The Triune God
Updated: Apr 21, 2019
by +Rt. Rev. Dr. Vince McLaughlin, Th.D., D.Litt., Ph.D.
The Doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most fascinating - and controversial - Christian teachings. The Trinity is accurately described as a "mystery (Grk mysterion)." By mystery the Church does not mean a riddle or puzzle but rather the Trinity is a theological reality above our finite human comprehension that we may begin to grasp, but ultimately must know through worship, symbol, and faith. It has been said that mystery is not a wall to run up against, but an ocean in which to swim. The Holy Trinity is a religious truth that one can know only by revelation and cannot fully understand the mysterion of the Trinity.
It is said that if you discuss the Trinity for longer than a few minutes or try to explain with any analogy, you will slip into heresy, because you are probing the depths of God too deeply. The Trinity is best described in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, commonly called the Nicene Creed.
Essentially the Trinity is the belief that God is one (Hebrew echad) in essence (Greek ousia), but distinct in person (Greek hypostasis). The Greek word for person means "that which stands on its own," or "individual reality," and does not mean the persons of the Trinity are three human beings. Therefore Christians believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are somehow distinct from one another (not divided though), yet completely united in will and essence.
The Trinity is oneness in unity not in number. This is classically explained in the Hebrew language from Deuteronomy 6:4, “"Hear, O Israel! Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is one (echad) Deuteronomy 6:4.” The Hebrew word for the numeric ‘one’ is yachid. The Holy Spirit could have used this term with the meaning of ‘the numeric oneness of God.” Instead the Holy Spirit chose to use the Hebrew word echad which is used most often as a unified one, when God said in Genesis 2:24 “the two shall become one (echad) flesh.” As noted, echad is used in Deuteronomy 6:4. Of interest, the term yachid (the main Hebrew word for solitary oneness) is never used in reference to God. I only wish time permitted to go deeper into the Hebrew linguistics here but maybe another article.
The Son is said to be eternally begotten of the Father, while the Holy Spirit is said to proceed from the Father through the Son. Each person of the Trinity interpenetrates one another, and each has distinct roles in creation and redemption, which is called the Divine Economy. For instance, God the Father created the world through the Son and the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters at creation bringing order out of chaos.
The Nicene definition of the Trinity developed over time, based on Scripture and Tradition. The Scriptures call the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit "God," yet the three are also clearly distinct. For instance, St. John gives Yeshua the titles theos and monogenes theos (God and Only-Begotten God) and has Yeshua saying that the Father and Son are one, yet in his gospel Yeshua also states that the Father and Son are not one witness, but two (John 1:1, 18; 8:17-18; 10:30). So St. John tells us that Yeshua is God but not God the Father? Yeshua is one with the Father, but they constitute two witnesses? It is scriptures such as these that led to the development of the Trinity doctrine by the Church. The Church had to reconcile the Divinity (Deity) of Christ and the Holy Spirit with Jewish monotheism. Over time, and with the aid of the Holy Spirit, the Church reflected on the implications of God's nature, and even began using the word Trinity by the middle of the 2nd century to describe the relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit. When in the 4th century a presbyter named Arius denied the Father and Son were both true God and co-eternal, his bishop Alexander of Alexandria challenged him and deposed him. Eventually the Arian controversy spread, and the emperor Constantine, newly fascinated with Christianity, convened a council of bishops in AD 325 in Nicaea to deal with Arianism. It is there that the Church drew up the beginnings of the current Nicene Creed. In the latter half of the 4th century the Church dealt with those who specifically denied the divinity (deity) of the Holy Spirit, adding more text to the creed.
Ultimately, Trinitarianism posits a dynamic God, whose ultimate nature is beyond human conception, yet who voluntarily operates within the created world. Trinitarianism also shows a loving God that is willing to become as we are so that we may become like Him. The implications of believing in Arius' God, a God unwilling to involve himself in our redemption, but who instead sent an angel of the highest order, did not escape the earliest Christians. As St. Athanasius was fond of saying "that which has not been assumed has not been redeemed," meaning that unless God truly became completely human, we could not be fully redeemed, because only God Himself is capable of truly redeeming humanity; an angel does not have this ability. Thus, the Trinity is not about Greek philosophy or pointless metaphysical speculation, but about the heart of our salvation.
So in summary, the Trinity is the doctrine that states there is one God but three Persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Scripture clearly states that there is one God yet three separate Persons (for example, see Matthew 28:19 and Mark 12:29). While the three members of the Trinity are distinct, this does not mean that any is inferior to the other. Instead, they are all identical in attributes. They are equal in power, love, mercy, justice, holiness, knowledge, and all other qualities.
Each Person of the Trinity plays a role in salvation. Studying these roles in light of the doctrine of the Trinity gives us a deeper understanding of God and His Word. The doctrine of the Trinity is also important because it helps describe the nature of God.
In conclusion, the Holy Trinity has a very significant application to prayer. The general pattern of prayer in the Bible is to pray to the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:18). Our fellowship with God should be enhanced by consciously knowing that we are relating to a tri-personal God!