What Christians Need to Understand about the Trinity



Our lives are filled with everyday wonders. We see it but fail to understand it, as hard as we try. The glory of the heavens is there to observe. Yet, who can fathom the immensity of the cosmos? Or, who can understand the miracle of life itself? A child is placed in our arms, and we see the sparkle in the eyes of this child. We instantly recognize the reality of a spiritual being before us, but how are these things so? Of course, we know the biological and reproductive factors involved, but how did the heartbeat begin? Life itself is a stated fact that remains an incomprehensible mystery. And, yet, it is.

The world is, indeed, replete with such mystery. Mystery can be disregarded, put out of one's mind as unresolvable, or, one can embrace the mystery and experience wonder. To know wonder is more healing to the human soul than to master logic. Scholasticism is a poor schoolmaster in learning the gospel of Christ. I am reminded of the wonderful statement of the late Abraham Joshua Heschel, "I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.”

The doctrine of the Triunity of One God is a mystery to be embraced. However, the Trinity is the logic of God, not the calculation of man. Therefore, we will see it but never see through it, to fully comprehend the mystery. If we did, it wouldn't be a mystery, would it? It was that irascible but brilliant essayist and Christian apologist, G.K. Chesterton, who, like Augustine, Athanasius, Calvin, Luther, and others admitted that the paradox” of the Trinity, and other doctrines of the Christian faith, provide its power. The Reformation was a rejection of Aristotelian theology and its emphasis on human rationality, and a return to Augustinian theology of supernaturalism. So, how do we properly state what we see in Scripture? Can we use analogies to describe the Trinity effectively?

Why Analogies for the Trinity All Fail

Consider the list (states of water, shamrock, 1x1x1=1, etc.) of well-intended analogies that have been used to help us understand the doctrine of the Trinity. Analogies not only fail but ultimately lead to heresies about the Trinity. Monergism.com has provided a fine summary of those heresies.

Ultimately, the doctrine of the Trinity—one in essence, three in Person—is “a word from another world,” as Robert L. Reymond states. The truth is that the supernatural nature of the doctrine of the Trinity is not unique in the doctrines of the Christian faith. Creation, miracles, the virgin birth, the person of Christ, the resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost are each and all outside of the human experience. They cannot be deduced by human logic but only by the revelation of God. Dr. R. Scott Clark not only stated the case succinctly but demonstrated why the Trinity must remain alien to the logic of humankind:

“The Good News of Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, and resurrection for the justification (free acceptance with God for the sake of the crediting of Jesus’ righteousness to those who believe, received only through resting, trusting in Christ and his finished work for sinners) is only found in Scripture.”

The gospel of Jesus Christ is an alien idea to the mind of man. We have no analogies, no logic, no imagination that can create the story or stories whereby God becomes man while remaining God and living the life we could never live to die the death that should have been ours. So, what is at stake in the doctrine of the Trinity? The gospel itself. Additionally, I join with those who posit that the Trinity is essential to the flourishing of human beings. Daniel L. Migliore explains,

“The reality of God is a living movement of self-giving love which liberates human life and creates a new community.”

What Is the Trinity?

The Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England (1549) worded the Trinity this way,

“There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

That is a succinct and accurate description of a doctrine that appears in the Holy Bible. The historical documents of the Christian Church reveal a unity of commitment to this definition. Yet, the word itself “Trinity” is not found in the Scriptures. There are other truths that emerge in Scripture, which we name, but which do not occur as a phrase in the Holy Bible. “The covenant of grace” is an obvious example. What God required in a covenant of works—obedience and punishment of death for disobedience—(a divine arrangement that continues to every human being) God provided in His Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. The covenant of grace is clearly shown in Scripture, though not written in that exact phrase. Just because a word or phrase does not appear in the Scriptures exactly as we know it, such as Trinity or covenant of grace, does not invalidate the truth behind the word or phrase. The Church—and any believer who investigates the testimony of the Scriptures—declares that God is “One in essence and three in Person.”

Dr. Ray Pritchard, for Christianity.com, relays,

"When we say these things we mean that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but they are not three gods but only one God. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father, but each is God individually and yet they are together the one true God of the Bible."

"All Christians believe the doctrine of the Trinity. If you do not believe this—that is, if you have come to a settled conclusion that the doctrine of the Trinity is not true—you are not a Christian at all. You are in fact a heretic. Those words may sound harsh, but they represent the judgment of the Christian Church across the centuries. What is the Trinity? Christians in every land unite in proclaiming that our God eternally exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Those who deny that truth place themselves outside the pale of Christian orthodoxy."

The Trinity Revealed in the Bible

Someone has once said that the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed. That lyrical statement is close, but a more carefully crafted statement might be: In relation to the Trinity, the Old Testament suggests in narrative what the New Testament reveals in doctrine. Though not as catchy, I think, more accurate. Here are some Old and New Testament passages that teach the Trinity from BibleStudyTools.com.

  • 2 Cor. 13:14, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
  • Luke 1:35, “The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on 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.”
  • 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,”
  • Genesis 1:1-2, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
  • Isaiah 9:6, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

For more Scriptures click here.

How Do We Understand the Trinity?

If analogies all ultimately fail, and the Scriptures reveal the Trinity in time, across the development of Scriptural history, but we don’t have a single statement that says exactly, “There is a Trinity,” then how do we come to terms with the doctrine of the Trinity?

Dr. Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield stated that the doctrine of the Trinity is observed across time. The doctrine is not “developed,” as a writer develops a theme, but rather the truth is apparent as Scripture advances from the suggestive (e.g., Genesis 1) to the definitive (e.g., Matthew 28:19). While all of the great theological confessions of the Church have articulated the doctrine of the Trinity, in many ways, the doctrine of the Trinity remains in mystery even after we explain it. It was no less than the great old Princetonian, Dr. B.B. Warfield who stated that the Trinity is, from a human standpoint, “irrational.” The point of Warfield's statement is that the Trinity is a divine revelation rather than a human calculation. Warfield wrote,

“In point of fact, the doctrine of the Trinity is purely a revealed doctrine. That is to say, it embodies a truth which has never been discovered, and is indiscoverable, by natural reason. With all his searching, man has not been able to find out for himself the deepest things of God. Accordingly, ethnic thought has never attained a Trinitarian conception of God, nor does any ethnic religion present in its representations of the Divine Being any analogy to the doctrine of the Trinity."

Therefore, since the essential matter of the Trinity begins in Scripture, it will remain a mystery to the human mind, and must necessarily find its ultimate meaning in Scripture. The easiest way to understand the Trinity is to believe the Word of God. The Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 25) puts it so pastorally, so sweetly:

“Question: Since there is only one divine being, why do you speak of three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
Answer: Because that is how God has revealed himself in his Word: these three distinct persons are one, true, eternal God.”

As a pastor I will say, my dear child in Christ, you are saved by the One True God as He came to you in three persons: the Father ordained, the Son atoned, and the Spirit applied the benefits of redemption by a supernatural intervention in your life. This truth is according to the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Bibliography

Abraham Joshua, Heschel. Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity & I Asked for Wonder
Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Credo: Meditations on the Apostles' Creed
Ittzés, Gábor. “A Plurality of Beginnings: Luther’s Disputation against Scholastic Theology in Its Historical Context.” More than Luther: The Reformation and the Rise of Pluralism in Europe
Ker, Ian. “Marriage and Fame.” In G. K. Chesterton: A Biography
Luther, Martin. “Disputation against Scholastic Theology (1517).” Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings

Marmur, Michael. Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Sources of Wonder (The Kenneth Michael Tanenbaum Series in Jewish Studies)
Migliore, Daniel L. “The Trinity and Human Liberty.” Theology Today 36, no. 4 (January 1, 1980): 488–497.
Moskala, Jiri. “The Trinity in the Old Testament” (n.d.): 13.
Muller, Richard. “ Scholasticism, Reformation, Orthodoxy, and the Persistence of Christian Aristotelianism - ProQuest.”
Reymond, Robert L. A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith: -Revised and Updated. Thomas Nelson, 2010.

Thurmer, J. A. “The Analogy of the Trinity.” Scottish Journal of Theology 34, no. 6 (December 1981): 509–515.
Warfield, Benjamin B. “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity.” Biblical and Theological Studies, edited by Samuel G. Craig (1912): 22–59.
“Why Analogies And Illustrations Of The Trinity Fail.” The Heidelblog.

Photo credit: Pixabay/Jclk8888


Dr. Michael A. MiltonMichael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary) Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.


This article is part of our larger resource library of Christian questions important to the Christian faith. From core beliefs to what the Bible says about angels, we want to provide easy to read and understand articles that answer your questions about Christian living.

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