Theological term used to define God as an undivided unity expressed in the threefold nature of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. As a distinctive Christian doctrine, the Trinity is considered as a divine mystery beyond human comprehension to be reflected upon only through scriptual revelation. The Trinity is a biblical concept that expresses the dynamic character of God, not a Greek idea pressed into Scripture from philosophical or religious speculation. While the term trinity does not appear in Scripture, the trinitarian structure appears throughout the New Testament to affirm that God Himself is manifested through Jesus Christ by means of the Spirit.
A proper biblical view of the Trinity balances the concepts of unity and distinctiveness. Two errors that appear in the history of the consideration of the doctrine are tritheism and unitarianism. In tritheism, error is made in emphasizing the distinctiveness of the Godhead to the point that the Trinity is seen as three separate Gods, or a Christian polytheism. On the other hand, unitarianism excludes the concept of distinctiveness while focusing solely on the aspect of God the Father. In this way, Christ and the Holy Spirit are placed in lower categories and made less than divine. Both errors compromise the effectiveness and contribution of the activity of God in redemptive history.
The biblical concept of the Trinity developed through progressive revelation. See Revelation. The Old Testament consistently affirms the unity of God through such statements as, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). See Shema. God's oneness is stressed to caution the Israelites against the polytheism and practical atheism of their heathen neighbors.
The Old Testament does feature implications of the trinitarian idea. This does not mean that the Trinity was fully knowable from the Old Testament, but that a vocabulary was established through the events of God's nearness and creativity; both receive developed meaning from New Testament writers. For example, the word of God is recognized as the agent of creation (Psalms 33:6,Psalms 33:9; compare
Proverbs 8:27), revelation, and salvation (Psalms 107:20). This same vocabulary is given distinct personality in John's prologue (John 1:1-4) in the person of Jesus Christ. Other vocabulary categories include the wisdom of God (Proverbs 8:1) and the Spirit of God (Genesis 1:2;
A distinguishing feature of the New Testament is the doctrine of the Trinity. It is remarkable that New Testament writers present the doctrine in such a manner that it does not violate the Old Testament concept of the oneness of God. In fact, they unanimously affirm the Hebrew monothestic faith, but they extend it to include the coming of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The early Christian church experienced the God of Abraham in a new and dramatic way without abandoning the oneness of God that permeates the Old Testament. As a fresh expression of God, the concept of the Trinity—rooted in the God of the past and consistent with the God of the past—absorbs the idea of the God of the past, but goes beyond the God of the past in a more personal encounter.
The New Testament does not present a systematic presentation of the Trinity. The scattered segments from various writers that appear throughout the New Testament reflect a seemingly accepted understanding that exists without a full-length discussion. It is embedded in the framework of the Christian experience and simply assumed as true. The New Testament writers focus on statements drawn from the obvious existence of the trinitarian experience as opposed to a detailed exposition.
The New Testament evidence for the Trinity can be grouped into four types of passages. The first is the trinitarian formula of
2 Corinthians 13:14;
1 Peter 1:2;
Revelation 1:4. In each passage a trinitarian formula, repeated in summation fashion, registers a distinctive contribution of each person of the Godhead.
Matthew 28:19, for example, follows the triple formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that distinguishes Christian baptism. The risen Lord commissioned the disciples to baptize converts with a trinitarian emphasis that carries the distinctiveness of each person of the Godhead while associating their inner relationship. This passage is the clearest scriptural reference to a systematic presentation of the doctrine of the Trinity.
2 Corinthians 13:14, finalized his thoughts to the Corinthian church with a pastoral appeal that is grounded in “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (NIV). The formulation is designed to have the practical impact of bringing that divided church together through their personal experinece of the Trinity in their daily lives. Significantly, in the trinitarian order Christ is mentioned first. This reflects the actual process of Christian salvation, since Christ is the key to opening insight into the work of the Godhead. Paul was calling attention to the trinitarian consciousness, not in the initial work of salvation which has already been accomplished at Corinth, but in the sustaining work that enables divisive Christians to achieve unity.
1 Peter 1:2, the trinitarian formula is followed with reference to each person of the Godhead. The scattered Christians are reminded through reference to the Trinity that their election (foreknowledge of the Father) and redemption (the sanctifying work of the Spirit) should lead to holy living obedience to the Son).
John addressed the readers of Revelation with an expanded trinitarian formula that includes references to the persons of the Godhead (Revelation 1:4-6). The focus on the triumph of Christianity crystallizes the trinitarian greeting into a doxology that acknowledges the accomplished work and the future return of Christ. This elongated presentation serves as an encouragement to churches facing persecution.
A second type of New Testament passage is the triadic form. Two passages cast in this structure are
Ephesians 4:4-6 and
1 Corinthians 12:3-6. Both passages refer to the three Persons, but not in the definitive formula of the previous passage. Each Scripture balances the unity of the church. Emphasis is placed on the administration of gifts by the Godhead.
A third category of passages mentions the three persons of the Godhead, but without a clear triadic structure. In the accounts of the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:3-17;
Mark 1:9-11; and
Luke 3:21-22), the three synoptic writers recorded the presence of the Trinity when the Son was baptized, the Spirit descended, and the Father spoke with approval. Paul, in
Galatians 4:4-6, outlined the work of the Trinity in the aspect of the sending Father. Other representative passages in this category (2 Thessalonians 2:13-15;
Titus 3:4-6; and
Jude 1:20-21) portray each member of the Trinity in relation to a particular redemptive function.
The fourth category of trinitarian passages includes those presented in the farewell discourse of Jesus to His disciples (John 14:16;
John 16:13-15). In the context of these passages, Jesus expounded the work and ministry of the third person of the Godhead as the Agent of God in the continuing ministry of the Son. The Spirit is a Teacher who facilitates understanding on the disciples' part and, in being sent from the Father and the Son, is one in nature with the other Persons of the Trinity. He makes known the Son and “at the same time makes known the Father who is revealed in the Son” (John 16:15). The discourse emphasizes the interrelatedness of the Trinity in equality and operational significance.
All of these passages are embryonic efforts by the early church to express its awareness of the Trinity. The New Testament is Christological in its approach, but it involves the fullness of God being made available to the individual believer through Jesus and by the Spirit. The consistent trinitarian expression is not a formulation of the doctrine, as such, but reveals an experiencing of God's persistent self-revelation.
In the postbiblical era, the Christian church tried to express its doctrine in terms that were philosophically acceptable and logically coherent. Greek categories of understanding began to appear in explanation efforts. Discussion shifted from the New Testament emphasis on the function of the Trinity in redemptive history to an analysis of the unity of essence of the Godhead.
A major question during those early centuries focused on the oneness of God. The Sabelians described the Godhead in terms of modes that existed only one at a time. This theory upheld the unity of God, but excluded His permanent distinctiveness. The Docetists understood Christ as an appearance of God in human form, while Ebonites described Jesus as an ordinary man indwelt with God's power at baptism. Arius was also an influential theologian who viewed Jesus as subordinate to God. To Arius, Jesus was a being created by God, higher than man, but less than God. This idea, as well as the others, was challenged by Athanasius at Nicea (A.D. 325), and the council decided for the position of Jesus as “of the exact same substance as the Father.”
Probably the most outstanding thinker of the early centuries was Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430). He began with the idea of God as one substance and sought explanation of the Godhead in psychological analogy: a person exists as one being with three dimensions of memory, understanding, and will; so also the Godhead exists as a unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While this explanation is helpful and contains the concept of three persons in one, it does not resolve the complex nature of God.
Perhaps four statements can summarize and clarify this study.
1. God is One. The God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. His offer of salvation in the Old Testament receives a fuller revelation in the New Testament in a way that is not different, but more complete. The doctrine of the Trinity does not abandon the monotheistic faith of Israel.
2. God has three distinct ways of being in the redemptive event, yet He remains an undivided unity. That God the Father imparts Himself to mankind through Son and Spirit without ceasing to be Himself is at the very heart of the Christian faith. A compromise in either the absolute sameness of the Godhead or the true diversity reduces the reality of salvation.
3. The primary way of grasping the concept of the Trinity is through the threefold participation in salvation. The approach of the New Testament is not to discuss the essence of the Godhead, but the particular aspects of the revelatory event that includes the definitive presence of the Father in the person of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
4. The doctrine of the Trinity is an absolute mystery. It is primarily known, not through speculation, but through experiencing the act of grace through personal faith. See God; Jesus Christ; Holy Spirit.
Jerry M. Henry