The Trinity: Unbiblical and Irrelevant?

Andrei Rublev's Trinity, representing the Fath...

Andrei Rublev’s Trinity, representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a similar manner. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(This article was originally published in The Banner, February 11, 2002, pp. 24-26.)

“What is the Trinity? And what is its significance?” a student asked me. Perhaps, you have asked this question too at one time or another in your spiritual journeys. Although I answered her question, the question itself refused to go away.

Lately at York University, where I serve as the CRC Campus Minister, the doctrine of the Trinity has been under attack by various groups. For instance, Muslims were handing out booklets that claim Christians have misinterpreted the Bible’s passages concerning Jesus’ divinity, and thus, the Trinity is unbiblical. At the same time, a new Christian campus club was handing out tracts that deny the Trinity! This group claims that there are no three persons, merely one God with three manifestations or three disguises. As a result, some Christians at York are confused.

Even theologians and pastors question the Trinity from time to time. For example, a CRC [Christian Reformed Church] pastor once wrote in The Banner that he cannot understand the value or relevance of the doctrine for our daily lives (“Our Theology: Where Do We Go from Here?” The Banner, June 16, 1997, pp. 16-18).

I am convinced, however, that the doctrine of the Trinity is biblical and that it is relevant to our Christian faith. Before we look at the biblical and historical roots for the Trinity and its relevance, we should clarify exactly what the doctrine teaches.

What is the Trinity?

The 17th century reformer John Calvin summarized the doctrine of the Trinity as follows: “Father and Son and Spirit are one God, yet the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that they are differentiated by a peculiar quality” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, Book I, Chap. XIII, Sec. 5). It teaches that God is three persons in one. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal in dignity and essence. That is, all three are equally God, are equally eternal, equally almighty, and deserve equal worship and praise. But the doctrine also teaches that there are differences, especially in roles, between the three persons. {The Son is subordinate to the Father in his role, while the Spirit is subordinate to both the Father and the Son in its role (see the Belgic Confession, articles 8-11).}

Although the word “person” is used, it does not mean a separate rational and moral individual. When applied to God, “person” is an imperfect word used to express the distinctions between Father, Son and Spirit. These three persons are distinct but not divided; they are not separate. We do not have three gods or three separate beings but one God with three distinct persons. Some theologians prefer the term “Tri-unity” to Trinity, as it conveys the concept better. Many analogies or examples have been set forth by theologians to help Christians understand this mystery but all of them fail to do full justice to the Trinity.

The Biblical Roots

Critics of the Trinity argue that the word is never mentioned in the Bible nor is there a Bible text that explicitly teaches the concept. True, but there are enough textual clues in the Bible that point in the direction of the Trinity. Because of space I can list out only a few examples.

1. Texts that suggest the Trinity

In the baptism of Jesus, we see all three persons of the Trinity manifested at the same time: Jesus in the water, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and God the Father’s voice saying, “This is my Son, whom I love” (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 2:21-22). A similar statement is made concerning Jesus in his transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-5, Mark 9:2-7, Luke 9:28-35). Here, we see Jesus the Son, the Father’s voice, and some scholars think that the enveloping cloud is the Holy Spirit. The three are also mentioned in the angel’s announcement to Mary, the mother of Jesus: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Here we see the Spirit, the Father (Most High) and the Son (Jesus).

In Matthew 28:19 – “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” – we also see this triune formula. You should notice that the disciples are baptized “in the name” (singular), not “in the names” (plural), of the three persons, one and three. This baptism formula will be very peculiar if there is no such thing as the Trinity.

2. Texts that suggest the divinity of Jesus

Besides the Baptism and the Transfiguration passages above, Jesus also claims himself to be God: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus’ original Jewish audience clearly understood him to be claiming divinity and equality with God as they sought to stone him for blasphemy (cross reference John 5:17-18 and 8:58-59). When the disciple Thomas exclaimed to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus did not rebuke him for calling a mere man God but said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:28-29).

Some critics argue that the title “Son of God” should not be taken literally but metaphorically just as Christians are called “children of God”. But 1 John 2:22-23 says, “Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist – he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also”. John equates denying Christ with denying God the Father. Clearly, Jesus’ son-ship for John means more than simply being a metaphorical child of God.

3. Texts that suggest the divinity of the Holy Spirit

In addition to the Trinitarian formula in Matthew 28 above, there are other Biblical texts that equate the Holy Spirit with God. In Acts 5:3-4, for instance, Peter rebukes Ananias for lying to the Holy Spirit. Yet, a few sentences later, he said, “You have not lied to men but to God”.  And in Acts 28:25-26, Paul credits a passage in Isaiah (6:9-10) to the Holy Spirit’s inspiration even though Isaiah originally understood it as a word from God, Yahweh.

All these passages, and there are many more, suggest that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are equal to God, yet different. But the Scriptures are also clear that there is only one God, not three: “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The Trinity was the result of the early church’s theological attempts to try and make sense of, and do full justice to, all that Scripture is saying about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

The Historical Roots

The doctrine of the Trinity was fleshed out in opposition to various heresies in the early church. In the third century, for example, a heresy called Sabellianism argued that the Father, Son and Spirit are merely names or titles for the same being; there are no three distinct persons but only one God with three different manifestations. It is like a person with three different masks who assumes a different role at different times but is always the same person underneath the mask. The early church called this heretical because it contradicts Scripture. Christ often distinguished himself from both God the Father and the Holy Spirit (for instance, John 14:16, “And I [Jesus] will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor [Holy Spirit]”).

Another heresy, Arianism, emerged in the early fourth century. Its founder, Arius, taught that Jesus was not eternal but was created by God the Father and was, at best, a lesser God. The early church strongly opposed Arianism. It pointed to texts like John 1 that strongly suggests that Jesus is God, equally eternal, yet distinct from God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1-14). Furthermore, Arianism was tantamount to claiming that there were two Gods, one created, the other uncreated, which also contradicts Scripture.

In 325 A.D., the emperor Constantine called together over 300 bishops to meet at Nicea to deal with these heresies. The result of this first, ever, official council of the whole Christian church was the Nicene Creed, which affirmed that Jesus is “very God of very God; begotten, not made”. Significantly, the Trinity was as an affirmation by a unified church, before the split between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Ever since, the Trinity has been debated, challenged and fleshed out throughout church history till today. Readers may hear the echoes of these early heresies in some modern day theologies or even cults. Although it is fashionable to snub tradition and history with a “we now know better” attitude, I would not quickly dismiss a doctrine that the whole, unified, early church has affirmed in opposition to other views it deemed as heretical.

The Relevance of the Trinity

But how is this doctrine relevant to our 21st century lives? As we have seen from church history, the Trinity is necessary as a doctrine to explain and defend the truth that Jesus is God, that Jesus was not merely a human prophet or teacher, that God became flesh, suffered, died and resurrected to save fallen humans. If we throw out Jesus’ divinity and his equality with God, then we might as well be Muslims. The Trinity is one of the most distinctive Christian beliefs among all of the world’s religions. It is what makes the Christian God “Christian”, differentiating it from the gods of other religions.

True, to many of us the Trinity does not make logical sense. But that, to me, is one of its strengths. The Trinity cannot easily fit into existing frameworks of human thinking because the Trinity is the starting point, or the foundation, of its own way of thinking. Whereas most religions teach a way for humans to reach God, Christianity teaches that God reaches out to humans who are unable to reach him. Likewise, while most philosophies assume that we can reason our way to ultimate truths, the Bible suggests that we reason from truths that are revealed to us as a gift from God. We do not reason or think our way to the Trinity, we think or reason from the Trinity. The Bible never tries to prove the existence of God but assumes it as a starting point: “In the beginning God …” (Genesis 1:1). Since it is scandalous to human logic, the Trinity is a Biblical indictment on human intellectual pride; it is “foolishness to Gentiles,” but “the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:23, 25). It requires a conversion from other ways of thinking.

But what ways of thinking do the Trinity encourage? First of all, the Trinity helps us understand how God is both transcendent (far and beyond us) and immanent (near and close to us). As one Eastern Orthodox theologian puts it, the Father is God beyond us, the Son is God with us, and the Spirit, God within us. Evangelicals tend to focus so much on God’s immanence lately that they neglect his transcendence. When we think about God or worship him, we are always doing so to a triune God. So, a proper Trinitarian understanding of God helps us balance God’s transcendence and immanence in our theologies, liturgies and worship practices.

Secondly, the Trinity is the perfect framework for thinking about unity in diversity. If God himself is diverse yet united, then we shouldn’t be surprised to find utter diversity in his creation. Yet, there are patterns of order and unity from which we can derive physical laws and predictions. The Trinity is also the ideal for human communion. Our tendency is to either stress the unity (sameness) or the diversity (difference).

Finally, but not least, if God is eternally triune, then in one sense God is always a fellowship and never alone. And if we are made in God’s image, it makes sense why we are social beings, why it was not good for Adam to be alone (Gen 2:18), why God made us male and female, why we need each other to survive, to live, to thrive. The Trinity is the basis of all human fellowship. We should image the Triune God in our friendships, marriages, families, churches, schools, governments, organizations and communities. We should live out the Trinity in all our human relationships, creating communions of mutual love, of equality and order, of unity in diversity.

The doctrine of the Trinity seems irrelevant today because the church has made it irrelevant. How often have we preached it, taught it, affirmed it and applied it? By relegating the Trinity to theological textbooks, we have lost sight of a doctrine that is an important part of a Christian worldview. In an age of challenges from modernism, post-modernism and other religions, I believe the Trinity is now more relevant than ever.

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About Shiao Chong

Editor in Chief of The Banner, official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Formerly CRC Campus Minister serving at York University in Toronto, Canada. (All postings here are my personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of the CRC or of The Banner.)
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