the Spirit (16:7). The Spirit’s ministry is understood as a continuation and elaboration of that of the Son. He will bring to remembrance what the Son has said (14:26); he will bear witness to the Son (15:26); he will declare what he hears from the Son, thus glorifying the Son (16:13–14).

The prologue of the Gospel also contains material rich in significance for the doctrine of the Trinity. John says in the first verse of the book: “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (ὁ λόγος ὴν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ὴν ὁ λόγος—ho logos ēn pros ton theon, kai theos ēn ho logos). Here is an indication of the divinity of the Word; note how the difference in word order between the first and second clauses serves to accentuate “God” (or “divine”). Here also we find the idea that while the Son is distinct from the Father, yet there is fellowship between them, for the preposition πρός does not connote merely physical proximity to the Father, but an intimacy of fellowship as well.

There are other ways in which this Gospel stresses the closeness and unity between the Father and the Son. Jesus says, “I and the Father are one” (10:30), and “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). He prays that his disciples may be one as he and the Father are one (17:21).

Our conclusion from the data we have just examined: Although the doctrine of the Trinity is not expressly asserted, Scripture, particularly the New Testament, contains so many suggestions of the deity and unity of the three persons that we can understand why the church formulated the doctrine, and conclude that they were right in so doing.

Historical Constructions

As we have observed earlier, during the first two centuries A.D. there was little conscious attempt to wrestle with the theological and philosophical issues of what we now term the doctrine of the Trinity. We find the use of the triadic formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but relatively little attempt to expound or explain it. Such thinkers as Justin and Tatian stressed the unity of essence between the Word and the Father and used the imagery of the impossibility of separating light from its source, the sun. In this way they illustrated that, while the Word and the Father are distinct, they are not divisible or separable.9

The “Economic” View of the Trinity

In Hippolytus and Tertullian, we find the development of an “economic” view of the Trinity. They made little attempt to explore the eternal relations among the three; rather, they concentrated on the ways in which the Triad were manifested in creation and redemption. While creation and redemption showed the Son and the Spirit to be other than the Father, they were also regarded as inseparably one with him in his eternal being. Like the mental functions of a human being, God’s reason, that is, the Word, was regarded as being immanently and indivisibly with him.

In Tertullian’s view, there are three manifestations of the one God. Although they are numerically distinct, so that they can be counted, they are nonetheless manifestations of a single indivisible power. There is a distinction (distinctio) or distribution (dispositio), not a division or separation (separatio). As illustrations of the unity within the Godhead, Tertullian points to the unity between a root and its shoot, a source and its river, the sun and its light. The Father, Son, and Spirit are one identical substance; this substance has been extended into three manifestations, but not divided.10

By way of a quick evaluation, we note that there is something of a vagueness about this view of the Trinity. Any effort to come up with a more exact understanding of just what it means will prove disappointing.

Dynamic Monarchianism

In the late second and third centuries, two attempts were made to come up with a precise definition of the relationship between Christ and God. Both views have been referred to as monarchianism (literally, “sole sovereignty”), since they stress the uniqueness and unity of God, but only the latter claimed the designation for itself. An examination of these two theologies will help us better understand the view on which orthodox Christianity finally settled.

The originator of dynamic monarchianism was a Byzantine leather merchant named Theodotus, who introduced it to Rome about A.D. 190. In many areas of doctrine, such as divine omnipotence, the creation of the world, and even the virgin birth of Jesus, Theodotus was fully orthodox. He maintained, however, that prior to baptism Jesus was an ordinary man, although a completely virtuous one. At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit, or Christ, descended on him, and from that time on he performed miraculous works of God. Some of Theodotus’s followers maintained that Jesus actually became divine at this point or after the resurrection, but Theodotus himself denied this. Jesus was an ordinary man, inspired but not indwelt by the Spirit.11

A later representative of this type of teaching was Paul of Samosata, who propounded his views early in the second half of the third century and was condemned at the synod of Antioch in 268. He claimed that the Word (the Logos) was not a personal, self-subsistent entity; that is, Jesus Christ was not the Word. Rather, the term refers to God’s commandment and ordinance. God ordered and accomplished what he willed through the man Jesus. This is the meaning of “Logos.” If there is one common element between the views of Theodotus and Paul of Samosata, it is that God was dynamically present in the life of the man Jesus. There was a working or force of God on or in or through the man Jesus, but there was no real substantive presence of God within him. Dynamic monarchianism was never a widespread, popular movement. It had a rationalist appeal, and tended to be a rather isolated phenomenon.12

Modalistic Monarchianism

By contrast, modalistic monarchianism was a fairly widespread, popular teaching. Whereas dynamic monarchianism seemed to deny the doctrine of the Trinity, modalism appeared to affirm it. Both varieties of monarchianism desired to preserve the doctrine of the unity of God. Modalism, however, was also strongly committed to the full deity of Jesus. Since the term Father was generally regarded as signifying the Godhead itself, any suggestion that the Word or Son was somehow other than the Father upset the modalists. It seemed to them to be a case of bitheism.

Among the names associated with modalism are Noetus of Smyrna, who was active in the latter part of the second century; Praxeas (this may actually be a nickname meaning “busybody” for an unidentified churchman), whom Tertullian combated early in the third century;13 and Sabellius, who wrote and taught early in the third century. It was Sabellius who developed this doctrinal conception in its most complete and sophisticated form.

The essential idea of this school of thought is that there is one Godhead which may be variously designated as Father, Son, or Spirit. The terms do not stand for real distinctions, but are merely names that are appropriate and applicable at different times. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are identical—they are successive revelations of the same person. The modalistic solution to the paradox of threeness and oneness was, then, not three persons, but one person with three different names, roles, or activities.14

Another basic idea expressed by modalism was that the Father suffered along with Christ, since he was actually present in and personally identical with the Son. This idea, labeled “patripassianism,” was considered heretical and was one of the factors leading to the rejection of modalism. (It may well be that the chief reason for the repudiation of patripassianism was not its conflict with the biblical revelation, but with the Greek philosophical conception of impassibility.15)

Modalistic monarchianism was a genuinely unique, original, and creative conception, and is in some ways a brilliant breakthrough. Both the unity of the Godhead and the deity of all three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are preserved. Yet the church in assessing this theology deemed it lacking in some significant respects. In particular, the fact that the three occasionally appear simultaneously on the stage of biblical revelation proved to be a major stumbling block to this view. Some of the trinitarian texts noted earlier proved troublesome. The baptismal scene, where the Father speaks to the Son, and the Spirit descends on the Son, is an example, together with all those passages where Jesus speaks of the coming of the Spirit, or speaks of or to the Father. If modalism is accepted, Jesus’ words and actions in these passages must be regarded as misleading. Consequently, the church, although some of its officials and even Popes Zephyrinus and Callistus I toyed with the ideas of modalism for a time, came eventually to reject it as insufficient to account for the full range of biblical data.

The Orthodox Formulation

The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity was enunciated in a series of debates and councils that were in large part prompted by the controversies sparked by such movements as monarchianism and Arianism. The Council of Constantinople (381) formulated a definitive statement in which the church made explicit the beliefs previously held implicitly. The view that prevailed was basically that of Athanasius (293–373), as elaborated and refined by the Cappadocian theologians—Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa.

The formula that expresses the position of Constantinople is “one οὐσία (ousia) in three ὑποστάσεις (hupostaseis).” The emphasis often seems to be more on the latter part of the formula, that is, the separate existence of the three persons rather than on the one indivisible Godhead. The one Godhead exists simultaneously in three modes of being or hypostases. The idea of “coinherence” or, as later termed, perichoresis, of the persons is emphasized. The Godhead exists “undivided in divided persons.” There is an “identity of nature” in the three hypostases. Basil says:

For all things that are the Father’s are beheld in the Son, and all things that are the Son’s are the Father’s; because the whole Son is in the Father and has all the Father in himself. Thus the hypostasis of the Son becomes as it were form and face of the knowledge of the Father, and the hypostasis of the Father is known in the form of the Son, while the proper quality which is contemplated therein remains for the plain distinction of the hypostases.16

The Cappadocians attempted to expound the concepts of common substance and multiple separate persons by the analogy of a universal and its particulars—the individual persons of the Trinity are related to the divine substance in the same fashion as individual humans are related to the universal human (or humanity). Each of the individual hypostases is the ousia of the Godhead distinguished by the characteristics or properties peculiar to him, just as individual humans have unique characteristics that distinguish them from other individual human persons. These respective properties of the divine persons are, according to Basil, paternity, sonship, and sanctifying power or sanctification.17

It is clear that the orthodox formula protects the doctrine of the Trinity against the danger of modalism. Has it done so, however, at the expense of falling into the opposite error—tritheism? On the surface, the danger seems considerable. Two points were made, however, to safeguard the doctrine of the Trinity against tritheism.

First, it was noted that if we can find a single activity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that is in no way different in any of the three persons, we must conclude that there is but one identical substance involved. And such unity was found in the divine activity of revelation. Revelation originates in the Father, proceeds through the Son, and is completed in the Spirit. It is not three actions, but one action in which all three are involved.

Second, there was an insistence on the concreteness and indivisibility of the divine substance. Much criticism of the Cappadocian doctrine of the Trinity focused on the analogy of a universal manifesting itself in particulars. To avoid the conclusion that there is a multiplicity of Gods within the Godhead just as there is a multiplicity of humans within humanity, Gregory of Nyssa suggested that, strictly speaking, we ought not to talk about a multiplicity of humans, but a multiplicity of the one universal human being. Thus the Cappadocians continued to emphasize that, while the three members of the Trinity can be distinguished numerically as persons, they are indistinguishable and inseparable in their essence or substance or being.

It should be reiterated here that ousia is not abstract, but a concrete reality. Further, this divine essence is simple and indivisible. Following the Aristotelian doctrine that only what is material is quantitatively divisible, the Cappadocians at times virtually denied that the category of number can be applied to the Godhead at all. God is simple and incomposite. Thus, while each of the persons is one, they cannot be added together to make three entities.

Essential Elements of a Doctrine of the Trinity

Before attempting a contemporary construction of the doctrine of the Trinity, it is important to pause to note the salient elements that must be included.

1. The unity of God is basic. Monotheism is deeply implanted within the Hebrew-Christian tradition. God is one, not several. We must keep in mind that we are dealing with one God, not a joining of separate entities.

2. The deity of each of the three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, must be affirmed. Each is qualitatively the same. The Son is divine in the same way and to the same extent as is the Father, and this is true of the Holy Spirit as well.

3. The threeness and the oneness of God are not in the same respect. Although the orthodox interpretation of the Trinity seems contradictory (God is one and yet three), the contradiction is not real, but only apparent. A contradiction exists if something is A and not A at the same time and in the same respect. Unlike modalism, orthodoxy insists that God is three persons at every moment of time. Maintaining his unity as well, orthodoxy deals with the problem by suggesting that the way in which God is three is in some respect different from the way in which he is one. The fourth-century thinkers spoke of one ousia and three hypostases. The problem is determining what these two terms mean, or more broadly, what the difference is between the nature or locus of God’s oneness and that of his threeness.

4. The Trinity is eternal. There have always been three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and all of them have always been divine. One or more of them did not come into being at some point in time, or at some point become divine. There has never been any alteration in the nature of the Triune God. He is and will be what he has always been.

5. 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 status or essence. In human experience, there is functional subordination as well. Several equals in a business or enterprise may choose one of their number to serve as the captain of a task force or the chairperson of a committee for a given time, but without any change in rank. The same is true in military circles. In the days of multimember aircraft crews, although the pilot was the ranking officer on the ship, the bombardier, a lower-ranking officer, controlled the plane during the bombing run. In like fashion, 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 (see John 14–16) as well as to the will of the Father, but this does not imply that he is less than they are.

6. In the final analysis, the Trinity is incomprehensible. We cannot fully understand the mystery of the Trinity. When someday we see God, we shall see him as he is, and understand him better than we do now. Yet even then we will not totally comprehend him. Because he is the unlimited God and we are limited in our capacity to know and understand, he will always exceed our knowledge and understanding. We will always be human beings, even though perfected human beings. We will never become God. Those aspects of God which we will never fully comprehend should be regarded as mysteries that go beyond our reason rather than as paradoxes that conflict with reason.

The Search for Analogies

The problem in constructing a statement of the doctrine of the Trinity is not merely to understand the terminology. That is in itself hard enough; for example, it is difficult to know what “person” means in this context. More difficult yet is to understand the interrelationships among the members of the Trinity. The human mind occasionally seeks analogies that will help in this effort.

On a popular level, analogies drawn from physical nature have often been utilized. A widely used analogy, for example, is the egg: it consists of yolk, white, and shell, all of which together form one whole egg. Another favorite analogy is water. It can be found in solid, liquid, and vaporous forms. At times other material objects have been used as illustrations. One pastor, in instructing young catechumens, attempted to clarify the threeness yet oneness by posing the question, “Is (or are) trousers singular or plural?” His answer was that trousers is singular at the top, and they are plural at the bottom.

Most analogies drawn from the physical realm tend to be either tritheistic or modalistic in their implications. On one hand, the analogies involving the egg and the trousers seem to suggest that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are separate parts of the divine nature. On the other hand, the analogy involving the various forms of water has modalistic overtones, since ice, liquid water, and steam are modes of existence. A given quantity of water does not simultaneously exist in all three states.

In recent years, some theologians, drawing on the insights of analytical philosophy, have intentionally utilized grammatical “category transgressions” or “logically odd qualifiers” to point out the tension between the oneness and the threeness. Examples of their attempts at clarification are statements like “God are one” and “they is three.” Yet these odd sentences serve better to state the issue than to clarify it.

One of the most creative minds in the history of Christian theology was Augustine. In De trinitate, which may be his greatest work, he turned his prodigious intellect to the problem of the nature of the Trinity. He reflected on this doctrine throughout his entire Christian life and wrote his treatise on the subject over a twenty-year period (399–419). In keeping with the Western or Latin tradition, his view emphasizes the unity of God more than the threeness. The three members of the Trinity are not separate individuals in the way in which three members of the human race are separate individuals. Each member of the Trinity is in his essence identical with the others or with the divine substance itself. They are distinguished in terms of their relations within the Godhead.

Augustine’s major contribution to the understanding of the Trinity is his analogies drawn from the realm of human personality. He argued that since the human is made in the image of God, who is triune, it is therefore reasonable to expect to find, through an analysis of human nature, a reflection, however faint, of God’s triunity. Beginning with the biblical statement that God is love, Augustine noted there are three necessary elements in love: the lover, the object loved, and the love that unites them, or at least tends to do so.18 While this analogy has received a great deal of attention, it was for Augustine merely a starting point, a steppingstone to a more significant analogy based on the inner person and, in particular, on the mind’s activity in relationship to itself or to God. Already in the Confessions, we see the analogy based on the inner person in the triad of being, knowing, and willing.19 In De trinitate the analogy based on the mind’s activity is presented in three stages or three trinities: (1) the mind, its knowledge of itself, and its love of itself;20 (2) memory, understanding, and the will;21 (3) the mind remembering God, knowing God, and loving God.22 While all of these stages of the analogy give us insight into the mutual relations among the persons of the Trinity, Augustine feels that the last of the three is the most helpful, reasoning that when we consciously focus upon God, we most fully bear the image of our Maker.

In practice even orthodox Christians have difficulty clinging simultaneously to the several components of the doctrine. Our use of these several analogies suggests that perhaps in practice we tend to alternate between tritheism, a belief in three equal, closely related Gods, and modalism, a belief in one God who plays three different roles or reveals himself in three different fashions.

Augustine’s suggestion that analogies can be drawn between the Trinity and the realm of human personality is a helpful one. In seeking for thought forms or for a conceptual basis on which to develop a doctrine of the Trinity, we have found the realm of individual and social relationships to be a more fruitful source than is the realm of physical objects. This is true for two reasons. The first is that God himself is spirit; the social and personal domain is, then, closer to God’s basic nature than is the realm of material objects. The second is that there is greater interest today in human and social subjects than in the physical universe. Accordingly, we will examine two analogies drawn from the realm of human relationships.

The first analogy is from the realm of individual human psychology. As a self-conscious person, I may engage in internal dialogue with myself. I may take different positions and interact with myself. I may even engage in a debate with myself. Furthermore, I am a complex human person with multiple roles and responsibilities in dynamic interplay with one another. As I consider what I should do in a given situation, the husband, the father, the seminary professor, and the United States citizen that together constitute me may mutually inform one another.

One problem with this analogy is that in human experience it is most clearly seen in situations where there is tension or competition, rather than harmony, between the individual’s various positions and roles. The discipline of abnormal psychology affords us with extreme examples of virtual warfare between the constituent elements of the human personality. But in God, by contrast, there are always perfect harmony, communication, and love.

The other analogy is from the sphere of interpersonal human relations. Take the case of identical twins. In one sense, they are of the same essence, for their genetic makeup is identical. An organ transplant from one to the other can be accomplished with relative ease, for the recipient’s body will not reject the donor’s organ as foreign; it will accept it as its very own. Identical twins are very close in other ways as well. They have similar interests and tastes. Although they have different spouses and different employers, a close bond unites them. And yet they are not the same person. They are two, not one.

One idea in the history of the doctrine, the conception of perichoresis, is especially helpful. That is the teaching that the life of each of the persons flows through each of the others, so each sustains each of the others and each has direct access to the consciousness of the others. Thus, the human organism serves as a good illustration of the Triune God. For example, the brain, heart, and lungs of a given individual all sustain and supply each other, and each is dependent on the other. Conjoined twins, sharing one heart and liver, also illustrate this intercommunion. These, however, like all analogies, fall short of full explication of the Trinity. We will need to use several, some of which emphasize the oneness and others the threeness.

Although we cannot fully see how these two contrasting conceptions relate to each other, theologians are not the only ones who must retain two polarities as they function. In order to account for the phenomena of light, physicists have to hold both that it is waves and that it is quanta, little bundles of energy as it were, yet logically it cannot be both. As one physicist put it: “On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we think of light as waves; on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, we think of it as particles of energy.” Presumably, on Sundays physicists do not concern themselves with the nature of light. One cannot explain a mystery, but can only acknowledge its presence.

The doctrine of the Trinity is a crucial ingredient of our faith. Each of the three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is to be worshiped, as is the Triune God. And, keeping in mind their distinctive work, it is appropriate to direct prayers of thanks and petition to each of the members of the Trinity, as well as to all of them collectively. Furthermore, the perfect love and unity within the Godhead model for us the oneness and affection that should characterize our relationships within the body of Christ.

It appears that Tertullian was right in affirming that the doctrine of the Trinity must be divinely revealed, not humanly constructed. It is so absurd from a human standpoint that no one would have invented it. We do not hold the doctrine of the Trinity because it is self-evident or logically cogent. We hold it because God has revealed that this is what he is like. As someone has said of this doctrine:

Try to explain it, and you’ll lose your mind;

But try to deny it, and you’ll lose your soul.

Erickson, M. J. (1998). Christian theology (2nd ed.) (346–367). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.

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