Christianity is unique among world religions. All the rest are either strict monotheism (Islam, Judaism, Sikhism) or polytheism (Hinduism, et al).
The Bible, however, simultaneously affirms the unity[i] and the diversity[ii] of the Godhead. We can easily see unity and diversity in humanity. Individuals live in community. Families are made up of mothers, fathers, and children. In nonhuman creation we see a marvelous amount of diversity in plants, animals, and minerals. Within a species we see great specialization. All dogs are related but their differences are stark (and often amusing).
In contrast to Unitarianism (God is one person rather than three-in-one) on the one side and Tritheism (three separate Gods) on the other, the early church fathers struggled to articulate a biblically balanced Trinitarianism. Studying the scriptures that suggest or imply the Trinity,[iii] they articulated the mysterious doctrine that all orthodox Christians believe.
- Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. A.D. 125–c.202) “developed an understanding of God as one and many, of creation as reflecting this one-ness and many-ness of God, and of the work of the Son and the Spirit as bringing the whole of creation to its intended conclusion.”[iv]
- Athanasius (ca. A.D. 296-373) spoke of the “coequality of three persons.” He was the first to articulate that the members of the Trinity were identical in essence (homoousion) rather than similar in essence (homoiousion).
- At the pivotal Council of Nicea (ca. 325 A.D.), church leaders agreed upon the Nicene Creed, which handled this topic with great care:
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
- Gregory of Narianzen (ca. A.D. 329-389) stated, “I cannot think of the One, but I am immediately surrounded by the glory of the Three; nor can I clearly discover the Three, but I am suddenly carried back to the One.”
- Augustine (ca. A.D. 354-430) gave us the classic formulation of God being “three persons [who] are coequal and coeternal.”
The Athanasian Creed, written in the 4th or 5th century, affirms “… that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. Neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance.”[v]
Trinitarian faith affirms both the oneness and the many-ness of God, both His unity and diversity. Each person of the Trinity possesses the fullness of the divine essence (is coequally God). Yet each may be distinguished by His individuality. Each also has a different role, function, or mission in carrying out the divine plan.
In salvation, the Father is the author of the plan,[vi] the Son executes the plan through His life, death, and resurrection;[vii] and the Holy Spirit actuates the plan in the life of the believer through His works of regenerating, sanctifying, sealing, and indwelling.[viii] The Father plans our redemption and sends the Son.[ix] The Son goes, secures our redemption and obeys the Father.[x] The Holy Spirit enables Jesus to live his sinless life, go to the cross, rise from the dead. And the Holy Spirit applies the benefits of Christ to the believer.[xi]
Though the members of the Trinity are equal in divine being, there is a subordination of function. According to the teaching of Scripture, the Father has authority over the Son,[xii] while both Father and Son have authority over the Holy Spirit.[xiii] The Father is Father in His paternity and in sending His Son; the Son is Son, the begotten of the Father who lives in loving obedience to His Father’s will; and the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God who glorifies the Father and the Son. The Son deflects glory from Himself and glorifies the Father;[xiv] the Holy Spirit deflects glory from Himself and glorifies the Son.[xv]
Theologian Stephen D. Kovach summarized the biblical framework well when he said:
Take away equality of being and you no longer have the Son and Spirit as fully divine. Take away differences in role and you no longer have three distinct persons; there is nothing that makes the Son to be the Son rather than the Father, or the Spirit to be the Spirit rather than the Father or the Son. If we abandon eternal differences in role, then we also abandon the Trinity.[xvi]
I’ll admit that the nature of the infinite- personal God transcends human reason. But we must acknowledge this truth because God has revealed Himself this way, as both one and many, in His Word and in His creation.
The Creator is distinct from His creation, yet His personal attributes provide the pattern for all that is human–the image of God–both male and female. As such, we would expect to see this pattern repeated in creation–and we do.
We can find a surprising number of analogies, or pictures, of the Trinity, in creation. In nature, we see analogies to the Trinity in water (liquid–gas–solid) and in the atom (neutron–electron–proton).
Further analogies appear in time (past–present–future), in space (length–width– height), the primary colors (red–blue–yellow), and music (pitch–harmony–rhythm).
In man, we see threefold pictures of the Trinity in our inner makeup (spirit–soul– body), our familial relationships (mother–father–child), and so on.
What difference does belief in the Trinity make in the building of healthy societies and cultures? We’ll address that important question in a future post.
[i] Many scriptures teach that God is one, including Deuteronomy 6:4 and Isaiah 44:6, 8.
[ii] Many scriptures teach or imply that God is more than a simple unity, including Genesis 1:26-27 and 3:22, and Matthew 3:16-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22, John 14:16-17, and Ephesians 3:16-17.
[iii] Genesis 1:26-27; 3:22; 11:7; Matthew 3:16-17; 28:19; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 4:4-6.
[iv] Gunton on Creationwww.cafegrace.or.au/Articles/PictureOfCreation/GuntonOnCreation.cfm, (2 December, 2003).
[vi] Luke 22:42; John 4:34; 17:4; 1 Corinthians 11:3.
[vii] John 3:14-15; Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 15:3; Ephesians 2:13-18.
[viii] John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7-15; Ephesians 1:13-14.
[ix] See Trinitarian references in Ephesians 1
[x]Jo 5:16-30; Heb 10:5-7
[xi] 1Pet 1:1-2
[xii] Luke 22:42; John 4:34; 17:4; 1 Corinthians 11:3.
[xiii] John 14:26; 16:7, 13-14.
[xiv] John 17:4.
[xv] John 16:13-14.
[xvi] Stephen D. Kovach, “Egalitarians Revamp Doctrine of the Trinity,” CBMW News, December 1996, Vol. 2, No. 1, 4.