Understanding the Trinity: Part One

GOD IS THREE-IN-ONE

This past Sunday was Trinity Sunday. It's a day on the liturgical calendar that draws our attention to the biblical teaching that God is three-in-one. As Christians we believe in one God who eternally exists in three distinct persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Each person of the godhead is truly and completely God, yet each is distinct from the others.


As Christians we believe in one God who eternally exists in three distinct persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit


The doctrine of the Trinity originates from the pages of Scripture, and the concept was defended early in church history at the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople. From those councils came the Nicene Creed, which affirms the Christian belief in God's three-in-oneness.  It was the African church father Tertullian who first used the word "Trinity" to communicate the idea of God's three-in-oneness.  

Admittedly, this doctrine is a mystery. The Triune God is perplexing. We cannot fully wrap our minds around how God can be one and also three. Unfortunately, throughout history, many have refused to accept the mystery of the Trinity and have fallen into error.

 

TRINITARIAN ERRORS

In the 4th century, a man by the name of Arius denied the full deity of the Son of God. "Arius taught that although God the Son indeed pre-existed as a divine being before the creation of the Universe, he was not 'co-eternal' with God the Father."(1)  In other words, only God the Father is eternal. The infamous Arian chant was, "There was a time when the Son was not."  He believed that the Father created the Son and shared his deity with him. Then together they created and ruled over the world. He was trying to do justice to the idea that God is one, but in so doing, he failed to let the Scriptures fully speak regarded the deity of the Son of God. Sadly, Arius's error has been believed by various groups through history, including modern day Jehovah's Witnesses. 


The Triune God is perplexing! We cannot fully wrap our minds around how God can be one and also three.


Other errors have followed. While some have denied God's THREE-in-oneness, others have denied his three-in-ONENESS. The heresy of Tritheism teaches that there are three Gods: The Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The problem here is that the Bible is explicit: "The Lord our God, the Lord is One." (Deut. 6:4). From Genesis to Revelation the Scriptures clearly teach that there is only one true God (Isa. 45:5, 1 Cor. 8:6). 

Some have maintained that God is three-in-one but have denied the simultaneous nature of God's three-in-oneness. This error is called "modalism" and it is believed by, among others, some groups of pentecostals.  It teaches that God has manifested himself in different ways (modes) at different times: In the Old Testament as Yahweh, in the gospels as Jesus, and after Pentecost as the Holy Spirit. It fails to see that the Bible demonstrates that God has always existed as Father, Son, and Spirit at the same time, which we see demonstrated in many places in Scripture, perhaps most clearly at Jesus' baptism. Consider also, how little it would make sense for Jesus to pray if God the Father and God the Son didn't simultaneously exist! Who was he talking to?!

The point in bringing up all of these heresies (dangerous departures from the truth) is to demonstrate what happens when you attempt to over simplify the Bible's teaching on this doctrine. Which, by the way, is why you should always avoid simplistic illustrations to describe the Trinity. Please stay away from illustrations! This is the quickest way to fall into error. God is not like an egg, H2O, a clover, or three-in-one shampoo. 

 

BEHOLD THE WONDER

We must resist that inner-need to logically wrap our minds completely around something we cannot fully understand and instead accept the mystery that is the Trinity. In fact, we shouldn't just accept it, we should embrace it. Even further, we should be comforted by the fact that our God is mysterious and unsearchable (Rom. 11:33). God's incomprehensibility means that he is bigger than me. A god who I could explain and fully comprehend would reduce him to my level, but I long for a God who is so much more than that. I deeply hope for a God immensely greater than I am, and that's exactly who God is.

Why would we ever expect to be able to understand something infinite with our finite minds? It makes sense that mystery surrounds the God of the universe. His complexity and our limited ability to understand him speaks to his greatness and our humanness!  This doesn't mean that we can't know God truly and intimately, we can! And we should wholeheartedly seek to know Him by plumbing the depths of the Scriptures to see all it reveals to us about Him. But this journey will never end, because neither does God. So embrace the mystery and the journey, and pause often to worship and stand in wonder and awe.


God's incomprehensibility means that he is bigger than me. A god who I could explain and fully comprehend would reduce him to my level, but I long for a God who is so much more than that. I deeply hope for a God immensely greater than I am, and that's exactly who God is.


In part two of "Understanding the Trinity" we will unpack the significance of God being three-in-one and see why getting this doctrine right matters.


1. New World Encyclopedia:  http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Arianism


  Andy Adkison // Pastor of Preaching & Vision

  Andy Adkison // Pastor of Preaching & Vision