How Does the Trinity Work?

Sanjay Merchant
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Some consider the doctrine of the Trinity to be an impenetrable paradox, resulting from ancient theological nitpicking, a technical addendum to our shared faith with little practical significance for the Christian life. On the contrary, the Trinity is the central mystery of Christianity, disclosing edifying truths about God’s nature and revealing the deep logic of the gospel.

Understanding God’s Nature

Although the term Trinity is not explicitly recorded in the Bible, Scripture contains three relevant teachings about God’s nature: (1) there is one God; (2) the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equally divine; and (3) the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct divine persons. Those who accept the authority of Scripture cannot believe in more than one God; or that the Son and Spirit are lesser beings than the Father; or that the Father, Son, and Spirit are parts or personalities of a solitary divine person. The Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct divine persons who enjoy genuine communion with one another while individually and equally being the one true God. This profound idea is essential to Christian worship and proclamation.

Philosophy Comes Up Short

Admittedly, we cannot describe God with scientific precision since human philosophical tools are too crude to entirely settle questions about His being. The transcendent Source of reality is beyond our comprehension. For us, “His greatness is unsearchable” (Ps. 145:3). Humans cannot pretend to completely fathom our Creator. After all, as He announced through Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways. . . . For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8–9). Nonetheless, early theologians developed partial analogies to help us envision God’s nature and think more exalted thoughts about Him who, ultimately, surpasses our limited understanding.

Meditating on divine tri-unity is both an intellectual activity and an expression of reverence as we strive to know and love the glorious God who first loved us. “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways” (Rom. 11:33). Our worship begins as we consider God’s unrivaled majesty. “Before Me there was no God formed,” the Lord declares. “And there will be none after Me. I, even I, am the Lord, and there is no savior besides Me” (Isa. 43:10–11). Indeed, “the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4; see also James 2:19), who is “God in heaven above and on the earth below; there is no other” (Deut. 4:39). For this reason, the Israelites were forbidden to venerate other supposed gods and were charged to respect the Lord alone (see Ex. 20:3–4; 2 Kings 17:34–41; 1 Cor. 8:4–6).

Philosophy also indicates that there is only one maximally great being. Let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that Perfect Bob has all of God’s characteristics—including infinite power, knowledge, and goodness—and ask, “Can Perfect Bob keep a secret from God?” On one hand, it seems that he cannot since God knows everything. Yet, on the other hand, Perfect Bob can prevent others from knowing his secret since he is all-powerful. The absurd answer is that God would both know and not know Perfect Bob’s secret! Absurd situations, however, cannot occur, meaning that Perfect Bob cannot exist. As it turns out, there cannot be more than one maximally great being. “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me” (Isa. 46:9).

Jesus Is God

God, therefore, has no rival. The Holy One rightly asks, “To whom then will you liken Me that I would be his equal” (Isa. 40:25)? And yet, Jesus exercised authority over the Mosaic Law, claimed to inaugurate the kingdom of God through His preaching and miracles, professed to personally restore Israel, and forgave sins. Upon announcing that “I and the Father are one,” His opponents threatened to stone Him, protesting that “You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God” (John 10:30–33; also see 5:18).

After His ascension, Jesus’ followers proclaimed that the pre-incarnate Word, who “existed in the form of God” (Phil. 2:6), “became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) as “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). They called Him “bridegroom” (Matt. 25:1–12; Mark 2:19) and “husband” (Rev. 21:2), titles by which Israel identified the Lord as a God of intimate concern (see Isa. 62:5; Hos. 2:16), and revered Him as “savior” (Luke 2:11; 1 John 4:14), a name that God refuses to share with any other (Isa. 43:11). Jesus identified Himself as “I am” (John 8:58), alluding to the sacred name “Yahweh,” which the God of Israel had disclosed to Moses (Ex. 3:14). And the Almighty God of Revelation, “the Alpha and Omega” (Rev. 1:8), revealed Himself to be Jesus (Rev. 1:17–18; 21:5–7; 22:12–20).

The early church generally refrained from identifying Jesus as “God,” preferring “Lord” (1 Cor. 8:6), which conveys deity as the New Testament translation of Yahweh (Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; John 12:38; cf., Isa. 40:3; 53:1), so as not to imply that Jesus is the Father. Accordingly, Paul explained that while others worship “so-called gods . . . for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him” (1 Cor. 8:5–6), thereby equating God the Father and the Lord Jesus in Christian worship.

John, nevertheless, risked confusion by referring to the Word who became flesh as “God” (John 1:1) and “the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). In addition, he recorded that Thomas had called the risen Jesus “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Similarly, Peter and Paul described Jesus as “God and Savior” (2 Peter 1:1; Titus 2:13). And the writer of Hebrews quoted Psalm 45:6 (Heb. 1:8) and 102:25 (Heb. 1:10) in referring to the Son as “God” and “Lord,” respectively.

In addition to proclaiming His divine titles, the early church recognized Jesus as the Creator and Sustainer of the world (John 1:3, 10–11; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16–17; Heb. 1:3; cf., Isa. 44:24), Pardoner (Luke 5:21; Col. 3:13; cf., Ps. 130:4; Jer. 31:34), Redeemer (Gal. 3:13; Titus 2:13–14; Rev. 5:9; cf., Ps. 130:7; Hos. 13:14), and Judge (Matt. 25:31–46; John 5:22; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Tim. 4:1; cf., Joel 3:12).

“Trinitarian theology is, in large measure, an expression of the Christian experience of redemption.”

Most significantly, Christians profess to receive God’s grace and redemption in Christ, who is the first fruits (1 Cor. 15:20–23) and “author and finisher” of our faith (Heb. 12:2 NKJV), who wields divine power to save as the “one mediator . . . between God and men” (1 Tim. 2:5), and in whom we become new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17). He is the principal administrator of divine rescue and reconciliation, giving Himself as the substance of redemption. He does not simply offer salvation, He is our salvation. God, as triune, both redeems and reveals, compassionately restoring creation and disclosing Himself as the agent of restoration. The God who creates is the God who rescues; He is a Savior responding to His creation’s groaning.

Of course, Jesus Christ is predominately identified as God’s beloved Son (Matt. 3:17) who alone enjoys intimate knowledge of the Father (Matt. 11:27). “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand” (John 3:35)—including the powers to give life and judge the world (John 5:21– 22). Scripture thereby presents an analogy between divine and human fatherhood. Isaac, for example, was equal to his father, Abraham, in humanity, but obedient to him as a son. The Father, likewise, eternally generates the Son, Jesus Christ, who, being equally divine as “the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18), professed to “do exactly as the Father commanded me” so that “the world may know that I love the Father” (John 14:31).

Of course, Isaac is not the son of Abraham in precisely the same sense that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Even if Isaac were the “spitting image” of his father, resembling Abraham far more than his mother, Sarah, he did not wholly represent Abraham in appearance and personality. But Jesus is “the exact representation of His [Father’s] nature” (Heb. 1:3). Unlike human parents who contribute only part of themselves to their offspring, the impartible Father contributes His whole being to His Son. For this reason, Paul declared that “in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9), and when Philip asked Jesus to show him the Father, He replied, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father. . . . Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me?” (John 14:9–10). Jesus literally embodies God. Consequently, “whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23).

Scripture suggests another analogy, which effectively distinguishes divine begetting from human begetting, in identifying Jesus as “the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man” (John 1:9) and “the radiance of [God’s] glory” (Heb. 1:3). Just as sunlight pours out of the sun, flooding the earth with light and warmth, so the Son of God pours out of the bosom of the Father as the flawless expression of God’s truth and love to the world.[1] The sun analogy avoids the implication that God created Jesus at some time in the past.

The eternal Father eternally begets His eternal Son, just as an eternal sun would radiate eternal light. What is more, if there had been a time before the Son existed, God would have been potentially but not actually loving. God does not become love; God is love (1 John 4:8) by nature. He must, therefore, have an eternal beloved in His Son. In other words, there was no time at which the Father existed without His Son. Neither did the Spirit begin to come forth from the Father and Son; the procession of the Spirit is eternal (John 15:26).

The Holy Spirit Is God

The Spirit is God’s only provision for power by which we are “baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13; cf., John 3:5), being washed and sanctified (1 Cor. 6:11), by which we receive gifts—words of wisdom, words of knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues (1 Cor. 12:8–10)—and mature in godliness—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). The Spirit, however, is much more than divine energy. In keeping with Jesus’ testimony, John used masculine pronouns in reference to the neuter “Holy Spirit,” contrary to the rules of Greek grammar: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:26; also see 14:16–17; 15:26; 16:13).

“The God who loves and sends is the God who descends and redeems.”

Jesus had scandalized His audience by claiming to wield God’s authority, and His outrageous message and ministry carries on in the Spirit, who administered creation by hovering over the waters (Gen. 1:1), harmoniously wielding the singular divine power with the Father and Son, and who now comes in His name (John 7:39; 14:16–17; 15:26; 16:7–16; Rom. 8:9–10; Gal. 4:6). God’s saving presence did not cease with Jesus’ ascension but continues with the Spirit of truth, who wills (1 Cor. 12:11), fellowships (2 Cor. 13:14), testifies (Rom. 8:16), convicts, guides, speaks, glorifies, discloses (John 16:7–15), and is sinned against (Isa. 63:10; Matt. 12:31–32; cf., Acts 7:51; Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19). In fact, Paul referred to the human body, interchangeably, as “the temple of God” and “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19–20) and declared that “the Lord is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17–18). Peter as well equated lying to the Spirit with lying to God (Acts 5:3–4). Once again, the God who loves and sends is the God who descends and redeems.

Father, Son, and Spirit Are Distinct

The revelation of God’s divine Son exposes a personal distinction within deity. Fathers and their sons are related individuals. By the same token, the Father, Son, and Spirit are individuals; not the single-same divine person pretending to be three as God is neither narcissistic nor deceptive. When the Father loves the Son, He loves another. When Jesus prays to His Father, He addresses another. When the Spirit testifies of the Son, He testifies of another. But the revelation that God superintends the world through His Spirit indicates an essential unity among the divine persons. The distinct Father, Son, and Spirit share the one divine nature and, therefore, a single instantiation of eternality, all-powerfulness, all-knowingness, and perfect goodness. There are not three instantiations of each divine characteristic because there cannot be more than one God.

Early theologians—including Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzen—proposed another analogy to illustrate that the Father, Son, and Spirit share the same being as distinct persons. Imagine a pool of liquid gold from which three identical statues emerge, as the liquid flows through them.[2] We would not ask, how many golds exist? There is just one pool of gold. Likewise, we do not ask, how many gods exist? There is just one divine being. The Father, Son, and Spirit flow into one another, sharing divinity, as the statues share the pool of liquid gold.

The sun/radiance and gold analogies capture crucial aspects about God’s nature, although analogies cannot entirely convey the mystery of the Trinity. The exalted triune God ultimately exceeds our comprehension. Worshipers, all the same, adore Him who responds to creation’s groaning. Salvation is reconciliation with God the Father, achieved through the atoning work of God the Son, and affected by the ministry of God the Spirit. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4–6).

Trinitarian theology is, in large measure, an expression of the Christian experience of redemption, as evidenced by the invocation of the threefold “name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” at baptism (Matt. 28:18–19). The Trinity is integral to the apostolic message of salvation. So Paul bids the Corinthians, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14).

God Gave Himself for Us

The disciples touched the Son, who appeared in human flesh to atone for our sins on the cross, and witnessed the Spirit, who descended as a dove and tongues of fire to draw us to repentance. The advent of Jesus (“Yahweh’s salvation”), our Emmanuel (“God with us”), is initiated by the Father and facilitated by the Spirit. The incarnate Savior speaks at the direction of the Father (John 12:49) and works by the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:14; Acts 10:38).

Christ is not one who merely demonstrates a procedure for purging personal sins through humility. The incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection of God the Son attests that no earthly power can provide spiritual healing. God saves by giving Himself for us and filling us with His presence, spanning the chasm between heaven and earth in the persons of the Son and Spirit: His own commissioned Word and Breath, coming forth into the world.

[1] See Tertullian, Against Praxeas, 8 in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, ed. Allan Menzies (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), 1348–49; and Athanasius, On the Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia, 52 in Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, Nicene and Post- Nicene Fathers, ser. 2, vol. 4, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), 1180–81.

[2] Gregory of Nyssa, “To Ablabius: On ‘Not Three Gods’” in Select Writings and Letters of Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ser. 2, vol. 5, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), 623–24.

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