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If any doctrine makes Christianity Christian, then surely it is the doctrine of the Trinity. The three great ecumenical creeds—the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed—are all structured around our three in one God, underlying the essential importance of Trinitarian theology. Augustine once commented about the Trinity that “in no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.” More recently, Sinclair Ferguson has reflected on “the rather obvious thought that when his disciples were about to have the world collapse in on them, our Lord spent so much time in the Upper Room speaking to them about the mystery of the Trinity. If anything could underline the necessity of Trinitarianism for practical Christianity, that must surely be it!”

Yet, when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity, most Christians are poor in their understanding, poorer in their articulation, and poorest of all in seeing any way in which the doctrine matters in real life. One theologian said, tongue in cheek, “The trinity is a matter of five notions or properties, four relations, three persons, two processions, one substance or nature, and no understanding.” All the talk of essence and persons and co-this and co-that seem like theological gobbledy-gook reserved for philosophers and scholars–maybe for thinky bookish types, but certainly not for moms and mechanics and middle-class college students.

So in a few hundred words let me try to explain what the doctrine of the Trinity means, where it is found in the Bible, and why it matters.

First, what does the doctrine mean? The doctrine of the Trinity can be summarized in seven statements. (1) There is only one God. (2) The Father is God. (3) The Son is God. (4) The Holy Spirit is God. (5) The Father is not the Son. (6) The Son is the not the Holy Spirit. (7) The Holy Spirit is not the Father. All of the creedal formulations and theological jargon and philosophical apologetics have to do with safeguarding each one of these statements and doing so without denying any of the other six. The Athanasian Creed puts it this way: “Now this is the catholic faith: That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons, nor dividing their essence. For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and that of the Holy Spirit, still another. But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.”

The two key words here are essence and persons. When you read “essence”, think “Godness.” All three Persons of the Trinity share the same “Godness.” One is not more God than another. None is more essentially divine than the rest. When you read “persons”, think “a particular individual distinct from the others.” Theologians use these terms because they are trying to find a way to express the relationship of three beings that are equally and uniquely God, but not three Gods. That’s why we get this confusing language of essence and persons. We want to be true to the biblical witness that there is an indivisibility and unity of God, even though Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can all be rightly called God. The Persons are not three gods; rather, they dwell in communion with each other as they subsist in the divine nature without being compounded or confused.

Confusing isn’t it? Sometimes it’s easier to understand what we believe by stating what we don’t believe. Orthodox Trinitarianism rejects monarchianism which believes in only one person (mono) and maintains that the Son and the Spirit subsists in the divine essence as impersonal attributes not distinct and divine Persons. Orthodox Trinitarianism rejects modalism which believes that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are different names for the same God acting in different roles (like the well-intentioned but misguided “water, vapor, ice” analogy). Orthodox Trinitarianism rejects Arianism which denies the full deity of Christ. And finally, orthodox Trinitarianism rejects all forms of tri-theism, which teach that the three members of the Godhead are, to quote a leading Mormon apologist, “three distinct Beings, three separate Gods.”

Second, where is the doctrine of the Trinity found in the Bible? Although the word “Trinity” is famously absent from Scripture, the theology behind the word can be found in a surprising number of verses. For starters there are verses that speak of God’s oneness (Deut. 6:4; Isa. 44:6; 1 Tim. 1:17). Then there are the myriad of passages which demonstrate that God is Father (e.g., John 6:27, Titus 1:4). Next, we have the scores of texts which prove the deity of Jesus Christ, the Son—passages like John 1 (“the word was God”), John 8:58 (“before Abraham was born, I am”), Col. 2:9 (“in Christ all the fullness of Deity lives in bodily form”), Heb. 1:3 (“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his being”), Tit. 2:13 (“our great God and Savior Jesus Christ”)–not to mention the explicit worship Christ willingly received from his disciples (Luke 24:52; John 20:28) and the charges of blasphemy leveled against him for making himself equal with God (Mark 2:7). Then we have similar texts which assume the deity of the Holy Spirit, calling Him an “eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14) and using “God” interchangeably with the “Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 3:16 and 1 Cor. 6:19; Acts 5:3-4) without a second thought.

The shape of Trinitarian orthodoxy is finally rounded off by texts that hint at the plurality of persons in the Godhead (Gen. 1:1-3, 26; Psalm 2:7; Dan. 7), texts like 1 Cor. 8:6 which place Jesus Christ as Lord right in the middle of Jewish Shema, and dozens of texts that speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the same breath, equating the three in rank, while assuming distinction of personhood (Matt. 28:19; Gal. 4:6; 1 Cor.12:4-6; 1 Peter 1:1-2; 2 Cor. 2:21-22; 13:14; Eph. 1”13-14; 2:18, 20-22; 3:14-17; 4:4-6; 5:18-20; 6:10-18).

The doctrine of the Trinity, as summarized in the seven statements earlier, is not a philosophical concoction by some over-zealous and over-intelligent early theologians, but one of the central planks of orthodoxy which can shown, explicitly or implicitly, from a multitude of biblical texts.

Third, why does any of this matter? There are lots of reasons, but borrowing from Robert Letham’s work, and in Trinitarian fashion, let me mention just three.

One, the Trinity matters for creation. God, unlike the gods in other ancient creation stories, did not need to go outside himself to create the universe. Instead, the Word and the Spirit were like his own two hands (to use Irenaeus’ famous phrase) in fashioning the cosmos. God created by speaking (the Word) as the Spirit hovered over the chaos. Creation, like regeneration, is a Trinitarian act, with God working by the agency of the Word spoken and the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit.

Two, the Trinity matters for evangelism and cultural engagement. I’ve heard it said that the two main rivals to a Christian worldview at present are Islam and Postmodernism. Islam emphasizes unity—unity of language, culture, and expression—without allowing much variance for diversity. Postmodernism, on the other hand, emphasizes diversity—diversity of opinion, believes, and background—without attempting to see things in any kind of meta-unity. Christianity, with its understanding of God as three in one, allows for diversity and unity. If God exists in three distinct Persons who all share the same essence, then it is possible to hope that God’s creation may exhibit stunning variety and individuality while still holding together in a genuine oneness.

Three, the Trinity matters for relationships. We worship a God who is in constant and eternal relationship with himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Community is a buzz word in American culture, but it is only in a Christian framework that communion and interpersonal community are seen as expressions of the eternal nature of God. Likewise, it is only with a Trinitarian God that love can be an eternal attribute of God. Without a plurality of persons in the Godhead, we would be forced to think that God created humans so that he might show love and know love, thereby making love a created thing (and God a needy deity). But with a biblical understanding of the Trinity we can say that God did not create in order to be loved, but rather, created out of the overflow of the perfect love that had always existed among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who ever live in perfect and mutual relationship and delight.


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16 thoughts on “The Most Important Doctrine Many Never Think About”

  1. joel Lafferty says:

    Great article and great refresher on the importance and significance of a fundamental doctrine…

  2. Josh Caleb says:

    the doctrine of Trinity is similar to theory of gravity… in general we can have some measure of confidence about what it is and how it works and how it affects me, but the more technical we get to try to explain with more precision, the more mysterious it becomes…
    Just give a go at General Relativity and the hypostatic union sometime to see what i mean…

  3. James says:

    great post Kevin. the doctrine of the Trinity helps us understand so much as you say, and it really helps my preaching as well – getting a glimpse of the Trinity!

    james

  4. Chris says:

    "The doctrine of the Trinity, as summarized in the seven statements earlier, is not a philosophical concoction by some over-zealous and over-intelligent early theologians"

    As someone who has struggled with the doctrine of the trinity the above notion is one that has often crept into my thinking.
    This post is very helpful, but here are some honest questions that I think a lot of people might share with me, but are often reluctant to express doubt over in a church setting because the doctrine of the trinity seems to be the most unquestionable or non-negotiable of all. I know this is going to come across all emergent-y but here goes.

    • Did Jesus really want us to think of Him/God/The HS in this way? It seems when people get a hold of something their first instinct is to pull it apart to see how it works. The suffix "ology" in the word theology means "the study of." Are we really able to study God in this way? Pull him apart, dissect, and classify Him the way you would a frog in a biology class? The doctrine of the trinity will often make my head swim because there is a kind of simultaneous rightness and wrongness about it as it seeks to capture/crystallize something that shouldn't be or really can't be fully (I hear sad faces shaking their heads). It's possible that for me it's a question of emphasis in the sense that while I do accept the trinity as true really as an act of submission even though I don't fully comprehend it I don't know that God requires it of us and so the fierce dogmatism with which many hold to this question leaves me asking myself, "How is it that they get it and I don't?"
    • I do get that Jesus accepted worship from others, but there also seems to be times when he made himself subservient to/lesser than the Father. There also seems to be times when he stated that he did not have all the knowledge that the Father had and was not co-equal. I'm not a seminarian, but just a simple layperson so here's one that I'm sure will be teeing it up for all the theologians out there. Is it possible that when Jesus commented that "The Father and I are one" He simply meant that they are in harmony of purpose in the same sense that a man and a woman become one flesh in marriage (while we know that they are not really one being)? Could this have been a manner of speaking in the same way the son of a CEO of a big company would walk into a boardroom and announce "Look, if you're talking to me it's just the same as if you're talking to my dad".

    " Without a plurality of persons in the Godhead, we would be forced to think that God created humans so that he might show love and know love, thereby making love a created thing (and God a needy deity). But with a biblical understanding of the Trinity we can say that God did not create in order to be loved, but rather, created out of the overflow of the perfect love that had always existed among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who ever live in perfect and mutual relationship and delight."

    I’m sure you could find a Muslim apologist or two that might refute the above statement, but this for me has been the most compelling argument of all for the trinity. I've heard it before and I thank you for reiterating it. I once heard someone say that love is an I/you relationship. The bible could never rightly say that God is love if there were no community present. It would make no sense at all. Now if I can just work the HS into the mix.
    As it is, if we go with the "plain sense" of the text there seems to be just enough in scripture that sounds contradictory to throw me off and make me wonder. To get all the way to a solid understanding of the doctrine of the trinity it seems that this is where the machinations begin to take place and take over.
    As I said I'm just trying to be intellectually honest. Again, thanks for this post. It does help.

  5. A. Amos Love says:

    Chris and Kevin

    I am also one who has struggled to understand this word “Trinity.”
    Intresting that it is not in the scriptures. Very rarely use it now.
    Why do we continue to use words not found in the Bible?

    “First, what does the doctrine mean?
    The doctrine of the Trinity can be summarized in seven statements.”

    I have no problem agreeing with the first four.
    Many scriptures to back this up.

    (1) There is only one God.
    (2) The Father is God.
    (3) The Son is God.
    (4) The Holy Spirit is God.

    But definitly have questions about the last three.
    Do you have any scriptures to show this?

    (5) The Father is not the Son.
    (6) The Son is the not the Holy Spirit.
    (7) The Holy Spirit is not the Father.

    Are not all three Spirit?

    John 4:24 God is a Spirit…

    Are not all three one?

    John 10:30
    I and my Father are one.

    1 John 5:7
    …the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

    Isn’t the Son called the everlasting Father in Isaiah 9:6?

    Isaiah 9:6
    For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given:
    and the government shall be upon his shoulder:
    and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor,
    The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

    Most would agree, “a child is born” and “a son is given,” refers to Jesus,
    and The Prince of Peace also refers to Jesus.
    If this is correct, then the son, Jesus,
    is also The mighty God and the everlasting Father. Yes?

    So many questions

  6. Jim Peet says:

    Kevin … thanks. Used it over here

  7. Andrew says:

    Great summary, Pastor Kevin. For a while now I've been wanting to know more about the Trinity and its implications. I mean, if there are any two doctrines that are the cornerstone of Christianity, it's the Trinity and the Incarnation (2 John 7).

    I posted in 2008 about how marriage may reflect the Trinity. I've somewhat backed off, because I don't necessarily agree with Jonathan Edwards's conclusions I used therein. But the unity-among-diversity and diversity-within-unity (university?) in marriage and the church both certainly reflect the Triune nature of God and bring him glory.

    http://belovedbeforetime.blogspot.com/2008/03/is-marriage-commandment.html

    Have you read Bruce Ware's book The Trinity: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance, or John Owen's Communion with the Triune God?

  8. Richard W. Wilson says:

    I whole-heartedly agree with Thomas that the risen Christ is "my Lord and God." Nevertheless, start to finish, it seems this whole argument in support of the trinitarian doctrine, including any arguments about it being the most central doctrine, are almost all purely circular. They are neither primarily scriptural (just exactly and explicitly where do any of the NT writings say precisely what is asserted in these seven propositions with their "undefined terminology"?), much less rational _per se_ (they are neither explicitly formulated logically nor scripturally necessary sotereologically since the NT never presents them as such). What a tragic diversion from the biblically revealed content of The Faith and from the things that lead to peace through The Christ of scripture. This doctrine is far from the cornerstone of faith; historically it has probably done more to disable true discipleship than just about any other concept, justifying persecution and division far more than truth and unity. Herein we are once again confronted with the traditions of the church that have interposed themselves between believers in Christ and the Son of God in whom they believe. Please folks, get biblical in a Jewish contextual mindset instead of in these pagan equivocations, in the name of Christ. Richard W. Wilson

  9. Andrew says:

    Richard,

    I find it hard to see that the Trinity is not a cornerstone of Christian doctrine. Yes, the Scriptures need to be understood in terms of their historical "Jewish contextual mindset," but that doesn't mean when the Scriptures themselves testify to the Trinity that they're wrong. (Yes, that was circular, I'll admit.)

    What I mean is, how do you know that your current version of "Jewish contextual mindset" accurately reflects the mind of the apostolic writers? And to defend this hermeneutic of yours, are you willing to disregard a what has been judged a scripturally evident element of Christian orthodoxy for at least 1650 years? Hear the words of the Athanasian Creed:

    Whoever desires to be saved should above all hold to the catholic faith.

    Anyone who does not keep it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally.

    Now this is the catholic faith:

    That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity,
    neither blending their persons
    nor dividing their essence.
    For the person of the Father is a distinct person,
    the person of the Son is another,
    and that of the Holy Spirit still another.
    But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one,
    their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.

    This is no systematic artefact that gets "between believers in Christ and the Son of God in whom they believe." This DEFINES who is the Son of God in whom they believe! You can't say that on one hand, Christians may believe in the Trinity, but on the other hand they don't believe Jesus to be part of it. Jesus flat-out said that unless you believe that he is the "I AM" you will die in your sins (John 8:24). The apostolic deposit says that Jesus, the Word, not only existed with God prior to creation, and that the cosmos was created through him (John 1:1-3; Col. 1:15, 16). It says that "and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us" (John 1:1-3, 14). This is an obvious reference to the incarnation of the preexistent Son taking flesh in the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. And even if you want to call John's use of Logos as an explanatory context for the Messiah a "pagan equivocation," it was also then an apostolic equivocation too!

    Honestly, while I know that creeds are not above the Scriptures and that this doctrine is implicit rather than explicit, to transgress something so widely held and defended by all Christians worldwide for so long is to say that your own interpretations are truer than the work and witness of the Holy Spirit in the life of his church.

  10. Richard W. Wilson says:

    Well Andrew, as you are obviously aware, you are not alone in believing trinitarian doctrine is a cornerstone of Christian doctrine. It has certainly become that. However, as you acknowledged, it was more than 300 years before it became such. For a scriptural primacist like myself, that is a rather lengthy chronological gap between the Apostles affirmation of Christ the cornerstone and the emergence of a new ‘doctrinal’ cornerstone.

    I don’t claim to have a definitive hermeneutic or authoritative doctrine other than those explicit in scripture, so I don’t feel compelled to put mine up against those of the later church formulas. Please note the explicit condemnation of those who don’t submit themselves to the extra-biblical authority of “the church” as convened by the pagan Constantine, or those who doubt the word’s of the ‘lord it over you’ Athanasius. I think that should make my point.

    Following in the footsteps of these authorities as you do, it doesn’t surprise me that you didn’t quite quote John 8:24, but rather rewrote it to fit your expectations. Also, John 1.1 doesn’t explicitly say even that the Logos pre-existed creation, but that he “was in the beginning.” I concur with scripture that all things were created through the Son, and that the Word became flesh, but the text says the Word was “en-carnated” not in-carnated. Perhaps this latter seems a quibble about words, but isn’t that what this is all about? If there are equivocations in scripture then we should honor them as such rather than creating new one’s to obscure our lack of comprehension and the limits of our knowledge of the Son of God’s actual nature. Where God speaks through scripture explicitly we should likewise speak, but only to the limits of what has been explicitly revealed, unless we are prophets ourselves, authorized by God to speak further truth.

    It is not that I think my interpretations are more true than than those of the Holy Spirit, but I do feel justified in questioning whether the teachings of any church are actually those of the Holy Spirit. I humbly suggest that you and all Christians everywhere do likewise, even regarding the most unlikely to be questioned doctrines such as that of the trinity.

    All the best to those in Christ our God and Savior,
    Richard W. Wilson

  11. Richard W. Wilson says:

    Oh, by the way, Kevin,
    The Apostles’ Creed isn't explicitly structured around a "three in one God" as are presumably later formulations, contrary to your assertion in the beginning of this post. It is clearly lacking the characteristic features of the later church formulas, not even asserting explicitly that the Son or the Holy Spirit are God (not that I'm denying they are). Details, details. . .. Yours in Christ our Lord,
    Richard W. Wilson

  12. PaulandJen Dare says:

    Love the diagram! I remember seeing this for the first time during Trinitarianism course at MTS. Thanks for the post, Pastor Kevin!

  13. Pastor Peters says:

    No, the Trinity did not become a doctrine or become the cornerstone of the Church's faith and proclamation 300 years later… it always was… the particular formulation of the Nicene Creed was not written out until 325 but it would be a lie to say that Nicea formulated the Trinity… the Council recognized what had always been believed and taught, what the apostles and prophets proclaimed, and what was revealed to us through Jesus Christ… Nicea did not make up this dogma but recognized it, put it into a liturgical formulation, and proclaimed it as what had always been believed. How many bishops voted against it? A couple. This was not some narrow construct which slipped into the church by slim majority in a power play… this is the catholic faith. Period

  14. Craig says:

    I disagree with your opening premise. Wouldn’t the key doctrine of Christianity be that Jesus Christ died for our sins on the cross, and was resurrected? The concept of the Trinity was created 400 years after Christ died, and is not explicitly found in the scriptures. An unbiased reading of the scriptures clearly shows this. It is understandable that it is a creed of the Catholic church. It is more problematic that it is found in many Protestant churches, since it violates the doctrine of sola scriptura.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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