The doctrine of the Trinity is the primary conception of God in Christianity, distinguishing it from other world religions, especially the strict monotheism of Judaism and Islam. While pointing to the deepest truth of Christian faith, it is also a divine mystery that is difficult to state adequately.
The purpose of this article is to present a helpful way of understanding the Trinity. As we contemplate the nature of God for the purpose of conceptual clarity, the mystery of the Trinity will not be resolved but deepened. If you finish reading this article and think to yourself, “Now I have it all figured out!” then I have failed you. While I intend to clarify the purpose and meaning of this central doctrine, I don’t want to mislead the reader into thinking that we can exhaustively grasp the being of God in human thought. God does reveal Godself in history, and we can trust that revelation, but we must also maintain intellectual humility in light of the qualitative distinction between God and human beings (i.e., God is the creator and we are the created).
Even though the Trinity is an essential teaching of the Christian faith, it is nowhere explicitly stated in the Bible, though some passages are suggestive (Matthew 3:16-17, 28:19; II Corinthians 13:14). Rather, the doctrine was officially formulated by leaders in the early church, especially at the first two general councils in Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381). Although the church drew some of its technical language from Greek philosophy, the doctrine was not developed to satisfy a penchant for esoteric philosophical reflection. It was carefully formulated in an effort to explicate the meaning of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Christians have always made three essential claims:
- God is the transcendent creator.
- God saves us in Jesus.
- God sustains all of creation and leads it to ultimate fulfillment.
Understanding the meaning of these three fundamental claims and how they hang together in a coherent way without lapsing into absurdity is what the Trinity is all about.
GOD IS THE TRANSCENDENT CREATOR
God is the creator of all that exists. There was a time when creation was not and there was only God. But God made a decision in eternity to create the world in love and freedom. Thus, God creates space for a genuine other to exist as a creature distinct from God. Then God releases the creative power of being into that space so that the world as we know it can emerge. In simplest terms, God creates the world and sets it free.
We find poetic accounts of creation in the Bible. Genesis 1:1-3 states:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.”
When Christians read this passage, they tend to associate the term “God” with God the Father, but the attentive reader will also notice the presence of two other characters. First, we see the presence of God’s Spirit: “ . . . the Spirit (ruach) of God was hovering over the waters.” Second, we see the presence of God’s eternal Word: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Anyone familiar with the prologue of the Gospel of John will notice a connection with this verse. Just as the first words of Genesis 1:1 are, “In the beginning . . .,” so it is with the first verse of John’s gospel:
“In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (John 1:1-3)
The gospel continues, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Clearly, the author of John is drawing an explicit connection between God’s eternal Word and Jesus Christ. Thus, Christians find it fitting to claim that the Father creates the world through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, and does so as the one transcendent source of life. In the poetic language of scripture, God creates the world and reigns over it from heaven above. God transcends the world as its creator.
GOD SAVES US IN JESUS
At the same time we say that God is Creator, we also say that God is Redeemer. God creates the world and sets it free in love, but God also enters that world to personally encounter us in Jesus Christ. When Christians talk about God sending Jesus, they are not saying that Jesus is merely a wise prophet or heavenly messenger. Rather, they are saying that God looked down upon the suffering of creation, had compassion, and resolved to become a human being to save the world from sin, evil, and death.
Christians believe that only God can save, but they also claim to experience salvation in Jesus. Therefore, God must in some sense be fully present to humanity in Jesus. Returning to the Gospel of John, we read: “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). The Greek term translated “Word” is logos, which connotes knowledge, wisdom, reason, and revelation. The author of John uses this term to refer to God’s mind, heart, character, will, and creative power. When he goes on to say in verse 14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us . . .” he is making the outlandish claim that God’s heart, mind, reason, logic, and will was incarnate (literally, “enfleshed”) in the man Jesus of Nazareth. This is why he can go on to say, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God . . .” (1:18). Jesus is recorded as saying in John 14:9, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9). In light of such passages, Christians believe that Jesus embodies the eternal Word of God. God reveals Godself to humanity in Jesus. The invisible God become visible in Christ.
Since Jesus is the incarnation of God’s eternal Word, whose glory we have seen as “the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father,” we can say that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). Since God is fully present to us in Christ, Jesus has the power to save. A messenger can tell us about salvation and even inspire hope for salvation, but only God can accomplish our salvation. And this is what Christians claim about Jesus, that God acts decisively in his life, death, and resurrection to save the world.
When contemplating God’s saving work in Jesus, it seems fitting to focus on the work of God the Son. But in a way similar to the creation accounts in Genesis, the New Testament stories of Jesus include the presence of three divine characters: The Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Consider, for example, the baptism of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew:
“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” (3:16-17)
Indeed, throughout the gospel accounts Jesus is always accompanied by the Father and the Spirit, and this leads to another threefold claim: The Father saves us through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. All three work together as one God in perfect love and unity to accomplish the salvation of the world.
In summary, Christians not only claim that God reigns over the world as its transcendent creator, but also that God encounters humanity in Jesus Christ and works decisively through him to save the world from sin, evil, and death.
GOD SUSTAINS CREATION AND LEADS THE WORLD TO ITS ULTIMATE FULFILLMENT
In addition to creating and redeeming the world, God also sustains the world by his Spirit. God creates the world and sets it free, but then floods the world with his life-giving presence. The Spirit of God is the energy by which all things exist, and if God were to withdrawal his presence (even for an instant) then it would vanish into thin air. As we read in Acts 17:28: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” This is what Christians mean when they say that God is omnipresent—God’s powerful presence saturates the entire created order. There is literally no place where the Spirit of God is not. In addition, we claim that God is constantly working through the Holy Spirit to open the hearts and minds of human beings to faith and love, and to bring the entire creation to its full completion. The Holy Spirit woos us in love toward reconciliation with God and lures all of creation toward its ultimate fulfillment.
Importantly, the Holy Spirit is not some kind of impersonal or unconscious energy that we might find in some New Age circles. Nor is the Spirit an independent, quasi-divine power. According to scripture, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus sent by the Father and the Son to continue and complete the work of Christ as we await the new creation. Thus, Christians find it difficult to talk about the Spirit without also talking about the Father and the Son.
THE CENTRAL QUESTION
Now we arrive at the heart of the matter: How do all three of these claims hang together in a coherent way without lapsing into absurdity? Christians experience the presence of God as the one who creates, redeems, and sustains, and we experience God in these ways all at the same time. It’s not as if God ceases to reign over creation when God acts decisively to save the world in Jesus. It’s not as if God stops saving us in Jesus in order to fill all creation with his sustaining presence. Rather, we say that God reigns from heaven as Creator, and at the very same time acts decisively in Jesus to save us, and at the very same time fills the entire creation with his sustaining presence. This is how we experience the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus, and the only meaningful way to talk about this is to talk about the Trinity.
According to the doctrine of the Trinity, there is only one God, but this one God is revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God confronts us in Jesus Christ as the eternal Son. But God is also apprehended as the Father who sends the Son and to whom the Son points. And God is also known as the Holy Spirit who sustains the world, opens the hearts and minds of human beings in faith, and leads the world to its ultimate completion. The words “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit,” point to one God, but we cannot properly think or speak about this one God except by thinking and speaking about all three at the same time.
FROM ECONOMIC TO IMMANENT TRINITY
An important final point is that God does not lie or deceive. If God reveals Godself as triune, then God is triune. We don’t say, “Well this is how we, from a human perspective, see and experience God, which requires us to think and speak about God as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. But God could be different in and of Godself.” While Christians are careful to acknowledge the limitations of their theological language, they absolutely refuse to accept that there could be a different God behind the God we see in Jesus. To use the language of scripture, the God we worship in heaven is the same God we encounter in Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit.
This means that there is relationality in God! As the Cappadocian Fathers recognized, there is a sense in which the one God we worship is constituted by a community of self-giving love. God (in-and-of-Godself) is the eternal self-giving love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What makes the Father the Father is his eternal self-giving love to the Son and the Spirit. What makes the Son the Son is his eternal self-giving love to the Father and the Spirit. What makes the Holy Spirit the Holy Spirit is his eternal self-giving love to the Father and the Son. What makes God one is the eternal, self-giving love that continuously flows and unifies the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This is the deep meaning of the claim, God is love (1 John 4:8)
For Christians, to say that God is love is to say that God is triune. To say that God creates is to say that God is triune. To say that God saves is to say that God is triune. To say that God sustains creation is to say that God is triune. To say that God is one is to say that God is triune. One reason that the doctrine of the Trinity is so important to Christians is because it contains in itself the entire story of God’s activity in the world and reveals what kind of God we serve—a God that is love.
To watch the sermon on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2QK_LdXbls
If you liked this post, then you might also like “Salvation in the Wesleyan Tradition: Grace Upon Grace.”