THE TRINITY AND THE UNITY OF GOD

holy_trinity_composition

In many systematic theology books, the Trinity and the Unity of God are treated as two separate topics. But they are really a single topic since they are two sides of God’s nature. For that reason, we’ll look at them together.

1. The Unity of God

The unity of God is part of the fabric of Jewish worship and devotion, but it is based on reality. The Shema is an affirmation and a declaration that there is only ONE God that Jews recite daily. It is found in Deuteronomy 6:7—

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one…

This very simple statement is repeated numerous times throughout the Old Testament and this same truth is taught in the New Testament:

Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

The reason the Shema was and continues to be an integral part of the Jewish faith is because of Israel’s historic tendency to idolatry. This propensity to worship false gods is what caused all of Israel’s problems throughout their existence. It was what caused both kingdoms (Israel to the north and Judah to the south) to lose their homeland and be carried off into exile. Polytheism, the worship of man-made deities, is an attempt by sinful man to create god in his own image, that is, to fashion a god that looks like an animal but behaves like a man. Or it involves the worship of nature by attributing things in life to events in nature, like bad weather or earthquaakes. However, no matter how many gods a culture may have, polytheism almost always asserts there is one grand god or force behind all others. The Greeks, for example, worshipped all kinds of gods but left room for “the unknown god,” and they believed in all pervasive Fate that ruled and overruled both gods and men.

But Israel’s God, Yahweh, is one God, by testimony of the Shema. What does that mean? It certainly means that there is only one God, but it means even more than that. God does not consist of multiple parts nor can He be divided into different parts. He is simply ONE. If that’s hard to understand, try comparing God to man. Man is not simple, like God, for man is not one, he is a compound being, having both a material and an immaterial part. God, though is just ONE: He is a Spirit, undivided and indivisible.

The fact that God is ONE is not inconsistent with the idea of the Trinity, because unity is not the same thing as a unit. A stone or a brick may be a unit in the sense of singleness, ie., there is one stone or one brick. But singleness does not take into account interior distinctions; things like self-knowledge and self-consciousness. Divine Unity, on the other hand, is a compound unity, made up of the Godhead, three separate and distinct Persons, each One of whom is the Godhead, coexistent, co-eternal, of one essence, each One aware of the other Two. The Athanasian Creed sums up the Trinitarian doctrine like this:

We worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons, nor separating the substance.

2. The trinity of the God

If you find the preceding statement hard to understand, it’s because the doctrine of the Trinity is not a truth of natural theology, but of revelation. It is not something that finds a counterpart in our world, it is unique to our ONE God. Strong wrote:

Reason shows us the Unity of God; only revelation shows us the Trinity of God.

Human reason, then, cannot “discover” the Trinity or explain it adequately. But the Trinity can be understood, though it does take faith, and the doctrine defended.

The word

Most Bible readers know that the word “trinity” does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Theophilus of Antioch (181 AD) was probably the first one to use the Greek form of trinity, “trias,” while Tertullian (220 AD) first used the Latin form of the word, “trinitas.” Some, like the “Jesus Only” people, point to the fact that since the word “trinity” isn’t in the Bible there is no such thing; that it is made-up doctrine. However, many things have existed long before man named them. Jupiter, for example, was a planet long before man named it. Germs existed long before we discovered them. The Trinity has existed from eternity past regardless of when the doctrine came into being.

Inadequate theories

Because some find the idea of the Trinity hard to define and harder to grasp, there are many false teachings and heretical notions floating around. Among them, two are particularly dangerous.

Tritheism is a teaching that denies the unity of the essence of God and teaches that there are three distinct Gods with a single purpose. But the doctrine of the Trinity holds that there is ONE God, one essence, consisting of three Persons.

Sabellianism was a third century heresy that taught a Trinity of revelation, but not of nature. God, Sabellius taught, was the Father, the Creator, and the Lawgiver. The Son is the same God incarnate who fulfills the office of Redeemer. The Holy Spirit, also God, works as the One who regenerates and sanctifies the believer. All that may sound good, but the foundation of the teaching is there is one God who appears in different modes, doing different jobs at different times. While no Christian today would claim to be a Sabellian – most of us don’t even know what that is – the heresy is alive and well in the Church today.

If you look at both of these heresies, they are extreme ways of balancing the idea of One God, three Persons. Tritheism stresses tri-unity while Sabellisanism stresses unity. These are both man-made doctrines and unbalanced in their approach to explaining the Trinity. Man’s approach to spiritual things is almost always unbalanced, and therefore in error. But Bible gives us balance.

The Old Testament

Given the historical context of the Old Testament, we can understand why it stresses the unity of God – that there is only one God. At the same time, however, the Old Testament does teach implicitly the trinity of God.

Plural nouns and pronouns. Genesis 1:1, 26; 48:15, 16 are noteworthy because the name for God is plural (Elohim), the verb is singular. See also verses like Isaiah 6:8.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us? ” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)

God is distinguished from God. Consider Genesis 19:24–

Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens. Yet I will show love to the house of Judah; and I will save them—not by bow, sword or battle, or by horses and horsemen, but by the Lord their God. ” (Hosea 1:7)

God has a Son. We think that the Son of God is first introduced to us in Matthew, but we find out in the Old Testament that God has a Son:

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father. (Psalm 2:7)

The very significant thing about this verse is use of the word “today.” It refers to “the eternal present.” In other words, the Son has always been the Son and will always be the Son. He is the eternal Son on both ends of eternity.

The Spirit is distinguished from God. For example:

Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with human beings forever, for they are mortal ; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.” (Genesis 6:3)

There are dozens of other Old Testament verses that implicitly teach the Trinity of God. Interestingly, we read this benediction in Numbers 6:24-26,

“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. ”

Some scholars like to call this a “triple benediction,” the name of the Lord given three times, foreshadowing the Trinity.

By the time we get to the New Testament, this Divine revelation is more clearly set forth.

The New Testament

Like the Jews, the early Christians held the unity of God as foundational and elemental to their faith. They believed in ONE God, without question. However, they also had the teachings of Jesus, in which He claimed a position and an authority equal to that of God. They had to contend with statements like this:

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. (John 14:9, 10)

And like this:

When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.” (John 15:26)

So the early church was faced with three facts: there was ONE God, the Father; the Son is also the ONE God; and the Holy Spirit is the ONE God. And the early church experienced all three Persons of the Godhead. For them, there was no doubt there was ONE God, consisting of three separate and distinct Personalities or Persons. There is no passage in the New Testament more demonstrative of the separateness and connectedness of the Trinity than this one:

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21, 22)

In these two verses, all the people being baptized by John, and all the onlookers saw Jesus being baptized, they saw the Holy Spirit descending from heaven, coming to rest on Jesus, and they heard God the Father speaking, all at the same time. Three separate Persons, ONE God, witnessed by man.

Jesus emphasized the doctrine of the Trinity, and the writers of the New Testament without exception believed without reservation in the Trinity.

Paul:

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being… (Ephesians 3:14—16)

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14)

Peter:

It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things. (1 Peter 1:12)

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. (1 Peter 3:18)

John:

And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. (1 John 3:23. 24)

We see, then, that the Bible, which should be our “doctrinal manual,” sets forth the doctrines of both the Unity and Trinity of God. In the Old Testament, the Unity of God is clearly, repeatedly, and forcefully set forth while the Trinity of God is implied and foreshadowed. In the New Testament, both doctrines are understood and assumed by the early church and taught by clearly by its writers and Church leaders. The post-apostolic church continued to believe and teach these doctrines. The reason why the doctrine of the Trinity of God is so difficult to understand and almost impossible to put into easy-to-understand language is because it revealed to believers by God Himself. It has no parallel in our world to adequately compare  it to.  It must be believed on the basis of faith.

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