Posts Tagged 'doctrine of the Trinity'

Mystery of the Trinity, Part 1

If you like mysteries, then you’ll enjoy studying the Trinity! There is only one God and only one Trinity and it might well be the most difficulty concept to explain. It is, however, a vitally important doctrine to get right. Church history is littered with churches and groups that got it wrong. There’s an obscure verse is Psalm 50 that shows us why we all need to think correctly about our God:

When you did these things and I kept silent, you thought I was exactly like you. But I now arraign you and set my accusations before you. (Psalm 50:21 | TNIV)

It offends God when we think wrongly about Him. In fact, it’s idolatry to worship a God we have invented in our minds, no matter how sincere we may be. Thinking rightly about God leads to eternal life:

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

And knowing God should be the life-long goal of every Christian, not just the eggheads and theologians among us:

This is what the Lord says: “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let those who boast boast about this: that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 9:23, 24 | TNIV)

You may wonder how it is possible to know and understand God, after all, He is God and the finite mind cannot possibly hope to comprehend that which is infinite. Paul taught as much when he wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?” [36] For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 11:33 – 36 | TNIV)

But at the same time, God is understandable to man.

However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived—these things God has prepared for those who love him”—for God has revealed them to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except that person’s own spirit within? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. (1 Corinthians 2:9 – 11 | TNIV)

Clearly, there are some aspects of God’s nature and character that will never be known to us, at least as long as we are on earth in the flesh. But God has revealed as much of Himself as He deemed necessary and it’s up to us to study the Word to discover the wonder of our God. The more we know about God, the easier it will be to live in obedience to His will.

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29 | TNIV)

Only one God

The Jews call these verse the Shema and they form the foundation of the Jewish and Christian faiths:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:4, 5 | TNIV)

As we try to understand the Trinity, we need to keep these verses mind. There is only one God, not three. In fact, the word “trinity” means “tri-unity.” But there are different kinds of unity; absolute unity and compound unity. For example, here is an example of compound unity:

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24 | TNIV)

The “one flesh” is a compound unity because we know that when a man and woman get married, two people are involved but they don’t really become a single person in the literal sense.

A completely different word is used to describe an absolute unity, which suggests absolute oneness. Here’s an example:

Put on sackcloth, my people, and roll in ashes; mourn with bitter wailing as for an only son, for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us. (Jeremiah 6:26 | TNIV)

And another:

For I too was a son to my father, still tender, and cherished by my mother. (Proverbs 4:3 | TNIV)

Can you see the difference? “Absolute oneness” refers to a son, for example. He is related to both his parents; he came from both his parents, but he is his own person. That particular Hebrew word is never used to describe the Trinity.

The unity referred to in Deuteronomy 6:4 is compound unity because the word used for “our God” is Elohim, a Hebrew word written in the plural. So our “compound God” is “one God.” The doctrine of the Trinity teaches the unity of God as a compound unity, made up of three Divine Persons united in an eternal, essential unity.

The Shema was key in Hebrew theology and philosophy. Everything descended from the fact that there was only one God, not many gods. Jesus was confronted by some religious folk who intended to trap Him. Read the exchange, and remember that Jesus is the Son of God:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. (Mark 12:28, 29 | TNIV)

As a member of the Trinity, Jesus was telling the religious leader that there was only one God, not multiple Gods. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, helps us understand what Jesus was getting at.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Corinthians 8:4 – 6 | TNIV)

A problem had popped up in the Corinthian church concerning some members eating food (meat) offered to idols. Other members thought they shouldn’t be doing that because it was offered to idols. As far as Paul was concerned, where the food came from was of no import because the idol it was sacrificed to represented nothing because, as the Shema says, “there is no God but one.”

People may think there are other “gods,” but in truth there is only one. Other pagan religions have their so-called gods, but they are unreal and they are all subordinate to the only real, supreme God. The one real God is the Father, the source of all there is, and Jesus Christ is the one through whom creation sprang.

Three persons

There is an incident in the life of Jesus that gives us a glimpse into the working of the Trinity and the relationship that exists between its Members.

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”. (Matthew 3:16, 17 | TNIV)

The things that jump off the page are the vision and the voice. The vision was the Spirit of God, in the form of a dove, coming down from heaven and lighting on Jesus. The voice boomed out, “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” The former showed where the power Jesus would exercise during His earthly ministry would come from, and the latter an assurance that He was truly the Messsiah. The audible voice of God showed that the Father was pleased with His Son’s obedience, both to His will in being baptized by John, and ultimately in the Cross, the culmination of our Lord’s earthly ministry.

As far as the vision of the Holy Spirit goes, it’s debatable whether anybody but Jesus saw this. However, there is very compelling evidence that suggests Jesus saw it and John the Baptist saw it. The latter so that he would truly believe that his cousin was indeed the Messiah. It’s fitting, really, for the Holy Spirit to appear “as a dove.” The Holy Spirit, as mighty and as powerful as He is, is gentle.

The unity of the Trinity may be a bit of a mystery, but it should be something we believe in. Paul gives us an idea of this mysterious unity in his benediction to the Corinthian church:

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 | TNIV)

As you can see, Paul knew that the members of the Trinity were all involved in various aspects of the lives of God’s people. Keep in mind that Paul wrote his letters and this benediction long before the Church wrote up any kind of formal doctrinal statement concerning the Trinity. From the Son comes grace. From the Father, Love. And the Holy Spirit creates a partnership in life among the believers. The members of the Trinity – all working together to support believers, both individually and corporately.

Distinctiveness

The fact that there is a union of three distinct Persons working together as Paul noted in passing is an important bit of theology. In the early 1900’s, a movement was spreading through the Church known as the “Jesus Only” movement. It was particularly strong in some Pentecostal denominations, where it was known as the “Oneness doctrine.” This doctrine stressed that there was only one person in the Godhead, Jesus. One version of the heretical “Oneness doctrine” held that the Father became Son who became the Holy Spirit. In other words, instead of three separate and distinct Persons who exist simultaneously, the Oneness people viewed the three Persons as consecutive, not simultaneous. A variant of this idea said that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all just manifestations of one God that take place different times and situations.

Though initially this heresy thrived in Pentecostal churches, many of those churches have vanished and others have renounced this heresy.  However, there are still evangelical churches today that preach a version of Oneness Pentecostalism. TD Jakes is a well-known denier of the Trinity. People like Jakes often use the word “trinity” but they don’t hold a traditional, Biblically orthodox view of it. Many Apostolic and holiness churches are non-trinitarian.

The Bible teaches that the Trinity is three separate and distinct Persons, yet one. Each member of the Trinity is the Godhead, yet conscious of the other Two. The Trinity is an eternal fellowship that has existed before the universe was created. God was never alone. That’s not to say there are three Gods. There aren’t. There is only one. The three members of the Trinity work together with a single mind and purpose. In that sense, the three are truly one. While the Father creates; the Son redeems, and the Holy Spirit sanctifies, all three are present and working at the same time.

Yes, the Trinity is a mystery. It’s like trying to grasp a ray of sunshine. But at the same time, the word “trinity” is a product of man, concocted to try to understand this part of God’s nature. Before the Church invented the word, the Trinity was alive and well. It is in that sense, a revealed doctrine. How else could man understand it if God Himself hadn’t revealed it to him?

for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:16 | TNIV)

 

 

 

 

 

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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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