It was one of those nights when sleep doesn’t come easily, and I was searching for a way to explain the Trinity, following a post on Christian Free Thinkers asking the same question. Trinitarian Christians believe that although God is one, he subsists in three persons, hence the Trinity. At the First Council of Nicaea in 325, later adjusted in 381 in Constantinople, the following formulary was devised, chiefly to exclude several alleged heresies prevalent at the time; I have highlighted those lines which need further clarification or explanation, and which may be contentious:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father [and the Son].
With the Father and the Son
he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. AMEN.
In the Nicene Creed we can see descriptions of the nature of God in these three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, explaining the nature of the Trinity is something which is difficult to get across to a lay person, and even many Christians struggle to find a way of presenting it which doesn’t inadvertently wander into one of the heresies the creed was designed to avoid. Here are the supposed heresies and some more recent heresies, and the reasons why they don’t do justice to the concept of “three in one”. However, we must remember that by definition a heresy is a belief that differs from the orthodox position:
Tritheism says there are three gods. But Scripture says there is only one God.
Unitarianism says there is only one God in one Person, namely the Father alone. It denies the Trinity and deity of Christ, and makes the Spirit an impersonal force. Unitarianism is held to by Jehovah’s Witnesses and other cults, the Unitarian Church, and many Liberals.
Sabellianism says that God appears in three different ways, or roles. This is also known as Modalism or Monarchianism. Under this view there are problems with Jesus “praying to himself” in the Garden prior to his arrest and crucifixion.
Christomonism places the Son at the head of the Holy Three, ignoring the orthodox eternal truth of their equality. This view was held to some degree by Karl Barth.
Eunomianism says that the Father created the Son, and the Son created the Spirit. This denies the eternal natures of both the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Mormonism says that the Father is Elohim and the Son is Jehovah, but neither are eternal, as both were at one time human. This fits with the Mormon view that all believers eventually attain divine status.
Temporal Generationism rejects the doctrine of Eternal Generation, saying that Jesus is only the Son by virtue of his Earthly birth, although he is God.
Dualism says there are two gods, usually God and Satan, but occasionally God and Jesus, with the Spirit having no divine quality.
Quadtheism or Quadinity says that there are four gods or four persons in God. Some say that Roman Catholicism sits on the edge of quadtheism by including Mary in the Godhead, although this is difficult to maintain if one understands the Catholic view of Mary. Some cults include their leaders in the Godhead, but clearly there is nothing biblical in this.
So, let’s try to work through the Trinitarian doctrine, using Unitarianism as a benchmark, as it’s the most prevalent current counter-theory.
Unitarianism simply states there is one God, and highlights the incidences where the physical Jesus speaks of God as his Father, and appears to have an independent will, as in his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. The incarnation of Christ is dealt with in terms of the divine Logos, or Word of God, existent from time immemorial, being given physical form in the womb of Mary. The argument goes that although the Word is eternal, the Son is not, and is therefore not equal to God. Indeed, nothing could be equal to God as God is One.
Trinitarian doctrine has it (as we’ve seen above) that God is one essence, subsisting in three persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All are equal in nature and essence, although there is a revealed hierarchy in the Trinity as far as Earthly actions are concerned, with the Father sending the son, and the Father and the Son sending the Holy Spirit.
So, how did the man Jesus become God?
It has been said that Jesus is “100% man and 100% God”, which some say totals a logically contradictory 200%. In fact, this statement is a contemporary English shortcut to describe the full divinity and full humanity of Christ. Some Bible translations of Hebrews 2:17 have “Fully human in every way” while others have the less definitive “like his brothers” and Col 2:9 has “For in him all the fullness of deity lives in bodily form,” which is virtually universal in all translations. The Greek word Logos, as used in John 1, requires a closer look:
“In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.“
Firstly, Logos is a philosophical term first applied by Heraclitus (ca. 535–475 BC), who used the term for a principle of order and knowledge, and Philo (c. 20 BC – AD 50) who adopted the term into Jewish philosophy, obviously prior to the birth of Jesus. In Christian thought the Logos applied to “wisdom”, personified in Jesus. In fact, the word “philosophy” comes from the Greek “to love wisdom” (philo-sophia). Secondly, the personification of Wisdom was a common literary device, whereby the attribute was so strongly identified as to merit personhood in it’s own right. Jesus spoke of Wisdom and her words in Luke 11:49, but Matthew records Jesus speaking strikingly similar words in the first person in Matt 23:34, substituting ‘I’ for ‘the Wisdom (Sophia) of God’, which makes the point implicitly.
Luke 11:49 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,
Matt 23:34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town,
In the Epistles, the Apostle Paul provided the most explicit identification, calling Jesus “the wisdom of God” (1Co. 1:24). Also, see Hebrews 1:3 where Christ is said to be ‘the radiance of God’s glory.’ This reference, and his identification as “the image of the invisible God” in Colossians 1:15 comes from a text where Wisdom is said to be “a reflection (or “radiance”) of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God’s active power, and image of his goodness” (Wis. 7:26).
1 Corinthians 8:6 speaks of Christ as the one through whom all things came, providing a parallel to Wisdom as the one God created “by” (Pro. 3:19). Indeed, references to Christ’s involvement in creation throughout the New Testament can be traced back into Wisdom texts in both the Old Testament and other Jewish literature.
So, in Trinitarianism, the Incarnation of Jesus seems to have at its root the personification of an abstract concept, in line with the most popular Unitarian view. However, Unitarians disconnect the Incarnation from the eternity of the Logos, as they stress that Logos is an abstract term, and though the “Word became flesh” this more readily translates as “God begat his Wisdom, knowledge and overall plan in the form of a man”. Thus, in many forms of Unitarianism the pre-existent Logos of God became Christ the Man. In Trinitarianism the Logos takes on a greater degree of “personhood”, being capable of independent thought and action, continued in the physical form of Jesus, so the orthodox view is of an eternal, single nature plus a new human nature, both existing in the person of Jesus, where the Unitarian view is of the thoughts and plans of God being given human form at some point in history. It’s important to point out that the concept of a person of the Trinity becoming a man is called “incarnation”, where anything else might be called “creation”. The Nicene Creed has Jesus as “Incarnate from the Virgin Mary”.
The Holy Spirit
Arguments have raged throughout history about the nature and personhood of the Holy Spirit. Some groups describe him as a “force” of God, where biblically he’s referred to in personal terms. In John 15:26
26 But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.
Or John 16:13ff
13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Matthew 28:19 speaks of the Trinity:
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
In Acts 5: 3-4 Peter refers to the Holy Spirit as God:
Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.
Similarly, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:17ff:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
The Nicene Creed took the above clues, along with many others, to protect the biblical statements against perceived heresy, as we have seen.
Which view is correct?
It might help to look at the context: voting at the First Council of Nicea substantially went against the non-Trinitarian view espoused by Arius, and he was temporarily banished as a result. Interestingly, Constantine, who oversaw this council, later converted to Arius’ views and eventually died rejecting the Trinity. As was said earlier, the understanding we have of the Trinity is based not so much on explicit bible verses, but on implicit clues and the conclusions drawn from them. In many ways the early Church took a simpler view of theology than some might today, and was happier to accept that some apparent logical contradictions might be attributed to “mystery” or “paradox”. It seems that today we have lost this innocence, and developed a will to re-interpret all that’s been handed down over 2,000 years in favour of a more “rational” approach; a form of “secularisation” perhaps.
For my part I remain a Trinitarian. However you define the Logos it was with God eternally and as something that emanated entirely from God, is divine. It is that divine nature which took on flesh, along with a human nature, in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, so bearing in mind his fatherhood we cannot deny his divinity. That divinity is all of the one God, the Father, so either we now have two Gods, or Jesus is somehow a part of that one God. You decide.