All Christians struggle with the doctrine and reality of the Trinity. It is a characterization of God that simply defies easy, intuitive explanation. I too struggled with it. As a result, I have puzzled over it with the sincere intent to find an understandable way to describe it to myself that doesn’t violate what the Bible reveals about it.
In developing this understandable explanation, I don’t want to side track that goal by delving into all of the other “personalities” or “characteristics” of God. Many fine books have been written on this subject over the millennia. My goal is simply to develop a non-philosophical way of thinking about God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in terms that an average Christian can internalize and relate to.
The early church too wrestled with the concept of the Trinity. They labored on several occasions in the early centuries, sometimes for decades, to craft statements of their beliefs including this key doctrine. For example, the Apostles’ Creed says:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.
What this and other creeds don’t do very well is explain who or what their authors thought these three manifestations of God were. This one says God the Father was the Creator of heaven and earth. And that Jesus Christ was His only “son”. These are descriptions of roles, to some degree, as is the mention of the Holy Spirit in conceiving Jesus in Mary. But other than that, we don’t learn anything insightful about any of them.
However, if you look at some of the writings and debates of the authors of these early creeds, you do find a helpful idea, and that is the idea labelled homoousios, meaning ‘of the same substance or essence’. For me, this, along with Jesus’ statement in John 10:30 “I and the Father are One”, is the beginning of wisdom.
Three in One, or Three of One?
The thing I, and I believe most other Christians, wrestle with is knowing how these “persons” of God interrelate. This site has a useful table that I’ve borrowed, below, that helps set the stage by noting that each of the persons of the Trinity has far more in common than in distinction.
|Called God||Phil. 1:2||John 1:1,14; Col. 2:9||Acts 5:3-4|
|Creator||Isaiah 64:8||John 1:3; Col. 1:15-17||Job 33:4, 26:13|
|Resurrects||1 Thess. 1:10||John 2:19, 10:17||Rom. 8:11|
|Indwells||2 Cor. 6:16||Col. 1:27||John 14:17|
|Everywhere||1 Kings 8:27||Matt. 28:20||Psalm 139:7-10|
|All knowing||1 John 3:20||John 16:30; 21:17||1 Cor. 2:10-11|
|Sanctifies||1 Thess. 5:23||Heb. 2:11||1 Pet. 1:2|
|Life giver||Gen. 2:7: John 5:21||John 1:3; 5:21||2 Cor. 3:6,8|
|Fellowship||1 John 1:3||1 Cor. 1:9||2 Cor. 13:14; Phil. 2:1|
|Eternal||Psalm 90:2||Micah 5:1-2||Rom. 8:11; Heb. 9:14|
|A Will||Luke 22:42||Luke 22:42||1 Cor. 12:11|
|Speaks||Matt. 3:17; Luke 9:25||Luke 5:20; 7:48||Acts 8:29; 11:12; 13:2|
|Love||John 3:16||Eph. 5:25||Rom. 15:30|
|Searches the heart||Jer. 17:10||Rev. 2:23||1 Cor. 2:10|
|We belong to||John 17:9||John 17:6||…|
|Savior||1 Tim. 1:1; 2:3; 4:10||2 Tim. 1:10; Titus 1:4; 3:6||…|
|We serve||Matt. 4:10||Col. 3:24|
|Believe in||John 14:1||John 14:1|
|Gives joy||John 15:11||John 14:7|
|Judges||John 8:50||John 5:21, 30|
These actions or attributions of “God” are made in the Bible to each of the three persons of the Trinity. So if you labor under the conviction, for example, that God the Father is the “judger”, well, it’s not quite that simple. Are you committed to the nature of Jesus, identified in John, as the Logos – the Word? Seems the Father and the Holy Spirit also speak and create. And, of course, they’re all identified as “God”.
So how are we to think about this? I have boiled it down, for myself, this way.
One God, Many Missions
God (the Father, if you wish) is God. He is unary. He is existent. He didn’t “create” Himself or any expression of Himself. He just Is.
For whatever reason (“His good pleasure”) He created – the universe, us – to fulfill His plan. Now this Creation and His plan for it put two new requirements on Him that He did not have before the Creation. First, because He created us as un-god-like creatures, He was going to have to at some point give us the opportunity to confess our ungodliness and seek Him. We couldn’t even come into His presence in our current ungodly state, but would first have to be redeemed by something only He could provide.
For us that was the Son. And once He had done that He would have to provide a strengthener and sustainer so that having had the opportunity provided to be in His presence, we could be equipped to live this life as if we were in fact godly (not just be redeemed from being ungodly). For us, that strengthener is the Holy Spirit.
Now, Jesus represented an incarnation of God in human form. He had two primary missions: teach us about God and His new covenant with us, and; die for our ungodliness to redeem us to Himself. It’s quite interesting to note that up until Jesus, God only rarely and fleetingly interacted with us in human form. He typically either interacted with His people directly, as in the Hebrew exodus, or He interacted through His chosen prophets, who in turn taught their people God’s will.
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. Hebrews 1:1-3
Jesus was different in that not only did He have to provide a new teaching, but He also had to form a small group of disciples versed in that teaching that could spread it to the world. And more importantly, He also needed to fulfill the redeeming role of the sacrificial lamb.
But wait, you might say, God is supposed to be omnipresent – everywhere. Jesus wasn’t everywhere, so how was He God? No, Jesus the person was not everywhere. But Jesus the person was a human implementation of God the Universal, the Omnipresent, specifically for the purpose of interacting with other humans in carrying out His teaching, and of course, sacrifice. A wave isn’t an entire ocean. But it’s a feature, an incarnation if you will, of the same stuff. It breaks and disappears on the beach but remains inextricably ocean.
Similarly, throughout the Bible, the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of God is the agency of God who assists people of faith. He is said to “come upon” people such as Joshua, David and Saul, and many of the judges to invariably accomplish some specific purpose. In the New Testament, however, the Spirit not only comes upon believers but indwells them, starting at the Pentecost. Evangelicals like to talk about God’s “grace” – His enabling of us to do things He wants us to do that we cannot do of ourselves. The agent of Grace is the Holy Spirit.
Rather than frame the issue of the “persons” of Trinity as “three in One”, maybe we’d be better off looking at God’s plan of Creation and redemption, and think about how He would best interact with us in that Creation to achieve His plan. Before people exist, there is no need for a specific manifestation of God, only His creative expression. So at that time we only read of the universal presence of God. He isn’t a “father” manifestation at that time, as there was as yet no family.
After man is created, as specific people useful within His plan emerge, we see Him interact either directly with them (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses) or, a little later, through His representatives – prophets and the like. It is hardly necessary for us to debate or nail down whether these manifestations were the universal Father or the Holy Spirit, though much of these interactions have the character of a father with His children. What was necessary to God’s plan was simply that He manifest Himself to provide information about Himself and direction to His people.
Then, when it was time for redemption, God manifested Himself as Jesus to teach and commission His disciples to spread the Gospel – the announcement of His Kingdom, be sacrificed, and be resurrected. When Jesus was gone, God manifested Himself as Holy Spirit again to His people, but this time to be their permanent support and strength to live in His Kingdom in faith. The Spirit is the present manifestation of God to us and will be until He returns to claim and rule His people and His Creation[i].
How God has manifested Himself to us has had only to do with how He could best interact with us to achieve His plan. We don’t need some arcane, mystical, theo-philosophy of a Trinity to understand this. God is one God.
“Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.”
The vast majority of Christians take it on faith, backed up by some scriptural support (see above), that Jesus “is God”. At the same time they have to explain why Jesus was not omnipresent (He was one place at a time), omniscient (He didn’t know the time of the end – “only the Father” knew) or omnipotent (He had to sleep just as we all do).
At the beginning of His ministry, we see Jesus being baptized by the Baptizer and:
the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
At the virtually same moment, we see the Spirit of God descend onto Jesus, and then hear the Father’s voice. This scene forces us to grapple with the question: “If Jesus is and was from the beginning God – as much God, as Son, as the Father is God, why was it necessary for God to impart His Spirit on Jesus”? If Jesus was God always, didn’t He always have God’s Spirit?
It seems to me we have two possibilities for resolving this. One is that this event was merely PR: a public display for the benefit of those who witnessed it to establish Christ’s credibility with them. The other possibility is that Jesus the person inhabiting Jesus the man was indeed the Son of God from the beginning, but as Jesus the human He had not yet been filled perfectly, completely with His divine Spirit. The more I think about it, the more I like this later explanation.
Now in saying Jesus was filled with the Spirit, we’re not talking about the same degree of being filled with the Spirit that regular Christians experience from time to time, nor the experience other figures in the Bible had over the centuries leading up to and following Christ’s life. No, this is something quantitatively different: perfect, and complete.
Once that filling had occurred and only then could one rationally equate (as opposed to by faith) the human Jesus the Christ with God. At that point He was 100% God on earth, though still wrapped in a mortal body. He had the mind of God, and He had the heart of God.
The orthodox would complain that this is a heresy: “Jesus was God from before the beginning…period.” I would simply point out two things. First, once the Spirit had perfectly indwelt the human Jesus, there’s no way to quantify in what way He is different from their idea of the eternally existent God Jesus. The Spirit of God indwelt in Jesus the man had indeed existed eternally. God from the beginning focused His plan for His Creation on His Incarnation and sacrifice on earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Think of God, in reflecting on His plan saying, in so many “words”: “I’m going to cause Mary to become pregnant and take up residence in her son, and, when the time is right, experience human torture and mortal death.” The action of Creation was through God’s speech — His Word: “Let there be…”, and the redemption of the resulting Creation was by the same entity, the One we would know as Jesus. And second, if Jesus in His incarnation was God at all times, why was He only later given God’s Spirit?
The church fathers had decades of heated arguments on this subject, in particular the nature of Christ. Interestingly, they were prompted in their debate by the Greek understanding that there were only two forms of substance in the universe: God and matter. To them, “matter” was either earth, wind, fire or air. The question the church fathers argued over was whether Jesus was “God stuff” or “matter stuff”, which was settled at Nicaea in 325 in concluding that, indeed, Jesus was “God stuff” despite being temporally housed in “matter stuff” — that His “substance” was identical with the “substance” of the Father and the Spirit (homoousios). This also quelled a debate as to whether God “made” Christ or whether Christ had been eternal with God, the idea being that if Christ was “made”, He had to be made from something, and the only stuff to make something from was matter. So they agreed that Jesus had been “begotten” by God — taken from God’s own substance, and thus had the eternality of God and didn’t have to have, as some argued, a beginning.
From just this capsule summary, you can see the tip of the mental gymnastics iceberg theologians, both ancient and modern, contort their way through to confer divinity on Jesus (who they all see as a different instance than the Father), and then still continue to argue each syllable if, to them, it isn’t said in quite the right way. Enough! God is God. If He wants to inhabit a human being, whether his name is Jesus or Joe, He does so. If He wants to speak all the energy and matter in our universe into existence, He does it. Focus on that, not the argumentation surrounding His forms.
[i] I learned only after wrestling with this issue for myself and writing of my conclusions here that the technical description of this understanding is called “modalism”, a well-established theory of the Godhead. However, I am not a classical Modalist in that I don’t believe that the Divine manifests Himself as only one modality at a time, but in however many forms and realities are necessary to accomplish His will. So, when it came time for His incarnation as Jesus, He launched that manifestation. When it came time to demonstrate the outpouring of His Spirit on Jesus, He launched another manifestation. When He needed to speak with Abraham face-to-face (Gen 18), He launched another manifestation (maybe three!) and they all spoke and ate together!. And none of these manifestations diminished in any way the essence of the eternal God, Who is always and everywhere present. This view I’m calling “Coexistence Modalism” to highlight that the modalities of God that can be experienced by humans are coexistent with and features of the eternal Divine. Remember: “God is Spirit” (John 4:24).