The Heart of It All: The Trinity (Part 2)

May 24, 2011

by Peter Amsterdam

Audio length: 19:50

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(For an introduction and explanation regarding this series overall, please see The Heart of It All: Introduction.)

In part 1 of The Heart of It All: The Trinity, we saw that God is a tri-personal Being, consisting of three distinct persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—that each is fully God and that each has all the attributes of God; and that there is one God.

These facts express the doctrine of the Trinity. In any explanation of the Trinity, if any one of them is not affirmed, then the doctrine would be denied.

In this article, I’m going to focus on the history of how the doctrine of the Trinity came to be defined, understood, and articulated. While it’s not essential to your understanding of the Trinity to know all these details, it does help to better understand how and why the early Christians came to define the nature of the Trinity. The misconceptions and problems that arose in not fully understanding the Trinity and its nature ultimately made it crucial that it be defined and clearly articulated for all believers. The conclusions that were reached have been by and large accepted by all Christians as foundational doctrine.

The Early Church Fathers

During the “Apostolic Age”—the period from Jesus’ death and resurrection until about the end of the first century, during which the apostles were alive and when the books of the New Testament were written—the focus of the church was on spreading the message of salvation, winning converts, and building communities of faith. In time the first apostles died and there were no living eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and ministry. Thankfully, the apostles and their converts left behind writings which we still have today in the Gospels and Epistles. The apostles, of course, had their own disciples, people whom they had trained in the faith who continued teaching the faith to others and building communities. The early church grew tremendously during the second and third centuries.

In the centuries after the apostles died, there were numerous “church fathers”—important Christian bishops and teachers who wrote about the faith and who attempted to further explain and interpret what was written in the Gospels and Epistles. It was from the Gospels and Epistles, as well as the Jewish writings—known today in Christianity as the Old Testament—that the various Christian doctrines, including the doctrine of the Trinity, originated. However, as you have seen, the word Trinity and a precise explanation of the Trinity weren’t articulated in the New Testament. The wording that explained the Trinity developed gradually, subsequent to the writings of the New Testament.

One of the earliest persons to use the term Trinity when trying to formulate the doctrine was a church father named Tertullian (circa 155–230). His formulation expressed some of the major fundamentals of the doctrine of the Trinity, but wasn’t fully correct. Another church father, Origen (circa 185–254), provided further explanation of the doctrine. This also was not fully accurate. However, much of what these early writers wrote was correct and the correct portions of their writings provided the basic building blocks for the doctrine that would eventually become widely accepted as orthodox.

Heresies and misinterpretations of the doctrine

In the third and fourth centuries, various Christian teachers and writers built on these earlier explanations, writing about the Trinity in an effort to explain it. The problem with some of these explanations was that they often affirmed one aspect of the doctrine, but in doing so refuted another aspect of it. Three of the most common were:

  • Modalism or Sabellianism: This denied that God was three distinct persons.
  • Subordinationism: This denied that the three persons were equal.
  • Arianism: This denied that all persons of the Trinity were fully God.

One of the earliest examples is the teaching that there is one God who takes on different modes or who plays different roles; sometimes He is the Father, at other times He is the Son, and sometimes He is the Holy Spirit. This is known as Sabellianism, after Sabellius, who taught this in the third century. It’s more commonly known as modalism. While this teaching strongly affirmed that there is one God, it denied that there are three persons in God. Modalism was eventually condemned by the church as heresy (false teaching).

Another teaching, called subordinationism, claimed that Jesus was eternally God but that He was not equal with the Father in being. Instead it claimed He was subordinate to the Father. If this were so, then He couldn’t be God, because in order to be God He must have the same essence as the Father, and to have the same essence He must be equal with God. Subordinationism was also rejected by the church.


Arius (circa 256–336), a bishop in Alexandria, Egypt, taught that the Son was a created being that at one time didn’t exist. According to Arius, the Son was created before anything else was created. This meant that the Son is greater than any other created thing, but that He is nevertheless a creation and did not exist eternally, and therefore isn’t equal with the Father; that He doesn’t have the same nature or essence as the Father. Another way of putting this is that the Son is like the Father but not equal to the Father in being. This doctrine, known as Arianism, affirmed that there are three persons in the Trinity, but rejected that the three persons were God or that they all have the attributes of God.

This doctrine spread rapidly, as Arius put his doctrine into songs that were taught to the workers in the port of Alexandria, who taught it to sailors who in turn carried it to ports throughout the Mediterranean.

Arius based his theology on verses which called Jesus the only begotten Son, as well as Colossians 1:15, which says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Arius taught that if the Son is begotten, that means He had a beginning, since begotten implies a birth. Therefore, he taught, there was a time when the Son didn’t exist.

“The firstborn of all creation” in Colossians 1:15 is better understood as Christ being the heir of all creation, that He has the rights and authority granted to the firstborn son, that He is the head or leader of the family. The NIV translates this as the “firstborn over all creation.”

As far as the idea that “the begotten son” meant that Jesus was created or didn’t exist eternally with the Father, this was hotly disputed by numerous bishops of the church at the time.

Conclusions of the Nicene Council

In 325 AD the Roman emperor Constantine convened the first ecumenical council in Nicaea (in present-day Turkey). Approximately 300 bishops attended. The purpose of the first church council was to make a decision regarding Arius’ teachings. The council condemned Arianism as a false doctrine and thus a heresy, because if Jesus was a creation of God, then He couldn’t be God, and if that were true, then there could be no Trinity. However, it’s clear from the Bible that there is a Trinity; thus Arianism is a false doctrine. In the process of condemning Arianism, they realized that they had to find wording which affirmed that the Son was God and was co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. They also had to articulate the distinctness between the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

The challenge in this task was that there are no Bible verses which state specifically that Jesus is co-equal with the Father, or that He is co-eternal with the Father. However, there are many Bible verses which reveal that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each God. There are verses which show that the Word (Logos/Jesus) was made flesh, and that the same Word was God, and that He was with God in the beginning, that all things were created through Him, and apart from Him not one thing was created that has been created.[1] The New Testament writers expressed that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were equally God with the Father through what they wrote, though they didn’t say so in those exact words. So the bishops at the council had to find the words to express in technical language the concepts which had been basically understood, though not necessarily worked through theologically, since the beginning of Christianity. They expressed those words in a formal declaration called the Nicene Creed.

In this creed they gave greater clarity to the intent of the word begotten. There were so many scriptures that stated or implied that Jesus, the Son, was God, including verses which state that Jesus participated in the creation, that the council determined that whatever the original writers meant by “begotten,” they didn’t mean “created.” The intent of the word begotten was to express that the Son had the same essence as the Father, that there is a difference between creating something and begetting something.[2]

Creating implies making something different from yourself, while begotten implies being of the same essence or substance. Thus saying that the Son is begotten is stating that He is of the same substance, the same essence, as the Father. The Greek word used in the Nicene Creed to explain this essence was homoousios, meaning “of the same nature.” This word expressed that the Son is God in exactly the same sense that the Father is God. They have the same divine nature, the same essence or substance, thus making them equal in being. Though distinct from one another, they are God in exactly the same sense. This means that the three persons of the Trinity are co-equal, there is no subordination in their essence, and the second and third persons of the Trinity were not created.

This ultimately means that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the same in their being as God; they are equally God, each possessing all the attributes of God. One is not more God, or more powerful, or more wise, than the other. If one were, then they wouldn’t be equally God, which would deny the truth of the Trinity. This understanding that they are all equally God in their being is key. This is known in theology as the ontological Trinity, meaning that in their being or essence they are fully equal.

While they are all equally God and there is no difference in their being, there is a difference in their relationship to one another. There is a specific arrangement in their relationship within the Trinity. The Father is unique in the way He relates to the others as Father. The Son is unique in the way He relates as Son. And the Holy Spirit is unique in relating to the Father and the Son as the Holy Spirit. The difference in persons is one of relationship, not one of being. The Father is always the Father, the Son is always the Son, and the Holy Spirit is always the Holy Spirit.

The relationship of the Son to the Father is always as Son. The Father is not begotten by the Son, and He does not proceed from the Holy Spirit. Rather, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The relationship of the Son to the Father is such that the Father directs and the Son obeys and is responsive to the will of the Father. The Holy Spirit responds to the directives of both the Father and the Son. They all are exactly the same in being, essence and nature, they are all fully and completely God, but they are different in relationship and in their roles.

In the way of analogy, this could be looked at as two football players who are a) both human and b) both football players on the same team but who play different positions. They are both human, so they have the same essence; they are both equally human. On the team, though, one may be the quarterback who calls the plays, and the other has a different position and thus a different job on the team. His position on the team means that he obeys the plays the quarterback determines. He obeys the quarterback because the position he holds requires him to follow the quarterback’s instructions, but in essence there is no subordination. This is similar to the Trinity; it’s like a team, and they each have their roles to play, but they are all equally God in essence.

Author Wayne Grudem expressed it this way: “Another way of expressing this more simply would be to say ‘equal in being but subordinate in role.’ Both parts of this phrase are necessary to a true doctrine of the Trinity: If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic [position/role] subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son and Holy Spirit for all eternity.”[3]

Christian philosopher Kenneth Samples wrote, “The members of the Trinity are qualitatively equal in attributes, nature, and glory. While Scripture reveals a subordination among the divine persons in terms of position or role (e.g., the Son submits to the Father, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son), there exists absolutely no subordination (inferiority) of essence or nature. The persons are therefore equal in being, but subordinate only in role or position.”[4]

Louis Berkhof expressed it this way, “Generation and procession takes place within the Divine Being, and imply a certain subordination as to the manner of personal subsistence, but no subordination as far as the possession of the divine essence is concerned.”[5]

The begetting of the Son and the proceeding of the Holy Spirit happen in eternity. There was never a time when the Son wasn’t begotten, nor that the Spirit didn’t proceed. The Father would not have been eternally Father without the eternal Son. This generation of God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son, is not something we can fully comprehend. It is part of the mystery of the Trinity, something beyond our full comprehension, considering that we are material creatures living in time and space, and God is the eternal creator who is the source of everything. While we can understand the concept, the mechanics of it are a mystery.

Primary functions of the Persons of the Trinity

Besides the specific arrangement within their relationship, there is also a difference in their roles or primary functions in relation to the world. One way to generally explain the basics of this in a few words is to attribute creation primarily to the Father, redemption primarily to the Son, and sanctification primarily to the Holy Spirit. This doesn’t mean that is the only role each holds, nor that the other persons didn’t have a part in these things, because they did, but these things can be looked on as a primary function of one person of the Trinity.

For example, in creation we see the Father speaking the “Let there be…” commands for the creation of the universe, but we see the Son carrying out these commands, as the Word/Logos that proceeds from the Father, as expressed in John 1:3 and other verses.

All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.[6] 

For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.[7]

In these last days He [the Father] has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He created the world.[8]

We also see that the Holy Spirit was present and played a role in creation as well.

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.[9]

Another example is in regard to our salvation, redemption, and our work for God. God the Father sends the Son, and the Son obeys the will of the Father by dying for humankind—something the Son specifically does, not the Father or the Holy Spirit. Once the Son returns to heaven after the resurrection, He and the Father send the Holy Spirit to strengthen our spiritual lives and give us power and gifts for our service to God.

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses.[10]

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as He wills.[11]

As you can see, each person of the Trinity has different functions, and within those functions there is subordination. The Father is Father, the Son obeys the Father, the Holy Spirit responds to the will of the Father and the Son; however, in their nature, in their divine essence, there is no subordination; each is fully and equally God. If there was subordination in their nature or essence, then they wouldn’t be equally God and there could be no Trinity, as the Father would be more God than the Son or the Holy Spirit. However, Scripture clearly shows they are all equally God in their being.[12]

Our God is one God. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three distinct, co-equal, co-eternal Persons, who exist in perfect unity and perfect love, each with the same essence, the same divine nature.—Three Persons, one God. Incredibly wonderful!

(Continued in part 3.)


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Other versions frequently cited are The New International Version (NIV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), The New King James Version (NKJV) and the King James Version (KJV).


Barth, Karl. The Doctrine of the Word of God, Vol.1 Part 2. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010.

Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Cary, Phillip. The History of Christian Theology, Lecture Series. Lectures 11, 12. Chantilly: The Teaching Company, 2008.

Craig, William Lane. The Doctrine of the Trinity. Defenders Series Lecture.

Garrett, Jr., James Leo. Systematic Theology, Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, Vol. 1. N. Richland Hills: BIBAL Press, 2000.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Kreeft, Peter, and Ronald K. Tacelli. Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994.

Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Milne, Bruce. Know the Truth, A Handbook of Christian Belief. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Mueller, John Theodore. Christian Dogmatics, A Handbook of Doctrinal Theology for Pastors, Teachers, and Laymen. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1934.

Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.

Stott, John. Basic Christianity. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1971.

Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology, Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

[1] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made. John 1:1–3 ESV.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 243.

[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 251.

[4] Kenneth Samples, What the Trinity Is and Isn't (Part 2), 2007.

[5] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), p. 89.

[6] John 1:3.

[7] 1 Corinthians 8:6.

[8] Hebrews 1:2.

[9] Genesis 1:2.

[10] Acts 1:8.

[11] 1 Corinthians 12:7–11.

[12] For easy reference, here are some of the Bible verses quoted in part 1 of “The Trinity” which show that:

The Father is God:

You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation (Psalm 89:26).

For He received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to Him from the excellent glory, This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased (2 Peter 1:17 KJV).

The Son is God:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made (John 1:1–3).

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form (Colossians 2:9 NIV).

The Holy Spirit is God:

These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:10–11).

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 (Genesis 1:2 NIV).