What is the Trinity?

This is the first article in a series on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. To see MRM’s website page on the Trinity to see other resources, please click here.

By Eric Johnson

Understanding the meaning of the Trinity is important to Christians who hold the Bible as the authoritative Word of God. The word “Trinity” comes from two Latin words: the prefix “Tri” (meaning “three”) and “unity” (meaning “one”). The term was first used in the third century AD by the Church Father Tertullian and has been in use by Christians ever since. In his book The Forgotten Trinity (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1998), theologian James White  explains:

Christians believe in the Trinity not because the term itself is given in some creedlike form in the text of Scripture. Instead, they believe in the Trinity becasue the Bible, taken in its completeness, accepted as a self-consistent revelation of God, teaches that there is one Being of God that is shared fully by three divine persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (p. 29).

The concept of the Trinity is considered to be incomprehensible, in the sense that God’s nature is not fully understandable to the human mind. In other words, a characteristic of the nature of God is that He is transcendent, or above our thoughts. As Isaiah 55:8-9 put it:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

If the Trinity is true, then the doctrine ought to be cherished. Saying he “loves” the Trinity,  White explained:

A true and accurate knowledge of the Trinity is a blessing in and of itself. Any revelation of God’s truth is an act of grace, of course, but the Trinity brings to us a blessing far beyond the worth normally assigned by believers today. Why? Because, upon reflection, we discover that the Trinity is the hightest revelation God has made of himself to His people. It is the capstone, the summit, the brightest star in the firmament of divine truths. . . . God revealed this truth about himself most clearly, and most irrefutably, in the Incarnation itself, when Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, took on human flesh and walked among us. That one act revealed the Trinity to us in a way that no amount of verbal revelation could ever communicate. God has been pleased to reveal to us that He exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Since God feels it is important to know, we should likewise. And since God went through a great deal of trouble to make it clear to us, we should see the Trinity as a precious possession, at the very top of the many things God has revealed to us that we otherwise would have never known. (pp. 14-15).

The Athanasian Creed

Different definitions for the Trinity have been put forth over the years. E. Calvin Beisner explains in his book God in Three Persons (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1984) the four ways Christian creeds developed:

  1. “Christians wished to express briefly and succinctly, yet without imprecision or inaccuracy, what they taught about Christ and the rest of the faith.”
  2. “Creeds developed as ways of expressing what Christians experienced.”
  3. “Creeds were formed for the purpose of making known to prospective convers precisely what Christianity believed and taught, so that they could make informed decisions.”
  4. “Creeds were formed in order to combat what Christians though was error. . . . They were convinced that certain teachings called Christian were contrary to the teachings of Christ and the apostles. For this reason, councils met and creeds were formed not so much to preserve unity as to defend truth.” (pp. 16-17)

The Athanasian Creed was not the work of Athanasius, who participated in the Council of Nicea. It was probably written sometime in the fifth century and is an expansion of the Nicene Creed. The first half of the creed reads this way in its English translation:

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.

Don’t let the length of the previous paragraph scare you away! (If read slowly, you will see that it’s making an emphasis for each point.) Actually, we can easily break down the ideas of this creed into the following points:

  1. There is only one God, as described in the Bible (for example, Deut. 6:4; Mark 12:29).
  2. There are three Persons comprising the Trinity: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost (“One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity”
  3. Each Person of the Trinity is uncreated (self-existent)
  4. Each Person has always been and always will be God–they are coeternal
  5. Each Person is 100% God on His own
  6. While one may be in submission at a particular time, He remains equal with God
  7. The Trinity is to be worshipped

The doctrine is considered so important that the last line (“He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity”) explains how a person should not be considered to be a Christian in the full sense of the word unless there is acceptance of the Trinity!

The Nicene Creed (AD 325)  

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, god of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

And in the Holy Ghost.

[But those who say: “There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ or ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—the are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.]

Constantinople (AD 381)

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisibile.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (aeons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the son together is worshipped and glorified, who spake by the prophets. In one holy Catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Shorter definitions of the Trinity

James White provides his basic definition on page 26 of The Forgotten Trinity:

Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three coequal and coeternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

He explains how there are three foundations to the Trinity:

  1. Monotheism: There is one God
  2. There are three divine Persons
  3. The Persons are coequal and coeternal (p. 28).

Citing from the Nicene Creed,  Beisner explains:

…there is one God who is a being composed of three individuals, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all of whom are to be worshipped as the same God, and who share in the same substance or essence (God in Three Persons, p. 24).

He further explains in an even more consise way:

In the nature (or substance) of the one true God, there are three distinct persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Here is the primary idea of “tri-unity,” a “Trinity in unity,” three persons sharing equally in a single substance of deity.trinity

The illustration to the right has been used for many centuries by Christians to explain the Trinity. In essence:

  1. The Father is God
  2. The Son is God
  3. The Holy Spirit is God

However:

  1. The Father is not the Spirit or the Son
  2. The Son is not the Father or the Spirit
  3. The Spirit is not the Father or the Son

Biblical support for this teaching is provided in Is there Biblical support for the Trinity? and Does the Bible really say that Jesus is God?

This is the first article in a series on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. To see MRM’s website page on the Trinity to see other resources, please click here.