The Doctrine of the Trinity, What is it & is it Biblical?
Updated: Jun 4, 2019
There is a growing movement today wherein people who identify as Christian reject and outright attack the doctrine of the Trinity. The challenges this doctrine face are however far from a recent occurrence, dating all the way back to the infancy of Christianity itself.
Admittedly, it is not an easy doctrine to explain and as such is often misrepresented – something we strive not to do here. So, it is understandable why some may question it. To be clear, we see nothing wrong with asking the tough questions and really seeking to determine if a particular doctrine is or is not Biblical. This being said, the goal should always be to pursue truth, as Christianity centers around Christ – the Way, the Truth and the Life.
So, let’s dig in to one of the more difficult doctrines to explain, see what it is, what it is not and strive to definitively answer the pressing question – is it Biblical?
The doctrine of the Trinity is this: The Bible teaches there is only one eternal God who is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Within this one God there are three unified and yet distinct co-equal and co-eternal persons; the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus, God cannot be limited to one specific person within the Trinity.
Early Competing Theories
As men sought to understand the nature of God as revealed in Scripture, competing theories emerged. One such view was that the one eternal God merely revealed Himself through various modes, or personas. Under this view called Modalism, the Father became the Son who then became the Holy Spirit, never holding different modes simultaneously. Other positions also arose such as Adoptionism and Sabellianism.
While Modalists and Trinitarians today often view the other camp as heretical, we see at least in the Council of Nicaea both groups coming together in agreement to condemn Arianism (a belief that Christ was not divine but created). This article is not intended to give an exhaustive explanation and critique of these other theories, but to recognize their existence.
It must first be said that indeed there is no use of the term “Trinity” within Scripture, nor does Scripture go into such detail in seeking to fully explain the character and nature of God. This is a point which critics often seize upon to challenge its validity. Yet, this doctrine does have its roots in Scripture, as it was the early faithful who upon reading of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit sought to better understand them.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” Matthew 28:19
The word “Trinity” itself is derived from the Latin “trinitas”, which means “three”.
Around the year 170, Theophilis of Antioch used the Greek equivalent τριάς when he identified the Trinity as God, writing “In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries, are types of the Trinity [Τριάδος], of God, and His Word, and His wisdom. And the fourth is the type of man, who needs light, that so there may be God, the Word, wisdom, man." (Aut. II.XV)
Following the Apostolic Age and up to the First Council of Nicaea, before the doctrine of the Trinity was fully detailed, Christians spoke of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, asserting Christ’s deity. Men like Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr made use of this early Trinitarian formula.
“In the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.” Justin Martyr, First Apology, LXI
In the early 3rd century, Tertullian offered the first known defense of the doctrine while writing Adversus Praxean - a refutation of Praxeas, a monarchian (modalist).
As men sought to better understand the teachings of the Apostles various controversies arose giving rise to competing theories which took centuries to resolve. Ultimately, the doctrine of the Trinity became the prevailing view. The First Council of Nicaea, First Council of Constantinople, and subsequent Councils affirmed it.
Is it Foundational?
The doctrine of the Trinity is certainly pivotal in the evolution of Church history and Christian doctrine, but is it an undeniable aspect of the Christian Faith? If one denies the Trinity can they still be considered a Christian?
We at Idol Killer affirm the Trinity, but we also realize that doctrine in and of itself is not inherently salvific. As people follow Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life, their doctrine changes – or at least it should as they grow in understanding, maturing as believers. No day one convert has perfect theology let alone a grasp on the fundamentals. This is why Christian discipleship is so important. God says His people perish for lack of knowledge and we are called to teach, making disciples of all men.
There are many Trinitarians who genuinely believe the doctrine to be so important that to deny it, or even misunderstand it, is to be a false believer. We do not take such a knee-jerk stance, as we extend grace and mercy to those who seek to better know Him.
This being said, Christ is foundational to Christianity. If we misunderstand who God is, what He accomplished in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ and what He requires; such error can certainly be so serious that it may indeed become salvific.
Hypostasis & Ousia… it’s all Greek to me
Often adding to the confusion is the use of various Greek terminologies and their reception by Latin speaking theologians.
In early Christian writings the terms ousia and hypostasis are often used interchangeably. Ousia means essence, being and substance. Hypostasis is a Greek word for substance relating to the distinct persons found in the one undivided essence of God. Yet, these terms are not exactly synonymous. Eventually, under the influence of the Cappadocian Fathers these terms were clarified so that the orthodox formula simply stated “three hypostases in one ousia” (one essence and three persons).
“The distinction between ousia and hypostases is the same as that between the general and the particular; as, for instance, between the animal and the particular man. Wherefore, in the case of the Godhead, we confess one essence or substance so as not to give variant definition of existence, but we confess a particular hypostasis, in order that our conception of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit may be without confusion and clear.” Basil of Caesarea
Adding to the confusion, the vocabulary used in the West and East was very different. Many Latin speaking theologians took hypo-stasis to mean sub-stantia, so when speaking of three “hypostases” in the godhead they often understood it to mean three substances or tritheism. To this day there remains a flavor of Trinitarianism which affirms such a view. This confusion has led to critics of the Doctrine of the Trinity refer to it entirely as a tritheistic belief, rather than monotheism as it should be understood or even recognize the errant schism as unique.
As much of the early Church came from Judaism, they carried with them the conviction that there is only one God. While neither the Old or New Testament contain the word Trinity, they do offer several Trinitarian formulas. The Old Testament on its surface presents only God the Father, yet there are several Theophanies and mentions of the Holy Spirit and the Father. There is of course such prophetic passages which speak of the Messiah who will be God with us; while New Testament passages such as Matthew 28:19, 2 Corinthians 13:13, 1 Corinthians 12:4-5, Ephesians 4:4-6, 1 Peter 1:2 and Revelation 1:4-5 present various Trinitarian formulas. It was these passages and the teachings handed down from the Apostles upon which the doctrine was based.
Scripture contains several passages addressing the oneness of God's nature and the distinctness of the Son from the Father, and Holy Spirit.
"Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father." John 14:8-12
Q. If Jesus is the Father, then who is He going to?
"My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one.” John 10:29-30
Q. If Jesus and the Father are one but distinct, how do we reconcile these apart from the doctrine of the Trinity?
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God." John 1:1
Q. Why did the author of John make such a distinction? Does it make sense to read it without it? "In the beginning was God, and God was with God and God was God. God was in the beginning with God."
"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14
Q. If the Word was God and was with God, but became flesh, does it stand to reason then God became flesh while God did not?
"Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Luke 3:21-22
Q. If Jesus is the Father, then from whom does the heavenly voice declare Jesus as Son? If Jesus is the Holy Spirit, then what is coming upon Him?
"But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." John 14:26
Q. If Jesus is God the Father, why does He say the Father will send the Holy Spirit instead of "I will send the Holy Spirit"? If Jesus is the Holy Spirit why does He refer to the Holy Spirit as a distinct person?
"He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power." Hebrews 1:3
Q. If Scripture speaks of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as distinct but one is it then sound and Scriptural to conclude the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct but one?
Hopefully you now have a better understanding of what the doctrine is and what it is not. As we have seen in Scripture there are several passages which speak of the oneness and distinction of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Additionally, we see several Trinitarian formulas expressed within Scripture.