Defending the Triune Nature of God
By Reed Benson
The trinity is one of the key foundational cornerstones of Christian orthodoxy. It has been clearly defined and taught throughout Western civilization for some two thousand years. There is abundant biblical support for this concept, which we shall soon examine. Virtually every one of the leading theologians of the Early Church, the High Middle Ages, and the Reformation Era have attested to the validity of the triune nature of God. The most carefully studied, debated, and crafted creedal statements in Christendom all embrace Jehovah as the triune God. Both Roman Catholics and the leading Protestant denominations teach that God is triune. Yet some do not accept this doctrine as truth. Why?
The Creator and His Creatures: A Vast Distinction
Those that reject the triune nature of God argue that the doctrine does not make sense; it is illogical and thus without merit. It would be foolish to casually dismiss such criticism, for God has made us rational beings and Scripture exhorts us to study, learn, and use our wits to gain understanding and wisdom. But while we do not wish to cast off reason and analytical thinking, let us consider factors that may be of even more value.
One of the central problems that generally emerge in this debate is a failure to recognize just how uniquely powerful God is and how puny and insignificant we are. The line of distinction between God, the Uncreated One, and man, one of his creatures, often gets blurred. To lay a foundation for understanding let us explore this area briefly.
Scripture plainly teaches that God created the universe in seven days. He created light out of nothing! Nothing! He spoke, and the earth was thereóit just appeared! He spoke again, and in an instant there were the stars. He placed them so infinitely far away that although there are unnumbered trillions of them and they are monstrously huge yet their unfathomable amounts of heat and light are barely noticeable from earth, even with the most powerful telescopes we have yet built. He also created all plants. Not a few, but vast unnumbered species of such beauty and diversity that we are still discovering and studying them! Some were designed to survive in deserts for years without a drink of water. Others reach towering heights in tropical rain forests, growing a foot per day. Some produce amazing healing medicines, while their counterparts are so toxic that a tiny amount can be fatal. But this was just the beginning of Godís amazing work. He instantly created a world of animals of incredible complexity. Every animal God made was complex and unique. From the shrew that must never stop eating or it will die within minutes to the crocodile which can live for two or three years between meals, Godís creative mind instantly caused these creatures to be. What kind of a divine being can do such things?
When we consider Godís vast unfathomable power and knowledge, what is man by comparison? We are prone to error. We are unable to see the consequences of our decisions. We serve our own lusts. We hurt and wound each other. We encounter many problems in life that we cannot solve. In contrast to God we are pathetic and stupid! As far as an earthworm is below us, so we are below God. As an earthworm cannot understand the nature of the man who plucks him up out of garden soil but simply follows its own instinctive simple impulses, so we cannot conceive the nature of God. We are no more able to grasp what makes God what He is, than can the earthworm understand who or what man is. As Proverbs 3:5 states, ". . . lean not unto thine own understanding."
A proper perception of the infinitely vast and superlative nature of God will help us accept that God is not like us in every respect. While we are made in his image, let us always remember that the gulf between us, the created, and Him, the Uncreated, is unimaginably vast. God made the universe, in all its intricacy and perfection, by a series of brief utterances. We, by contrast, may have a hard time making a pottery vessel out of blob of clay. It is arrogant in a most pathetic way to argue that Godís nature and being must be an arrangement that our pea-brains can understand. Why does the God of the universe have to exist in a manner that is limited by your intellect or mine?
It is a simple fact that we, as created beings, cannot reduce God to our understanding. To attempt to do so does nothing more than confuse us yet more.
But God has given us something to help our understanding of His nature and being. This is His revealed Word, the Bible. But it must be received in faith! We must believe in faith that God exists exactly as He reveals himself to us in Scripture.
The Progressive Revelation of the Godhead
Let us define what is meant by the triune nature of God. It is this: There is one divine indivisible essence, substance, and power which consists of three distinct subsistences or persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Each is fully God, co-eternal, with all the attributes of divinity, yet they in perfect union make up one God, Jehovah. That is to say, Godís divine being is three in one.
Over the centuries there have been a number of heretical views that deny the triune nature of Jehovah. The Monarchians admit to the unity, but deny the trinity. The Sabellians and Modalists asserted that the distinct persons of the Godhead were merely manifestations of the one divine essence and had no distinctiveness of their own. The Arians believed that the Son was not eternal, but was a creation of the Father. The Macedonians claimed that the Holy Spirit was not divine. The Unitarians today are descended from the Socinians who simply deny the trinity and do not believe that Jesus Christ was God. Many more heretical sects did or still exist that deny the triune nature of God. They flounder endlessly because they do not accept by faith the simple teaching of Scripture, but seek to rationalize what is difficult to understand. They do not understand because they do not exercise faith. The proper place of reason was succinctly stated by Anselm, the great Medieval British theologian: "I believe, in order that I might understand."
This triune nature of God has been revealed in Scripture in a progressive manner. There are distinct clues of this triune concept beginning in Genesis. But the chronological sequencing of Godís revelation through his prophets leads to a clearer picture of the Godhead with the passage of time. God the Father is profiled highly in the first portion of the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit is referenced occasionally. The revelation of Godís son, Jesus, is spoken of in the prophets, but was overlooked by those that did not have eyes to see. The New Testament, however, brings a full balance of the three divine persons that exist in the Godhead.
Biblical Revelation of the Three Divine Persons
Please consider the following items of biblical fact. They will prove to an open mind that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all divine, equal, and co-eternal with one another, each embodying all of the full attributes of divinity.
All are eternal. Father: "I am the first and I am the last, and beside me there is no God" (Isaiah 44:6). Son: "Fear not, I am the first and the last" (Revelation 1:17). Holy Spirit: ". . . through the eternal Spirit" (Hebrews 9:14).
All participated in creation. Father: "One God, the Father, of whom are all things" (1 Corinthians 8:6). Son: "For by Him [Jesus Christ] were all things created" (Colossians 1:16). Holy Spirit: "The Spirit of God hath made me" (Job 33:4).
All are omnipresent. Father: "Do not I fill heaven and earth?" (Jeremiah 23:24). Son: "Lo, I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20). Holy Spirit: "Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?" (Psalm 139:7).
All are omniscient. Father: "Known unto God are all his works" (Acts 15:18). Son: "Lord, thou knowest all things" (John 21:17). Holy Spirit: "The Spirit searcheth all things" (1 Corinthians 2:10).
All have a self-regulating will. Father: "Who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will" (Ephesians 1:11). Son: "He to whomsoever the son will reveal him" (Matthew 11:27). Holy Spirit: "Dividing to every man severally as He will" (1 Corinthians 12:11).
All emanate life. Father: "For with thee is the fountain of life" (Psalm 34:9). Son: "In Him [the WordóJesus Christ] was life" (John 1:4). Holy Spirit: "the Spirit is life because of righteousness" (Romans 8:10).
All exhibit divine love. Father: "If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (1 John 2:15). Son: "For the love of Christ constraineth us" (2 Corinthians 5:14). Holy Spirit: "I beseech you . . . for the love of the Spirit" (Romans 15:30).
All give divine law. Father: "The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul" (Psalm 19:7). Son: "And so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). Holy Spirit: "For the law of the Spirit of life . . ." (Romans 8:2).
All strengthen the believer. Father: "Thou . . . strengthenedst me with strength in my soul" (Psalm 138:3). Son: "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" (Philippians 4:13). Holy Spirit: "Strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man" (Ephesians 3:16).
All dwell in the heart of believers. Father: "I will dwell in them and walk in them" (2 Corinthians 6:16). Son: "That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith" (Ephesians 3:17). Holy Spirit: "The Spirit of truth . . . dwelleth with you and shall be in you" (John 14:17).
Biblical Revelation of One Divine Essence
Any open-minded person that simply reads the Bible and accepts it for what it states, will conclude that the Father is divine, the Son is divine, and the Holy Spirit is divine. All have attributes that can only be associated with divinity. Having come this far, some may mistakenly conclude that the Bible teaches that there are three gods. In fact, some teach the heresy that these three alleged separate and distinct gods constitute a family, a mini-pantheon not unlike the Greek and Norse pantheons of a family of divine beings.
This is quite wrong. While the Bible teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God, it also clearly teaches that there is only one God. Biblical Christianity is not tritheism, but most certainly monotheism.
Please consider the following passages that clearly teach that Jehovah is a singular divine being and that there is only one God in the Bible:
"That thou mightest know that the LORD he is God; there is none else beside him" (Deuteronomy 4:35).
"Hear O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD" (Deuteronomy 6:4).
"Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God and there is none like me" (Isaiah 46:9).
"Hear O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord . . . And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he" (Mark 12:29,32).
"We know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one" (1 Corithians 8:4).
"Thou believest there is one God: thou doest well: the devils also believe and tremble" (James 2:19).
How can an honest student of the Bible deny that there is only one God, one divine essence? Both Old and New Testament plainly teach that there is only one divine being.
But how can this be? Is this not a contradiction to the biblical fact just established above that the Father is a divine person, as is the Son, and as is the Holy Spirit? Is the Bible contradictory? Is it just a muddled mess of theological potpourri? No! The answer is the triune nature of God.
Biblical Revelation of Three Divine Persons in One Divine Essence
Scripture does not contradict itself. There are a number of passages that teach that the distinctive divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are united together in one God. Let us look at what the Bible teaches.
The gospel of John is one that skeptics love to rail against and seek to denigrate. The enemies of God despise it for a good reason: it forcefully and clearly shows that Jesus is one with the Father. Consider the testimony that John brings forth. "In the beginning was the Word [Jesus] and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). Later John records Jesus as stating quite simply, "I and my Father are one" (John 10:30). Jesus offers clarification for those that did not perceive the point He was making: "Believe the works: that ye may know and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in Him" (John 10:37-38). Continuing further into the gospel of John, more records of Jesusí statements appear in the same vein: "He that seeth me, seeth Him that sent me" (John 12:45). Two chapters later, he same thought is repeated: "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father" (John 14:9). The gospel of John leaves no wiggle roomóJesus is divine, His Father is divine, and they are together one divine God.
But what about the Holy Spirit? Note that we have previous shown that the Holy Spirit is fully divine. He is a distinct person with all attributes of divinity. A number of passages show that He is also one with the Father and the Son in the Godhead.
A positive identification of the three persons united is found in the final words of Christ, known as the great commission: ". . . baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matthew 28:19). Now if the Holy Ghost were not divine, why would one be baptized in the name of the Holy Ghost? If the Holy Ghost was merely a manifestation of the Father, or just the breath of the Father, then why would one be baptized in his name? Only one reality can be true: the Holy Spirit is a distinct person or subsistence of the one divine essence.
Some assert that St. Paul did not teach the divinity of the Holy Spirit. This is patently false. Several passages from the epistles of Paul have already been cited which show the Holy Spirit to have divine attributes. Please observe a further passage that shows the unity of the three persons by the hand of Paul: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen" (2 Corinthians 13:14). This closing salutation is perhaps sloughed off too quickly by many. This is the final thought of the apostle Paul in a lengthy letter. It clearly infers that each party mentioned is divine and yet unified in a singular essence. It is a clear reference to the triune nature of God.
The apostle Peter opens one of his letters with a similar thought: "Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ . . ." (1 Peter 1:2). Peter refers to one of the unique divine functions of each of the three members of the Godhead. It is written in a manner that presumes the reader is familiar with the triune nature of God. Peter does not pause to explain it; he alludes to it as a common understanding and then presses on. This is a powerful witness to the fact that the triune nature of God was widely perceived and accepting in the Apostolic Church.
A final passage closes the door so tightly that non-trinitarians immediately suffocate. They therefore refuse to reckon with this verse in and honest manner. It is 1 John 5:7: "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one." Wow! That ends all the debating! Well, almost. Since this passage cannot be reinterpreted, or spiritualized into meaninglessness, the anti-trinitarians only have one tactic left. They claim this verse does not belong in Scripture; it is an interpolation that was not in the original manuscripts. They argue that all of the Greek New Testament manuscripts omit this verse, except one, the Codex Montfortii, from Trinity College in Ireland. Yet, they fail to mention that Reformation Era scholars believed it should be included because it did appear in the Textus Receptus, the first printed form of the Greek New Testament which became the fountainhead for all of the best translations, including the Geneva and King James Bibles. Furthermore, it appears in the Latin Vulgate of Jerome which dates back to 400 A.D. In any case, the biblical proof of the triune nature of God does not rest upon 1 John 5:7. Abundant proof has been brought forth.
The Opinions of Wise Men
The Church does not exist in a vacuum. Past generations of scholars, preachers, and teachers have preceded us and have had to form an opinion on this matter of the godhead. Virtually without exception, the most brilliant and godly of men in preceding generations have concluded that the triune nature of God is absolute biblical fact. The most erudite of the Early Church Fathers taught this truth including Justin Martyr, Iraneaus, Ignatius, Johns Chrysostam, Athanasius, and Augustine. The best minds of the High Middle Ages taught this including Anselm, Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, and John Wycliffe. The most brilliant of the Reformation Fathers were believers and defenders of the triune nature of God including Martin Luther, John Calvin, Erasmus, and Ulrich Zwingli. In more recent centuries, the same pattern continues: the best minds are Trinitarian; Jonathan Edwards, JohnWesley, Charles Spurgeon.
All of the most carefully refined creedal statements and Confessions of the last two thousand years advocate clearly the triune nature of God. These include the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Council of Chalcedon, the Synod of Whitby, the Augsburg Confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Heidelberg Confession, and the Westminster Confession.
The great weight of Scripture and wise men all testify to the veracity of Godís triune nature. Do not shy away from this vital Christian doctrine.