The Trinity has always been mysterious.
Not only does it confuse unbelievers, but Christians too.
But this is who God is, and it benefits us to know him in this way.
We’re going to break our study of the Trinity into 4 parts:
1) The Trinity in The Bible
2) The Trinity in Church History
3) The Trinity and Heresy
4) The Trinity and Your Life
Surprisingly, the word “Trinity” isn’t actually found in the Bible.
The term was coined by the church father Tertullian at the end of the second century.
While scripture doesn’t use that word, the one God in three persons motif is found in the Bible throughout.
Let’s start by looking for the Trinity in the Old Testament
The Old Testament doesn’t reveal God in an overtly trinitarian way, but there are hints offered that would make greater sense in light of what the New Testament teaches.
The most well known example of different members of the Trinity comes right at the beginning in Genesis 1:2,
The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
Here the Spirit of God is hovering over the early waters of earth.
This figure has traditionally been understood to be the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
Later in the same chapter God determines to make mankind “like Us,” demonstrating a multiplicity of sources.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.
Some, especially Jewish commentators, have argued that this may be a reference to God and the angels. However, there are no references anywhere to man being made like the angels.
Isaiah also contains a glimpse of what maybe be considered a full view of the Trinity.
In Isaiah 63:7-10 we see references to all three members of the Godhead, depending on who you believe the angel of the Lord is.
Verse 7 speaks of the Lord, God the Father. Verse 9 mentions the angel of His presence, which seems to be another name for the angel of the Lord. “Presence” refers to being in the presence of God.
Many (including myself) believe that in the Old Testament there is a figured called the angel of the Lord, not to be confused with an angel of the Lord, that is a preincarnate appearance of Jesus.
And verse 10 speaks of “His Holy Spirit.”
The New Testament reveals far more about the triune God.
We often see the fullness of God described in prayers, like Jude 20-21 and 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.
The place that demonstrates the reality of the Trinity clearest was in the baptism of Jesus.
In Matthew 3:16-17 after Jesus comes out of the water the Holy Spirit descends on him and God the Father speaks.
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
In two verses we have all three members of the Trinity distinctly named, and that event has a profound impact how baptisms are done from that point until this day.
For more passages pointing to the Trinity see: Matthew 28:19; Luke 1:35; John 1:14; Acts 2:33; Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 8:6, 12:4-6; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:17, 4:4-6; Philippians 2:5-8; and 1 Peter 1:1-2.
The Church Fathers were not fans of speculation.
When a doctrine was described in detail in scripture they were content to write at length about it. But when it came to doctrines that scripture wasn’t comprehensive over, they were more restrained.
The doctrine of the Trinity was never in question, but how to explain it and talk about it accurately has always been a challenge.
Because of that challenge we see the Trinity most often in the form of a baptismal prayers.
In one of the earliest Christian writings, the Didache, we see instructions on how to perform a baptism, “baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water.”
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are also present in the well-known Apostle’s Creed, which was a mid-fourth century teaching thought to come from an earlier baptismal formula. “I believe in God the Father…. And in Jesus Christ…. I believe in the Holy Ghost.”
It’s important that we never take for granted what we do understand about the Trinity.
The early church spent years deliberating over how to be faithful to scripture when it comes to describing who God is.
At the very least, the first four ecumenical church councils dealt with how to understand the distinctions and similarities of God the Father and God the Son.
The First Council of Constantinople in 381 brought in the issue of the Holy Spirit.
200 years of brilliant minds working hard to prevent heresy provided us with a vocabulary that even young Christians feel comfortable using.
Putting this in a broader context, it’s important to acknowledge the unifying quality to these early church debates. Roman Catholics, Protestants, and the Eastern Orthodox church all agree on the doctrine of the Trinity.
While we have significant disagreements, we agree with the fact that God is one essence, of one substance (homoousius) and three persons.
Avoiding heresy in the doctrine of the Trinity can be tough, but there are two broad categories of false thinking that can help you to better understand who God is and who God isn’t.
Heresy #1 Modalism
Modalism is essentially overemphasizing the one-ness of God.
It teaches that Sometimes God is the Father, sometimes he acts as the Son, and then in other instances he operates as the Holy Spirit.
In summary, it describes God as one being that functions in different “modes.”
Heresy #2 Tritheism
Tritheism overemphasizes the three persons of the Trinity.
Theologian Alister McGrath writes,
“Tritheism invites us to imagine the Trinity as consisting of three equal, independent, and autonomous beings, each of whom is divine.”
It makes it as though the members of the Trinity are completely separate beings.
You may come across versions of this when skeptics claim that there is a difference between the “mean Old Testament God” and the “nice New Testament Jesus.”
You may also want to keep in mind that essentially all analogies for the Trinity fall into one of these two categories.
Water, eggs, triangles, 3-leaf clovers, the man who is a father and son and husband—These are all good analogies of heresies, not of the Trinity itself.
Rather than trying force God into a convenient analogy, we should take a hint from the early church and be comfortable with the mysteries of God.
If our finite minds could grasp everything about him, what king of a God would he be?
So with all this Bible and and historical theology, I’m sure you are left wondering why this matters to you?
How does understanding the Trinity effect your life?
Certainly, knowing God more is always a good thing, but does going deeper with the Trinity really make a difference in your daily life?
I would argue that it does, for two reasons.
1) The Trinity shows that God sincerely values relationship
God exists eternally in a triune relationship of perfect love.
There is a built-in community within the Godhead.
Similarly, the Christian life was not meant to be done solo.
Those rogue Christians that think they can survive with their Bibles, no Christian fellowship and get along just fine are completely missing out on the functions of Christian community.
God’s very existence is community and fellowship, you aren’t going to top that somehow.
We are the body of Christ. That is our community. Our family.
That is where we can be held accountable when we are going in the wrong direction (Gal. 6:1-5).
That is where we can encourage each other and take care of those who are in need (1 Thess. 5:11).
That is where we can exercise the gifts God has given us, because they are meant to build up the body (Eph. 4:11-12).
2) The Trinity demonstrates the value of creativity
The persons of the Trinity are often seen with different roles and functions throughout redemptive history.
The Father sends the Son (1 John 4:14), the Son is the perfect propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:2), and the Holy Spirit is the seal of our redemption and the one who guides us in becoming more like Christ (Eph. 1:13-14).
Everyone has their role to play.
However creation appears to be a more unified effort.
The Trinity worked together the creation of humanity and the world.
But now, O Lord, You are our Father, We are the clay, and You our potter; and all of us are the work of Your hand.
He [the Son] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.
The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.
Creation and creativity are a trinitarian endeavor.
We should place an equally high value on the creativity we see in the arts, because those are a reflection of God’s creative work.
Exodus 31:2-11 shows God designating certain people and filling them with the Holy Spirit to be excellent in their craftsmanship as they design and fill the tabernacle for Him.
This was where God dwelled among humanity, and he cared about how it looked.
The spirit empowered these craftsmen to do truly amazing work.
The Trinity is both the mystery of God and a practical revelation of who God is.
Though we cannot understand all of the details, we know enough to know that he is worthy of all the praise and glory.
His people have worked hard to understand Him throughout the centuries and we are beneficiaries of that wisdom. So we should delight in the Trinity, in spite of its profound mystery.
This is our God.
We are not ashamed, and we can joyfully work towards understanding Him more and more through his word.
For more resources on the Trinity see:
Exploring Christian Theology: Volume 1: Revelation, Scripture, and the Triune God by Michael J. Svigel and Nathan D. Holsteen
The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity by Stephen R. Holmes
Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith by Michael Reeves
Ryan is always on the lookout for a chance to read a good book or see a new movie. He has a Bachelors in Biblical Studies through Moody Bible Institute and is working on his Masters of Theology through Dallas Theological Seminary. Ryan is 32 and has given presentations on Pro-Life apologetics, homosexuality and the Bible, and teaches Bible and Historical Theology at Allendale Baptist Church. Ryan has been married to his wife Stephanie for 12 years and they have five children: James, Lael, Lydia, Isaiah, and Titus.