If the Bible Doesn’t Use “Trinity” to Describe God, Why Do We?

David Tae-Kyung Rim
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This is probably the most frequently asked and the most difficult question one can pose concerning the Christian faith. Yet it is so central to our faith that legions of theologians and philosophers have dared to tread these sacred grounds. Any response, especially in this limited format, will be incomplete and may be unsatisfying.

Let me begin by noting that while the term Trinity is not explicitly found in the Scriptures, the concept surely is. This doctrine is composed of three basic beliefs: (1) there is one God; (2) the Father is God; Jesus is God; and the Holy Spirit is God; and (3) all three divine persons are distinct.

As you have correctly noted, this presents the Christian with a dilemma. Either there is one God, and therefore, only one divine person; or, there are three divine persons, and therefore, three gods. But orthodox Christianity rejects both of these options as being heretical.

From all of eternity, the Christian God is one whose essence is love.

One route is to argue that there is one divine essence, which is constituted by three distinct persons, each identical to that divine essence. The oneness of the Trinity would refer to this divine essence. The threeness would refer to each of the divine persons, who simply are that one divine essence. This way of viewing things raises the issue of counting. How can there be only one essence when there are three divine persons identical to that one essence? That’s like saying one equals three. But one could argue that God transcends the human sphere in such a way that our concepts like “essence” or “person” cannot capture the rich details of the divine sphere. Think of it this way. A drawing by definition cannot be both a circle and a triangle. This is the case because one’s perspective is that of a flat plane— two-dimensional. But if we expand our world into three dimensions, then we could have an object, such as a cone, which could be seen as a triangle from one perspective and a circle from a different perspective. It is the two-dimensional world’s inability to capture the three-dimensional nature of the cone that produces this logical problem. Applying this to the issue at hand, our human concepts are like two-dimensional drawings trying to capture the reality of a three-dimensional divine Being.

The other route one can go is to argue that when we say there is one God, we mean that there is one “Godhead”—one divine society or family. In this case the Father, Son, and Spirit are members of the same divine family. The problem facing this particular model is whether the belief in one “Godhead” is as monotheistic as the belief in “one God.” This understanding of the Trinity seems to position Christianity dangerously close to polytheism. But at the same time, its advantage is in its logical clarity. The oneness of the Trinity references the Godhead; the threeness references the Father, Son, and Spirit, who are members of that one divine family.

Different orthodox Christian theologians and philosophers support both of these interpretations. Those who desire to affirm a strong sense of monotheism tend to opt for the first model presented. Those who believe that conceptual precision is absolutely necessary in the formulation of our doctrines tend to opt for the second.

No matter where our disagreements may be concerning this most complex but crucial doctrine, we cannot forget that the triune nature of God is another way of saying what John has written in his first epistle: “God is love.” From all of eternity, the Christian God is one whose essence is love, a selfless love of one person for another; a love so pure that it can only be pictured by the love of a parent for their only child.

For Further Reading:

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